I’ve got a thing for the language of science. My ears perk up at syncline. My heart beats faster at the quiet roll of benthic, semelparity, lek. I’m a fiction writer with a jones for the kinds of words that never show up in my stories at all, so I feel an illicit, even slightly smutty thrill to be sitting in the passenger seat of a research-white Suburban as Ian Murray, a handsome young Ph.D. candidate in aviator sunglasses, describes to me how desert turtle shells are ridged in a fashion akin to tree rings, reflecting climatic conditions and offering clues to the kinds of plants the turtles eat. “Dendrochronology,” he says. I try to conceal my pleasure. “Scutes.” He is driving at breakneck speeds across the upper Sonoran desert, and I’m hanging on his every word.
“Stable isotope research,” chimes in Fred Whiteman, a year or two behind Ian in her studies and half-dozing in the back seat. Fred – née Shawn – is tiny, intense, and the keeper of the iPod on this trip. She means that using the distinctive isotopic signatures of desert plants, a traditional tool of paleontologists, might aid Ian’s research. Paleoecologists don’t hesitate to raid other disciplines for methods and techniques, she explains. “We get to bring our imaginations to the party,” she says and flashes a roguish grin.
Imaginations and wondrous vocabularies.
Not just the language, but also the day-to-day practice of science intrigues me. I want to know the story behind the words, what science looks like from the inside. To find out more, I finagled a spot on this research expedition to the hottest, driest, lowest spot in North America. We’re en route to Death Valley from Albuquerque, where Ian and Fred are lab-mates in a University of New Mexico research group headed by Dr. Felisa Smith. I’m along for the ride and hoping to get a clearer picture of just what these scientists are up to, studying ancient packrat middens for clues to climate change. These middens, mounded deposits of scat and vegetal matter that have been assembled and peed on by rat colonies over the course of centuries, can last, fossilized and intact, for tens of thousands of years. Protected by narrow caves and rock recesses in the arid environment of Death Valley, some specimens date well into the Pleistocene Epoch. Smith and her team have been looking closely at climate fluctuations at the Pleistocene-Holocene transition and paying attention to the ways that animals have responded to the change.
First things first, though. “Double-double caveman with cheese,” Ian says, pulling off the highway in Kingman.
Which isn’t scientific jargon for anything. They claim it’s the best sandwich on the menu at In-N-Out Burger, and I’m happy to climb out of the van and test their contention.
I first met Felisa Smith at her office at the University of New Mexico. It was a sunny afternoon in September, and I had driven the couple of hours from my home in Taos to talk with her about her research, her teaching, her influences – in short, to find out what it’s like to be a scientist in the beginning of the twenty-first century.
Smith’s work caught my interest when she published a paper on methane emissions of Pleistocene megafauna. Mammoth…farts? “Mammoth burps, mostly,” she corrected, a grin bending the corners of her mouth. She described the paper’s genesis to me. “I’d heard a story on NPR about how much methane a moose emits,” she said. The amount surprised her. “And I had a dream that night about megafauna, mammoths, and ground sloths and all, walking around.” She looked at me sideways.
Yes, yes. That’s what I dream about, too, I implied.
Smith nodded. She got to thinking about how much methane those large beasts would have produced, she told me, and when a colleague dared her to do the modeling to find out, her competitive instinct kicked in.
As it turns out, the amount of methane produced by those herbivores could well have played an important role in keeping the climate warm in the first centuries of the Holocene. Methane is one of the most potent greenhouse gases, trapping twenty-five times as much heat in the atmosphere as carbon dioxide. Take away the megafauna – which humans may have played a part in by overhunting them to extinction in North America – and you take away the methane, too. Take away the methane, and you bring on the most significant cooling event since the previous glaciation. “If that’s the case, it’s the first clear example of human-caused climate change in the record,” Smith said soberly.
Smith is tall and youthful, with longer-than-shoulder-length brown hair that can take on a life of its own. (“When we went to a conference in Washington, D.C., it was very humid,” reported Wenyun Zuo, a doctoral student of Smith’s. “I looked at her and said, ‘Whoa. Where’d you get that hairdo?’”) She credits her name – Felisa means happy – to her Spanish grandmother. She has a relaxed but very rapid manner of speaking. The “relaxed” part masks the fact that she is internationally renowned for her field research in mammalian physioecology, and highly respected for work that spans from theoretical considerations of body size to macroecological patterns of animal distribution and behavior. The “rapid” part means you’ve got to run to keep up with her mind. Her name doesn’t describe her exactly right. Impassioned is more like it. When she talks about her work, her enthusiasm runs rampant.
