Monday, May 11, 2009


A fox came to my yard last night,
A black and russet ghost who slid
Around the garbage cans, between
The close-packed houses by the light
Of garish street lamps. There he hid
Some moments, then out on the clean
Crisp crusted snow he stole. He thrust
His black and russet muzzle through
And pulled a struggling morsel out.
Over the ice-thick winter crust
His black paws pranced as if he flew,
Tossing with black and russet snout
The hapless mice snatched from their world
Beneath the crusted roof of snow.
As he danced and killed and ate
A winter mist around him swirled.
A biting breeze began to blow
And mist and fox blew out the gate.

Last fall, deep in my tulip bed
Among the sleeping bulbs and bugs
I found a hand-forged horse-shoe nail,
A sharp obsidian arrow-head
And shards of some wood-fired clay jugs.
Perhaps here once there was a trail
(Where recently my house was built)
Where Hurons came to make their pots
And trade for goods from far away.
Perhaps on this site blood was spilt
And soldiers fled from cannon shots.
Years pass, and on this ancient clay
The people come, the people go,
Raise kids and crops and fight their wars;
And generations pass away,
While patiently the rivers flow,
The restless lake frets at its shores
And joyful foxes come to play.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Rebirth of the Last Former God

The Phoenix arose from the boiling sea
The spray from its wings
The great metal wings
The spray from its wings like liquid desire.

The pitiless eye in agony clenched
The pain that can never by pity be quenched.
The breath that reeks of the flesh of men
The splendour that makes the peacock a brown hen.

Smouldering still from the pangs of birth
It beats the air to escape the earth.

The vortex surrounding the great molten bird
The flames of its death
The fire of its youth
The choking ash cloud of its funeral pyre

Lay waste to the islands and mountains beyond
The sea in its agony rocks like a pond
As waves from the ocean and thunders in air
Dissolve away men and their world of despair.

Creation with chaos obscenely blends
As rising through thunder the Phoenix ascends.

Kali Mantis

At work my parking spot is near a big field full of wild-flowers.
Sometimes at lunch I go out there just to see the flowers and birds and bugs that live there.
It is under some big towers that carry electricity, so there are no buildings and no tall trees. There are lots of insects. They sing and fly around. It is very pretty.

Next door to my office is a school for teenagers. They are usually standing around the door first thing in the morning and they are pretty friendly, even though they must think I am very old.

One day, when I was walking in from the parking lot, a girl came out of the school with a strange look on her face and her arm held out stiff in front of her. There was a bug on her sleeve, a BIG green bug. She went to shake off the bug into the air, but I ran to her and said:

“Ooohhhh, give it to me!”

Really, what I said was “OOOOOHHHH, gimmee gimmee gimmee”, because I find making a joke helps people to stop what they are doing for a moment and think.

She let me take the big bug. It was a “praying mantis”. People call it that because when it is hunting or eating it holds its front legs together off the ground as if it were saying a prayer. When it is resting, the mantis folds its front legs up and looks as though it is thinking. Praying mantids (“mantids” means insects like the praying mantis, since there are more than one kind of mantis) eat other bugs, but they don’t hurt people.

I put the back of my hand close to its middle feet and nudged a little. The mantis turned its triangle head toward me, and then turned its eyes toward its feet and then climbed onto my hand.

The girls smiled at me in a funny way. I think she was glad not to have a three-inch-long praying mantis on her sleeve.

“It was in the office,” she said. “It must have been in there all weekend.”

“Perhaps it rode in on someone’s gym bag,” I said.

“That makes sense,” said the girl. “Well, have fun with your new friend.”

The girls went back into the school.

I was looking at the mantis to see if it would try to escape. It didn’t seem to be able to see, and it was feeling in front of itself all the time with its lo-o-o-o-ong front legs.

When bugs feel about with their legs in the air it is called “questing.” When bugs are questing, they are sometimes smelling the air! They don’t have noses in their heads like us. They have patches on their legs that let them taste and smell and sometimes hear.

But the mantis seemed also not to be able to see, because it moved very slowly on my hand. It moved so slowly that I was able to take it to my office and place it in a terrarium for the people in my office to look at.

Ralph is a man in my office who knows bugs. Ralph always seems to know the things that I don’t know, and sometimes I know about things Ralph doesn’t yet know.

“That’s a nice mantis,” said Ralph. “Why is is green? It should be brown.”

“I think it has gone a long time without eating,” I said. “It was in the office next door all weekend with no food or water. I think it can’t see.”

A man from my office went outside and came back with a fat grasshopper.

“Here’s a big breakfast for our new neighbour,” he said, and he popped the grasshopper into the terrarium with the mantis. The mantis moved VERY fast and ate the grasshopper. This is a thing I like about my office: no-one thinks it is strange to have a bunch of grown-ups clustered around a plastic terrarium watching a mantis eat a grass-hopper.

