Friday, June 24, 2011

Hey, Louie, What Are You? ~ The Evolution of Baseball and An Unidentified Fossil

Any murky history that challenges precise deciphering frustrates us, defying our instinct to identify, define, and categorize.  We want to pinpoint origin.  If we cannot, we make it up.

The big green furry mascot named Louie with the bulbous nose, backward ball cap, and pink top knot joined in the “sumo wrestling” contest between two young women in costumes that rendered them barely able to keep their balance.  From behind me came the most memorable line of the evening, delivered in jest, “Hey, Louie, what are you?”

A cool late spring evening in a small stadium with a startlingly green field spread out like an open fan, a game between the home team Bowie Baysox and visiting Reading Phillies, Double A baseball, the minor leagues.  There and then, with the field before me, I willingly placed heart over mind and embraced the illusion of baseball as a game rooted in timeless, bucolic, American fun and innocence.  Illusion.

The roots of the game of baseball are an enormous tangle where nothing is as it seems.  Of baseball, I ask the question, more seriously than my friend in the ballpark, “Hey, Louie, what are you?”

Forget Abner Doubleday, forget Cooperstown – all of that is a manufactured myth, pure fabrication, part of a late 19th century and early 20th century effort to claim the game for the United States and deny any ties to any earlier games from England.  Baseball historian John Thorn recently asserted in Baseball in the Garden of Eden:  The Secret History of the Early Game (2011),
[I]n no field of American endeavor is invention more rampant than in baseball, whose whole history is a lie from beginning to end, from its creation myth to its rosy models of commerce, community, and fair play.  The game’s epic feats and revered figures, its pieties about racial harmony and bleacher democracy, its artful blurring of sport and business – all of it is bunk, tossed up with a wink and a nudge.  Yet we love both the game and the flimflam because they are both so . . . American.  Baseball has been blessed in equal measure by Lincoln and by Barnum.  (p. ix)
(Thorn has done grand research; I just wish the book offered more moments of concise statement and summary amid the stream of quotations from old and often obscure resources.)

Despite that entrenched lie about the game’s origins, to any dispassionate observer, the myriad versions of games involving sticks, balls, and bases (or just balls and bases) that Americans, often children, played from the early colonial period through the first third of the 19th century bear family resemblance in key ways to the game that we now know as baseball.  There is a continuum stretching back through much of the history of the country and on to England.  The 1840s New York codified version of the game has survived; the old games of town ball, round ball, four old cat (and its variants played with fewer combatants), and the English game of rounders, all of which contributed to baseball, mostly went extinct.

An evolutionary continuum, even with its moments of significant change, doesn’t offer “heroes and sacred places.”  Paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould, pondering the attraction of baseball creation myths for Americans despite the more wonderful and thought-provoking historical truth, likened it to the place of evolution in the popular culture.
Scientists often lament that so few people understand Darwin and the principles of biological evolution.  But the problem goes deeper.  Too few people are comfortable with evolutionary modes of explanation in any form.  I do not know why we tend to think so fuzzily in this area, but one reason must reside in our social and psychic attraction to creation myths in preference to evolutionary stories – for creation myths, . . . , identify heroes and sacred places, while evolutionary stories provide no palpable, particular object as a symbol for reverence, worship, or patriotism.  (The Creation Myths of Cooperstown, in Bully for Brontosaurus:  Reflections in Natural History, 1991, p. 57)
In linking evolution and baseball through the creation stories, Gould was not stretching the point.  A remarkable piece of evidence (not cited by Gould) comes from the 1886 newspaper article on the game’s origins by Will Rankin who, according to Andrew J. Schiff, was one of early baseball’s best journalists (The Father of Baseball:  A Biography of Henry Chadwick, 2008, p. 192).  Rankin entering into the simmering debate over baseball’s English versus American origins explicitly rejected evolution in favor of creationism.   In his widely printed piece, Rankin opined that the game emerged whole cloth (presumably from some creator’s mind).  “The game of baseball seems to have sprung up, just as any game has.”  Indeed, he observed,
It can no more be claimed that the game of baseball had its origins in rounders or town-ball than billiards were the issue of pool, or the latter came from bagatelle.  It is like Mr. Darwin’s theory of the origin of man – it lacks the necessary connecting links to carry out the idea.  (As quoted in David Block’s Baseball Before We Knew It:  A Search for the Roots of the Game, 2006, p. 4-5)
Perhaps it’s partly because a creation story is easier to birth and control.

