Finding the Orange Bag:
Ghosts, Reality, and the Escape into Life
By Dorion Sagan
“It was strange because almost every letter that she had stuffed in the bag—seemingly with a frenetic need simultaneously to preserve and dispose of, to bracket to some impossible future time—was a kind of love letter.”
In 2011, a couple of weeks before she died, Inocencio Higuera, her host in Mérida in the Yucatan noted that my mother was complaining of headaches. She waved off offers to take her to the hospital but continued to act somewhat strangely. This wasn’t just her usual workaholic focus and wide-ranging mind. It was also, I’m tempted to say in the aftermath, something ethereal. Inocencio told me that before her lecture she held everyone up looking for an adapter for her computer. All morning they helped her and waited while she looked for it. At one point she stood, Inocencio said, on a chair and looked up, straight at the ceiling.
Meanwhile I, having traveled from Toronto to Montreal, had what I am tempted in retrospect to call a premonition. I had traveled to give a talk on her work at the biggest annual international meeting of anthropologists, the American Anthropology Association, in a sub-session called Culture at Large, run by the Society for Cultural Anthropology. The name of my talk was The Human is More than Human. When I found out, after a laconic email from my brother—“Mom collapsed”—I still went on, as I know she would have wanted me to, dedicating the talk to her.
In the morning before I received the email I had what I wanted afterward to call my premonition. It was simple enough. I had brought my bathing suit and swum first thing in the morning in the sunlit pool at the top of the hotel. This was a thing she often did, swimming first thing in the morning, including at otherwise empty hotel pools. So naturally enough I thought of her.
Later on the way to the colorfully windowed Palais des congrès in Montréal I looked up from the taxi stand of the Westin on St. Antoine Ouest and saw what seemed a most surreal sight: the colorful bellies of what looked like some strange species or species of large mammals swimming. Why, pray tell, would the strange sea mammals with colorful undersides that could be seen swimming high above, be visible only from the taxi stand? It didn’t make any sense. But of course, as Freud talks about in his meditation on the ‘unheimlich,’ the “uncanny,” what seems strangest is often not what is most distant from us but rather that which is closest: those colorful undersides belonged to humans. But for my not-so-big belly, I might have been seeing myself earlier the same day.
After being apprised of my rather ridiculous yet enlightening mistake by my anthropologist girlfriend, Natasha Myers, I was reminded of the theory put forth by Sir Alistair Hardy, and popularized by Elaine Morgan in the book The Descent of Woman: that our ancestors underwent a phase of life in the water. This would explain our finlike hands, our love of beaches, our relative hairlessness among primates, our need for essential fatty acids found almost exclusively from fish, and our subcutaneous fat; my mistaking of the humans for sea creatures seemed to be an additional datum for this aquatic ape hypothesis.
“One never knows, do one?” sang Fats Waller.
During the Q/A period of my talk, and afterwards at lunch, I was asked about ghosts. I poo-poohed the questions; my point was to show the nonhuman world that was real, a needed counterfoil to the too narrow focus of academia in general, and anthropology in particular, on human beings.
My mother, having told many that she was likely to die like her mother of a stroke, had written a do-not-resuscitate order. Nonetheless she was rushed to the hospital and kept on a respirator. Through an arduous intervention my sister had her brought home to her bedroom. By the time I was there she was in a coma but you could hardly tell; she moved and occasionally groaned in her sleep. The women massaged and bathed her. Before the advice of her trusted doctor, to stop the saline drip and allow her to die of kidney failure was taken, people came in and out of the room, sitting vigil. My son sat despondent by her body. He and a philosopher friend both suggested that she might be conscious at some level, working snippets of conversation into a kind of dream; the philosopher friend, an ethical vegetarian, suggested we should ask her if she indeed wanted to terminate her life, and perhaps blink or give another sign if she did.
She lived across from Emily Dickinson and was a great fan of the poet, knowing many of her poems by heart, and even saying occasionally that Emily talked to her. I am in the room with her and ask Natasha to flip through the big book of Emily’s complete poems, using her finger to stop at any time. The poem she stops at is #1263, with the line “Tell all the truth but tell it slant” – this was the poem that Lynn and I had used for an essay anthology, “Slanted Truths.” Then we asked her to flip again, and the poem landed on was # 565, “One Anguish—in a Crowd,” containing the line, “The Bung out—of an Artery—… Harms”—strangely mirroring her hemorrhagic stroke.
My mother was a fearless, no-holds-barred scientist, who was very open-minded but had no time for either New Age thinking or group-think. This meant that she had not time for people who equated Gaia—scientific shorthand for the scientific hypothesis that Earth’s surface has regulated its atmospheric chemistry, global mean temperature, ocean acidity and other environmental variables for hundreds of millions of years—with a goddess, or even an organism. At the same time she had a good nose for government propaganda, and wasn’t afraid to question the meretricious deceptions of increasingly conformist and corporately and academically beholden Big Science. Science, she liked to quote quantum physicist David Bohm, is about finding the truth whether we like it or not.
