The View Through the Crack

Could the arctic ground squirrel's hibernation habits provide the key to curing Alzheimer's?

THE DISCO BUS drops us off at Mile 60, where the tundra undulates away from the park road and then buckles up into green hills. There are eight in our group. Everyone but me has spent the better part of three hours on the road; they boarded at the Wilderness Access Center—the Grand Central Station of Denali National Park and Preserve. Our guide, Ranger Ali, is leading a “discovery hike” for a young couple from Pittsburgh, a middle-aged couple from Cincinnati, and two male anglers in their sixties from Colorado Springs. I joined the rest of the group at Mile 53.

According to the sheet I was handed when I signed up for the hike, these ranger-led excursions “travel everywhere, so expect uneven terrain, small stream crossings, close encounters with dense vegetation, and unpredictable weather.” The first thing Ranger Ali does, after we get off the bus and head off the dusty road onto the tundra, is stop for a “BMW” talk.

BMW stands for bear-moose-wolf—the trifecta of charismatic megafauna that we need to be cautious of. Ranger Ali repeats the rules I’ve memorized in my time in the park: keep twenty-five yards away from moose and wolves, three hundred yards away from a bear. As she describes what to do in the event of a bear encounter—showing us the bear spray she has strapped at her waist—one of the fishermen, peering at a distant hillside through binoculars, says he’s spotted something among a growth of willows. A bear, maybe. We all turn to look, including Ali, who has her binoculars out in a flash. I catch a glimpse of it—whatever it is—with my naked eye, maybe a couple hundred yards away, before it disappears into the thicket. In outline, it’s more caribou than bear as far as I can tell, though the tawny color that glints off its coat is lighter than any of the caribou I have seen, more the hue of the blonde grizzlies that live here.

Ranger Ali keeps her binoculars trained on the patch of trees, but the animal never emerges. Finally, she lowers her binoculars. “We’re going to reroute,” she says, scanning our surroundings. “It doesn’t hurt to be cautious.”

Before we set out on our hike—on a revised route, away from the possible bear—Ali makes one last announcement. “I want to let you know that the writer-in-residence is joining us on our hike today,” she says, indicating me. The other hikers murmur their mild surprise.

Embarrassed by the sudden attention—I’m a writer, after all, not a talker—I’m ready to set out. We start making our way across the tundra.

The woman from Cincinnati leaves her husband and sidles up to me.

“So,” she says, “you’re the writer-in-residence? Are you being inspired right now?”

***

SEVERAL MONTHS before coming to Alaska, as I was devouring information in preparation for the trip, learning about wolf populations and bear diets and sled dogs and soundscapes, I began to wonder how I would ever put all these pieces together into a coherent narrative. Science was saying so much—but one thing science often doesn’t do well is shape the raw data into a story. So, late one night, I put two search terms—“science” and “storytelling”—into Google, which eventually led me to the work of biologist Paul Grobstein. A man after my own heart, Grobstein sees science as an act of storytelling:

Scientific statements are … provisional stories, reflecting human perspectives, that get progressively less wrong. … Science is therefore fundamentally not about security but about doubt, not about knowing but about asking, not about certainty but about skepticism. Scientific stories are written not to be believed but to be understood, made use of as appropriate, and revised.

In his own schematic of the scientific method, a revision of the standard hypothesis-experiment-conclusion model so many of us are taught in elementary school, Grobstein introduces an element he calls “the crack,” the spot where a scientist makes a choice, consciously or not, “to further pursue one or another way of several alternative ways of making sense of the world” (Grobstein’s italics). It is here, Grobstein argues, that science is affected by “the individual temperament and cultural background” as well as the “creativity” of scientists. Some see this as a weakness, but Grobstein believes it is a major strength of science.

***

AFTER WALKING for half an hour over relatively flat terrain, we crest a small hill, five hundred feet or so high, and the woman from Cincinnati is still at my side.

“Are you having thoughts right now about what you’re going to write?” she asks after several minutes of silence.

“Not really,” I reply evasively. She is so fixated on me she hardly seems to notice the view around us: the cobbled tundra and the narrow brown indentation of road below us, where the green and tan park buses occasionally pass by like caterpillars inching their way along a groove in the landscape.

