Every once in a while, my wife is able to break through the fog I tend to create for myself at work – a fog located somewhere in gloomiest virtual reality. And a noxious fog it is! A pea-soup blend of news about the latest disasters worldwide, the challenges we face protecting our environment, and wresting a living from Earth’s natural resources. Add a dollop of day-to-day fund-raising for our group; and a cupful of answering e-mails and responding to the 1.75 e-mails that each generates (how’s that for a statistic?). Guaranteed to preoccupy during the day and lead to intellectual indigestion and insomnia at night.
Can you relate? Most of our 21st century jobs share these elements in common. Your pea-soup might have a different recipe, but it’s still murky. You get lost in the day’s urgencies, forfeiting any hope of seeing past the next immediate task to forge a longer term vision.
Perhaps the nastiest part of the fog? The bit where I perversely convince myself of two things: (1) I’m too busy and too far behind to take a few days’ vacation…and (2), of all the times to try to get away for a bit, this [fill in today’s date, whatever it happens to be] is the absolute worst.
Anyway, to make a long story short, she’s succeeded in peeling me away for a couple of days, and injecting me back into a world of warmth and sunlight, salt water, and beaches…and a mangrove swamp.
Now hazards researchers, and in fact most people, are waaaaaayy ahead of me on this particular direct experience. If you’re reading this you probably already know that mangrove swamps are among the most biologically productive habitats in the world. You’ve heard that they put down 7000 pounds of leaf matter an acre, that then serves as the foundation for an incredible food chain for all sorts of plants and critters, that in turn feed fish and crabs, that in turn feed other fish and birds, that attract dolphins and manatees, and who knows what all else. You are aware that mangroves have developed, depending on the species, not one, but a variety of strategies for extracting the salt from the water in their environment.
You know mangroves have also developed novel means for reproduction and spread. How their complex, thicket-like root systems and low, spreading, interlocking profiles allow them to survive the hurricanes and other tropical storms they experience. And you’ve probably heard how mangroves are continually threatened worldwide. [We’re eliminating them in favor of shortsighted beachfront development.] Their loss deprives growing coastal populations of two things: food for daily use, and protection against storm surge. Maybe you’re even one of the many scientists who have contributed to this body of knowledge.
You know all this. And had you asked me last week, I’d have said that I knew some of that too – at least enough to answer a multiple-choice question or two.
But that’s different from the experience in the mangroves themselves. Rubbing the backs of the leaves of the mangrove trees and tasting the salt they’ve exuded. Hearing but not seeing the bird life in the darkness of the undergrowth. Catching the story about the alligators showing up every spring…
Alligators? How’d they come in? Well, I was told, because each spring the night herons have been laying their eggs in nests at the end of branches, and raccoons are climbing out on the tenuous branches and falling in the drink, where they become dinner for the gators (can that really be true?). Watching the horseshoe crabs mate among the roots of the mangroves. Kayaking through the growth and seeing juvenile night herons resting on branches above the bits of mudflat. Seeing hundreds of cormorants, terns, osprey, and pelicans diving for prey. Wondering at the mullets jumping in the other direction – into the air – for some unknown reason. Seeing the rookeries of ibis, and pelicans, and egrets seizing the protection of isolated islets of mangrove in the middle of the estuary. Getting a feel for how intertwined that mangrove root growth is and finally realizing how it could provide so much more storm surge protection than edgewalls and riprap…
…and the guide. Listening to her describe the history of the National Wildlife Refuge system, the interplay of wildlife preservation and our human condition, feeling the passion, looking into the faces of the parents and kids in the other kayaks listening to her, people who had come from Vermont, and Wisconsin and even England, observing them connect what they were seeing to what she was saying. Hearing later that the guide hoped to move from substitute teaching to a regular position in the local high school, the better to tell this story to a larger audience.
Fast forward to later in the day. Because I was on vacation, I got the chance to catch up on the science and technology section in a recent issue of The Economist. I read that scientists and engineers are harnessing nanotechnology in two novel ways. Some aim to sequence genomes in minutes instead of days; it should then be possible to track the effectiveness of cancer therapies in individual patients in this way. Some are making integrated circuits flexible instead of rigid so they can be used for a host of medical applications. Another article documented how we are learning to use bioluminescence to better perform surgeries, treat cancer, monitor and maintain crop health, and much more. And so on, for article after article.
Whew! Science and technology have become so clever. The opportunities are developing and synergizing, and intertwining with each other explosively, just like that complex root system of the mangroves which provides so much habitat and hazard protection and sustains so much life.
Combine that with the enthusiasm and passion of the younger generation, just entering the workforce. So much learning, guided by a drive to make a better world! Reason for hope.
And reason to thank the wife who made it possible for me to step back and see it.
 The old-timey name Londoners gave their fogs which arose beginning with the start of the Industrial Revolution.