After eating the grasshopper, the mantis looked fatter, but also turned a little bit brown and started looking at everything. Her triangle-shaped head was turning every which way.

“See?” I said. “She is looking at things. I think she was so thirsty that her eyes didn’t work. Now she has had a drink of “grasshopper juice” , her eyes are working better.”

“Why do you call it “she” instead of “he”?” asked the man who had brought the grasshopper.

“Female mantids are bigger than male mantids,” said Ralph. “I have seen bigger ones, but this one is big.”

“What will you do with her?” asked Ralph.

“I will take her home with me,” I said. “And I will set her free in my garden. I have lots of bugs n my garden for her to eat.”

“Why not set her free under the electricity towers?” asked the grasshopper man.

“Because,” I said, “I am selfish, and I would like to have a big praying mantis in my garden.”

Everyone smiled.

“Perhaps she will lay her eggs in your garden and you will have many mantids,” said Ralph.

We let the mantis rest for that day and over night. In the morning I brought her a dozen “wood-lice”. Some people call them “roly-polies”, and they are easy to find under rocks. Through the day the mantis ate a few wood-lice. Her brown stripes got darker, and she spent a lot of time sitting upside-down under the lid of the terrarium.

After work that day, I took the terrarium with the mantis in my car and drove home. As I was driving, I thought it might be a good idea to give the mantis a name.

Mantids remind me of different kinds of creatures from legends or other religions.
  • Because they have long bodies with four legs on the ground and two legs in the air in front, I sometimes think they are like centaurs, from Greek legends. Centaurs had men’s bodies with two arms on horse’s bodies with four legs.
  • Because they are often green, and big and eat other bugs, and are useful to us, sometimes I think that mantids are like dragons from Chinese legends.
  • In Turkey, the mantis is imagined to be very holy, able to predict the future and to always know which way points toward the Holy City of Mecca
  • In some countries the mantis is called ‘the Devil’s horse’
But then I thought of the goddess Kali from the Hindu religion.

Kali is like two different people:
  • sometimes she is Durga, a beautiful warrior lady that rides on a tiger and brings blessings to people she meets
  • sometimes she is Kali, the Destroyer, the bringer of justice, very dangerous and yet necessary for the survival of the universe.
Both Kali and Durga have many arms with which they dance and wield weapons.

The mantis has ‘many arms’, is beautiful and dangerous and is a blessing to the garden because it eats harmful bugs. When mantises are hunting, they sway and dance to make their prey think that the mantis is really a twig blowing in the breeze: beauty, blessing and destruction, all at the same time.

In the Greek language, ‘kali’ is also the first part of many words that mean beauty or good luck.

While I was driving home I thought how ‘Kali” would be a perfect name for the mantis. But then I worried that my Hindu friends might not like me calling a big insect after one of their gods.
As I stopped at a red light and was looking at the mantis in the terrarium on the seat beside me, a BIG truck stopped beside me. The side of the truck was decorated with a beautiful and very big painting of Durga, riding on a tiger and shooting arrows from her bow. Perhaps my Hindu friends wouldn’t mind, after all.

When I got home, I took the terrarium to the garden and let the mantis go. She crawled out onto the leaf of an iris plant.

“You may call this your home, if you like,” I said. “And if you don’t mind, I will call you Kali.”

The mantis turned her triangle head toward me, and then looked ahead of her. Something was moving in that bushy weed, just in front of her leaf....

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Swine Flu Over The Cuckoo's Nest

We have been TOLD by several authorities that it ISN'T the SWINE flu.

Despite the tendency of pigs to get a strain of influenza that is genetically similar to this particular strain, we are going to call it ( as we really should have anyway) "Influenza A: H1N1". Not nearly apocalyptic enough for a good media footprint, but scientifically accurate.

And it isn't the "Mexican flu", either, thank God, even though across Latin America people of Mexican origin are being refused service in restaurants and refused rides in taxis. Solidaridad por siempre!

Well....the truth is, it shouldn't REALLY be INFLUENZA, either. The "scientists" of the Reformation (God bless 'em, operating on what training and what little information they had) decided that the epidemiology of the disease matched the passing of the seasons, so the sickness must be due to the influence ("influenza" in the dialect of old Florence) of the stars.

OK, so it was the BEGINNING of an appreciation for the origin of the disease, and after a thousand years of use, the word has taken on a different meaning. Another disease name, malaria, literally means "bad air disease", since people postulated that Spring-time swamp-gas emissions were causing the symptoms. Closing your windows at night seemed to reduce the incidence of the disease so obviously if one did not breathe the bad night air ("malaria")one was more-or-less protected. The strategy sort of worked because closing the windows kept out the mosquitoes that carry the plasmodium of malaria. It they had tried using screens on the windows, they would have seen that the gas, which could penetrated the screens, was not at fault. At the time, people did not correlate bug bites with systemic sickness.

