Saturday, May 29, 2010


Elizabeth Adamitiz is seventy four. She lives alone two houses down from me, at the end of Summer Street in Amherst, Massachusetts. Late in the afternoon, she takes short walks in the neighborhood. She has a broad face and wears large glasses; her hair, short now, is sparse and mostly gray. From far, her stooped posture and slow gait makes her look old and helpless, but she has one of the widest smiles I know. It enlivens her face, carries a hint of mischief and is generally the prelude to a witty remark.

Liz has been single throughout. She enjoys company, but does not seek it. With a twinkle in her eye, she says she is a loner. But she regrets that no one she knows is around. She was the last of six children. “Everyone is dead; my sisters are dead, my family is dead. Well, for all you know, I am dead too!” She laughs. She has nieces who live in nearby towns; one of them, only four years younger, visits often to deliver groceries.

Liz‘s short term memory is poor enough to be nonexistent. She chats with me but remembers nothing of our previous conversations. She remembers me vaguely but not where I work or which house I live in. She even forgets what I told her minutes earlier: our conversations move in a loopy, circular manner, with repeated iterations through the same questions and themes. “Did you just tell me that?” she asks, well aware of her condition. I nod. “Oh jeez,” she says flashing her irresistible smile, “so that’s how knocked I am!”

In keeping with her playful demeanor, she asks me to “raise hell when I can”. When I give her a puzzled look, she repeats emphatically, “Raise hell, kid! Have fun in life! Go drink, go chase the girls! I raised a lot of hell when I was young.” When an attractive woman in her twenties jogged by us, she promptly took her glasses off, handed them to me and said: “Here, you'll need this to take a proper look.”

Liz grew up in Amherst and has stayed put. From her birth to now, she has lived in the same house. She has not traveled beyond New England; no visits abroad, to Europe, Mexico, or even Canada, only a few hours north by car. I found that striking. My family had moved from state to state, city to city, driven by circumstance and my father’s profession. My grandmother, who is a few years older than Liz, grew up in rural Tamil Nadu, moved to Madras and now stays occasionally with her two sons in Bangalore. By any standards, the degree of Liz’s rootedness is unique.

One day, I asked her how the neighborhood had changed. It was a warm spring afternoon; we were seated on her porch. Large bushes, well trimmed, flanked us on each side. Close to the street’s end – about fifty yards from where we sat – was the trail that ascends and curves to reveal a beautiful pond, surrounded by woods. In the evenings, beavers wade through the water to chew on the limbs of trees strewn at the pond’s rim. At its eastern end, a minute’s walk from Liz’s porch, is a small waterfall. I loved the neighborhood’s idyll and natural beauty. It was a quiet part of what was an already quiet college town. But it never occurred to me that it could have a history – until, Liz, with her unique perspective, gave me a sense.

Summer Street, she insisted, was once a “rough part of town”. Today, in American cities the phrase is an indirect reference to a poor black or Hispanic neighborhood. But Amherst never had – still does not have – much racial diversity. What, then, did rough mean in Liz’s day?

In early and mid twentieth century, the street was full of newly arrived Lithuanian immigrants. They were poor and their houses ramshackle. They were fond of drinking. Conveniently, there was a liquor store – a “packet store” as Liz called it – up the street. Even the police admitted that the street was tough; they would drive through not in one but two cars. Only one house did not belong to an immigrant. “He was a Yankee!” Liz said. “But he became one of us.”

Liz’s parents, Catholics, were from Lithuania, “the old country”; Lithuanian was the language she first learned. She still speaks it well. Her mother died in 1953 when she was seventeen. Her father earned a meager salary as a farm hand, taking care of cattle. He worked for Walter Jones, whose grandson now owns the major apartment complexes in Amherst. It was fascinating glimpse of how the early twentieth century families of the town, working class and well off, immigrant and Yankee, had ended up in two generations. Mill Hollow, the nondescript apartments built in the 1970s, across Liz’s small but nearly century old house, was Jones’ property. It had once been an open field where Liz played softball as a child. “I used to hit the ball hard and it would end up in the brook. The kids would holler at me.”

The poverty of her immigrant parents was important in Liz’s conception of her identity; she mentioned it every time we talked. But it was not an ideological or political stance -- just matter of fact. At elementary school, Liz could tell that she and her friends from the street were different from the others, mostly professors’ kids. “These smart kids were up to it; they spoke the language of the teachers. We didn’t really grasp much.”

That difference still exists. Amherst projects itself as a haven for progressives and in the process sometimes appears self absorbed and snobbish. It is not a deliberate, harmful or in-your-face snobbishness, but a subtle presence. The boutique stores and trendy coffee shops in downtown cater to this demographic -- generally well off students and professors. The other Amherst, working class Amherst, provides the local services: the garage mechanics, the electricians, the farmers, the construction workers. It is possible to tell them apart from their dress and demeanor. Tina, Liz’s immediate neighbor, whose husband works as a fireman and occasionally delivers newspapers at 4 am in the morning, is from the other Amherst (she also happens to be the only other Lithuanian descendant now living in the neighborhood.)

