Food for Thought – And Eating.

A discussion of biodiversity and the role of fungi as decomposers turned into a chat about “expired” bread today, and afterward (while making a sandwich with “expired” bread) I decided that they could probably benefit from a little bit more concrete advice to back up our discussion. One of the students asked how they [the bacteria and fungi] got to the food after you put it in the refrigerator. We talked about what preservatives are and the balance between safe consumption and preventing organisms from growing in the food, and about the fact that the fungal spores and bacteria are in the air and on the surfaces all around us. After a few incredulous looks after discussing moldy bread, I threw up my hands and gave in. “Look, I couldn’t tell you just how many products in my fridge right now are past their printed dates, and they are perfectly safe and good to eat. There are plenty of other foods that don’t have expiration dates on them either because – for example – it’s just a raw carrot.”

This is what I shared with them after class, and is generally my guide for why I continue to buy short-dated products and tear moldy bits off of bread and eat the rest.


Since I wouldn’t want to provide advice without evidence… a bit more information about so-called “expiration dates” on perishable products such as bread. 

My version: The dates are advice from the manufacturer and/or a regulation agency, and their purposes are two-fold: Sell products that you are pleased with, and reduce the chance of you from being harmed by the product. Use dates as guidelines for how fresh a product is so that you can plan to use the food within an appropriate amount of time. The dates are more likely to be indicative of food quality and how quickly it should be sold, and is not a deadline for using the product.

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Evidence: Bread with a March 01 “Sell-by” date, which was slightly dry but still delicious and not the slightest bit moldy. 

Learn about food safety, especially the types of foods that tend to develop harmful bacteria or fungi that are likely to be hazardous to your health. And you should always know how to handle your food safely! Safe cooking is just as essential as safe storage. Keep in mind however, that all of this information from the USDA below is based on customs and policies in the US and is general advice covering a range of foods and people, and additionally does not always reflect the rest of the world.

Use good judgement, and know your own body. I have a strong immune system from years of living in the country on a farm and I have an in-depth working knowledge of how organisms live and survive, so I’m likely to make good decisions about the safety of my food. If you don’t exercise good judgement, there will often be consequences – just as there were for our early human ancestors 2,000,000 years ago (Yes, 2 million years ago).


Info from the USDA about labeling: https://www.fsis.usda.gov/wps/portal/fsis/topics/food-safety-education/get-answers/food-safety-fact-sheets/food-labeling/food-product-dating/food-product-dating 

Are Dates for Food Safety or Quality?
Manufacturers provide dating to help consumers and retailers decide when food is of best quality. Except for infant formula, dates are not an indicator of the product’s safety and are not required by Federal law.

How do Manufacturers Determine Quality Dates?
Factors including the length of time and the temperature at which a food is held during distribution and offered for sale, the characteristics of the food, and the type of packaging will affect how long a product will be of optimum quality. Manufacturers and retailers will consider these factors when determining the date for which the product will be of best quality.

For example, sausage formulated with certain ingredients used to preserve the quality of the product or fresh beef packaged in a modified atmosphere packaging system that helps ensure that the product will stay fresh for as long as possible. These products will typically maintain product quality for a longer period of time because of how the products are formulated or packaged.

The quality of perishable products may deteriorate after the date passes, however, such products should still be safe if handled properly. Consumers must evaluate the quality of the product prior to its consumption to determine if the product shows signs of spoilage.

Food Safety Tips from the USDA: https://www.fsis.usda.gov/wps/portal/fsis/topics/food-safety-education/get-answers/food-safety-fact-sheets/safe-food-handling/basics-for-handling-food-safely/ct_index 


Featured image: Perfectly safe, delicious bread that was discounted 3 weeks ago because of the March 1st sell-by date. 

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The Scientist

Scientists don’t think the same way as your average person.

What does that mean? Well, it means that we’ve trained our minds to use a particular set of skills that many people don’t understand or actively avoid using. Often those who pursue science have natural tendencies toward curiosity and information, and a quicker grasp of numerical analysis than others, but not always. Many of us are simply passionate enough about science to buckle down and learn the mindset that a scientist needs.

One skill is the ability to objectively analyze information.

We don’t just nod approvingly, our minds latch onto bits and pieces of everything that comes our way. From behavioral patterns to mathematical models, we are surrounded by information that is often raw and complex. Information alone doesn’t do anything for us, it isn’t good, or bad, or helpful – it exists, with that existence having inherent value and potential. Scientists are the ones who use that potential, those who look for the reality of what is truly there instead of just skimming the surface.

This skill comes in two flavors, and not everyone likes both equally.

First, there is the ability to dig deeper and deeper into the minute details. Taxonomists, chemists, and molecular biologists are examples of those who use this skill extensively. They need the attention to detail, the patience, and the dedication to catalog all  of the differences between two species, or to analyze thousands of samples of DNA looking for a matching sequence across taxa. Often, this is described as a reductionist analysis of the world. Application of objective analysis in this way leads us to further understanding of precisely how things work and what they are.

