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Book Data

ISBN: 9781933392332
Year Added to Catalog: 2007
Book Format: Hardcover
Number of Pages: 5 1/4 x 8, 192 pages
Book Publisher: Chelsea Green Publishing
Old ISBN: 1933392339
Release Date: March 7, 2007
Web Product ID: 206

Also By This Author

Luminous Fish

Tales of Science and Love

by Lynn Margulis


From Gases

Raoul doesn’t waste time with me, she tells herself. I help him work. Why is he rude? Does every love require misery? Every ecstacy an anguish? Ignoring hunger, fatigue, the teeming airport, the flopping flight number boards, she begins to write with the single-mindedness of science she learned only after the Howard fiasco, the idyllic Chicago days. “Dear Raoul.” At that moment the airport lights dim. For her they go out entirely. She mutters, “Dear Raoul. Yes, dammit, Dear Raoul. I address this to you but you’ll never see it. I write for myself. Perhaps you can’t be open with me but I’ll tell it like it happened—to me and maybe even to you.”

This year July lasted longer than any other month. The Rhine Castle at Marksburg, beyond Filsen, was started in the fourteenth century and took two centuries to finish. No lichens on its walls. “Here somewhere,” announced the British botanist Mitchell Gregson, “must be coal—or a petroleum refinery. The sulfur dioxide content of the surrounding air is too high for lichens. The other castles here, Stahleck and Pfalz, for example, are covered with lichens— lichens abound here in Germany, they always thrive if atmospheric sulfur dioxide is below ten parts per million.” We lowered our heads to go through passageways, the fourteenth century Rhinelanders must have stood smaller than us. You and I and Dr. Mitchell Gregson—the Englishman who wrote that great book on the microbiology of air—were together. We all stumbled into a room hidden behind a passage from which the other tourists were blocked by a velvet cord. Now a delicious odor reached us. I squinted at lights far off and uncertain. I saw rows of candles. The glow behind the candle lineup explained the odor. A spit, roasting meat over a huge fire! We were the Lord’s guests! The Knights’ Hall adjoined the fourteenth century kitchen. A medieval feast was set. This was the surprise they had referred to—I hadn’t any idea, nor did the other scientists realize that at Marksburg Castle, three-and-a-half hours down the Rhine from where the boat had left Biebrich just south of Wiesbaden, we’d be so entertained.

I couldn’t keep my eyes off your scarred face. You twinkleeyed, small, intense man with the scar. We had passed the Loreleifelsen, the legend of someone, not quite a Siren. We embarked at Biebrich, the Rhine port town, suburb of Wiesbaden, with our German hosts led by the neat, trim spokeswoman Mrs. Brunger. We all obediently followed her. “We must have a drink,” she announced, “while we await the boat.” In that tourist square beneath a tower, the patio, surrounded by small flags from all countries. Boy Scouts queued up to enter a ski lift through the tower. Gay colors, khakis and neckerchiefs. A young, pretty woman next to me introduced herself as Mrs. Taumann, who wanted to practice English.

“Yes, my husband and I had our happiest days in California, San Jose. Americans speak frankly. You can send the children out to play. You can tell American neighbors your feelings. You all have capacitisch freezers so you only need go to market twice a week. My children were at school all day so I worked a bit and studied English. My good American friends still send us Christmas cards.”

Mrs. Taumann said the next in a hushed voice. “I lost my husband, you know, just three months ago. He was only fortyfour. He had worked for Dr. Brunger for years, second in charge of our Max Planck Institute.” She clung now to the white-haired, cool Mrs. Brunger who has grown old with dignity and beauty, the way I hope I will grow old.

“In Germany, here I mean, life is different,” continued Mrs. Taumann. “I’m working now. They all told me to take it slowly, to work no more than twice a week. I never worked while I was married, of course not. But I have been lucky. I mean, even though he died young and left me with two children, the Max Planck Institute is like a family, my family. They have all taken care of me. They knew my husband very well of course. They have given me a partial job. It must be difficult for you to believe, but there are very few such jobs in all of Germany. What do you say? Half-time? Part-time? These jobs are very few, here. Married women don’t work. It’s changing, I guess, but slowly. The Institute here has wonderful people. I’ve been lucky,” she sighed, “but I miss the U.S.”

Mrs. Brunger nodded at me, “You must drink, girl,” she said in a motherly, definite way, and looked, dismayed, at the left half of the table—where all seven atmosphericists and their guests had slipped into German.

“I apologize for my countrymen. They are not comfortable with English. They have not, like us, me and Mrs. Taumann here, lived in the States. We lived there in Lexington, Massachusetts, near Boston, for four years. Do you know it? My husband worked in Bedford, at the Armed Forces Atmosphere Research Laboratory. Some of our best years were there in New England, as you probably—but my goodness, the boat may leave without us—we must get down to the dock!”

