On the Similarity of Squirrels and Ciliates

As I write this I’m at my standing desk looking out the window into my backyard. A squirrel has found the bits of corn in the birdseed I scatter every morning. His movements are sudden and discrete over large distances, but once he’s reached the corn they become more fluid and exploratory. Perhaps his entire territory is within my backyard. Today, he seems willing to test its boundaries more than I’ve seen him do before. I think it’s because he’s in love. Earlier I noticed him playing with a second squirrel. He was rolling around in the dirt and sniffing the other squirrel’s erect tail. They would spontaneously chase each other in tight circles, then break off and stare at one another, their play brief and excitable. I think my squirrel is happy to introduce his territory to the other squirrel. He’s got plenty of food here to share, and a spot underneath the shed, safely away from the nosy pawing of my dog. After the other squirrel leaves, my squirrel seems emboldened enough to more closely inspect the wall of my house, and underneath the porch. He’s been made brave by love, ready to expand his boundaries. Then he stands on the tallest rock in the backyard, seemingly looking for where the other squirrel has run off to.

In between watching the squirrel in my backyard and writing, I’m also watching a YouTube show called Journey to the Microcosmos. It’s a science documentary show that looks at microscopic life. It has the dramatic feel of a BBC Nature Series, but instead of narrating a big cat’s hunt, it tells the story of a ciliate or a rotifer searching for food. Hank Green is the narrator. It’s a great show. Animalcules of all sorts living out their lives in the span of a smudge on a glass slide. The video quality is such that you can see these tiny creatures acting out many of the same plots that happen at our animal kingdom’s scale. There are predators and prey. There’s hunting and scavenging. Boundaries are explored. Safety is returned to. Mistakes are made, tricks are fallen for. There are lucky escapes and unfortunate accidents. Random walks. Tried and true strategies. The same relationships between object and environment at very different scales. Brief but excitable moments.

I’m struck, going back and forth between watching the squirrel through my window and watching the ciliate and rotifer on my screen, at this similarity across size and scale. It inspires a sense of awe, of something just beyond the horizon of my understanding. I feel dumb just to be aware of it.

It reminds me of a poem I wrote a few years ago called “Emergence.”


I am Thy body 		biological.
I am that which binds 	membranous guilds.
I made my pact 		with the protist
and tended my grex. 	It was in my house
they fed together 	becoming multicellular.
I divide alike 	and make equal under
the sacred worship 	of my plasma.
Who are you to ask 	of my origins?
I hold the nucleoid 	at the very center
threading spools of acids 		like a seamstress.
It was my cunning 	that yoked the great
mitochondrion 		into my environs.
It was I who organized 	the organelles
blessed them with 	waxy lipids
to smooth their tissue. 	Thou art all of me.
I beat Thy heart 		that begets Thee.
I make Thee eat of the earth 	beast and flora
and it thinks for Thee 		Thy metabolic thought.
Thou seekest me? 	I am the mucous offing.
I circumscribe and make 	all accoutrements.
My craft is chemistry		my materials elemental.
Who seeketh invitation	 to my abode
will find it everywhere 	with walls enclosing.
I am the eggshell 	        of a cell and its carton.
I am the swirling arms 	of a solar system.
I am Thyself too 	organ upon organ
a sense of wholeness 		and want of union.

If you’re wondering about the odd form of the poem, the reason why each line is broken up into two parts has to do with the fact that I was interested in Old English poetry at the time. Old English poetry often had bisected lines where each half had a set number of syllables, and the halves were connected by a sound pattern. They were usually sung I think. I can’t remember exactly now, but I was trying to imitate that style in this poem.

The impression, however, the real genesis of the poem, was the same one that I’ve had again today, just now, staring out my window and writing, and that I have quite frequently, especially when I watch science videos about the very big or the very small. A desire, born of awe, to try and give shape to that awe, to whatever force it is that manifests these relationships at different scales. Is it a force like the scientific forces of electromagnetism and gravity? Is it a force, like Thomas Dylan says, “that through the green fuse drives the flower”? Why does life have this fractal quality where patterns repeat at different sizes and scales? Why does being aware of this repetition fill me with awe, and make me want to write about it and give shape to it?

Thanks for reading.

Starting From Washington: Whitman and the Soul of America

“Starting From Paumanok”


The soul,
Forever and forever—longer than soil is brown and solid—longer
than water ebbs and flows.

I will make the poems of materials, for I think they are to be the most spiritual poems,
And I will make the poems of my body and of mortality,
For I think I shall then supply myself with the poems of my soul and of immortality.

I will make a song for these States that no one State may under
any circumstances be subjected to another State,
And I will make a song that there shall be comity by day and by
night between all the States, and between any two of them,
And I will make a song for the ears of the President, full of weapons with menacing points,
And behind the weapons countless dissatisfied faces;
And a song make I of the One form’d out of all,
The fang’d and glittering One whose head is over all,
Resolute warlike One including and over all,
(However high the head of any else that head is over all.)

I will acknowledge contemporary lands,
I will trail the whole geography of the globe and salute courteously every city large and small,
And employments! I will put in my poems that with you is heroism upon land and sea,
And I will report all heroism from an American point of view.

I will sing the song of companionship,
I will show what alone must finally compact these,
I believe these are to found their own ideal of manly love, indicating it in me,
I will therefore let flame from me the burning fires that were threatening to consume me,
I will lift what has too long kept down those smouldering fires,
I will give them complete abandonment,
I will write the evangel-poem of comrades and of love,
For who but I should understand love with all its sorrow and joy?
And who but I should be the poet of comrades?

Trying to make sense of the recent events in Washington yesterday, I turn to Whitman, that incomparable soul, who has the uncanny effect of sounding more than just relevant or timely. His words are not only relevant or timely, though they are that; he did serve as a nurse during the Civil War.

Whitman is timeless, and immanent, because he speaks directly to you. He has anticipated that you would find him here, in this predicament. It is this very premise that drove the entire work of his life. Because he lived through the Civil War, and understood the nature of it, he devoted his life to the purpose of throwing his voice into the future, to speak to us.

Of course plenty of people do this. Plenty of people write for posterity. But how many of them come to the same conclusions as Whitman, having lived through what he lived through?

Whitman worked in the infirmaries at Virginia and New York and DC. He was there in the battle of Fredericksburg. He tended to his own wounded brother. He had seen what we only imagine and fear now.

And yet here is his declaration of the soul persisting in love, of the soul bent on comity and the well-being of all. Even the perpetrators. He makes no distinction in his book. In fact the opposite. And that in spite of everything.

We have amassed a hundred hundred reasons to distrust and resent each other. We have endless proofs that we recite daily. We read them in the papers. We see them on the news. Each person, in his heart, builds up his case. Yesterday was just another example.

So how can one be conditioned, beyond all animal and rational sense, to regard the world with infinite mercy? Yet I read Whitman, and I am made to believe such a thing is possible.

Two Crows on a Telephone Pole


Two crows on a telephone pole

crow about their neighbors, but I

have learned to live alone, I know

none of my neighbors, I stay by

my computer, or by my phone.

I step outside to say hello.

They drop their gazes and start home.

I can only guess what they know.

Continue reading “Two Crows on a Telephone Pole”

Reality TV Romance


They live so quickly, myself not as fast.

They fasten no valve on emotion.

Nor am I able to either at times.

Nor do either of us know what we are.

The difference must be the sense we have

of ourselves as one of two kinds, subject

or object, the one acting out who they are,

the other not believing they’re acting at all. Continue reading “Reality TV Romance”