An Immense World Indeed

Of the many books read this winter, this one really blew my mind. Not just once, but over and over.

An Immense World
How Animal Senses Reveal the Hidden Realms Around Us
by Ed Yong

Yong is a gifted science writer. He has rare talent for finding extraordinary things about the natural world, and sharing them in layman’s terms. But he manages to do it without over simplifying or talking down to the reader. If you know something about the topics discussed, you won’t be offended; and if you know nothing at all, the path is made easy.

The whole book is a series of explorations of the five primary senses we know well. Not just as humans experience them (though there’s some startling insights here, too). Instead, he focuses on what is actually happening beyond the narrow ranges we can perceive – extra sensory perception. The range of light invisible to us, but normal to other creatures. Birds and insects that use UV light, snakes that see infrared. Whales and elephants that communicate with infrasound, below our hearing, and dolphin and bats and even their prey that use ultrasound. Smells, taste, touch, direction . . . even time.

Here are a few things I learned:

  • The squeaks we hear from bats is nothing. The shrieking they actually make would be so loud, if we could hear it, that we could not stand to be outside with them flying overhead. In fact, the sounds they make are so loud that even they would be made permanently deaf by it. So they have evolved a special bone in their inner ear that opens and closes at the same frequency as their echolocating pulses. Weird enough, but this has to be timed so precisely that it closes just before they make the sound and has to reopen before the sound waves bounce back from the world outside, including their prey. So the timing accelerates as they approach a moth or an obstacle. Otherwise they miss, or crash.
  • Some moths have evolved a way to make a jamming frequency, specifically to nullify the sound of pursuing bats. Like noise cancelling headphones.
  • The sonar of Dolphin and Porpoises is so sensitive and accurate, they can detect the difference between otherwise identical brass and steel rings buried in the sand. If one object is just a millimeter out of square they can tell the difference from a perfect one. They can see through bodies of people and fish, like X-ray vision – determine fish species by the shape of their internal swim bladders, and whether a woman swimmer is pregnant or not.
  • Whales communicate over thousands of miles of ocean, using channels in the seabed like a pipeline.
  • Elephants communicate through the ground, listening with their feet.
  • Birds have touch sensors on their bills, and can pick up the electromagnetic waves of worms, and the earth.
  • Wasps can feel with their stingers. Which they use to probe out and sting specific nerve bundles inside cockroaches, their prey:
    • “This wasp—a beautiful inch-long creature with a metallic green body and orange thighs—is a parasite that raises its young on cockroaches. When a female finds a roach, she stings it twice—once in its midsection to temporarily paralyze its legs, and a second time in its brain. The second sting targets two specific clusters of neurons and delivers venom that nullifies the roach’s desire to move, turning it into a submissive zombie. In this state, the wasp can lead the roach to her lair by its antennae, like a human walking a dog.”

These astounding bits of information roll out chapter after chapter, and are just some of the many wonders found therein.

One surprise is that humans, while blind and deaf to many sensory inputs, we’re actually very, very good at a few of them. Our sense of touch in our fingers is so sensitive, we can detect the difference in surface textures when one is only one molecule thicker than another. That’s like if our fingertip was the size of the whole earth, we could feel the houses on its surface.

If you have any interest in science, or ever wander around wondering what you don’t see or hear or feel, like I do, I highly recommend treating yourself to a good read. You will realize that the world as we perceive it is very two dimensional compared to the one we walk around in.

Here’s a good lengthy interview with Ed Jong, where he discusses many of the things he discovered while compiling the book, and what lead him to write it.

Night House


And the soul is up on the roof
in her nightdress, straddling the ridge,
singing a song about the wildness of the sea
until the first rip of pink appears in the sky.

from The Night House by Billy Collins


Renate climbed out the window after a bath
to sit on the roof in her nightgown,
combed her hair dry on summer nights
thick with fermented honeysuckle and magnolia
glowing up there in the moonlight and fireflies.


I liked to sit on the porch in the evenings,
in the swing behind the wisteria,
and could hear her up there, singing with the cicadas.

That was 40 years ago.

Reading this poem tonight reminded me of it.

Be Wrong


“There is a way of being wrong, which is sometimes necessarily right.”

Edward Abbey – Desert Solitaire






















Fireflies and Starlight


We’ll be leaving this little two room cottage soon, moving to a larger rental next week. It’s been a place for us to retreat and regroup, heal our wounds these last six months. We’ll miss it.

There’s a small pond through the woods. The bullfrogs chuckle and moan all night. We’ve had a lot of rain this year, good for frogs.

And fireflies. i’ve never seen so many. They rise from the grass at twighlight, a living net of liminal phosphorescent green. By full dark they’ve clustered in the trees, stitching them with Christmas lights. On a night like tonight, before the full moon appears, the whole world sparkles with stars, above and below.


– postcards from the road

Resurrection Palm

A year before the fire, after first pruning.


Forty years ago, in my first semester of college, I bought some plants to furnish the room. The dorms were dim and dogeared, depressing. Plants were cheaper than chairs, so I picked some up at a campus sale, all in little 4″ pots. For a few bucks they brought a little life into the place. At least for a while. The room was so dark, most of them died by the end of the first year.

One, though, managed to hang on. An odd little thing, just a grey scaly bulb the size of a billiard ball, with skin like an elephant, half buried in the soil. A stout trunk tapered up from the bulb, topped with a pom-pom of grassy green leaves. It looked like something right out of Dr. Seuss. A botany major friend determined it was a ponytail palm. I became rather fond of it. Frond of it?

The next year I moved off campus and it came with me, suffering mightily for the rest of my college career – knocked over by inebriated housemates, dug up and defecated on by ill-behaved cats, neglected when I went away for holidays. Even stayed home alone the summer I went abroad. It survived all that, and eventually outgrew the original pot, earning a splurge on a new larger non-plastic container.