We all followed Mrs. Brunger again. Her neat white hair tied in the back in a bun helped lead us in single file down to the boat. Our international meeting honored her husband: Klaus Brunger, a jolly, sparkling man articulate in American English. His institute was leader in measurements of air. He retires this year. Over twenty years ago Brunger discovered many compounds in the atmosphere; terpenes, nitrous oxide. Before others, he realized that these gases, compounds, and structures, even “formed elements” like pollen, tiny seeds, and fungal spores, come from life.

The meeting was organized by Brunger’s colleague, Werner Zeiloff, who in my opinion wisely titled it, “The Biological Contribution to the Atmosphere.” Zeiloff, I think, founded a field of science by his choice of words. As Darly-James had told me, after his Yale seminar last year, the gases are kept in place by the incessant breathing and farting of microbes, animals, and plants. The atmospheric scientists don’t know that yet. They say life passively adapts and therefore is irrelevant. Zeiloff, an original, is only just beginning to see. I wanted to meet him. I recognized him from photos. Meteorologists mentioned stratospheric balloons and the influence of plants on clouds. Chromatographers talked about columns. Nitrogen on Mars was compared with Earth and Venus. I think, anyway I hope, I was invited not just because I was a woman (the program does have three women) but because of my own work. I published support for Brunger’s ideas that life makes gas. I’m probably a Brunger disciple. The first morning Zeiloff reviewed the oxides of carbon: measured in a box. Up in light, down in dark—if plants were in there. Plants were crucial. Zeiloff, a chemist, notices that microbes and plants speed up nature’s chemistry. The American Donald Peterson took hundreds of samples of ocean air—he idolizes Brunger.

Peterson followed most closely behind Mrs. Brunger. She led us from our drinks on the hill down the brick-paved, flowerbox- lined stony street to the dock. I stayed behind as our scientist crowd ascended the large Rhine boat. An announcement I barely understood was in British English. They said something about a special dining room assigned to our International Atmospheric Congress. The broad-faced, big-chested lady in her blue uniform and wide blue skirt announced, “Note, please, members of the international atmosphere congress descend please to B4, mind the step, mind your head.” International? Not really very international. Among our whitebadged group I heard a Dutch accent, but the blond man had “Boulder, Colorado” on his name badge. Charles Van Warden. Yes, he had come from Holland years ago as a boy. Only Americans, Germans, and a few Englishmen. Hardly international. Nearly the entire crowd of two hundred atmosphere people squeezed down one by one to the B4 deck. I took my time and monitored the flow. The few exceptions I could see to the usual white Anglo-Saxon-Protestant-scientist types were the German wives, most wearing crosses.

I knew Van Warden only by mail and telephone, I know he’s a member of the Atmosphere Establishment. He’s head of the National Center for Atmospheric Research–NCAR? No. NOAA? NOAA—what is it? National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, USA? Before this meeting, some eighteen months ago, I wrote him to ask if I could do research in his lab. Friends told me Van Warden let his people follow their own scientific instincts. Van Warden wrote that his positions involve deployment of heavy equipment into the field. It was a way to tell me that he is reluctant to employ women, I don’t think any of his post-docs or good students have been women. (The proof is in the pudding.) His letter made me dislike him. He also wrote that I did work “out-of-his-field” that therefore he “couldn’t judge.”

I was excited by the fact that the important Van Warden—I even managed to speak to him once after penetrating a baffle of secretaries—stood only five feet away from me on the sunny Rhineland boat dock. I felt bold when I said: “You are Van Warden.” “Yes.” Pause. I asked him about Will Kellogg, his co-author. Kellogg, the summer I was a National Science Foundation fellow, was my horny boss. I said, “Is our mutual friend Kellogg still married to his wife?” Van Warden shook and became icy. “I do not talk about the private lives of my friends.” OK, no shit, I thought and smiled. So much for an NCAR or NOAA job for me.

I filed slowly into the dining room, nearly everyone already seated at tables of eight, Van Warden near me at a table of seven with a conspicuous hole for a single. A gray-bearded German colleague motioned to me to join. Just then I spied you. You, scarred-face Frenchman, were right there at the next, but full, table. I mumbled, “Hoping to have a French lesson.” Gautier, you didn’t understand me until I repeated myself again very clearly. You said, “No one here speaks my languages, not even French.” I knew you meant science language. “Come here.” You said it so definitely in a tone that ordered me to follow. You got up, and left the table of eight.

