Peaches, Tarpaper, & Stephen Jay Gould
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 6/1/02
'Frango ut patefaciam'
[‘I break in order to reveal’]
motto of the Paleontological Society
I have long been a fan of
good writing- whatever the genre. I have mercilessly attacked the pap that has
been fobbed off as good in both poetry & its criticism. & while I’ve
not assailed it (due mostly to lack of interest) I could also lob grenades at
the crap that passes for intelligent prose (fiction & non-fiction). But 1
genre has had- for the last 3 decades or so- an astounding rise to an absolute
Golden (if not Platinum) Era of writing- the genre is science writing. Not only
are the writers intelligent scientists with good & interesting ideas- but
they are GOOD (often VERY GOOD) writers- commanders of words. Among the writers
that have seen this Renaissance through are Carl Sagan, Timothy Ferris, Paul
Davies, Martin Rees, & others in astronomy & cosmology; & Jacob
Bronowski, David Attenborough, Jared Diamond, & others in the earth &
human sciences. But the most engaging writers & debates have been held in
the fields of geology, anthropology, & evolution. Writers/scientists such as
Luis & Walter Alvarez, Jack Horner, Richard Dawkins, Simon Conway Morris,
& especially the recently deceased Stephen Jay Gould. This is not to imply
earlier science writers were not present, or occasionally great- my
& Jason Sanford’s takes on the transcendent
prose of Loren Eiseley are familiar to regular readers of Cosmoetica- but they
were far rarer than what exists now.
The Globular World Of Gould
Stephen Jay Gould, 60,
died of lung cancer on Monday, May 20th, 2002 in his Manhattan
apartment. SJG was born September 10th, 1941, & was best known
for his essays, This View Of Life, which appeared for 27 years in Natural
History magazine, his lampooning on The Simpsons tv show, his
appearances as an evolutionary expert on many tv news shows, & as a baseball
expert (& New York Yankees fan) on Ken Burns’s PBS documentary Baseball.
But he was also a lecturer, zoologist, paleontologist, anti-Creationist,
defender of free speech, author of over 1000 scientific papers, MacArthur genius
grant winner (in its 1st year), prolific essayist (300+ in all for Natural
History alone, & many in other venues) & booksmith, expert on the
extinct Cerion land snails of the Bahamas, leading Darwinian devotee, &
founder (along with Niles Eldredge) of the Punctuated Equilibrium theory
of evolution. He was 1 of the most influential evolutionary biologists of the
last century & other than Charles Darwin perhaps the only 1 whose name a
layman could vaguely place.
PE was his best known theory & posited that evolution in the fossil record comes in short bursts of profound change rather than the steady process of incrementation. This & other ideas (as well as his status as pop icon) made SJG a lightning rod- at once reviled by both Creationists- for his merciless ridiculing of their belief systems, as well as more straight-forward evolutionists who saw nothing new in his ideas, except a clever use of semiotics to disguise the known & accepted as new & revolutionary. Many colleagues credit his PE theory with promoting the field of macroevolution, where researchers study large-scale evolutionary changes, over a long-term geological time frame.
But, he had a popular audience for science in the last 50 years that only astronomer Carl Sagan surpassed. His books actually sold well enough to greatly supplement his lifestyle- already high as a tenured Harvard professor. The book titles alone, stuck in public consciousness: Bully for Brontosaurus being his most well-known work. SJG had a peerless gift for melding the high & pop aspects of science seamlessly. While not as popular as a Sagan, nor as deep a thinker or good a writer as an Eiseley, nor as revered a scientist as a Dawkins, he had aspects of all of them that made him a unique presence in American & world science. & even when his ideas proved to be sometimes embarrassingly wrong- such as his speculative & whimsical account of the Burgess Shale fossils of the Cambrian Explosion of over ½ a billion years ago, recorded in Wonderful Life, & easily picked apart by his nemesis Simon Conway Morris in his own book The Crucible of Creation- SJG’s popularity & demand as a public ombudsman for the sciences was undiminished. His public persona as a pit bull for science & against ignorance, in fact, got its start with his 1970s classic The Mismeasure Of Man, where he tore apart the pseudoscience undergirding many racist ideologies. For this, & other reasons, he was often branded a Marxist by political enemies, & a Messiah by Leftists with little going in their lives, save for hero worship..