Smith began the work she is best known for in the 1990s with Julio Betancourt, an early mentor and colleague of hers. Betancourt, a senior scientist with the USGS, and Smith worked together to tease apart the information encoded in petrified woodrat middens. When it comes to rat poop, she discovered, size matters. A lot. Smith’s serendipitous insight, verified by meticulous lab work, revealed a close correlation between the width of the fecal pellet and the size of the animal that deposited it. Taken alone, this may seem a bit arcane, a kind of scientific “TMI” destined for the archives. In conjunction with existing knowledge, though, it offered a vital missing link to scientists’ efforts to understand the past. The size of the rat, Smith already knew, was directly correlated to the temperature of its surroundings. The smaller the pellet width, the smaller the rat – and the hotter the mean temperature. What this meant, Smith was quick to realize, was that the middens – which can be radiocarbon-dated to within a twenty year accuracy, even for samples that exceed 20,000 years in age – could provide a fine-grained climate proxy for the Pleistocene-Holocene transition. The rats, in effect, were thermometers of the past, and their scat piles encoded the temperature record in rock-hard lumps for today’s scientists to translate.
Which matters why?
Even those of us who don’t actually dream of mammoths and ground sloths have caught wind of the fact that the climate is changing. Whether you’re a fiction writer or a scientist, a farmer in the Sudan or any person who expects to open a tap and have water flow through the faucet, a warming planet will affect you. Looking back to another period of rapid climate change, one in which we humans were just beginning to flex our earth-altering muscles, may give us a preview of how that change may play out. The question isn’t just how high the mercury will rise, it’s how we’ll deal with it – we, ourselves, and the other creatures who share the planet with us. Our story-making instincts will be hard-pressed to make sense of the radically different landscape that may be in store for us. Can science help us? Is there a way to combine the incremental understandings science provides with the grand narrative that tells us who we are without losing the value inherent in either?
The ubiquitous packrat is a much-maligned fixture of the Western landscape. I’ve done some of the maligning myself, so I’m slightly abashed when, on our first morning in Death Valley, I make my first face-to-face encounter with an individual of the Neotoma genus. This little fellow is small, furry, and ridiculously cute. He has none of the beady-eyed, long-toothed cartoon characteristics of the stereotypical rodent. He resembles an inquisitive hamster, and the first thing he does when he emerges from the relatively comfortable confines of the trap Ian set for him is to pee all over Felisa Smith’s shoes.
“They always do that,” she explains, sidestepping rapidly to avoid the stream. “You can count on it.”
Felisa and the rest of the team pulled in to the Death Valley campsite after midnight, and emerged from their tents looking as travel-weary as the rest of us. Besides Ian and Fred and me, we are joined by Rosie, Felisa’s fourteen-year-old daughter, two more first-year graduate students, and Larisa Harding, a blonde, willowy post-doctoral fellow who manages to look crisply put-together for the length of the trip. We gather in a small circle around Felisa, who has retrieved the little woodrat from his trap and is making introductions. Even the scientists cannot resist his cuteness. Felisa lets us pat his coat and then releases him into a mesquite bush.
The mesquite is a sign of things to come. Although the chief purpose of the trip is to acquaint the new members of the team with the particulars of midden-collecting, we’re there to collect field samples of mesquite, as well. In an effort to better understand the physiology and behavioral ecology of woodrats – and to explore a puzzling aspect of their response to the extreme heat of Death Valley – Larisa, Ian, and Felisa have been studying woodrats in the mesquite thickets along the Furnace Creek drainage for years. On this trip, the goal is to clip and carefully catalogue branches of thorny mesquite so they can be analyzed in the lab. Ian and his colleagues are studying the complex relationship between the woodrats and their primary food source in the area.
Sitting on my haunches with the others, sorting and bagging the samples Larisa and Rosie have clipped for us, I take stock of the place. At Furnace Creek we’re not much higher than the North American low, the 282-feet-below-sea-level marked a few short miles away. We’re smack in the middle of a mud flat, at the bottom of an ancestral lake that dried up ten thousand years before, and surrounded on all sides by craggy mountains with ominous names: the Black, the Funeral, the Amargosa (bitter, in Spanish). At the peak of summer the heat is brutal, topping 120 degrees Fahrenheit for weeks on end and claiming the lives of unwary travelers each year.
Today, the temperature is a balmy 70 degrees, the brutal heat of the summer at a far remove, and collecting and processing the mesquite samples feels a lot like farm work, although the outcome is knowledge, not nutrition. This is the part of science most people never get to see: careful and repetitive work in the field and lab. It’s tedious – until it pays off in heightened understanding. Sometimes the increase is a giant leap forward. More often, it’s a tile in an accumulating mosaic, an incremental step toward assembling a clearer picture of how things work.
I love the beautiful and precise language scientists use to describe what they know, but for people like Felisa and her team, the exciting part of science – the part that keeps them passionate and engaged – involves the questions they haven’t yet answered, the questions for which they lack clear descriptions and elegant solutions. They develop experiments and field protocols that address small questions, and they piggyback from them to the big questions that drive their passion. They aren’t deterred by the incremental nature of scientific inquiry. In fact, it may be that very quality – the measurable, repeatable, incremental acquisition of something that might loosely be called the truth – that keeps them honest.