She is asking me for the story, but I don’t yet know what the story is. The story is still happening to us, I want to tell her. Look around you. This place is the story. We are the story. The eight of us being in this place is the story.

In fact, if she were not at my side, I would be writing—jotting down shorthand notes in a small pocket notebook. But she’s making me self-conscious, so I store the notes in my head. I have less story because she keeps asking me for it.

Finally, the woman asks about my books, and we talk about those for a while, and then we talk of other things: the places we’re from—Cincinnati and Hartford—and the places we’ve been.

Much later—weeks, months—I will pick out the bones of the story from my notes. I write down everything indiscriminately because I never know what the story might be. There’s not yet any flesh on the bones—I add this later, sculpting, bringing out the lines of muscle. That is the storytelling part.

There are no BMW in my notes from that day, July 24. But—among monkshood, harebell, caribou fur, the feathers on ptarmigan legs that look like bloomers—I do find one select bone, gleaming white. I find—months later—this notation:

Saw ground squirrel holes (amazing story about how their body temperature in winter goes below freezing—26°F—they stay underground eight to nine months a year, occasionally they shiver—in big pile together underground—and bring their body temperature up to normal, then they stop and it plunges back down below freezing. Some process in their brain that allows them to do this—squirrels are part of Alzheimer’s research).

I remember the context: we were hiking down from the hill when we passed a section of tundra mottled with holes. Ranger Ali stopped to tell us about the ground squirrels that live in those burrows. Then we kept walking.

***

THE ARCTIC GROUND SQUIRREL is heavier than the tree-dwelling eastern gray squirrels I see daily in Connecticut. These beefy, stumpy-tailed northern cousins have white-speckled beige coats and live in mazes of underground burrows in areas of arctic tundra with good drainage. They can grow to a length of almost twenty inches, and the males can weigh more than three pounds. Active only about three or four months during summer, the squirrels hibernate for up to three-quarters of the year.

If hibernation were an extreme sport, the arctic ground squirrel would be the world champion. A Scientific American article explains how, in the 1980s, researchers at the University of Alaska–Fairbanks implanted temperature-sensitive radio transmitters in the abdomens of a dozen ground squirrels then left them in outdoor wire cages to hibernate. The animals’ body temperatures dropped to -2.9°C, the lowest ever recorded in living mammals. And yet, due to a process known as “supercooling,” their blood doesn’t freeze solid, but remains liquid. Because the squirrels are beyond sleep when their body temperatures are this low, they shiver and shake themselves every couple of weeks until they reach normal body temperatures for a period of twelve to fifteen hours so that they can preserve vital neural connections. Then they plunge back into torpor.

***

WE’RE COMING DOWN the hillside toward Stony Creek when we see a creeping bus abruptly stop on the road below us. The binoculars come out and aim in our direction. At first, we can’t tell what the passengers are looking at. Is there some wildlife near us? We peer around but see nothing.

Then Ranger Ali understands. Someone on the bus has spotted movement on the hillside. Briefly, we have entered their story.

“They’re checking us out,” she says. “We are the wildlife.”

And now we quickly pass out of their story as the bus moves on. Homo sapiens is not the charismatic megafauna they are seeking.

Near Stony Creek, we try to find an archaeological site—an old can dump from the 1930s that’s a vestige of the construction of the park road—but after wandering over the hillocks of tundra for half an hour, we come up with nothing. Our hike is winding down.

“What are you thinking about?” We’re headed back toward the park road to flag down a bus, and the woman from Cincinnati is still at it. She’s persistent—I give her that.

I’m thinking about how annoyed I am that you keep asking me these questions, I think—but don’t say. She is only asking me to do what I am supposed to do as writer-in-residence: interpret the park experience for others. After all, my application, along with half a dozen others, was selected from among about three hundred for this year’s Artist-in-Residence Program. One at a time, we artists and writers come to the park because the National Park Service believes that creative people—visual artists, photographers, writers, composers—can contribute to an understanding and appreciation of the park as well as the scientists, naturalists, and rangers who interpret the park in their own ways. I’ve been given a bus pass and a cabin to live in for ten days, and in exchange, I will give a reading and donate a piece of writing to the park. I am here to tell others what this experience means—only I don’t yet know what it means. The problem is the act of interpretation requires distance. I cannot offer profound musings, à la John Muir, on the spot. It’s not as though simply walking through this landscape creates some kind of script in my head I need only write down—or speak aloud.

