One of the most depressing stories of my adult life came from a phrase coined by the environmental writer David Quammen in his 1998 essay “Planet of Weeds,” originally published in The Atlantic Monthly. Quammen’s argument was that habitat loss and degradation would result in an earth made only of scrappy, adaptable, boring “weedy” species that reproduce quickly and cohabit well with Homo sapiens, the ultimate weed. We were on our way to becoming a planet of generalists--rats, mice, cockroaches, pigeons, crows, deer, coyotes.
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Like everyone else, I grew up in a cultural conversation, with people whispering to me all the time. Earth Day. Deep ecology. Bioregionalism. In the 1980s, my husband and I were “back-to-the-landers” in rural New Mexico, wanting to root into soil and sun, building our adobe house of mud, irrigating our way-too-big garden, milking our quickly-too-many goats, having two homebirths—a daughter and son--and too much goat cheese in the refrigerator. Our illusion that we could live off the land lasted a few weeks, or maybe a little longer. Importantly, we believed our personal connection to nature was meaningful. We believed we were part of a new environmentalism and land ethic.
Clouds massing and billowing, flat-bottomed ships, cloud architecture, cloud turrets, cloud streets, weird streaks, wisps, tails, cumulus, cumulonimbus, mamma, virga. Shafts of golden light. A purity of light at the edges of a storm. Thunderclouds rising higher and higher. More light, more billowing! A view so continuously grand and mystical that the mind eventually loses interest and turns to something less extreme.
The mourning dove, gray-cloaked, a little old-fashioned, a little Quakerly. Formerly called the Carolina pigeon, this is one of North America’s most abundant birds. Where I grew up in the suburbs of Phoenix, I often heard that plaintive coo-OO-oo…oo, oo. Coo-OO-oo…oo,oo. Coo-OO-oo…oo, oo. I am not sentimental about the suburbs of Phoenix. So I really don’t know why that coo-OO-oo heads straight for my ribcage and builds a nest there. With the slightest encouragement, I can feel weepy. Do we have some primal, aural attachment to mourning doves? Were we twins in the Creator’s womb?
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My optometrist wouldn’t know a bedside manner if he had just put his book and reading glasses on it. He looks at one of my test results, does a double take, and says, “Oh. Okay! You have myasthenia gravis, an autoimmune disease. This is serious. People die.” He goes on to explain how nerve cells release the molecule acetylcholine which opens a protein called an acetylcholine receptor (another sodium channel) in a nearby muscle cell which then starts a biochemical process that signals the muscle to contract. In myasthenia gravis, the body’s immune system has mistakenly produced antibodies that interfere with this process--specifically with the acetylcholine receptor. Typically, the disease affects muscles that control the eye and eyelid, face, and throat. My symptom is double vision. But I might also start having trouble swallowing or eating or breathing.
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Sacred datura--also called jimson weed, also called devil’s weed, also called angel’s trumpet--has a large funnel-shaped, star-pointed lavender-white flower with a sweet powerful scent. This is the flower you might conjure in wizardry school if you were given that assignment: make a flower. Make something from a fairytale. Make something seductive, glamorous, sexy. Make something to make someone stop in her tracks and fall to her knees. Well, that would be Datura wrightii. Typically, the sprawling perennial forms mounds of blue-green leaves with a dozen blossoms opening in early evening and on cloudy days. Adaptable, scrappy, and not often attacked by insects and other herbivores, this weedy species likes disturbed landscapes and warm weather. Every part of the plant--leaf, petal, seed, root--is poisonous.
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David Quammen’s essay can still be found on the internet although I barely have the attention span to finish it now. For that I blame the internet and perhaps aging, too, perhaps a lack of acetylcholine, something about protein receptors, something about sodium ions.