The Anthropology of Turquoise by Ellen Meloy

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Eyes do not see; they touch. Vision evolved from skin gathering light in minute detail. The brain does not think; it smells. It evolved from a large olfactory nerve in skull. It helped us sew memories and scents together.This book will change how (and who) you are in the world.

Meloy, Ellen. The Anthropology of Turquoise: Reflections on Desert, Sea, Stone, and Sky. New York: Vintage Books, 2002. Print.

Genre: nonfiction (nature essays)

Summary: A collection of essays explore color’s spiritual, emotional, and biological importance to humans; how our humanity has been shaped and how our impact on the planet shifts as our connection to colors diminishes.

Critique: Touch. Contact. Connection. Having a tactile experience with the physical, natural world is at the heart of each essay in this collection. Meloy demonstrates through her own adventuring how to be fully alive and awake and seduced and ecstasied in the great outdoors.

To bring readers into her experience, she converts our ability to perceive colors–especially one as slippery as turquoise–into a haptic experience. More than that, she stretches into synesthesia when she reminds us the eyes can touch and the brain can smell. It can even smell colors. Turquoise, in its hybrid not-quite-blue-not-quite-green existence is really just the scent of the wind (or so said ancient Middle Eastern cultures). Native cultures across the Americas transcribed the color into sound, one that guided souls to the afterlife.

Magical and sensual though that is, Meloy laments the modern world’s loss of color. Or, it’s increasing colorblindness to the natural world which has been dammed, funneled, paved, monetized, and commodified. Either every scrap of this planet is put to our direct use and benefit, or those scraps which will not submit to our utilitarian desires will be removed. However, this very practical and clever war-rationing approach to nature strikes Meloy as too narrow.

On a recent trip to Moab, I marvel at a stone’s skin.

Instead of using the world, why not enjoy it? Marvel at it? It is a place we can revel in. Get lost. Drown. We can be bedeviled. Seduced. Overwhelmed. Ignored. All these things, and more, the world can do to us if we only let it. But why allow it to take such liberties with our bodies and souls?

Because it cracks us out of our slumbering shells. It enables us to live in a constant euphoric state of quivering, goose-prickled tingles.

Even better, enjoying the world enables us to be what we truly are, rather than what we think we are. And what we are, according to brilliant biologist E. O. Wilson, is a species of biophiliacs. Forget sapiens! Biophiliacs are insatiable lovers when it comes to nature.

“Our sense of wonder grows exponentially,” Wilson writes, “the greater the knowledge, the deeper the mystery and the more we seek knowledge to create new mystery.”

Or, as Meloy phrases it, “Lives without access to sensation are lives that edge out the earth’s raw, pervasive sweetness, that deeply biophilic connection to all life.”

But these essays come from an almost gentler, more idyllic time: the late 1990s and early 2000s. Back when we were taking our first baby-steps into sustainability and renewable energies. Today, we cannot be sure the EPA will survive the current White House administration. We cannot be sure our public lands will remain in our hands or wind up so privatized that in order to enter them (let alone enjoy them), we will first have to download and accept a standard EULA.

Now more than ever is the time to read this book and feel the world in a whole new way. Now is our best chance to confront the essential questions: are we locusts or lovers to this natural world? And, given the savage, ravenous course love takes, is there any difference between those roles?

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Myths Across the Map by Yours Truly

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We know what happens when entire nations cannot stymie their collective fears. We know what happens when whole civilizations select a scapegoat for inexplicable suffering. History maps these trends.

Throughout the Myths Across the Map series (now available through Gareth Stevens Publishing), I chronicled 4 of the 6 major global myths. I tracked down the beasts, the monsters, and the marvels universally recognizable to all people everywhere.

Why does everyone know and recognize a vampire? How did dragons creep into the skies, wells, caves, and rivers of every inhabited continent? Why are the symptoms of werewolves the same whether you are in Russia, South America, or Louisiana? And just how many ancient kingdoms did zombies mob before noshing on our modern metropolises?

Our currently fraught geopolitical landscape may have us all hoodwinked when it comes to fear. Fear, the pundits claim, adds to our isolation. It divides us. It shuts down communication. However, history indicates that shared fears actually unite us. They give us a common language and a way to communicate across boundaries and borders. What is more, they give us good reason to work together and defeat a common threat (such as a deadly disease).

What better time than now to get young people navigating and debating the nature of mankind’s fears and the power of humanity’s myths?

Pick Up Sticks by Yours Truly

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Can we convince young people to enjoy failure as much as they enjoy play? Can we teach them that the two are inseparable travel-mates on the path to success?

“Pick Up Sticks: How One Toy Became a Space-Exploration Robot”—my latest article appearing in the April 2018 issue of Muse—confronts these very questions. Like all scientists, the NASA engineers and researchers I interviewed dealt with failure throughout their project development. Turning a baby toy into a cutting-edge, all-new type of intelligent, supple, muscular robot able to shake, rattle, and roll across unknown surfaces on the planets and moons on the fringe of our Solar System is no easy task. Trials and errors are practically programmed into the experience.