Back to "the flu".

Influenza follows a seasonal pattern because it incubates in populations of migratory birds. On their way north, they encounter bodies of water contaminated with human sewage and pick up viruses that are shed in human poop. These viruses gradually spread through the bird population, killing some, sickening others and mildly inconveniencing most. Most importantly, the virus mutates and stabilizes under physiochemical pressure from the new host population.

(The virus doesn't do this on purpose; it's just that the really virulent mutants kill their hosts before they can be transmitted to new hosts, and the moderately virulent viruses make their hosts too sick to interact significantly with new hosts. It's a mathematical thing. The virus "adapts" to the new population by selecting for the mutants that keep their hosts moderately healthy, even at the peak of viremia)

When the birds fly south in the Fall (or Spring, if you are south of the Equator), they again encounter human poop, picking up another form of the virus, but the birds also poop in the same bodies of water thus passing their modified virus to the human population. Pigs and people exposed to the contaminated water acquire the virus and pass it on to other people by coughing, sneezing and sharing saliva.

In parts of the world where people and pigs live in blessed harmony together, there is a magnification factor: pigs, once infected, become "virus factories". Any respiratory virus in pigs is exhaled in astonishing numbers. Flu viruses don't live long in the open air. We are usually infected by transferring virus to ourselves by rubbing the virus into our eyes, picking our noses or eating with unwashed hands. Occasionally we will pick it up directly from the air, but the flu is spread by "large droplet transmission". The droplets are large enough that gravity sorts them out of the ambient air. If you sneeze or cough into your sleeve, the viruses are trapped in the fabric, where they will quickly dry out and die. Pigs, having no sleeves into which to sneeze, spread these viruses into the air and onto nearby objects where people encounter them.

"Small droplet transmission" diseases, such as "foot and mouth disease" in animals, are spread by wafting of the droplets on air currents, so the droplets are very small, indeed by comparison. There was one case where hardy viruses were wafted in small droplets across the English Channel! (We think this is what happened: no-one wants to admit rowing across the Channel with a diseased pig.)

(Generalizations are dangerous: SARS which terrified the world briefly in 2007 and nearly ruined Toronto tourism, is usually a "large droplet transmission" disease. In the hospital, though, once the patient is hooked up to a respirator, it is spread as a "small droplet disease", being aerosolized by the high-pressure air from the respirator and thence into the air-conditioning.)

It turns out that Influenza A (H1N1) 2009 is less virulent than was expected. The initial panic derives from the resemblance of this bug to the one that killed as many as 50 million people in 1918. That one was dangerous because it somehow tricked the immune system of the patient into attacking the patient's own tissue with a biochemical disaster called a "cytokine cascade". In the lungs, that is a Bad Thing. Death by pneumonia was VERY quick. Out of the tens of thousands of recent cases in Mexico, there have been a few tens of deaths attributable to the "cytokine cascade" phenomenon. For the most part, even our unfortunate friends to the south have at most been miserably sick and many of them not sick enough to stay home from work (thus spreading the virus more efficiently!).

Even if the 1918 virus was released on today's population, it is unlikely that the death count would be as high. The world was thinly populated by comparison in 1918, and there were vast numbers of folk who had never been more than 50 miles from their house. The "herd immunity" of humanity to that particular virus was very low. In 2009, the population density is such that your probability of encountering influenza virus during any year is pretty close to "1". We may not have been exposed to THIS particular mutant, but we have seen its brother or first cousin. Our immune system is primed. We are like a community who, having bought encyclopedias from one travelling salesman, are unlikely to be conned into buying a marching band from the next one.

Rational thought doesn't prevent bureaucrats, politicians and media flacks from trying to build careers on public anxieties. The World Health Organization (WHO?) declared that Influenza A (H1N1) was a "pandemic", a disease outbreak of global proportion and importance. The mildness of the outbreak has people asking whether WHO actually has any value in the preparation of the world for plagues and pestilence, to which WHO reponds "well, the influenza of 1918 began as a mild respiratory syndrome, then returned five months later as the most virulent pandemic in recorded history". I am reminded of millemialists who, on the deadline of the End of the World having passed without incident, recalibrate using a different calender and say, "well, the world will REALLY end in 18 months...oogabooga....".

Meanwhile, books, and TV programs, and potentially a feature film, flood the public with dire warnings and misinformation. Should the Real Thing come along in this generation we'll be sitting ducks, having had our "danger antennas" worn down to nubs by constant bombardment. "Flu-ga booga", we call it.