Sunday, December 28, 2008


I've been thinking about anatomy a great deal lately, particularly about the anatomy of that central region of human bodily existence and perceived import, the heart.

For reasons of metaphor alone, the heart is well worth thinking about. In terms of physiology, however, the heart and the brain are organs of primary interest to those of us who value thinking because they're integrally connected to the processes that, ultimately, keep us chugging along.

I've never worried much about my the health of my brain, and for most of my life I was only vaguely aware of the fact that most of my ancestors had died of heart disease. But nearly fourteen years ago, I was discovered to be inflicted with really bad genes--an unfortunate combination of potentially lethal gifts from both of my parents. The disease is officially called familial hypercholesterolemia, a long, nearly impossible to pronounce name for genetically high cholesterol. After testing, my primary care guy discovered that my total was somewhere in the neighborhood of 500, at a time when the goal was below 200. My good cholesterol was abysmally low, and my bad outrageously high. But the doc's nurse hooked me up with a female cardiologist (the nurse was aware that women and heart disease were still little explored territory in those days, and she thought a woman would be better informed), whose first words to me after an initial exam, which began at my ankles, were "Poor baby; it's not your fault."

What my ankles told her was that I had long been depositing excess cholesterol onto my achilles tendons, forming what are called xanthomas. I had noticed years earlier that I was developing something that looked like "surfers' knots" above my heels, and chalked it up to bad shoes in my more fashionable youth. But the xanthomas told her that my difficulties, which by then included episodes of debilitating angina that masqueraded as tension in my upper back, had been bequeathed me by the peculiar combination of parents that resulted in my very existence on the planet.

I made an appointment for a catheterization to discover the extent of the damage to my arteries. In the interim I proceeded to take off across country by myself in a rented van to help my father distribute the contents of my grandmother's house after she'd moved to a rest home. I stopped off at Chaco Canyon, where I got a touch of heat stroke, and drove sick as a dog to Kingman, Arizona. The rest of the trip was relatively uneventful, but I look back on it now as a consummate folly. I was ready to pop, I found out after I had returned and kept the appointment, with four arteries clogged up nearly completely (80 to 90%). I was immediately sent upstairs to pre-op, and underwent a four-vessel coronary artery bypass graft (commonly called a "quadruple bypass") later that day. I was 47 years old at the time, and only a year into my first full-time teaching job. I was still young enough, and stupid enough, to feel invincible.

Now, all these years later, my cholesterol levels are well-controlled by drugs and diet, and my arteries are probably pretty clear. But age is now taking its toll, and my aortic valve has silted up ("calcified" is the more technical description) and I'm facing another chest-cracking, tentatively scheduled for March. Angina has returned, familiar and unfriendly, and I'm feeling terribly delicate. I can't exercise or over-exert myself, and when I suggested waiting for surgery until next summer my new (male) cardiologist looked at me as if I'd completely lost touch with reality (I seem to remember his saying, "Are you nuts?").

So now I'm consumed once again with the workings of the human heart, and that's led me to wonder about how we've visualized this particular organ through time. This has led to an exploration of images, which will be featured on the Cabinet (recently spiffed up, by the way). But since the Farm focuses on heart (in the metaphorical sense), home, hearth, and place, I thought I'd post a warning here for those who haven't yet twigged to the possibility of disease, and who just might want to hang around a bit longer in whatever place they call home.

Had I been tested in my twenties, I'd have avoided the atherosclerosis that nearly doomed me before my fiftieth birthday. My children were tested when they were sixteen and nineteen, right after my initial surgery, and my daughter was discovered to have the gene--or at least a similar combination of genes. As a result, she's on appropriate drug therapy, is physically active, and takes better care of herself than I ever did.

The benefits of living in moderation cannot be overstated. Although I couldn't have avoided the genetic component of my afflictions, eating more thoughtfully, exercising more conscientiously, and not letting stuff get to me as much as I have done throughout my life might have ameliorated the bad genes somewhat. I've done all of the above some of the time; I needed to be doing it all of the time. And, of course, following the latest adjustments, I'll do better. But it shouldn't take any of us this long to learn.