Writers are not different from other people, I want to tell her. We all have to work to get at our stories.

“Science generates stories from observations and, in this context, ‘true,’ if the term is to be used at all, means nothing more (and nothing less) than consistent with all observations so far,” writes Grobstein. “There is no conclusion in science; it is a continual and recursive process of story testing.”

Replace science with writing, and this is exactly what I would tell the woman from Cincinnati.

Are John Muir’s rapturous declarations any less true than the scientist’s precise records? True, it turns out, is not even the right word. We learn from nature in many ways, and each of those ways takes the shape of a story. You are in the story, I should have told her before we parted. You are making the story.

***

IN THE 1990S, Russian scientists removed the brains from Siberian ground squirrels at three different stages of hibernation and examined the neurons in the hippocampus. Squirrels in Group A were in mid-hibernation. Squirrels in Group B were in the shivered-back-to-normal-temperature sleeping state. And squirrels in Group C were wide awake, one day post-hibernation.

Compared to the fully awake squirrels in Group C, the Group A squirrels had shrunken neurons with fewer dendrites—the branchlike structures that receive messages from other neurons. The sleeping squirrels in Group B, however, had rapidly replenished the missing dendrites. In fact, they had more connections in their brains than the active, awake squirrels of Group C. In the awake squirrels’ brains, many of these connections had been severed, pruned back. This dieback and overgrowth happens repeatedly in the cold/hibernating–warm/sleeping cycle.

Scientists are still trying to figure out the implications this process of dying and regrowth might have for neuroscience. Understanding what triggers the withered brain’s recovery is another nascent story that may help us to better know the human brain.

***

BACK ON THE PARK ROAD, the eight of us wait for a bus. The hikers are all eastbound with a long ride ahead of them to exit the park. Since it’s only about 3 PM and I’m staying at Toklat, just a few miles east, I decide to catch a westbound bus and go out to the Eielson Visitor Center at Mile 66 for a bit.

I say goodbye to the woman from Cincinnati and the other hikers, and we head our separate ways. Sitting on the bus alone—at last—with my thoughts, I take out my pocket notebook and write down everything I’ve been storing up in my memory.

The day is clear and still so long—the sun will barely dip below the horizon sometime near midnight—and the mountain is out, so I decide to hike the Eielson Alpine Trail up Thorofare Ridge, climbing a thousand feet over about a mile. There are tart blueberries growing along the trail, views of the highest peak in North America, and occasional trekkers coming down, speaking German or British English or Japanese. But those are parts of other stories.

Here is what matters: about three-quarters of the way up, I stop and sit. Resting quietly, I look down over the visitor center, the buses in the parking lot coming and going. A faint breeze stirs the air. And at that moment, about ten feet away from me, a ground squirrel comes out of a hole and stands up on its hind legs, twitching its nose as if analyzing a scent. Its eyes seem to be on me. I remain still and observe it: my first ground squirrel. Perhaps a foot long, stout and black-eyed, it faces me straight on, and we watch each other.

Then with a flash of its white-speckled back and small tail, it’s gone.

***

RESEARCHERS IN GERMANY cut into the brains of hibernating European ground squirrels to learn more about Alzheimer’s disease. The focus of their research was all related to a protein with the unassuming name of tau. In the brains of people with Alzheimer’s, the tau proteins become overburdened by phosphate molecules, which deform them and cause them to accumulate. It turns out this same process occurs in the hibernating brains of the squirrels; yet in the hours after waking, somehow the squirrels wipe their brains clean of the misshapen tau proteins.