I followed to the dark far edge of the group. The Ionescus, Romanians, sat alone there with six empty chairs. For the next two days we smiled at beautiful Mrs. Ionescu and her largeeared husband. We never had any languages in common. “Deutsch?” they asked. “Nein. English?” “No,” they responded. “Français?” “Non,” sadly. “Espagnole? Italiano?” “Nein,” they answered, “Russki?” We shook our heads. We never spoke again. Although I passed the graduate exam, even my German is poor. Yours is worse! They became our mute witnesses.

You were patient with me, Raoul, and my stilted French. You explained: Lorelei called out from high on the steep banks, she seduced all passersby. I still don’t understand the difference between Lorelei and the Sirens. You said something about hiding vineyards, invasions from the banks, downstream migration, castle forts. Alternation of Franco-German masters over the centuries, European chess games. You reverted to English each time I looked bewildered. Steve Ramsey’s hawknosed post-doc walked past: “You may not be learning atmospheric chemistry techniques straight from the horse’s mouth,” he teased, “but your French is certainly improving!”

Our crowd of scientists finally disembarked onto buses and then toward Marksburg Castle. We started on the steep rocky path, others followed the paved road. “Verboten!” cried an alarmed Castle guide. “Interdit,” you and I exclaimed gleefully. Like sheep we grouped for the tour and you surveyed me. Why did our guide speak English so fluently? He was a secondary school history teacher, an Ulsterman, who talked liltingly of his exile. He led us to the massive, carved, iron-studded castle doors. You chose the English-speaking group to avoid the Germans. I wanted even then to believe that you joined Ulsterman because of me.

He led us through winding passageways, low ceilings, a tunnel, to a fourteenth century chapel. Ancient Rhinelanders in their last minutes prayed to an unreliable God for protection from enemies. You were too tall for the chapel ceiling, I fit perfectly. Most of the gawky Germans and Americans bent over as they entered. Even most of the blond wives were too tall. Dungeon chairs, thumbscrews, ankle cuffs, and rusty chains on exhibit. I told you then that I’m from Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, a province you’d never heard of with names you couldn’t spell.

With perhaps 180 others, still single file, we entered the windowless chamber, attracted by delicious odor and crackling noises. A huge fire spilled light on the long narrow tables, rows of Rhine wine bottles, the pageant staged for us: The Knights’ Hall of the Castle. Two stocky attendants dressed in doublet and hose rotated enormous spit handles. Dr. Klaus Brunger and his frau, formally dressed in matching black suits, bow ties, and white blouses, like permanently mated penguins that glowed in firelight. They wore their lifetime of devotion on their breasts. I looked at you speaking science to our American colleagues. You are missing teeth on your scarred left side. I felt euphorique. (Is that the word?) Your talk gyrated from volatiles of air and sea through vapors and aromas of wines. I couldn’t eat and became silent. You put on your reading glasses and read the bottle labels.

I spoke quietly to the gentleman on my left, Heinrich D. Holland, about marine geochemistry and the ocean-atmosphere system. I recognized his name, I even knew they call him Dick. I admire his German fluency and expertise. I had bought his textbook a week before I met you. I felt reticent. This Harvard man reviews grant proposals for the National Science Foundation, he will probably see mine. The impression I make on him may affect my research support. Holland told me that his family “had been Jewish but it wasn’t any more.” I knew, everyone knew, that he was born and had lived in Germany until the age of twelve. His trace of a German accent surfaces only when he’s excited.

Steve Ramsey told his post-doc who told me that Professor H. D. Holland had been a fundamentalist Christian in college. “What are you now?” I asked him. He chose his words with care and evaded a straight answer. His Christian stage, he admitted, was when he worked with Ramsey. An aberrant epoch, brought on from exhaustion from the burden of being Jewish. When Holland stops worrying about his “zehr correctness” and talks science, as on that night, he amazes me. He described an expedition to Iceland, the geochemical activity at the mid-Atlantic ridge. He showed me wallet-size photos of pillow basalt, drawn out hastily from his passport holder. The shockingly hot activity was aligned nearly straight north to south. These rocks look like their name: “pillows” of lava. I mentioned my colleague David’s experiments—that he measured methane gas collected from these very rift zones, probably from the same samples. I told Professor Holland that I should have studied geology instead of chemistry. Chemists are stuck in labs whereas geologists travel.

The guests leaned back in their chairs, relaxed, many smoking, when I went outside, to see that the fresh air of dusk had turned to night. I thought, now or never. Was I brave enough to show my attraction to you? I closed my eyes only to see the smooth tracery of your scar.

We rode together on the return bus, Raoul. I don’t remember leaving the warm dining chamber. I mentioned that I planned to visit my brother in Munich right after this meeting. I had said he was there “on holiday” because you didn’t understand me when I said “on vacation.”

