The Buffalo of Sentinel Meadows

Lawrence Cady

It’s getting late, and there is a sudden chill in the air, an early winter front sweeping in from the north. Evelyn hands me a rectangle of aluminum foil, her longish black-brown hair pushed forward over her face and rippling in the wind.

She says, “Last one for now. I’m freezing.”

“Me too.” I take the aluminum foil from her and place it over the ground cloth before us, the wind tugging at it, trying to snatch it from my fingers. Evelyn takes up the little plastic squirt bottle of ethyl alcohol and saturates the entire surface of the foil. The idea here is to disinfect. Any living organic material left in the mix could foul the DNA coding samples we’re about to collect. Of course, under these conditions––outdoors and in the wind––it’s a hit-and-miss proposition.

The alcohol evaporates from the foil within seconds, and I hold the elongated sheet of foil flat to the vinyl groundcover with my fingertips. I’m half-tempted, the ever-present wind increasingly sharp, to release the aluminum foil to the elements, Evelyn’s DNA experiments be damned. I’ve a Gore-Tex shell I’m in need of inside our domed bivouac tent in the foliage behind us, but for now I’m going nowhere. Things have become critical, and I’ve screwed up too many times already. One false move, and I’ll look even more foolish than I already do.

This is the first time in years I’ve accompanied Evelyn, my wife of more than two decades now, on one of her trips to those places where modern versions of the most ancient of our precursors thrive, and we––humans still in our baby-hood––don’t really belong: volcanic vents, geothermal wells, mud pots, geysers, and hot springs. The magic ingredient in any one of these places is near-boiling, nutrient-rich water. The unlikely creatures who live and thrive under these conditions and are of interest to Evelyn are called hyperthermophiles, microbes that are hardy as they come. We are in a remote sprawling meadow in the southwest corner of Yellowstone National Park, seated at the edge of a somewhat tame, though very hot, very deep bubbling hot spring, the water temperature of which tops out at around two-hundred-and-ten degrees Fahrenheit. The water is blue and, where it’s not bubbling up, clear as a motel swimming pool. The hot spring itself is oblong in shape and measures a good twenty feet in width, thirty in length. At the very bottom, some twenty to twenty-five feet down and not far from the super-heated vent, a complete set of buffalo bones lies tellingly still and disarranged.

A geomicrobiologist, Evelyn made a name for herself as a post doc at UC Berkeley in hyperthermophile research, her work centered on the probability that these ancestral microbial bugs were the first life forms on Earth to emerge from that much fabled “primordial soup.”  Because of a number of her breakthrough discoveries, Evelyn is a full-fledged professor now, though she doesn’t look like one. Intelligent gray-green eyes, lofty cheekbones, a cool, disarming smile I’ve been in love with for twenty-plus years, she’s anything but bookish. In one of her tailored black suits, she looks more like a shrewd, thinking businesswoman than a professor. In jeans and a tank top, she’s the girl next door you wouldn’t hesitate to sneak a look at through an open window.

I’ve been involved all along the way, usually more as a friend who’s there when a friend is needed. I have to say, though, that as a music critic-at-large and editor for the San Francisco Examiner I’ve helped clean up innumerable peer-review science articles she’s put out there, my ability to see when the verb is too damn far from the subject or a list of things has gotten out of control never unappreciated (scientists, Evelyn included, tend to pack more modifiers and odd-ball constructions into sentences than seems humanly possible). Then again, in recent years, I haven’t been so involved, and as far as filling in as a field technician, that’s always been pretty rare.

“Everything’s set,” Evelyn said over the phone only a week ago. She was out of town, attending yet another science conference on early life forms (one of the reasons I’m not so involved lately––she’s rarely home).

“Plane tickets, motel, rental car, and all the equipment is staged and ready back at the lab,” she said. “We were scheduled to leave Tuesday morning, and now this.”

The “now this” was that those students and techs who usually do the field work in Yellowstone with her suddenly couldn’t make the trip. The flu, family affairs, something about a dog bite someone had sustained. I knew, of course, that these kinds of trips are not cheap, and there is only so much money available at any one time. I also knew that, due to weather conditions, Yellowstone isn’t so accommodating much of the year to those who probe her more delicate attributes for secrets she’s reluctant to let go of. Windows of opportunity any given year come and go quickly.

“What about me?” I asked.

“No, no,” she said, her voice muted by the din of shuffling feet and clamorous voices of fellow conference attendees. “You’ve got enough on your plate, and I’m not so sure anyway.”

“No. I’m serious. I’ll take a break; I can do it. I can hold a test tube as well as anyone.”

This was true. Technically, I have a bachelor’s degree in physics from years past, University of Chicago, though I never did a damn thing with it. Even before I entered into college, my one, true passion in life was classical piano, which I’d been studying privately at The Music Conservatory of Chicago since about the sixth grade, luminary keyboardists from Maurizio Pollini to Mitsuko Uchida to John Cage all I ever listened to. And so within days of receiving my diploma in physics, The Music Conservatory offered me a two-year track to a degree in Classical Performance—Piano. I aced all the requirements and, to my parents’ horror, let the noble discipline of physics fall by the wayside.