Glycerinate Fall Leaves

Here’s a cheapskate suggestion for decorating the table at Thanksgiving or giving at Christmas to people who have everything. Fall leaves!

While other families in the neighborhood are filling bags with leaves from their yard for collectors to cart away to the dump, I am spreading them evenly into the flower beds to save the cost of mulch, but I bring the most colorful and perfect specimens indoors.  Southern red oak, tulip poplar, dogwood, beech, and sweet gum—all changing through a spectrum of bright colors, and each keeping to its peculiar schedule.

Wouldn’t they look great in a bowl on the festive table if it was possible to stop them curling, cracking, and crumbling? It is, in the twinkling of an eye.

  • Dilute a bottle of glycerin (glycerol) from the pharmacy with tap water in the ratio 1:2
  • Pour the fluid into a tray for soaking the leaves
  • Flatten the leaves with a weight (like a matching tray)
  • Allow them to soak for a week or so
  • Pour off the fluid and dry the leaves on paper towels
  • Voila!Glycerinated fall leaves-small

The glycerin helps to preserve the leaves, and makes them supple. They should last until springtime when delicate, lime-green beech leaves attached to their branches can be gathered for glycerin treatment. That makes a cheerful decoration for the fireplace when it becomes vacant after the winter, and is a recipe I learned from a country gardener. Mum’s the word.

Next Post:Chimps Head into Retirement

Inferno in Indonesia

Indonesian forests are burning. It happens annually, but this time the inferno is far worse. On some days, the fires evolve more carbon into the atmosphere than the whole of America (whose economy is 20 times larger), and the smog and haze have spread beyond neighboring countries to Thailand and the Philippines. Yet, as George Monbiot the environment correspondent for The Guardian newspaper points out, this catastrophe gets scant attention in the media, and is a long way below pronouncements by Donald Trump and European debates about standards for sausages.

As peat dries out in forest swamps drained in the Suharto era, it catches alight easily and smolders underground, even for years. That incendiary program, combined with clear-felling for logging, slash and burn farming, and palm oil plantations, is sending to extinction some of the richest habitats in the world where orangutans, gibbons, sun bears, pangolins, and other endangered species dwell.

When Alfred Russell Wallace visited in what was then Dutch New Guinea in 1862, he thought the astounding biodiversity was safe forever: Nature seems to have taken every precaution that these her choicest treasures may not lose value by being too easily obtained in the roughest terrain (The Malay Archipelago). A century later I remember hearing in our geography class that the jungles of Indonesia and Brazil are so tenacious that we can never degrade them. Those pages in my school notebook should be tossed in the fire.

The fires are especially aggressive this year because of the El Niño effect. As Pacific currents change periodically there is a see-saw impact on rainfall—less in normally humid Southeast Asia and more for parched California this winter.

The last strong El Niño in 1997 helped farmers in California to produce bumper crops. I was visiting Indonesia. From my seat in a Garuda flight from Java to Irian Jaya, I wrote in my journal before landing at Sentani:

When I woke at dawn we were flying through canyons of pink and grey clouds, and I will never forget the first thrilling sight of the coastline. This was a land from which travelers brought home tall tales of head-hunters, gigantic crocodiles and belligerent cassowaries. I pressed my forehead to the window to scan the terrain. The mountain summits were hidden under white bouffant hairdos from which long green saris of tropical forest trailed to the lowlands. As we descended, I could see brown rivers tumbling down steep gradients and over waterfalls before transforming into snakes weaving through coastal swamps to die in the Pacific Ocean. The largest was the Mamberamo River basin, which drains one of the last unexplored tracts of rainforest on earth, where new species of birds-of-paradise, frogs, butterflies and palms have been discovered…

The whole archipelago of Indonesia looked like a jewel from the air, and I anticipated a paradise on earth. The coastal plain was still lush, but when I reached the Highlands they were dry, the staple crop of sweet potato had failed, and people were dying of famine. Observing an ancient superstition in times of drought, they had lighted smoky fires to make clouds for bringing rain.

But they never sparked any great conflagration because they understood their environment, and the print of their bare feet on the earth had always been light.  It took the years of commercial and often illegal forest clearing to create conditions for infernos in Irian (now called West Papua), as in Borneo (Kalimantan) and Sumatra.

Irian Jaya, West Papua, Indonesia
Papuan friends in the Highlands. Hungry but not scorched in 1997

A change from authoritarian to democratic rule in the past two decades hasn’t stopped the burning or the burners, and responsible stewardship of a wonderful archipelago seems beyond the reach of a feeble government and the new president, who graduated in forestry science. A better prospect for rooting out corruption and prodding a cataleptic government is coming from outside, through boycotts of products from Indonesian forestland brought by neighboring countries, and hopefully India and China will add their influence. Iya nih!

