Talking to Squid

Megan McGrath's Resume & Blog

The Murdering Crows

This is the first post of a series on everyday animal behavior. I grew up in woodland, so deer, foxes, and owls were normal visitors to my backyard. And they were always up to something worth wondering about, living their own dramas. Now I live in Baltimore city—and the rats and roaches I meet here are really no less interesting than mighty black bears. Any city has plenty of wildlife to be found. This is my journal of the animals I meet in my day to day, the odd things they do, and my attempts—aided by whatever scientific litrature I can find—to figure out what the hell they’re up to. I’ll start with a story describing some weird incidence of animal behavior, and then I’ll move on to a discussion about what it might mean—for the animals, for us, and for the general experience of living a life on Earth.

Corvids have always written collective dot-dash sky-code. They are past scornfully enjoying the obliviousness of human observers. They no longer shape out rude slogans or rococo aerial slanders. No provocation ever provoked. There is a mournful air to their more recent, equally unread, messages.

China Miéville

I decided to go on an aimless walk today after a long and relaxing spell of procrastinating on my master’s thesis. After wandering through the low-slung dog park up the street (beautiful, but fragrant), I found myself following a narrow red-brick path toward the stately red-brick buildings of the Johns Hopkins main campus. I don’t belong at this school per se, and I always expect someone will detect me as an interloper and throw me off the hallowed academic grounds. This will never happen: I am a young white woman, clad in cut-up t-shirts, squint-eyed and pale from endlessly procrastinating on my own graduate work—albeit for a lab at a distant and much less impressive institution. I may not belong at Johns Hopkins, but everyone assumes that I do. My privileges solidly intact, I followed the red brick road.IMG_4779_editied

I was plotting a new running route past the water fountains and dining halls when a stirring in the air caught my attention. I slowed down and looked up, to the forest lining the campus. The tops of the trees were letting loose a raucous noise, and as I came to a stop their feathered black bodies pelted through the air.

I have never seen so many crows, I thought. They were leaping and flying from tree to tree, tens and hundreds of them—the treetops bent with the weight of crows. They were raising such a croaking ruckus that people began poking their heads out of doorways to peer up at the sky. When one flew, others followed, and the air grew thick with crows. Read the rest of this entry »

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Read-Aloud Series 1: Li-Young Lee, “This Room and Everything In It”

The teachers always made us read aloud. I remember, especially, Shakespeare; the old proud English our teenage tongues tripped over, shyly, never quite understanding the words.

I was often aware in those classes, as we went around the room, that I was strange for liking it, though it was scary. I craved the read-aloud as a chance, a moment to perform, to bring these old words to life, to try to imbue them with emotions I had never felt myself, to try to understand them through the pure thick impenetrable Shakespeare-ness of it all. If I gave the words enough energy, maybe I’d understand them. If I gave them enough love, through speaking them sincerely, maybe they would come to life. I read the scripts of my favorite plays alone to myself, in my room, acting out every character, becoming each one in turn; and if the line was especially good, I read it over and over, until it was right, until the words gleamed diamond with the conviction this unreal person really had—in their anger, or their longing, their love—their disembodied fictional souls speaking out my mouth, a chance to be someone else.

Needless to say, I still love reading aloud, and when given a chance I commit to it. I have a few dear friends who enjoy listening and I love them for their ears. But truly few people have the time to be read-aloud to and I don’t want to subject them to my attempts, so I still do a lot of it for my own ears alone. In an effort to make something tangible of all this, I’ll be recording some of all this. Here is try Number 1, a poem a friend introduced me to recently, which I love: Li-Young Lee’s “This Room and Everything In It”. It is a poem that captures something, a feeling, that you can’t really hit on the nose. You couldn’t say it directly, you wouldn’t know the longing of this moment without indirectness. Forgetting, love, moments of perfection and loss.

I’m taking suggestions for more read-alouds—poems, fiction, non-fiction, or whatever. I would love your input. Better yet, record yourself reading something you love, for me, and link me to it in the comments below. Thanks, friends.

On the Timely Demise of Oliver Sacks

It’s a little weird that the world should keep turning; and my dear friends will maintain their own unique mental illnesses without such a man to write lyrically about them, in particular, unto them; and that his peculiar speech impediment–the lipped swallowing of R’s into W’s–will no longer exist from that mouth.

