Week 31: Rain

When I landed in Athens, a storm came in from the Algerian Sahara and rained great slashes of ferrous mud. Does baptism mean being in two places at once, one against your skin always, the other raining down on you? From the Acropolis: a mountain where St. Paul preached to the Greeks. I despise him for his prejudices, his loud-mouthedness and contempt; I love him whole-heartedly.

The air is soup, bathwater, before rain. Baroreceptors in my cerebral vessels get confused. A storm over the Dakotas: they think my pressure is dropping. Not inside but outside, dears, not shock but storm. They dilate away, then headache, then coffee or stormfall to remedy.

With more rain, more cyanobacteria. Their movements: filamentous, oscillatory, hollowed and spherical. They birthed all life when their photosynthesis gave us oxygen in the atmosphere, rusted the earth. Minnesota, when it was only seabed, was built by them, bacteria cementing the great banded iron cliffs from sediment.

I forget St. Paul’s hills until it rains, until I slip where the mud has collected. Striated flows (I keep thinking “lahars”) as it moves downhill. White streaks from bare limestone draw chalky lines through the alleys.

I like to live in a city by imagining how many different places and layers it bears, bacteria building houses and preparing us a home, the shadow of a cephalopod just overhead.

Materials: Gouache. The image is of patterns in a post-rain mud flow on the north side of Portland Ave in St. Paul.

I fact check my poetry and fiction.  Say a character has stolen the ashes of a friend’s mother and it’s staring to rain.  I look up why rain smells, I must understand the physical world and facts to fly when I write.

Science has a lot of rules – a field scientist doesn’t change plans with the weather.  Rain or shine or snow or blazing hot or below zero. This rule is layered over the rule that you start early and don’t stop until you’re done. I’ve worked well past dark, past feeling in my fingers, past soaking wet, past clarity of thought.

The smell of rain comes from plant oils and chemicals in the soil that are released.  The word for this is Petrichor. Petra means stone in Greek, Ichor blood of the gods. 

The rules to being a scientist were all about giving the self over, as if the lakes and mud I studied were gods with blood running through their veins.

Materials: “Rite in the Rain” All-Weather Field Book paper. Pencil and water color.

Note: This postcard is water (rain) proof.


Week 30. Illusion

Cluck, my three and a half year old, asks, “You need a flashlight to see?”

I respond automatically, “Yes.”

“When you are dead, you need a flashlight to see?  When you die Mommy, you will use a flashlight so you can watch me?”

I find a superman flashlight in his covers a few days later.  Is it that sleep is a form of death? Or darkness?

He asks about death a lot. Mostly in the car or before bed. He asks how his toys will die, if chewing with his mouth open will make him die.

I take him to see a dead bunny, flattened like a penny left on a railroad track. Flies dart from here to there. Its eye hole is visible, the ball eaten so it is an eye of negative space.

Materials: Sharpie and colored pencil. It took many tries to figure out that drawing light is actually drawing the darkness.

There is a road near my hometown I’ve driven over and over. The old mining and railway roads lace out from it and rejoin later, so if you take the past, you end up in the now anyway. The road feels haunted, though I don’t know if it’s due to the low orange horizon at the hills that funneled good air (i.e., air that tumbled up and over) to the TB sanitorium, or all the lights of lives behind long driveways, or the total conifer-bathed darkness when the sun stops fighting the hill-peaks, or my own ghost – years and years of her leaving and coming back.

Atmospheric illusions have wonderful, spooky names: Spectre of the Brocken, Alpenglow, Belt of Venus, Fata Morgana. Sailors were terrific at watching the world change around them, fearing the lie of light on the ocean, then naming the falsehood – that yet existed – as a god.

My dad taught me to watch the forest for when the light changes. Everything becomes not what it was, and the before shifts into ghosthood.

I snap snap snap photos of the road through the passenger-side window. The photos are streaked with motion blur, the changing of objects our brain won’t let us see when our eyes are moving in rapid saccade. I search the images for ghosts and lies my brain wants to ignore.

Materials: ink, gouache

Week 29. Ferns

Not just things themselves, but the shadows of things. The way it becomes dark when you enter the woods, wind held back in winter, sun blocked in July, everything holding its breath. The crushed bracken’s warm oxygenated gasp.

I didn’t know when I was homesick that I missed the plants I couldn’t see, the habit of their presence. A concrete-and-asphalt dweller’s lust for some shadow. I thought home was a change in the air, latitudinal 10-degree drop in temperature. Now I think it’s conifers – dark and hawk-laden. Swamp: how you can tell where the dog was by the height and color and smell of the scum on his legs. Fern: bracken and fiddlehead that wrap around your ankles and send you tumbling. Old, unchanged things: horror and softness, like a centipede.

