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Dotspotting Expressionist Science: What the Mysterious Color-Markings on Storm Drains Have to Do with Rachel Carson’s Legacy and the War on a Deadly Virus

Strange signals from the lacuna between street art and microbiology.

I noticed them first in my neighborhood — dots of paint hovering over the grate of the storm drain in a blue-green spectrum punctuated by white. I noticed them probably because I had been writing about the wondrous science of the color blue and my brain had formed, as brains tend to, a search image for its present preoccupation.

At first I took them for mindless spray-can tests by a street artist getting ready to graffiti a nearby wall. But no surface in sight was emblazoned with these colors.

And then I started seeing them all over Brooklyn: Red Hook, Greenpoint, even the alleys of the Green-Wood Cemetery — quiet ecstasies of color amid the bleak grey-brown of winter, chromatic macaw cries in the concrete jungle, the ghost of Alma Thomas risen from the dead through the New York City sewer system.

With some stubborn sleuthing through various city agency logs, street art blogs, conspiracy theory fora, and health department reports, I discovered that they are not surreptitious art.

They are science.

They are war paint on humanity’s countenance as we combat our great eternal enemy: the mosquito.

Mosquito in biting position. (National Library of Medicine.)

When it rains, when the city washes the streets, water rushes into the drain along with all the debris it carries. To prevent downstream clogging, a catch basin resides just beneath the metal grate to sieve the debris before releasing the water into the drainage pipe. Mosquitos love nesting in these cozy, soggy chambers, where the air is warm enough for the females to survive the winter and where the water doesn’t freeze, so that their eggs — around 200 laid by each female mosquito — can float freely while preparing to become a bloodthirsty army that goes on replicating the 1:200 reproductive ratio ad infinitum.

Mosquitos have always plagued cities, but when the deadly West Nile virus arrived in America in 1999, landing in Queens, cities grew serious about defense. The expressionist markings indicate catch basins where the war has been waged. Modeled on the inspired pedal-powered program the City of San Francisco pioneered in 2005, the colorful dots across Brooklyn signal the particular treatment applied to that drain, with each color corresponding to one of the larvicides administered by the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. (Yes, that is its name — a curious poetic inversion of the more expected syntax “department of hygiene and mental health.”)

Having devoted two hundred pages of Figuring to Rachel Carson and her epoch-making exposé of the assault on the natural world with DDT — an act of courage and resistance she paid for dearly, not living to see it awaken humanity’s ecological conscience, lead to the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency, and catalyze the modern environmental movement — I was naturally keen to find out what substances the city uses to attack those curbside mosquito mansions.

Rachel Carson at work.

When Carson published Silent Spring, the ruthless forces she had unmasked — the $800 million chemical pesticide industry, the corporate interests of Big Agriculture, and a complicit government bankrolled by them — set out to tear down this scientist of uncommon courage and competence. Their commonest line of attack, launched everywhere from the pages of Monsanto Magazine to any national station that would give them share of voice, was based on a deliberate misconstrual of the book: Employing the classic tactic of the opinion-manipulator — refuting arguments the opponent hasn’t actually made — they disregarded Carson’s explicit caveat that there are certain lifesaving uses of chemical controls in typhoid and malaria outbreaks, accusing her of advocating for a total ban on pesticides that would cost countless human lives to malaria. Some warped the facts of biochemistry so egregiously that they called her work antiscientific. The grave irony is that Carson opposed not science but the most unscientific stance there is: the arrogance of false certitude unsupported by evidence and the dangerous delusion of pretending to have answers we don’t actually have — an arrogance radiating from the indiscriminate use of DDT, with which the government was hosing down acres of forests and which agricultural airplanes were raining down upon children lunching in the schoolyard amid cornfields.

Pesticide crop duster. (Photograph: Charles O’Rear, The Environmental Protection Agency.)