But ideologues & SCM were not his only detractors. Richard Dawkins labeled him a semantic game-player, that PE was merely regular evolutionary change under a microscope, & that no one had before doubted that there are periods of swift change & little change- it was merely how 1 geologically (& somewhat Clintonistically) defined swift. Others argued his theories- & even his writings- were so vague & difficult to pin down that they were untestable- therefore not really science, but philosophy. Microevolutionists, ala RD, rejected his arguments by echoing that macroevolution is nothing more than microevolution played out over long periods. John Maynard Smith, an evolutionary biologist at University of Sussex in England, declared evolutionary biologists ‘tend to see him as a man whose ideas are so confused as to be hardly worth bothering with.’ Others even saw his supposed PE modification of Darwinian theory as aiding & abetting the very Creationists SJG reviled.
But, at the heart of it all- SJG was more than anything a writer over a scientist. He was an entertaining writer often hailed as saving the dying art form of the scientific essay- & could be just as entertaining when he was wrong as when he was right. He often pulled together unrelated ideas or things, with varying success: 1 essay started by noting Abe Lincoln & Charles Darwin were born on the same day. Another, in 1982 (after being diagnosed with terminal cancer), titled, ‘The Median is not the Message’, described discovering that the median survival time after diagnosis of the cancer abdominal mesothelioma was 8 months. Rather than give up, he wrote that he used his knowledge of statistics to translate this ‘death sentence’ into the hope that 50% of those diagnosed lived longer than 8 months- this gave him the resolve to fight on another 2 decades. Others drew from & delved into art, sports, history, & entertainment- from the Piltdown Man hoax to candy bars. SJG was known to often embellish his youth- the best known of these anecdotes (or canards?) was of his decision to become a paleontologist when he was 5, after his dad took him to the Museum of Natural History. He wrote: ‘I dreamed of becoming a scientist, in general, and a paleontologist, in particular, ever since the Tyrannosaurus skeleton awed and scared me.’
This past March, Harvard University Press published SJG’s magnum opus, The Structure of Evolutionary Theory. This 1400+ page book summarizes his vision for synthesizing Darwin’s ideas with his own. It will be interesting to see how this now dead man is treated by those who scorned him when alive. But to the masses, & to me, I will always savor his writing style, while cringing at his sometimes less-than-well-cogitated ideas. The closest writer I can use as an analogue would be noted film critic Roger Ebert. Both SJG & RE’s writings have been much praised by me for their style- even as I often disagree wholeheartedly with their premises. But, then, that is 1 of the things that defines a great writer- relaying the ability to appreciate HOW something is said, even if you do not like WHAT is said.
I admit to finding SJG’s constant misuse of Charles Darwin as having a connection to everything under the sun tiresome; as well as his almost pathological misuse of mediocre-bad poetry as epigraphs & quotes with little- or no- connection to a point essayed. I found much of his worldview insular- as if he existed in 1 of those little liquid globes bearing an idyllic scene you shake so snow falls all over in Rockwellian splendor. But, there are times when he delved in to memory & I am stirred to almost Eiseleyan heights. In thinking of his recent death I was moved to recall a certain aspect of my youth I’d long dismissed- 1 with certain cogencies to recent events in my life which have prompted me to seek to change aspects of my current circumstance.
The Gerhardt’s Peach Tree
About 11 or so years ago-
in the last couple of months before I was planning to move from my New York City
childhood stomping grounds to the newer pastures of suburban Minnesota- I got
into my parked Honda Civic to go to work, & noticed something I had
not seen before. The peach tree in the backyard of my boyhood friend Ricky Gerhardt’s family’s house was a towering Goliathon- at least 65-70 feet in
height. I had ended my friendship with Ricky almost a decade earlier, & had
never really taken note of the tree’s growth, even as I often passed it to get
to my parked car. I tend to not look backward in life (go ahead & grin,
Satchel!), & avoided contact with most of the Gerhardt clan. As kids, growing
up in the late 1970s Ricky, I, his brothers, & other neighborhood kids had
often used the peach tree as a climbing vehicle to get to the top of that rarest
of rarities in NYC- the Gerhardt’s own 2 car garage! Usually we made the ascent
to retrieve a spaldeen or tennis ball that found its way out of our reach, but
sometimes we’d just do it for fun. On hot summer days 1 of the most
interesting sights I can recall would often be festering on that garage’s
tarpaper roof. A few days old peach would be firmly stuck & rotting into the
black liquid tar, which would further serve to cook the fruit. This would
attract a whole bevy of assorted insects to try their luck at sustenance. Often
mini-wars would break out between assorted flies, crickets, mosquitoes, &
bugs I knew no name for. How I, & other boys would stare at the
micro-carnage that raged for this tiny piece of insectoid Eden. How taken I was
with the brief, nonetheless thrilling, slight rise above diurnal do. How
wonderful it was to have eye & tongue & palm coated with the scent &
gunk of nature as we ascended to an epicentral urban domain.
