Ordinary Miracles

Photograph by Anne Day.

Weeds

One of the most depressing stories of my adult life comes from a phrase coined by the environmental writer David Quammen in his 1998 essay “Planet of Weeds,” originally published in Harper’s Magazine. Quammen’s argument was that habitat loss and degradation would result in an earth made only of scrappy, adaptable, boring, “weedy” species that reproduce quickly and cohabit well with Homo sapiens, the ultimate weed. We were on our way to becoming a planet of generalists — rats, mice, cockroaches, pigeons, crows, deer, coyotes.

The future as a dirt lot. The litter of fast food and cigarette butts, grass poking up through concrete foundations, the ground glistening with broken glass. A place where people drank. This was my private idiosyncratic image, this planet of weeds, having bicycled or walked as a child past many dirt lots of degraded soil and Russian thistle, a definition of ugliness I felt rather than understood intellectually. No one at that time, in the mid-twentieth century, told me these dirt lots were ugly and sad. No one pointed to the arboreal, majestic Sonoran Desert surrounding the sad, ugly concrete sprawl of Phoenix, Arizona, and whispered: this is the Eden you left behind and from which you are now barred by an angel carrying a fiery sword. No one needed to, I guess. It was that obvious.

 

Instinct

X-ray eyes would be able to spot their burrows hidden in grass from which they emerge at night alone or in pairs, a male and a female — these predators don’t hunt in packs, thank God. They creep quietly, their stalking of prey described as catlike in the crepuscular evening or under the glitter of stars, under a moonlight silvery and buttery at the same time, or in complete darkness since grasshopper mice are only a few inches tall and deep in the shadow of stem and leaf.

They creep and stalk and rush their victims, mouths open, front paws extended, crushing and crunching insects such as grasshoppers or beetles, using a killing bite on the neck of a kangaroo rat or vole or small bird, disarming scorpions by tearing off the stinging tail. Afterward, and sometimes before, they stand on their hind legs and lift their muzzles in the iconic pose of a wolf howling — and then they do howl, a high-pitched sustained cry that rises and falls, a celebratory exultation: this is my scorpion. They also howl as a territorial warning, communicating to other grasshopper mice: this is my land. And not just a pocket-mouse kind of land but as much as twenty-five acres: all mine. They may also howl as a love song, although the literature reports that sometimes females kill their mates, so sex, too, is fraught and edgy. For the grasshopper mouse, edginess is instinct. In a closed environment with two males or two females, one will kill the other within seventy-two hours.

You can watch them howl on YouTube. If you are curious about that scorpion, stay on YouTube. Here is the grasshopper mouse in his laboratory cage, the scorpion deliberately introduced, and then the stalk and pounce, venomous tail lashing, mouse getting stung again and again, more biting, more lashing. When the opponent or meal is a giant desert centipede — longer than the mouse and rubbery and fast — suddenly the mouse is leaping into the air, twisting and turning, centipede flailing, convulsing, chaotic, mouse focused on her enemy’s real head, not the fake head with its fake antennae but the real one with sacks of poison and hollow clawed legs like hypodermic needles. The flailing, the leaping, the relentlessness. Watching these gladiatorial games, I aim for an objective calm. Predators deal in death. So do prey.

Grasshopper mice range across the American West, up into Canada and down into Mexico, having adapted to dry landscapes by getting most or all of their water from meat. This strategy has been working for a long time: today’s grasshopper mouse looks much like the five-million year-old fossil of a grasshopper mouse. Where I live in southwestern New Mexico, when global warming sweeps like a broom across these deserts and forests, when the spruce in the mountains, and cottonwoods along the streams have been gathered up like dust in a refuse pile, when the humans drift away, emigrate north, grasshopper mice will creep from their nests, hunting, hoping for a scorpion.