He was a man who put rare-earth magnets into his pockets while walking, so as to understand the experience of pigeons navigating; and now he is no longer that man, and he will not be again. In a world that had Oliver Sacks in it, the man who mistook his wife for a hat–the man who repeatedly misperceived his dearest loved one so extraordinarily that he erased her humanity in his own eyes–had a chance to be beautiful. “Mistook,” such an innocent word, the bumbling sweetness of a child–“Oh, I was mistaken, after all you ARE my wife.” The world has closed in, just a little, but a multitude, a whole universe has ended with the ending of Oliver Sacks–a universe of thought, an 82-year-long-life, no other could have used the world “mistook.” His lyrics are snuffed. So now the world, having closed in just a little, turns without the benefit of this one man’s observation; we plod along, now, preoccupied as always with our own soft insanities, without the poetry of Oliver Sacks to describe them. And every few moments the world opens again to permit the emergence of a new mind, promising it’s own long soliloquy of poetry, and insanity, and he might have described each one were he still here; but he won’t, and now his is gone, and at least his awareness overlapped ours long enough for us to notice each other. At least we had him for 82 years. RIP, Oliver.

I seriously recommend listening to this just-rebroadcast Radiolab piece on Oliver’s life—which, I’m fairly sure, contains audio from an on-stage interview Robert Krulwich did with him a few years ago at Cooper Union, which I stumbled across five minutes before it happened, and at which I ended up sitting just behind Neil DeGrasse Tyson. That was Dr. Sacks: He was a titan, surrounded by titans, and yet infinitely, disarmingly humble. The piece is an amazing tribute to him.

The helicopter of doubt

Today on my porch I was drilling holes in PVC piping. Listening to a podcast piped into my ears. Falling into a rhythm of cutting, drilling, wiping away the bits of dusty white plastic. And then an animal droned my head.

A female rufous hummingbird, no ruby-throat but still dressed in jewel tones, dusty soft green and brown like a tiny lady in woven silks. She had brush-strokes of black around her eyes.

She came alarmingly close. Up off my right shoulder. Hummingbirds are the closest things to fish you find in the air. She darted and glimmered. And she hung still, confronting me, up from the garden like a fairy who’d come to deliver a lecture.

In moments like these all I wonder about is perception. What does she see? The drill in my hand was fire-orange. My only conclusion is that, from afar, she must have seen my hands as a profusion of blooms. The narration of a hummingbird’s mind is, “Sugar, sugar, drink, find.” Only I suppose they might think faster than us because they move at a smaller, quicker scale. She flew to me with the determination of the ultimately hungry, metabolically-pressed tiny heart beating.

Only when she was a yard away did the rest of me emerge out of the soft greys and greens of my background, wood and furnishings on the deck, a concealed giant holding my confusing vibrancy in one hand. Only danger, no nourishment. She hovered for a full ten seconds, one of those rare moments in which you get to see a wild animal making a decision. Her mind the size of a thimble but still very keen, still one of the greatest computers in the known universe, she finally saw me for what I was, and she fish-tailed away.

Rufous_hummingbird_female

“Rufous hummingbird female,” by Sberardi

I haven’t been here for awhile, which is a shame because since I last posted, WordPress posted my audio story for SURGE podcast, Tarpon, on its Freshly-Pressed page–and about a million kind people listened in and gave me the best feedback imaginable. Seriously, you guys, I don’t think any of you could have known what that would mean to me. Not to put too fine a point on it, that experience re-invigorated my faith in myself as a creative person. So, thank you, from the bottom of my heart! And there will be more pieces like that one in the future. And please go on over to SURGE podcast to hear more of their innovative collaborations of stories and sound.

In the mean time, hello to new followers! I hope my long absence hasn’t left you too cold! Stay tuned for more off-beat commentary on animals, thinking, science, art, and more. I’m so happy that you’re here.

I send my rockets forth between my ears

I’m sitting right back where I was last summer now, sitting in the same room with the cheap wooden desk and the grape vines shading the window. (It only now occurs to me in the second summer of living here—maybe dolmas? The second-floor grape vines are decorated with strings of beads, errant earrings and pendants hung there by previous tenants, and I could just reach out thru the screenless window and snip the leaves and blanch them for about a minute for something perfectly edible. I am not Greek, but I think I might need to get sumac? What even is that? A spice, or a tree? I distinctly recall that at least one variety of sumac is called “poison”…)

I hear things through my grape vines (luckily nothing bout my woman leaving me for another man).

I hear things through my grape vines (luckily nothing bout my woman leaving me for another man).

Food experiments at the  house...breakfast crepes, breakfast tea.

Food experiments at the house…breakfast crepes, breakfast tea.

