The Casual Blog

Tag: microbiome

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

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.    

Charities, Allegiance, history, microbes, walks, and flying my new quadcopter

Demolition on Harrington Street

Demolition on Harrington Street

This week I wrote my annual checks to my favorite charities. Giving seemed more than usually important this year, since some of my favored causes are directly threatened by the recently elected executive — the environment, human rights, civil liberties, animal rights, family planning, and those less fortunate. I felt really lucky to be able to help, even if only a little, by giving to effective organizations.

I was especially mindful of the dire plight of refugees from the Middle East, Africa, Central America, and elsewhere, and so want to mention for your consideration the work of the International Rescue Committee and Doctors Without Borders. I’ll also note that in these tumultuous times we need more than ever the wisdom and beauty of the arts, and hope others will join me in supporting the wonderful North Carolina Ballet and North Carolina Opera.

On Tuesday, Sally and I saw Allegiance, a movie of a show recently on Broadway about the experience of Japanese-Americans in WWII. It was inspired by experiences of George Takei (Star Trek), whose family, along with many others, was held in a grim internment camp. At one level, it was a normal Broadway show, with pretty songs and kinetic dances, which were enjoyable if not especially original. But it was ambitious in taking on a big and tragic subject and expressing some of its complexity. While the so-called alt right has found new methods for inspiring fear and hatred of minorities, Allegiance does the opposite — it inspires caring.
The movie of Allegiance was a one-time-only, nationwide event that I learned about from the Stuff You Missed in History Class podcast, which I’ve been listening to at the gym. Stuff You Missed often take on subjects that our American history textbooks played down or left out, because they don’t fit comfortably into a triumphalist national narrative. For example, recent ones I’ve liked have treated the Dakota War of 1862, George Wallace, the Reynolds pamphlet of Alexander Hamilton, the first transatlantic cable, and the Palmer raids. They segments are lively and have a nice balance between serious academic history and the personal, emotional implications of some dire events. The hosts, Tracey V. Wilson and Holly Frey are starting to feel like friends — really smart, curious, and hardworking, with a sense of humor. You can check it out here.

THe spirit of curiosity and engagement with new things has been upon me, and so I finished reading, and started re-reading, I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life, by Ed Yong. It’s a lively and convincing view of the bacteria that live in us, on us, and all around us. This is a really exciting area of science, and developing fast. I like that Yong’s title used a line from Walt Whitmans’ Leaves of Grass, which also can change how we see ourselves.

When I was a child, I was taught that “germs” were bad, and the best thing to do was avoid them or eliminate them. As Yong makes clear, this was both silly and dangerous. Our bodies contain more bacterial cells than human cells, which calls into question who really owns those bodies. There are some 39 trillion bacterial cells in and on us, and thousands of species, though the particular kinds in each of us varies greatly, and the varieties are constantly changing. They are vital to our well-being. Without them, we could not grow or thrive. Each one of us is an ecosystems — microbiomes, as they now say. Without those multitudes, we could not grow, and could not continue to live. They are vital, for example, for digesting food, producing vitamins, breaking down toxins, and killing more dangerous microbes. DCIM100MEDIADJI_0017.JPG

I also finished reading On Looking: Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes, by Alexandra Horowitz. Horowitz, who teaches psychology and animal behavior at Barnard, writes well about who she sees, hears, smells, and touches in walking around New York. After an initial walk by herself considering how much there was to see in a city walk, she also realized how little she normally perceives. She does the other 9 walks with experts in some aspect of the urban environment, like a geologist, a paleontologist, an architect, a wild animal expert, a sound designer, and her dog (an expert in smells). She gives short by credible accounts of the relevant science, and makes us consider the urban environment as full of non-human life and history.

The demolition photographs here are from just down the block on Harrington Street, where they just knocked down a former furniture store that sat next to the old Board of Elections Building. They didn’t fence off the site, so I was able to take a good look around on Saturday. I look forward to more new construction in the neighborhood, including (can’t wait for this one) a grocery store.

Finally, this weekend I added a new line to the c.v.: quadcopter pilot! I took my first flight with my new DJI Phantom 4 quadcopter, a/k/a drone (a term I don’t really like, at least as applied to my aircraft) at Fletcher Park, where it was cold and gray. It was awesome! There is a learning curve, and I’m climbing it. I’m very excited about exploring aerial photography. These ones are my beginnings.