Second, there is the ability to analyze patterns and interactions at the scale of whole systems. Ecologists, sociologists, and climatologists are examples of those who use this skill extensively. These scientists need to integrate information from a variety of sources and find out how everything fits together, how individuals and parameters are connected, and determine the consequences of a series of changes. They are often dealing directly with the emergent properties of a system, rather than with the individual cogs in the machine. Application of objective analysis in this way results in a better comprehension of what happens and why it can happen again.

A second skill is the willingness to step back from our beliefs.

Scientists rely on evidence. We search for evidence, analyze our evidence in the form of data, build our models out of pieces of evidence, and sometimes change the world by finding evidence to support new ideas about the world. Yes, new ideas about the world. The importance of this skill is that every good scientist inherently understands that they are actively seeking to determine if they are wrong. We make the absolute best hypotheses possible, that logically could be right and are based on the most complete information at the time. And then we set out and dedicate ourselves to finding the truth.

Falsifiable hypotheses, experimental controls, and large sample sizes are all tools that we use to try to find the truth. And yet all of those tools are useless indeed if we ignore the result of their dedicated application. What happens when we are wrong? First, we determine just how much we can trust that answer. Did we collect reliable information? What might have gone wrong? This is also where statistics comes into play. Second, we accept it and determine the consequences. We know nothing – we seek everything. In reality, what this means is that we do change our minds sometimes (We thought the world was flat until evidence indicated otherwise, remember?). Additionally we end up accepting contradictions as an inherent part of reality.

Perhaps the evidence didn’t support my hypothesis because I don’t know enough to write the correct hypothesis yet.

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“I know that I am intelligent, because I know that I know nothing.” -Socrates


Why? What is it about these two skills that often sets scientists apart?

One reason, in my opinion, is that humans have a deep desire for the status that comes with being right. James Gee discusses our desire for social status and the need to support our “family” in his book The Anti-Education Era, and these are traits that do help us survive. We are inherently social animals, and being wrong can, quite frankly, sometimes have devastating consequences. Not only do we want to be right, we also want to be with others who are right because of the direct and indirect benefits we gain.

Consider this: “Do you want to rely on someone who says that they might be wrong?”

This is the kind of mental construct that exists to some degree in all social organisms, and it developed entirely outside of (and prior to) the construction of formal scientific methodology. It is a Darwinian safety mechanism that has been built over time because bad decisions have consequences – often death. The result is that most people tend to hesitate in following someone that has been wrong in the past.

Consider this: “Can you trust someone who refuses to admit that they could be wrong?”

Aye, there’s the rub. We are also aware of our own fallibility. Since we are capable of being wrong, there is always the possibility that we are at this moment, actually and truly wrong. This understanding of ourselves and others logically leads to skepticism that also benefits our survival, and someone who refuses to accept this possibility can (and should) seem insane and untrustworthy.

The Conundrum: A need to be skeptical of both those who state that they can be wrong, and of those who state that they cannot be wrong. 

Thus we see how trust in scientists is so easily lost, and how people can so easily be misled. We see why scientists rarely become celebrities, and why bad ideas that don’t kill you can spread like wildfire.

A second reason is the fear of the unknown, resulting in the construction of explanations independent of evidence. This is based in part on the concept of “mental comfort stories”discussed by Gee, as he illustrates how much our happiness and contentment about the state of our lives often relies on not challenging these comfort stories. Effectively, humans often reap benefits from ignoring evidence that contradicts their long-held beliefs.

Consider this: You (most likely) hold some beliefs for which you have no supporting evidence, besides tradition. Holding to those beliefs hasn’t killed you, and probably makes you happy and accepted by your community. 

So, what is wrong with this situation? You benefit from the mental comfort story (perhaps about god) and no one is harmed, right? Well, that is only true until you encounter a community that doesn’t hold those same beliefs. Then, those unsubstantiated claims might very well cause people in both groups to die, and will at least make people unhappy and unacceptable to the opposite community. Who is wrong? Is there any way to tell? No, because the ideas weren’t based on evidence in the first place – they were based on what comforted people, made them accepted and content with the world around them.

Consider this: You are shown evidence that contradicts your beliefs (perhaps about ethnicity/race), and you refuse to alter those long-held beliefs. Although you are happy that you’ve upheld your beliefs, the consequences can be major – losing your job, failing a class, being arrested because of your actions.

Well, you now have 2 good reasons to change this particular belief, but if you’re like most people, you won’t. The evidence indicates that your belief is wrong, and there are negative consequences to holding your belief. Perhaps you decide to split the difference – to not act on your belief in a way that causes problems such as being fired, but it will still make you unhappy. Or you decide to deal with the consequences so that you can remain happy and accepted by your chosen “family.”

The Conundrum: Some beliefs cannot always be conclusively shown to be right or wrong, and the resulting conflicts can be devastating. Other beliefs can be demonstrably wrong, and upholding them in the face of evidence can also be catastrophic.