Image credit: A closeup view from above looking down on the aortic valve of Peskin and McQueen's computational heart during ejection from the left ventricle. Valve leaflet fibers are white. The red blobs are blood markers, and the red streaks show the recent paths of the blobs. From the Pittsburgh Computing Center's page, Heart Throb, on blood circulation and the heart. The page contains stunning computer models of heart functions, and I'm hoping that my using this one constitutes fair use.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Remembering Ned Fritz

One of the consequences of getting old includes--as I've undoubtedly mentioned before--perusing the daily obituaries page in the local rag. Occasionally I run into a familiar name, as happened last Saturday, when the Dallas Morning News ran a long obit on Edward C. Fritz (better known as Ned), a 92 year-old conservationist who had once contributed mightily to my effort to learn to love the prairie. This morning the paper included an editorial comment on Fritz's legacy.

I only met Ned once, when he spoke at a gathering I attended, and where he signed my copy of his book, The Sterile Forest, about the brutality and stupidity of clear-cutting (Austin: Eakin Press, 1983; it seems no longer to be available). Through his writings and other activities, he was a major contributor to my understanding of the region. Aside from this small personal connection, however, his impact on conservation and environmental understanding in Texas is profoundly significant, and his death at a grand old age offers a moment to take pause and recollect.

In 1964, Ned Fritz served as the first president of the Nature Conservancy of Texas board of trustees . In 1966 he founded the Texas Committee on Natural Resources, and was a primary organizer of the Big Thicket Coordinating Committee, which convinced Congress to establish the Big Thicket National Preserve. In 1970, he helped found the Texas League of Conservation Voters. And the list goes on . . . and on. He was a tough, feisty lawyer willing to take on just about anybody, including his neighbors:

In Dallas, along the Trinity River, Ned Fritz and his wife Genie live in a defiantly modest house in an opulent neighborhood. While their neighbors' idea of landscaping runs to high gloss, the Fritz's three acres of bottomland feature a riot of hardwood vegetation thriving under 40 years of selection management directed by one of the toughest tree huggers around. Cedar elm dominates, along with Shumard red oak, chinkapin, Osage-orange, and the Texas state champion green hawthorne. Unimpressed, Fritz's wealthy neighbors took him to court over his approach to urban landscaping.

They should have known better. Fritz won hands down.
(Quoted from Tom Wolf's 1991 article in American Forests, "Fritz vs. the Feds")

Fritz had mentioned his landscaping preferences in his talk, which subsequently inspired my "East Plano Suburban Prairie Ecology Project" to the chagrin of my own neighbors. I let my already questionable lawn go wild, and it immediately sprouted a meadow of Texas dandelions, blue-eyed grass, flax, Venus's Looking Glass and myriad other wild flowers. One day, while I was away, a neighbor rode his lawn mower over to my house and got rid of it for me, thinking he was doing me a favor. That's probably one reason for my habit of gardening as accidentally as possible now that I own a half-acre of vegetal near-anarchy.

I can add little to the accolades already available all over the web (the best obit I found was at the Austin American Statesman, and there are plenty more), but few local folk have had more influence on my own views than this one man, and I thought it important to thank him in public.

In his honor, here are a few web pages related one way or another to conservation efforts in Texas that aren't already linked above:

The Conservation Fund
Cooperative Conservation America
The National Park Service's Big Thicket page
The Nature Conservancy's 2004 Earth Day article, celebrating the 40th anniversary of the Nature Conservancy in Texas

Image credit: I pinched the Big Thicket image from Cooperative Conservation America, which I hope will forgive me in exchange for the plug.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Waste Not

One of the unintended--but not at all unwelcome--aspects of a recessional economy is that folks seem to be waking up to one of the major consequences bequeathed us by our acquisitiveness: waste. Or should I say Waste, with a capital. As a consumption-based society, we constantly produce more trash than anybody. Anywhere. Any time in memory.

A few weeks ago, I showed my Visual Anthropology class a pair of films John Marshall made many ears ago among the !Kung Bushmen in southern Africa. Many students noticed the sharp contrast between the early film, The Hunters (1957) and N!ai, Story of a !Kung Woman (1980) in terms of the domestic environments the two films depicted. In The Hunters, and in the bits of N!ai filmed early in her life, the people had few material belongings--but they also had no trash. After N!ai's people were moved to a reservation and exposed to Western overseers and tourists, they began to accumulate more and more stuff, and their surroundings became littered with cast-off bits of paper, plastic, and other trash. Deprived of their traditional hunting and gathering economy (in which acquired goods were precious and not easily discarded), they had little to do but quarrel and earn money from tourists to pay for material signs of their "importance" in the group.