But Carson’s most visionary proposition, decades ahead of science, was the development of biological controls that would curtail the reproduction of a particular species without harming other organisms. In consonance with her vision, the City of New York uses larvicide that relies not on toxic chemicals to vanquish mosquito larvae but on rod-shaped aerobic bacteria commonly found in soil. Bacillus sphaericus and Bacillus thuringiensis produce proteins toxic to mosquitos and harmless to mammals, for we lack the enzymes to activate and digest them. But when a mosquito larva ingests the bacterium, the protein in it catalyzes the release of a digestive enzyme in the larva’s gut that binds to a particular receptor, causing mortal damage to the cell membranes.

Because this entire drama of life and death unfolds in the catch basin beneath the drain grate, both the dead larvae and the bacteria never enter the human world overground — they vanish into the ductile catacombs of the city sewer system to land at the local waste treatment plant along with all the other sewer-stuff, leaving only the colorful expressionist markings on the drain as notation of this silent symphony of science.


Loops, the Limits of Language, the Paradoxical Loneliness of “I Love You,” and What Keeps Love Alive

“The very task of love and of language is to give to one and the same phrase inflections which will be forever new.”

Loops, the Limits of Language, the Paradoxical Loneliness of “I Love You,” and What Keeps Love Alive

When I walk — which I do every day, as basic sanity-maintenance, whether in the forest or the cemetery or the city street — I walk the same routes, walk along loops, loops I often retrace multiple times in a single walk. This puzzles people. Some simply don’t get the appeal of such recursiveness. Others judge it as dull. But I walk to think more clearly, which means to traverse the world with ever-broadening scope of attention to reality, ever-widening circles of curiosity, ever-deepening interest in the ceaselessly flickering constellation of details within and without. In this respect, walking is a lot like love — for one human being to love another is to continually discover new layers of oneself while continuously discovering new layers of the other, and in them new footholds of love.

This renders the exchange of I love you’s — that coveted contract of mutuality — a strange sort of transaction, currency encrypted with change, with the loneliness and loveliness of change: In any love worthy of the name, the I and the you are ever-changing, so that the love binding the two is ever-renewing. But perhaps the strangest and most lonely-making aspect of I love you is that it traps the boundlessness of love in the limits language, as narrow and straining a conduit of love as the crack in the wall between Pyramus and Thisbe.

Thisbe by John William Waterhouse, 1909. Available as a print.

Thinking about this on one of my cemetery loops, because the act of walking is also a mighty machete for clearing the pathways of memory overgrown with life, I suddenly remembered a passage by the French semiotician and philosopher Roland Barthes (November 12, 1915–March 26, 1980) from his superb 1977 part-autobiography, part-rebellion against the conventions of life and of the telling of life-stories, Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes (public library) — the playful, profound, blazingly original self-interrogation that gave us his existential catalogue of likes and dislikes.

A hundred pages into the book’s larger meditation on the limits of language — our primary tool for narrating our inner lives so that we can understand ourselves and be understood — Barthes writes:

Does not this whole paroxysm of love’s declaration conceal some lack? We would not need to speak this word, if it were not to obscure, as the squid does with his ink, the failure of desire under the excess of affirmation.

Sappho and Erinna in a Garden at Mytilene by Simeon Solomon, 1864. (Tate Britain.)

With an eye to the limitation of these words — of all words — as “the primary and somehow insignificant expression of a fulfillment,” Barthes adds with a conspiratorial wink:

There’s no help for it: I love you is a demand: hence it can only embarrass anyone who receives it, except the Mother — and except God!

Unless I should be justified in flinging out the phrase in the improbable but ever hoped-for case when two I love you‘s, emitted in a single flash, would form a pure coincidence, annihilating by this simultaneity the blackmail effects of one subject over the other: the demand would proceed to levitate.

All (romantic) poetry and music is in this demand: I love you, je t’aime, ich liebe dich! But if by some miracle the jubilatory answer should be given, what might it be? What is the taste of fulfillment?

