The Watson So Far: A Two-Month Reflection on Life, Structure, and Eavesdropping through Science

As I approach the two-month mark of the Watson, it's time to reflect. I was reading a former Watson fellow's excellent blog, Names Across Nations, and I was struck by something she wrote: "I learned to give myself structure in an unstructured world; to redefine productivity."

These months have reminded me how much I live for structure and productivity. A walk in the woods is not merely a walk: I take photographs, collect plant samples, and write numbered lists of birds. I once explained to my friend Jules why I order Thai food that's one star too spicy: it helps me increase my spice tolerance and, I told her, "I like to be productive when I eat" (a quote that has come back to haunt me and make me laugh ever since). That urge can be helpful when it propels me to get out of bed and do something, but it also makes me feel dissatisfied with a simple day of cooking, reading, reflecting, and passing time with those around me.

I like structure so much that I consider my life to have a scaffold around it. When I feel lost, I prefer the metaphor of "rebuilding the scaffold" to something less tangible, like "finding myself." In the loose-ended time after college graduation, my friend Melanie and I used markers to draft a new Life Scaffold on a poster:

A depiction of our Life Scaffold.

By definition, the Watson Fellowship offers very little structure. I am learning how to build a scaffold that contains something between too much structure, and too little.

My most structured time here has been small-mammal trapping (see my post on that). Those were eight days when my morning alarm, bedtime, meals, and even water breaks were decided for me. I felt supremely productive because I was contributing to a doctorate thesis. There were expectations for my work, and I could withstand the sweaty, buggy conditions to meet them.

My least structured time has been the days when I stay home at Quinta do Sol, the forest preserve where I live, and just hang out. I sit under the waterfall in the creek, write blog posts, play a Brazilian game called "Bozo," and cook American dinners for my hosts, Duca and Lygia. On a special night, we might even watch Game of Thrones together. (Lygia has taken to calling my Cersei Lannister for "being a traitor" and "abandoning her" in search of marsupials. I told her I'm holding the Nutella hostage until she forgives me.) These quiet days leave me feeling antsy but also invigorated for the work of another day. I remind myself that sustaining friendships through food, TV, card games, and inside jokes is the business of a meaningful life.

The night I made Sloppy Joes for Duca and Lygia.

In between are the working days, when I interview local farmers about their pets' diseases, or the traveling days, like the time I took a bus to the city of Campo Grande to watch my friend Renata's falconry class and visit the Natural History Museum with Cyntia. These days feel full because I am in motion, but I often look back and wish I had more to show for them -- more photos, more blog posts, more conclusions to draw.

As I plan the rest of my time in Brazil and my upcoming move to Madagascar, my instincts pull me toward more structure. For me, the easiest course would be to volunteer with one scientist after another, following instructions and collecting data. Yet, I know that is not "getting the Watson right." Getting it right will entail a balance, a healthy dose of hanging out and cooking to complement the backcountry treks through rainforest and the written reports. I think the structure I should seek is not one where my day is planned for me, but an intangible scaffold for why I am here. By connecting my daily interactions to a greater mission, I will feel at peace with my time passing.

During my Watson interview, my interviewer Mr. Chaudhary asked about the dual nature of my proposal. I had planned to split my time between researchers (disease ecologists) and community members (farmers, fisherpeople, tourism managers, and others who interact with wildlife disease).

"Are you more interested in the scientists or the community members?" Mr. Chaudhary asked.

My response was that my interest is neither scientists nor local people, but the human-inclusive ecosystem. I want to understand how microbes travel through time, space, and the bodies of other organisms -- plants, humans, and other animals. I am curious about how microbes interact with us (the big "us" of living things) as they go. To understand the multiple components of an ecosystem, I need to experience both nature-built environments, like buriti-palm veredas and coral reefs, and human-built environments, like rabies-vaccination clinics and the shop where Ana sells beer and ice-cream from her living room. (I cringe to separate "nature-built" from "human-built" because there is no difference; the shop is just as natural as the inner chamber of a termite's nest, only it has been built by a primate rather than an insect. But because we lack precise vocabulary, and "non-human-nature-built" gets awfully clumsy, I'll leave it for now.)

A nature-built environment (buriti-palm vereda).

A human-built environment (bathroom behind the beer and ice-cream shop).