But here’s a bit of fun. Travel into the nerve fibers of the grasshopper mouse, which start at the skin’s surface and extend to the spinal cord. Proteins on the surface of these pain-sensing nerve cells have pores that typically open in the presence of a damaging chemical like scorpion venom. The protein (also called a sodium channel) allows positively charged sodium ions (always present in the fluid outside cells) to enter the nerve, causing the interior of the cell to also become positively charged and to generate an electric impulse. This impulse is carried by other nerve cells to the brain, which interprets this signal as pain. In other animals that have a resistance to pain-immobilizing poison, this protein has mutated to ignore the messenger at the gate. But in the grasshopper mouse, the protein opens normally and then a second protein — responsible for maintaining the pain signal — effectively binds with the venom and blocks it. That blockage in the nerve fiber means that other damaging chemicals are also blocked. The mouse has turned venom into a painkiller.

We know this because scientists have injected the paws of grasshopper mice first with small amounts of scorpion venom and then with formaldehyde. They did the same thing to common house mice. For both irritants, the house mice licked their paws furiously. The grasshopper mice licked once or twice, as if bored, in response to the venom and had the same reaction to formaldehyde. Formaldehyde alone, however, was clearly painful.

When these scientists sequenced and compared the second protein from the two species, they found only one di=erence. In the house mouse, the 859th amino acid is a chemical compound I will call Bob and the 862nd amino acid is a chemical compound I will call Stan. In the grasshopper mouse, Bob and Stan are reversed. This is enough to create an acidic residue around the pore of the second protein, which causes the protein to bind to the venom and block the transmission of pain signals. At the level of molecules, chemistry, and electricity, the bodies of mice are much like our own. We have these proteins, too, and are busy looking into how grasshopper mice can help us develop new analgesics.

I imagine those protein molecules, bulbous shapes, pores opening and closing. Positively charged ions funnel into a nerve. Electrons circle in orbit, glowing balls — but, no, suddenly I am thinking of solar systems. I have not been trained to go this small. All these bodies are a mystery, the drumbeat of mystery, a humming through the day. So many exchanges. Opening and closing. And all so fast. The blinding speed of the body as I stand in a field of yellow grama and bend and move the grass aside, revealing the dark burrow of a mouse, species unknown. I lie on the warm ground to look closer. My pupils expand. The grass seems to be whispering in my ear. The radiant light of the sun pours over me and over this field, photons leaping and bouncing. The spinning blur of the body throws off its own light, electricity in the brain a blinding light, a radiance in the darkness of these invisible worlds.

 

Beauty

Like everyone else, I grew up in a cultural conversation, with people whispering to me all the time. Earth Day. Deep ecology. Bioregionalism. In the 1980s, my husband and I were “back to the landers” in rural New Mexico, wanting to root into soil and sun, building our adobe house of mud, irrigating our way-too-big garden, milking our quickly too-many goats, and having two home births — a daughter and a son. Our illusion that we could live off the land lasted a few weeks, maybe a little longer. Importantly, we believed our personal connection to nature was meaningful. We believed we were part of a new environmentalism and land ethic.

Meanwhile, in the next twenty years, the cultural conversation become less about personal connection and more about apocalypse. The age of the Anthropocene had so begun. The sixth mass extinction, ice caps melting, rainforests burning, a drumbeat of doom. Our little experiment — how many onions could we grow and what would we do with them? — seemed increasingly irrelevant. The deepening ties we felt to this watershed, our love of these juniper- and pine-dotted hills — all that was nice. But the health of the planet lay in the greening of cities, where most people live, and in changing the metasystems of commerce and law. Slowly we came to the realization that we were not shaping the future. We had been left behind.

Which wasn’t so bad.

Every day, in the place where I live, I feel the shock of beauty.

Clouds massing and billowing, flat-bottomed ships, cloud architecture, cloud turrets, cloud streets, weird streaks, wisps, tails, cumulus, cumulonimbus, mamma, virga. Shafts of golden light. A purity of light at the edges of a storm. Thunderclouds rising higher and higher. More light, more billowing! A view so continuously grand and mystical that the mind eventually loses interest and turns to something less extreme. The mourning dove, gray cloaked, a little old-fashioned, a little Quakerly. Formerly called the Carolina pigeon, this is one of North America’s most abundant birds. Where I grew up in the suburbs of Phoenix, I often heard that plaintive coo-OO-oo . . . oo, oo. Coo-OO-oo . . . oo,oo. Coo-OO-oo . . . oo, oo. I am not sentimental about the suburbs of Phoenix. So I really don’t know why that coo-OO-oo heads straight for my ribcage and builds a nest there — with just the slightest encouragement, I can feel weepy. Do we have some primal aural attachment to mourning doves? Were we twins in the Creator’s womb?