Does that mean I am saying that my mother would be open to some belief in ghosts, or that she herself was making an effort at contact from what in Mexico is sometimes known as El Mundo de Más Allá—the afterworld?
No, not really. In fact, as my aunt, her younger sister told me, she was very proud of me and my collaboration with Eric Schneider. In Into the Cool Eric and I had written about the energetics of life. The tendency of energy differentials, or gradients, to naturally come to equilibrium, to even out, leads to complex forms. Life may itself, in its origin and its ecology, be one of these forms. We give the example of a heated cabin on a snowy mountain. Wherever there is a draft, the heat will try to get out; however mindless, it will seem to seek escape, crawling under a door jamb or sneaking out through a crack in the window to reach equilibrium. The science of this, non-equilibrium thermodynamics, was the topic of our book, Into the Cool, on life and energy. In Burlington after a play, when my mom was alive I was drinking with Roger Payne, the man who discovered whale songs, and Dennett Worthington, who had been a house insulator. Worthington told of how they add powder to the air to visualize air currents in insulation; in one case he said he witnessed a streamer of warm air seep through an electric outlet, creep up a wall and half way across the ceiling before turning around, heading down, and going back whence it came. It was as if, although lacking a body let alone a brain, it had “changed its mind” on the way to equilibrium. This, it occurred to me, was a nice rational explanation for some reports of ghosts. It is winter, you are alone, in a large Victorian house as night falls. Suddenly you feel a presence brush by you, then the curtains flutter, and perhaps even glimpse a ghostly form on a mission to escape.
After my mom died one of her closest confidants, James McAllister, directed me to the closet in her office. He told me to reach back. It was a surprisingly deep closet and vaguely I recalled that my mother had once told me there was something important back there. Your will? I asked. She’d shaken her head and I’d smiled, perhaps relieved to not think more of it for the time being. With my full arm extended I finally found the nylon surface of a grungy object that had been stowed back there. Sure enough, I emerged from the dry fishing expedition with a strange booty. It was an orange backpack stuffed with mostly handwritten papers from multiple parties. Later, over a waterfall, I would peruse these papers. Fascinated, I read, including about myself, of past times. The spirit which had been my mother and, if we want to shy away from this rather superstitious term, the energetic ensembles of others, some still living, had left their traces on a variety of different kinds of stationary. Smoothing out the papers I began to read, feeling again as if I were in the presence of my living breathing mother.
Sort of. When first I opened it, sneaking after being told through the grapevine that it was in the back of the linen closet—way in the back, it was an old crawl space almost, your whole arm with fingers extended had to go through bedding and not-quite-clean sheets and pillowcases to get to that nylon strap, that textured orange sheen—the first thing I pulled out was a ratty, familiar address book. Messy handwriting, completely pedestrian. It’s heft was impressive, thirteen maybe sixteen pounds—a couple of babies worth. I was surprised at the dirt, the strange foldings, the messages written on napkins in multiple hands and languages and, as I slowly discerned while methodically smoothing the papers best I could at the Montague Book Mill (“Books you don’t need in a place you can find”—the rather ridiculous Tiny Tim had fainted here decades ago)—most of the missives were from men. This, combined with some lust-love-science letters in my possession from my father to my mother, began to shed some dark light on her mysterious personal life. One of the first and most intriguing—almost damning—things I noticed was a dot matrix manuscript, a good chunk of the computer printout that was the result of our professional collaboration, me trying to popularize her views of symbiotic life, that began immediately after I ended college: a dot matrix print out of most of our Microcosmos, the first book for a popular audience to show the sweeping effect of microbes on Earth’s surface and life’s evolution. What was “I” doing with her in this strange orange capsule, among so many cryptic declarations of forbidden desire?
It was strange because almost every letter that she had stuffed in the bag—seemingly with a frenetic need simultaneously to preserve and dispose of, to bracket to some impossible future time—was a kind of love letter. I ascertained this to the best of my ability even in the cases where the cursive was near-indecipherable, and the language was Spanish, French, or German. One letter upon first glance seemed an exception. This was from the late Ed Tripp, erstwhile editor at Yale University Press. He had seemingly with a debonair gentility, the same as he displayed while alive, complemented my mother with the formal politesse that underscored him not only as fastidious and endearing, but also as a kind of throwback to an earlier time in the history of civility, publishing, and generosity. I breathed an audible sigh of relief: here at last was a letter with no hint of pressure cooking secret lust, no sign of a recent untoward secret assignation. Neither scientific minutiae nor references to the genital stature or marital status of third parties were in evidence. The letter was clear, and Tripp’s intentions gentlemanly in the extreme. He even mentioned how nice it was to see my card tricks. (I was her coauthor on Origins of Sex: Three Billion Years of Genetic Recombination, our earliest published English collaboration, Yale University Press, 1986). Then, almost as an afterthought, I looked at the date above Tripp’s fine editorial hand: February 14, 1982—Valentine’s Day.
