On this day of the Monster Storm, the Beast, the Big One—whatever the forecasters are calling this ice-and-snow-palooza in your part of the country—it's worth noting that we homo sapiens have survived worse. A lot worse.
Last year, through DNA testing done as part of the National Geographic Genographic project on human migration (https://genographic.nationalgeographic.com/genographic/index.html), I discovered that I had ancestors who lived through the most recent Ice Age. Well, of course I did. You did, too. That's why we're alive today. Our ancestors from roughly 20,000 years ago were strong, smart or lucky enough to have survived through many thousands of years of severe cold in a world in which much North America and Europe was covered with ice up to a mile thick.
I admit, this does make for a potential Geico ad: Surviving the Ice Age? So easy a cave man can do it!
In truth, throughout the 3.8 billion years of life on Earth and the 200,000-plus years of modern humans, surviving has never been easy. As Bill Bryson writes in his delightful A Short History of Nearly Everything, describing how unlikely it is that any one of us is alive today: "Not one of your pertinent ancestors was squashed, devoured, drowned, starved, stranded, stuck fast, untimely wounded, or otherwise deflected from its life's quest of delivering a tiny charge of genetic material to the right partner at the right moment in order to perpetuate the only possible sequence of hereditary combinations that could result—eventually, astoundingly, and all too briefly—in you."
My ancestors, according to the DNA research, had long since migrated out of East Africa, through the Middle East, and were already in Europe when the latest Ice Ace started. They moved down to the warmest place they could find—the current location of Spain or Portugal—to ride it out. It's wild to imagine what their daily existence was like. If I were a history teacher, I would try to bring the past alive by reminding students that their ancestors lived through not just Ice Ages but also the times of the ancient Greeks, Napoleon, the Civil War...everything, going back way, way, way farther than those examples.
In any case, it's just something to think about on a snowy day. Whether you're shoveling, ice-scraping, removing your car from a snow bank or enduring a power outage, right now you're still one of the 6.9 billion luckiest people on Earth.
Speaking of Humorist Gary Larson...
Today's also a good day to recall Larson's Far Side cartoon of a really tiny old man and woman sitting in front of their house—while inside a snow globe. A giant human hand is moving toward the globe and the caption reads, "Dang, Ma, blizzard's a comin.'"
Another Cold Thought
Today would have been the 114th birthday of ice cream impresario Howard Johnson, the grade-school-educated Massachusetts native who invented the chain restaurant and ate a cone every day until he expired at age 75.
Bald Eagle Call:
We've noticed that birds of prey that live near us seem to take advantage of inclement weather. I don't know if it's because falling snow makes them harder to see as they approach, but our bald eagles and hawks have been going after waterfowl and smaller birds with an increased aggressiveness. Yesterday we listened to multiple eagles "talking" for much of the afternoon. Click on this link to hear exactly what we heard: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hlq2kcYQcLc
The Puzzler Answer
(from last post): What fruit has its seeds on the outside? The strawberry. Now, let me clarify this and confuse you at the same time. In scientific terms, if I understand my own research correctly (and I know a few of you who will straighten me out if I don't), the red, fleshy part of the strawberry—what we call the fruit—is more properly called the "recepticle." What we call the seeds are, in fact, the fruit; they consist of seeds encased by ovaries, the defined structure for fruits of flowering plants.
This much I'm sure of: Don't try to serve a guest a shortcake made of strawberry ovaries.
Today's Puzzler: Here's a challenging one. You're tracing your ancestry. As you work back in time, filling out a family tree, you find that each generation has twice as many of your direct ancestors as the generation before it: Your parents (2 direct ancestors) both had parents (total of 4 direct ancestors) who all had parents (total of 8 direct ancestors) and so on. Let's say that your family has produced three generations per century. How many direct ancestors did you have 12 generations ago, around the year 1600? (Count yourself as generation 1, your parents as generation 2, your grandparents as generation 3, and so on. The answer will be in the next post.)
Thomas Cole, the English-born American founder of the Hudson River School art movement and one of the painters who made Mount Desert Island famous, would have been 110 years old yesterday. The gorgeous, rugged landscapes painted by Cole and other artists from New York in the early 1800s made people aware of MDI and turned the area into a magnet for vacationers. It's not outlandish to suggest that without Thomas Cole, The Naturalist's Notebook might not exist today—at least not in Seal Harbor, Maine.
Charlotte Auerbach, the German-born scientist who discovered that chemicals can cause genetic mutations, would have been 112 today. A victim of anti-Semitism, she fled Nazi Germany for England and ended up inventing the science of mutagenesis, which studies how a living organism's genetic information can be changed. Given the above discussion of fruit, it's worth noting that she did her most groundbreaking research on fruit flies and how they were affected by mustard gas (which, as botanists could tell you, has nothing to do with the mustard plant; the toxic warfare agent, a manmade sulfur compound, just happens to have an odor that resembles that of mustard).
Francois-Alphonse Forel, the Swiss scientist who devoted much of his life to studying lakes and is considered the father of limnology—the study of inland waters—would have been 170 today. Limnology (limn comes from an Old English word meaning to illuminate) is now an important and illuminating branch of environmental science.
Enjoy the storm. Here in Maine, just before 11 a.m., we've already gotten more than six inches of fresh snow, with more dumping down and a total of up to 16 inches predicted.