The coyote. Their lives so secretive and remote. We see a movement cross the road. We hear the distant chorus. We admire the ubiquitous, assertive scat, and we think, yes, you are still here. We have burned you alive. We have torn you apart. We have poisoned and trapped you and crucified you on fences. Your response is averted. The original aikido. You slip through the interstices of home. You slip through the stories we tell about you, on your way home.

I run those same trails, on my way home, into the future. I run by hills that rise like brown wings, overgrazed for a century, a grassland dominated by mesquite and snakeweed. I run along the river that runs too, through my valley, sometimes a trickle, sometimes dry, fought over by irrigators and developers and environmentalists. I run through forests of ponderosa pine like pick-up sticks, black spars and jags; I turn in a circle. The entire horizon swept by wildfires. And the aspen growing taller, scrub brush and locust, a new ecology of plants and the animals who eat them and the animals who eat them. The fire so sad and ugly to our eyes, the earth under our feet so busy, busy.

I don’t know how to talk about the beauty of where I live — where we all live, this land all around us, in the cities and towns surrounded by mountains and plains and rivers and oceans, in the cities themselves with their clouds and mourning doves — without sounding complacent or ignorant. As if I don’t feel the grief. The anger. The fear. Does celebrating what we have mean we stop fighting for what we are losing?

So, shush about all the beauty. Don’t you see — how it is being taken away?

 

Light

My optometrist wouldn’t know a bedside manner if he had just put his book and reading glasses on it. He looks at one of my test results, does a double take, and says, “Oh. Okay! You have myasthenia gravis, an autoimmune disease. This is serious. People die.” He goes on to explain how nerve cells release the molecule acetylcholine which opens a protein called an acetylcholine receptor (another sodium channel) in a nearby muscle cell which then starts a biochemical process that signals the muscle to contract. In myasthenia gravis, the body’s immune system has mistakenly produced antibodies that interfere with this process — specifically with the acetylcholine receptor. Typically, the disease affects muscles that control the eye and eyelid, face, and throat. My symptom is double vision. But I might also start having trouble swallowing or eating or breathing.

Time in this small brightly lit o;ce has become a kind of clear gel, viscous and slowing down movement. Slowly, I think: this is it. From now on, my life will be divided in two: before this moment, and after. Simultaneously, a part of me is distracted by amazement. All that acetylcholine being released right now, all that opening and closing, opening and closing, muscles contracting, eyes seeing, throat swallowing, heart beating. So many trillions of molecules doing just what they are supposed to do.

Later I learn that myasthenia gravis, “once a uniformly disabling and even fatal disorder,” can now be managed effectively with drugs. Likely I have ocular myasthenia gravis, confined to the muscles in my eyes, and maybe — in any case — the symptoms will continue to be mild or even disappear. I push this to the bottom of things I worry about in the middle of the night, and since that kind of night worry is tediously repetitive, I never get beyond the top two items.

I do occasionally find myself in conversation with protein receptors in my left eyelid. In response to acetylcholine, these bulbous shapes allow positively charged sodium ions to enter cells, triggering the internal release of calcium ions which in turn creates an electric current which results in movement. I have become the acetylcholine whisperer. Go, go, go, go, I say to the sodium ions. Sweetheart, I encourage that receptor. You’re doing great. Pay no attention to those antibodies.

 

Transmission

Sacred datura — also called jimsonweed, also called devil’s weed, also called angel’s trumpet — has a large, funnel-shaped, starpointed, lavender-white flower with a sweet, powerful scent. This is the flower you might conjure in wizardry school if you were given the assignment to make a flower. Make something from a fairy tale. Make something seductive, glamorous, sexy. Make something to make someone stop in her tracks and fall to her knees. Well, that would be Datura wrightii. Typically, this sprawling perennial forms mounds of blue-green leaves with a dozen blossoms opening in early evening and on cloudy days. Adaptable, scrappy, and not often attacked by insects and other herbivores, this weedy species likes disturbed landscapes and warm weather. Every part of the plant — leaf, petal, seed, root — is poisonous.