I see scientists as translators. I am clumsy in Portuguese, so I rely on Duca to translate the stories of farmers into English; I am also clumsy in the language of nature, so I rely on biologists like Cyntia and Alexine (and the many-talented Duca) to translate the tropical savannah into words for me. I cannot interview an Agile Gracile Opossum to ask its opinions on disease. Instead, I watch Cyntia gently anesthetize the small animal with ether, pluck a dozen ectoparasites off its fur, and store them in a vial of ethanol for yet another collaborator to identify under a microscope, months down the line. This translation is clumsy. I will probably never know what that particular opossum knew of disease. But I hope to someday read the thesis quantifying the ticks, fleas, and lice of Cerrado mammals, and I will know that little opossum contributed to the story.

A Gracile Agile Opossum gets sleepy in ether so Cyntia can collect its ectoparasites.

In the past two months, I have spent countless hours sitting through dinner parties where I understand barely a word. I would strain to catch a phrase of familiar Portuguese, and I learned to laugh when others laughed, but I had no idea what was going on. Suddenly, the group would be ready to leave, and I found myself rushing to gather my things because I had not been able to hear the change in tone that signaled the end of the conversation. Other times, I'd think I had understood a story, but later Duca would translate for me, and I'd realize I had misinterpreted it entirely. Living in a world where I don't speak the language leaves me unaware of the happenings around me. I miss important information, and I miss the colorful details, jokes, and tales that make life rich. As I have become proficient in Portuguese, these details have come flooding back, and I realize how deeply I crave the ability to not only see or hear things, but to understand them.

This experience with language tells me that science, our attempt at multi-species translation, is important. If we do not attempt to translate the foreign languages of other organisms, we may see nature, but we will not understand it. We will miss the signal that the dinner party is ending, and we'll miss the rich jokes and stories that remind us why all organisms deserve freedom from extinction.

This is the scaffold I am building. When I commit myself to a week of marsupials or a month of mouse-lemurs (up next in Madagascar!), I do so not just to fill my days with structure, but to use science as a translator for the organisms I cannot interview.

The Watson is not meant to be a research year, at least not in the typical scientific sense. Perhaps it is in the spirit of the poet of John Keats that Watson fellows are not encouraged to publish a paper or even quantify our learning in numbers. In 1817, Keats light-heartedly complained that Newton had "destroyed the poetry of the rainbow by reducing it to a prism." Keats's poem, Lamia Part II, expresses the accusation more fully:

. . . and, for the sage,
Let spear-grass and the spiteful thistle wage
War on his temples. Do not all charms fly
At the mere touch of cold philosophy?
There was an awful rainbow once in heaven:
We know her woof, her texture; she is given
In the dull catalogue of common things.
Philosophy will clip an Angel’s wings,
Conquer all mysteries by rule and line,
Empty the haunted air, and gnomed mine—
Unweave a rainbow, as it erewhile made
The tender-person’d Lamia melt into a shade.

So I feel a little guilty about the "cold philosophy" of the spreadsheets of data I've gathered from my interviews with local farmers. I feel guilty about running statistics and making graphs to quantify the risk of canine distemper virus spreading from domestic cats to pumas and jaguars, about comparing a tick's mouthparts to a field guide to determine its species. Am I unweaving the rainbow? Am I killing the poetry?

Ticks awaiting mouthpart measurements.

No, my scaffold tells me I am not. Keats feared that knowledge would undermine poetry, but to me science does not "empty the haunted air." The more I understand of marsupials' lives, the more mysteries unfold and deepen around me, the more haunted with wonder the air becomes. That a Gracile Agile Opossom weighs between 13 and 21 grams does not relegate it to a "dull catalogue of common things," because the catalogue of common things is anything but dull. Real, tangible, common things compose my world. In the spirit of Anna Tsing and Donna Haraway, common things make my world-making projects possible, and I theirs.

Perhaps the discipline of science with which Keats was familiar, physics, attempted to "conquer all mysteries by rule and line," but ecology works peacefully with webs of interactions, complexity, and maybe even chaos -- at least, the ecology in which I am interested.

Two days ago, I had a conversation with one of the most knowledgeable bird-watching guides I've had the pleasure to meet, Maris Benites. Maris not only knew the Latin and Portuguese name of every bird we glimpsed, but she also knew the name of a strange, worm-like Amphisbaena lizard and a squishy, narrow-headed Microhylidae frog. I asked her if she loves birds more than other species, and she said no, she likes reptiles and amphibians just as much. She can't love one kind of animal on its own, because she knows how important each species is for the others. But she focuses on birds because of their value for teaching. In fact, she is just starting her PhD on birds as environmental educators.