Art by Harry Clarke from a rare 1933 edition of Poe’s Tales of Mystery and Imagination. (Available as a print.)

But then Barthes considers “a delicate way out of the maze.” In an allusion to the Ship of Theseus — the brilliant ancient Greek thought experiment exploring what makes you you — he intimates that the only thing which makes love love is its self-renewal in the consciousness of the lover despite the self-exhausting loops of its declaration:

I decide that [the declaration of love], though I repeat and rehearse it day by day through the course of time, will somehow recover, each time I utter it, a new state. Like the Argonaut renewing his ship during his voyage without changing its name, the subject in love will perform a long task through the course of one and the same exclamation, gradually dialecticizing the original demand though without ever dimming the incandescence of its initial address, considering that the very task of love and of language is to give to one and the same phrase inflections which will be forever new.

Crochet mural by street artist NaomiRAG, Greenpoint, Brooklyn. Photograph by Maria Popova. (Available as a print.)

Complement with Robert Browning — one of those rare romantic poets who rose above Barthes’s indictment — on saying I love you only when you mean it and Rainer Maria Rilke — one of those rare post-romantic poets who refused to treat romance as a transaction of conveniences — on what it really means to mean it, then revisit philosopher Martha Nussbaum’s Proust-fomented litmus test for how you really know you love somebody and Adrienne Rich on earning the right to use the word love.


The Blue Hour: A Stunning Illustrated Celebration of Nature’s Rarest Color

“The day ends. The night falls. And in between… there is the blue hour.”

The Blue Hour: A Stunning Illustrated Celebration of Nature’s Rarest Color

Blue, Rebecca Solnit wrote in one of humanity’s most beautiful reflections on our planet’s primary hue, is “the color of solitude and of desire, the color of there seen from here… the color of longing for the distances you never arrive in, for the blue world,” a world of many blues — a pioneering 19th-century nomenclature of colors listed eleven kinds of blue, in hues as varied as the color of the flax-flower and the throat of the blue titmouse and the stamina of a certain species of anemone. Darwin took this guide with him on The Beagle in order to better describe what he saw. We name in order to see better and apprehend only what we know how to name, how to think about.

But despite Earth’s distinction as the Solar System’s “Pale Blue Dot,” this planetary blueness is only a perceptual phenomenon arising from how our particular atmosphere, with its particular chemistry, absorbs and reflects light. Everything we behold — a ball, a bird, a planet — is the color we perceive it to be because of its insentient stubbornness toward the spectrum, because these are the wavelengths of light it refuses to absorb and instead reflects back.

In the living world beneath our red-ravenous atmosphere, blue is the rarest color: There is no naturally occurring true blue pigment in nature. In consequence, only a slender portion of plants bloom in blue and an even more negligible number of animals are bedecked with it, all having to perform various tricks with chemistry and the physics of light, some having evolved astonishing triumphs of structural geometry to render themselves blue: Each feather of the bluejay is tessellated with tiny light-reflecting beads arranged to cancel out every wavelength of light except the blue; the wings of the blue morpho butterflies — which Nabokov, in his spree of making major contributions to lepidoptery while revolutionizing literature, rightly described as “shimmering light-blue mirrors” — are covered with miniature scales ridged at the precise angle to bend light in such a way that only the blue portion of the spectrum is reflected to the eye of the beholder. Only a handful of known animals, all species of butterfly, produce pigments as close to blue as nature can get — green-tinted aquamarines the color of Uranus.

In The Blue Hour (public library), French illustrator and author Isabelle Simler offers a stunning joint celebration of these uncommon blue creatures and the common blue world they inhabit, the Pale Blue Dot we share.

The book opens with a palette of blues strewn across the endpapers — from the delicate “porcelain blue” to the boldly iconic “Klein blue” to the brooding “midnight blue” — hues that come alive in Simler’s vibrant, consummately cross-hatched illustrations of creatures and landscapes, named in spare, lyrical words. What emerges is part minimalist encyclopedia, part cinematic lullaby.