What is the scientist’s solution (and Gee’s)? Use the skills of a scientist – objective analysis of reliable evidence & an open mind.

Evaluate your ideas with evidence whenever possible. Do not continue to hold beliefs that are conclusively false. Not only is this illogical, it will eventually have consequences for you and/or your society.

Build and use your mental comfort stories when there is no way to find the truth – but be open-minded. Other people with varying perspectives can hold ideas that are different from your own, and you should allow them that to retain right so long as it does not cause you harm. If it does, then you have the ability of any organism to make decisions that benefit your survival. You should feel free to try to convince them that you are right, but understand that typically neither of you has any evidence, and both ideas may be equally valid.


A social community for researchers, mostly scientists: ResearchGate


featured image: A grass shrimp (Palaemonetes pugio)

How to “Do well in class”

Students ask this question often, especially when they are taking a class in an unfamiliar subject, or when they have existing anxiety about the topic from previous experiences (of their own or from classmates).

It isn’t a bad question to ask! It shows that you are thinking about making a Plan for Success. In response, expect to hear 1st: some of the tried-and-true recommendations that you might already know, and 2nd: advice specific to that class/professor/subject.

Tried-and-True

  1. Have a growth mindset! Dedicate yourself to improvement and success, instead of reinforcing old prejudices about your skills. Positive thinking + Positive actions = Positive results.
  2. Take notes in class. Write down more than what is written on the slide instead of thinking that you can look back at the slides and remember everything the professor said.
  3. Come by office hours with your questions or set up a meeting with your professor. [See video below]
  4. Be engaged in class. Not everyone is outspoken, but you should all be willing to challenge your classmates’ comments, guess, or give your opinion when the professor opens the floor during class. You’ll remember more by being engaged with the material instead of passively listening.
  5. Do the review/practice exercises in the book. Think about them, and don’t just look up the answer online.

Science Focused

  1. Use your critical thinking skills! Many science courses are not about memorizing a lot of facts, even though you will be learning a lot of new terminology as well. The most challenging questions on exams will often require you to demonstrate that you can apply what you have learned.
  2. Find out how/why we know. Science is a process of understanding the world, so successful science students need to understand this methodology for inquiring about processes over the course of scientific investigations. Sometimes these answers will be the focus of more advanced courses than you are currently in, but asking the questions puts you in the right frame of mind.
  3. Make connections between old and new facts, as well as the processes linking them together. Few things occur in a vacuum, which means that interactions and changes are a normal part of our dynamic environment. Everything is connected!
  4. Be open-minded about new ideas. You don’t learn anything by refusing to consider facts that contradict your current beliefs & ideas about the world. Every single idea was new at one time.
  5. Understand the value of “I don’t know.” Why do we conduct experiments? Because we don’t know what results we will get. So why would you think that admitting you don’t know is a problem?

featured image: a giant bee in Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, Socorro, NM (July 2016)

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Idiotic Intelligence

This year I’ve been part of a faculty Reading Round Table that is studying a book by digital education guru James Paul Gee – The Anti-education Era.

One epic quote in the preface grabbed my attention immediately, and I knew that this was going to be an interesting book.

After many years of studying people I have become intrigued, as have many others, by how a species named for its intelligence (Homo sapiens: wise or knowing man) can sometimes be so stupid. Depending on how you look at it, humans are either marvelously intelligent or amazingly stupid.
– Preface, pg I

Gee’s point here is about the ways in which people can use fabulously helpful information and incredibly sophisticated tools in ways that are ultimately destructive.

Knowledge in itself is neither good nor bad – it is the way in which we use our knowledge that is consequential.


featured image: The Rocky Mountains near Denver, CO (July 2016)

Exercise your mind – Criticise!

Use your mental muscles every time you consider a decision or read an article.

Impress your friends, professors, and supervisors with your ability to analyze a situation instead of simply reacting and/or following someone else’s directions.

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Go to the Source: National Geographic Press


featured image: Autumn in Georgia, Armstrong State University (Fall 2016)

The Professor

Biology Instructor: Brigette Brinton

I’ve always figured that I’d be part of academia, and it is no surprise to me that Armstrong State University is now my second post as a college-level instructor. The courses that I teach are primarily introductory biology and ecology, although I have also previously taught a course on environmental issues and would gladly do so again. My experience with the National Science Foundation’s K-12 Fellowship program placed me in a good position for teaching first-generation and non-science students, which has served me well at both Armstrong and at Savannah State University. I draw on my diverse interests to engage all of the varied types of students in these classes, encouraging them to connect to the process of scientific inquiry from their own perspectives.

Anyone is welcome in my office, pretty much any time.

Ratings & Feedback

Reality Check: College professors have many responsibilities, often teach several different classes during a single semester, and are working hard at doing a good job at all of these tasks. Students often are taking many courses and have other responsibilities as well, and we understand that. I always do my best to help students who are struggling, and accommodate busy non-traditional students as much as is feasible.