Next Post: Human chimera

Trust your Microbiome (Gut)

The gut feelings of psychic “scatomancers” who studiously examined the color, shape, and buoyancy of poo to forecast well-being and life prospects were more reliable than palm-reading, tarot cards, and astrology. They had “data,” and now we have the microbiome.

Who would have guessed a few years ago that traffic passing through the colon destined for elimination could be dignified with the name “organ,” or fecal transplants become a state-of-the-art medical therapy, or a national stool bank opened at M.I.T.?

The fermentation services of gut microbes were taken for granted, like their brethren in the garden compost heap. But no more!  The microbiome has a larger role in health than the digestion of food, and might even fill mysterious voids in human psychology and behavior. Since it is now being mined by researchers funded by the NIH Human Microbiome Program, the US military, European governments, and Big Pharma, the microscopic living soul of poo is no longer derided as an odious subject. The W.C. has swung open for scientific limelight to shine inside.

Friends or foes?
Friends or foes?

The first rays were focused on gut microbes by Elie (Ilya) Metchnikoff who introduced the concept of probiotics over a century ago. He studied people in the Caucasus Mountains reputed to live longer than anywhere else (their claims now repudiated), attributing their luck to fermented yogurt for conquering the putrefying bacteria supposed to release poisons into the body. He thought an unhealthy diet promoted growth of malign microbes with pro-inflammatory (pro-aging) effects that could lead to cardiovascular and other diseases which curb our years. Yogurt was proclaimed an elixir of life.

But his radical idea wasn’t sustained until modern bacteriology and genomics revealed the microbiome world and endorsed therapeutic probiotics. A recent study found that probiotics extended longevity in mice, but more surely they restore and rebalance the gut’s microbiome after antibiotic treatment and various intestinal ailments. It is easy to imagine that patients will soon take capsules packed with beneficial bugs for Crohn’s disease and irritable bowel, although cartoonists may rue the day when this more discreet treatment replaces fecal transplants for C. diff. infections.

Wilder speculations about the impact of microbes in mental health and ability were made by one of Metchnikoff’s contemporaries. Robert T. Morris who helped to bring aseptic surgery to America, wrote in Microbes and Men (1915): “A man is only what his microbes make him … freedom of the will is subject to dictation by the microbe.” He dared to suggest that microbes affect human character, psychopathy, and even genius. Sounds exaggerated?

He was not the first to notice that some of the most creative people had poor health—Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, and you name the rest. We might imagine a melancholic George Orwell inspired to write stories during his last tuberculous years, but is it really plausible that microbes themselves or their products boost the highest and the meanest achievements of the human mind? Morris’s big idea was nebulous, but at least a nice contradiction of Hereditary Genius (1869, 1892) by Francis Galton, the man leading the charge to eugenics who thought that genius and psychopathy ran in families. Since they occur rather sporadically, it is not quite so ridiculous to wonder if microbes play a role, or at least in combination with certain genetic alleles. Besides, we know the rabies virus affects behavior– rage, fear, and hydrophobia—and cumulating evidence suggests that Lyme disease and infectious mononucleosis cause chronic fatigue and other neurological symptoms.

So why not the microbiome too, which consists mostly of bacteria that vastly outnumber cells in the body? A gathering breeze of data supports the idea.

Tiny viruses slip easily through the blood-brain barrier, but bacteria can assault the fortress indirectly via fatty acid metabolites or triggering inflammation and powerful cytokine molecules from the immune system. The data are still far from sure, but animal experiments and association studies offer tantalizing clues that the microbiome affects the brain.

Germ-free mice have subtle neuroanatomical differences compared to normal animals—less serotonin (linked with depression in humans) and myelination (affecting nerve conduction), and altered transmission at synapses. More compellingly, gut microbes transplanted from one strain of mouse to another change the behavior of the recipient to mirror the donor’s.

Human populations are much harder to study but, for example, when Walkerton was flooded in 2000 the Canadian town’s water supply was contaminated with E. coli and Campylobacter many of its residents developed irritable bowel syndrome, anxiety, and depression. The question remains—were their symptoms “purely psychological” (a non sequitur?), or were they caused by inflammation from the original infection? Persistent, low-grade effects are hard to expose, as we know from the controversy over “chronic Lyme disease,” although science will eventually get to the bottom of it.

The neuroscience community with its refined sensibilities isn’t accustomed to musing about stool stories, but we hear murmurs about a relationship between the microbiome and autism, anxiety, Alzheimer’s disease, and schizophrenia.  The prospect of research grants is bending ears.

Next Post: Indonesia on Fire