I've frequently ranted about how much stuff we buy, and how unnecessary most of it is, but being reminded of the the relationship between making something and using it provided a fresh lesson in the politics of waste. The "advanced" or "civilized" West (as opposed to the "uncivilized" or "primitive" natives of various regions) measures its wealth in concepts like Gross Domestic Product, "The total market value of all final goods and services produced in a country in a given year, equal to total consumer, investment and government spending, plus the value of exports, minus the value of imports" ( Wikipedia's map of the world's relative GDP's is instructive). Thus, worth as a civilization is grounded in a notion of how much loot we produce and consume.

Perhaps what we need now is a Gross Garbage Index to help us understand how much of what we "consume" is only bought--not used, but simply discarded. Even those of us who recycle most of what we can't physically consume (food packaging, for example) are adding to the pile. Because of the economic down-turn, more people around here seem to be growing more conscious of what they buy, and perhaps that will help people understand how much they throw away, such as wasted food. On the online forum I frequent, a recent thread (short-lived as it was) explored what posters let go to waste in their refrigerators. Some were already extremely conscious of their own habits, but others admitted to carrying on random biological experiments out of neglect or forgetfulness. I have been guilty of growing my own varieties of alien critters on occasion, but have begun a deliberate campaign to avoid them. The best solution, of course, is simply to eat one's leftovers promptly, but doing so does require a modicum of attention.

And I think that's the root: we simply do not attend to our habits. They are, after all, habits, often ingrained and out of mind. But solving the problem of waste requires that we do pay attention, and that we modify our habits accordingly.

People who live in slightly less profligate communities, such as the Brits, seem to have twigged to this already (they do live on a fairly small island, with few landfill possibilities). The other day I was rereading the March edition of my favorite shelter magazine, the British edition of Country Living (with its environmentally sensitive editorial bent), and noticed a small article in the "Ecoguide" section on "The food we throw away." One bit of advice stands out: "Cook once, eat twice." Freeze leftovers instead of letting them rot, or at least compost the inedible side-effects of cooking. Doing so, the article claims, will make a difference: "If we stopped wasting food that could have been eaten, it would be the equivalent of taking one in five cars off the road." And then it sends us to a really cool website to tell us how to do it: Love Food Hate Waste. The section on food waste points out the following:

Around a third of all the food we buy ends up being thrown in the bin and most of this could have been eaten. Reducing food waste is a major issue and not just about good food going to waste; wasting food costs the average family £420 a year [about US $630] and has serious environmental implications, too.

Of course, this seems intuitively obvious to many of us, but again, we're simply not in the habit of thinking about such things. At least we haven't been until now.

Another obvious way of reducing waste is to buy fewer things--rather a hard sell during the holidays. But the Washington Post ran a column by Judith Levine on Sunday called "Don't Buy It," which describes the situation better than I ever could. And she should know, having spent an entire year without buying anything but necessities. The idea's a variation on themes we've heard before (some of which I've tried, like living on a welfare mother's budget for a month), where writers conduct experiments to help them answer questions:

The Year Without Shopping occurred to me, like so many rash ideas, at Christmastime. Although I'm a secular Jew, I'd scattered $1,001 on gifts and other holiday odds and ends. As my credit line grew smaller and my shopping bags heavier, I envisioned their contents, along with those of a whole nation, dismissed, disliked and discarded -- and moldering in landfills forever. Then as now, more than two-thirds of the gross domestic product came from consumer spending. There was, and still is, essentially one measure of economic health: growth. But all that growth is outgrowing our finite planet. Ask any economist left or right about this, and he'll write off resource depletion as an "externality," something to worry about later.

I decided to investigate the connection between the personal activity of shopping and the global problem of overconsumption. And I figured that the best way to understand the draw of the marketplace would be to quit it altogether, then see how that felt -- like contemplating a failed marriage from the distance of post-divorce single life. I knew that my no-shopping budget would be on Mother Earth's side. Which side would the macroeconomy eventually be on? Today it's clearer than ever that we'll have to worry about that sooner rather than later.

Her book, Not Buying It: My Year Without Shopping, is now at the top of my list (one more thing to buy--but as anyone who's visited my house knows, I still own nearly every book I've ever bought), and her talk about it at Cody's Books in San Francisco is available in full from

And so, even after all this rumination, I'm still sanguine about the future. The new Cabinet is shaping up to be something I can live with, smart people seem to be populating the airwaves more and more, and people like Levine seem to be asking the right questions. Maybe I won't see utopia in my lifetime, but perhaps dystopia can be kept at bay. If we can decrease the number of landfills significantly, I'll take that as a sign that we've begun to come to our senses.

Image source: Landfill Compactor in Australia (We Are Not Alone!), by Ropable via Wikimedia Commons.