Even the scratches the team sustains from the thorny branches don’t deter our enjoyment of this late November day. Back at camp, by moonlight and headlamp, the team cranks out pad Thai over a two-burner Coleman stove. Felisa eases into a camp chair with her notebook and a pen, recording the day’s events, and I think back to the conversation I had with Larisa that afternoon. As the next-most-senior member of the team, Larisa has had more experience than the others in navigating the turbulent waters of professional science. In her early thirties now, she’s already logged years studying black bear populations in Utah and brown bears in Canada, and had flown in to join this particular trip as respite from a year-long research post in Sweden.
“I just want to be around as much as I can to soak up the sponge that is Felisa – her enthusiasm, her deep knowledge of the animals,” Larisa told me. She’d found herself at a kind of crossroads, weighing the challenges and satisfactions of fieldwork against more secure, less physically demanding opportunities in applied science, and she needed some expert advice. It was unusual to have such a great female role model who could integrate science with teaching and a strong home life, Larisa said, and I was reminded of something Felisa, herself, had told me about working with students. “It’s a lifetime relationship. You’re writing letters for them for twenty-plus years. ‘Academic family’ is really true.”
When dinner is over, Larisa and I share dishwashing duties. We talk about poetry, and I promise to send her some Mary Oliver poems – poems with bears in them – when we get back to civilization. She’ll like them, I say. They tap the raw beauty of the natural world to explore the human heart. Plus, they’ve got bears. But running through my mind is Oliver’s most famous line: “What will you do with your one wild and precious life?” And I’m wondering, How do you make those decisions? For yourself, and for the planet? The dishes finished, we join the others for wine, beer, and homemade brownies. We linger to tell stories under the cloud-smudged night sky and then drift off, one by one, to our tents.
Hang around long enough with anyone familiar with Death Valley, and you’re bound to hear the phrase “vast geologic museum.” Case in point? Take the road to Titus Canyon. We head that way the next day, all of us bruised from a bad night’s sleep and eager to escape the wind that started around midnight, tearing at our tent flaps and howling its way along the cliffs that border the campsite. We’re eager to move on to the middens and the protected canyons where they’re found.
The road to Titus Canyon will carry you up and into the Grapevine Mountains, leaving the good hardtop behind at the pancake-flat valley floor and branching off into a dusty, graveled one-way track. You’ll travel two dozen twisty miles, heading southwest from the eastern border of the park before rejoining the main highway back to Furnace Creek. As the road rises, the creosote bush, shadscale, and Indian rice grass that dot the flat terrain will be replaced by a sparse sprinkling of Mormon tea and sagebrush clinging to low, eroded hills. Climb further and the plants recede while rocks take center stage: gentle shades of brown and tan, pink and gray craggy topography that looks straight off the set of Star Wars. You’ll rise above the softer sedimentary layers – the rounded, wrinkled humps that resemble elephants – to weave through crystalline structures that jut from the landscape like prehistoric beasts, their profiles sharp as the backbone of a stegosaurus. Without much vegetation to obscure the surface, millions of years of rifting, faulting, folding, and flowing are evident even to the untrained eye. This is a landscape in motion.
When we stop for lunch, Felisa suggests we dial down the scale from millions of years to thousands and try to recognize the midden phenotype. Fred, Ian, Larisa, and she have all collected middens prior to this trip, but we newbies must struggle to get up to speed. We need to learn to think like a packrat, to find just the right combination of “geology and geometry,” Felisa says, to harbor a midden. A shallow cave will do nicely, protected from the wind and water. A south-facing exposure is best. “Sometimes we find them in very small little crevices,” Felisa acknowledges. “You get on your belly, and you scoot in, and you get something.” Previous trips to Titus Canyon and its environs have yielded over 150 middens to teams of persistent, scoot-adept scientists.
We’re paused roadside by an old friend of the team. The aptly christened “Oozing Midden” is almost twenty thousand years old, tucked into a nook in a limestone cliff face. “When this was laid down, there were ground sloths and saber-tooth tigers around,” Felisa reminds us. I’m not the only one to glance over my shoulder. There’s something about this place that warps time. It wouldn’t surprise me to see a woolly mammoth gallop around the corner. Or a Titanothere, a large mammal that resembled a rhinoceros and went extinct more than thirty million years ago. A skull from one of these was excavated just one canyon over.
Finally, with the day tilting toward late afternoon, we select a narrow side-canyon adjacent to safe parking and climb out of the vehicles. Larisa takes off to scout the rocks up-canyon, and we dawdle behind, examining the rocks, taking short jaunts up scree slopes to peer in shallow caves and do some searching on our own. But when Larisa shouts, we gather quickly. It’s the highlight of the trip, and nobody wants to miss it.
