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Nov 29, 2016
On science, storytelling, and the art of being ‘progressively less wrong.’ Yelizaveta Renfro, October 2016
The disco bus drops us off at Mile 60, where the tundra undulates away from the park road and buckles up into green hills. There are eight in our group. Everyone but me has spent the better part of three hours on the road, traveling from the Wilderness Access Center, the hub of Denali National Park and Preserve. Our guide, Ranger Ali, is leading a “discovery hike” for a young couple from Pittsburgh, a middle-aged couple from Cincinnati, and two male anglers in their sixties from Colorado Springs. I joined them at Mile 53.
According to the info sheet, these ranger-led excursions “travel everywhere,” so we are to
“expect uneven terrain, small stream crossings, close encounters with dense vegetation, and unpredictable weather.” The first thing Ranger Ali does, as we head off onto the tundra, is stop for a BMW talk. The acronym stands for bear-moose-wolf, the trifecta of charismatic megafauna in this part of Alaska. She repeats the rules I’ve memorized: keep 25 yards away from moose and wolves, 300 away from a bear.
As she describes how to handle a bear encounter — showing us the pepper spray strapped at her waist — one of the fishermen, peering through binoculars at a distant hillside, says he’s spotted something among a growth of willows. A bear, maybe. We all turn to look, including Ali, who has her binoculars out in a flash. I catch a glimpse of it — whatever it is — with my naked eye, maybe a couple hundred yards away. In outline, it’s more caribou than bear as far as I can tell, though its tawny color is lighter than any of the caribou I have seen, more the hue of the blonde grizzlies that live here.
Ranger Ali keeps her binoculars trained on the patch of trees, but the animal does not reappear. Finally, she lowers her binoculars. “We’re going to reroute,” she says, scanning our surroundings. “It doesn’t hurt to be cautious.”
Then Ali makes one more announcement: “I want to let you know that the writer-in-residence is joining us on our hike today.” The others murmur their mild surprise. Embarrassed by the sudden attention — I’m a writer, after all, not a talker — I’m ready to set out.
As we make our way across the tundra, the woman from Cincinnati splits off from her husband and sidles up to me. “So,” she says. “Are you being inspired right now?”
Months before coming to Alaska, as I devoured information about wolf populations and bear diets and sled dogs and soundscapes, I began to wonder how I would ever put all these pieces together into a coherent narrative. Science was saying so much — but one thing science often doesn’t do well is shape the raw data into a story.
So, late one night, I put two search terms — “science” and “storytelling” — into Google, which led me to the work of biologist Paul Grobstein. “Scientific statements,” I read, are “provisional stories, reflecting human perspectives that get progressively less wrong.” 1 Here was a man after my own heart. “Science is therefore fundamentally not about security but about doubt, not about knowing but about asking, not about certainty but about skepticism. Scientific stories are written not to be believed but to be understood, made use of as appropriate, and revised.”
Grobstein outlined a version of the scientific method that deviates from the model we all learn in elementary school: Hypothesis-Experiment-Conclusion. He described another step, “the crack,” where the scientist makes a choice, consciously or not, “to further pursue one or another way of several alternative ways of making sense of the world.” Here, “individual temperament and cultural background” and “creativity” shape the outcome. Some see the crack as a weak spot, but Grobstein defended it as a fundamental strength of science.
We walk for a half hour through relatively flat terrain, then crest a small hill. The woman from Cincinnati is still at my side. After several minutes of silence, she asks, “Are you having thoughts right now about what you’re going to write?”
“Not really,” I evade. She is so fixated on me that she hardly notices the view: the cobbled tundra, the narrow brown indentation of road. The buses pass like caterpillars inching their way along a groove. She is asking for the story, but I don’t yet know what it is.
The story is still happening to us, I want to tell her. Look around you. This place is the story. We are the story. The eight of us being in this place is the story. In fact, I would normally be taking notes right now, but she makes me self-conscious, so I keep my thoughts in my head. I have lessstory because she keeps asking for it.
