Tag Archives: science

One-Note Wonder

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Machaeropterus eckelberryi. Image: Andy Kratter/Florida Museum of Natural History

It was the manakin’s simple song that gave it away. Rather than the two-note chirp of its close relatives, the striped manakins from other areas of South America, the tiny bird with the red cap trilled out only single syllables.

A research team from Louisiana State University and the Florida Museum of Natural History first found the manakin in the remote Cordillera Azul region of Peru in 1996. But it is only now, twenty years later, that the newly named Machaeropterus eckelberryi was classified as a species separate from other Machaeropterus relations. Why?

The new species song could only be compared to other species once vocalization samples from other manakin groups had been recorded. It was only then that researchers were able to hear that M. eckelberryi song was so different from other manakin species. When they dug deeper, they found other defining characteristics as well.

Comparison of plumage of some taxa in the Machaeropterus regulus complex.
Source: Zootaxa

Attention to detail, patience, and research funding led to this new identification.

But more than that, even before the manakin was revealed to be a new species, the researchers’ revelation of the spectacular biodiversity of this habitat led to the creation of one of Peru’s largest national parks. The Cordillera Azul National Park covers 13531 km² (522 m²) and is home to a remarkably untouched variety of flora and fauna.

What other discoveries, what unique songs, lay in wait in collections around the world?

Should we call them discoveries, or should we call them revelations?

Click here to listen to the song of the painted manakin.

Lessons in Listening

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For the first time in its 59-year history, the Australian Science Teachers Association’s (STAWA) Secondary School of the Year award, an annual prize handed out in Western Australia, went to a school outside of Perth. That kind of anomaly deserves a second look.

The school that won the award for science research is the Christian Aboriginal Parent-directed (CAPS) school in Coolgardie, an independent school established by Aboriginal parents who felt the quality of education in their region was lacking.  This was also the first time the STAWA award went to a school with a mainly Aboriginal student population.

The students at CAPS were under the tutelage of a young science teacher from the United States, Allan Alipio, who wanted to inspire students with the passion he himself felt for science. He allows the students to come up with some of their own ideas, and this is where I think the story starts to get really interesting.

Eucalyptus saligna (Blue Gum)’ (1887)
Artist/Source: Agard Hagman/MAAS

The projects that won the award were mostly based on the application of native plants and indigenous knowledge to energy and medical experiments. One group of teens investigated the antimicrobial potential of traditional medicine plants maroon and crimson turkey bushes as well as sweet potato leaves for potential use as an anti-diarrhoea medication, while another group used local plants like wheel cactus and gum leaves to make ethanol.

This award speaks to the profound impact that good teaching can have – not just on passing along the facts and passing tests, but on inspiration and passion. I think it’s important to stress that, rather than imposing a standardized curriculum, Mr. Alipio listened to his students.

There’s a lot that could be discussed here about the all-too-common lack of education funding for indigenous populations. This gets at a larger issue of the side-lining (or worse) of indigenous populations around the world, and the extent to which their deep local knowledge has been suppressed, disdained, ignored, or (as with many medicinal applications) commercially exploited. And as we slog through this new era of climate change, that knowledge is more relevant than ever – as is the necessity to start listening.

Wheel cactus (Opuntia robusta)
Artist/Source: M.E. Eaton/Crow & Raven

People who identify as indigenous number an estimated 370 people worldwide, made up of around 5000 groups across 70 countries. They make up approximately 5% of the global population – but traditional lands and territories contain an estimated 80% of Earth’s biodiversity.

Gleb Raygorodetsky put it well in this excellent article: “With collective knowledge of the land, sky and sea, these peoples are excellent observers and interpreters of change in the environment. The ensuing community-based and collectively-held knowledge offers valuable insights, complementing scientific data with chronological and landscape-specific precision and detail that is critical for verifying climate models and evaluating climate change scenarios developed by scientists at much broader spatial and temporal scale. Moreover, indigenous knowledge provides a crucial foundation for community-based adaptation and mitigation actions…

The difference in world views can be as fundamental as the botanical illustrations of plants above done through Western eyes, the illustration of bush plants below done by Aboriginal artist Gloria Petyarre.

Bush medicine leaves
Artist: Gloria Petyarre

I will get into huge topic around the overlap of human rights issues, indigenous peoples and environment another time, but for the moment, I would say this: As long as that deep knowledge stays on a parallel but separate track from Western-based science, policy, legislation and education, we are missing out on critical opportunities to learn and adapt to the changes we have created over a relatively short period of time. At the same time, learning to listen and to cooperate puts people back in the loop when it comes to determining the fate of the land on which they live – and might just help us weather the approaching storm.

