Jun. 26, 2010

Designed to Fly

by Ellen Waterston

After ten hours of trying
the instructor undid
my fingers, peeled
them one by one
off the joystick.
"You don't need
to hold the plane
in the air," he advised.
"It's designed to fly.
A hint of aileron,
a touch of rudder,
is all that is required."

I looked at him
like I'd seen God.
Those props and struts
he mentioned, they too,
I realized, all contrived.
I grew dizzy
from the elevation
from looking so far
down at the surmise:
the airspeed of faith
underlies everything.
Lives are designed
to fly.

"Designed to Fly" by Ellen Waterston, from Between Desert Seasons. © Wordcraft of Oregon, LLC, 2008. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It was on this day in 2000 that rival scientific teams completed the first rough map of the human genome. Scientists had discovered the structure of DNA back in 1953, but it took the Human Genome Project to begin to pin down exactly how human DNA makes us who we are. Every cell in the human body contains 23 pairs of chromosomes, and each chromosome is a bundle of DNA. If all of the DNA, bundled up inside every single cell in our bodies, were unfurled and strung out in a single strand, it would be about six feet long. Those six feet of DNA contain the instructions for the creation of all the physical aspects of our human bodies: everything from our blood to organs, our brain, our eye color, our fingers and toes, and so forth.

The question scientists wanted to answer was how those instructions give rise to people and why the instructions sometimes make mistakes. The Human Genome Project began in October of 1990, and it was estimated that it would take 15 years and about $3 billion. But because a private company got involved and speeded up the process, the map was finished five years ahead of schedule.

Something we learned from the Human Genome Project is that the entire 6 billion-member human species goes back 7,000 generations to an original population of about 60,000 people. Our species has only a modest amount of genetic variation — the DNA of any two humans is 99.9 percent identical.

On this day in 1818, John Keats (books by this author) wrote a letter to his brother Tom about a hike through the Lake District of England. He wrote: "We walked here to Ambleside yesterday along the border of Winandermere, all beautiful with wooded shores and Islands — our road was a winding lane, wooded on each side, and green overhead, full of Foxgloves — every now and then a glimpse of the Lake, and all the while Kirkstone and other large hills nestled together in a sort of grey black mist. Ambleside is at the northern extremity of the Lake. We arose this morning at six, because we call it a day of rest, having to call on Wordsworth who lives only two miles hence — before breakfast we went to see the Ambleside water fall. The morning beautiful — the walk easy among the hills. [...]

"I shall learn poetry here and shall henceforth write more than ever, for the abstract endeavor of being able to add a mite to that mass of beauty which is harvested from these grand materials, by the finest spirits, and put into ethereal existence for the relish of one's fellow."

It was on this the day in 1284 that, according to legend, the Pied Piper lured children out of the city of Hamelin, Germany, and to their death. The story goes that at some point earlier in the year, a man dressed in a colorful coat appeared in Hamelin, offering to get rid of the rats that were plaguing the town. The townspeople agreed to a set price. The man played a song on a flute and lured all the rats out of the houses and barns and into the nearby River Weser, where they all drowned. But the townspeople were annoyed at his unconventional methods, and refused to pay him.

On June 26, he returned to town, dressed like a hunter with a red cap. It was a Sunday, and all the adults were in church. He got out his flute and began to play, and 130 children followed him out of the town, through a gate and into a mountain, and were never seen again.

The legend of the Pied Piper was first written down in a chorus book in the 14th century, but that book was lost a couple of hundred years later. The oldest surviving account is from the 15th century, and it says: "In the year of 1284, on the day of Saints John and Paul on 26 June, 130 children born in Hamelin were seduced by a piper, dressed in all kinds of colours, and lost at the place of execution near the koppen," the hills around the city. The Brothers Grimm later wrote down a version of the legend and the town's response to it.

To this day, no one knows exactly what inspired the legend of the Pied Piper, but it is clear that it is based on a historical event in Hamelin's history. One theory is that it was some sort of plague or epidemic, possibly even one that would cause children to dance, and that the Piper was a metaphorical representation of Death. But these days, most research supports the theory that the legend refers to the historical colonization of Eastern Europe, which began with Lower Germany. The town’s citizens, or the "children of Hamelin," were being recruited to settle throughout Eastern Europe, and the Piper was probably just a landowner, who lured them away with promises of land.

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