In the city: no ferns, no swamp, but jagged oaks, catalpa trees that brain me with their pods as I walk under, black walnuts, buttered dogshit of gingko, ashes that could be Yggdrasil.

A few years ago, I asked my dad about his dreams and travels, uncompleted. He said no need because there he has has ferns, his pines, the former hacked back with a machete at the end of summer.

I had the opportunity to move last year but didn’t. It was something to do with the shadow of the angel on the church’s roof across the street in November. Not just the shadow, but the shadow over and over.

Materials: ink


Like cultural appropriation, but botanical.  I lay giant Santa Barbara pine cones around my yard, they are oversized for Midwest trees. Ostrich egg size! I put them at the base of my silver maple. I lay a turtle shell under a small flowering bush, also from the life collection of a friend clearing out her house. I do it because they are beautiful, because I love the shadows they cast.

So much of nature is remains, is a shell repurposed by a crab, the whale carcass made metropolitan for so many to feed off, the nurse log in the forest, nutrients cycling from the dead to the living to the dead and back.

I want a tattoo of a fern on my left arm, the soft pale underside between elbow and wrist. I want it because ferns are beautiful – I might get a pteridium aquilinum named for the wing of an eagle. I used to find fern spores in geologic samples among the pollen I counted. The clue they provided was of ancient moisture and disturbance. Ferns fill torn landscapes after fire or in the early summer when snow melts back from avalanche paths. They predate trees, flowers, dinosaurs. I want a wisp of this resilience on my arm. Like a string tied around my finger to remind me that I choose my thoughts, can direct myself inwards. Always head toward calm.

Materials: Fern stolen from neighbors yard through crack in fence, tracing paper, crayon, ink.


Week 28. Evolution

Lake Bosumtwi is where the souls of the dead go to say goodbye to the god Asasa Ya. To ensure not offending or getting in the way, you can only fish from a wood plank. Or, the lake formed after a meteor impact hit earth one million years ago.

Streams flow in, but don’t flow out.  Meaning, fish flow in, but don’t flow out. Over time that isolation has led to evolution of endemic species of cichlid fish.  I spent two months at the lake drilling for mud, touching down on the shock features from the impact.  The locals didn’t believe we were just interested in mud and fish, they believed the sparkle beneath the water was diamonds and gold. I respected and understood Ghanians having a different frame of reference than I did.

It took longer for me to realize that other educated Americans had a different frame of reference than me.  I grew up on the East Coast and I knew about all sorts of things from the past – hunting, god, meat eating, and creationism.  It wasn’t until my mid twenties I learned these were not historic.

What this now makes me feel is isolated, like I was an endemic species of New England.

Medium: Micron red and black ink, colored pencil, Pilot silver marker.

I’ve been trying to trace my fear of ants. Me, who will happily chase a spider or a millipede to get a closer look and make friends.

I look at pictures, learn about ants’ lives and fears. When we say “pest” or “infestation,” we mean a life lived under hostility.

I’m confronted with the fact that, so often, I only add suffering, that I value calming my fear or shame more than the billions of years (well, like 4 and a half) of agony that led to life.

I look at what I love: bacteria. Blochmannia, Wolbachia, residing in the ants’ ovaries. Are they parasites or inextricable helpers, or both, or always changing? They merged – bacteria to ovarian cells – 30 to 40 million years ago. The Trichogamma wasp can reproduce without a male…but with the help of Wolbachia!

Some say that cancer – mutation of our cells, that on-and-on inside of us, lives and bodies composed of mistakes – is our destiny. Some say that if it were prevented, a worse cause of death would take its place.

My grandma died last year of ovarian cancer. It was one of the worst things I’ve seen. When she died, I had the sense that she was both irrevocably gone and right here, and somehow flung, which wasn’t awful at all.

Bonds forged through circumstance. Relationships that oscillate between harmful and beneficial so you never know. We keep sucking down the O2 that breaks us down because we evolved together.

In the gaster of the thing I fear most, I fell in love, confirming my suspicion that everything scary has a beautiful surprise at the tail end.

Medium: ink and watercolor (the image is of ant ovaries)



Week 27. Science answers

Halfway point! We’ve been doing this project for half a year now, which is super exciting. If you missed last week, we asked each other questions that we’ll attempt to answer below.

I’ve become fascinated with the work of Ricardo Bloch, who creates artists’ books of lifescapes: photos that capture the minutiae of living spaces. I think this is also about reclaiming the beauty of decrepit things, trajectories toward happy shambles, how a building – a home – that’s falling apart – sediment, mineral, rust, mold – has so much to do with falling in love with a city, a past.

