Sick days

Earth from space

February: this month it seemed as if the people in my house just couldn’t get well. There have been colds, pink eyes, fevers, aches, and coughs. Sick for days. And it culminated this past week in a stomach virus that caught all five of us. It was horrible, and I promise not to bore you with it for another second.

Instead, here are a few things I’ve found that are worlds more interesting to read about than the past week, month, of my life.

1. It turns out, according to an astronaut, life on earth is two-dimensional. In other words, things get smaller, and concern us less, as they get further away from us. This explains some strange occurrences, like how people care more when it’s in their backyard and how seeing impoverished people is so troubling in person and yet most of us don’t think very much about human suffering when we’re back at home. That astronaut, Ron Garan, has actually written a book about how if we can change this distortion in our perception, we can save the world.

2. Speaking of outer space…you just have to read this.

3. About a year-and-a-half ago my subscription to The New Yorker lapsed and I just always seemed to have something more pressing to buy. Without access to the physical magazine, though, my bathtub reading took a real dive. This past Christmas my mom got me a subscription (thanks, mom!!), so I’m thrilled to be back on their mailing list. I could go on and on about how much I love cracking open a beer after a long day and sinking into the tub to read it. But apparently, not everyone feels the same TNY love.

4. So, the Saharan Desert and the Amazon rainforest have this cool thing going on where dust from the desert blows across the ocean and fertilizes the soil with phosphorus and other nutrients, replacing what is washed away by the heavy rainfall. Recently scientists have calculated how much dust makes it from Africa to South America, and the answer is a whopping 22,000 tons. Earth is so fantastic!

With that, my brain has used the last of its strength for completing thoughts. Goodbye, February. Here’s to a healthier March.

Reading On Immunity with Mark Zuckerberg

Dr. Schreiber vaccine San Augustine

Mark Zuckerberg caused quite a ripple in the book world when he announced at the beginning of the year that he was starting a book club. I for one think it’s great that Mark Zuckerberg is reading! Awesome news! But it gets better.

Yesterday I read that he’s chosen On Immunity by Eula Biss as one of his selections, which is significant because, as you’ve perhaps heard, people are getting sick with the measles because other people are, in growing numbers, deciding not to vaccinate their kids. Perhaps you’ve heard all about it on Facebook. If not, lots of strong opinions have been thrown around, and for good reason. Well, it just so happens that I recently read On Immunity.

The book is an essay about the fear of vaccination, disease, contamination, toxin, and the establishment that examines the issues from all angles. It was written around a recent era of high skepticism–the mid-2000s. There was a huge outbreak of worry over a swine flu epidemic that didn’t amount to much, oil was spewing into the Gulf of Mexico, BPA was in our water bottles, the country was fighting a war because of weapons that didn’t exist. I know I remember the overwhelming sense of powerlessness that Biss describes. This was around the same time that I first heard people were skeptical about vaccines. Like Biss, I had my first child around that time.

I’m all for skepticism. But immunization is not the sort of thing I ever questioned or doubted, as a mother or as a person. Everyone in my house has had all their shots, and when a new vaccine comes out, we all get it without question. I was raised by a nurse; vaccines are not something about which to be skeptical. If I have any questions or concerns, I have a trusted medical professional (my mom) readily available to put my mind at ease.

I have, of course, heard of parents not vaccinating their children, but for some reason I assumed that was their decision and their problem. My personal philosophy on most things is not to judge, and ten years ago, no one seemed to care if people got vaccinated. Now that kids are getting sick with measles, it seems vaccination has become everyone’s business. The fact that the risk seems real (everyone on Facebook is talking about it, after all) is what led me to pick up Biss’s book in the first place.

The risk of some people choosing not to vaccinate is that as more and more don’t, the vaccines I (and everyone else) rely upon become less effective. We’ve all certainly heard about herd immunity. Here’s how Biss described how it works:

“Any given vaccine can fail to produce immunity in an individual, and some vaccines, like the influenza vaccine, are less effective than others. But when enough people are vaccinated with even a relatively ineffective vaccine, viruses have trouble moving from host to host and cease to spread, sparing both the unvaccinated and those in whom vaccination has not produced immunity. This is why the chances of contracting measles can be higher for a vaccinated person living in a largely unvaccinated community than they are for an unvaccinated person living in a largely vaccinated community.”

Biss approaches the idea of immunity as a skeptical mother facing the paralyzing fear that goes with parenting. She delves into the history of vaccination and, with empathy and grace (the kind of empathy that lacks in most recent discussion on vaccination–ahem, Facebook, again), dispels the myths surrounding it. The fear of vaccination, Biss explains to us in lovely prose, is unwarranted and misplaced.