There was no getting around it: my mother’s secret love life, or lives, as recorded sporadically, messily, and even a bit obsessively—in some cases she had kept not only the handwritten, pen-touched, grimy finger- or airport beer-stained notes of her admirers, but also carbon copies of her own correspondence to them—partook of the same sort of promiscuity as the more-than-human that she in her work famously describes. Just as bacteria have sex, trading their genes across what would be species boundaries, so her missives preserved strange intimacies, unexpected connections, secret assignations and disseminations of desire and gossip—some involving me—no less than scientific information. The epistles were not only often (albeit in a cultured way) literally as well as literarily dirty, the grime of forgotten hours clinging to the pages I pored over years after the fact—they also testified to a kind of symbiotic mélange without end, a vast backstage showing the redolent workings behind what in science studies today might more likely be called, with an antiseptic air, “the production of knowledge.”
It was thrilling to discover above the rush of falling water these fragments of a past that contained me. As I sat there, touching her effects, a living testimony that felt as much like something being unearthed as a fossilized stromatolite, or termite trapped and preserved in a yellowing piece of Miocene amber*, time seemed to stop, even reverse—as in that optical illusion where you gaze continuously at a waterfall. Then, when you look away, the landscape rushes upwards. I came across letters not only from my mother’s lovers to her, and hers to them, but also secret jibes between her and graduate students about parties I knew, family members, stepparents, divorces and jealousies. What scientists may as a class lack in emotions and humor was made up for by their mania for cataloging and analyzing. I might supply my own emotions, my own humor. Here, as I in bewilderment unfolded and smoothed out, were revelations from my mother to my college girlfriend, the both of them attuned to the problems of my superficiality, my foppishness, my insouciant inability to take life—and in due time, the necessity of a career—seriously. Time is supposed to go in one direction but, on Earth, water travels like the perpetual stream, flowing uphill to power the waterwheel, in M C Escher’s “Escape into Life”—around and around. The sun, evaporating water, and plants, using the energy of sunlight to bring water from roots, through the stomata of their leaves, to form clouds, provides a scientific explanation for this real magic.
Science sits astride a need to know and the humility of its ignorance; the climb to highest peaks is powered by base desire; the voyage infinitely out is the journey indefinitely in. There is skepticism, and there is skepticism of skepticism; this latter is not belief, but a higher immersion. Among my admitted wastrel ways and foppish tendencies, is the dandy idea that wonder and critique should have their own secret alliance. As a practiced sleight-of-hand magician of the second or third rank—the societies actually do not give such ranks, but I digress—I watch in wonder as the human intellect scrambles atop the growing sphere of its increasing knowledge, which brings it face to face with ever greater domains of the unknown.
Those, like my mother, who had a capacity for wonder, intuition, the courage both of and to go against their convictions, combined with a natural and scientifically trained skepticism, are valuable guides. The great, plain-speaking American physicist, Richard Feynman, taught my scientist, and son-of-a-scientist friend, Tobi Delbrück (who also does a mean one-handed shuffle) how to pick locks. Feynman also persuaded another old friend, Tarleton Reynolds, the ex-wife of my ex-magic agent, to pose for him. He liked to draw women like Tarleton whom, with scientific directness if not playboy acumen, he tried (apparently without much success) to seduce. With happy-go-lucky whimsy, he played bongos, traveled to the lost land of Tanna Tuva in central Asia, and, always fond of trying to figure out things for himself, attempted to translate Mayan hieroglyphs from scratch. He loved puzzles and deduced the cause of the crash of the 1986 Space Shuttle Challenger to be from an O-ring (he tested the material himself) that did not seal in cold weather. A commission later agreed. As a kid, his father encouraged him to try to find natural explanations for him. He stopped doing physics, Berlin-born physicist Otto Rössler told me at a bar near the Cuartel del Conde Duque in Madrid in 2002, when he began having dreams of New York City in nuclear ruins.
A scientist who was his student told me Feynman saw no reason why the past could not in principle be recaptured, despite the second law of thermodynamics which suggests an end in absolute chaos. He was open-minded, creative, and a rationalist. Told she had only hours to live, he scrambled to New Mexico to come to the side of his dying wife. He hitchhikes from Los Alamos, where he has been working on the Manhattan Project—the top secret project to make an atomic bomb that stayed top secret despite the fact that thousands were working on it.
