A columnist of heart and mind

A columnist of heart and mind
Interviewing the animals at Children's Fairyland in Oakland. L-R: Bobo the sheep, Gideon the miniature donkey, me, Tumbleweed Tommy the miniature donkey, Juan the alpaca, Coco the pony

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

The Lovely Bones

The late Washington Post publisher Phil Graham famously said that journalism is "the first rough draft of history," but it's not the last word.
That's because events that seem important at the time turn out to be less so with the passage of years. The big picture goes unnoticed until much later.
For instance, the biggest story in the Roman Empire in the year 30 A.D. was the fall of Aelius Sejanus, Prefect of the Praetorian Guard. Nobody paid any attention to the crucifixion of a Jewish carpenter-turned-preacher in Jerusalem.
Last year, Time Magazine chose Federal Reserve Board Chairman Ben Bernanke as its "Person of the Year." But I have a hunch that our descendants will decide that the real Person of the Year in 2009 was a female named "Ardi."
Short for Ardipithecus ramidus, Ardi lived 4.4 million years ago in the Afar region of Ethiopia. On Oct. 2 an international team of scientists co-led by Prof. Tim White of U.C. Berkeley announced her discovery. She is our earliest known ancestor, 1.2 million years older than Lucy (aka Australopithecus afarensis), whose partial skeleton was discovered in the same area in 1974. White calls it "the ultimate cold case investigation."
The coolest thing is that they discovered so much of Ardi's skeleton, starting with a hand bone in 1994 and eventually totaling 125 different bony parts.
"To understand the way her body worked, the parts you really want are the skull, pelvis, limbs, and hands and feet," says White. "And we have all of them."
Not only that, they also have body parts from 36 of Ardi's relatives, as well as other creatures that inhabited her environment. Among them are 20 species previously unknown to science, including shrews, bats, rodents, hares and carnivores.
One of the popular myths about evolution is that humans descended from chimps, but Darwin never said anything of the kind. What scientists really think is that we both descended from a common ancestor, whose bones have never been found.
But about 6 million years ago the family tree split into two branches, and we and the chimps have been evolving on our separate paths ever since.
At 4.4 million years, Ardi is the closest yet we've gotten to that common ancestor. And, as often happens in science, her discovery has forced scientists to rethink a lot of their earlier assumptions.
"She's not very chimp-like, which means our last common ancestor probably wasn't, either," says White. "She didn't walk on her knuckles like chimps and gorillas, and she had the ability to carry things in her hands. It's flipped our understanding of how evolution proceeded."
Ardi was about four feet tall and weighed about 110 lbs. She didn't look much like either humans or chimps, which suggests that neither did our last common ancestor.
You can find out more at a fascinating exhibit in the Valley Life Sciences Building at Cal or by visiting http://dsc.discovery.com/tv/ardipithecus/ardipithecus.html/.
One of the most interesting discoveries was that males of Ardi's species didn't have long, sharp fangs like chimps and gorillas, which implies that they might have wooed their mates less by fighting each other and more by pitching in with the chores, including provisioning their mates and children.
But confirmation will have to await future discoveries. In the meantime, isn't this cool?

Sunday, January 17, 2010

The Sweetest Sounds

Is the piano mightier than the sword?
That's what Sarah Cahill is trying to find out. For the last year, the Berkeley-based pianist has been taking her ambitious concert, "A Sweeter Music," around the country, playing in big cities (New York, Houston and Chicago) and small (Grand Forks, North Dakota).
All the pieces, which Cahill personally commissioned from the composers, are meditations on the folly of war. The concert's title is taken from Martin Luther King's Nobel Peace Prize lecture, when he said, "We must see that peace represents a sweeter music, a cosmic melody, that is far superior to the discords of war."
The composers range from 18-year-old Preben Antonsen to 77-year-old Yoko Ono. Some of their compositions, such as Antonsen's cacophonous "Dar al-Harb" (which he wrote as a tribute to his cousin, who was deeply affected by his experience as an interrogator in Iraq), are anti-war.
Others, such as Terry Riley's gentle "We Must Be Kind To One Another Rag," which he wrote as a lullaby for his grandchildren, are pro-peace.
Cahill was able to summon such a formidable array of talent because she's so popular with her peers. Though one music critic called her "the reigning diva of avant-garde pianism," the truth is that she's decidedly un-diva-like.
"You're going to have a hard time finding anyone who doesn't adore her," says Bonnie Hughes, executive director of the Berkeley Arts Festival. "She's incredibly generous, always thinking of things for other musicians to do. I mean, look at this project."
Cahill got the idea for "A Sweeter Music" from Frederick Rzewski's arrangement of the old spiritual, "Down By The Riverside."
"After reading about the latest deaths in Iraq, I would play it as a kind of catharsis," she says. "The lyrics 'Gonna lay down my sword and shield/Down by the riverside/Ain't gonna study war no more' were very meaningful for me."
But sometimes her mission must feel like a Sisyphusian task. When she began her tour a year ago, we were fighting in two wars. Now we're fighting in four, with the addition of Pakistan and Yemen.
"I do think of my father," she says. "When I started commissioning people, he said, 'It's a good idea, but it’ll be a moot point because the Democrats are going to take over the White House, and they'll end the wars, and that'll be it. You won't have any reason to play those pieces any more.'"
So does she get discouraged?
"I like to remember what Frederic Rzewski said: 'Music probably cannot change the world. But it's a good idea to act as though it could.'"
"A Sweeter Music" is coming back to the Bay Area on Jan. 30 at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. It's a benefit for the American Friends Service Committee.
"It's an honor to be playing this concert for the American Friends Service Committee, such a courageous and visionary organization which since World War I has been showing us that there are powerful alternatives to war: nonviolence, compassion, social justice, understanding," says Cahill. "And they really put it into practice."
More information and tickets can be obtained at http://www.afsc.org/pacificmtn/ht/display/EventDetails/i/84399/pid/82363
The following day, Cahill will be joined by violinist Midori, composer John Adams and others in two panel discussions about the current state of classical music, also at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. To find out more, visit www.performances.org.