Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Summer Updates


A tidbit of exciting news (ahem, impending shameless plug):

Hawkmoth now has a bookish, research-minded little sister! Meet ReefsRising, my brand-spankin'-new blog, hosted by SciLogs on the Nature network.

Hawkmoth will continue on as a personal site, whereas RR will stick to strict reporting on tropical marine science. SciLogs hosts blogs on everything from South-Eastern European research to marketing to neuroscience– so check it out as a broad source for science news.

90% of life in #marine #science looks like this. Check out @eastofthewoods for the other 10%. Marine biology doesn't exist kiddos- but ichthyology, ecology, and systematics do...

While I'm at it, here are a few more cool things on the mind lately:

1. Usefulscience– Single sentence summaries of new research on everything from creativity to fitness to parenting. Edify yourself in 5 seconds or less.

2. It's national moth week! Time to celebrate those winged nocturnal beauties. Click here for the official US website of moth-related happenings. Think naturalist-led night hikes, and bright lights projected on white sheets.
 I've got two more BIG projects in the wings, but I'll hold my tongue at the moment. Expect more exciting news in T-minus 2 weeks (?)

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Helplessness Blues


I was raised up believing I was somehow unique. Like a snowflake, distinct among snowflakes, unique in each way you can see. And now after some thinking I’d say I’d rather be a functioning cog in some great machinery, serving something beyond me. But I don’t, I don't know what that will be. I’ll get back to you someday soon. You will see. 

-Helplessness Blues

Another season in transit: New York to Virginia to Massachusetts to Illinois and back again. Another season on trains and buses, nursing those helplessness blues.

This summer, the eastern US has flown by an open window, while I've sat and wondered what the future will bring. Oh I've tongued that question like an aching tooth– every touch plunging to the nerve.


But in the blue-black night, curled up against a train window, there is a tonic for that ache. I awake without my bearings, and for a moment lose myself to the night. A nameless little life hurtles across the world then– stability in motion– roots wrapped around the whole damn thing. 
Mine is a prayer to the road, whispered to the rumbling lullaby of wheels on asphalt:

Make me a leaf, swept ever downriver.    


Sunday, May 18, 2014

Mythology, Childhood, and the Cyclic Nature of Lizards


There is an electricity in trespassing. It's a prickling under the skin, a sense of mischief and risk, a middle finger to someone else's idea of borders– all in the creeping exploration of places we don't quite belong.

As a child, I trespassed in vacant lots, chasing insects in old fields gone to seed. I played in the cracks of the suburbs, crouched amongst the weeds, entranced. And as the days ran through and the shadows grew long, I often realized in waves of sudden paralyzing fear, that I was alone and very vulnerable there.   

On endless summer afternoons, the trailer park up the road was another tempting haunt. Wandering the rows of mobile homes, with their faded pastel awnings and sad cactus gardens, I was silent as a street cat, edgy, and quick to duck out of sight.

It was still as death there too– inhabitants all squirreled away in their air conditioned boxes. But every so often a window shade would slightly part, and I would feel the eyes of someone unseen, watching me. For a split second then, the cactus gardens turned to bone, the mobile homes raised up on scaly chicken's legs, and I fled in dry gasping breaths from Baba Yaga's doorstep, racing home through the suburban dust.  

Sometimes the body says "slow down", and the mind must listen. #100happydays

Then one day, I came upon a group of trailer park boys, all about my age, standing in a tight little circle. They didn't notice me, preoccupied as they were. But as I crept closer, I saw that the boys encircled a limp little form– something small and helpless at their feet.

It was an alligator lizard– missing half its tail with one leg twisted all wrong, strapped to an unlit firework. Its three functional legs still feebly pushed at the dirt, but the firework was too heavy to move and the little creature too tired to really fight. The boys jeered at their prize, and the blood pounded to my head.

No. No. No. No. No. No.

Here it was– real evil in the world. And all the fears of child-stealing witches and unseen monsters bled down the walls of my brain.

I ran then, like I had run from Baba Yaga so many times before. But this time, I ran into the heart of that cruel little circle and snatched the lizard away.

And ran. And ran. And ran. And ran.

I ran until my lungs burned and my vision clouded,
until the sound of my own sobs drowned out the shrieks of the boys behind me.
I ran, pressing the lizard flat against my bony chest, weeping all the way home.   

Image 5-18-14 at 7.45 PM

But the lizard lived, at least long enough for us to clean its wounds and lay it gently in the backyard planter. By morning it was gone. I never saw it again.

A decade later, in May of 2012 another injured alligator lizard wandered into our house. It was the first I'd seen in over a decade– the first I'd seen since monsters became real. I disinfected its wounds, gave it some water, and released it.

Today, almost exactly two years later, the same(?) individual returned. In the triptych above, the lower panels are May 2012, and the upper panel is May 2014. Note the similar scale patterning and location of tail injury/regrowth.

