By Dorion Sagan
Unlike many, perhaps, she continued to grow and learn until the end.
One of the last projects she was involved in was the characterization of the symbiotic bryozoan, Pectinatella magnifica, who, like Lynn, loved to dwell in the possibility of Puffers Pond, the lake across which she swam nearly every day that last blue summer of 2011. There it was she quoted to me the words of Emily Dickinson, “That it will never come again/Is what makes life so sweet.”
Harsh and true and beautiful—like her. But, defying Dickinson, I’ll throw my boat in with Anaïs Nin, who said that we write to taste life twice, in the moment and in retrospection.
Thinking of those gentle summer ripples, that blue pond in whose water the matter of my mother’s body now lies, I am reminded of Krug, a fictional character in Nabokov’s Bend Sinister, who as the novelist describes it, “in a sudden moonburst of madness, understands that he is in good hands: nothing on earth really matters, there is nothing to fear, and death is but a question of style, a mere literary device, a musical resolution.” If she burned out in a sudden burst of hemorrhagic overactivity, like a blazing celestial object vanishing into its own glory, the end-blaze was not so different than the burning life, as she died near the height of her powers, at the peak of her coruscating personality.
Death is a mystery but it is also a sublation, a rising up to another realm, a reckoning, not just a negation but a planting and possible flowering, an archiving, a setting of the seed of the soul as information into the fertile if not eternal field of collective memory. Of course memory, as every novelist and memoir writer knows, cohabits with and is infused with imagination, prey to the twin temptations of revisionism and hagiography.
The dear disappeared, no longer able to speak on her own behalf, to mischievously interrupt, to make her own case and sweet diatribes, is made to mean what we want her to mean, instead of saying what she would have said, perpetuating her own brand of perplexity. In the case of Lynn, my matrix, my secular miracle of a mother and writing partner, that perplexing brand consisted of several scientific strands, woven into a rope of such strength one imagines it suitable for performing the Indian Rope Trick or, with the fibers differently arrayed, into that fabric of lore permitting lucky riders upon a flying carpet. Her science took her, and us with it, along for a once-in-a-lifetime ride not only into previously unrevealed regions within the wild geography of intellectual inquiry, but also back into the time of Earth’s earliest beginnings, when, as she never tired of pointing out, so very much had happened. Growing the grass for us even as we are paving the way—or maybe not—for a future we naïvely imagine is obligated to include us.
When I used to stay at her house in Amherst I slept downstairs in a drawing room with two sets of creaky sliding doors, one wall lined with books. Holding his ground on a shelf in the northeast corner, watching over me in my sleep, was her pre-Columbian man, a beloved piece of statuary that (I found this part out after she died) she picked up for $500 after a tiff with my stepdad about his losing the same amount in a poker game, and which she willed upon her death returned to Mexico, its country of origin. When I awoke I would be treated to five portraits, of my mother and her sisters as little girls.
There were two of her. In one she’s a baby, not yet two. In the other she is maybe six or seven. It awakes in me a curious affection, the same I experienced at seeing them while she was still alive, bustling about with inimitable energy at the age of seventy-two, running to feed and warm, in of all places, and not without an unappetizing odor, the microwave, dog food for her black Irish wolfhound, the rescued and eternally grateful Menina (named after the Velázquez painting), as she prepared to meet Jim MacAllister to swim, before preparing for classes, for lectures, for guests coming or going, for children and grandchildren, papers, books, and projects without end. Food for her was fuel, and her energy such that toddlers had been known to request naps after being drained by the continuousness of her curiosity, the boundlessness of her enterprise. She grew up in the South Side of Chicago during the Depression, and this experience, along with her poverty as a young mother and woman, fostered in her a lifelong appreciation of culinary frugality, of leftovers. She once was caught eating cereal with slices of hot dog in it and explained that the dog (a different one, the scrappy mutt Roosevelt) didn’t want it.
She had many motivators, from the desire to get out of the constant bickering between her parents, which led her into the beautiful act of rebellion that was getting into the University of Chicago at the age of fourteen, to the startling death of her mother, Leone, who dropped dead one day in her late middle age after exiting the shower. Her mother’s stroke imposed upon Lynn a sense of urgency to finish her many and ever-expanding circle of scientific projects centered around the unveiling of early life and characterizing the evolutionary and ecological nature of life on earth. This boundless energy that ran toddlers ragged and could exasperate as well as entice, educate, and enchant those around her—a motley mix of students, children, colleagues, and friends swept up into the whirlwind that was Lynn—made it right to describe her, as Earthwatch founder Brian Rosborough did, as a life force.