I am reading about this at the Toklat Road Camp—where the rangers and road crew live in the summer months—over a frustratingly slow Internet connection, so I can’t seem to get the full story. The ground squirrel that watched me on Thorofare Ridge seemed to have no immediate connection to Alzheimer’s. I couldn’t make these disparate stories mesh in my mind, and yet scientists, creating their own narratives, weave together these storylines in astonishing ways.

Lying in bed in my cabin, unable to sleep soundly due to the perpetual summer light, I peer out the window at the blooming fireweed and think about Grobstein’s idea of the “crack”—our subjectivity that begins with cultural background, personal temperament, and individual creativity, but that encompasses all of our life experiences. I imagine standing in the bottom of a rock crevice and peering up at the sky through the narrow fissure above me. The slice I can see is limited by the steep walls on either side, by where I find myself (in time and place), but it’s also limited by my physical abilities of apprehension—my very senses that deliver all of the information I will ever have about the world.

Then I remember a story I read about an evolutionary biologist named Geerat Vermeij, a renowned expert on mollusks, who happens to be blind. Rather than looking at the shells of mollusks with his eyes, he “sees” them with his fingertips—and in some cases, sees minute variations in structure that sighted scientists had not noticed. “I know that when I look at shells, I look at them tactilely. I know that I see characteristics differently from other people,” Vermeij said in a New York Times article. A colleague said of him, “He can do things with his hands that most of us can’t do with our eyes.” In other words, the crack through which Vermeij apprehends the world is defined by his unique subjectivity—including his senses. “I listen and smell and feel,” he said.

Maybe each of us apprehends but a small sliver of the totality. Is this how meaning is made? Each of us, peering through our own crack, tells a small part of the story. Some of us palpate the shells of ancient sea creatures in our hands; some slice open brains; some merely encounter a ground squirrel on a walk. We then lay the stories side by side, widening our collective view.

***

FIVE DAYS after meeting the woman from Cincinnati, I go on another disco hike in a different part of the park with a different group of people. After looking at wolf prints in a riverbed and walking through a nest of bees in the tundra and forcing our way through dense willows, we find our way back onto buses—the hikers heading eastbound to exit the park, and I heading westbound, toward Eielson. It is here, on the bus, that the ground squirrels turn up again.

After speaking of caribou and bears, the driver, Erland, changes the subject to ground squirrels. In summer, he says, when the squirrels are awake, their heart rate is around three hundred beats per minute, their respiration around two hundred breaths per minute. In the winter, during hibernation, their heart rate slows to one to three beats per minute, and they take just a handful of breaths every half hour or so. Even though he is speaking into a microphone and facing away from the passengers as he drives, I can hear the awe in his voice.

“There’s so much we can learn from them,” he tells us.

Later that afternoon, I get on a different bus.

“We haven’t seen a bear yet,” says Elton, my new driver.

Five minutes later, he stops the bus to let us watch a brown bear by the river tearing the ground apart with its massive claws. I see the huge bulge of the shovel-shaped muscle in its back rippling with effort. The passengers all crowd to the bear side of the bus with cameras firing rapidly.

“He’s probably after a ground squirrel,” Elton says. Sometimes bears will pound the ground to flush the squirrels out, he adds. A typical bear in Denali will eat 100 to 150 ground squirrels per summer.

“They’re like a Snickers bar for the bears,” he says. “A nice little snack.”

Adolph Murie, who called the ground squirrel “the staff of life” for the many Denali species that it feeds, wrote that it is a mere “side dish” for the grizzly.

***

IN AN ARCTIC SUMMER, the sun never really sets. I discover this the hard way—staying up way too late simply because it is still light outside. My internal clock is thrown out of whack by the absence of regular time cues.

The arctic ground squirrel is a stickler for keeping a schedule. In summer, the animals come out of and return to their burrows at the same time each day, despite the unceasing daylight. Their annual routines are equally regimented. The females go into hibernation first, followed by the males. The males come out of hibernation first, followed by the females. Their internal clocks work with the precision of a fine Swiss timepiece.

Scientists at the University of Alaska studied the squirrels to learn more about circadian rhythms and biological clocks. Among other experiments, they messed with the squirrels’ internal clocks, changing light and temperature conditions to see how they would react.