Speaking of origins, several months ago, I found this fossil camouflaged among the pebbles gathered by a stream that cut through an upper Cretaceous formation.

Fragment of a fossil tooth, of that I have little doubt.  Given what is usually found here, a marine creature most likely.  But, from what animal?  I considered that question on my own for some time, then turned to the printed page and the web, and began to show it to folks, including a practicing paleontologist or two.

I’m still uncertain as to the animal of origin, though the most frequent response has been that it is likely from a Mosasaur, a large marine lizard, one of the grand predators of the late Cretaceous waters.  A denizen among the large beasts of the period – up to 33 feet or 10 meters from nose to tip of tail.

The history of any single fossil is a complex mesh of events and forces.  For some fossils, identifying the original animal from the end product, much less untangling the taphonomic and post-taphonomic knots, may be beyond our capacity.  (I’ve posted on taphonomy previously.)  At some point, a fossil has suffered enough abuse from exposure to the elements that it loses most traces of its genus- or species-specific identity.  Distinguishable from a rock, but perhaps just barely.

I wont make up this fossil's origin story.  Sometimes when I notice it on my desk in its small display case, I ask, with genuine interest, “Hey, Louie, what are you?”

Monday, June 13, 2011

Facing War

In which the blogger visits a Civil War display at the Library of Congress and strays very far from fossils and the like, though not from the theme of the connection between past and present.

The Library of Congress hosts through mid-August a modest but moving exhibit of photographic portraits of Civil War soldiers, images collected by the Liljenquist family and donated to the Library.  Titled The Last Full Measure, the exhibit quietly and somberly marks the sesquicentennial anniversary of the beginning of the Civil War, but it speaks not only of death and suffering long past, but of the anguish of today’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  The six display cases of photographs bear a deliberate and striking resemblance to the full-page spreads that periodically appear in the Washington Post (and perhaps other newspapers) showing photographs of U.S. soldiers recently killed in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Each of the 360 images of Union soldiers represents 1,000 Union dead; each of the 52 Confederate portraits stands for 5,000 dead.  Unlike the newspaper pictures of contemporary U.S. war dead, the faces that stare with remarkable clarity from these 19th century ambrotypes and tintypes include those of soldiers’ wives and families, of women alone, and, most painfully, one or two of solitary children.  Though the soldiers portrayed in this exhibit represent the staggering number of Civil War dead (over 620,000 soldiers died), we don’t know the fate of nearly any of these men and boys (many are hardly out of their teens) because the vast majority remain unidentified.

When the Civil War broke out, the technology of photography, though still in its infancy, was in a state of very creative flux.  New technologies for capturing and fixing images supplanted old technology, only in turn to be elbowed aside by quicker and easier processes.  The daguerreotype had been replaced by the ambrotype and after it the tintype.  Each of these processes produced a unique remarkably clear and detailed image.  The ambrotype bound its image to a piece of glass backed by a dark material and protected in a case, the tintype fixed the image on a piece of lacquered iron, frequently encased as well.  For each of these technologies, the resulting image was a mirror image.  (Though the exhibit contains none of them, a technology and style of photograph emerging in the 1860s produced the carte-de-visite which offered the cheapest and quickest way for a soldier to have his picture taken – positive images on specially treated paper were produced from a glass negative.)