In some of her effects in my possession, I have a copy of a letter from my father to an esteemed academic colleague, who is duly informed of my father’s progress and plans in all things scientific and astronomical. If all goes well, Carl concludes, he will receive his PhD in approximately nine months. I was curious, seeing the date of the letter, March 18, 1959, to see if there would be any mention of family in this unstoppable passion for science which also, not uncoincidentally, infected his young wife and former teenage girlfriend, my equally if not more unstoppable mother.
And yes, there it was—almost a footnote in this letter detailing lunar organic syntheses from Yerkes Observatory to Dr. H. J. Muller in Bloomington, Indiana—“Speaking of nine months, Lynn gave birth yesterday to an 8 lb. 2 oz. Boy, Dorion Solomon Sagan. It feels strange adding our fiber to the red thread. I’ve never before had so strong a feeling of being a transitional creature, at some vague intermediary position between the primeval mud and the stars.” That was me, although I’ll have to check my birth certificate because I always thought it was 8.6 pounds, but right or wrong one can glean the passion my parents had at that time, succored by America’s post-Sputnik gravy train, for the life of science, for the exploration of new worlds that my dad, in that same letter, compares to the age of exploration as Europeans began to venture across the seas at the beginning of the fifteenth century.
In Carl’s letters as in Lynn’s life, the scientific and the personal are mixed, as is the private and the public, as the great gulf stream of the discoverer’s quest sweeps up all—family, friends, lovers, and lives—into its world historical quest. This was the life of my father, and my mother caught its fire and sent it in a different direction: instead of imagining icy floaters in the ammonia atmosphere of Jupiter, or underneath the regolith of Mars, she delved into that mud that my father had taken more for granted in his extraterrestrial flights of fancy, and explored the real organisms—the methanogens and archaeans, the symbiotic protists and wriggling corkscrew-shaped spirochetes—beneath her hiking boots. She did so with gusto and love, and once she got started she never stopped. In the volume before you will see her in her journey, her stubborn recalcitrance, her passionate quests, her fearless interactions with nature inclusive of stuffed shirts, old boys’ networks, and patriarchal power structures that would intimidate a lesser mortal. For her, it was the opposite: she often intimidated them. She was too often right, too articulate and passionate, too well versed in the minutiae of chemistry, ecology, evolutionary theory, cell biology, microbiology, geology, and a thorough, encyclopedic familiarity with the ultimate objects (and subjects) of natural history, organisms themselves.
In this book you will sample her indomitable personality as she sampled the multicolored microbial mats, the sulfurous seaside mats and inland muds, the waterlogged logs and forest floors from which she derived her photosynthetic bacteria, her spirochetes, her symbionts, her wood-eating termites, sometimes smuggled into the country with the cellulose-digesting microbial communities in their hindguts fully intact. You will read of her interactions with those fellow life-forms, also deeply if often unknowingly symbiotic, whom she derided as a species but appreciated as individuals. You will hear of how she tweaked, countered, incensed, and ultimately often intellectually triumphed over her contemporary great evolutionary biologists. The Spanish biologist Mónica Solé-Rojo told me, for example, of Stephen Jay Gould, inarguably in the top percentile of articulateness, dumbfounded in the presence of her onslaught of supporting examples to her argument, replete with species names. Much the same, indeed more, can be said and herein will be, of the friction between her and the Oxford zoologist Richard Dawkins, whose popular “selfish gene” concept in her opinion missed so much in terms of subtlety and reality with regard to the real living world, symbiotic and transformative, that she knew so well.
Despite the rancor she elicited as a result of her forthright and fearless manner, and the adamancy with which she insisted on her points of view, the more so when, though supported with crucial facts they were underdogs in the temporarily prevailing but ultimately malleable scientific consensus, Lynn also stood out because she could change her mind. She could learn, and continued to do so, to the end of her days.
