Stories I Love to Tell

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Charles Darwin as a young man. (Portrait by G. Richmond)

I have such a great line up of courses this semester. After a hiatus of several years, I’m teaching Animal Behavior once again. For the first time I’ve been given a lecture section for our introductory course in Ecology and Evolution. I am also teaching introductory level Cells and Genes, for which I plan to expand the evolutionary context relative to what I’ve done in the past. Last but not least, I’m coordinating our capstone research experience, facilitating independent projects for our junior and senior biology students.

I never tire of telling the story of evolution. Not just of evolution, but of the scientists who first put together the evidence of the tremendous power and complexity of the history of life on earth. When I tell the story to my introductory biology students, it begins something like this:

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One of many works of art by Maria Sibylla Merian, who discovered metamorphosis in butterflies.

In 1831, Charles Darwin embarked on a journey around the world in a small English ship called the Beagle. Darwin was already an accomplished naturalist, and this voyage allowed him to apply his skills to the study of different habitats. He compared plants and animals across continents, and observed how similarities and differences between the species were often linked to the places in which those species were found. He also made many surprising observations, such as finding fossils of sea creatures in the high peaks of the Andes Mountains. Throughout his journey, he reflected on the meaning of everything he saw, and what his observations indicated about the history of life.

It’s important to remember that Darwin did not work in isolation. His voyage on the Beagle was in many ways about the right person on the right trip at the right moment in history. Darwin conducted his studies at a time when science as a whole was undergoing a major transformation in our understanding of how Earth has changed over time. Important scientists who laid the groundwork for Darwin’s theories included botanist Carolus Linneaus, paleontologist Georges Cuvier, geologist James Hutton, naturalist Jeanne Baptiste Lamarck, and economist Thomas Robert Malthus. All the pieces of the evolutionary puzzle were on the table; what we needed was someone like Darwin to put it together.

After the 5-year voyage of the Beagle, it took Darwin more than 20 years to reflect on his experience and integrate his observations with the larger body of data available at the time. But it was well worth the wait. In 1859, Darwin published the most important book in the history of biology: On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection.

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Alexander von Humboldt explores the flora and fauna of South America.

Stories of naturalists like Charles Darwin have always inspired me, in part because of the daunting adventures they undertook and in part because of the inspiring legacy they left behind. Alexander von Humboldt and Maria Sybilla Merian are two other examples of personalities that fire up my imagination. Selenia, the main character in my short story “Creatures of Light,” emerged, in part, from these sparks of history. It’s long been my dream to craft a fantasy novel set in an age of exploration, whether it be an expansion of Selenia’s brutal world, or the undertaking of some new idea in another place and time. Here’s a fun title that keeps running through my head: Charles Darwin, Dragon Slayer. Has a nice ring to it, doesn’t it?

Yet at the end of the day, these real people of history don’t need a fantasy twist to make their story interesting. They dared once, long ago, to leave everything they knew behind and venture into lands unknown. In so doing, they unveiled some of the most beautiful and awe-inspiring mysteries of nature. Today we enjoy the fruits of their labors and honor their memory, even as we look toward the larger universe in anticipation of more discoveries to come.

Work As Therapy

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My imagination is feeling just about as barren as the Badlands right now.

It’s been a long time since I’ve had to process the kind of emotional loss I’m dealing with at the moment.

If I were a full-time writer, I think I would be entirely adrift. All my stories seem to have dried up under a knot of pain. I can’t think straight about publishing or marketing or anything, really, related to writing.

Sometimes I even forget that I have a completed manuscript out there that needs my attention. (Third book? I say in confusion when a friend asks. Then I remember, Oh, yeah, I did write a third book…) Deep down, I know we will get Daughter of Aithne out sometime in the not-so-distant future. But when or where or how is all a nebulous cloud right now. I have something much more important to attend to at the moment.