Later on, I’ll have trouble explaining to friends just how exciting it was to be there, to cluster with the others in a small cavern in the rock and lay my hands on an in-situ packrat midden. Rodent feces – even ancient, petrified rodent feces – holds little allure for most of the population. For those of us who had driven seven hundred miles to be there, though, there was something more to gain than the thrill of discovery. As distant as I’ve grown from the world of science, I was happy to see how at home I felt among humans who share both an unbridled joy at being in the natural world and a desire to see beneath its immediate surface. It was a kind of gathering around the fire, an unspoken declaration of belonging. We laid aside our tools of data-collecting and story-crafting and for a moment became the united clan of packrat, honoring the old bones and waste pile, alert to the passage of time, acknowledging the changes that had come.
The earth is changing. Standing in Death Valley, which bears the marks of time’s passage as clearly as our sags and wrinkles reflect the age of our human bodies, I could put this into perspective. The earth is always changing. The climate stands a good chance of once more becoming inhospitable to us, and this time our role in that event will be even more evident. What this means – for understanding who we are, and for our sense of the future – is almost too great to bear. To take it as reliable conjecture, as rolling projection and prediction, is to submit to a kind of paralysis of spirit. It is to enter the realm of hopelessness.
But that narrative, too, is incomplete. The particular brand of climate-change pessimism that has crept into the popular mindset in the last few years is itself built from scattered data points that waver in their predictive properties. I’m not arguing in support of climate change deniers; they’ve got their own peculiar bailiwick, equal parts kooky and sinister. My concern is that climate pessimism stands in for a real alertness to what is happening. Things may not change as drastically as some have suggested – or it may be worse. In any case, the narrative we draft makes a difference. Acknowledging our complicity in the creation of the situation is crucial to taking steps to mitigate those actions, but leaping to conclusions based on partial information is just plain lazy. The only honest way forward, it seems to me, is to continue to engage in the same basic activities, the looking and listening, the asking, the imagining, that writers and scientists have always been good at.
I thought back to the things I’d heard Felisa say about the way she approaches her work. See clearly. Observe closely. Connect the dots. Quantify our understanding. Maintain skepticism. Don’t force the outcome. Avoid a personal investment in the results. Tell the story. I am a tourist in the world of science with a rudimentary grasp of the tools and techniques, and my engagement with the knowledge base barely scratches the surface. But tagging along on this research trip has taught me that, in science as in architecture, God is in the details. It’s true of fiction, too. An incremental understanding – that is, a respect for the smallest of details – is nothing to sneeze at. It is the only way the full story can unfold. And with a fuller, more nuanced understanding of our world, perhaps we can begin to chart a path to a sustainable future.
In the morning, we will load the Suburban and cram Felisa’s Toyota SUV full of gear and specimen bags, carrying home the mesquite we’d cut and wrapped in airtight sacks. The cargo container on the roof will be jammed full as well, and the weight will amplify the Forerunner’s front-end sogginess. Felisa’s SUV has got over 300,000 miles on the odometer. A new vehicle is on the wish list, but with one daughter freshly in college and a second not far from it, a car’s not likely to make it to the top anytime soon. Felisa is a working scientist, the kind who focuses more on pursuing the questions and getting the work done than on burnishing her reputation, and it shows as strongly in her relationship with the younger scientists coming up under her generous and respectful mentorship as it does in her scholarship. “There’s a lot of investment in the students,” she acknowledged. “It benefits everyone.” What she means, I think, is that we have a future to look after, whatever it might hold, and nurturing those who will carry on the work after us is as crucial a part of our legacy as our publications and the record of our discoveries.
When we get back to Albuquerque it will be nearly midnight, and we’ll drift off to our own homes and the showers and beds and the loved ones who await us. In a few days, I’ll dig out Mary Oliver’s poems and root around for the one I remembered. “Spring” describes a bear waking from hibernation to the “brisk and shallow restlessness” of that season. I’ll copy it into an email and send it off to Larisa along with my thanks to all the team for hauling me along with them on their trip. I’ll return to my normal life, in which dinner gets made in a kitchen, and I don’t stop every half hour to empty pebbles and grit from my shoes. But a line from that poem will stay with me.
“There is only one question,” the poet claims: “how to love this world.”
At the cave, Felisa kept on teaching. The smell will sometimes steer you to a midden, she explained. The slightly pissy odor of rat urine persists even after the colonies are long gone, but the truly old ones smell musky, not pissy. If in doubt, you can tell a more recently deposited midden from an ancient one by the way they sound when you hit them with a hammer. The new ones are punky. The old ones are thunky.
More wondrous terms. I reveled in them for a moment, and then filed them away for future reference.