The day ends.
The night falls.
And in between…
there is the blue hour.

We meet the famed blue morpho butterfly spreading its wings against the blue morning glory, the Arctic fox traversing the icy expanse in its blue-tinted coat, the blue poison dart frogs croaking at each other across the South American forest, the silvery-blue sardines glimmering beneath the surface of the blue ocean, the blue racer snake coiled around a branch, the various blue birds silent or singing in the gloaming hour.

Given my uncommon love of snails, I was especially pleased to find the glass snail gracing this menagerie of blue-tinted living wonders.

In the final pages, as the black of night drains the blue hour from the day, all the creatures grow silent and motionless, the hint of their presence consecrating the apparition of this blue world.

Couple The Blue Hour — a large-scale splendor of paper and ink untranslatable to this small blue-reflecting screen — with Maggie Nelson’s love letter to blue, then find a kindred painted celebration of the natural world in The Lost Spells.

Illustrations by Isabelle Simler; photographs by Maria Popova


Dignity, Daring, and Disability: The Pioneering Queer Composer and Defiant Genius Ethel Smyth on Making Music While Going Deaf

…with a side of Virginia Woolf’s elated infatuation.

“Tell me nothing of rest,” the young Beethoven bellowed when he began losing his hearing, resolving to “take fate by the throat” despite his disability. A century later, another trailblazing composer of uncommon artistic ability took her own fate by the throat as she faced the same embodied disability.

Ethel Smyth, early 1900s

As a young woman, Ethel Smyth (April 22, 1858–May 8, 1944) had weathered her father’s wrath at the clarity with which she saw music as her life and the determination with which she pursued it, animated by one of her musical heroes’ credo that “to live by music, you must live in music.” And so she lived in it and by it, against the tide of her time — bicyclist, mountaineer, golfer, always with a large dog at her side, counterculturally clad in tweed suits and men’s hats, a woman of inconvenient genius and indecorous passions, writing staggering sonatas for violin, symphonies for cello, raptures for orchestra.

Still a self-described “half-baked neophyte,” she met Brahms (who dismissed her), Clara Schumann (who inspired her), and Tchaikovsky (who — perhaps because he was raised a proto-feminist and perhaps because he sensed another queer person of talent against an even greater tide of convention — actively encouraged her to find her voice).

Having perfected her craft in Florence, Smyth made her debut as a composer of orchestral music in London’s Crystal Palace with her soulful Serenade in D. She was thirty-two. But it wasn’t until late middle age, when she was already losing her hearing, that her work finally began gaining the commensurate recognition. Her 1911 choral suite “Songs of Sunrise” became the official anthem of the suffrage movement, known as “The March of the Women.”

Ethel Smyth at a 1912 meeting at the Women’s Social & Political Union, to whom she dedicated her “March of the Women.” (The Women’s Library collection, London School of Economics Library.)

Across the Atlantic, The New York Times did not hesitate to scintillate with reports of Smyth arrested and accused of arson for her activism. While they published no notable reviews of her music, they ran an obtuse review of her memoir under the headline “A Militant Victorian.” In the journalistic equivalent to the posthumous Royal pardon for the gruesome mistreatment of computing pioneer Alan Turing, the paper would make belated reparations a century later.

Dame Ethel Smyth, 1922

In 1922, Smyth became the first female composer granted damehood. Half a century later, long after her death, she was granted the more substantive honor of a seat at artist Judy Chicago’s iconic Dinner Party project.

Ethel Smyth placemat from Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party, 1974-1979. (Photograph by Jook Leung Photography, Brooklyn Museum.)

