Spanish Flu / Pangolin Revenge

Chinese Headband with Bat Design – Made with Kingfisher Feathers, 19th Century

We walked this afternoon. It was almost fifty and I was surprised at how many people were out walking around too. Kids were out playing together. Dog walkers were everywhere. In our neighborhood, there are sidewalks on both sides and along Wydown, the main drag, there are also additional lanes. When another walker approached, we simply switched sides. Ours and others dancing in the streets was all unspoken, but I think that our actions and that of some of the other pedestrians, were obvious to all. We were able to maintain our safe social distance, but still I was concerned. With warmer weather and nothing else to do people will migrate outside in greater numbers than usual. If the epidemic progresses as it has in Italy, the authorities might even prohibit this modest release from cabin fever.

Cycle Zydeco, our planned April bicycle trip to Louisiana, has announced that it is offering vouchers for next year or refunds. It hasn’t cancelled yet, but… Our 2020 vacation schedule is quickly collapsing.

The outdoor floor show that is the water company’s replacement of the water main continues to amuse. They’ve paved over the portion of the street, where plastic pipe was laid, with concrete. Our street has always had asphalt paving. Maybe the concrete is there to protect the new pipes? What do you say, Jay?

I had a little bird, its name was Enza.
I opened up the window and in flew Enza.
— 1918 children’s rhyme

I made the mistake tonight of watching the episode of the PBS series American Experience on the 1918 flu epidemic, the so-called Spanish flu. It is freely available to watch, just Google it. It was the last year of World War I, when the epidemic began at an army base in Kansas. One day, first one soldier became ill, then soon hundreds of them did and they started dying even soon after. Unlike our current epidemic, where the elderly are the most susceptible, this flu was most deadly to young adults. This was a time, when we didn’t even know there was such a thing as a virus. This show was produced on the centennial of the epidemic, so the few people who were still alive, were only small children back then and only had a child’s memory of the events. The hopelessness that the people felt back then was horrible, but the disease burned its self out after a year or so and was soon forgotten afterwards, until this next time.

The 1918 pandemic was most commonly known as the Spanish flu. Not that this flu originated there, it didn’t, but in 1918 all of the other first world countries were at war and also under strict wartime censorship. Neither side reported their epidemics, leaving only neutral Spain to shoulder the burden and the blame. It is believed that the Corona virus originated in a so-called wet market in the city of Wuhan, China. The virus is thought to have originated with a bat, but in order to facilitate its transmission to humans, an intermediary animal is hypothesized. The most likely candidate for this intermediary is also the most trafficked animal on the planet, the Pangolin.


1900 Stock Ticker

I saw this Western Union stock ticker, circa 1900 in the Smithsonian last year. I knew that when I snapped its picture that a day such as today would eventually arrive and the need for this image would become evident. With the largest point drop ever, in the 268 year long history of the NYSE, today was just such a day. This precipitous drop triggered the market’s circuit breakers, briefly halting trading. but their relief was only temporary. I’m sure that this crash was caused by all of those Democratic naysayers, who have sown fear and panic and has nothing to do with the policies of our illustrious Dear Leader. Not!

Trump holding a fundraiser for himself today as the stock market crashes and Coronavirus cases increase is a symbol of his entire presidency. After his golfing weekend, I am reminded of this 2014 Trump tweet, “It is almost like the United States has no President—we are a rudderless ship heading for disaster. Good luck, everyone!” That tweet didn’t age well. All it needs is for this metaphorical ship of state to be a Princess cruise ship, to make the irony complete.

Closer to home, the father of the woman first diagnosed in Missouri with the Coronavirus broke quarantine this last weekend, when he took his other daughter to a father-daughter dance. Two high schools are now closed to help quarantine his disregard for public health. Health officials have warned this Ladue man that any further containment infractions will meet with criminal action. It is a quirk of Saint Louis that one of the first questions that one is asked, when meeting another resident is, what high school did you go to? Not being a native, I was initially taken aback by this question, until I broke the code. This query is shorthand used to stereotype a person’s social-economic class. The two high schools that are closed are both high end private schools and Ladue is one of the wealthiest communities in the area. All of which leads me to believe that this individual is wealthy, self-entitled and doesn’t care about anybody, but himself. Does this sound like anyone else that you’ve heard of?

Planet of the Chickens

Incubating Chicks

Chickens are now the most numerous vertebrate on the planet. 66 billion of them are slaughtered for food annually. And these are not your father’s chickens either, because these birds sprout legs and thighs that have been genetically modified and are significantly larger than their predecessor’s. These bird’s existence is yet another example of humanity’s impact here, on God’s little golf ball.

