Monthly Archives: February 2012

Deoxyribonucleic Acid: Fun with Strawberries

In which you see DNA with your own eyes…

Sisters Science Symposium (S3), hosted at Sisters High School by Sisters Science Club, became a gathering of curious inquirers from a small Oregon community.  It snowed that morning and you wondered if this sudden assertion of Pacific Northwest winter would deter people from attending.  Not so…the school commons resembled a cell membrane with protein ion channels allowing our charged comings and goings: our attracting, learning, and informing.

You did not wake that morning expecting you would soon be pulverizing a strawberry in a plastic sandwich bag.  But you did, and you assisted others, as young as toddler Annika and as seasoned as the organizer of the event, Cal.

A high school freshman or sophomore guides you through the procedure.  The ultimate goal is to extract DNA from a whole strawberry.

You mash a strawberry up one minute, delighting in a joy which is similar to eating but more like a food fight.  Thus rendered a red mess, you add 10 ml of a buffer consisting of water, dish soap, salt, and a dash of meat tenderizer.  This tincture facilitates the  movement of proteins, carbohydrates, lipids and ion changes in the strawberry’s DNA.  Last, you filter 4ml of the strawberry goop through cheese cloth and pour 5ml of cold ethanol.  The ethanol helps the DNA precipitate from the goop. Amazing!

When you hold it up to the winterlight in the windows you can see, with your very strawberry-lover eyes, DNA floating in the cold, clear ethanol.  Unbelievable!  They look like little stars in an aquatic outerspace.

The last part of the procedure is the actual extraction of your DNA stars.  You reach into the vial with a wooden stirstick and swish them around.  They collect, like honest-to-goodness snot, around your stick.  You remove it, and while putting it in a sample container, you recall that you have similar stuff inside of you too.  You are not too far off from the species of strawberry, or juniper, or monarch, or lemur.

The building blocks of life in ten minutes…or as a fifth grader informs you: “We have books inside of us.”  And so does the strawberry.

-Carrie Anne Ebner

(Special thanks to Rima Givot, science teacher, for the corrections on science terminology and the procedure.)


The Lovely Lichen

In which you discover ways to symbioticize…

“Common Witch’s Hair” and “Old Man’s Beard” are synonyms for the same stuff: Alectoria sarmentosa.  In this neck o’ the woods, which is central Oregon at about 6,000 feet in the snow, you aren’t sure which name you’ll give it.  Reaching up and raking down a lock of it from a tree branch you’re level with because of about 8 feet of snow you’re now standing on, you roll it around in your gloved hand.  It is a long, stringy, fruticose variety of lichen, which means it isn’t leaf-like and it isn’t crusty: those are foliose and crustose varieties.  This kind is rumored to have been made into ponchos and footwear by Indians, though animal hide was preferred. You are invited to sample it with your fingertips, your tongue, your nostrils and so you do; the texture reminds you of your grandfather’s unwashed beard ; the smell of it and the taste of it…the lichen, not grandpa’s beard…are unremarkable.  Deer will eat it in a pinch during the winter months.
Your guide points up to a higher branch of a Mountain hemlock and asks you to observe another lichen.  This, you learn, is not to be eaten as it was reportedly used to kill wolves and foxes.  Some native tribes, however, brewed it as a weak tea to treat stomach disorders.  This Foliose-type, bright yellow-green organism strikes you like a highlighter gripped by the hand of an ambitious toddler near a white wall.  It’s christian name is Letharia vulpina, or wolf lichen (vulpina means fox-like in Latin).

You glance up again at the hemlocks housing this somewhat sensitive species and observe how it sits there, seemingly inert.  You imagine yourself painting your arrow with wolf lichen’s toxic vulpinic acid, setting out in a slink and a quietly moccasined step.  You pull back the bow….strong, uninhibited, breathing with the same cadence that the wind has…whoosh…and let go the feathered point.  Your victim slain and a sacred pelt is yours to be traded for some equally valuable good.

The wind sprays some prickly snow off the branches and you learn that the wolf lichen is can bring itself back to metabolic function after 15 hours in a freezer and begins photosynthesizing again after only 12 hours.  Indeed, you thought it was just a type of moss at first, but then you hear the story of its symbiotic origins:

Francesca Fungal was a superior architect; she could build the best home on any scaled tree branch or rock surface..  Alberto Algae was a smart cook; he could photosynthesise with the best chlorophyll-loving, sugar-addicted green leafy around. Francesca and Alberto got together.  Francesca provided some structure and Alberto brought home the sustenance, and after awhile they took a lichen to each other.

“Not easy.  Not easy at all.  At this very moment 12 billion stars are pumping light in and out of 360 degree notion of a limited universe…” -“Brian,” The Shadowbox, Michael Cristofer

The Subnivean Zone

In which you marvel at deep morning and deep snow…

It is light outside of your two-story window and you wonder how much time you have to rest before the alarm goes off at 6, and then 6:15.  Your window faces east and you expect a sublime sunrise any moment as you observe the silhouette of a 50 year old Ponderosa pine’s pluming branches and needles which have been there longer than the house.  It is like you are in a tree house, but what you are caught thinking of really, after the alarm, which will go off any minute you’re sure, is about your new favorite concept: the subnivean zone.