But, that was all in the past as I stared momentarily at this tree I had once shared intimacy & adventure with. The tree was now rarely used by anyone save for the rather mundane purpose of its diminishing annual harvest. As said, a decade of a broken friendship with Ricky had also distanced me from nearing the Gerhardts’ property- even as they lived almost directly across the street from us. Such the ways of New Yorkers, that even as they are crammed tighter & tighter they find novel & not-so novel ways to create their own spaces. Often this leads to schizophrenia- or worse. For me, however, I always had the ability to simply tune out what was not agreeable. As a child the tree had been perhaps only 20-25 feet tall tops (1/3 of its then-current height)- barely enough that its thicker branches could bear our nimble boyhoods upward to the sun. Now, a full-grown onlooker & climber could peer lasciviously into the Gerhardts’ 2nd story bedrooms. But, it is that moment of actual ‘notice’ that sticks with me today, as I ponder aspects of my own life that frustrate & dissatisfy me. Was this merely an example of the same phenomenon a long-lost relative feels when they comment on ‘How much you’ve grown!’ after a decade or more of non-acquaintance from toddlerhood to teenagedom? Or had part of me been aware of the tree’s ascendance, but ignored it, as if it were a marker of what had been sundered between me & Ricky- who had once seemed a brother to me- or, more profoundly, then & now? Then & there I thought of how many other things in my existence had gone unremarked on. I wondered how much more, in the future, would similarly go unnoticed? Not just unappreciated, mind you, but actually unnoticed- at least consciously. A decade later, a part of me often feels an irretrievable loss over what would have been my life had I stayed in NYC. I will wake up, thinking it’s 3:45 am, & I have to get to work to take in the milk delivery for the supermarket dairy department I used to manage. Then it goes. Just goes. No profundity, no pop- it just vanishes. No- vanishes implies some drama- it merely disintegrates in the passing seconds. I have probably experienced that dream 100s of times, yet recall it only from the score or so times I awakened from the dream & wrote it down. What if I still managed that dairy department? This I ponder, despite my knowing that my life is immeasurably better than it would have been had I not left. This decade which saw me gain many new insights to life, expand my work skills, assume the mantle of excellence & greatness in literature, fall in love & marry someone I doubted could be. Yet I remark on it all, as I remarked on my notice of the peach tree- that brief moment of recognition. I call it ‘recognition’ & not insight because recognition was all it was. I gained nothing but a respite (& arguably this decade-late essay) from a time I was not happy with my life.
Still, I journey backward to those insect wars over slowly marinating dead peaches, & concurrently travel forward to imagine where I will be in another 5 or 10 or 30 years. As any artist of worth, I wonder if that worth will get its due- not for fame nor personal stature, so much, as to know that worthiness, itself, will get its just desserts. The sense of a slowly percolating ooze which consumes always lingers about my thoughts of life. It is as if I am rapt with a queer fascination over whether or not it will finally cook all of my plans. Or is it the fascination with dying- which, truth to tell, is the twin fascinations with time & change? Ah, these things which stick- these tarpapers which surround us in our ignorance!