We are now living in the Anthropocene epoch. This is an era that is marked by significant human impact on Earth’s geology and ecosystems, including, but not limited to, climate change. This was the thesis of Dr. TR Kidder’s talk, The Anthropocene Era: Have Humans Become a Greater Force Than All of Nature? He is the chairman of Washington University’s Anthropology Department and was this month’s speaker, at last night’s Science on Tap.

Kidder raised the question, in future epochs, will any signs of man’s existence remain? There is no need to worry about that. The birth of humanity has always been coincidental with the creation of garbage. Anthropologists rely upon first finding human garbage, as a means to search for human bones.

Examples of mankind’s impact on this blue marble abound. Plastiglomerate, stone that contains mixtures of sedimentary grains, and other natural debris and is held together by hardened molten plastic can be found everywhere. 500 million tons of elemental aluminum has been smelted, not a naturally occurring material. 50 billion tons of concrete has been mixed. That is enough concrete to cover the surface of the Earth to a meter’s depth. The geologic record of our existence will not soon disappear.

Archeologists like to separate earth’s history into neat little time periods. The K-T boundary, the geologic transition between the Cretaceous and Tertiary eras is a excellent facilitator for this behavior. Similarly, Kidder proposes July 16, 1945 as the beginning of the Anthropocene epoch. Not that that is when this era began. In actually began much earlier, but on that day near Alamogordo, NM, the first atom bomb was detonated. In subsequent years, through the sixties, following nuclear tests have blanketed the planet with a layer of Strontium-90, a golden spike that will crisply delineate in a geologic timeframe what preceded man and what came afterwards. Because chemically strontium mimics calcium, any child of the sixties has Strontium-90 embedded in their teeth and bones. Coincidentally, Strontium-90 is already being used to detect fine wine fraud.

The current CO2 concentration in the atmosphere is now above 400 ppm, a level that has not been seen on this planet for 3 million years. No person alive today will see atmospheric CO2 concentration fall below that level. You could say that global warming is now sorta baked into the equation. It is generally thought that the rise of CO2 levels and the advent of global warming began in the Industrial Revolution, but polar ice core records show that CO2 rise began with the start of the Holocene epoch, some 11,700 years ago and coincided with the first farms. Slash and burn agriculture released CO2, but more importantly, the people of the cleared fields began changing the face of the earth. The last most significant decrease in CO2 levels occurred around 1610 or more than a hundred years after Columbus sailed. In between that date and his first voyage, it is estimated that some 20 million Native Americans died. Their deaths and the brief decline of agriculture in the New World is believed to be the cause for that CO2 dip.

Are we hard-wired for destruction? Our record as a species indicates that we are, even as far back as paleolithic man, on whom the extinction of many species of mega-fauna can be pinned. At this crossroads, we need to become better, more thoughtful stewards, but that is against our nature. Humanity has always had to wrestle with problems that offer either a pay now or pay later proposition. People invariably choose later, even though later is much more expensive.

Kidder’s talk was very informative, if a bit depressing. At least it took our minds off of the Corona virus for a while. I love the new venue for these talks, the Jefferson Ballroom on Chouteau. Anne and I shared a PW Pizza for dinner. We’ve been promised a much lighter topic for next month’s talk, Helium.

Honey Bees Sipping Water

Honey Bees Sipping Water from an Antebellum Sugar Mill’s Boiling Pot

It is hard to believe that after 150 years that the pictured sugar kettle would still have any sugarcane residue on it and the bees are not just drinking rain water, but I would like to believe that there is still something left from so long ago. These bees are sipping at the lip of one of four big copper boiling pots at the Reef Bay sugar mill, which ceased operations in 1908. The sugar mill began working before the Civil War as part of a slave plantation in 1855. This mill is unique on the islands, in that it was powered by a steam engine. Most mills were powered with animal or human labor. In 2017, the hurricanes blew the mill’s roof off, before that the abandoned mill used to house Fruit bats, but now they don’t roost there anymore.

Reef Bay Sugar Mill’s Sugar Pots

Sugarcane was refined in the mill, but only up to the point. To prevent loss to theft, the sugar was only refined into a brown paste. This paste was then shipped back to Denmark, where the refining process was completed. As part of the mill, there was also a rum distillery. Rum was primarily made for local consumption. On the islands, rum drinks were significantly cheaper than other alcohol forms, even though now, both sugar and rum are imported. 

Today seems far, far away from a week ago when these photos were taken. It snowed overnight and continues to snow this morning. That’s the trouble with tropical getaways, you eventually have to come back and I think that that is harder than never having gone at all. More’s the pity for that.