In this, I find the mystery of tiny lives, lived unseen around us.
In this, I find the horror and cruelty that humans are capable of.
And most of all, in this, I find the mythology of childhood– fairy tales and daydreams– slamming hard into reality.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

A few minutes in Grand Central

Passing through Grand Central Station from underground metro line 7 up onto 42nd:






Saturday, April 19, 2014

Making Easter Eggs without Synthetic Dyes

Years ago, I watched my mother make Easter eggs at the house on Fairgreen Avenue. Barefoot, filthy, and thoroughly underfoot (as always), I plunked myself down on the kitchen floor and picked at the peeling linoleum while mom worked her magic around me.

She danced from stove to countertop, a blur of raven hair and tinkling laughter. With light but deliberate footfalls she moved– a towering sorceress of womanhood, the harbinger of vanilla-scented secrets I would one day have to learn.  

And then, all at once, in a great wide-winged swoop, mom swept me up in her arms and held me over the stove, where eggs boiled in deep red water. That water, she explained, would turn the delicate white shells of ordinary chicken's eggs to the fiery reds and golds I'd seen on Easters past.

Years and years have trickled by, and Easter has come again. I never got the chance to ask mom exactly how she dyed those eggs, but I've got my own technique now. Credit where credit is due: I grifted the following recipe from the expat parents over at Field Notes from Fatherhood, which you can find here

To replicate this project you will need:

-White-shelled eggs
-Red and Yellow onion skins (to make red dye)
-Red cabbage leaves (to make blue dye)
-Turmeric (to make gold dye)
-Dental floss or string
-Nylon stockings (cut into egg-sized strips)
-An assortment of small leaves and flowers


First, prep your dyes:
Place the onion skins, cabbage leaves, and turmeric (I used about 5 generous spoonfuls) in separate sauce pots, cover with water (deep enough to submerge an egg), and set to boil. Leave them on the stove for about 30 minutes (until the water is deeply colored), and then strain out the leaves/skins. Retain the water, that's your dye.


In the meantime, prep your [uncooked] eggs:
Take the nylon strips and tie them off at one end.
Arrange leaves and petals as you like on the eggshell. 
Note that petals and leaves stick better when wet. I rolled each egg in water before decorating.

DSC_1747 DSC_1743 DSC_1738

Then pull the nylon tight over the face of the egg. This is most challenging and important step. The nylon must be tight enough to keep any plant material flush with the surface of the egg.

Tip: to prevent leaves and flowers from moving, place the nylon flat over the plant material, and then pull it around the rest of the egg. Alternatively, you can also try putting the egg in the nylon before adding plant decor. Tie off the loose end.


Now, boil the nylon-wrapped egg in one of your dyes for about 30 minutes. This will hard boil the egg and dye its shell. Note that eggs should be submerged.


When the eggs are cooked, leave them soaking in the dye for as long as you like (the longer they soak, the deeper their hue). Note that this will only dye the egg's shell, not the albumen inside.

When you're ready, cut off the nylon and see what you've created!

DSC_1793 DSC_1790 DSC_1753 DSC_1769 DSC_1760

And, lastly, face the cleanup. Happy Easter!


Sunday, March 30, 2014

On New York and Carbonara


In his classic essay, Here is New York, E.B. White wrote of Manhattan,

"...the curious thing about New York is that each large geographical unit is composed of countless small neighborhoods. Each neighborhood is virtually self-sufficient. Usually it is no more than two or three blocks long and a couple of blocks wide. Each area is a city within a city. Thus, no matter where you live in New York, you will find within a block or two a grocery store, a barbershop, a newsstand and a shoeshine shack...so complete is each neighborhood, and so strong the sense of neighborhood, that many a New Yorker spends a lifetime within the confines of an area smaller than a country village."


Before I came to this city, I wondered how people could eat, and do laundry, and go about all the mundane tasks of the everyday, while hurrying about to the rhythm of big business and small business, of patent leather shoes and sneakers and heels, all driven into the same concrete streets day after day. How, in the chaos of urban life, could a person find the discipline for all the small tasks, let alone all the big tasks, that underlie the business of living? 

Clearly, I was not a city person then. Perhaps I'm still not. But E.B White nailed it– Manhattan is a leviathan built of smaller parts, villages woven together by crisscrossing subway lines, pulsing just beneath its asphalt skin. Around the corner and up the block, are the same faces mulling around the same shops– the same coffee bar boys and deli clerks out for a smoke; the same skinny blonde, maybe 20 years old, sitting on the same red brick wall, awaiting someone I've never seen perhaps; the same dapper old man giving me a wink through fall, winter, and now spring. 


This neighborhood even has a farmers market on weekends. It seems a small miracle in fact, that in the 4 square blocks I haunt day in and day out, there could be a gathering of fresh, local food, readily available weekly. What luck!

To be fair, the market wasn't much to speak of this winter. There were apples in abundance, in all colors and sizes, and assorted apple products too (ciders, jams, and butters for months), but not much else. Apples, apples, apples... the weeks wore on. Maybe I'll miss the apples come summer, but somehow I doubt it.