But lead investigator Vytas SunSpiral and lead AI programmer Adrian Agogino did not shy away from failure. Whenever a motor or sensor failed, whenever the SuperBall Bot fumbled an obstacle course, whenever a computer simulation warned that what they sought was impossible, SunSpiral and Agogino celebrated. For them, a flub was a chance to ask more questions. A chance to learn. A chance to grow.

As they see it, the entire scientific process is a chance to play—get creative with problem-solving, think upside-down thoughts, tinker, toy, enjoy, and take lightly the darkest moments.

I dunno about you, but I did not have this kind of relationship to failure when I was growing up. I avoided failure. Dreaded it. Worked tirelessly to prevent it. Contained my whole existence in a kind of scalding, suffocating steam-press just so failure’s wrinkles might never arise. No matter how supportive and praising my personal circles, I was convinced that if I failed to any degree I would be a blight. A disgrace. To myself. To my friends. To my parents. To anyone.

And I know I was not unique in this regard. Other children I grew up with shared this revulsion. Kids and young people I work with now exhibit the same anemone’d response to failure’s shark-like shadow.

How did I (or any of us) acquire this skewed view of reality? Probably the same way a mind turns intractable on monsters under the bed.

The more salient question is how can we reverse the paradigm and make failure fun? Can we make it a tantalizing outcome—an alien world begging for exploration?

Purchase Muse online or check your local library for the latest issue!

Make It Stick by Brown, Roediger, and McDaniel

At last—the recipe for limitless, lifelong learning (and remembering) is here! Ingredients include: bean bags, buckets, Mark Twain, England’s monarchs, and some elbow grease.

Brown, Peter C., Henry L. Roediger III, and Mark A. McDaniel. Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard UP, 2014. Print.

Genre: nonfiction

Summary: Researchers Henry Roediger and Mark McDaniel compile recent findings from neuroscience and cognitive psychology. Writer Peter Brown translates the science into laymen terms as the experts combine the results to reexamine what learning is how best to facilitate it.

Critique: Despite roaming through complex fields like neurology and psychology, this book never feels dense or esoteric. In arranging the content for each chapter, the co-authors also cleverly employ the optimal learning methods they discover. As a result, information snowballs. The reader re-encounters and continually retains more and more of the book’s core concepts. Done poorly, this technique can become a broken record. Here, it always arrives fresh as Farmer’s Market produce.

The authors’ primary goal is to upend the “golden rules” about how we think we learn. Conventionally, we believe that learning anything “the hard way” is a waste of time and effort. The student and teacher are better off when the learning is fast and easy. We also believe that practice makes perfect. Repeat something over and over AND OVER until you have it down. However, like nearly all the revelations arising from fMRI (real-time observations of living brains) evidence, the takeaways on learning are counterintuitive and quite opposite from the quick-and-easy conventions.

The Make It Stick authors reveal that when it comes to learning, easy in equals easy out. For example, whenever someone tells you a phone number, you might repeat the number over and over until you can plug it into your phone or jot it on a piece of paper. If asked to recite the number again later that day, odds are good you would succeed in the memory task. But, if asked to recall the number days or weeks later, odds are you will have forgotten the number entirely.

Why?

Image by Bryce Miller. (CC BY 2.0)

Because the brain stores quick and easy info in short term memory. Think of short term memory like a chalkboard. It’s as easy to mark on as it is to wipe clean. Long term memory is more like a safety deposit box. It will cost you to put anything in it, but once there, it will endure.

The cost required to store anything in long term memory is effort. Learning actually needs to be effortful if it’s going to last, expand, and enrich.

How can we make learning meaningfully effortful? The authors recommend “interleaving” or mixing the tasks and skills to be practiced. Their example comes from a study of youngsters challenged to master the art of chucking a bean bag into a bucket two feet away. One group of kiddos practices exactly that: lobbing bags at a bucket set two feet away. Over and over in the usual “practice makes perfect” style—or what learning specialists call “massed” practice. The other group interleaves their learning. Their buckets sit three feet and four feet away and they can shoot at either or both targets as mixed or as methodically as they wish.

“Tossing the Bean Bag” (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

On an immediate skills test, the first group nailed the two-foot bucket more often than the second group. However, within a few weeks without additional practice, the first group missed the target while the second group nailed it. The interleaved practice was more difficult and did not produce desired results immediately, but it built a wider range of skills thanks to mixed targets. Over time, the brain massaged all that learning into the physical finesse needed to land the shot, regardless of the bucket’s distance.

Another vital point which contradicts convention concerns forgetting. We assume forgetting stems from a flaw in our ability to remember, or that the way we acquired the information was somehow flawed (otherwise, we would remember it). On the contrary, forgetting is what the brain does naturally and needs to do in order to acquire information for the long term.