Hopefully, students like the award-winning teens at CAPS will be able to leverage knowledge from both worlds to help chart a path ahead.

A Murder, A Charm, A Gulp

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A Murder

It must be confusing for wild animals when humans constantly grow so much tasty food, only to try and keep it all to themselves. I see it in my own garden when the various fruits become ripe. All the birds I’ve fed through the winter are suddenly competition for my harvest in summer and fall.

Magpie Lookout – Australian magpie
Artist: Lyn Ellison

I’m not fussed about sharing the cherries, plums, red currants, apples and grapes with the birds. There’s usually more than enough for all of us. But in Australia and elsewhere, vineyards can lose up to 80% of their valuable crop to starlings, rosellas, cockatoos, and thrushes every year.

Until now, common solutions to keeping birds away from the grapes included expensive netting to block the birds from getting at the goods (but which can also make spraying difficult), noisy gas cannons to shock them into flight (but which also sometimes cause fires), and reflective tape, hawk-shaped balloons and recordings of predator calls to frighten them.

But birds can get into and tangled in the netting, and as for noise and shiny or floating objects, as soon as the birds realize they won’t get hurt, they just ignore both.

I’m reminded of a hike I took in Sheffield, England a few years ago, when I saw another bird control solution in the crop fields: Individual crows, dead and hung upside down at regular intervals from wooden posts as literal scarecrows. I don’t know how effective it was on other birds, but the sight definitely kept me out of those tilled properties.

Magpies
Artist: CF Tunnicliffe

A Charm

Maybe with something almost as ominous in mind, researchers at Charles Sturt University in Australia undertook a study at six vineyards in Victoria to see whether aggressive birds could be used to frighten grape-thieving birds from the vineyards.

In this case, the idea was to build observation perches for predatory birds like falcons, who would hunt vineyard thieves, and serve as a warning against hungry flocks.

For whatever reason, the falcons were not seduced by the five-meter high invitations to rest. But another kind of bird was: The mythical magpie. To be precise, the Australian magpie. I should note here that these magpies are not corvids, unlike Eurasian magpies, which are. There’s a great article here for a breakdown on the difference, and why Australian magpies are called magpies.

Be that as it may, over centuries and continents, magpies have been the subject of legends, both good and bad. They’re thieves and harbingers of death; they’re a sign of bad luck if seen alone, but of good luck if seen in groups; in many Asian countries the bird is associated with happiness, while in Native American lore, it’s a symbol of friendship and fearlessness.

For better and for worse, humans have a long-standing relationship with these birds.

Magpies
Photo: TheMagpieWhisperer

It was magpies, rather than falcons, that took an unexpected liking to the high perches in the Australian study, probably because (as the researchers state) the perches provided excellent observation points for the lizards that magpies hunt.

I also read of the winery in South Australia that enthusiastically welcomes the territoriality of magpies in keeping other birds at bay. Their voracity for insects means that they pick out pests from the trunks of the vines, each vineyard row monitored by its own magpie.

 

A Gulp

Some of our favorite science stories are born as the results of research that sets out to find one solution and then finds another.

Researchers who had been looking to attract falcons to vineyards found that vineyards with magpie perches had a noticeable reduction in crop loss to smaller birds. In the study area, this was a reduction from 9% of the crop in vineyards areas lacking magpie perches to only 4% in the areas under the shadow of the tall wooden constructions.

Magpies might not be direct predators of smaller adult birds, but they do eat eggs and chicks of other birds, so that might be one factor as well as their simple threatening presence on the perches.

 

Australian magpies
Artist: Lyn Ellison

Researchers speculate that the falcons might prefer more natural looking branches to the straight perches, so a further study will test those.

Meanwhile, I am wondering what kind of impact these large birds might have overall on populations of smaller birds, insects and lizards in vineyard regions. Do the smaller birds move elsewhere? Do lizards keep down insect populations that might flourish in their absence if the magpies leave?

Viewing vineyards as agro-ecosystems rather than mechanistic crop factories changes the equations in the most interesting ways, this time offering a further strand in our long history with magpies.

There are almost as many terms for a flock of magpies as there are myths about this clever, communicative bird, and doubtless many more eco-interactions than names.