  • Positive thinking + Positive actions = Positive Results
  • I am willing to help, and typically offer some form of extra credit in every class. This does not mean that everyone in class deserves a passing grade. It means that you will get the grade that you earn.
  • Grading and assignments are often “tough,” requiring critical thinking and demonstration of comprehension – not simply rote memorization. Translation: Know how to “put the pieces together,” or you often will follow the wrong path when trying to answer questions.

I read student feedback (on websites and on Course Evaluations), and at try to understand why a student would have made a particular comment – even if I truly believe that their frustration is the result of overwork, false expectations, or simply lack of effort.

Some insightful positive and negative comments that I’ve received over the past 2 years.

“The course was great!! Professor Brinton taught me a lot and I enjoyed her style of teaching. She encouraged group communication which I found to be effective. She also assigned a group project on a topic we found interesting which helped me learn about the topic a lot. She was a great professor. I would take her again!”
-Diversity of Life

“Panel discussions and hot topics helped with real world information from current events tie into our lectures.”
-Diversity of Life

This class was great! Every assignment was clearly explained and very helping to learning the material. Class participation was required but for good reason. Professor Brinton was always available for questions or any other additional help. Extra credit always helps your grade. Assignment were always helpful for retaining information for tests.”
– Environmental Issues

“The lab activities were directly connected to the previous lecture, so the information was presented quite thoroughly.”
-ISCI Earth and Life Science for Early Childhood Educators

“The daily “Kid Questions” helped me to think about how I would explain the content to a student.”
-ISCI Earth and Life Science for Early Childhood Educators

“Nothing was unexpected the Professor laid everything out and that was what was to be on the test. It was up to you, of course, to study and retain the material taught.”
-ISCI Earth and Life Science for Early Childhood Educators

“I understand that sometimes we have to work in large groups but I feel like having more than four people in a group was very difficult, especially when we had to come to an agreement on our experimental variable. It made the experiment less of a learning experience, though I still enjoyed it by the end.”
-ISCI Earth and Life Science for Early Childhood Educators

“Prof.B. I personally believe was the best teacher out of all the ones who teach this course. I think the course is meant to be very challenging on the students which a lot of students have misunderstood and in turn blamed the teacher as a poor teacher. I always felt Prof.B. wanted to help the students succeed and put a lot of effort into her class.”
-Principles of Biology I

“A quiz every single class…”
-Principles of Biology I

“I had her for Bio Lab 1107, and she was awesome. She really cares about your success in the class. One thing I will say is she does grade hard. She gives guidelines, but sometimes that still isn’t enough. Just ask questions and participate in discussion, and you’ll be fine. Her practicals don’t require a lot of studying, just look over the material.”
-Principles of Biology I Laboratory

“Professor Brinton goes very fast and does not explain concepts as they are on the test. You must take notes on the powerpoint before class and take notes on what she says during class. She is very willing to meet with you and explain things during her office hours or after class. She also does not care if you interject during her lecture.”
-Principles of Biology I

“The practical was too specific. I studied a lot and did not feel like the questions were a fair comprehension of the knowledge, but rather very tedious. Other than that, I found the professor to be very accessible and helpful answering questions throughout the course.”
-Principles of Biology II Laboratory

“I took her for the BIO1103 Lab course. Biology isn’t my subject but she makes the labs interesting. The class isn’t super hard, but you have to put in the effort. Attendance is mandatory and buy the lab manual because you are going to need it. You work for your grade, but she is a great teacher for people aren’t science people.”
-Concepts of Biology


featured image: Spanish moss (Tillandsia usneoides, which is neither Spanish nor a moss – it is a bromeliad) and Oriental arborvitae (Platycladus orientalis

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“A Chemist Looks at Parasitology”

Featuring: A pair of bioillustration pieces that I’m fairly proud of.
Looking back, I wish that I had already had the phenomemal photos that we later took of the parasites, so that I could have rendered them in more detail – perhaps someday I’ll go back and make an updated version of these.
Probopyrus pandalicola and Palaemonetes pugio

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Meet the love of my M.S. in Marine Sciences life…


 

I was introduced to the quirky poem “A Chemist Looks at Parasitology” at the 2015 meeting of the American Society of Parasitologists in New Orleans, Louisiana.

Yes, these micro-sized monsters seem like science fiction – Why? – Because these are the real creatures that inspired amazing science fiction stories in the first place!

A Chemist Looks at Parasitology

Parasitology! Parasitology!
One part of science to two of mythology,
Oodles of doodles that you will insist
Are micro-sized monsters that just can’t exist.
Papers replete with long names in italics
Describing in jargon the fanciful antics
Of creatures who live on the fat of the land
In host after host without lifting a hand.
Parasitology! Queen of biology!
One part of science to two of mythology.
Don’t you owe nature a humble apology?