How can we encourage beneficial forgetting? Build open spaces or gaps into the learning process. Following a lesson, allow for a gap in time and attention on the topic. Allow the brain to erase some or most of what you acquired. Then quiz yourself. The effort you put into reconstructing the lesson strengthens the wiring in and across your brain. To recall what you learned (and partially forgot), you must tap various regions of the brain—those governing sound, smell, touch, taste, and so on. Your prior learning and experience will also feed the reconstruction process, which in turn, bolsters the wiring (synaptic connections) around the new information. More connections equal deeper storage and longer retention.

So, how do Mark Twain and England’s monarchs factor into durable learning? You’ll see (and likely never forget) when you read the book.

The Everest Disaster Trilogy Challenge

Read these three books, my friend gushed, and you’ll experience a gummy, disorienting waltz with truth, memory, and trauma.

Krakauer, Jon. Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mount Everest Disaster. Jon Krakauer, Narr. New York: Random House Audio, 2007. CD.

Genre: nonfiction memoir

Summary: Krakauer documents his experiences during the Mount Everest disaster in 1996 when 8 climbers died in a horrendous blizzard. He traces the many conflicting motives and oversights which may have contributed to deadly mistakes.

Critique: Recently, a good friend challenged me to read what she calls the “Mount Everest Disaster Trilogy.” Three survivors’ accounts—Krakauer being one—of what happened or failed to happen on the mountain during a significant storm that claimed over a dozen lives. The three accounts overlap as often as they contradict. The experience of reading all three, my friend assured me, was a gummy, disorienting waltz with truth, memory, and trauma.

Because my friend is the Cookie Monster when it comes to nonfiction, I accepted the challenge with all due gravitas.

“RoadTrip” (CC BY 2.0)

With a couple hundred miles between me and my winter holiday destination, I picked up the audio book edition of Krakauer’s famous (some say infamous) memoir read by the author himself. The controversies surrounding his memoir were and are many. Did Krakauer skew the narrative, effectively  tilting more blame on the excursion guides, Rob Hall and Scott Fischer—two of the world’s best who also died in the blizzard—only to overshadow his potential cowardice? Should he have come out with a magazine article and a memoir so swiftly on the heels of the tragedy? Was this insensitive to grieving families? Was he even in a fit state of mind to recount the events? To his credit, Krakauer acknowledges each of these pressure points and does his best to relieve them. Also to his credit, he did not rely solely on his own memory. He conducted interviews with other survivors and the memoir includes testimonies that totally upend his own recollections.

After listening to the first disc, I was stupefied by the structural design or chaos the writer had chosen. The narrative jumped…no, it ricocheted between Krakauer’s setup and backstory (his youth spent climbing, how a travel magazine hired him to ascend the mountain with a guided expedition) and historical background on the first attempts to top Everest in the early 1900s.

By trade, nonfiction writers are daring and innovative with structure. How could they not when the genre’s granddaddy, John McPhee, structured his writings around everything from lowercase letters to tennis courts or the Monopoly board? But Krakauer’s construct was verging on pure genius. So disorienting! Surely he was trying to give readers the felt experience of high altitude sickness and its reality-bending deliriums.

As the CD carousel switched to disc 2, I reached for the pause button. No way was it safe to drug my attention while driving!

Then, I saw it: my car’s audio player was set to shuffle! Krakauer’s structure was not deliberately disordered or artfully rearranged. As it turned out, his structure was nothing out of the ordinary—a straightforward progression through times and places and events.

Actually, Krakauer’s style included a rather obtrusive, rather clockwork habit: every time he introduced a new “cast member,” he paused the unfolding events on Everest so that a minutely detailed account of that person’s life up to that moment could be shared. Among writers, this longwinded setup is known as the “info dump,” and it is generally discouraged in fiction and nonfiction because it pulls the reader away from the main attraction. Of course, plenty of writers skillfully employ these tangents to create tension and knot up the suspense. No doubt Krakauer aimed for that very effect.

While I cannot report his aim hit the mark for me, I can say it approached the bull’s eye whenever I switched on the shuffle button.

Next up in the Mount Everest Disaster Trilogy: The Climb: Tragic Ambitions on Everest by Anatoli Boukreev and Left for Dead: My Journey Home from Everest by Beck Weathers. Boukreev was employed with one of the expedition guides on Everest. His ability to scale the mountain’s 29,000+ feet was practically unmatched, often ascending without an oxygen tank. Krakauer accused Boukreev of negligence in 1996 because he went without oxygen while guiding clients to the top. The alleged result: when the storm hit, Boukreev was in no condition to help anyone. Not surprisingly, Boukreev’s book rebuts this depiction.

Beck Weathers was one of the paying climbers being guided to Everest’s summit. No less than three times, he was literally left for dead. Each time, he managed to slog his way out of danger or recover just enough from severe hypothermia and frostbite. To be sure, while listening to Krakauer explain his and others’ decisions to leave Weathers behind I often cried, “Foul!” Selfish cowardice colored the reasons in neon strokes. Yet, Weathers’ memoir reportedly spends little time finger-pointing and more time exploring life’s true value, especially in the wake of second, third, and fourth chances.

 

(Featured image “Everest” CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.)