Your stuffed dog, inorganic and inhospitable to community, likely has no microbiome, or, if it does, it’s fleeting, a fragment of coalescence and communication and spark of life before being replaced by new microbes or simply disappearing with what I’m beginning to believe is the microbial motto – Live free or die. Respect.

Isn’t it better to believe that Billy is memories that once were you and dispersed? The idea that with inorganic objects – knick-knacks, souvenirs, heirlooms – we’ve surrounded ourselves with a host of friendly ghosts, flutterings, whispers of who we used to be, what was beloved and shed and transformed.

Link: Ricardo Bloch’s lifescape books.

Materials: Ink

We carry the geologic timescale in a drawer between belly button and breast.  Inside it the roar of ice breaking up on a river in northern Sweden, the steaming stink of hot springs in Iceland, the fear passed down and down again of tornados that took half a family in Chicago.

My drawer had the seven concrete hills of Providence cracked with wilderness only at the scale of weeds and ants. I was someone who had never eaten cake, only tasted the ingredients alone: flour, unsweetened chocolate, sugar, egg.  I knew chemistry, calculus, physics, but had never put them together and learned about Earth processes. 

I was eighteen and trying to open the drawer of love, to fall in love as a way of mooring myself in space. The boy was anemic and dull, he ran off with my friend. But an opening is an opening. I was looking out the window of an airplane from Rome to Brussels.   In flew the realization that all stories lead back to landscape.  Terroir not just flavor.

I am a magpie of landscapes, collecting and appropriating them from books, travelers, and even ancient times that don’t belong to me through ancestry or written story.

Materials: Sharpie, Micron, ideas from Salvador Dali

Note: I have been waiting my whole adulthood to be asked this question.

Week 26. Science questions

I sleep with a teddy bear many nights.  The bear is a dog named Silly Billy. I dig my fingers into his brown fur, the center of his head presses against my sternum while his ears touch either shoulder and his stub of a tail presses about an inch below my belly button.  Holding him keeps my shoulders and hips aligned so I dont wake in pain.  I tell my husband Silly Billy sleeps with us for the ergonomics, he is happy for anything that wards off the insomnia that came and never left with pregnancy.

Silly Billy is not sneezy or dusty though his fur is mangy.  Not velvety soft, but his body is satisfyingly mushy to hug. I’ve never washed him, its been twenty-nine years.

Do you think, Natalie, that he has a microbiome in his fur?  That snuggling him is not just finding comfort in a mushy personification? Could the microbes of my childhood teddy bear be the secret of his comfort? Do they trigger memories of safety, like a newborn recognizing its mother by smell? Or are they what makes my childhood self seem like an inner layer of skin, just moments ago, fresh blood?

Medium: sharpie, water colors, Pilot silver marker.

Lately, each time I try to meditate, I find myself thinking of Mount St. Helens, which erupted before I was born, yet is somehow part of my consciousness, easily accessible. In a survey a few years ago, researchers found that one third of kids 6-11 feared natural apocalypse. The movie “Pompeii” carried a warning that kids under 5 “may not understand.”

In 1815, Indonesia’s Mount Tambora erupted, and it snowed in Europe all summer, though people didn’t know why. Mary Shelley began writing Frankenstein. In 1988, I blocked my bedroom door with pillows against my parents’ pumice carpet cleaner, afraid it would return to lava if the day got too hot. In 1990, I learned that the earth was 4,000 years old. In 1997, I transferred schools and found myself so happy to be acquainted with my long Australopithecus and Homo ancestry, to be trusted with the span of geologic time.

E, do you think we carry geologic time in our bodies, events that happened long before we showed up? Do you think eruption and earthquake, long seethes and grindings, lakes turned to desert, are marked in us somewhere, that we’re walking measurements of climate and upheaval we can barely access? Did the paroxysmal eruption of Mount St. Helens, wave of rock and gas some say overtook the speed of sound, marry the Cold War terrors in my parents’ generation so deeply, that for years, I couldn’t sleep for fear of volcanoes?

Materials: Pigma Micron pen 01

Week 25. Critical mass

It was halfway through the day before I noticed.  We were at lunch, a large group of geology graduate students in New Haven, CT.  I was a prospective PhD student and had spent the morning meeting one-on-one with students: one lived on a sail boat and made me tea in a ceramic pot, one wore a suit and tie, another dressed like a skater.  I had coffee with four very old very famous professors who seemed to come in and out of sleep, in and out of the conversation.