The Journal of Parasitology, Vol. 58, No. 4, August 1972, p. 698
-Composed by A. E. R. Westman, and read at a dinner honoring the retirement of Dr. A. M. Fallis, on 31 May 1972, Toronto, Canada.


featured image: A grass shrimp (Palaemonetes pugio)

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Nature at Work

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Small shrine to nature on my desk at work. Rock salt lamp, conifer cones, oak bark, sycamore seed heads, camellia petals, cedar branch, grass seed heads, unidentified seed cluster. Ceramic container with Brighid on it.

The Druid

Welcome in the spring time, on this blessed day of Imbolc – Brighid’s Day. Everyone in the northern hemisphere is seeing the seasons turn warmer, and the rebirth of life in a new year. It isn’t always pretty (snow slush and mud…), but it’s a promise that the world will indeed go on. We often forget about this cycle of death and rebirth, and we try to ignore that humans are part of the natural world, but nature never forgets. Why? Because it works. Surviving the cold dark winter nights, we are rewarded by the promise of abundance that spring always brings.

That is what celebrating this season is about, in any form. We rejoice in our ability to go on, to grow, and to find happiness for one more year. For many, this is represented by the ascension of Christ – forgiveness and rebirth. Children end up with eggs and rabbits to celebrate because they represent reproduction and plentiful food – new life and survival. Brighid (as goddess or saint) is a literal mother figure, protecting home and hearth – family and healing.



Let this season inspire you – think on what you will do with this year that the earth has entrusted to us. All of us rely on the earth for absolutely everything.

Awen

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Awen, a druidic symbol of inspiration

Where does creativity come from? Why does inspiration often come in bursts? How does a simple song touch the soul? What is my ‘creative side’?

There is nothing wrong with acknowledging that you do not understand a thing – in no way does this invalidate its existence or value.

When we seek inspiration and try to connect with the emotions of other people, we are in truth reaching for the omnipresent force that holds all of us together. Something that is beyond a simple physical connection, that pushes our hearts and minds to leap forward to find new worlds, crossing imagined boundaries. For myself and many others, this fire is often found in seeking the myriad threads tying us to the environment. The elegance of a leaf, the cleansing feeling of a summer rain shower, the infinite blackness in a raven feather, the brutality of a predator’s attack – each of these sparks draws us from the anthropocentric world.

See me as the Sun on the mountaintop,
Feel me in the power of the seas.
Hear me in the laughter of the stream,
Power of nature, power of the trees.
– Damh the Bard, Song of Awen 

We aren’t always particularly good at listening for the call of Awen though, despite our frequent desire for that elusive “Fire in the Head.” Anxiety, uncertainty, time, preconceptions, isolation…there are many distractions that we often need to overcome before finding our own true paths to contentment. How do we do this in today’s world of plastic, politics, ambition, and consumerism? I don’t have the answers for you. Am I committed to continually trying? Absolutely.

Can you find a bit of Awen in your life today?

Today is not the beginning of my path – but it is a beginning.


featured image: Awen, a druidic symbol of inspiration (2016)

Divergent Paths: Part II

20 years ago, in Silverymoon

Rated PG-13

Crossing Paths

Gwaihir felt vulnerable and confused after Alisyn disappeared, despite many attempts by his family to cheer him, and much teasing from his friends about his ‘short-lived lover’. They encouraged him to just enjoy the memories and move on with his life, and he tried. There was just always something tugging at his mind about the young woman who had seemed such a beautiful vision of Hanali Celanil.

Eventually he sought a change of scenery and went to Silverymoon to visit an elf who had many more years and much more knowledge than he a cleric of Oghma named Rúmil Aerlinn that was an old friend of the Talagan family. He counselled the heartsick young elf to focus on balancing his emotions with logic, instead of letting them run rampant.  Rúmil also encouraged him to dedicate himself to a new task for a few decades in order to make himself a stronger person. Although Gwaihir was uncertain that the intense, virile, wrestling, mostly human priests of Oghma were going to be the best companions for him, he had always loved learning new things and trusted Rúmil’s advice.

Gwaihir had been serving Oghma at the Halls of Inspiration in Silverymoon for about 5 years before Alisyn waltzed into his life again. 21 years ago, Alisyn was in Silverymoon visiting Dawndancer House the temple of Sune in this fantastic city. The public gardens were particularly beautiful in the spring, and it was here that she was walking when she noticed a familiar form resting on the branch of a tree.

She stopped beneath the tree, but he did not notice her. Gwaihir was at ease leaning back against the trunk, eyes closed, face turned up toward the sun. Save for the few dark hairs that had escaped his long braid, the elf could have been a painting himself. Alisyn’s voice was light and playful when she spoke, “This is a beautiful day to see the sun shining on a lover’s face.”

Joy, pain, and confusion all raced plainly across Gwaihir’s face as he sat, staring down at her in shock. The wind was ruffling her brilliant red hair, and she tucked it behind one rounded ear as he finally dropped out of the tree, landing lightly on his feet. There was open appreciation in her eyes as she watched him walk slowly toward her, and there was also love.