Last summer I was here making radio for Voice of America, interviewing sometimes three scientists in a day, then editing both our voices, clipping out awkward pauses and “um”s, into a stutterless conversation that might be broadcast to Indonesia or Africa. I’m here for a different reason this summer: straight-up science! My thesis research. I’m not going to go into detail here—public speaking about research tends to be kept quiet until publication, a good idea for many reasons—but suffice it to say I’m researching dolphin cognition, trying to figure out how bottlenose dolphins think about themselves, each other, and the world. Kind of a niche position, but one I have wanted to be in for my entire life. I’ve had a lot of experience “getting to know” animals, which is what made me want to study them in the first place. I know cat’s moods, like exactly which tail-twitch will signify when your petting has overloaded them and they have begun to consider killing you. (Cats are relatively un-domesticated compared to dogs, which means we are exposed to all of their predatory notions in our interactions with them—I think this is why so many people are afraid of cats.) I got to know horses, too—that they sigh when they are relaxed, what scares them, and what they like. (My teacher-friend Liz taught me that horses especially like leading-following games, since they echo the intricacies of their social lives—dominant to submissive and back again—which is why a horse who likes you will imitate your movements.) Oddly enough I don’t know dogs that well—since I never lived with dogs I still have trouble telling the difference between a happy dog and an aggressive one. Animal knowledge and stuff like species-typical personality only becomes clear when you’ve spent a lot of time in the presence of this creature that is quite different from you—it’s the same between any two people. Someday when we’ve made alien contact this is how we’ll get to know each other. (Who else saw the Ender’s Game movie? Despite any irritations you may have had with the storytelling…wasn’t the Bugger Queen insectly beautiful?)

Creature

Creature.

Ever since I knew dolphins existed I’ve wanted to “know” them in this same way. I know what a dolphin looks like when it’s echolocating on something (very intent; sometimes their heads wiggle), and when it’s surprised (they puff out a fat bubble of air, often while sinking slowly, it looks like they’re saying “bloop!”). More, I hope, will come in time. The best way to learn is by watching; science is always an extension of this, and usually starts that simply: watching things happen, writing a few notes, asking a question. Of course from there it gets much more complicated—modeling of the real world, how things work, systems—but that’s the fun. Onward always in slow steps.

The title of this post is from one of my favorite poems, by Ray Bradbury of all people; I watch this video whenever I need a lift and feel that it would be a good replacement for the Pledge of Allegiance in public schools. Skip to 1:30 if you’d rather get to the poem.

Some moody poem drafts

These are the sorts of moody-snit things I write while I’m on the subway, and really aggravated about being on the subway. I grew up in the woods!

1.
The miles go by with no markers
Except the flash of my window across them
And several million lanky people
Who I will never meet
Have the same facial expression
Somehow
A little tired little distant
Think about somewhere else
A farm
The country highway
A place you could pick
Mushrooms from a ditch and
Bring them back home for supper.

They will mostly grab lighters
From the bodega on the corner
Stub out a cigarette with one heel
Drag their weary faces home
Listen to the train pass by out the window
Light the pilot on the stove
And turn on the evening news.

It amazes me night after night
That we aren’t better friends,
Given how long we’ve done this together.

 

2.
I am squeezed like toothpaste.
I am a lemon being juiced
I am a pigeon’s body
I am without feathers
I am a hand with short-bitten nails.

I am not that fancy kid’s dreadlocks, and I am not his interesting accent.
I am a flat pillow on a bed.

Given enough time
I might be an empty canoe
on still black water
without very much noise at all.

 

3.
I am not a dolphin.
Click click click
It would be a terrible thing
to see with sound in New York City,
because all you would see are
cars, trains, and anger.

 

4.
Clearly I am missing a home
That I have not found yet.
Clearly I am missing
kind faces and jokes
I have not heard before.
Clearly I want for
a well-tuned guitar
which I cannot play
A book
I have not yet written
but which I will enjoy reading
while eating a snack.

Good Weird Food

“This is weird,” said my mother-in-law.

“Good weird, or bad weird?” I asked, lifting a wooden spoon to my own lips for the millionth time, just to check.

“Just…weird!” she said, scrunching up her face. But then she took a bowl from the cupboard, ladled herself a portion of my Saturday project, and curled up with it on the couch. “Oh, this is just so weird,” she repeated, sipping spoonful after spoonful, which made me feel extremely smug and pleased with myself.