It is true that at times she may have been attracted to unorthodox views because they needed an ally in a world of consensus genuflectors and pig-pilers, a world, paradoxically, where her own views on symbiotic interliving were deemed untenable by coteries of coactors teaming up and cooperating against a perceived intruder like an immune system detecting a foreign protein or a quorum of bacteria sensing, as one being, a threat. But her threat was not to people but to the evil done to the spirit by the entrenchment of unsupported views.
Although she could be a bulldog, her heart was soft and her spirit loving beneath the scientific realpolitik of her conversation and the insistent tough-mindedness of her sometimes strident and blunt, withering and refreshingly unadorned opinions. That deep intellectual honesty didn’t always need to be right in details to be right in approach, which it was, and could not else but be for her. In a privileged place to observe her intellectual and personal trajectory, I became more enamored of her as she grew older and I tagged along, always a lucky twenty-one years behind her rushed schedule.
At the end of her life I became more fond of her as a person, an individual wonderful in her own right and separate from the matrix that spawned and coddled me, cuddled and argued with me, gave me simple gifts of clothes and books and peasant food, who always had demands and expectations and, as might be surmised, had trouble simply relaxing. Time was too short, life was too important to squander it on trivial pursuits.
But as she grew older there were more signs of an increasing capacity for being happy. Her laugh was deeper, the twinkle in her green eyes more mischievous. She was less likely to be rankled, quicker to accept the latest instances of perceived incompetence, inaccuracy, and hubris from the benighted race into which, through an amorous accident and hundreds of millions of years of microbial evolution, she had curiously been born.
As I looked at those pictures in the drawing room where I slept on the fold-out futon she had replaced with a new one to add to my comfort at my home away from home which was and always will be my home, I noticed in myself a feeling of fatherly tenderness for that little girl whose endless curiosity stared out in perfect composure from the pictures on the wall. At seven years of age, there she was, an inchoate nestling and intimation of future greatness, a force of nature in seedling form, as yet to be loosed, not least by herself, onto a not-always-appreciative world. I had read Roland Barthes’s essay on photographs of his mother engendering a similar feeling of reversed paternity and was thus predisposed.
When she became seventy-two, and reiterated a refrain from a sparse but multiyear discourse on the bewilderment of change and aging and her reluctance to make an unnecessary to-do about it, I commented to her that I had recently come across a study that said the age of maximum subjectively identified happiness was seventy-three. Since you are seventy-two, I joked, at least you’ll have something to look forward to. As chance or fate or Gaia or some other agglomeration of that ambivalent nexus of causation the Greeks explored in tragic theater would have it, she did in fact die at the age of seventy-three. Pictures of her, for example her beaming visage over the podium in a poster that advertised the last lecture of hers I attended—to a packed house of UMass students as she detailed her views of life on earth and her discovery of a symbiotic representative, the brain-shaped log-clutching bryozoan, Pectinatella magnifica, at hers and their local swimming hole, Puffers Pond—showed that increasing capacity for happiness as she came closer to the end of that trajectory that catapulted her from the land of the living, of flesh and blood, to the murkier, ecological realm whose inhabitants and chemical cycles she herself helped characterize.
My son (for whose care as a boy she provided, giving invaluable love and assistance) Tonio and I kayaked to the center of Puffers Pond at the end of a private family ceremony. There we sprinkled from a pink urn of Himalayan salt my son’s grandmother’s ashes back into the water, inhabited by the bryozoan she discovered, the water across which she swam nearly every day that last summer of her life, the summer of 2011, her dog sniffing and running about on the shore. Tonio dropped a coin of remembrance into the waters (in olden days to pay Charon to ferry one’s soul safely across to the world below) and her ashes spread, after lingering, as with ghostly mischief and microbial mystery, accommodating the subtle ripples and disturbance from the paddles and sinking coin. As I tried to explain to all nine of her grandchildren, including two of her beautiful granddaughters (who bear an uncanny resemblance to the pictures that used to grace the far walls of that room whose futon she’d replaced), Lynn’s body is gone, she has returned to the nature she so loved and studied, but part of her is still here, left behind as they themselves, their hearts and thoughts and smiling, curious faces.
[Re-published courtesy of Dorion Sagan and Chelsea Green Publishing; Originally published in Lynn Margulis: The Life & Legacy of a Scientific Rebel, edited by son & collaborator, Dorion Sagan, Amherst Books, 2012]