You are thinking of the subnivean zone not only for its musical phonemes but because you might speak of it today.  You will leave the house around 8 to drive to Mt. Bachelor where there has already been 240 inches of snowfall this year, with about 100 inches at the mid-mountain level, a level at which you will walk with young people and cool volunteer Forest Service rangers like yourself.  This means that when you are walking with your new snowshoe hare feet and you glance at a tree with its treebombs resting in branches, you are probably more than halfway up the tree’s total height.  And below all of that white are layers upon layers called the subnivean zone.  You like to say this out loud.

Subnivean zone.

And then in your thinking (still waiting for the alarm) you imagine a scene you imagined last time you were out: a daydream of going out there on a full moon night on a search for the pine martin in action, imagining perhaps that this critter’s stealth is best executed at night, when, in fact, daylight and dusk are for their activity.  Oh wouldn’t that be an adventure?  You would imagine you are a science-hobbyist and you have dedicated a few hours of your midnight to seeing that foxy creature hunting.  The martin will be sleek and intelligent upon the icy-white all around and listen for subtle sounds below the top layer.  It looks with its ears, below, at the subnivean, your new favorite word.  And below there are voles who have adapted such that they live under the snow during the winter!  The amazement is that it is warmer below the surface of the snow and they can dwell comfortably enough, except for the lack of oxygen.

The martin waits and listens for the vole who has begun its tunneling up.  It does this to provide a hole so oxygen can travel down to fill the cavity which is he vole’s hibernation nation. It climbs up through the layers and if heard will be snatched up as a snack by the hungry martin.

You consider an E.O. Wilson quote you found in a book not by E. O. Wilson: “Love the organisms for themselves first, then strain for the general explanations, and with good fortune, discoveries will follow.  If they don’t, the love and the pleasure will have been enough.” (Leon Powers, A Hawk in the Sun)

And though you likely won’t go on a midnight-moonlight snowshoe in search of martins,  it does seem like a good idea.  Especially when you discover it is 3 a.m. and you are far from sleep.  You decide to put on the coffee, write down some of the inspired thoughts you have, and then get to studying.  The subnivean obsession is done for now so you can move on to avalanche and watershed and lichen, until 8 a.m. rolls around and you’re off with your packed lunch and layers of wool.

Holden Caulfield Thinks You’re A Phony: On Tee-Shirt Philosophies

In which Carrie discusses movements heroic or otherwise…
A man gave me a book at the hostel last weekend.   After some discussion about it, I was going to write the title and author down in the book I had been presently reading, when he said, “well, here.  Tell you what.  In ten minutes I’ll be finished with it, and will just give you my copy.”  I’m sure my face showed pleased surprise, something it would show much of the weekend; his gesture was significant for two reasons:
1. He told me to pass it on to someone after I read it, and, 2. The book is about what is claimed to be the largest social movement in the history of the world: Saving The Environment.  

(The book is Blessed Unrest by Paul Hawken, in case you don’t get my copy when I’m finished.)

This was just the kind of weekend I had, inexplicably: people giving me books, people buying books, Angler fishes signed on copies of books, Powell’s books on Hawthorne getting its due patronage more than once by me, and thanked by the Green brothers  during their Hosted-by-Powellsbooks show.
(Would Holden consider novels phonies?)

I expertly explained to my fellow hostellers with whom I bunked over the weekend, “the Tour De Nerdfighting is put on by the vlogbrothers, John and Hank Green.  They  make videos on numerous topics and edu-tain better than anyone I’ve met in either the education or the entertainment industries.  What’s more is that their purpose for nerdfighting is to “decrease world suck and increase awesome.”

That’s a philosophy I can live with.

Sunday afternoon found me, or I found it (I hate to be so passive), in a line of fellow nerdfighters, most of them much younger than me, wrapping around the block which is the Bagdad Theatre.  The Fault In Our Stars van was parked there as a living icon, or ideology, of something great.  And it is difficult to say whether it is that John and Hank are the great leaders of the nerdfighting movement or not.  They claim we are a community; they act as though they defer to us.  Our questions and punishments and twitter comments and vlogs inform them about that which they must speak.  The topics range, and given thier five year influence,  are starting to have larger impact in the form of charities (, this-star-won’t- go-out foundation, etc.).

John had is moment in the sun, while we all put on our spf 30.  His book is about people dying of cancer.  But not just any people, young people, and, I’ll argue, heroic people.  And even had I not gone to the show, or heard the reading, I still might have come away from reading the novel believing I, too, could be heroic.
John told his audience, “Most of us will live heroic lives on a small scale…” and frankly I think many of us must have felt relieved.  So much of the time I want to do the grandiose, heroic acts, like I want to be the remembered hero(ine), but John reminded me, “…the universe can be cold to us,” and eventually, we will no longer be here.  The sun, or some horrible choice on our part as a species will eventually end human life, so, “be kind to each other, honor those who came before you and respect those who will come after you.”  

A powerful message for the frustrated humanitarian, at odds with the “worldsuckincreasers” around every phony promise or sneaky trade.  But, I can be a hero too, according to John, and Hank, and the communities I choose to engage with; us, one at a time.

There’s no grade for this kind of thing, no act too small.  Talk about taking the pressure off…

And so I left the Bagdad feeling how it felt, had a slice of pizza, and walked back to the small community at the Hostel.  To the man who ate a bagel with a fork.  To the woman who practiced hulahooping in the early morning hours.  To someone who would indulge my poetic fancy that salmon are the secret to saving the biosphere.  And to a new natural high I hadn’t felt since summer camp, back in ‘93.

The sweetest dreams are made of: