Monday, May 6, 2013

Cyrus Console on the Lesser Wax Moth, One-hitters, & Not Being a Real Writer

Kieseritzky, good teacher and, I suspect, good scientist, kind, awkward man who carried one shoulder high, round face, ill-advised beard, white running shoes, prosody and intonation that of a nine year old boy, how each full stop betrayed wonder at something that was the case, I was a research assistant in his lab. And this story will end with a conventional passage about light falling a certain way, a problem, sense of an ending in change of light or weather or season, conventional tracking shot sub specie aeternitatis, or plain mention of the air, breathe a word of this, light falling as though it meant something.
My schedule was for me to determine, that was the first problem, and my task to weigh deceased specimens of Achroia grisella, the Lesser Wax Moth, so named I guess because the smaller of two moths parasitic on the honeybee, hive parasites. Honeybees were not the focus of our research, but in 1999 one heard terms such as Spring Dwindle, May Disease, Fall Dwindle Disease, Autumn Collapse. Disappearing Disease, that in eight years’ time would be subsumed under the heading of Colony Collapse Disorder. Now roughly half the industrialized world’s bees have disappeared, and child laborers, their sable brushes loaded with pollen, daub the topmost stigmata of China’s orchards in their stead.
A. grisella was exceptional in that physically asymmetrical males of the species attained greater success, generally speaking, than their fairer-proportioned rivals. The crucial asymmetry was not in their appearance, of which “Lesser Wax Moth” gives adequate impression, but in their song, though song here is a technical term, since the song did not contain or embody structures complex enough to be called melodies and was not even audible, not by us. It was really more of a quiet ultrasonic clicking or chirping. The moth had no voice or vocal apparatus, managing instead by means of paired organs near the jointure of wing and thorax, which, sounding in rapid alternation, signalled his availability, so to speak his loneliness, to passing or perhaps stationary females, who in turn approached or not, a decision that presumably involved calculations of a fundamentally aesthetic nature. Our research saw that males whose left and right organs produced differing tones or notes reliably attracted more females than did males with well-matched tones. When I say differing tones or notes I mean distinct right and left waveforms, alternate peaks on the graph of the song scrolling in the dark theater of the lab. The room I thought of as the theater, warm and humid in an uncannily consistent way, had in it banks of computer and audio equipment and, like the rest of the laboratory, an odor of beeswax and grain byproducts from which the moths’ feed matrix seemed to be prepared. I would like to embed this space more fully in a sensorial present, but am having trouble picturing other details, maybe because of its perpetual darkness.
In the main room of the lab I weighed their numbered bodies as part of an effort to correlate the information of the song with another conventionally attractive male trait, mass. I think that my measurement of them was the only time their adult bodies left the bullet-shaped capsules in which they were stored, fed, and maintained, into which they had been placed as pupae, and through whose airholes they breathed their last, their last which was not air but carbon dioxide, in the chamber where each cohort was euthanized. Why was a question I did not put to myself at the time. Here the phrase final recording comes sharply to mind, as if it were a key phrase in my ruminations of that period, and in tracing its source I realize that my memory has played me false, for as soon as the males emerged from their cocoons, which looked like woolen pills, we took them individually to the theater and recorded their songs.  And we did not, as I had initially recalled, use the captive animal but the recording itself, emitted from a tiny loudspeaker, to attract females in a warm arena constructed for that purpose. That was another part of the dark theater. I spent nights in the lab listing their masses, sliding open and closed a hood that guarded against the influence of drafts upon the exquisitely sensitive action of the analytical balance, shucking the empty capsules into a tray.
Good teacher that he was, Kieseritzky had given me a second challenge, namely to determine precisely how the male organ produced the song, something that was not then known. (I can hear Dr. Jacobs’ voice: “yes he was a good teacher, but was this not also a sign of the exceptional promise he must have seen in you?”)  I remember sitting alone at the superb binocular microscope, resolved, the only time I was so resolved, to make a detailed sketch of the organ, then having to the best of my ability made the sketch, and overwhelmed by the tininess of the thing and the impossibility of manipulating it directly, realizing I had made the decision never to think more on the problem.
In a red felt pouch in my pocket I carried a “Kinder Surprise,” an orange plastic ovoid in which, within hollow chocolate eggs, the candy giant Ferrero concealed intricate plastic toys. Because of their small, dangerous contents Kinder Surprise were prohibited from sale in the United States, but I sought them out as an exchange student in Cambridge or Barcelona and home repurposed them as containers for marijuana. I had also in the felt pouch a straight glass pipe of the sort then commonly called a “bat” or “one-hitter,” roughly the dimensions of a cigarette. The in the twilight of their novelty glass pipes, as opposed to pipes of wood or brass, were a hallmark among cognoscenti. If someone passed you a glass pipe things were looking up because the marijuana packed in its bowl would be excellent, or as we put it, “kind.”
And in their virgin state such pipes were more or less transparently clear but as their interior surfaces, through discharge of their function, quickly developed an opaque coating or patina of oily resin, the interface of this resin with the glass, the two media differing in refractive index, produced swirls of prismatic color. Some glassblowers--and there were glassblowers laboring over small acetylene torches in every college town, their caucasoid dreadlocks gathered and bound in glass rings--some claimed other secrets of this delayed coloration, such as impartition of precious metals to the molten glass, but even if I credited these accounts I would have had no theory by what mechanisms they might have worked.
Like others my pipe had a name, assigned in this case by the person who had given it me, the first person with whom I would build a relationship entirely and exclusively around the practice of getting high. She, Anne, named the pipe—a solemn pronouncement made as she exhaled the second hit, steering with her knees as we sped westward in her sedan, “Haarviko,” a spelling I know because it appeared in her inexplicable letters to me. I never learned about her childhood or aspirations but we spoke about Haarviko as though it were a family member and it anchored for me a complex structure of sentimental and nostalgic associations, many of them, such the image of Anne herself, who depending on who you asked went also by the name of Gaby, profoundly ambivalent. This pipe was the center of my thoughts from the moment I left my mouse-infested apartment and all through the campus moist and fragrant in the June midnight, up eight flights to the lab and so forth to my seat at the balance.
I folded the sketch once, the sketch of the acoustic organ of the moth, perhaps the only image of this organ ever made, and set it aside. Ben says I am not a bad draftsman, but with marijuana the whole mind gathers into the point of its instrument, and the drawing or the phrase or whatever figure is at hand becomes a high-walled labyrinth. This, not so much the being overwhelmed but the failure of resolution that accompanied it, I see now as symptomatic of the mild depression, if that’s what it was, that consumed my fourth and fifth undergraduate years.
The lab was as I say on the eighth floor. I ascended through a long cinderblock stairwell, cinderblock painted over in thick latex, standard institutional gray-green interior surface, a smoothly pebbled texture like Naugahyde or medieval cobbles seen from a steeple. My steps resounded with a latency suggestive of the thousands of perpendicular planes of which the staircase with its sealed concrete floor, or the representation of that staircase in the abstract, was formally composed, graphite treads in extruded aluminum coping, one for each of the thousand steps, my steps reverberating, the skinlike odor of state schools, at each landing there stood a heavy door that opened on a partial enclosure about the size of a shower stall, beyond whose waist-high rail shone the solitary lights of a great plain of parking lots and storage buildings or dwellings.
With the possible or historic exception of grasslands, the Midwest’s sole oceanic landform, oceanic in the psychological sense, was its expansive hemispheric sky, busy with airliners and storm cells, windborne seeds and insects. I learned that insects did not fly so much as they were blown about--insects are equipped not with wings but with sails, Kieseritzky had remarked--and were routinely swept tens of thousands of feet aloft and deposited in distant parts unknown and sometimes fatal to them, that the summer air was dense with beings in directionless unmotivated flight through spacious privacy, separated not only by distances, but also by large gradations of scale.
On the other side of each landing there was an identical heavy door--one could stretch out his arms to touch both doors at once--and through it the lab building proper, humming and lit by the fluorescent bulbs which offered significant advantages of efficiency over the original incandescent technology, but cast a sickly olive light that flickered just above the so-called flicker-fusion frequency, so that although I did not see the intervals of darkness, I could somehow feel them through the hastily stitched fabric of olive light. I knew about the flicker-fusion frequency because the fact of its being much higher among flying insects explains why their flight becomes erratic under fluorescent lighting, which is darkness to them 60 parts of each second in the Americas, or 50 parts in the rest of the world, whereas around conventional light sources they fly smooth, interminable circles. And these circles are the result of having evolved flight with continual reference to the distant immobility of celestial objects, so that the straightness of the path and the uprightness of the insect’s body are both defined in terms of holding the light source stationary in the visual field. In other words, flying insects try to keep whatever light source directly overhead, and if the light source is nearby this requires constantly changing direction. It is like the difference between a walker keeping the ocean on her right, or keeping the kitchen table on her right.
I would enter my passcode, I want to say 1932, on the lock to a third heavy door and then take my seat at the analytical balance, reach for an encapsulated moth from the tray at my left, record mass to the milligram or tenth- or hundredth-milligram, I no longer remember the precision or have any gut sense even of a plausible order of magnitude of such precision, tweeze the body of the moth into an ordinary trash can under the table and toss the empty capsule, as I said earlier, into a tray at my right hand to be cleaned and reused.
A diligent worker would have been able to iterate this routine about 500 times in a shift, perhaps entering a pleasant non-discursive cognitive space, lost in the rhythms of the task and complacent in the satisfaction of doing his work well. I had long intuited the existence of a state like this and I wished fervently to be able to enter it, but it was apart from me, and I have never in the line of duty found it.
What happened instead was that with a sigh I sat myself at the balance, contracted my lips and tensed my jaw, fixing my eyes on the table surface just in front of me, an empty region of the stable surface where, nothing was happening nor likely to happen, and for a space whose duration never quite registered to me, I gave myself up to rumination: It has to be done; I don’t want to do it; I am supposed not to have any choice about it; yet I postpone the decision to begin. I must begin; I must begin to begin. Then the little platform of these thoughts would give way, revealing a new and very much less hopeful prospect in which my whole existence was mere obligation to function and pure failure to function.
Well there had been a colorful period of orientation in which I moved about in continual ecstasy, simply taking in the incredible fact of there existing something rather than nothing, let alone the immeasurable grandeur and intricacy of what was. That had been childhood or at least that was how childhood appeared, observed from the freefall of adulthood. I wondered how had this awful void opened, this orbit whose inscrutably distant center was the great undiscovered planet of dread. And if I die, I would find myself thinking, before I weigh another moth or discover my purpose, if I die, would it not be like returning to sleep as I did almost every morning of college, a practice that in fact marked the onset of what I called my adult life, returning to sleep after an effort to wake that was no less distressing for its being brief and halfhearted?
And then I rose from before the balance and went out to the landing and withdrew my little pipe and packed the bowl, if it was not packed already, and smoked and sat watching the clouds shift over the nocturnal green of the trees sparkling with streetlamps and security lights. It was during my time in Kieseritzky’s lab that this began to happen every night, they say it’s not a party if it happens every night, and it was no party every afternoon and breakfast and changed nothing in its frequency and only slightly in form when I left Kansas for the first time.
I recalled our last official meeting (though I encountered him later, after he’d taken a job at the biological institute in Lyons) on the eighth floor, his kindness and gentleness that was profound without being effusive, maybe no effusive kindness is profound, me saying “I’m having some trouble with depression” (grateful to have found any expression at all for the troubles of 1998-1999,  yet troubled by something like conscience that depression did not really name my problem). Later I felt that authorless pangs of conscience were in fact symptomatic of depression. I felt I could claim depression because I’d been prescribed antidepressants, but although depression was the reason for antidepressants, I had no real evidence I’d been prescribed antidepressants because I was depressed. In order to objectify my distress--which I was not even confident was real, not real distress--I had to see the doctor. And in order to affirm his viability the doctor had to treat me. So I came to tell Kieseritzky I was “having some trouble with depression,” that I had “sought treatment” but that for reasons I could not articulate, even to myself, I was unlikely to submit the two thousand word report on which passing his class depended. No, I did not know why the report was impossible. It certainly wasn’t as though I had other demands on my time. I took pains to clarify that I expected Kieseritzky to grade me strictly by the numbers, and that it would add to my difficulty if I thought I’d put him under any sort of pressure to give me a grade inconsistent with the data. I had endured similar meetings with other professors.
During this part of the interview for the first time in our acquaintance Kieseritzky exhibited, unwittingly, I think, regret. Antidepressants, he said, I would be very careful. It surprised me that a man of his calling would cast doubt on medicine, psychopharmacology, but that was what he seemed to be doing. My wife has had some experience with this class of drug, he said. He looked at me then and shook his head, involuntary gesture that meant he could not say more or had said too much, or that I must avoid whatever it was for which words were just now failing him. I had not thought of him as married.
I went home, got high, and spent seven years walking toward the water in minor cities, returning eventually to Lawrence, where Kieseritzky’s lab had been. On the night of April 30, 2006, as I walked with Zhutchka along the train tracks through the river bottoms where the scent of range burning was on the air it occurred to me I had a question of the sort I had always wanted to produce for him, this is what kind of teacher he was, the kind of question that might evolve into a dissertation, a career. As I walked I tried to put the question into words. 
“When these frogs, their common name is ‘spring peepers,’ form their lek at the verge of a body of standing water, I think the term is ‘ephemeral ponds’ or ‘vernal ponds,’ at some point I must realize, or at least tell myself, that I was never a scientist, only a taxonomist, always have been, though I tell myself this only because I am nothing if not a worker in language, yet I am not now nor have I ever really been a writer, not a real writer, now there must be some function thus: the number of frogs in the lek, as well as the power of their singing, as well as the perimeter of the vernal pond, all of these variables correlate directly and linearly, and they correlate to the root of the pool’s area. The song’s volume, as measured by any individual frog, now look, I don’t know the math or have the space really to work it out, all I’m saying is that the area of the vernal pond must correlate to its probable lifespan i.e. its ephemerality and is it not very likely that the peepers’ song therefore contains not only the primary information about the location and fitness, (fitness, that is to say vigor and beauty, of the singing males, I was going to say information ‘for the females’ but of course the information is also necessary to the males, valuable information about competition) but also secondary information about the size, that is the suitability of the vernal pool? For if it is too small, then it will dry up together with any hope for the tadpoles. And if it is too big, then it is probably a real pond, a permanent one, the kind that contains predators against which the ephemeral breeders have evolved no defense or evasion. ...”  At this moment the sun struck and illuminated the acre of still water from which thrust the dark vertical trunks of hundreds of cottonwoods and sycamores so that the wood stood on a brilliant mirror whose hue shifted from gold to red as the horizon blocked refraction of increasingly longer wavelengths. I think maybe my next book will be about why sorrow was the emotion here evoked.

 Cyrus Console is the author of Brief Under Water (Burning Deck, 2008) and The Odicy (Omnidawn, 2011). He teaches at the Kansas City Art Institute.

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