Much later — weeks, months — I will read through my Denali notebooks and pick out the bones. I record everything indiscriminately because I never know what the story might be. Only later do I add the flesh, sculpting, bringing out the lines of muscle. That is the storytelling part. There are no BMW in my notes from July 24. But there — among monkshood, harebell, caribou fur, the feathers on ptarmigan legs that look like bloomers — I find one bone, gleaming white. I read this notation:
Saw ground squirrel holes (amazing story about how their body temperature in winter goes below freezing — 26°F — they stay underground eight to nine months a year, occasionally they shiver — in big pile together underground — and bring their body temperature up to normal, then they stop and it plunges back down below freezing. Some process in their brain that allows them to do this — squirrels are part of Alzheimer’s research).
If hibernation were an extreme sport, the arctic ground squirrel would be world champion. A Scientific American article explains how, in the 1980s, researchers at the University of Alaska–Fairbanks implanted sensors in the abdomens of a dozen ground squirrels, then left them to hibernate in outdoor wire cages. 2 Their body temperatures dropped to minus 2.9° C, the lowest ever recorded in living mammals, and yet the blood of these “supercool” animals didn’t freeze solid. Every couple of weeks, they shivered and shook themselves until they reached a normal body temperature for a period of twelve to fifteen hours, in order to maintain vital neural connections. Then they plunged back into torpor.
We’re coming down the hill toward Stony Creek when we see a bus stop abruptly on the road below. The binoculars come out and aim in our direction. At first, we can’t tell what the passengers are staring at. Is there some wildlife near us? We look around but see nothing. What is the story? Then Ranger Ali understands. Someone on the bus has spotted movement on the hillside.
“They’re checking us out,” she says. “We are the wildlife.”
And now the bus moves on, and we pass out of their story. Homo sapiens is not the charismatic megafauna they are seeking. Near Stony Creek we try to find an archaeological site — an old can dump that dates back to the construction of the park road in the 1930s — but we come up with nothing. The woman from Cincinnati is still at it, even as the hike is winding down. “What are you thinking about?” She’s persistent, I give her that.
I’m thinking about how annoyed I am by these questions. But of course I don’t say that. She is only asking me to play my role, to interpret the park experience. There were a half dozen of us selected among three hundred applicants for this year’s residencies. Artists and writers are invited to Denali because the park service believes that creative people — painters, photographers, poets, composers — can contribute to visitors’ understanding and appreciation of the landscape, just like the scientists, naturalists, and rangers who interpret the park in their own ways. I’ve been given a bus pass and a cabin for ten days, in exchange for an essay and a public reading. I am here to tell others what this experience means.
The problem is that interpretation requires distance. I cannot offer profound musings, à la John Muir, on the spot. It’s not as though simply walking through this landscape creates a script in my head that I only need write down — or speak aloud. Writers are not different from other people, I want to tell her. We all have to work to get at our stories.
I remember Grobstein’s article. “Science generates stories from observations,” he wrote. “In this context, ‘true,’ is the term is to be used at all, means nothing more (and nothing less) than consistent with all observations so far. There is no conclusion in science; it is a continual and recursive process of story testing.”
Replace science with writing, and that is exactly what I would tell the woman from Cincinnati. How are Muir’s rapturous declarations different than scientific measures? True is not even the right word. We learn from nature in many ways, and each takes the shape of a story. You are in the story, I should have told the woman from Cincinnati. You are making the story.
In the 1990s, Russian scientists removed the brains from Siberian ground squirrels at three stages of hibernation and examined neurons in their hippocampuses. Squirrels in the first group were in the deepest part of the hibernation cycle. Squirrels in the second group were sleeping, in the shivered-back-to-normal-temperature state. And squirrels in the third group were fully awake, one day after ending their hibernation.
The researchers found that in the brains of deeply hibernating squirrels the neurons were shrunken, with fewer dendrites, the branchlike structures that receive messages from other neurons. In contrast, the squirrels that had shaken themselves into a warm sleeping state had rapidly replenished those brain connections. In fact, they had even more active dendrites than the fully awake squirrels in the third group. This cycle of overgrowth and dieback happens repeatedly throughout the hibernation cycle, and when the squirrels awake in the spring, the brain connections are pruned back again.
Neuroscientists are trying to figure out what this might mean for humans. What triggers the recovery of the withered brain? That may turn out to be the most important story of all.
