A beautiful garden, cultivating the microbiome, migrating godwits, and discovering Turgenev

by Rob Tiller

Last weekend I visited for the first time a beautiful garden in south Raleigh  – the Juniper Level Botanic Garden.  It is a 28-acre site with thousands of plant species, which is open to the public only eight weekends a year.  There are many greenhouses with plants for sale, but I focused on the garden areas.  With our times so full of stress and anxiety, the place was wonderfully calming.  I took a few pictures that I liked, which are here.  

Speaking of important non-human life forms, as you may know but a lot of people don’t, gut health is a big deal.   Your gut microbiome is made up of trillions of bacteria, viruses, and fungi living their own lives and helping you by processing what you eat.  

When I first learned that there were so many foreigners living in my body, I felt a bit queasy.  But I got over that, and gradually came to realize that I couldn’t get along without them.  Their activities affect many aspects of health, including ordinary digestion, susceptibility to chronic diseases, weight, and mood.  

Last week there was a good piece in the Washington Post summarizing current gut microbiome research.  A major recommendation in it was new to me:  good gut health involves eating many different fiber-rich plant foods.  More variety is better, and a leading researcher recommends trying to eat 30 different plant foods a week.  

Even if you already eat a lot of fruits and vegetables, Spector advises increasing the variety of plant foods you eat each week. One fast way to do this is to start using more herbs and spices. You can use a variety of leafy greens rather than one type of lettuce for your salads. Adding a variety of fruits to your breakfast, adding several different vegetables to your stir fry and eating more nuts, seeds, beans and grains is good for your microbiome.

Thirty different plants per week sounds like a lot, but the Post article had various tips on how to do it.  I’ll add to those my own recipe for green smoothies, which I eat most every day:  oat milk, flaxseed oil, kale (and/or spinach or another green), vegetables on hand (like carrots, celery, tomatoes), fruits on hand (like banana, apple, blueberries) and a little ice, blended on high.  Delicious!  And good for those essential gut workers! 

Bird migrations are all remarkable, but none more so than that of the bar-tailed godwits, as I learned this week from a NY Times science story.  Thousands of these birds are currently making a journey of more than 7,000 miles nonstop from Alaska to New Zealand and Australia.  The amazing dimensions of this flight have just recently come to light using new banding and tracking technology.  

The godwit’s epic flight — the longest nonstop migration of a land bird in the world — lasts from eight to 10 days and nights through pounding rain, high winds and other perils. It is so extreme, and so far beyond what researchers knew about long-distance bird migration, that it has required new investigations.

The physiology of these godwits is highly specialized, and still not well understood.  Their life cycle reminded me of one of my favorite books, The Last of the Curlews, by Fred Bodsworth, about a similar epic migration, related from the viewpoint of a remarkable bird that’s now extinct.  It cheered me to hear that the godwits are for now just fine, and that there are people who respect and marvel at them.  

Speaking of birds, I read Ivan Turgenev’s A Sportsman’s Sketches recently, and thought it was a masterpiece.  Published in 1852 in Russian, it’s a series of short stories involving an aristocratic narrator whose favorite pastime is hunting birds for sport.  

Though I object strongly to hunting, I found the nature writing quite beautiful.  At first glance, the stories appear to be primarily character studies of rural folk, but they gradually coalesce into a dimensional portrait of an entire society in crisis.    

This week I read more about Turgenev in a piece by Keith Gessen in The New Yorker. Gessen’s main subject is the novel Fathers and Sons, but he gives a helpful biographical sketch of Turgenev and his milieu.  Though seemingly casual and breezy,  Sportsman’s Sketches conveyed the barbarity of serfdom, and apparently influenced the future Czar Alexander II to abolish the institution.  

This was a cheering reminder that art and ideas can be forces for positive social change.  Although we’re living in a dark time, which definitely could get darker, we shouldn’t give up yet.