I left college, and the plant came with me.

Years went by and wherever I went the plant went, too. Cars and furniture and clothes and jobs got shed along the way, dead husks shucked off like snake skins, but after each purge the plant remained. If I dug through all the photos of my life over the past 40 years, this one odd thing would keep popping up in the background like a silent Forrest Gump:

  • In a cabin on the York River where I had my first wooden sailboat, sitting on the old grain scale that served for an end table.
  • In the apartment in downtown Atlanta just off Peachtree Street, where I squatted under a tree next to John Lee Hooker playing the blues in Piedmont Park, and saw R.E.M. in a bar in Athens for $5, which included a pitcher of beer.
  • On the iron balcony of a pink victorian in the historic district of Savannah, where church bells chimed on Sunday mornings and Spanish Moss collected on the railings, and finches twittered in the aviary I built for them that summer when the Challenger exploded with a teacher aboard.
  • In the basement of my grandmother’s house in Richmond, when Apple and Microsoft started marketing the first viable desktop computers, and the Berlin Wall came down.
  • There in the attic in Richmond when I logged onto the World Wide Web for the first time, and stayed up all night exchanging messages with people across the world over a dialup modem.
  • In the background, a little bigger now, when my daughters were born, and learned to walk and swim and ride a bike.
  • In Scottsville, where they played soccer and finished high school and went off to college themselves.
  • In the sunroom where Terri and I drank coffee and planned trips to the West Coast or the Low Country.

All the while that funny little plant kept going, eventually filling a large oriental porcelain pot the size of a bucket, standing in the corner so tall it brushed the 9 foot ceilings in our house.

Until the night of the fire.





A week after the fire.


When we walked through the house the next day, all the plants were wilted, black like everything else. That night it got down to 16 degrees. Though heat from the fire kept the whole house warm for a day, it dipped below freezing every night the following week. There was no power and no heat in the house. Everything froze.

Seven days after the fire, I gave Doug a tour of the damage. When we came to this plant – black and wilted, covered in soot –he said, you know, that’s a pretty big root ball, it might be OK, maybe you could save it?

So a few days later I took it out back, lopped off the stalk, and stuck it in the neighbor’s spare room with the other smokey things we hoped to save. A month after that, I brought it to the cottage, still bare and black, and set it near the window and watered it.


Two months after the fire.


A month later still, two months after the fire, I noticed a small lump on the stalk. Then, a few days later, a tiny spud of green broke through.



I tipped the pot over and let all the black sooty water drain out, added some fresh soil. A week later, another spud appeared, then another.






Now, there are several sprouts of green, and it seems this tough old plant refuses to die.






When I lived in Savannah, I discovered a remarkable native plant called “Resurrection Fern“. It spreads out along the top of big Live Oak limbs forming a fringe of little bonsai forests.




Resurrection Fern after a rain.


An epiphyte, it has no root system, since there’s no soil where it grows. It clings to the bark and survives in the humid southern air on nutrients in the dust and rain dripping down the limbs.

In periods between rains it turns grey and shrivels up like origami ashes, losing up to 97% of it’s moisture and going dormant. But it revives and turns vivid green again within hours after the first splash of rain. Most plants die after losing only 10% of their water, and don’t come back. These plants could remain dormant without water for over a century, and still revive.

Very impressive, these little ferns.

So I’m christening this tough and homely house plant of mine the Resurrection Palm.



Moby Lives!


OMG! It lives!

Six Terabytes of data, over 50 thousand photos, all the raw and finished video footage, hours and hours and hours of it. Everything. Going all the way back to 2004. Photos of the girls since middle school, scans of family prints now gone, the boat building and sailing archives, travels, life.

Somehow tonight they all came back from the grave.

I had given up on it all. Already mourned the death, mentally buried the body and said last rights. And yet, still.


Laser printer.


Next to the living room, the office got it almost as bad. Smoke and flames and water. The intense heat melted anything made of plastic, making macabre Dali-esque drip art. Then smoke and soot seeped into the smallest crevices, turning all black. Then the water and foam from the firemen. The room was several inches deep in water before they were done, dripping through the floor to the workshop below throughout the next day.



All the camera equipment, radios, GPS, binocs, etc.




Computer, monitors, hard drives, and speakers.






Days after the fire, I went in and collected the hard drives. All the wires, the power supplies, and the cases of the cheaper backup drives, all melted. I yanked out what remained of the cables and put the bodies in a plastic tub in the boatshed, where they sat in the freezing cold for over a month, drying out.

I assumed they were all lost. Had to. Too hard to hope. But, still, mapped out a plan to try and recover what I could. It would require buying exact copies of each, sometimes used on ebay, and transferring the guts of the deceased into the bodies of the still living.

Last weekend the burned drives came to the cottage where they got cleaned off as best I could, at least so I could handle them. On some, the cases had to be broken off with pliers to access the drives within.

Tonight a duplicate of the main RAID storage unit arrived. I borrowed the power supply and cables from the new one, updated software on the laptop, and plugged it in, fully expecting to have to pull out the drives and transplant them. But low and behold, the dang thing fired right up and mounted on the desktop. Amazing.


New vs Old


Paying extra for the good stuff paid off this time. The cheaper drives, with cases made of plastic, all melted. I’ll still try to save a couple of those, but chances are slim. The LaCie 5Big RAID was expensive. Twice the cost of cheaper drives of comparable capacity, but made of metal, with premium drives and controllers, it took it all like a champ apparently. Even the LEDs and power buttons survived the heat.


LED status lights


Sometime in the next few days, a third party replacement power supply will arrive. Then I can connect the new and old together and start the transfusion, transferring a lifetime of imagery, digital lifeblood, to the new host.