Something to ponder over my next glass of Australian wine.

*A murder, a charm and a gulp are just a few of the collective nouns we use for magpies. Murder is also the collective noun for crows, corvids like the Eurasian magpie.

It’s A Hot One

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The little digital thermometer on my window here in south-eastern France read 50.1°C (122.2°F) yesterday. Today it’s even higher.

55.3°C (131.5°F). I definitely need to move this device. The actual temperature is 32°C (89.6°F).
Photo: PKR

Not that the outside air is really that hot. It’s just the sun heating the glass of the window to that searing temperature. Until I get around to moving the thermometer to a location that offers more accuracy, there’s not much point in panicking about the numbers on the display.

Still, according to Meteo Swiss, yesterday was the hottest day of the year so far in our region, 35.5°C (95.9°F). These days, the announcements of monthly, yearly or all-time heat records being broken beat down with the worrying regularity of a leaky faucet.

It’s not just a subjective feeling that the summers are getting hotter and drier, the winters shorter and warmer. When we moved to this area of high mountains and lakes, winter meant thigh-deep snow at least three times per season. Now it’s knee-deep once a year. And summers?

Hm. Let me go have a look at that thermometer again.

There’s a pretty video making the rounds this week, a striking representation of temperature anamolies over the past hundred years or so, broken down by country.

It starts off as a rayed sphere of blue, yellow and orange, showing average highs and lows above a baseline. By 2000, it’s a pulsing sun of spiky red lines.

Antti Lipponen, a researcher at the Finnish Meteorological Institute, created the visual using publicly available data from NASA earth sciences programs. These are the very programs that have had their budgets cut by 9% under the new U.S. administration, in favor of planetary science programs.

Unlike my window thermometer, this climate data is accurate. Ignoring it won’t make the raw information change, and it won’t change the fact that anyone and everyone with the means needs to act now to make Lipponen’s visual – and our planet – stay in the safety zone.

Root Migration

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What do a rare high-altitude Alpine snow flower and a sturdy South African cousin of the daisy have in common? They aren’t related, they look nothing like one another, and they are natives to completely different habitats in different parts of the world.

But over the past few years, they have both been on the move.

Rockfoil – Saxifraga androsacea
Source: Wikimedia

The saxifrage species, also known as rockfoil, is a tenacious ground plant with that waits all winter under snow cover before bursting forth with a graceful stalk and small blossoms. It’s a plant of extremes – extreme cold, extreme altitude, it thrives in rocky soil where little else grows. But the temperatures for which it is adapted are becoming more seldom, and with them, so is the plant.

Meanwhile, the South African ragwort (Senecio inaequidens), a tall herbaceous plant with bright sunny blossoms, is happy to take up the space. Able to survive higher temperatures and unfussy about altitudes, it is adapting well to Alpine heights. The ragwort’s seeds arrived in exports of South African wool, and are proving very comfortable in a number of regions across Europe and the rest of the world.

South African ragwort – Senecio inaequidens
Source: ResearchGate

According to a long-term study of one Italian region, Alpine winters are rapidly becoming warmer, up to 1.2°C (2.16°F) over the past 20 years, with tourism and skiing heading ever higher in search of winter sports, impacting the environment. And while both tourists and ragwort are happy at a variety of altitudes, saxifrage is running out of places to go.

What the two plants share mobility, but are separated by the extent of their comfort zones. With climate change, the ragworts will settle in, the saxifrages will be unsettled. Whatever other plants or animal life that relied on an ecosystem that includes this little saxifrage species will change along with its disappearance.

It’s a sign of profound transition that a plant native to South Africa is growing on Alpine rock faces. What we know of this ancient landscape as it has always been will have to be altered.

For the moment, the plants have movement and terrain in common. Their destinations, however, won’t be the same. One will likely adapt and move onwards, the other will likely move into memory.

Rockfoil
Photo: Florasilvestre

Six of One

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I have an affinity for hybrids of technology and nature, whether in art or engineering. There was the Coniferous Clock made of cedar, fresh and green in spring, brown and withered in winter, that told a simple tale of a year’s passing.

Here’s a new take on using plants in a sleek design: The CityTree, made by Green City Solutions. CityTree is an urban air filter that uses moss to remove pollutants from city air.