The lunch was in a pub, all dark wood and fish and chips. I looked up and had that free fall moment where you find Waldo or make the magic eye trick work.  “Are there any female graduate students?” I asked realizing I had not seen a female yet, not even one walking in the hall.

It wasn’t awkward, it just took a moment for the group to think. 

“There was that one, what was her name?” 

“No, she dropped out…” 

“There is one, there is one,” an excited lanky man-boy exclaimed.  They decided I would meet her at afternoon tea.

Tea was in a room lined with bookshelves, the ceilings high, the windows tall, the portraits on the wall – white men.  That was the first time pictures of men seemed like a message meant for me, a clear warning to stay back.

A tall woman came up to me. She was not a princess scientist or a cool female scientist like they show at Girl Scout STEM events. She was tall and had the body language of a nine year old still indifferent to her body.  “So you want to know what its like to be a woman here?” she asked me.  “Well there arent many, and that is how I like it.”

Note on art: Generally, a critical mass is defined as 20% – that means for it to not be weird or awkward you need at least 20% of the group to be like you.  Thinking about what this means as a female scientist was inspired by listening to Jay Newton-Small talk about her new book, “Broad Influence.”

“You look like one of those people yelling, ‘No more bombs!'” the taxi driver laughed on the way from the airport. I was a freshman in Philly, homesick; I wanted to be a physicist, homesick. I took calculus classes because our leather-miniskirted professor told us it was as close as we’d get to touching eternity. It was February, 2001. In the fall, I wouldn’t return.

I worked as a sous chef that first year. I loved to chop things apart until they became food, and to think to the rhythm of the blade. I dropped out of physics classes when I went back to school in Minnesota; I didn’t want to build, I didn’t know people could be bombs. I took history and anatomy; I took things apart. Instead of food: prayer, or maybe they’re the same, the rhythm of the blade. If I studied the pieces of us, looked at them long enough, could prove my gaze with writing, art, maybe everything would seem worth saving.

Critical mass in nuclear science sounds dramatic but is defined by stillness, stasis, neither a rising nor a falling, silence necessary for chain reaction. That spectre passed down from previous generations: we carry part of our identity as bomb.

So we take ourselves apart, show the parts to the light, love in pieces, hope our gaze is enough, or returned.

Medium: collage, gouache. I made a huge (for me) painting as part of an MCAD class last week. And then I chopped it up and liked it better. And then I chopped it more up and liked it better still. That blue, man, that gorgeous, toxic cobalt blue.

Week 24. Phagocytosis

My vision contracts as if I were looking at the world through a paper towel roll.  Then comes the feeling of being on a boat.  Then everything goes black.  The idea of blood stronger than reality.  I’ve never fainted when blood was drawn, just from reading or talking about it. Biology class was hard. I’d remove layers till I was in an undershirt, sweating, heart pumping, all adrenaline.  I felt like a ghost – out of body- at the same time I needed to flee the room, a deep compulsion that can only come from being in the body.

Phagocytosis didn’t trigger fight or flight. I loved the word.  I understood immediately the concept, to digest by engulfing:  An introvert in a group of extroverts.  The goody toe shoes overrun by curious and naughty friends. For me, when my fragment of a family met my step family.

My nuclear family was ephemeral, in the moment it existed we were outside pop culture. When I got a step mother and siblings they brought me into the world of the cool and the appropriate, the two fundamentally linked.  They took me to get my first ever hair cut of any kind (age 9), and to the mall to learn about the Gap and matching outfits.  My costumes and whimsy were digested into closet corners.  Even at 36 I have to ask if I am in the belly of the whale or my own skin.

I wonder what all did I miss to my pounding heart stuck on the significance of blood?  What other metaphors – what other parts of nature can I look to and find myself?

Medium: Watercolors

I just spent the day at Silverwood Park for an art class. I was thinking about drawing out of experience, rather than research, about how some knowledge can only be accessed through drawing and gaze.

I’m thinking about how to access heritage: our spine as evidence of segmented past that gave things space to specialize, though led to greater differentiation. About the meaning and identity carried in process;  how do we get to it? We’re more complex than worms, but we’re less unified.

Macrophage, chemically attracted to damage, always bonding where it hurts, engulfing what doesn’t look like healthy cellular protein, rearranging its skeleton to do so.

I love that things can go both ways: metabolize arginine to nitric acid or to ornithine. That we have both doctor and warrior capabilities in our cells, in a process that once simply wanted to get enough to eat.

Materials: India ink – though the process of ink radiating in water was also a material:)

Week 23. Postcard to Lenka Clayton

Note: We’re doing something a little different this week! We’d like to take a week occasionally to write letters to people who are doing things that inspire us: projects that merge art and science, activities that represent new ways of being and working and making.

