Lynn Margulis: In Memoriam

November 24, 2011

I am bereft to learn that Lynn Margulis, the world renowned evolutionary scientist, died yesterday at her home in Amherst Mass. I spoke this evening with her colleague, and close friend James MacAllister, who told me she suffered a severe stroke, spent a few days in the hospital, and (those of us who knew Lynn can picture this very easily) insisted on going home. Surgery was ruled out, as the bleed had occurred in a low part of the brain stem that would have been too dangerous to operate on.

The Truth Barrier

Jim said she died in her bed, with the sun streaming into the windows, surrounded by children, grandchildren and friends, and listening to her beloved Schubert. I spoke to her about two weeks ago–she was about to fly to Mexico and yet found time to call to discuss a piece her son, and writing partner, Dorion Sagan, had written, which she wanted to send me (and did). It was a warm and reassuring conversation. We spoke about many things.

I remember hanging up, so relieved that we had had this particular conversation. I loved her. I don’t mean like, I mean loved. That’s not the same as saying our interaction was without friction. She wanted one thing, I wanted another. She wanted me to work on certain projects, and I stubbornly wanted only to work on one project: Her. I wanted to capture her.

I have met many brilliant scientists in my life but Lynn was a genius.

I used to just go sit, in the cold house, Lynn’s house, in Amherst, in my little room which she had prepared for me, and  stare at my hands, because I felt so helpless and clumsy. I could never draw her, never get her words right, never catch up with even a fraction of a tail of the comet that was her mind.  She could never understand what I could and could not grasp, of what she was talking about. On the very first phone message she left for me, I was en route to visit her and she exclaimed: “I have such exciting new for you, about pectinatella !  Hurry.”

At 6:30 am there would be a sharp knock on the door, and about six minutes later we’d be in the car with Jim, and the dog, Menina, going to Puffer’s Pond, where Lynn would swim out to the fallen tree, and study the branches, with an attentiveness that I captured in photographs, despite Lynn’s obvious annoyance over cameras and such. She had NO interest in being studied as a person. She was frustrated that  I seemed not to grasp that, the story was in the jelly, in the pond. She used to say, grinning–one of her categorical proclamations, which I so loved—”all the action in science is in the water.”

Every single time, both of them, Lynn and Jim, would forget to bring a vessel (plastic container) in which to gather the pond jelly that excited them so, which would prove or disprove Lynn’s theory of the origin of life. I’d go off and find an old coffee cup or something, trying to make myself marginally useful. Jelly in hand, Lynn and Jim would argue in the parking lot, holding the jelly up to the sun, studyng the flecks inside for what they meant, to her, and Jim was her . “It’s red. Can’t you see it’s red?”

Jim held back. “Is it red?”

“It’s red.”

“It’s red,” I said meekly. “I mean I think it is.”

God they were amazing to watch and eavesdrop on, those two.

“So you want to write about people,” she said, very cuttingly, one morning at the pond. “He said she said.”

I was silent.

“Fine, go ahead then. Just write about people.

I hung my head.

“That’s what I do Lynn. I write about people.”

My cheeks were burning, and I walked away, through the woods, sulking.

The way you sulk when you adore somebody but you can’t entirely come into being, yourself, near them, as if their light is so bright that you over-expose and begin to vanish.

The conversations with Lynn—about everything from the origin of life to geology and gaia, over to 9/11 to the potential for sexual code in Emily Dickinson’s poetry—she lived next door to Dickinson’s house, and used to recite some of her poems, to the letter, eyes sparkling– were utterly, utterly wild, connecting so many ideas, people, concepts—and I experienced always that dull pain.  I never learned how to do or be what I felt she wanted. She would mention a name—it could be a scientist or a writer or a scholar—and be utterly incredulous that I didn’t know who she was talking about. 

She kept insisting I had a “scientific mind.”  Yet I was quite happy in her kitchen, doing the dishes, listening to her, and watching the incredible, lengthy ritual, partly in Italian, of feeding the dog, Menina, (who spoke Italian.)

I stopped trying to capture the true essence and soul of science, after the Big Boot (2006).

And then one came into my field, across my lens.

Real scientists are rare and beautiful. But you can’t ever get too close to them. You have to lie in wait, photograph them against their will, like those photographers who wait and wait for the snow leopard, for a single blurry shot.

We both had size 9 feet, and she loved to give me shoes. I have about 4 pairs, and she was trying to send me more, as recently as a few weeks ago.

I actually have clothes of mine hanging in her closet.

She called the little room “your room” and I was supposed to come back. I was supposed to wake up, work on books, get them done.

Like she did.

At 1 am we’d be in her studio in the attic and she would show me photos of organisms, spirochetes, budding, or doing this or that, and she would be narrating and I would be wishing I WAS a tape recorder and camera. “Time is running out,” she would say. “There’s so much to do.”

I remember wondering why she felt such an urgency, about time, about there not being much left.