It was weird, but also perfect: inspired by this post on West African peanut soup, it was spicy from an unrestrained portion of minced ginger and a more judicious squirt of hot red Sriracha, unctuous and crunchy from the entire jar (!) of Skippy extra-crunch peanut butter I mixed into chicken broth and coconut milk, and braced with lime juice and zest. The long collard-green ribbons I’d added halfway through the soup’s simmer had wilted into something delightfully toothsome, which I hadn’t expected: this was my first time cooking collards, and I’d come to imagine them as something intimidating that takes an hour or more of applied heat to subdue. But at just 20 minutes, they were pretty much perfect: yielding, but not completely overcome as other greens might be. There was something squidgy about them, maybe squeaky, perfect with the creamy, nutty sauce. I spooned out a cupful of rice to boil on the stove, and took out a bunch of cilantro to finish the whole thing off.

I love convincing my boyfriend’s mother to try my weird food. I come from a family of unapologetically adventurous eaters (I have been known to drink the blood of a freshly killed goat—because when in Rome, you drink goat’s blood), and when we’re at Chinese restaurants my father usually makes a point of ordering jellyfish or duck’s feet. But furthermore, food traditions are what they are. My mother-in-law tells a story of an ex who inadvisably served her a salad of some horribly bitter foreign green stuff called arugula; but I have eaten arugula all my life, and if I don’t make myself a plate of broccoli rabe in some form or other once a week or so, I begin to fall into fits of longing and depression. (It was with a sense of foreboding that I once gave my mother-in-law a plate of broccoli rabe that had been sautéed with garlic—resplendent and spiky in all its bitter, grassy glory. She loved it! I walked on air for several days.) And though she professes to be a picky eater, she’ll happily tuck into a plate of plantains and rice with sardines, a spread that would be horrifying to any picky eater who is not Puerto Rican. The foods of our childhoods are never weird or offensive—at least to us.

The food of my childhood was often exotic, and knowing that I tend to like both savory peanut dishes (Mark Bittman has the best basic recipe for peanut sauce I’ve ever tried) and African food in any incarnation, West African peanut soup with peanuts, collards, tinned tomatoes and sweet potatoes sounded like just the warming, nourishing, calorie-laden thing to combat winter. And my new family, a young man and his mother who grew up mostly on mainstays of Puerto Rican cuisine, both loved this weird kitchen experiment from Africa. The next morning, my mother-in-law told me, “You know, I was thinking about that weird soup. It’s the sort of thing that, if you grew up with it, it would be comfort food. You would really crave it.” And I think she’s really right. That’s a thing about food, and people. We all have our idiosyncrasies and habits, and “weird” stuff we crave. In the icy wilderness of south Brooklyn, in the horrid depth of winter, I make soup with peanut butter and tomatoes in it, listen to Ira Glass drone on adorably for hours, and read my beat-up copy of White Oleander over and over again just like I did in junior high. None of this is all that weird, but it is definitely particular to me, like a worn-in baby blanket that you’ve had since you were born. My boyfriend seems to derive a lot of satisfaction from lifting heavy weights while watching Khan Academy-style lectures, and listening to Ecuadorian folk music. I genuinely don’t get weight-lifting, but the Ecuadorian folk music is really excellent. People all over are complicated by rich textures and traditions, and the weird soup, though foreign, is often wonderful.

West African Peanut Soup

This recipe is based off of Cookie & Kate’s vegetarian version and this recipe from AllRecipes.com, with my own tweaks. I take it that this is an Americanized version of something more traditionally called groundnut stew. It takes well to adjustment; I think we all know that peanut butter is eternally forgiving. I wanted chicken, so I included chicken. You don’t have to, it would still be good. The peanut butter can be chunky or smooth, and you could probably use some other nut butter with intriguing results. Ditch the potatoes if you want something less hearty. I wanted to make a vast quantity of soup to last several people for days, so this recipe makes a vast quantity of soup—be prepared. I like to eat this over rice, garnished with peanuts and cilantro, maybe a glug of toasted sesame oil, maybe avocado—it is warming, comforting, and good for you.

Ingredients
For the soup:
2 tbsn neutral cooking oil
3-4 tbsn minced fresh gingerroot
1 large onion (red is traditional and pretty, I only had white), chopped
Zest and juice of 1/2 a lime (use the other half to make a very small lime pie)
Lemongrass, if you’ve got it around.
4 cloves garlic, minced
3 medium sweet or white potatoes (or a mix—sweet is traditional), peeled and chopped
4 c chicken or veggie broth
1-2 c some more liquid — coconut milk, more broth, or water
1 or 2 good squirts of Sriracha or other hot sauce
1 lbs. chicken, cut into chunks
8 oz can crushed or diced tomatoes
13 oz, more or less, chunky or smooth peanut butter
1 big bunch collard greens, tough stems removed and cut into 1-inch ribbons

Garnishes (all optional):
Cooked white or brown rice
Peanuts
Cilantro
Sesame oil
Avocado chunks
Lime wedges? Sour cream? Go crazy.