The chemicals in datura inhibit the transmission of the molecule acetylcholine from nerve to muscle and from nerve to nerve; eating datura, by accident or on purpose, can result in what doctors call classic anticholinergic poisoning: Your pupils are dilated, your eyes are sensitive to light, your vision is blurred. Your skin is dry. Your mouth is dry. You are thirsty. Your heart is beating too fast. You can’t urinate. You have high blood pressure. Or you have low blood pressure. You may go into a coma. You may die. You may be highly agitated. You are probably delirious.

Because amazing, hardworking, best-friends-forever acetylcholine doesn’t just activate muscles. In the brain, the chemical moves, flows, quantumly entangles (I am guessing here) throughout the neural networks, specifically those related to how we remember, pay attention, and make decisions. Those activities require a certain quiet and single-mindedness. They require suppressing other cortical activity, turning down the volume — a process in which acetylcholine plays a crucial role. The absence of acetylcholine means you are instead being flooded with sensory and mental noise — memories, fantasies, subconscious images, unconscious images — and with real life, too: information cross wired, startling, leaping, pouncing. Jump into that grasshopper mouse’s burrow. She’s speeding through the tunnel of language, the dirt of words. You’re lost in the silvery-buttery moonlight and a bright-red scorpion like a Chinese dragon with a great stinging tail . . .

Unsurprisingly, people have long used datura as a source of visions and shamanic travel. Since the genus of Datura can be found throughout the temperate and tropical world, the list of cultures flying to the moon on datura is a long one. For millennia, and for many of us, datura has been a spirit helper. Datura lets us see the dead. Datura makes us lucky in gambling or finds a lost item or protects us from evil. Datura can heal us physically as well, curing a range of ills from asthma to psoriasis.

Certain kinds of hallucinations seem specific to the suppression of acetylcholine. Often in such hallucinations you see and hear people who are not there but who are uppermost in your thoughts. In certain parts of Mexico, a woman suspecting that her husband has a mistress will sprinkle datura into his meal and observe who appears in the resulting delirium. If the wife is angry enough, she will sprinkle a lot of datura. In fact, homicide by datura is not uncommon. In Europe, the plant was once popularly used for murder and suicide. From 1950 to 1965, the State Chemical Laboratories in Agra, India, investigated 2,778 suspicious deaths caused by datura poisoning.

More recently, teenagers and young adults use datura as a recreational drug. The chat rooms of the internet are full of casual descriptions of eating datura and most are cautionary: “the worst trip I ever took,” “nightmarish,” “my friend was running around with a knife,” “busted leg and blood.” Since the chemicals in datura vary from plant to plant and season to season, considerable experience is required to estimate a safe dosage. This is not a modern skill, although some modern shamans still use datura carefully and effectively.

Scientists are also studying this plant. How does it inhibit microbial activity and inflammation? Can it be used as an anti-asthmatic? Or a pesticide against aphids and ants? Datura teaches. What is it teaching us?

In summer and fall, my heart always lifts at the sight of its extravagant flowers. I think this actually happens: something in my chest moves. For its part, jimsonweed is clearly relational. Jimsonweed wants to be seen, admired, adored. Jimsonweed has something to say to me, and if that is my unconscious talking, then why not listen? I have no intention of eating sacred datura. I can just stand here in this spot, listening.

 

Miracles

David Quammen’s essay can still be found on the internet although I barely have the attention span to finish it now. For that I blame the internet and perhaps aging, too, perhaps a lack of acetylcholine, something about protein receptors, something about sodium ions.