Biss’s book has already won awards and gained acclaim for its literary merit. The fact that Mark Zuckerberg and I have, it turns out, similar reading tastes makes me feel oddly cutting-edge. But the most important thing about Zuckerberg’s choice is that he is delivering the message to the masses and hopefully people who are skeptical of vaccines will get it too. They will at least hear about it on Facebook.

Image from the Library of Congress.

Edwin Way Teale on National Parks

Paradise Glacier Ice Cave Mt. Rainier National Park

Since we’re talking about National Parks, and since I’m reading Edwin Way Teale’s Wandering Through Winter, I thought I would share this passage from the book in which he, over half a century ago, wrote about his affection for our park system.

“To all who need a touch of wildness in their lives, to all who seek contact, even fleeting contact, with nature untamed, to all–now representing three out of four Americans–who live in the man-made surroundings of the city and are able to enter nature’s environment only during short vacation periods, to all these the national parks of the country provide a solution to an instinctive need. Nowhere else on earth is a more magnificent system of wild parks available than in the United States. Where else will you find the variety of a Yellowstone, an Olympic Peninsula, a Yosemite, an Everglades, a Death Valley, a Grand Canyon? In later times, America may be remembered for its great system of national parks as older civilizations are remembered for their pyramids and aqueducts. In these national preserves not only wildflowers and songbirds are protected, but hawks and weasels also. Here we experience nature as nature is. We come in contact with the wholeness of the out-of-doors.”

I couldn’t agree more! I also like to think that, in experiencing nature as nature is, we also experience a wholeness in ourselves. Humans evolved in a natural world. Preserving the pristine natural environments, the ones that aren’t altered by humans, we preserve our ability to connect with the natural world in a way that is part of what makes us human.

Image source Washington University Library.

Winter views of Congaree National Park

Congaree National Park! We made it. To give you an idea of what it took to accomplish mere arrival at the park, I had to pack a picnic lunch (six peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, carrots julienned), ready three children (Where are we going again?), and motivate one reluctant man (This is an awfully long drive to go for a walk in the woods. It’s really cold out there.). I accomplished all of this by 9:00 a.m. and we made it to the gate (which is not far from Columbia, South Carolina) by 11:45.

Oakridge Trail Congaree

I should mention that, for me at least, the drive up is part of this particular trip’s splendor. The route takes you through rural South Carolina, where miles of fields and small farms spread between towns that are barely large enough for a traffic light. It is a classic American landscape. If the earth weren’t red and the fields weren’t filled with cotton, it could have been Ohio.

carved tree CongareeAs far as National Parks go, the Congaree stands out for its trees. Most of the old growth forests in South Carolina and the southeast were logged decades ago. Not the lovely Congaree. Until it became a National Park, the forest was owned by the Beidler family, who operated a timber company out of Chicago. The trees on their property along the Congaree River were worth more than they paid for the land, but this particular tract wasn’t logged because cutting down giant trees and hauling them out of dense swamps wasn’t easy. The forest sat untouched, and now that it’s a National Park, it will always be. (Yay, National Parks!)

winter sky Congaree

Ahhh…the trees. These are bald cypress, swamp tupelos, sweet gums, loblolly pines–the forest is home to eighty-one species of tree–many towering from heights it took over a century to reach. We walked from the visitors center, along the low boardwalk through the seasonally dry swamp, and out into the forest where we followed the Oak Ridge Trail loop through a stand of old growth forest and along a creek that feeds the river basin. This was about a 6.5-mile hike through trees I couldn’t close my arms around. Trees with buttresses, trees with knees, trees as far as the eye could see! Seriously, they were amazing. gnarly roots Congaree

As we walked, the harsh afternoon light cast sharp shadows on the forest floor, producing only slivers of shade. I didn’t take my sunglasses off once. Matt said he felt like we were walking in circles because all the trees started to look the same. All around us, the forest was dense like an optical illusion where all the brown trees blended together into something impermeable.

low boardwalk trail Congaree

Despite the damp chill in the air, we hiked all afternoon. Winter is one of the best times to get outdoors in South Carolina because of the mild cold (33 degrees Fahrenheit) and warm sunshine. We saw a pileated woodpecker, two flocks of robins, and plenty of small nondescript birds that were there and gone so fast I had no chance of identifying them. And there wasn’t a mosquito to be found in the entire swamp. As we drove home, the late afternoon sun glimmering on our minivan, each of us exhausted, I felt the deep satisfaction that comes with a trip worth taking.

The best Valentine’s Day date idea ever


National Park Valentine

If your Valentine appreciates a deal and is down with natural settings, then let me suggest taking him or her to one of our country’s fine National Parks this weekend for Free National Park Day. If all goes as planned, I will be packing a picnic lunch and taking my gaggle of little Valentines to Congaree National Park this Sunday.

Happy Valentine’s Day!