CityTree.
Photo: Via CNN

In a cool trick of using densely packed moss that has more leaf surface area than other plants, the self-contained, mobile units are solar-powered, self-watering and are monitored via sophisticated sensors. They are estimated to remove the same amount of pollutants from city air as up to 275 trees. This can, according to the inventors, add up to the annual removal of 240 metric tons of CO2 per unit.

Like the super neat SmartFlower Solar installations of blossom-shaped solar panels that follow the arc of the sun across the sky – one is at a supermarket just down the road from our house – this is a great concept that has its price. In the case of CityTree, each unit is currently priced at around $25,000. The company states that the units are made from a high proportion of recyclable materials and have a long life, but how does that really break down in terms of resources, disposal, and maintenance over the long term?

CityTree with optional bench.
Image: Green City Solutions

Still, I like it. Even if achieving equivalent results doesn’t always mean the methods were equivalent. Six of one isn’t always the same as half a dozen. After all, plant a hundred trees or cover a hundred house walls in ivy, and you’ll be filtering city air for decades with very little overhead. But for that, you need the soil, the water and the will.

It’s a sign of our poor urban planning that we even need to talk about CityTree, but I have a feeling we might just be seeing more of them. The makers boast that CityTree has the services of a whole forest on the surface of 3.5 sq. meters (37 sq. feet).

It’s an intriguing and creative solution. They’re nice to look at, and I bet they smell almost like a forest.

Oakwood forest, Scotland.
Photo: Forestry Commission Scotland

Stone Cold Facts

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Switzerland just experienced its coldest winter in thirty years; back in October, several meteorologists predicted this winter would be Europe’s coldest in a century. From my vantage point on the Franco-Swiss border, where temperatures didn’t get above freezing and were further chilled by a strong northerly wind, I can testify that January was desperately cold for our region. These are some local effects of a warmer Arctic, a slower jet stream, and the resulting stationary cold fronts.

But how do we know all this? Because we’ve been keeping meteorological records for decades and have further records based a variety of environmental investigations. While a few decades worth of temperature recordings might not be much along the vast time line of the planet, they do give us insights into directions, movements, influence. Without these records, we are cut adrift into speculation.

Record-keeping of environmental data is how we can move beyond the snapshots of the time in which we live to gain an overview of our world as it evolves, of our impact on it.

Tsunami stone. Photo: Roselinde Bon/Flickr

Tsunami stone.
Photo: Roselinde Bon/Flickr

And so it was with dismay that I read of various environmental agencies and national parks being muzzled as one of the first orders of business under the new U.S. administration. From the Environmental Protection Agency to every national park to NASA to the Department of Agriculture, public access to public science was restricted, while government scientists were prohibited from communicating with the very taxpayers for whom they work. A memo announced that all studies, papers, publications and grants would be reviewed for approval by the incoming administration. It’s possible this is just a prelude to massive de-funding.

Offhand, I would guess that this is an outgrowth of the new administration’s less-than-enthusiastic support of the science behind climate change, and that a blanket gag order is one way to control a large, ongoing conversation between scientists and the public. Without regular record-keeping, otherwise known as data gathering, we are blinded.

For data to be politicized for immediate or short-term goals is to put society in peril of running headlong in the wrong direction. As an example, the new administration has also just removed regulations that restricted the dumping of coal mining waste into rivers and streams; without regular monitoring of water quality and access to this data, who will know in eighteen months how water quality has fared?

Record keeping is how we humans remember. Whether through oral history, parchment paper, printed studies or virtual data memory, this is how we find our way forward by knowing what came before. Our collective access is greater than ever before, provided it’s not suppressed for ideological and commercial expediency.

 tablet in Aneyoshi, Japan, warns residents not to build homes below its location. Photo via: Fackler/Bend Bulletin

Stone tablet in Aneyoshi, Japan, warns residents not to build homes below its location.
Photo via: Fackler/Bend Bulletin

Back in 2011, the great Tōhoku earthquake and ensuing tsunami swept across the Sendai province of Japan like a scythe. It was the largest earthquake ever measured in Japan, and the fourth largest in the world since record-keeping began in 1900. Hundreds of thousands of people were displaced, a nuclear reactor in Fukushima was compromised and released large amounts of radioactivity into the environment.

Yet there was data that warned of building below certain elevations. After all, Japan is a land of earthquakes and tsunamis. Hundreds of tsunami stones, some dating back 600 years, warn inhabitants to build on high land and not below. In the boom years following WWII, this data, this knowledge, was forgotten or ignored and the stones relegated to historical curiosities as towns, oil refinieries and nuclear reactors were built right up to the coast line. It was commercially and politically viable, and modern society thought that higher sea walls would outweigh inconvenient ancient data.

Data and remembering are more than history, more than signposts to be pointed wherever the political wind is blowing. Some of the gag orders on U.S. agencies were lifted following public outcry, not that these agencies will necessarily be spared cutbacks. But this kind of information is the result of input by countless contributors from around the world, from those who develop data gathering methods to scientists and community volunteers who collect data in the field to those who interpret it. This knowledge shouldn’t be subject to national borders, much less capricious limitations.

The environment doesn’t recognize or respect national borders, nor does climate change. Records and this kind of information are our collective global right and legacy.

Tsunami Memory Stone, Kamaishi, Iwate Prefecture. This is one of many memorials to the victims of the 2011 tsunami. Its English inscription reads: Memorial Stone of the Tsunami. Just run! Run uphill! Don't worry about the others. Save yourself first. And tell the future generations that a Tsunami once reached this point. And that those who survived were those who ran. Uphill. So run! Run uphill! Photo: Osamu Yamasaki/Digital Journal

Tsunami Memory Stone, Kamaishi, Iwate Prefecture. This is one of many memorials to the victims of the 2011 tsunami. Its English inscription reads: Memorial Stone of the Tsunami. Just run! Run uphill! Don’t worry about the others. Save yourself first. And tell the future generations that a Tsunami once reached this point. And that those who survived were those who ran. So run! Run uphill!
Photo: Osamu Yamasaki/Digital Journal

 

Clepsydra Elegy

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It should come as no surprise that one of the earliest tools humans used to tell time was water. After all, it’s what we are, what we need to live.

A clepsydra is an ancient clock system that, at its most basic, uses two bowls, one nested inside another. The outer bowl is filled with water; the empty inner bowl has a hole at the bottom which allows a controlled flow of water to seep in.

Ancient Persian clock in Qanats of Gonabad Zibad. Source: Maahmaah/Wikipedia

Ancient Persian clock in qanats of Gonabad, Zibad.
Source: Maahmaah/Wikipedia

Once the inner bowl has filled with water, it is emptied and placed on the surface of the water again until it sinks.

Timekeepers as early as 500 BC kept an eye on the water flowing from one bowl to another to determine fair distribution of irrigation resources between farmers (in ancient Persia, by using water channels known as qanats). Needless to say, the position of timekeeper was important, and subject to oversight by other village elders to ensure parity.

Ancient water clock used in qanat of gonabad 2500 years ago. Source: Maahmaah/Wikipedia

Ancient water clock used in qanat of Gonabad 2500 years ago.
Source: Maahmaah/Wikipedia

We’ve had a water clock of sorts on a planetary scale for as long as long as humans have recorded history, and beyond.

We call them glaciers. They rise, they retreat. The bowls are biggest at the two poles, and for the duration of what we know as human civilization, the Arctic and the Antarctic have been keeping time over the procession of the seasons and climate that have allowed our species to farm and flourish.

It’s only recently, over the past century or so, that we have realized these clocks are not static. They are what water always is: in a state of flux. We’ve known for decades that the melting of the ice at the two poles could spell a new era, one in which the inner bowl of the clepsydra stays submerged and our measure of time is changed.

The level of Arctic sea ice is, once again this year, at its lowest recorded level.

What we need, maybe, are more vigilant timekeepers.

Here’s one of my current playlist videos, performed against the backdrop of calving Arctic ice. An elegy is a lament for something that has already passed away – let’s do everything we can to work against that scenario for the Arctic.
Listen for the crash at the beginning:

 

Beneath the Sea

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It always counts as a surprise when we find out that unexpected networks have been operating right under our collective noses. We use the word ‘discovery’ to describe the newness to our understanding, even if, in retrospect, it might be a bit like describing a city’s take-out food delivery system as a ‘discovery’ just because no one had noticed a connection between all the scooters with restaurant names and the arrival of restaurant food at private homes.

The discovery, in this case, is something that makes a lot of sense: At least one kind of sea grass that flowers underwater manages to employ underwater pollinators in a manner similar to terrestrial flowering plants that use airborne pollinators like bees, bats and birds.

