Today, actually, is the final day of spring. Tomorrow is Father’s Day. The day after that, our fifth wedding anniversary. A gift made of wood is traditional for the fifth anniversary, so hiking into this protected-for-perpetuity forest seems a good start to celebrating our eternal union. Last year, on the big day, we attended a Star Trek convention with my daughter; I’m pretty sure trellium-D is not the traditional material for the fourth anniversary.
And yesterday, since we’re time traveling, I joined my brother Sumner for the keynote speech at a conference he attended at Harvard Law School. The speaker, mathematical biologist Martin Nowak, contended that evolution proceeds as much by cooperation as competition. In a basso Germanic accent, Nowak referred to cooperation as an “extraordinary creative force” that’s crucial in this era of planetary resource depletion and climate change – problems that technology alone can’t solve. Rather, we have to “manage the planet as a whole” if we are to “to win the struggle for existence.” Great stuff, but the joke he told had me scratching.
You see, a mathematical biologist runs into a shepherd. If I can guess the number of sheep in your flock, he says, I get one of them. The shepherd agrees. So the scientist calculates, calculates, calculates and says 207. Correct! And he grabs a sheep. Okay, says the shepherd, I get my sheep back if I can guess your profession. It’s agreed. You’re a mathematical biologist, says the shepherd. Wow, you’re right, says the man. How did you know? Because, says the shepherd, you picked up my dog.
The economists and lawyers in the hall just about split their kishkes they howled so merrily at that one. My brother gave his signature guffaw: hhrrr, hhrrr, hhrrr. I chuckled, too, but I’m not sure why. Because the academic was exposed as stupid? Because the shepherd knows about mathematical biology? And why did he settle for return to equilibrium – why not demand the sheep plus the scientist’s shoes? Was this a joke about cooperation? Huh?
We sit on a rock and munch Trader Joe’s trail mix. A couple dozen women in their 20s come up the trail, speaking in foreign accents and wearing sneakers in green, yellow and orange fluorescent colors. I ask one of them, a tall blonde, if they’re a group. Yes, she informs us, they are au pairs. “A day off from the noisy kids,” I call out to the nannies as they trip by, and there’s much nodding and laughter. “And from the demanding mothers,” says Elahna – more laughter and zippy comments. “And from the grabby dads,” I almost chime in, but think better of it.
You know, I say to my wife, these candy-covered chocolate discs in the trail mix have thicker shells than M&Ms. Probably to forestall crushing and melting in the great outdoors. She tries one; well, maybe. Definitely, I counter, and vow to take two baggies of trail mix on my next hike in July, one with real M&Ms and one with Trader Joe’s variety. Elahna advises me to augment my field test with a laboratory experiment. Put a handful of M&Ms in the microwave, nuke for 20 seconds, then check for mushiness and cracks in the shells. Repeat with the TJ generics, 20 seconds, compare…
Spring has sprung but good up here. Spruce branches are growing fat, yellowy tips – “Evergreen expansion pods,” states Elahna – and we come across smatterings of white flowers, like miniature daisies, and red flowers in clusters on shrubs. Hard green berries grow on a vine, promises, promises. On a sloping rock shelf I photograph a single white flower – reminiscent of magnolia, but not – set in a bed of leaves. And then I look up – wow, just look at that! The hills and valleys to the west are a rhapsody in green, sunlit, shadowed, rolling to a hazy turquoise horizon.