Procedure:
1. Sweat the garlic, ginger, onions, lemongrass, and lime zest in big soup pot over medium-high heat until the onions are totally translucent and limp, about 5 mins. Add the potatoes, and sauté them as long as you feel comfortable—just don’t let the onions or garlic burn.
2. Drown everything in the liquids of your choosing. Add the lime juice and some sriracha, then your chicken chunks. Bring everything back to a boil, then partially cover, turn to medium-low heat, and simmer for 15 minutes.
3. Add tomatoes and peanut butter and stir until the pb is incorporated. Add collards and bring back to a boil over high heat, then partially cover and simmer over medium-low for 20 minutes, until the collards and potatoes are tender.
4. Serve over rice with whatever garnishy stuff you want to put.

~~~

Is there any food you love that might horrify your friends and family? My favorite writer about food, Laurie Colwin, said, “Cooking for oneself reveals man at his weirdest. People lie when you ask them what they eat when they are alone. A salad, they tell you. But when you persist, they confess to peanut butter and bacon sandwiches deep fried and eaten with hot sauce, or spaghetti with butter and grape jam.” So what about you? Tell in the comments.

Why I Still Avoid Dark Water: A radio story from my childhood

My family is an adventurous bunch. (This past weekend, on a single day, I went kayaking with manatees and flying in a 4-seater plane with my aunt, uncle, and little cousin. Some people plan for retirement, my aunt plans to sail around the world. Everyday stuff for this clan.)

I wouldn’t trade it for anything. Their unending love for the sea, and our eternal pilgrimages to it, have made me who I am. But there’s a sort of truism about adventures, isn’t there, that sometimes they’re glorious and swashbuckling, but sometimes they test you. Hobbits know this well. Adventures can bring you to dark places. They bring you to the dens of monsters.

Recently some friends of mine, who make a truly excellent podcast, invited me to tell them a story. They make brilliant things happen with music and words, so I gave them a story I’ve been waiting to tell since I was 15, when I stepped into the den of a monster. I wrote and spoke, they edited and musicked, and the result is the best creative work I’ve ever done. Please give it a listen:

Many thanks to William Nava and John Passaro for this incredible thing that we made.

For when you die, such will you be.

Thanks to a vivacious ancient Greek dead guy named Seikilos, we have access to a piece of music that was popular nearly 4000 years ago, according to this post at the History Blog.

I wonder about Seikilos. About his character. How he walked and held his drinks. We have this song because he had it transcribed into his tombstone—notes and lyrics. Apparently, it was a drinking song. It went like this:

While you live, shine
Have no grief at all;
Life exists only a short while
And time demands its toll

(How translators always convince lyrics in old, dead languages to rhyme perfectly in their English translations is also something I wonder about…Speaking of which, have you heard that Jabberwocky has been translated into French and German? By which I mean: What is translation, really?)

History/music scholars have of course come up with their own renditions, and to me, this one is shockingly, delightfully pretty…maybe it’s just the arrangement, but the millenia have not cracked it, like stone ruins, or worn away its bones, like Seikilos. It’s lovely playing from my Macbook in the year 2013 while I drink tea in my kitchen:

 

It is a nice thing to have tapped into your grave-head. Seikilos also had some sort of inscription dedicated to a lady, Euterpe. Maybe, the blog wonders, his wife? Did Euterpe drink and be merry with her Seikilos? Did she stay home with their two to three Ancient Greek children, and resent him? Life exists only a short while and time demands its toll. I guess what I like most of all is that 4000 years ago the Ancient Greeks were drinking in honor of their own deaths just as we do, and that to us they are mostly dead, while to themselves they were mostly alive, just as we are mostly alive, and will ultimately be mostly dead.

Linnaeus is so passé.

“Animals are classified as follows:

1. those that belong to the Emperor,
2. embalmed ones,
3. those that are trained,
4. suckling pigs,
5. mermaids,
6. fabulous ones,
7. stray dogs,
8. those included in the present classification,
9. those that tremble as if they were mad,
10. innumerable ones,
11. those drawn with a very fine camelhair brush,
12. others,
13. those that have just broken a flower vase,
14. those that from a long way off look like flies.”

~ Jorge Luis Borges, Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge

Animals studied by my lab fall into categories 3, 6, 7, and occasionally 1.