It is 1945, the US is at war, she breathes with difficulty, he bends to kiss her. Six weeks before the August 6th and 9th bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Feynman, 27, stands watch, sits by, kisses her. Soon she dies of the Hodgkin’s disease that was destroying her. He is only married for two years. And here is the spooky part: after gathering her sparse effects in preparation for her cremation, he comes back to her room and sees the clock above her bed is frozen at 9:21—the exact time, according to her nurse’s records, of her death.
Here was a puzzle that many of us would be tempted to attribute to otherworldliness, a secret passage to the ordinary from the spirit realm. Feynman first tries to solve the puzzle himself. Recalling that the clock is delicate—he was asked to look at and indeed fixed it himself on more than one occasion himself previously—he ponders. According to his memoirs, he theorizes the nurse must have lifted the clock to check the time of death; this would have disrupted the internal mechanism, stopping the clock’s hands from jerking off beyond the numerals on which they’d stopped, 9:21. As the philosopher Spinoza emphasized, perhaps the greatest miracle of all is that there is no need for miracles.
Reading my mother’s letters brought her to life again. I had found, in my readings of the Victorian author Samuel Butler’s The Way of All Flesh, an epigrammatic comment to the effect that too-mechanical modern descriptions of Darwinian biology took the “life out of biology.” It was a poignant phrase my mother loved. As a renegade biologist, she appropriated it for her own purposes. She used it as shorthand to redress this regrettable tendency in biology toward an oversimplification of the richnesses of life, to remark the gap between quantitative biology and genetic determinism on the one hand and the metabolic and ecological details of biochemically complex, pulsing life on the other. “My own suspicion,” claimed the geneticist, socialist, and jump-starter of selfish gene theory J.B.S. Haldane, “is that the universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose.”
Science approximates. We must watch for unwarranted capitulations to disembodied abstractions, especially when they forego careful observation and are subverted to short-sighted human ends (like gaining money and status). Real life is messier, it has more in it than dreamed of by biologists emulating the physicists, the Newtonians, the mathematicians who seemed to, and sometimes claimed to have, intuited the mind of God. Not so, her life’s work blares from the green, photosynthetic bacteria-created hilltops. Such a god is a petty phantom who belongs in bas-relief, seen in correct proportion as a cultural shadow of the real life which created not just “Him” but the women who gave birth to the babies that grew into the men who’d constructed such narcissistic fantasies.
My mother looks up toward the ceiling for an adaptor shortly before her death; I dream of seeing her high up in an amphitheater that reminds itself to me when I walked into the lobby of the Fiesta Americana in Mérida, looking up at the open terraces visible also from the glass elevator; looking up again but earlier, I see sea creatures high above my head, which turn out to be the humans of a glass-bottom pool; above a waterfall I read the by turns worried and superior judgments as to my frivolity in epistolary confidences between my mother and girlfriend, both of them significantly younger than I; not just the waterfall flowing over rocks below but the petrified streams of ink on the wood of tables speaks to me, a living archive, as I gaze at the past in the form of un-petrified, living prose.
As the metaphysical poet John Donne wrote to Sir Henry Wotton: “SIR, more than kisses, letters mingle souls,/For thus, friends absent speak. This ease controls/The tediousness of my life; but for these/I could ideate nothing which could please;/But I should wither in one day, and pass/To a bottle of hay, that am a lock of grass.”
“A lock of grass”: The ghostliness of the word is real. It preserves a past time in the pulsing wetware of the mind. It is open to our senses. If beauty be in the eye of the beholder, so death must be included in life which—as my mother turned to me poignantly in the funeral parlor where the coffin holding her own father was—is for the living.
First or second author on twenty-five books translated into thirteen languages Dorion Sagan has written for Natural History, Smithsonian, BioScience, The Sciences, The Ecologist, Co-Evolution Quarterly, The New York Times, The New York Times Book Review, The Skeptical Inquirer, Wired, Pabular, Times Higher Education Supplement, Whole Earth Review, and Cabinet. Sagan’s What is Life? was called “A masterpiece of science writing,” and he received an EdPress Association of America Excellence in Educational Journalism Award for his article “The Riddle of Sex.” His works include (as editor) Lynn Margulis: The Life and Legacy of a Scientific Rebel, Cosmic Apprentice (University of Minnesota Press) and (with J. J. Mitteldorf) Cracking the Aging Code: The New Science of Growing Old and What it Means for Staying Young. Dorion’s interests continue to include philosophy, science, poetry, and fiction.
* such as the one I, haplessly attempting to do a magic trick in her lab, broke. Cut with a diamond knife, and examined in thin section, the fragmented amber from the Dominican Republic revealed a fossil community of symbiotic microbes living in Mastotermes electrodominicus, a termite that today is found only in northern Australia.