Back on the road, the eight of us wait for a bus. The other hikers are headed east to the park exit, with a long ride ahead of them. Since I’m staying nearby and it’s only 3 p.m., I decide to catch a westbound bus to the Eielson Visitor Center at Mile 66. Alone — at last — with my thoughts, I take out my pocket notebook and write down everything I’ve been storing in my memory.
At Eielson, the day is clear and the mountain is out, so I hike up Thorofare Ridge, climbing a thousand feet over about a mile. There are tart blueberries growing along the trail, views of the highest peak in North America, occasional trekkers coming down, speaking German or British English or Japanese. But those are parts of other stories.
Here is what matters: about three-quarters of the way up, I stop and sit. Resting quietly, I look down over the visitor center, the buses coming and going. A faint breeze stirs the air. And at that moment, about ten feet away, a ground squirrel comes out of a hole and stands on its hind legs, twitching its nose as if analyzing a scent. Stout and black-eyed, it faces me straight on. I remain still and observe: my first ground squirrel.
Then with a flash of its small tail, it’s gone.
Building on the work of that Russian study, researchers in Germany cut into the brains of hibernating European ground squirrels to learn more about Alzheimer’s disease. They focused on a protein with the unassuming name of tau. In the brains of people with Alzheimer’s, the tau proteins become overburdened by phosphate molecules, which deform the proteins and cause them to accumulate. It turns out that this same process occurs in the brains of hibernating squirrels, yet in the hours after waking, somehow the squirrels wipe their brains clean of the misshapen proteins.
I am reading about this at Toklat Road Camp — where the rangers and road crew live in the summer months — over a frustratingly slow internet connection. How could the ground squirrel that watched me on Thorofare Ridge have anything to do with Alzheimer’s research? I can’t seem to reconcile the stories in my mind. Lying in bed that night, unable to sleep due to the midnight sun, I look out the window at the blooming fireweed and think about Grobstein’s crack.
I imagine standing in the bottom of a rock crevice and peering up at the sky through the narrow fissure. My vision is restricted by the steep walls on either side, by my situation in time and place. But that’s not all. It’s also bounded by the limits of human apprehension, by the senses that deliver all the information I will ever have about the world.
Then I remember a story about the evolutionary biologist Geerat Vermeij, a renowned expert on mollusks, who happens to be blind. Rather than looking at mollusk shells with his eyes, he “sees” them with his fingertips. In some cases, he finds minute structural variations that were not noticed by sighted scientists. “When I look at shells, I look at them tactilely. I know that I see characteristics differently from other people,” Vermeij said. 3 A colleague observed, “He can do things with his hands that most of us can’t do with our eyes.” That’s the crack through which he perceives the world: “I listen and smell and feel.”
Maybe each of us apprehends but a sliver of the world. Is this how meaning is made? Each of us, peering through our own crack, tells a small part of the story. Some palpate the shells of ancient sea creatures; some slice open brains; some merely lock eyes with a ground squirrel on a solitary hike. We lay the stories side by side, widening our collective view.
Five days later, I go on another disco hike in a different part of the park with a new group of travellers. After studying wolf prints in a riverbed and disturbing a bees’ nest in the tundra, I take a bus back to Eielson.
Erland, the driver, lights up when he talks about ground squirrels. In summer, when the squirrels are awake, their heart rate is around 300 beats per minute, their respiration around 200 breaths per minute. During hibernation, their heart rate slows to one to three beats per minute, and they take just a handful of breaths every hour. Erland is speaking into microphone, facing away from the passengers, but I can hear the awe in his voice: “There’s so much we can learn from them.”
That afternoon, I get on a different bus. “We haven’t seen a bear yet today,” says the new driver, Elton. Good timing. Five minutes later, he stops to let us watch a brown bear by the river, tearing the ground apart with its massive claws. I see the huge bulge of back muscle rippling with effort. The passengers crowd to the bear side of the bus with cameras firing. “He’s probably after a ground squirrel,” Elton says. Sometimes bears will pound the ground to flush out the rodents; they eat up to 100 or 150 ground squirrels per summer. He adds, “They’re like Snickers bars for bears.”
In an arctic summer, the sun never really sets. I discover this the hard way— staying up way too late simply because it is still light outside. My internal clock is thrown out of whack.