He reached out to hesitantly caress her cheek as he stopped in front of her, hope now mixing with confusion as he asked, “Ali, why did you leave?”

She almost leaned in to kiss him, but stopped when he quickly stepped back. “It was all I knew to do. I had found love, and been loved, and thought it was time to move on.” She smiled wryly as she continued, “I was young, and the world was still out there, waiting. You were my first lover, Gwaihir, you knew that. At the time I didn’t even think about the fact that my leaving might hurt you, but it is clear now that it did.”

He looked away from her then, his green eyes bright with pain and tears. It felt like it had only been weeks, not years, since she had disappeared. Since she had twisted his life around so badly that he barely knew which way to look.

“I loved you then, and I still do, Gwaihir, if you can forgive me.” Sincerity and regret filled her voice. After a moment he looked back at her, and there was more relief than grief in Gwaihir’s expression. Though the elf’s eyes still shone with unshed tears, his heart was light as he wrapped her in his arms.


Happiness

As painful as it had been when she left, he rarely thought about that while they were together in Silverymoon. Although they each still lived separate lives, serving their respective temples, each spent many nights in the others’ rooms and much time out in the gardens of the city. Though many of the Ogmanites were jealous of Gwaihir, his lover’s saucy, flirtatious manner and lovely face did much to make them look forward to seeing her instead of dreading it.

It wasn’t long before Ali was pregnant again. She also had a serious discussion with a few select others at Dawndancer House about how ineffective their normal herbal mixtures seemed to be when it came to mating with elves. At 26, she had been with many lovers since her time in Neverwinter Wood 10 years before, but never with anyone quite as special to her as Gwaihir — and never with another elf.

“Even this half-elf noble down in Waterdeep that was infatuated with me…” Alisyn said as she paced in Tannia’s rooms, one hand on her hip. “What had been his name?” she thought to herself.

“He could scarcely keep his attention on anything else, Tannia. I tell you, we lay together every day for a month and I never showed the slightest hint of being with child. Now, I’ve been back with Gwaihir for less than a month and I know that I’m pregnant.”

“Why him? Why now?”

The incessant pacing was starting to irritate the quiet, motherly priestess, and she knew that her decision to remain tight-lipped about this mess wasn’t going to last much longer. Tannia’s mouth twitched to the side as Alisyn turned about again, her dress brushing against a tall vase near the window.

“Alisyn, stop it.” She spoke sharply, gesturing with a hand to cut off the girl’s response. “You are acting like a petty child when you should be celebrating that you are twice blessed! That elf loves you more strongly than you understand, or he would not have taken you back into his arms after what you did.”

Tannia stood and walked to the frustrated priestess, who had finally stopped pacing. Taking her by the shoulders with a no-nonsense expression, she caught Ali’s confused, petulant gaze and didn’t let her look away.

“For once, take the time to love what you already have Alisyn, instead of always lusting after tomorrow.”

She hoped that Alisyn would take her words to heart.

Alisyn did love Gwaihir, and wanted to spend a few months with him again. He was so happy that she had returned to him that he practically glowed. It wasn’t the pregnancy itself that bothered her either — Sune loved children, and many half-elves revered Sune in thanks for the blessing of their parents’ union. Ali certainly loved all of the attention that she knew being with child would bring, and she remembered the joy of bringing a new life into the world. She also remembered the frustration of feeling trapped in a role she didn’t want.

It was him, and what having a child would make him want. It was the same boring family life that she had run away from as a child, always living in the same house, doing the same chores, seeing the same boring people every day. She couldn’t think of anyone she wanted to see every day for that many years in a row, ever again.

Gwaihir was overjoyed when Ali told him about the baby a few weeks later. For elves a child is a rare blessing, and his exuberance was infectious as he swung her around in circles under the spring blossoms. His love for her was clear in everything that he did, and through it all he continued serving Oghma – even if writing poetry wasn’t exactly the most productive task he could have done. Their joy seemed to make both temples lighter in heart, and the illustrations that Gwaihir created and manuscripts that he transcribed were some of the most beautiful tomes that had been produced there in many years.

Alisyn loved these months of happiness, and her laughter and shining hair were a welcome sight, even for the staid old Rúmil, who she thought was as interesting as a “ridiculously formal, antiquated, elven armchair”. Even this absurd description of his esteemed friend made her lover laugh, when she bemoaned how boring he had been during their recent dinner together. If only it had lasted.

Apparently even months of joy, with a fantastic lover, in a beautiful city wasn’t enough to keep her happy. She was two months shy of when the child was due when Gwaihir began noticing how frustrated she seemed. The only thing that seemed to make her happy was when they would talk about travelling to other places, especially ones she had never visited. He would bring travel journals, and read tales to her of bizarre cities and incredible scenery that even he had not seen. Ali still seemed melancholy though, and was increasingly bored with the city itself when they went out in the crisp winter landscape. Looking back on this time, Gwaihir would find himself wondering why she had never tried to convince him to leave Silverymoon with her.

