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Ferris Jabr
is In Wild Air

Ferris Jabr is a writer based in Portland, Oregon. He has written for The New York Times Magazine, Scientific American, The New Yorker, Outside, New York Magazine, Slate, Foreign Policy, The Awl, and McSweeney’s. Some of his work has been anthologized by the The Best American Science and Nature Writing series and Longform.com. He has an MA in journalism from New York University and a Bachelors of Science from Tufts University.

Intensely committed to unique collaborations against all odds, Jessica acknowledges that the deepest beauty comes from the mysteries discovered through connection.


Stone Tools

Humans are not the only creatures that use tools. Scientists have documented tool-use in species as diverse as primates, elephants, birds, octopuses, dolphins, otters, and fish. Often, such animals find an object in their environment – a rock, a stick, a sea sponge – and either use it as is to accomplish a goal (say, cracking open a seashell), or modify it slightly (stripping a twig of leaves to make a smooth fishing rod for termites or honey). But humans are the only animals that craft a vast array of highly complex tools from scratch – including tools designed to create more tools. It all began with the possibility of stone.

Stone can be smooth or sharp, jagged or rounded, piercing or bludgeoning. A stone can maim, kill, or cast someone out. A stone can also help nourish, heal, and protect. A stone can even dignify, decorate, and consecrate. Millions of years ago, our early human ancestors started to recognize the immense potential latent in every idle rock and pebble. Stones could be hammers, mashers and grinders. Stones could be weapons and barricades. Stones could be chiseled into axes to cut meat, skin, hair, and bone. Stone tools are one of the earliest and most enduring material cultures in the history of our lineage.

A few years ago, at a museum in New York, I spent some time gazing at a 300,000-year-old pear-shaped hand ax chiseled from flint. It was so beautiful: neatly tapered, warm like terra cotta, with plumes of gray and yellow at its base. At some point in our evolutionary history, early humans became increasingly obsessed with the aesthetics of tools. They started to create axes so large and heavy – made from particularly gorgeous but stubborn stone – that they could not possibly have had any utilitarian value. Rather, they were objects of art – perhaps used as decorations, gifts, or ritual totems. Our ancestors had already envisioned the tool trapped in the piece of rock, waiting to be released. Now they were realizing that not only could a rock do something other than sit there on the ground – it could mean something other than 'rock' too. Like a word, or an image on a cave wall, a lump of stone could be the ultimate tool: a symbol.


Virginia Woolf

I fell in love with Virginia Woolf's writing as a teenager and she remains my favorite writer. To put it plainly, Woolf profoundly changed our understanding of what language can do. To put it poetically, as E.M. Forster did in 1941, Woolf "pushed the light of the English language a little farther against the darkness."

Woolf was a versatile and prolific writer who produced scores of novels, essays, biographies, letters, diaries, and genre-blurring experiments. She lamented her contemporaries' fixation with surface details – with the appearances, clothing, and mannerisms of their so-called characters. She thought novels should be concerned with something quite different: "Examine for a moment an ordinary mind on an ordinary day. The mind receives a myriad impressions – trivial, fantastic, evanescent, or engraved with the sharpness of steel. From all sides they come, an incessant shower of innumerable atoms…Is it not the task of the novelist to convey this varying, this unknown and uncircumscribed spirit…Let us record the atoms as they fall upon the mind in the order in which they fall, let us trace the pattern, however disconnected and incoherent in appearance, which each sight or incident scores upon the consciousness."

The three novels that best capture her triumphs in doing exactly this are Mrs. Dalloway, To the Lighthouse, and The Waves. In these books, Woolf pioneered new ways of reproducing the human mind on the page – of translating the moment-to-moment experience of consciousness into written sentences. And what sentences they are: fluid, luminous, unrivaled in their lyricism.


My Backyard

My partner and I recently moved into a small two-bedroom house in Portland, Oregon. My favorite part is the backyard: there's a stone patio, a hornbeam tree overlooking a grass lawn (which is, at the moment, mostly a dirt patch), a corner with several raised beds for vegetables, and a long shady flowerbed against the back fence. We filled the raised beds with tomatoes, edamame, Brussels sprouts, zucchini, peppers, and an assortment of herbs: tarragon, summer savory, basil, rosemary, thyme, oregano, chervil, lovage, chamomile, sage, and parsley. We plan to fill the flowerbed with shade-loving cultivars: fuchsia, toadlily, trillium, ferns, hellebores, and bleeding hearts. Around the patio we have pots of hibiscus, physalis, mint, and strawberries.