Fortunately for me, I’m not a full-time writer. Fall semester is starting at Avila University, and I’m very grateful to have a job that I enjoy and that demands my exclusive attention through so many hours of the day. I’m grateful for my friends and colleagues, and the very supportive and dynamic work environment that they create. I’m grateful for the 140 or so students who are depending on me to get my act together by the start of classes next Wednesday. I’m especially grateful to have courses that I’m deeply excited about teaching, namely Animal Behavior and Introduction to Ecology and Evolution. 

Work cannot fill every hole in my heart or heal emotional pain, but it provides me with an anchor, a safe place where I can lean on the scaffold while friends and family help me sort through the rubble within. In this way, I feel blessed even when confronting times of loss and painful transition.

How about you? Where do you find comfort when you’re feeling down?

Sunset Over Summer

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With NAPIRE friends and colleagues at the Association for Tropical Biology Meetings in Honolulu, Hawaii.

We are on the cusp of the new academic year. Emails to my Avila account have increased in frequency. The long parade of faculty and staff meetings that precedes the start of classes begins this week. An ever-greater sense of urgency accompanies my renewed attempts to finalize my syllabi and get ahead on some of the lecture and course material for Fall 2015. I’m looking forward to being back on campus, but it will be a challenge following a semester-long sabbatical that bled well into the summer months.

This past summer has been unusual in that I decided, for the first time in many years, not to go to Costa Rica. To be fair, I spent pretty much all of spring semester in Costa Rica, so it’s not like I missed out on my time in the tropics. But I did set aside summer projects I would have otherwise participated in, the most notable being the NAPIRE program, where I have served as a mentor and/or co-coordinator for some ten years now.

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At the Martin City Pizzeria with my nieces; one of many priceless moments this summer.

June was spent mostly in Kansas City, with a brief foray to Lawrence for the Campbell Conference at the Center for the Study of Science Fiction. July was packed with visitors and travel. My brother and his family came from Hong Kong, as well as my husband and his sister from Costa Rica, and my aunt from Germany. I traveled to Hawaii, the Badlands, the Black Hills, Yellowstone National Park, and last but not least, the Arkansas Ozarks, all within the space of a few weeks. It was a marvelous privilege to see so much – and so much of the best – of my home country. The Yellowstone trip, in particular, moved me in deep and lasting ways. I hope to reflect on and share that experience with you in the weeks to come.

I’m not sure what I expected from changing up the routine this summer, but I can say I’ve learned some important things. The vast and intense beauty of the heartland to which I was born has hit home, once more. For twenty years I have wandered far afield, and I can only say, after all I’ve seen and done, that the U.S.A. is one of the most beautiful places in the world. That’s not to say we don’t have ugly – we do – but what we’ve managed to conserve, and conserve well, can’t really be found anywhere else. We have to hold those places in our hearts, protect them, and expand their reach, so that generations to come can experience the same awe and inspiration that has been our privilege.

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For me, the sighting of a life time: a grizzly bear in Yellowstone National Park.

I’ve also learned, unfortunately, that sometimes love is not enough.

Nothing new, you say? Well, yes. You’re right. I admit I’ve learned this lesson in many ways and on many levels already. I’ve supported friends and family as they’ve suffered through its harsh truth. Still, in spite of all experience to the contrary, I’ve been working hard to protect an important part of my personal universe against this singular and most unwelcome fact.

Sometimes love is not enough.

I can say with pride that I’ve fought the good fight. I erected powerful barriers. I rained fire and arrows and boiling pots of foul fluid upon my attackers. I sallied forth with sword in hand and took no prisoners. Yet my opponent will not be deterred. The outer walls have crumbled. I suspect the keep will not hold.

I am not so much afraid as I am very, very sad. Okay, maybe I’m a little afraid, too. Though I know the force that bears down on me is not malevolent. He’s just a master at tearing through illusions. And sometimes, whether we like it or not, illusions must be destroyed.

A good summer or a bad? I guess the answer depends on perspective and disposition. I will call 2015, on the whole, a good summer. Though I reserve the right to change my mind a month or so down the line.