Monday, August 06, 2007

The fern spike

A rather lovely little piece by Oliver Sacks at the New Yorker about a Saturday-morning fern foray along the Park Avenue viaduct:
High above his head, Sundue spotted a gigantic Woodsia specimen, almost six feet across, clinging to the rock. “That one’s a good age,” he said. “Decades old—some species can be very long-lived.” When he was asked if ferns show signs of age, he hesitated; the answer is not clear. A fern tends to keep growing, until it outruns its food supply, is ousted by competitors, or (as will happen sooner or later with the Woodsia) becomes so heavy that it falls to the ground. In some botanical gardens, there are massive ferns more than a hundred years old. Death is not built in to these plants as it is for us more specialized life forms, with the ticking clocks of our telomeres, our liability to mutations, our running-down metabolisms. But youth is apparent, even in ferns. The young Woodsia are charming: a bright spring green; tiny, like babies’ toes; and very soft and vulnerable.

Also (but not available online) an interesting piece by Richard Preston on Lesch-Nyhan syndrome, a disease caused by a single small genetic mutation that causes sufferers compulsively to harm themselves. Here's what Preston says of one little boy with the disease:
The women had devised a contraption to keep him from biting his hands, a padded broomstick that they placed across his shoulders, and they tied his arms to it like a scarecrow. The family called it the "stringlyjack." Matthew often asked to wear it.

(It also sounds rather like the device Maggie Gyllenhaal wears in Secretary.) It's the word, though, I can't believe--how amazing--the stringlyjack...

I've had a minor obsession with Lesch-Nyhan ever since I first read about it in a thriller I would describe at once as rather bad and somehow at the same time grippingly memorable. Here's the Kirkus review, pasted in from Amazon:
Epidemiologist Marr and freelancer Baldwin (Ice Pick, 1982) team up to write a gripping (if styleless) suspenser about a mad scientist bringing down upon mankind the ten Biblical plagues of Exodus, plus one more for good measure. The dramatized plagues include bread-moldderived ergot from the rye fungus, which causes massive itching, cramps, spasms, and gangrene--as well as later centuries' smallpox, leprosy, Black Plague, syphilis, dysentery, TB, typhus, cholera, and AIDS, not to mention Ebola, Lyme, and more. World-class but crazy toxicologist Theodore ``Teddy'' Graham Kameron, abused as a child by his Bible-quoting mother and now led by a toxic Voice that he assumes must be God's, has been busy re-creating and distributing these basic plague cultures, inducing swarms of bees to attack humans, killing youngsters and horses with anthrax, breeding lice, pests, frog poisons, and much else, all in imitation of the wrath of God falling upon mankind (he has also wired himself up to catch the Voice if it comes to him in his sleep). Meanwhile, pitted against Teddy is epidemiological whiz Dr. Jack Brynne, who heads the ProMED computer hotline (quite real) and flies about the planet fighting epidemics. Jack's parents died from exposure to germ-warfare agents during Japanese tests at a WW II POW camp, though underweight Jack himself escaped testing. His busyness troubles his marriage with star-crossed fellow doctor Mia Hart, who dismisses Jack's idea that a Bible nut is at work. But his old lover, investigative TV journalist Vicki Wade, who does a sort of 60 Minutes show, does take him seriously (in every way). Culminating his campaign, Teddy extracts a superpoison from microscopic marine phytoplanktons. Ironically, the poison might also be a powerful new antibiotic--though that's not what Teddy has in mind. Is Manhattan ready for this (seemingly unstoppable) airborne killer? Creepy stuff. Wash your hands thoroughly after reading.

The two plagues that have really stayed with me are the induced Lesch-Nyhan syndrome and also a gruesome scene in which the killer (I may be slightly misremembering details) uses a water pistol to spray anthrax into the eyes of some teenagers at an amusement park--they get eye infections, the first-aid staff tape gauze over the eyes and then when they take it off the next day the teenagers' eyes have been almost entirely eaten away--very horrorific--hmmm, don't read books like this so often nowadays, kind of a pity!


  1. That fern excursion sounds just delightful!

  2. Good lord, Lesch-Nyhan - haven't heard about this in YEARS. My undergraduate thesis project involved injecting a morphine derivative into rats lesioned with Lesch-Nyhan patterned brain injuries to see how their behavior differed from normal rats. Fun all round....

  3. There's also a brilliant Octavia Butler story that features a condition that's reminiscent of Lesch-Nyhan.

    Justine L