But although by the end of her life she was as highly regarded as Tchaikovsky and Brahms, Smyth was sidelined by the collective selective memory we mistake for history and was all but forgotten within a generation — partly because, unlike other queer women of her epoch and every epochs before and many epochs since, she refused to yield to the cultural pressure to marry a man anyway, thus leaving no heirs to steward her intellectual property and artistic legacy; partly because her music was never recorded in her lifetime — something conductor James Blachly and his inspired Experiential Orchestra set out to remedy a century later in the world’s first crowdfunded symphony orchestra reanimation of a previously unrecorded piece, triumphantly earning Smyth a posthumous Grammy nomination.

Virginia Woolf was smitten with Smyth, as one artist with another, smitten with her uncommon “gift for solidifying the connection between [the composer] and the audience,” and tried to procure for her via her Bloomsbury connections the era’s most admired gramophone — the handmade acoustic E.M.G. behemoth, with its enormous papier-mâché horn. Woolf was also smitten with Smyth as a woman, writing to the seventy-three-year-old composer after returning home from a visit with her:

Look dearest Ethel…. Please live 50 years at least; for now I’ve formed this limpet childish attachment it can’t but be part of my simple anatomy for ever — wanting Ethel — I say, live, live, and let me fasten myself upon you, and fill my veins with charity and champagne.

Smyth had dedicated her 1919 autobiography to the memory of Lady Mary Ponsonby — her great love of a quarter century, who had died three years earlier and who had once been Maid of Honor to Queen Victoria. She dedicated her final memoir to Woolf.

Virginia Woolf with Ethel Smyth (New York Public Library archives)

In the last stretch of winter in 1934, a Jubilee Festival celebrated Smyth’s seventy-fifth birthday with two of her most sweeping works — the orchestral masterpiece The Prison and The Mass in D, a choral enchantment — performed at Royal Albert Hall under the benediction of the era’s most influential conductor and music impresario, Thomas Beecham, who had just co-founded the London Philharmonic and who had previously politely snubbed Smyth’s work. It was a bittersweet triumph for her — by then, she was completely deaf, unable to register how the man whose musicianship she so admired, whom the world so admired, was rendering her work.

From across the hall, Woolf observed Smyth seated next to the Queen in the Royal Box and made a heartbreaking note in her diary of how the composer leapt to her feet at the wrong moment, thinking that the National Anthem was being played.

Despite her warmhearted confidence and exuberant vitality, Smyth sorrowed at the humiliation of her deafness and was always touched by those who simply treated her as a person and not as a person-sized disability to be set aside from ordinary life and managed. After visiting her friend Violet Gordon-Woodhouse — the visionary keyboard player who became the first person to record and broadcast harpsichord music — Smyth wrote in a letter:

I can never tell you how adorable it was of you having me — and letting me feel I shouldn’t wear you out by my deafness. It touched me to the marrow. And I think of all you made possible for me… It made my heart ache to think I am cut off from what is my most overwhelming musical joy — your playing — but I won’t dwell on that. Only don’t think that because I say nothing… well, you know.

In her late seventies, writing in the final memoir As Time Went On (public domain), Smyth notes that neither she nor anyone she knows dare class themselves with Beethoven in matters of his ability or disability, but she shares in his orientation to the creative impulse beneath the physical limitation. While recognizing that what helped Beethoven soar through his deafness was that it struck him when he was “a young man and in the full tide of inspiration,” Smyth declares with a defiant buoyancy that the musician in her “won through in the end,” for inspiration lives outside the bounds of time and age:

If you are still in possession of your senses, gradually getting accustomed, as some people do, to a running accompaniment of noises in your head; if instead of shrinking from the very thought of music you suddenly become conscious of desire towards it… why, then anything may happen… and once more you begin to dream dreams.

Ethel Smyth (National Portrait Gallery, London)

Complement with some of humanity’s greatest writers on the power of music and the legendary cellist Pablo Casals, writing at age ninety-three, on creative vitality and how working with love prolongs your life, then revisit What Color Is The Wind? — a most unusual serenade to the senses, inspired by a blind child — and the story of how the trailblazing queer sculptor Harriet Hosmer paved the way for women in art a generation before Smyth.


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