Arctic ground squirrels are sticklers for keeping a schedule, emerging from and returning to their burrows at the same time each day. Their annual routines are equally regimented. The females are the first to go into hibernation and the last to wake up. Their biological clocks are so precisely tuned that scientists at the University of Alaska studied them to learn more about circadian rhythms. Among other experiments, the researchers messed with the squirrels’ internal clocks, adjusting the light and temperature to see how they would react. According to biologist Loren Buck, body clock disruptions are linked to an astonishing number of human health problems: seasonal affective disorder, obesity, cardiovascular disease, cancer, diabetes, Alzheimer’s, senility. 4 The squirrels’ clocks may tell us something about our own.
On my last night in the cabin at Toklat, I pick up The Alaska Reader and peruse essays by the opal light coming in my window at 11 p.m. In “A Man Made Cold by the Universe,” by Sherry Simpson, I find the following:
This may be our oldest, truest survival skill: the ability to tell and to learn from each other’s stories, whether from Aesop’s fables, quest narratives, Greek mythology, the Book of Genesis, office gossip, the wisdom of elders, or made-for-TV movies. In some ways, Alaska is nothing but stories. We have constructed many of our ideas about this place, and about ourselves, from creation stories, gold rush stories, hunting and fishing stories, pioneer stories, family stories, clan stories.
Reading this, I understand something about the small bits of ground-squirrel research I was able to retrieve over the road camp’s spotty internet: it takes a brilliant imagination to connect these creatures of the arctic tundra which lay torpid underground for three quarters of the year with the elderly human beings who are losing their words, their memories, themselves. Science can be masterful storytelling indeed.
The week after I end my residency, I return to Denali as a tourist with my kids and brother. We take the bus into the park, past my cabin at Mile 53, to the Eielson Visitor Center. I lead my family up the alpine trail to Thorofare Ridge. I tell them about many things along the way — bears and caribou, moose and wolves, the mountain, the woman from Cincinnati, the other people I met in those ten days, and, of course, arctic ground squirrels.
“You’ve got to see one,” I tell them. “They’re not like our Connecticut squirrels at all. They’re like solid little speckled burritos with small tails. If you’re a bear.”
We summit and walk around the tundra, then start on our way down. And as we’re coming upon the spot where I saw my first ground squirrel, one suddenly pops out of a hole and stands up on its haunches in the same pose. Maybe it’s even the same squirrel.
We stop to watch.
“There,” I say in a quiet voice. “That’s an arctic ground squirrel. That’s what I wanted you to see.”
My story, I feel, is nearly complete.
Three months later, back home in Connecticut, my fifth grader is studying the senses at school. I’ve just finished showing her how my old film camera operates like the human eye. She’s drawn a diagram that shows both the lens of the eye and the lens of the camera, comparing the retina to the film and the iris to the aperture.
“What if there were, like, seventeen other ways of knowing the world besides the five we have?” she asks. “What are we missing?”
Other species have better vision, hearing, smell — never mind senses that we don’t even possess. As the biologist Edward O. Wilson puts it, human beings “live entirely within a microscopic section of the stimuli that are possible and that flood in on us all the time.”
I ask my daughter: What if when you inhaled, an entire landscape bloomed in your mind, complete with flora and fauna? What if you could spot a ground squirrel at a distance of a mile? What if you could perceive the ground squirrel in a thousand ways, hear the rapid stutter of its heart from ten feet away, see its heat in a glow of radiating light?
“That would be awesome,” my fifth grader says.
Indeed, it would.
“The story of science is not, and cannot be, by itself the view from everywhere,” Grobstein wrote. “A different person, in a different time and place, might well tell a different story.”
Like the scientist scrutinizing a slice of squirrel brain through a microscope, what I perceive is but a thin shaving of the unknowable whole. There can be no view from everywhere; the view is always from right here. That is what I would tell the woman from Cincinnati. That is the story.
We can have no omniscient narrator. Not even science can give us that. The “objective” voice of science is as personal as a poem. We each have our little crack, and through it, we glimpse stories, one by one. And we share them.
Yelizaveta P. Renfro, “The View Through the Crack,” Places Journal, October 2016. Accessed 29 Nov 2016. <https://placesjournal.org/article/the-view-through-the-crack/>