I have seen alot of death- most of it violent- in my closing in on 4 decades of life. I wrote a series of poems, 13 Murders, on my childhood encounters with death. My dad died when I was 18. My natural/birth mother died before I could ever meet her. Within the 1st 5 years of graduating from high school at least 5 or 6 of my H.S.-era running buddies were dead, or presumed dead. Several poor young women who were already lost in an anomic world of cruelty & sexual abuse also met death (or murder) face on. Worst of all, to me- emotionally- I guess, were the deaths of beloved pets- my cats: rascally white & gray Suzy-Q, in 1976, of feline leukemia; 25 lb.- but rock solid- lovable tuxedoed behemoth Fearless Fred, aka Freddy, in 1990; his tortoise-shelled runt/companion, the eternally scaredy-cat Kitty, in 1995; & 3 other short-term pets: weeks-old abandoned kitten Reggie, in 1980; & 1990’s gray tabby/alleycat Darren & 1993’s near Darren-clone Buster- both of feline AIDS. Oddly, their deaths linger in me at nights when I cannot sleep. These things come back to me at the oddest of times. As I write this it is because a few days ago our year & a ½ old female black & white housecat Chia escaped & is missing. While hopeful of recovering her the idea of her never returning, or extending my prior list, haunts & taunts. Yet, my other cats return to me in different ways for seemingly no reason at all. That the Gerhardt’s peach tree, & its decaying fruit do, too, is a puzzle. These are things which meant something, apparently, deeper than I consciously knew. Or is it mere jetsam? I do not know. I am loath to follow the Joseph Campbell lead & imbue everything with profound meaning since the bulk of my (&, yes, your) existence bespeaks the absurdity of that view. I see no great profundity in the nightly unspooling of our minds called dreaming. Perhaps my dead cats & dead comrades are just glitches that skip some fondnesses back my way, like a repeating song line from a damaged 45 record in its record player? Who knows? I relay these thoughts, however, because upon reading of SJG’s death the other day I had a similar reaction- that this death of a person I knew nothing of personally would somehow stick with me a bit longer than the usual news fare. Did I breathe deeper? Did I stumble upon some deep revelation that would alter my life? No. But I think SJG, like the Gerhardt’s peach tree, was something I always enjoyed- but in a background way. Those things that you do not notice until you do, again, because they have disappeared or changed. These are the things which truly meld & blend in to the background noise of existence because they do not move 1 to nor fro to any great degree- they are a wisp of something, & only affect us when we want of wisps.
SJG was a wisp. Not the man, but the words he relayed, titled as SJG. Reading SJG’s essays, whether annoying or inspiring, also made me feel that there was another of my tribe out there- meaning someone who, if they did not think like me at least thought- & with some purpose, in this anomic cosmos. & just like 1 does not declare their fondness for some ‘thing’ in a neighbor’s backyard, 1 would not broach actual dialogue with that thing- SJG’s essays- lest someone think it odd. But, 1 day, that changed. It was sometime in the early-mid 90s. It was early in my tenure in the manic state of Minnesota. I forget what prompted my writing a letter to SJG, c/o The Museum Of Natural History, but I did. It must have been an irksome reaction to 1 of his essays or books. What the bulk of my missive was eludes me now, but I recall an ancillary rebuke to him for his often embarrassing use of poetry. I believe the prompt was an essay on defenestration & the Diet Of Worms- what so offended or provoked or moved me is now will-o-the-you-know-whatting. Fortunately, SJG was too busy or too haughty to reply. I say fortunately not because I feared a rebuke, but because it would have violated the structure of my relation to this producer of essays- that thing aforementioned. It would have been a crack in both of our little separate but coexistent globes, a mixture of event-fluids that would have removed the ‘specialness’- or, at least, the ‘place’- of his writing from my life. It would have been like my interacting with the ants upon those rotting peaches under a since-past sun, over my childhood best friend’s garage. Had I done that I would have had little or no memory of the peaches, & likely no gape during my later notice of the peach tree’s growth; if indeed there would have been notice within me. This is 1 of those things that I realize makes little sense intellectually- to you, or even to me, frankly. But, I believe, you all know what I mean- even if your peach tree & your essays-to-be-read are not trees nor essays. The point is that intellect has almost nothing to do with desire. To put it in the basest terms that men, especially, can understand- sexual desire (as example) is a thing beyond reason. Who amongst us has not fantasized about some woman we barely glimpsed? Even if we are long happily married? A fantastic curve of ass, a ripened bosom barely contained by brassiere, perfect calves, or a symmetrical cheekbone hewn from Olympian heights, are not a match for logic. Want is all. Jimmy Carter’s 1976 admission in Playboy speaks for that weird- yet all-too natural- desire we all commune with: that momentary (or even recurring) impulse to forsake love, family, status, position, ethics, etc. for just a few minutes' naked copulation with some barely-known female whose presumed essence, or mere carnal appeal is just too much to deny- not its action, mind you, but its existence. This is the same sort of conundrum that left me unable to interact in that long ago peachy situation. But it was not sex; rather a sense of otherness, if not superiority, which impelled my refrain from action.