Maris listens to the language of Pantanal.

"Why are birds such good educators?" I asked Maris.

"Because they interact with everything else," she told me (in Portuguese, so bear in mind that my translation may not be accurate!) Various bird species depend on freshwater, old-growth trees, specific fruits, cover from predators, consistently-timed army-ant swarms... the list goes on. Without a functioning forest, we have no birds. Maris hopes to get people to appreciate the little brown birds in the brambles, not just the colorful ibises and storks, and from there she hopes people will discover an understanding of ecological complexity and a conservation ethic, even for those animals that have the potential to harm us or eat our livestock, like jaguars and eagles and mosquitoes.

Maris's conversation got me thinking about microbes. When we talk about jaguars, we treat them with both fear and curiosity. They have the power to kill us, but we still feel curiosity about their lives, amazement at their strength, and awe at their beauty. I have seldom seen microbes treated the same way. Once labeled as a pathogen (something that causes disease), an organism is treated as a "sacrifice zone," an enemy particle that can and should be destroyed because we fear it. Yet, when we consider interactions, this tactic becomes nonsensical. We cannot squish every microbe like we shot nearly every cougar, grey wolf, and grizzly bear. Microbes are too small. They hide in dessicated capsules, only to emerge decades later. They evolve in minutes. They reproduce exponentially when resources exist. Their ideal habitat (in many cases) is the warm flesh and blood of human bodies, a resource that is becoming more abundant every day. We cannot eradicate microbes, so we are stuck with the task of living with them.

Evolutionary medicine, in contrast to the individualized medicine we get at the doctor's office, focuses on the weaknesses (vulnerabilities) of hosts rather than the strengths of pathogens. As humans, our principal vulnerability is that our bodies are rich with nutrients, protected habitat, and moisture. What we call a "body," a microbe considers a "home." By recognizing this pattern, we open up a wide new space for understanding disease. We can compare our bodies to thousands of other examples across ecology: soil that is home for termites, novateiro trees that are home for ants, ant nests that are home to fungus. We can look to evolved examples in which one organism becomes host for another and, instead of succumbing to disease, it thrives.

This tree, the novateiro (Triplaris americana) has a close symbiosis with ants (Pseudomyrmex triplarinus). The tree's name translates to "newcomer tree" because when a hapless tourist brushes the trunk, the ants swarm out to defend their home.

The ants live inside the trunk, feed on substances produced by it, and enter through small pores in the bark. This home may seem inanimate to the ants, but it is the body another organism, larger and slower but equally alive.

Here is another species of tree, populated by another species of ant.
This mutualist perspective leads to a change in the question of medicine. Instead of asking, "How can we avoid the pathogens?" we might ask, "How can be become better hosts for microbes?" Some quick answers might include populating our gut with diverse bacteria, limiting the use of systemic antifungals, and maybe even reintroducing parasitic worms. I hesitate to give these examples, because I do not want to close the conversation, but open it wider. What does it really take for a novateiro tree to make peace with a family of ants swarming up and down its veins every day? Do the ants ever take too much from their tree and kill it? Does the tree ever get tired of its guests and kick them out? How did the mutual trust for such an arrangement evolve?

Science does not take the mystery out of such happenings. It attempts, clumsily, to translate the languages in which other organisms are fluent, to the language we can read, that of numbers and words. I hope to learn this language with enough proficiency so I can not only understand the shouts, but so I may begin to eavesdrop on the whispered things, the inside jokes between ants and microbes and trees.

With that in mind, I think I'll go analyze the data from my last thirty interviews, and maybe write another blog about the species of amphibians I've seen. But I'll also take time to sit still, read a few pages of The Invention of Nature, and cook squash pappardelle for Duca and Lygia. Plus, I'm on deck to make brownies tonight, and we have an episode of Game of Thrones to watch.

This day will be productive, at least by my new working standards. And I trust that the scaffold will be built, piece by piece, as the day goes on.

Dad's Daily Bug

A butterfly on water flowers in the Paraguay River, drain of Pantanal.

Mom's Daily Bird

A young southern screamer pokes around in mud next to its four siblings and two parents.