Photographs played a key role in the lives of soldiers.  They often noted in their diaries and letters the trips made to photographers or receipt of photographs from loved ones.  Chandler B. Gillam, a farmer who had joined a unit of New York volunteers, was no exception.  In a letter dated August 28, 1861, to his wife Sarah, he wrote, “. . . I have had my likeness taken and you will find it in this letter.  I gave 2 liveys [sic] [what are these?] for it; you will see that I am not quite as fat as I was when at home.” (Letters of a Civil War Soldier:  Chandler B. Gillam, 28th New York Volunteers, edited by Ellen C. Collier (2005))  Union artilleryman Robert T. McMahan noted in his diary on December 16, 1861, “Afternoon went out on pass to Union gallery, likeness taken – 50 cents, shall send it to Thad.”  (Reluctant Cannoneer:  The Diary of Robert McMahan of the Twenty-fifth Independent Ohio Light Artillery, edited by Michael E. Banasik, (2000))   Infantryman Alexander G. Downing, serving in the Vicksburg Campaign, far from his Iowa home, recorded in his diary for February 7, 1863, “While waiting for orders, I went down to a daguerreotype gallery and had my likeness taken.”  A scant 12 days later, on February 19th, he wrote, “I was off duty today and went to town to have my likeness taken.”  More than a year later, on April 24th, 1864, he “had a couple likenesses taken yesterday and today I am sending them away.”  A month later on May 23rd, he exulted, “I received a letter and likeness from Miss G.”  (Downing’s Civil War Diary, by Sergeant Alexander G. Downing (Company E, Eleventh Iowa Infantry, Third Brigade, “Crocker’s Brigade,” Sixth Division of the Seventeenth Corps, Army of the Tennessee, August 15, 1861 – July 31, 1865), edited by Olynthus B. Clark (1916))

When I see photographs from even as recently as the mid-20th century, I am used to feeling that there is something about the faces that marks them as distinctly from their particular period and not from mine.  Poses, dress, and hair styles aside, their faces so often just look different.  But very surprisingly, that was not so with many of the 150 year old images on display in this exhibit.  Perhaps the ability of those early photographic technologies to render their images in such rich, precise detail makes so many of the faces in these portraits seem so contemporary.  Many are faces that I see everyday.

The following two photographs of Confederate soldiers are among those that look back at me seemingly from today.  The tinting added to these images does not detract from that feeling.  (These and all other images in this post are from the Library of Congress which has made them available without restriction.  In all instances save one, I have been able to display the clearer digital images of the photographs without their cases.)  The first image below is titled Unidentified soldier in Confederate uniform and forage cap.  The second is titled Unidentified young soldier in Confederate shell jacket, Hardee hat with Mounted Rifles insignia and plume with canteen and cup.

The youth of those fighting this war takes my breath away.  Not surprisingly, drummer boys (the concept repels me) were young as was Samuel W. Doble of Company D, 12th Maine Infantry Regiment.

A war fought by children?  How sad.  More of the very young in uniform:  the first below is titled Unidentified young soldier in Union uniform and Hardee hat sitting with musket, cartridge box, and cap box; the second is Unidentified young soldier in Union uniform and forage cap.

Some of the photographs of soldiers with their wives, or perhaps sisters, and their children, were likely carried by the soldiers into battle.  Nineteenth century Protestant Americans held strongly to the concept of the “good death,” in which the dying person should be surrounded by kin who heard his or her last words of faith and repentance.  To die alone on the field of battle savaged this concept.  Drew Gilpin Faust, in her magnificent book This Republic of Suffering:  Death and the American Civil War (2008), writes,
Soldiers endeavored to provide themselves with surrogates:  proxies for those who might have surrounded their deathbeds at home.  Descriptions of battle’s aftermath often remark on the photographs found alongside soldiers’ corpses.  Just as this new technology was capable of bringing scenes from battlefield to home front, as in Brady’s exhibition of Antietam dead in New York, more often the reverse occurred. . . .  Denied the presence of actual kin, many dying men removed pictures from pockets or knapsacks and spent their last moments communicating with these representations of absent loved ones.  (p. 11)
The African American soldier who sat for a portrait with his family stares confidently into the camera, not so his wife and children.  This is titled Unidentified African American soldier in Union uniform with wife and two daughters.

The following image is titled Unidentified soldier in Union uniform with unidentified woman.  A case protects this tintype.