You asked me about bacterial gas emission in the marsh. Methane, ammonia, nitrogen. We spoke about paleoatmospheres, Brunger’s contribution—he moved the discussion into the realm of polite scientific society. Why does everyone agree that oxygen in the Earth’s atmosphere is produced by living beings whereas all the other reactive gases (nitrogen, methane, carbon dioxide, ammonia) are just chemicals or volcanic emissions?

Then you told me that your grandmother died and you were with her. I could not believe it when you said you had never married. Actually my heart stopped when you told me that.

Why did your disclosure affect me so? Why was I elated? What are you, you brown-eyed, scar-faced man, what are you to me?

You ruffled my hair as I watched the great Rhine River, a black ribbon stretching along the bus route on that black velvet night. We were quiet, exciting quiet. You felt it too, I know. We got off the bus at the Wiesbaden Spa Hotel. Do you know that I was in pain, emotional pain, when we went out for drinks on the street with your American colleagues? All of them seemed ridiculous to me that night. Banal Don Peterson, fast-talking Alton Brainerd, friendly and funny Steve Ramsey.

Peterson challenged us to join him at a porno show, the “entertainment lounge” of gaudy painted girlies, black net hose, and flowered garters. I offered to go only because I hoped you would come with us, but you refused. The invitation died. The conversation degenerated into old-times stuff. You four had been together at the Coastal Upwelling Ecosystems Analysis meetings. All of you were members of the oxygen and carbon gas study section. You sounded silly speaking American, the talky talky pained me. You bought my glass of wine but not theirs. After we all trekked back to the Spa Hotel, I watched you say good-bye to them and ascended my four flights of stairs. I couldn’t sleep after that exhilarating time. I realized at that moment, R. Gautier, you scar-faced man, I didn’t even know your first name!

You weren’t at breakfast. Alton Brainerd told me you that are seldom very late but you are never on time. During the lecture Steve Ramsey, nearsighted with contact lenses, sat between us in the front row.We (you, me, and Ramsey) all wanted to be close to the action. I wrote you my first “lettre”—to ask your name and room number. I crossed out my question. You answered, correcting my French because I asked you to. That little slip of paper was lesson one. You wrote that you hadn’t slept well. I concluded that the feelings were there. From that our first epistolary moment, you have matched my verbosity with hesitation.

I concentrated hard: I disagreed with much of Brainerd’s work on nitrous oxide. When would these chemists wake up and realize the power of bacteria to force the chemically unlikely to occur? Next. Ehhalt’s summary of global cycles of methane: could methane control the oxygen? Here, listening to Ehhalt’s talk and Zeiloff’s questions, I suggested that methane, produced in the absence of oxygen, may influence oxygen. I pushed past you on my way to the ladies’ room, and dropped you another note. Unabashed, I asked you: Are you going to Nachenheim? Are you going to see the Guttenberg Bible? “A ce soir,” you answered.

As dusk, the sessions over, we joined the milling group in the rain in front of the hotel. You didn’t walk or sit with me when the huge group toured Nachenheim—the inevitable bus to the inevitable wine cellar. Filled with round tables, flowered tablecloths, the cellar looked like Hollywood. The German master of ceremonies became louder and, we suspected, bawdier, judging from the groans and laughter.

The rain stopped. Yearning for air, moon, and stars, I went upstairs and outside. I walked along the trellis as I approached our parked bus. I knew you too would have to walk through the garden, but you didn’t come to find me as I hoped you would. The laughing company ambled upstairs also readying to leave. Smiling, wrinkling your scar, you passed with your independent air through the garden and said slowly, “C’est très frais ce soir.” As we arrived and you passed by my bus seat, you quickly invited me to walk to Brunnenkolannade, to the Kirkviertel around the Kirkhaus on Wilhelmstrasse to seek the ancient Roman baths. Please don’t invite your atmospheremonitoring American friends to go with us, I thought but did not say.

We planned to walk to the thermal fountain. But we kept on. What was your room number? We trudged to the fifth floor and you opened the door to gently pull me toward you. We never saw the Brunnenkolannade, whatever that is, nor the Kirkpark, the Kirkviertel, or any Roman baths. You turned off time, your solid-state travel clock read 00000. Forty-six years old and never any wife. I figure that you must have turned time off for many women before me.

Where are you? Why haven’t you come to the airport for me? Is it all over?

René shakes her hand, cramped from writing, signs “Love” and becomes aware that the lights have again turned on at Charles de Gaulle. Crowds, all unrecognized faces, bob in the Lufthansa waiting area. The time is now 3:45. She suspects her scribbling is drivel, but it certainly has been therapeutic. She asks herself again, what kind of man is he?

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