Coast Chronicles: Late Bloomers and Blessed Bodies

SYDNET STEVENS photo<br> Cate Gable, Mary Garvey and Cate's sister Starla sang folk songs in Oysterville on a recent Sunday afternoon.

Sunday afternoon-evening in a quiet front room in Oysterville, my sis, myself and Peninsula gem Mary Garvey sang folk tunes to an audience of 25 or so. Some folks sang along, some tapped their feet, and one person was even knitting in time with the music.

It was one of those wonderfully eclectic Peninsula crowds.

The elders took up residence on the couch - Pete and Martha Hanner, and Virginia Gable - concentrating several centuries of wisdom in one place.

We noticed a scientist, a baker, soap maker, historian, loan officer, several writers, a politician, and a few all-purpose movers and shakers. But no Indian chief that I know of, except perhaps the floating spirit of Chief Nahcati, resting quietly wherever he is really resting. (His headstone is a half-mile away in the Oysterville Cemetery.)

Late Bloomers

Meanwhile, up front there we were - three grey-haired ladies with various stringed instruments singing our hearts out. A trio of proverbial late bloomers.

Although I decided I was a poet in second grade, I figured I'd get around to it when things slowed down, when I had time, when everything in my life was perfected. "It" being getting serious about writing, getting published, and doing the things real writers do. (Which is: I don't know what ... Having adoring fans? Getting on the poetry best sellers list? Working in a poetry shop?)

Singing was taken for granted. Growing up in a musical household, I never thought about it as anything special; it was just what was. We sang at the piano, with autoharp or guitar, made up songs, made up harmonies and performed from time to time on stage, at church, for a school event, or some kind of fundraiser.

There were always people in the house singing, especially during regional SPEBSQSA (Society for the Preservation and Encouragement of Barbershop Singing in America) competitions. All manner of barbershop quartet groups would rendezvous in the living room and mix and match in different foursomes; particularly when someone remembered a long-forgotten though beloved tune and various baritones, tenors and basses would join in and unearth the parts.

On many nights my sis and I fell asleep to barbershop chords.

Those four-part harmonies get into your bones: those leading seventh chords, those fifths, that tenor sailing up sky high on a final note or the bass diving down on a ta-da-da-boom-ta bassline under the lead voice.

Though I haven't gotten serious about poetry yet, as Andrea Patten said at the concert - "well, now you're out of the closet as a singer."

It's never too late, I suppose, to do what calls to you.

The Beginning of Bodies

So maybe late bloomers isn't quite correct - maybe it's long-bloomers, as I know that Starla and I, and I believe Mary too, have been at this music thing quite a while, since we were in single digits.

Mary, songwriter extraordinaire, has also been quite good at hiding her light under a bush. We managed to coax her out for our threesome and put some harmonies to her hymn-like ballads celebrating the maritime history of our area.

Some of her songs will absolutely slay you - you simply have to stop and put your hand over your heart.

Here's an example from the end of a tune about the hard scrabble life of Serb or Russian Finn fishermen who were hired by the canneries to bring fish in:

They're buried where the waves don't reach

On rocky hill or sandy beach

With two to dig and none to preach

Do you need another hand?

I dream at night while in my sleep

Of naked men lost in the deep

Their cries would make the angels weep

Do you need another hand?

This is not ashes to ashes, dust to dust, but rather water to flesh, flesh to water.

But that's the end of this body concept story - where did it begin?

The Invention of Bodies

Mother Nature does not put energy into just any old thing - she has to have a very compelling purpose to take a chance on creating something new. Lots of seemingly great ideas haven't made it - dinosaurs, woolly mammoths, the dodo bird. Whereas ancient rickety-looking creations like sturgeon and sharks have been around for millions of years (and please let us preserve our river sturgeon).

Humans are truly late bloomers or, more accurately, latecomers to planet Earth.

Imagine a straight line four inches long representing 4.5 billion years. One inch into this timeline, life begins. Then you have to travel nearly three and a half inches up the lifeline of planet Earth to see the first bodies emerge.

And humans? We're at the very top of that four-inch line, barely the width of a smidgen of ink. (And we don't yet know whether big brains and consciousness will be worth anything in the big scheme of things.)

At any rate, at that magical time, a little more than 500 million years ago, suddenly from an array of one-celled lifeforms, multiple-cell forms, the first "bodies" emerged. But why? One-celled life had been fine and dandy for 2 billion years.

Some very clever guys worked out a lab experiment to prove a hunch ("Evolutionary Ecology," by Boraas, Seale and Boxhorn, 12:153-164). Neil Shubin tells the story in his "Your Inner Fish" in the chapter called "Adventures in Body Building."

Alga and Flagella

Some folks had a theory that bodies might have come about as a life-saving maneuver when microbes developed new ways to eat each other. This is something a little one-celled lifeform might expend energy on - preserving itself.

As Shubin puts it, "Having a body with many cells allows creatures to get big. Getting big is often a very good way to avoid being eaten. Bodies may have arisen as just that kind of defense."

Martin Boraas and his team took an alga that is normally one-celled and let it grow in their lab for over 1,000 generations. It made its happy way through this time perfectly satisfied to be one-celled.

"Then," says Shubin, sharing the biological equivalent of a Brothers Grimm tale, "they introduced a predator: a single-celled creature with a flagellum that engulfs other microbes to eat them."

"In less than 200 generations, the alga responded by becoming a clump of hundreds of cells; over time, the number of cells dropped until there were only eight in each clump. Eight turned out to be the optimum because it made clumps large enough to avoid being eaten but small enough that each cell could pick up light to survive."

But, if that isn't remarkable enough, when the predator with the flagellum was removed, the alga continued to reproduce and form individuals with eight cells.

Not only did the alga respond to the threat in its environment by making a community, or one might call it an "individual" (even tinkering until it was just the right size), but even after the threat was removed, it retained the newly-invented evolutionary concept of multi-cellular.

As Shubin says, "In short, a simple version of a multicellular form had arisen from a no-body."

Bodies had been created.

Why Now?

But why did it take so long for the first body to be created? Conditions have to be right.

As noted, nature does not act on a whim. There was no reason for bodies to be created until there was. Microbes had the tools they needed to create multi-cellular forms but there was no need for them since they hadn't yet learned to eat each other yet. When they did, there was a reason to invent bodies.

And, coincidentally, the atmosphere on earth was accumulating an increased percentage of oxygen. When oxygen increased, bodies appeared everywhere.

As Shubin says, "Life would never be the same."

And why did it take so long for us to come out of the closet and sing?

There is undoubtedly a transformation happening on earth - whether you look at species extinctions, global warming or the global economy.

It may be that we need more singing now.

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