A meadow of Thalassia testudinum, turtlegrass. Photo: ICMyL via DGCS

A meadow of Thalassia testudinum, turtlegrass. Photo: ICMyL via DGCS

There aren’t many plants that actually flower under water – most produce their flowers above the water surface. Thalassia testudinum, known as turtlegrass, grows in large meadows, and produces small flowers near the seabed. The male flowers release pollen in the evening, and until now it was thought that the pollen was carried to female plants solely via water currents.

But a study published last fall in Nature Communications showed that there is another factor that increased the distribution of pollen. In a series of aquarium-based experiments, it was demonstrated that a variety of invertebrates, from spider crab larvae to tiny crustaceans to marine worms, are drawn to the male and female flowers, and these fauna were proven to fulfil the criteria of being characterized as pollinators* even in the absence of water flow.

The researchers from the National Autonomous University of Mexico state that that other, larger animals might also contribute to pollination, but that these were not included in this particular study. Unlike bees, there’s no hive or honey involved. But, like their terrestrial counterparts, the fauna here were attracted to the flowers for feeding, and moved between the blossoms in search of more food.

A male turtlegrass flower releases its nocturnal pollen. Photo: ICMyL via DGCS

A male turtlegrass flower releases its nocturnal pollen. Photo: ICMyL via DGCS

Look at the intelligence of turtlegrass. It has small flowers, and they aren’t packed densely together, waving in the breeze. Rather, they are close to the sea bed and spaced well apart. Relying solely on water flow to pollinate might not do the trick. Why not make the petals sticky and attractive to the myriad small creatures abundant in the water, and get them to do a bit of the heavy pollen lifting for extra evolutionary insurance?

I applaud lead researcher Brigitta van Tussenbroek and her research team for noticing and studying this fascinating network of activity, which they have given the name zoobenthophilous pollination, i.e. pollination carried out by animals close to the sea bed. The discovery of the role fauna play in underwater pollination could help better understand and protect these ecosystems, which, as van Tussenbroek and her colleagues state, “are amongst the world’s most productive ecosystems. (They) improve water transparency, stabilize coastlines and store carbon, and also provide food and shelter to a diverse faunal community.”

I have the feeling it may just be the beginning of a deeper understanding of many things that are right in front of us, but which we aren’t yet seeing. All it requires is a willingness to shift our perspective.

A female turtlegrass flower with visiting invertebrates, bits of pollen and sand. Photo: ICMyL via DGCS

A female turtlegrass flower with visiting invertebrates, bits of pollen and sand. Photo: ICMyL via DGCS

*From the study “Experimental evidence of pollination in marine flowers by invertebrate faunathe criteria for the animals to be considered pollinators are:

(1) both male and female organs (of the flowers) are visited, (2) the visitor carries pollen, (3) the visitor transfers pollen between male and female sexual organs, (4) pollen deposition by the visitor results in successful fertilization, estimated as pollen germination on the stigmas, pollen tube growth or seed set.

Radiant Sun – So Long, 2016

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This piece of mine came out on Medium’s Midcentury Modern right after John Glenn passed away in early December, but it seemed a fitting way to send off 2016 as a whole. Not because it was as great as John Glenn, but because we all need a little something to get us through the hard times:

It was 1975 and Nixon had left office the year before. A new, dark cynicism about our system of government had freshly hatched and was flailing around like a hungry mongoose, hissing and snappish. Saturday Night Live started that year, and began by openly mocking then-President Gerald Ford on a regular basis, and if it bothered Ford, the general public never found out. John Glenn, a military man and former astronaut, had just been elected senator for the state of Ohio.

I had just moved back to California to live with my father after a few years of making my mother miserable with her new husband in his home town of Milwaukee. Returning from an orderly suburban life that ticked along like Chinese water torture, I found myself living in a cabin that my father and a bunch of buddies slapped up in a forest clearing. It was a 10’ x 12’ redwood box, tar-papered and shingled, heated with a wood stove, no running water, and it was located around fifty feet from my dad’s own cabin in the middle of a dense bay forest. I couldn’t see his place from mine, and at night, once the sun went down, it was prehistorically unlit by anything but the flame of my small kerosene lamp. I was thirteen. John Glenn, the first American to orbit the Earth, had flown around the planet a couple of weeks after my birth and now I lived in my own little satellite beneath the stars.

Society was all at sixes and sevens in the Sixties and Seventies, people wandering off in different directions, and I occupied myself with reading a lot of science fiction. Heinlein, Bradbury, Asimov. Their casual misogyny and racism was dated, even then, but there was the pull of the great yonder. The film 2001: A Space Odyssey was already seven years old; Apollo 11 had landed on the moon six years earlier.