Even the Sunite priestess that he spoke with told him that it was just normal moodiness from the pregnancy, but in truth Alisyn just wanted to be done with all of this. She still loved him, she just didn’t want to be with him every day. She wanted to be done with these temples and this city, and just be somewhere new, fresh, and exciting.


Family Names

“I want to name her Ali, Gwaihir.” Alisyn’s voice was somehow sultry and petulant at the same time, which normally worked to convince men of just about anything. It wasn’t working on the elf standing in front of her, though.

“That doesn’t make any sense – I call you Ali, I can’t call our daughter Ali too.” Gwaihir gently scooped the sleeping child from his lover’s arms, walking toward the window as he admired the delicate little girl. Looking back at Alisyn, he smiled. “Look at her Ali, she will look more like an elf than a human. Someone so different from you shouldn’t have the same name either.”

Ali sighed and lay back on the divan in her rooms. She enjoyed how happy he looked, standing there at her window, but by the Lady he was so particular sometimes! Why couldn’t he agree just  to make her happy? “She is only a few weeks old, so we have time to decide on a name still.” The priestess just wanted him to agree with her on something.

“Mmmmm…perhaps we should give her an elven name, something from my family. We should go visit them in the spring, you never had the chance to meet them when you were in Sharandar before.”

He didn’t see the exasperated look on her face, and she hid her annoyance well when she spoke. “Of course, it will be even more lovely than the gardens here, as your people have surely done wonders in reclaiming the tree-cities.”

“I think you will get on well with my elder sister, Malthenniel. She serves Hanali Celanil, but was gone for the entire year when we first met. She actually has reddish hair, auburn really, and not so brilliant as yours. Her eyes are what always draws everyone’s attention – a rich gold, like a hawk or one of the great hunting cats…” He continued talking about his family, and the Talagan estate, but Alisyn wasn’t really listening.

“Oh dear,” she thought. “This is worse than usual. I’ve avoided talking to him about family for this long, but now he isn’t going to stop. I don’t even want to think about my family.”  She stared off into the distance, unhappy memories of scrubbing tables and washing dishes surfacing despite the long years since she had run away. “They are probably still in the same musty tavern on the same dusty street in Neverwinter, gods help them.”

“…don’t you think?” Gwaihir was looking at Ali, expectantly waiting for a response.

“…Of course, I don’t see why not,” she said with a bit too much false cheer.

“I’m getting sloppy,” she thought. “I wasn’t paying a bit of attention to what he was saying…this might not end well. She smiled at him as though everything was normal, but the puzzled look on his face clearly said otherwise.

He paused for a second or two more, and then cautiously said, “Because you’ve always avoided any mention of your family. I didn’t expect you to cheerfully agree that we should go visit them and invite them to the celebration in person.”

She sat up abruptly, staring at him. “The what? Who? Oh no, no, no.” Apparently her mind had been wandering for longer than she thought.

Gwaihir’s face was awash with confusion and frustration. “How long were you not listening to me? Do you not care about planning for our future? A celebration of our union?”

She must have looked shocked, because he continued. “Do you even care about having a family? You love this beautiful child, yes, but have you thought about how she will grow up? Who she will be?”

It was as though all of the fear and worry that he normally hid was tumbling out at once, question upon insistent question.

He strode back to where she sat, seeing the denial on her face turn into irritation with every new thing he asked.

“It doesn’t matter,” she said with a dismissive wave of her hand.

“We can’t know any of that now, anyway.” He wasn’t yelling, she thought. That was probably a good sign.

He sat down next to her, still cradling their unnamed child in his arms. His voice was quiet and full of worry when he spoke. “Ali, what is wrong? No, we cannot know her future, but it is our responsibility. That is what family is for – caring for one another.”

She looked exasperated and felt exhausted, but she tried to keep it from her voice. She knew having a child with him would bring trouble.

“No. All family does is tie you down to one place, and keep you from living your own life. I don’t want that, and I never have. You would both be just fine without me, admit it.”

When she met his eyes, she knew she must have said something terrible.

If she had stabbed him, it probably would have hurt less than those words, and disbelief was written plainly on his dark face. The words came out slowly. “I cannot believe that is true, Ali.”

The baby woke and started crying as he sat there, still as a statue. It broke the tense silence, as Gwaihir passed Ali the child and she stood, walking to calm her down.

“It’s alright little one, it’s okay.” Ali sighed… it was hard to comfort someone else when you were unhappy too.

The handsome elf still sat there, 20 minutes later, when Ali finished nursing the little girl and wrapped a blanket around her in the rocker where she slept. Gwaihir had woven it out of willow that he cut from near the River Rauvin as it ran through the city, and she thought it was silly but sweet. It was apparently traditional among wood elves to do so, and some would go to great lengths to seek out willow before a child’s birth if none grew nearby. It was said that long ago Corellan Larethian had blessed the peaceful, swaying branches of the tree, and the river and the wind would keep the child safe by sweeping evil spirits and troublesome fey away.