I’m sixty-one years old, extinction around the next big corner. Everything is so much more and so much less than what I thought it would be when I was a child. Slowly I am learning to love my flawed and doomed life, my very own life, which is full of miracles every nanosecond of the day. Slowly I am learning to love this planet that is threaded, woven, stitched with our stories, this wilderness of fierce mice and subtle coyotes, this rolling wilderness outside and inside, the wild landscapes of the body. This planet of weeds, this drumbeat of mystery, this radiance in the darkness. This planet that is so much a part of me that I cannot really tell you where it ends and where I begin.

Comments

  1. So much to absorb here, that maybe some Datura would be helpful. Calls for re-reading, and wonderment about how all of these words get stitched together in such a remarkable three-dimensional tapestry. Thank you —

  2. Powerful weaving in this piece. Complex and multi-layered, it speaks to our times with urgency, with awe. Thank you!

  3. Sharman never loses her flair. She is a crafts[wo]man with words: She’s speeding through the tunnel of language, the dirt of words. You’re lost in the silvery-buttery moonlight and a bright-red scorpion like a Chinese dragon with a great stinging tail . . .Slowly I am learning to love this planet that is threaded, woven, stitched with our stories, this wilderness of fierce mice and subtle coyotes, this rolling wilderness outside and inside, the wild landscapes of the body. This planet of weeds, this drumbeat of mystery, this radiance in the darkness. This planet that is so much a part of me that I cannot really tell you where it ends and where I begin.

  4. So much truth snd beauty, science and wonder, in Sharman Apt Russell’s writing. The last paragraph is as good and true a description of life as anything I’ve ever read. Thank you.

  5. “Something in my chest moves.” “The wild landscape of the body” and the planet together. “It is clearly relational,” even if hidden from us when we are not looking.

  6. Yes, as I get older I am finding this too, this interconnectivity of EVERYTHING. Early on in school we learn that every action has an equal and opposite reaction but we are too small, too inexperienced, too naive to believe, to really believe that EVERY action has an equal and opposite reaction. But now we are learning, seeing and experiencing this third law of motion of Newton’s in an expanded manner.
    The redoubtable intelligence of homo sapiens; how does it relate to the intelligence of other creatures whose intelligence is acknowledged, like whales? I recall coming eye to eye with a beluga whale through the plexiglass of a huge aquarium. Its intelligence and awareness meeting mine in a moment. And I thought, perhaps they knew when to stop. Perhaps other creatures knew when to stop the quest for answers. But we have not.
    Clearly, even though we have attained so much knowledge, it is more profitable to deny that knowledge, at least in terms of bank accounts and material things. How else to explain the House of Representatives and the Senate? How can one be a living organism on this earth and not see how negatively we are effecting this glorious planet? I suppose surrounded by concrete, blacktop, carpet, traffic, computers, it becomes easier to remain ignorant of the natural world. Many people who I know cannot identify trees, birds or insects by species. Removed from the nature of things, as a higher level of being, actually thinking of ourselves as NOT animals; making our species godlike in our own estimation, our own ultimate destination postponed from our consciousness until it has become a surprise.
    Write on, Sharman.

  7. Sharman, your writing takes my breath away!

  8. Thank-you so much for this very powerful and sincere piece (peace also). Your gift of penetration/connection is so moving and will stay with me for quite awhile. I appreciate it very much.

  9. I thought the essay, at first, was going to be about succession in fields. I have a lot to say about that. But you are talking, to me, about succession within ourselves, society, knowledge (wisdom). I had to read this at least twice and I worry that I will forget the ideas most important to me. I wish I could remember everything. Instead I remember less. Thank you.

  10. Predators and prey may “deal in death” – but how cavalier of humans to forget that, had we not been able to stack the deck so greatly in our favor, we would often be prey too. Sometimes we still are, and oh the outrage when another species dares to upset the established order and kill one of us in order to eat! Our romantic notions about the “natural” order do not extend to the human mammal.

    I’ve wondered: what kind of person can passively watch a defenseless animal struggle for its life – particularly in the laboratory, where the deck is truly stacked — without empathy at best? Further, what kind of person injects a helpless animal painful chemicals? It’s all for the better, they say, for science, for progress! But who will (always) be the subjects of experiments – and who will (always) be the beneficiaries?

    Can we find another way to learn what we wish to learn? Might we even truly accept human death itself as “natural”?

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