At the rate we were going, surely space colonies couldn’t be far off, soon enough to beat any population problems, nuclear wars or environmental disasters we might inflict upon ourselves. I wrote what would be my first publication, a letter to Co-Evolution Quarterly, offering to go off-world if it would help save the planet. I got an unexpected check for $25 in return, my first money for words.

My father wrote songs, and some of them came from dreams. He had a tape recorder at the head of his bed, and if a song came to him at night, he’d push the record button and sing,

still mostly asleep, at the machine while the little wheels of the cassette tape turned. We’d listen to the results over breakfast, which was always at his place, just after dawn.

I’d wake up and listen for him to whistle, which meant he was awake and I could come over. Sometimes it took a long time and I sat on my doorstep, looking out through ferns and bay trees and beyond, to Tomales Bay and the hills of Marin County, and thinking how hard it would be to fit that all even into the largest space station. How would we transport all this earthly wealth with us to barren planets? Maybe the moon was close enough. “Zero G, and I feel fine.” That’s what John Glenn said when they reached orbit and he became weightless for the first time. Sounded pretty good to me, I just wanted to take a few trees along.

One morning, the whistle finally came and I made my way up along the narrow path that wound between ferns, carefully using a stick to part the dewed spider webs strung across the way. We sat down in our respective chairs to tea and pancakes, and I reached over and pressed the rewind and play button the tape recorder to see if there was anything there. My dad’s voice sang a groggy ditty that was unintelligible except for a long, four-note “meeeeeee” at the end of two lines. “What the heck is that?”

My dad’s face brightened as the dream returned to him.

I was walking on the surface of Mars with the Colonel. There was nothing, just red wasteland, except for the compound behind us. We came to an enclosure, a fence around waist high.

‘This is where we keep them,’ said the Colonel.

‘Keep what?’

‘The space monkeys.’

I looked down, and there, in a little space suit just like ours, was a chimpanzee. It stood right in front of us, and then it took off its own helmet. And it had the face of John Glenn. Smiling, beatific. It looked at us, and then at the sun, so far away. And John Glenn beamed. He started to sing!

Radiant sun!
Shinin’ on meeeee!
Radiant sun!
Shinin’ on meeeee!

My dad wore the same smile he must have seen on his dream version of John Glenn. The song instantly entered our lives as a way of expressing joy about anything that was really, really terrific, and we’d sing it, or just say that something was a ‘radiant sun’ moment. We were probably what most would have would called radical hippie types at the time, but if there was one thing pretty much everyone could agree on, it was that John Glenn was a good guy who flew higher than Cold War politics or partisan pettiness. You couldn’t not like him.

The song and the dream of John Glenn stayed in my life. I got my first truly soul-killing office job at Equitable Life Insurance in 1981. The supervisor parked me in a cubicle on the seventh floor of a high rise in downtown San Francisco, tasked with the Sisyphean job of transferring all the client paper files to the early mainframe computer system, and even though I knew from the first week that the job and I would never be a good match, I couldn’t quit. I had bills to pay. One day, after a particularly rough week of talking to a lot of very sick, broke people on the phone who hadn’t been paid because their files hadn’t yet been transferred, I arrived at work to find one small addition to the wall of my bleak cubicle: It was a postcard of John Glenn in his space helmet, his confident face radiating its goodness right down on me. It was signed, Courtesy of Your Fellow Inmates. Glenn got me through the next few months, before I quit to pursue another life.

Space colonies didn’t become a reality as quickly as expected. Instead, I left the country for other continents and other countries, and ended up spending most of my life far from my country of birth. John Glenn made his mark as a senator for the state of Ohio. Mostly he did a good job, an advocate for science and, more importantly, for enduring curiosity that lasted a lifetime. He had a knack for looking beyond borders.

So, now he’s left Earth’s orbit for good, and I find myself thinking that we need a John Glenn these days. Someone who inspires everyone, no matter their persuasion, to look beyond their own cynicism. Cynicism was rife under Nixon, and then Ford, and even under the artificial-honey reign of Reagan, but at least we could all agree that astronauts and the science that kept them aloft were objects worthy of admiration.

So farewell, John Glenn, and thanks for getting me through some hard times and inspiring more than just happy songs. It was radiant.

Thanks for visiting Champagnewhisky, and wishing all of you a wonderful 2017.