Gardens have been one of my greatest joys since childhood. I love learning the names and taxonomy of plants – their evolutionary and cultural histories. I love planting seeds – these dull little specks – and witnessing the exaltation of their slow-motion metamorphosis. To cultivate a garden is to be, simultaneously, a puppet of chance and a god. You are responsible for so many living creatures. You can coddle them, help them flourish, uproot them, or squash them in a moment. Yet you are also subject to forces beyond your control – to wind, drought, scourge, and pests. So much happens in a garden. It is a microcosm of existence on this planet. "The garden is about life and beauty and the impermanence of all living things," Anne Lamott wrote. "In the garden, the enemy is everything: the aphids, the weather, time. And so you pour yourself into it, care so much, and see up close so much birth, and growth, and beauty, and danger, and triumph. And then everything dies anyway, right? But you just keep doing it.”


The Voynich Manuscript

It was created in the early 15th century. 240 pages of calf-skin parchment. Iron gall ink. Bizarre illustrations of nude people, plants – a few vaguely familiar, others entirely alien – and astronomical charts. And streaming throughout it all, an elegant, coiling script – something between Arabic and Tolkien's Elvish – a mysterious language that remains undeciphered. Some of history's best codebreakers have tried and failed to divulge the secrets of the Voynich Manuscript. It's possible that the book does not contain a real language – that it was some kind of hoax meant to fool naïve buyers of rare books. It might be the compulsive journaling of someone who struggled with mental illness. Or it could be the sole remaining artifact from a lost culture, perhaps an explorer's records of journeys in foreign lands, or an attempt to create a compendium of useful knowledge of the natural world, of herbal remedies and star charts.

There's something so compelling about a book that has thoroughly resisted interpretation for 500 years. Its power is its opaqueness. It holds our attention precisely by refusing it.



My friend Olivia introduced me to the Finnish concept of sisu. Like all words unique to a language and culture, it cannot be perfectly translated, but it means something like perseverance and determination, grit and stoicism, strong will and rational mind in the face of adversity. Many Finns regard sisu as an integral part of their national identity and, more than an attitude, a philosophy all its own.

Sisu reminds me of the Japanese phrase ganbatte, which roughly translates to "Try your best!" But ganbatte is much more important and nuanced than this attempt at translation can convey. The Japanese sometimes use ganbatte to simply mean "Good luck!" – to provide encouragement for a challenge or task at hand. Other times, ganbatte means something much closer to sisu: don't give up, no matter what. It's a meaning perfectly captured by a striking moment in Yasujirō Ozu's film Tokyo Story: one character says to another "Isn't life disappointing?" The other, grinning broadly all the while, cheerfully replies: "Yes, nothing but disappointment." I very much empathize with this frank acknowledgment of an inexorable fact – that to live is to suffer – combined with the stubborn refusal to give up in spite of that fact.


Wild Air

I recently learned a fact that astonished me: Air is alive. Wind frequently sweeps microbes from soil, plants, and the ocean into the atmosphere, where many of them remain – floating, feeding, even reproducing – for weeks at a time. A few have adaptations that help them survive these airborne jaunts: they can better withstand harsh ultraviolet light, for instance, or eat the kinds of molecules found in cloud water. Some of these sky bacteria may actually change the weather for their own benefit. Certain bacteria have ice-nucleating proteins, which encourage water droplets in clouds to form ice crystals. The more water and ice collects in a cloud, the heavier it becomes, and the more likely it is to start falling through the atmosphere as rain, carrying the bacteria back to Earth. Some recent studies suggest that densely vegetated areas – such as the Amazon rainforest – help create their own rainstorms by spewing microbes, pollen, and fungal spores into the atmosphere, which act as seeds for rainclouds. This phenomenon is not just local. The continents also "sneeze" on each other, as one NASA scientist has written, sharing nutrients and bacteria via turbulent streams of air that belt the globe.