According to researcher Loren Buck, body clock disruptions are linked to an astonishing number of human health problems: seasonal affective disorder, obesity, cardiovascular disease, cancer, diabetes, Alzheimer’s, senility. The squirrels’ biological clocks may tell us something about our own.

***

MY LAST NIGHT in my cabin at Toklat, I pick up The Alaska Reader from the small collection of books in the bookcase. Reading by the opal light coming in my window at 11 PM, in an essay called “A Man Made Cold by the Universe” by Sherry Simpson, I find the following:

This may be our oldest, truest survival skill: the ability to tell and to learn from each other’s stories, whether from Aesop’s fables, quest narratives, Greek mythology, the Book of Genesis, office gossip, the wisdom of elders, or made-for-TV movies. In some ways, Alaska is nothing but stories. We have constructed many of our ideas about this place, and about ourselves, from creation stories, gold rush stories, hunting and fishing stories, pioneer stories, family stories, clan stories.

Reading this, I understand something about the small bits of scientific research I was able to retrieve with the road camp’s spotty Internet connection: it takes a brilliant imagination indeed to connect these creatures of the arctic tundra who lay torpid underground for three quarters of the year with the elderly human being who is losing his words, his memories, himself. Science can be masterful storytelling indeed.

***

THE WEEK after I leave Denali as writer-in-residence, I return as a tourist with my kids and my brother. We take the bus into the park, past my cabin at Mile 53, to the Eielson Visitor Center. I lead my family up the Eielson Alpine Trail to Thorofare Ridge. I tell them about many things along the way—bears and caribou, moose and wolves, the mountain, the woman from Cincinnati, the other people I met in my ten-day stay, and, of course, arctic ground squirrels.

“You’ve got to see one,” I tell them. “They’re not like our Connecticut squirrels at all. They’re like solid little speckled burritos with small tails. If you’re a bear.”

We summit and walk around the tundra, then start on our way down. And as we’re coming upon the spot where I saw my first ground squirrel, one suddenly pops out of a hole and stands up on its haunches in the same pose. Maybe it’s even the same squirrel.

We stop to watch.

“There,” I say in a quiet voice. “That’s an arctic ground squirrel. That’s what I wanted you to see.”

My story, I feel, is nearly complete.

***

THREE MONTHS LATER, back home in Connecticut, my fifth grader is studying the senses at school. I’ve just finished showing her how my old film camera operates like the human eye. She’s drawn a diagram that shows both the lens of the eye and the lens of the camera, comparing the retina to the film and the iris to the aperture.

“What if there were, like, seventeen other ways of knowing the world besides the five we have?” she asks. “What are we missing?”

Other species have better vision, hearing, smell, never mind senses that we don’t even possess. As biologist Edward O. Wilson puts it, human beings “live entirely within a microscopic section of the stimuli that are possible and that flood in on us all the time.”

I ask my daughter: What if when you inhaled, an entire landscape bloomed in your mind, complete with flora and fauna? What if you could spot a ground squirrel from a mile away? What if you could perceive the ground squirrel in a thousand ways: hear the rapid stutter of its heart from ten feet away, see its heat in a glow of radiating light, know it in ways unimaginable to you with your paltry five senses?

“That would be awesome,” my fifth grader says

Indeed, it would.

“The story of science is not, and cannot be, by itself the view from everywhere,” writes Grobstein. “A different person, in a different time and place, might well tell a different story.”

Like the scientist scrutinizing a slice of squirrel brain through a microscope, what I perceive is but a thin shaving of the unknowable whole. There can be no view from everywhere; the view is always from right here. That is what I would tell the woman from Cincinnati. That is the story. We can have no omniscient narrator. Not even science can give us that. The “objective” voice of science is as personal as a poem. We each have our little crack, and through it, we glimpse stories, one by one. And we share them.

About the Author

Yelizaveta Renfro

Yelizaveta P. Renfro is the author of Xylotheque: Essays (University of New Mexico Press, 2014) and A Catalogue of Everything in the World (Black Lawrence Press, 2011). She was a writer-in-residence at Denali National Park and Preserve in July 2015.

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