Monday, June 1, 2009

what from insects we may grok


In the summer we can grok,
learning from the insects how
to seize the day and make it rock.
Let me explain this to you now.

Time for reproduction, eating,
insect-eaten in the summer,
lovers laze around while cheating,
every one of them a comer,
some in gardens, some in houses,
hotels, mountains, woodlands, beaches,
changing in the heat their spouses
for another partner. Each is
inspired to perfect the talents
exercised in summer style,
while the sun shines and they balance
testosterone with gyne-guile,
attracted in their sex excursions
to destinations out of bounds
in the winter, when diversions
are considered to be grounds
for separation. Caveat lector
if you don’t approve of cheating
in summer when, pursuing nectar,
lovers wear no neckties, meeting
each other’s needs and frantic, dance
fantastically before the fall,
and in the season’s heat enhance
their love lives till they’re forced to crawl
back into those cocoons where they’re
compelled to keep commandments which
the insects don’t, and no more share
each others’ partners in a switch.

Inspired by Elizabeth Royte’s review of “Summer World: A Season of Bounty” by Bernd Heinrich (“The Forest Dumbledore: An entomologist who considers insects ‘magical’ conjures up a riot of life,” NYT Book Review, May 31, 2009):
It may not be every urbanite’s idea of a dream date, but mine, after reading “Summer World,” is to spend a summer day with a 69-year-old insect physiologist and all the tools of his trade. My ideal man lives in Maine and Vermont, where he’s surrounded, at various times, by screen-cloth aviaries and screen cages; insect nets; electronic thermometers; tape measures; binoculars; barrels of frog eggs; scraps of wasp-nest paper; plant sprigs and mosses being subjected to various light, temperature and moisture treatments; ant nests he’s experimentally relocated; moths tethered to shrubs; and the skins of small rodents dotted with botfly maggots. Our date would start before dawn and would include, but not be limited to, climbing into treetops, slogging through wetlands and sitting quietly for hours with pencil and notebook, the better to observe and record. An emeritus professor of biology at the University of Vermont, Bernd Heinrich — the object of my admiration — has been doing all this, and writing about it with brio, for decades. (He’s the author of 13 previous books.) Perhaps his most attractive quality, for this reader at least, is his ability to find something intellectually stimulating whenever he steps out the door. “Every summer I spend some time trying to learn something new about animals,” he writes with disarming simplicity. But “some time” is hundreds of rigorous hours, and “something new” means new to science.
While Heinrich considers insects “magical” for doing so much with a pinpoint-size brain, the entomologist himself is a Dumbledore of the forest — magical himself for his ability to conjure a riot of life from what others less attuned might consider your standard Northern woodlot. Those rolled up aspen leaves on the ground? Look inside and behold a moth caterpillar hiding in a tube made of its own fecal pellets. Those bite marks on fresh leaves? They indicate the biter was unpalatable to birds. That barely audible patter in the woods at night? It’s the rain of caterpillar poop on leaves. Heinrich’s business is exploring and explaining the astonishing adaptations of his woodland neighbors (among them wood frogs, mud daubers, Cecropia moths, longhorn beetles, hummingbirds and various annoying flies) and their struggle to procreate while they’ve got the chance.
Summer, Heinrich writes, “releases” life. For most creatures, it’s “the season of reproduction, feeding, growing and trying to avoid being eaten.” For the scientist, it’s time to get super-busy, muddy, viciously stung and lucky — as in “I also found a female black ichneumon wasp in the act of injecting an egg into a young tiger swallowtail butterfly larva on a chokecherry.” Heinrich captures the wasp, sketches the act and then spends an hour watching sap drip from a birch. “I hope to see sur­prises, even as I want to learn the routine,” he says. Is sap dull? Hardly. During this period three hummingbirds, two satyr butterflies, roughly a dozen bald-faced hornets and a swarm of small flies lap the sap. Later, by flashlight, he notes a flying squirrel taking its turn. He does too. The sap “tasted sweet,” with a sugar concentration of 17 to 18 percent, as measured with his brewer’s refractometer. You’ve got to admire the precision. And the unending questions. Concerning wood frogs, why do the males aggregate and call for females at once? The proximate answer is to attract mates, but if females can’t differentiate between males in a chorus, why should an individual bother? (See Chapter 3 for the answer.) Animals come to life in gripping detail (the organ pipe mud-dauber wasp injects her spider prey with a chemical that keeps it in a zombie-like state of suspended animation so her larvae can get a fresh meal upon emerging), and so does Heinrich as he bounds between his experiments. The man is irrepressible…
“Summer World” will please fans of noncharismatic, non-mega fauna, but the book isn’t all splendor in the grass. There are snakes, too — the snakes of local extirpation and the first world’s unsustainable lifestyle. In our “climate bubbles,” Heinrich writes, we live in a virtual summer world, “eating bananas from Central America and drinking coffee from Africa.” He continues: “It is madness to suppose we would make a significant difference by using more energy-efficient lightbulbs and using agrofuels rather than oil, or that city dwellers can or would take up a rural farming or a hunter-gatherer lifestyle: given our numbers there is no land.” (Pace vertical farmers.) But there is a way out: “radical reductions of population.” The answer will rankle some readers, but not those who grok Heinrich’s central message — the necessity of maintaining sound natural ecosystems. Without them, we cannot live. Hein­rich offers a brief prescription — “We need two things: clear vision and also a spiritual imperative so that we will focus on the ultimate ecology, not the proximate economy” — and then he quickly moves on . . . to the evolutionary pressures of head and body lice.At this point, my dream date with Bernd Heinrich concludes.
Here is an explanation of “grok”To grok (pronounced /ˈɡrɒk/) is to share the same reality or line of thinking with another physical or conceptual entity. Author Robert A. Heinlein coined the term in his best-selling 1961 book Stranger in a Strange Land. In Heinlein's view of quantum theory, grokking is the intermingling of intelligence that necessarily affects both the observer and the observed:
Grok means to understand so thoroughly that the observer becomes a part of the observed—to merge, blend, intermarry, lose identity in group experience. It means almost everything that we mean by religion, philosophy, and science—and it means as little to us (because of our Earthly assumptions) as color means to a blind man.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines grok as "to understand intuitively or by empathy; to establish rapport with" and "to empathize or communicate sympathetically (with); also, to experience enjoyment." Other forms of the word include "groks" (present third person singular), "grokked" (past participle) and "grokking" (present participle).
In an ideological context, a grokked concept becomes part of the person who contributes to its evolution by improving the doctrine, perpetuating the myth, espousing the belief, adding detail to the social plan, refining the idea or proofing the theory.

© 2009 Gershon Hepner 5/31/09

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