You might think that in a city like New York, famous for glittering highrises and sprawling culture, that locals would disperse like ants at a picnic, cutting trails here and there– getting into everything good. I'm sure that's true for some, but it hasn't been my experience of Manhattan. No, for me, excitement arises in the small deviations from normalcy I find day to day, in the few blocks I know well here. It came in the yellow blush of daffodils, lined in bouquets at the farmers market this Sunday. Besides apples, finally, there was a sign of spring. And it came too, in cooking and eating the week's bounty amongst friends, after an all-too-long winter.


Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Winter Woods (or, peeling out the watchword)


Eight months ago, in the Catskills for the first time, I wandered through autumn woods. Leaves crackled red and gold underfoot, covered in the velvety dust of their own senescence.

Back then I had wildness on the mind– wildness as the seductive in the unknown; as the hint of risk on the darkened edge of understanding. And as I walked, crunching through the evidence of seasonal death and impending decay, I felt a pull from the gut– a pull forward into life.

Ladies by Amy McDermott on Grooveshark

Nearly a year later, it's late March and spring is hesitant in her arrival. I’m back in the Catskills, hiking those same trails, now frosted thick with snow. The creek runs low, frozen at its banks and fringed by barren, somber trees. Death and decay have taken their course, autumn's ember gone.

It kept me up last night– the woods as a reminder that life is finite. I lay awake, staring into blackness, grappling with my own mortality. Wrapped under the covers, I lamented my impermanent skin. Why live at all, if we have to die at the end of our short season?

This is not a new question– not for mankind, and not for me. But it's an important one, because it leads us to ask, what is worth living for? And when I keep that question close, I work to become my favorite self– inspired to embrace passion in the moment, and to find beauty in the details. Hell, it's only in facing death that I ever really live.


But in the routines of the everyday, it's easy to forget that death is an unpredictable certainty. We stop paying attention, stop asking ourselves what is worth living for, and let the end drift out of mind. The days pass unnoticed, and the weeks turn to a march of monotony and convenience. Soon, death doesn't seem a part of life at all. 
Mortality takes on the frightening nature of the unknown, even though its been there all along.

And there's the heart of all this– it is the element of the unknown, of wildness itself, that draws me back to the forest time and again, just as it is the wildness in our mortality that both inspires and terrifies me. Last autumn, it was the presence of death in the change of the seasons that grabbed me by the gut and pulled me forward. And now, in the stillness of late winter, it is once again that presence of death, and the fundamental wildness therein, that inspires me to step fully into life. 


Friday, February 21, 2014

Reef Fish Community Assembly in Melanesia

Why does basic research matter in the broader context of conservation biology? What exactly do I study? Good questions. Good questions. 
for more of my communication work please see The Earth Institute's blog, State of the Planet

Saturday, February 15, 2014


My bedroom window looks out onto a narrow alleyway. Rust red buildings rise on all sides, pressing in like the stone-faced strangers of a crowded subway car. Another storm hit today. “The worst winter in years", the newspapers say.

It’s late and calm and quiet now. Snow glitters in the stillness, sprawled in deep drifts across this city. Ribbons of white lace the long diagonal stretch of Broadway, frosting fire escapes and gracing eaves. 
Across the alley, a woman flicks on her kitchen light. Leaning against an aging yellowed countertop, she is bathed in the sickly-sweet glow of a fluorescent bulb. She fills a water glass at the faucet, drinks for a moment, and then shuffles out of sight. The kitchen light goes out. 

And I sit, still straining to see, now peering only into darkness. The dirty yellow of the kitchen is replaced with smooth blackness, save for a ghost of the light: a hazy, luminous rectangle stamped into the back of my eyes. The scene is bright and stark as an ember, burning through the blue-black night.

  It is a flame in the velvet dark, with liquid borders too fluid and fleeting to ever name or know. I sit transfixed as the moment glides past, fast on the wing and soon out of reach.
Gone as quickly as it came. 
Gone as irrevocably.


Thursday, January 9, 2014


Tray tables up. Seat backs in the upright and locked position. Wheels meet tarmac and our metal ship finds her port. There is the mass unbuckling of seat belts, and the frenzied jostling of carry on luggage. I swing my pack over my arm, and slide my shoulder blades back and down my spine.

Here we go.

I am a caged animal, pacing toward baggage claim under fluorescent lights. I am all legs and hips, born for the sharp click of boot heels, driven mercilessly into buffed linoleum. I am fire and water, carbon and sweat, winding my way through glassy-eyed strangers.

This morning, the wild sea wind ripped across my face, leaving its salt breath on my lips. I stood on a wooden dock then, looking out at the dark waves beyond a Caribbean reef. Frigate birds cut through the sky, their knife-blade wings more reptilian than avian.

And I am a reptile too. Head reared and nostrils flared, in this hell we call an airport. But in this cage- in this stifling, infuriating place- I ignite with the passion for escape. Here, lost in the crush of the hoard, my conscious mind drowns in the roar of my soul ablaze.