As with any modern photograph, those that have come down to us from the Civil War may not be faithful records of what they appear or purport to be.  Some of these Civil War portraits may have been taken after the hostilities ceased.  Which of the props in their hands were really theirs?  The books on which they might be resting their hands would seem most likely to have been provided by the photographer.  What of the weapons?  What about the uniforms?  Consider what Sergeant Alexander Downing (excerpts from his diary were provided above) responded when asked by the editor of his diary why he’d had his photograph taken on two occasions in February, 1863.  Downing reportedly replied that he’d destroyed the first one, not because of some fault with the process but because of what it showed.  The sergeant admitted, “To tell the truth, I had it taken dressed in a major’s uniform, and it wouldn’t have been safe to let it be seen.” (p. 101)

But these are trivial concerns, the tragedies behind these portraits are all too real.  I was struck by the following photograph of Freeman Mason of Company K, 17th Vermont Infantry, shown holding a photograph of his brother Michael who had been killed in Virginia in 1862.

If that were not heartbreak enough, Freeman Mason came achingly close to surviving the war, but died from an accidental gunshot wound in camp at Petersburg, Virginia, on March 12, 1865.  Lee surrendered on April 9.

For me, the most agonizing image of all is that of a young girl, wearing mourning ribbons and staring down all these years directly at us.  She cradles in her arms a photograph of a Union cavalryman, presumably her dead father.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Beginning My Studies, Admitting Amazed Ignorance

Beginning my studies the first step pleas’d me so much,
The mere fact consciousness, these forms, the power of motion,
The least insect or animal, the senses, eyesight, love,
The first step I say awed me and pleas’d me so much,
I have hardly gone and hardly wish’d to go any farther,
But stop and loiter all the time to sing it in ecstatic songs.
                       ~ from Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass

In a recent post on her blog Looking for Detachment, geologist “Silver Fox” wrote about geological “weirdness.”  Her blog offers posts that wonderfully blend interesting text on topics geological with breath-taking photographs of same, and this weirdness post is no exception.  She focused on the megabreccia (a coarse sedimentary rock with large angular rock fragments or clasts) she came upon while she was driving into Death Valley.  But, actually, it’s a comment on the post made by someone with the tag “Lockwood” about that specific breccia that struck a chord with me.
[A]lmost everything I've read that's actually coming from geologists includes that coded geospeak phrase, ‘not well understood.’ Which in regular English means ‘no one knows with any confidence.’
Indeed, I wondered, how do scientists say, “I don’t know”?  Clearly, “I don’t know” wouldn’t be the phrasing typically used, particularly not in published articles.  I turned to what I was currently reading of a scientific bent – a peer-reviewed article by a paleontologist and book by an evolutionary biologist and here’s a quick sampling of how they dealt with “I don’t know.”
“No explanation has been found.”
“ . . . is unknown.”
“. . . unable to resolve at present.”
“. . . much we don’t understand.”
Does not seem so hard for scientists to admit the limits of collective knowledge.  Personal ignorance?  That may be something different as it is for anyone, I suppose.  I’m currently in an observational stage of my amateur engagement with natural history where the question I pose to myself most often is, What is that?  My response so often is I don't know.  I seem to have no trouble saying it.  So much is so new and so startling, and I clearly have less at stake.

Case in point.  Nearly a year ago, I wrote a post about species-area curves and an inventory of the wild flowers that had populated a small piece of my front yard I’ve let go wild.  Among the flowers that voluntarily populated this plot was the lanced-leaved coreopsis (Coreopsis lanceolata).  This year, coreopsis flowers, also known as tickweed or tickseed, have returned in great profusion of bouncing yellow disks.  Coreopsis are composite flowers (the flowers are actually many individual flowers) and each yellow “petal” of the flower heads is a ray (part of an individual flower).

I had been reveling in their yellow grandeur and delicate scent (sniff one sometime) when I pointed my spouse toward the blossoms.  She commented offhandedly, “Oh, there are actually two types of flowers.”  “No, there aren’t,” I asserted, sure I was right, but then I took a closer look.

The first photo, taken a year ago, below shows a flower head from that initial coreopsis.

Here are the flowers now blooming (I offer a close-up of the composite flower head for each type).  These beautiful springy flowers differ markedly from each other.

In A Field Guide to Wildflowers of Northeastern and North-central North America (1968), Roger Tory Peterson and Margaret McKenny note that “most coreopsis have 8 showy rays which in most (but not all) species are tipped with 3 to 4 teeth.”  Hmmm, this year’s flowers seem to slip through the opening fashioned by the word “most.”