Liz did not go to college. She probably did not have the means. Instead, for thirty six years, she worked as helper at the university dining commons. Unsurprisingly, given her bright and spunky personality, Liz got along well with college kids. When she was thirty, she fell in love with a marine but he left her while away on duty. Her father passed away in 1974, but by that time, Liz had paid the mortgage and owned the house. She loves dogs and once raised three – all of them are buried in her backyard.

After retirement, she began talking long walks, chatting now and then with passersby. These days, she doesn’t walk far but walks no less frequently, surveying the neighborhood houses, now changed in color and style, full of new residents, very different from the “rough” Lithuanian look and feel she was used to. Even quiet streets in quiet towns change fast.

Monday, May 17, 2010

The genius of Inca masonry

During my travels in Peru, I found nothing more striking or elegant than Inca walls. Above you’ll find two examples. The first is in a street in the Andean city of Cuzco, once the capital of the Incas. The second is at Saqsayhuaman, an Inca fortress whose ruins today overlook the sprawl of Cuzco. Notice that the walls are not held together by mortar; rather they consist of large interlocking stones that fit like a puzzle. One can only imagine the labor and organization required for such precision. In a seismically active area, these structures have endured to this day – while many Spanish constructions in Peru since mid 1500s have collapsed. In some cases, the walls blend with the landscape, like a naturally formed jumble of rocks, to an extent that they do not seem constructed (the second picture for example). They have an austere, minimalist look which elevates their beauty even more.

The other distinctive feature of Inca architecture is trapezoidal doors and niches. As John Hemming writes in The Conquest of Incas:
Doors and niches were invariably built in trapezoidal shapes, with the sides tapering inwards towards the lintel at the top. This was a logical method for builders who had not discovered the principle of the arch. It reduced the length of the lintel stone and spread the thrust of the weight it supported. Rows of such trapezoidal niches broke the monotony of Inca walls. Sometimes the niches were the size of sentry-boxes, tall enough to accommodate a line of standing attendants, but more often they were smaller, sunk into the wall at chest height to form a row of convenient cupboard alcoves.

Examples above of a trapezoidal door (from Saqsayhuaman) and wall alcoves (from Machu Picchu).

Monday, May 10, 2010

Busy, but be back soon

Occupied with grading and other end of semester tasks -- typically a deluge -- but will be back in a week or so. There still much to write about my Dec-Jan trip to Peru and Bolivia, and I hope to get something on paper soon, before my memory begins to play tricks.

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

How a spider balloons itself, and Anthill

The [ballooning] method is widespread and ancient among spiders. When an immature spider possessing this ability wishes to travel a long distance, it crawls to an unrestricted site on a blade of grass or twig of a bush, lifts the rear part of its body to point the spinnerets at the tip upward, and lets out a line of silk. The delicate little thread is the spiderling’s kite. The air current lifts and pulls at it until the young spider feeling the tension, gradually lengthens the thread. When the strength of the pull exceeds its own body weight, it lets go with all eight feet and sets sail. A flying spiderling can reach thousands of feet of altitude and travel miles downwind. When it wishes to descend, it pulls in the silk thread and eats it millimeter by millimeter, heading for a soft if precarious landing. The risk it takes offers good odds. Sailing aloft under its silk balloon, the spiderling can reach land still uncrowded by competing spiders.

That’s from The Anthill Chronicles, a short, self-contained novella within the famous biologist E.O. Wilson’s first novel. The novella, one of the most beautiful and mysterious stories I’ve read in a while, is about the rise and fall of four ecologically intertwined ant colonies on a small tract of land, a longleaf pine savanna in rural Alabama. One of the ant societies is a "supercolony" that runs rampant. Wilson, wisely, does not make the ants speak as humans do; instead, he uses his immense scientific knowledge to tell us what goes on in their subterranean nests. The execution is superb; there is probably no better narrative description of how the world appears to ants. The ants' quest for territory and foraging grounds, brutal wars, cycles of dominance and decline -- epics condensed in time and space --are strikingly similar to ours; and yet there are some contrasts. Ant colonies, for example, are fanatically communist and are heavily dominated by females; males play a peripheral, utilitarian role.

Deftly interlinked with the story of the ants is the story of the protagonist, Raff Semmens Cody, a child of the American south (like Wilson himself). Raff is fascinated by the same tract of land that contains the anthills and is interested in protecting it. This dual structure of novel – one at the level of the ants, the other the level of humans, but both examining in understated fashion the perils of overburdening the ecosystem – allows for an unusual perspective.