She looked tired and melancholy when he stepped up beside her, the two of them watching the child rest. “Help me choose a name for her.” Gwaihir’s words were soft and determined. She nodded, but there wasn’t much heart in it.

He wrapped his arm around her shoulders, leading her to bed. She looked as though she needed the rest. In truth, she was more emotionally exhausted than anything. “I don’t know how much more of this I can deal with…” Ali thought, as Gwaihir undid the buttons running down the back of her dress. She sighed as she slipped out of the garment and tugged her shift over her head. Catching sight of her curvy silhouette on the wall, her hands self-consciously went to her less-than-smooth stomach as she climbed into bed. “Constant reminders that I’m supposed to be bound to someone else… it never ends.” Ali’s thoughts were bitter, and she shivered. The silk sheets weren’t exactly warm, despite the fire burning in the hearth.

Gwaihir leaned over and kissed her softly, pulling the blanket over her bare shoulders and tucking it around her. Ali was already half asleep as he sat on the edge of the bed and unbraided her hair, gently running his fingers through it as he had done so many times before. “Gods above,” he thought, “why is she so unhappy? We have so many blessings, and I would gladly do almost anything to bring her joy. With so much ahead of us, what is holding her back from committing to being part of our lives?”

Gwaihir watched them sleep for a little while, alternating between the red-haired woman and the dark-haired little girl, still dwarfed by the willow rocker where she would sleep for many months to come. He needed time to sort through all of the thoughts whirling through his mind, and was soon putting his boots on in the parlor of Dawndancer House and jogging lightly out into the dark. For him the snow was refreshing, a cold dusting of clarity on top of the turmoil. Anyone passing through the northern gardens that night heard an elven voice singing, hopeful and haunting in the wintry night air.


Choices

They chose a name the next afternoon, a compromise between what they each wanted. ‘Ali’ apparently meant ‘sublime’ in someone’s ancient version of the common language, which Gwaihir decided translated into a respectable name for an elven girl – Tauredhiel. Alisyn thought that it sounded lovely, but complicated.

“How old will she be before she can manage to say her own name?”

Oddly, Gwaihir seemed happy when she said this, as it apparently indicated that she was thinking about the child’s future. “Well, I suppose that is true,” she thought.

He stayed there with them that night, and it was nice to fall asleep in his arms again. Gwaihir spent the hours watching the flickering firelight that caressed the curves of Alisyn’s body while she slept. He tried to imagine what their daughter would look like as a young woman, and he honestly thought that she would look more like him – a lean, dark, wood-elf. Ali was lying stretched out across him, her hair strewn across his shoulder in a fiery tangle after their lovemaking. He trailed his fingers down her side, ivory skin a familiar contrast to his own brown body. “I wonder if we will have a child that looks more like her someday? A spirited little boy perhaps, his red hair constantly letting us pick him out from a crowd of youngsters.” Gwaihir gently rolled the two of them onto their sides as he mused, and Ali wrapped one leg over his hip as she settled in again. The elf held her close against his chest as he reached for the blanket, keeping the two of them warm as the hearth fire slowly died down.

When Ali woke in the morning Gwaihir was already gone, which was not unusual. She wrote him a simple note, and packed her belongings. All of the baby’s things – Tauredhiel’s things – went into a bag together. She carried the girl with her when she went to speak with Tannia, as she was still one of the priestesses she was closest to, despite their differences.

That afternoon a familiar face showed up at Gwaihir’s rooms at the Halls of Inspiration, but it wasn’t Alisyn. Tannia was carrying Tauredhiel, and a younger priestess behind her was carrying the willow rocker and a bag. The priestess of Sune’s words were sincere and compassionate, but not helpful.

“I don’t know, Gwaihir, that is just how she is, I suppose. Some people just do better with constantly seeing new things, and they wilt when you try to hold them to one place.” Tannia passed Tauredhiel to him as she spoke, and it almost made her cry to see such raw pain and bewilderment in the eyes of someone so kind and caring. “I wish she had appreciated just how much love she had here with you, instead of always searching for more.” She gave the two of them a gentle hug, handing him the note Alisyn had given her earlier that morning.

He was still trying to convince himself that he was imagining everything as he watched the two priestesses walk away. Looking from the little girl in his arms to the note, Gwaihir sat down at his desk before unfolding the paper.

“Gwaihir, I do know that you and Tauredhiel will be fine without me, and I cannot stay. It is the same it was in the forest all those years ago – this just isn’t who I am. I wish you both the best, but I must say farewell.

With love, Alisyn”

Small comfort to those she left behind.


Looking for more information on Gwaihir, Alisyn, and Tauredhiel? Check out the main page for Divergent Paths.


featured image: Forest in CO (July 2016)