This week, we’re writing letters to Lenka Clayton, a British conceptual artist, who has developed the idea of “residency in motherhood,” which is now an open-source project that provides tools, ideas, and a manifesto to explore the roles of parenting and art-making.

Dear Lenka,

My artist residency in motherhood – it was a new language for starters. The words made me feel like I was in a foreign country without having gone anywhere: nook, binkie, sleep sack.  I was so sleepless it outweighed memory formation of my first son, Byrd, other than an essay I published about it all.

Then came the construction and transportation vocabulary with classes of railway vehicles: shunter, slip coach, pendolino, and the associated sounds: clickety clack and whoooooooooooosh.  Byrd is 6 now. We are in the language of the ocean: blob fish, yetti crab, hydrothermal vents, the midnight zone. A recent face painter offered to draw anything.

“Can you do a spook fish?” Bryd asked.

She went blank.

“You know, they have eyes under their skin because they are see through.” Byrd continued.

Five ocean creatures later, they agreed on a flying fish.“I can do a fish with wings,” she sighed.

New words start as a question, “What is the deepest place in the ocean?” Then become jokes, “Your butt crack is deeper than the Mariana Trench.” And then they become metaphors.

I wake up at night sometimes, to get back to sleep I have to take my anxiety and transform it into curiosity, something to study. When I do this, a crevasses opens as deep as the Mariana Trench. I drop in my  questions, ideas, observations, stories. I fill the Mariana Trench and sleep.

-E.A. Farro

Dear Lenka,

Part of Toni Morrison’s Paradise has stayed with me since I read it: a house full of women drawing outlines of each other on the basement floor.

It made me think about how women’s lines can be dotted; we can have other bodies inside us and can even make hair, teeth, lifeless forms in the ovaries without fertilization.

Farro asked me, “What does it mean for you as a woman to see art made by mothers?” I was worried about assuming, pretending to be something I’m not, about looking at an idea as if it were an absence or defending that absence as if it were a firm choice devoid of complexity and all the weird, sad thoughts people have about their alternate imagined lives when they’re alone.

Lenka, you seem to enjoy patterns and fragments, things that take on meaning when they accumulate. Farro said that my walking everywhere is a kind of artistic residency, a different type of “hood” that builds understanding over time, something that many would find arduous, wasteful, unsafe, but the meaning’s in the minutiae.

I think part of residency is about carrying the things that take up residence inside you. In epidemiology, motherhood is viewed often in terms of risk, or like a woman has transitioned to only existing as part of a relationship. Though maybe none of us exist without our relationships: to ancestors, children, friends, and the lines between them.

I can’t answer Farro’s question. Art made by mothers: Its absence looks like a world made of scorn, and scorn, I think, stems from a sense of doom. So maybe it is the opposite. Maybe art and science made in motherhood is some subtle, slippery antidote to doom.


Materials: gouache, wax paper, sharpie

The image is a mental map of a hilly area in which I like to walk.

Week 22. Ecotones

At the ecotone between science and politics is a woman who has chained herself to a redwood so no one will cut it down.

From above, the transition from one biome to another; grass to forest, forest to tundra, is just one shade of green bleeding into another.

In science, Data is data is data.  In science, like jeopardy, all answers are in the form of a question.

In politics, everything is a story.

At the interface of questions and stories, data becomes metaphor.  Do you see the women chained to a tree as hero or obstructionist?

Medium: Ink.

References on front: Each line was taken at random from work notebooks from the laboratory (2011) and from the U.S. Senate (2012). 

In math, the separatrix is the line at which trajectories toward fates, perhaps balanced, perhaps oscillating, become erratic and destination uncertain. An ecotone can be a kind of separatrix for which fate becomes less of a fluid “this too shall pass” and more a state toward which one hurtles, collapsing before reaching a defined point.

It’s easy to see doomsdays everywhere, to listen to loud fear. People complain all the time about getting older and wearing down, though it’s not really the case on a cellular level. We go through a period of emphatic growth and then are sustained (though our sun degrades as we eat it).

I believe in oscillations more than ecotones, in waves that last so long we can’t help but call them static, species, biome. When microbes live in biofilms, they exchange privileges – the inner ones give ammonium to the fellows on the outside; in return, the outer cells protect their centers and refrain from eating all the food. To treat an infection, you make the habitat a challenge, push the microbes toward selfishness, independence, eventual collapse.

My sympathies are not hard-won. I see metaphor and allegory everywhere. I’ve never coughed up blood. Surviving a challenging environment means loving with force, holding suffering and sustaining life in both hands.

Medium: watercolor

The image is a representation of microbial oscillations in biofilm.