Peterson and McKenny describe six different coreopsis species for this region.  The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service lists 33 different species on its website, of which 8 are native to Maryland where I live.

Unfortunately after considering each of the local coreopsis species and ultimately all of those in the USDA listing, I am at an impasse.  Which species are growing on my plot?  Has some cultivar escaped from a nearby garden?  Are these even coreopsis?

I don’t know.

In fact, things are weirder that I thought.  Two key attributes argue against these flowers being last year’s lance-leaved coreopsis:  I see too many rays in either kind of flower, and crow’s-foot-shaped leaves abound instead of lance-shaped leaves.  In my notebook, I labeled these unknown kinds as “many rayed coreopsis” (the first of this year's shown above) and “lesser rayed coreopsis.”

But, the variability in the number of rays and the arrangement of rays on individual plants startles me.  The “many rayed” have at least some 24 or 25 rays in multiple layers; the “lesser rayed” display at least 11 rays in what seem to be single, compact layers.  Counts of flower heads on the same plant vary.  Indeed, among the blossoms on the “lesser rayed” coreopsis, I shake my head when I spot flowers sporting the classic eight-rayed heads of many coreopsis flowers.  I tag them to see if over time they open more rays – no, if they emerge with eight, they seem to live, wilt, and die with eight.  What is going on here?

I don’t know.

I have been nagging at this for over a week.  Amid my forays into books and the net in search of clues, I came across Walt Whitman on coreopsis.

I certainly count Walt Whitman among my favorite amateur naturalists, if only because of his enjoyment of that quintessential impulse to compile lists of things found in nature.  I have read bits and pieces of his Specimen Days in America (1887), a volume of extended diary entries from the Civil War and later.    (The Internet Archive makes the book available in various electronic formats.)  At this point, I enjoy much more the non-Civil War entries which are often really more essays than diary  excerpts.  These, appearing after his descriptions of the pain and horror of the Civil War, make an sharp break in the volume.  As Whitman wrote,
Without apology for the abrupt change of field and atmosphere – after what I put in the preceding pages – temporary episodes, thank heaven! – I restore my book to the bracing and buoyant equilibrium of concrete outdoor Nature, the only permanent reliance for sanity of book or human life.
Who knows (I have it in my fancy, my ambition,) but the pages now ensuing may carry ray of sun, or smell of grass or corn, or call of bird, or gleam of stars by night, or snow-flakes falling fresh and mystic, to denizen of heated city house, or tired workman or workwoman? – or may-be in sick-room or prison – to serve as cooling breeze, of Nature’s aroma, to some fever’d mouth or latent pulse.
Indeed, not surprisingly, these later entries offer a less intense experience; they ramble around the natural world, they are a walkabout punctuated at times by lists.  Lists of trees (those “I am familiar with here”), of the birds he’s seen, of the “perennial blossoms and friendly weeds” encountered on his walks (including coreopsis), of stars and constellations.

Between September and December, 1879, Whitman took a trip out west.  He titled one part of an entry – “A Silent Little Follower – The Coreopsis.”  The yellow flower followed him from the east coast out west.
I had seen it on the Hudson and over Long Island, and along the banks of the Delaware and through New Jersey, (as years ago up the Connecticut, and one fall by Lake Champlain.)  [punctuation in original]  This trip it follow’d me regularly, with its slender stem and eyes of gold, from Cape May to the Kaw valley, and so through the cañons and to these plains.  In Missouri I saw immense fields all bright with it.  Toward western Illinois I woke up one morning in the sleeper and the first thing when I drew the curtain of my berth and look’d out was its pretty countenance and bending neck.
Once again, upon a closer look, my ignorance grows.  Whitman described his “silent little follower” as “a hardy little yellow five-petal’d September and October wild-flower . . . .”

Five petals, fall blossoming . . . .  What was he seeing?  What am I seeing?

I’m a bit tired of I don’t know.  So, I think I’ll use, for awhile, There is much I don’t understand (but I will sing it in ecstatic songs).
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