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Living and Writing in the Natural World

A Strange Case of Sherlock Holmes and the Rose

Jeremy Brett's Sherlock

We did a lot of traveling to the Bay Area this past month—February—and I was struck by how many trees were flowering all over northern California. Rarely were we out of sight of the glorious treat of a tree full of blossoms, usually almond, cherry, or peach of the early-blooming Prunus genus. All creation seemed to be bursting with beauty, and even the hard-bitten scientist that I am could understand those who come to the conclusion that not only is life good, but that surely there must be a higher being or force lavishing his (or her?) love on the world via the flowers.

And this in turn reminded me of one of the most bizarre incidents in the entire Sherlock Holmes canon: Holmes’ soliloquy in The Naval Treaty, in which he proclaims moss roses in particular, and flowers in general, as proof of “the goodness of Providence.”  Read More 

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Bones of Jade, Souls of Ice

Wang Mian's "Blossoming Plum"

On my bike ride through Bidwell Park this afternoon, I noticed the first several blooms on one of the dozens of Wild Cherries scattered amongst the bays and oaks of the woodland. Only a couple of flowers on one spindly branch, mind you—but they made my heart sing. You may be in the middle of winter, but when the Prunus trees begin to blossom, it’s a promise from the universe that spring is beginning its slow amble toward your part of the world.

In Japan, of course, the Japanese Cherry ( Prunus serrulata) is the center of national attention in the spring, as its bloom is tracked from Kagoshima on the southern tip of Kyushu island northward up the entire island chain, with thousands of people thronging the parks and Shinto shrines featuring this harbinger of spring.

In China, for over a thousand years the blooming of the Chinese plum ( Prunus mume) has been eagerly anticipated in January and February.  Read More 

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King Tut's father and Moses

The young Tutankhamun and his queen

One of the most enjoyable aspects of writing historical novels, for me, is the interesting things you bump into during the research phase. I’ve just finished a major revision of my second Sherlock Holmes novel, set in 1923, in which Holmes is called to Egypt to unravel whether the co-discoverer of King Tutankhamun’s tomb, Lord Carnarvon, is being poisoned. (The historical Carnarvon in fact died of “blood poisoning” four months after entering Tut’s tomb with his archaeologist, Howard Carter—thus originating the “Curse of the Mummy” phenomenon.)  Read More 

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Darwin's Champion in China, Part 2: An Evening with Ye Duzhuang

Helper, Ye, Ye's wife, Barnett, Zhou, and Yu

I knocked on the door of Ye Duzhuang's apartment at the Academy of Agricultural Sciences compound on Beijing's northwest edge.

Ye answered the door himself. Before me stood a tall man, over six feet, lean, with jet black hair above a calm face with a strong nose. He was 70 years old, but still alert, and moved with little trace of his age.

“Dr. Ye?”

“Come in, Dr. Barnett, come in!” he said affably. I walked through a short hallway. A small room opened to our right, Ye’s study.  Read More 

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Darwin’s Champion in China, Part 1: The Turbulent Life of Ye Duzhuang

Ye Duzhuang

Chinese intellectuals and artists suffering abuse at the hands of the state have been much in the news these days. The blind lawyer Chen Guangcheng, avant-garde artist Ai Weiwei, and Nobel Prize recipient Liu Xiaobo have received the most prominent press, but the shameful list certainly must include also Hu Jia (AIDS and environmental advocate), Zhu Yufu (“It’s Time” poet), Gao Zhisheng (dissident rights lawyer), Wu Yuren (installation artist), and Chen Wei (advocate of a “jasmine revolution”). And there are many others. The drum roll of imprisonment and intimidation reminded me of an evening I spent in the spring of 1984 with a most remarkable Chinese scientist. Read More 

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Bull elk and Dutch Ovens on the Lost Coast

California's Lost Coast: 66 miles of wilderness

My buddy Al was busy shooting sunset-in-the-ocean photos from our camp in California’s Lost Coast Wilderness a week ago when I whispered, “Look left. Slowly.” He looked, and muttered “Aw, hell.” There, fifteen feet away, was 900 pounds of bull elk. It is rutting season currently, and this bull’s already massive five point antlers had—believe it or not—some six feet of iron chain wrapped around the left antler.  Read More 

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Weekly to Monthly, but just as fun

Last week's entry made if a full year I've had the privilege of posting weekly essays under the broad rubric of Living and Writing in the Natural World. It's been a blast, and much of the enjoyment has been the feedback from those of you following my (mis)adventures.

A very full writing schedule, however, leads me to switch to a monthly rather than a weekly format for the foreseeable future. These monthly essays will be longer,  Read More 
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A Yosemite Ramble Goes Up in Smoke

Half dome behind the oak--shrouded in smoke!

My long-planned Yosemite outing this past weekend would be perfect: Amtrak bus and train down the Sacramento and San Joaquin valleys, bus from Merced depositing me at Yosemite Valley’s Curry Village, then picked up by the Tuolumne Meadow Hiker Shuttle the next morning, up to the high country, and deposited at the May Lake trailhead for my hike into a series of High Sierra Camps, light pack on my back and walking sticks in hand.

What could possibly go wrong?  Read More 

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Peaches, Thomas Jefferson, and Xi Wang Mu

Inside the cup: peaches of immortality

Every summer about this time I come to the same conclusion about peaches as Ben Franklin reportedly did about beer: “Beer is a sign that God loves us and wants us to be happy.” Indeed, though for me it’s peaches rather than beer. You’d think after over a month of peaches on my oatmeal, on my pancakes, over ice yogurt, and overwhelmingly just eaten straight, the juice dribbling down my chin—you’d think I’d be tired of peaches. You’d be wrong. , Read More 

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Stranger than We Think

Fueling up for the journey north

I saw another monarch butterfly last week, and it set me thinking about some of the incredible things non-human animals do, and what it shows about the place of humans in the cosmos.

This monarch was probably the second in a chain of four or five generations of these butterflies, a saga that starts in their overwintering home (in Pacific Grove, California; another locus is northern Mexico). Beginning each spring,  Read More 

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