So, there I stood, bewildered & drawn to just look at that peach tree from my youth-cum-present (or what it had become) as I stood in a pre-lighted world where shadow was not a dark thing that loomed out from the sides of lighter things, but something that penetrated the real with its own brand of reality. The tree, with its age & height, a mute being with scant memory, if any, of interacting years earlier with the odorous creature that gazed unremarkably at it. Surely, beyond my purview, insect wars still raged over necrotic fruit flesh. Alas, the viewers on high, who had surveyed them, were gone; too busy with things like rent, car payments, sexual relationships (or their lack), & assorted aggravations, to pay mind to the death tides that raged over their increasingly silent neighborhood. Forgettance was the rule. To forget those struggles, to forget that youth, to forget friends. Yet, Ricky Gerhardt’s face is always in my mind- but it is the face of the young boy I knew between the ages of 7 & 14, not the man who exists today. The same phenomenon exists for all those I have ever known in the past- they are forever frozen, in memory or dream- as I once knew them: unaging paragons of a mortal creature’s dissolving foam. There is no need for a photograph to remind me of this pastness. There is no need to be haunted by chemicals on cellulose. Ricky, & all those things- from peach tree to the 1st kiss I ever got- are always & unchanging, etched into something harder & firmer & immortal. My slight gray inner cranial cells are no match for their staying power, nor any matter of concern to that which records all.
Still, there is change. Sometimes it is sad- like the current & unknown status of my beloved little lost Chia- but sometimes it is not. Recently I got into touch with the first girl I ever loved romantically- & unrequitedly. Like me, she is happily married, but still living in my hometown, quite successful in her chosen career, & the mother of a 4 year old daughter named Erica. After a month or so of exchanging emails she sent me some recent photo attachments of her & her daughter. As the 1 containing the both of them loaded several things struck me- 1st, I knew from the top of her head, which was my former heartthrob- nearly 2 decades gone but the smile, eyes, hair, etc. were all the same. Perhaps a little plumper, nevertheless the years had not diminished 1 iota my ability to recognize her from a mere inch or 2 of her mop of hair. 2ndly there was her daughter- a tall, beautiful Italianate child- in a photo at once a few weeks old & marker of the opening gape to come. In mere moments she will be married, looking at that photo- perhaps sadly if her mother is dead; perhaps warmly if her mother is alive but somewhere else in the world. She will recognize things in that photo that are alien to me, & even more quickly than I attuned to her mother’s 1st wisp of hair. &, somewhere Ricky Gerhardt is doing whatever it is he does on a routine basis, unaware & perhaps uncaring that I am still in this world. He will not recall that peach tree, nor retrieving the spaldeens on the garage roof, nor the sticky tarpaper & its oily scent. Perhaps his gaze will not have hardened to the extent of mine- he will not have tasted the despairs of the lot of we human twinklings. Regardless, the Ricky of my life is always. My 1st love is always that girl I knew, no matter how subsequence turned its posture toward her. The peach tree was, was, & probably still is. & the SJG of my mind is forever in the words that delighted & frustrated. These are those things I continually break & which continually need breaking to reveal & re-reveal things that total what I am.
Recently, I took a stand on principle alone & paid a price. But, I would do it again. This is who I am, & probably why I am who I am (as well the #1 reason my life has had more than its fair share of turbulence). To me, the act of standing is as important (more often than not) as what is being stood for or against. This is 1 of the best things I take with me when I reckon an SJG- a personal stranger but occupational comrade-in-arms. He took stands- rightly or wrongly- based on a defined set of principles- & bore the costs. How many of you readers do?
What Sticks Is What Matters
In his 1977 book, Ever
Since Darwin, SJG wrote: ‘Science is not a heartless pursuit of objective
information. It is a creative human activity, its geniuses acting more as
artists than as information processors.’ This passage is typical of SJG in its
hyperbolic grandiosity- but, hey that’s mere style. Look at the substance
& you will see flecks that informed his greatness as a writer, if not as a
scientist. Science & the arts are complementary pursuits: in the arts
discovery is used in service to the creative impulse to fashion unrealities
which comfort & evoke us to understand our essence in relation to what is
not us, while science uses the creative impulse in service to discover truths
about realities which discomfit & provoke us to understand what is not us in
relation to our essence. This may not be art nor information processing, but
something in between- & certainly invoking genius is shameless SJG
hyperbole. Nonetheless, he swung his maul, & even a John Henry &/or a
Paul Bunyan would take interest in what the shards that survive him have to say.
Here’s hoping that my life, my peach tree, my Ricky Gerhardt, etc. will stick as long with some of you as SJG’s words have with me, or become something equivalent to your versions of the same. We all need a little hot tarpaper, now & then, to hold our peaches in place; even if other smaller things quibble over what we deem ours, for decay is just change, & that is (subjectively) subjective. I’m sure even SJG would stand with me on that. Come home little Chia!
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