Sex with Sea Urchins

We awoke at the un characteristically early hour of 7:30 when only the Portuguese roosters are awake. The destination is Furna’s Beach in VN Milfeuntes (Praia das Furnas) to gather purple sea urchins (Paracentrotus lividus). They gather socially in tide pools, stuck to the rocks with tiny, soft extendable sucker anchors. They are like tribbles, where there’s one there’s a dozen.

We had to climb to the highest tide pools – up 3 meters above low tide in some cases to raid the pools for urchins. When do these pools ever flood? Liz and Katie and Luis Graça eased them from their rocks with the dull side of a knife and I carried the sea water jug to store them. They are prickly, but also soft and they flex gently in your hand when you hold them. How hungry would you have to be to think eating this is a good idea?

There’s one beautiful, protruding “mouth”, a cloaca really, that has 3-4 teeth. These are real choppers and look like small rabbit teeth. Marta says Adam Zaretsky licked one and it bit him. Nothing on the outside tells you the gender. Like many marine animals, they release eggs and sperm into the water where they must meet to form gametes. We are going to watch it all on TV. To get them started they needed stimulation! What do they find sexy? We decides to try gentle wave motions. Each one was put in a Petri dish to catch any output and we stood around singing Barry White and shaking our dishes.

This did nothing, so Luis injected them with a mild stimulant (can’t remember the chemical) and they got very wiggly and released liquids into the dishes. Orange for girls and white for boys. It turns out we raided the all girls tidal pool, because we got only one male. Marta put the liquids under the microscope and we looked for action on the big screen.

When they first get fertilized they look like this, above, with a giant halo pushing away all other sperm and organisms. Remember this is a sphere. 

The next morning the zygote looked like this: a perfect mandala or raspberry form, called a morula. The cluster of things that look like bees are the dead sperm that were too late to the party. Each division took about 2 hours: much slower than I expected.

By the time we released the babies and adults the next day, we had donut shaped blastocysts. Wow. We even have video of a paramecium “cleaning” – eating up the dead stuff- around the outside surface of the blastocysts.

Clover Thrips and Compound Flowers

Such a busy day!

We had a riding lesson with the Austrian horse whisperer at 9:30 before the heat of the day got going. We walked back by following the local paths to the cathedral (below) on the hill and managed to not get lost.

Back at the studio there was bioluminescent bacteria to propagate, agar plates to check and photograph, mushroom prints to make, and a lecture on Machines of Loving Grace and the last Documenta, (all about terrariums). We built our own botanical terrarium, and a fruit fly pooparium.

That’s right! Marta makes fruit flies poop colors and uses the fly activity of eating the colored food and excreting the same color to “print” random images. We made little staging sites in lovely glass candy jars lined with sugar paper and doll house tea services full of colored yeast medium. And I know you are going to ask it: no, the guts of the fruit fly do not mix the colors, they come through “pure” and are optically mixed by the viewer.

Meanwhile on the agar, my pneumonia cultures went no where. Just died. Dr. Graca said it needs a warm body to grow inside of. The footprints from the dogs, however, are super charged with growing bacteria. Meanwhile under the microscope I made a video of a tiny red caterpillar crawling through the individual disk flowers at the center of a daisy.

What is that? Nymphs of clover thrips (Thanks “Old Mill Hill” blogger in the Keeweenaw Peninsula of Upper Michigan.)

Katie and Liz made lovely terrarium landscapes with both living and dead matter. The Alenteju, where Sao Luis is located is very arid like Southern California, full of cacti and good farm land. Lavender and olive trees grow well here.

Katie Barry’s jam jar scale terrarium above. The dandelions puffed out later and looked divine.

Alan Tod ( made a lovely box sculpture of dead plants. He’s been making everyone laugh as he portrays himself as a stereotypical French intellectual but he is comically aware of it. He is making an installation in the courtyard and working on a landscape proposal to limit the eco destructive aspects of the very popular local eucalyptus industry.

Dinner was a cabbage and sausage stew with carrots and bread and home made cheese. Yes, we fit in a cheese making lesson: 2 L of whole milk heated up to body temperature, a table spoon to a quarter cup of squeezed lemon juice, added slowly to the warm milk to cause the curdling reaction. Strain the whole batch though a clean dish towel. The whey will come out, the curds will be squashed together into a ball. Dump it into a bowl and add salt and flavorings. Cover the surface with olive oil too preserve it until ready to eat.

And now a vision of our domestic goddess. 


Local Flora and Fauna

Today was for new food. We went to market and saw octopus, barracuda, and flounder. At lunch Miguel bought us “nespera” which is kinda a tiny apricot shaped mango flavored fruit and we don’t have them at home. It has a brown shiny nut inside. IMG_8533.JPG

The plum tree in the yard is giving up ripe fruit too. It secretes giant, shiny blobs of amber that trap bugs and snails on the trunk before they can get to the ripe fruit above. Extraordinary that a tree will spend sugar resources like that to distract a pest from its seeds.

For dinner, Marta bought sea clams. The sit in sea water, alive all day, until you boil them for dinner. They each had two little exploratory tubes out and about, searching beyond the lips of their shells. It reminds me of Necks Out for Adventure: The True Story of Edwin Wiggleskin by Timothy Basil Ering, who visited Mass Lowell a few years ago.

We teased them about seeing no vegetables so far in Portugal and so were rewarded with greens and zucchini and potatoes for dinner. The pears poached in wine were divine.

We scavenged greens and flowers down by the river for Alain Tod’s terrarium exercise (more on this tomorrow). I found some molds and lichens to put in the agar. The fish bones from dinner and a dog footprint were added to the batch as well. From the river clay we hunted for clams, who scurried into the mud when you first touch them, and oysters, which feel like stones. We captured crabs and noted their size and number of claws: some had none. This one was fiesty and pinched me several times.


We toured Sao Luis for flowers and other botanicals to press and made books of flowers. Marta explained they are smaller here due to less water. Flowers are water/resource intensive for the plant, so plants make them smaller in the Mediterranean hot zone that is this area. We also learned about the cork trees and eucalyptus production and how the cork is sustainable and the eucalyptus acidify the soil and are water robbers. In the image of cork tree below, note the bark has been removed all the way up to the boy in the green shirt. They then date the tree harvest and it is left to grow more bark until the next harvest.IMG_6125.JPG

And last, this image, because I love bugs: the local rhino beetle out for a late evening stroll.  The adults do not eat, just reproduce and die around the fall. It can lift 850 times its own weight. And it can fly.

On Bacteria

We made agar from powder today. Loads of it! After I got back from the urgent care clinic. It is the perfect medium to grow all sorts of gross fungi and bacteria: also known as chance drawings of colors and shapes.

We had 5 L of agar, water, and LB broth and 100ml each had a different additive: oat milk, cow milk, wine, dirt, and almond milk., distinguished by colored food dye. Since I was diagnosed with “community acquired pneumonia” today, I have to cough on each one to see if the antibiotics I took an hour earlier are working.

Two thumbs up for the Portuguese urgent care clinic: for about $25 dollars I got a doctor’s exam and antibiotics, decongestant, and throat syrup. I waited about 10 minutes to see someone. Socialized medicine is so cool. 

This image is called “5 Samples of Pneumonia and 1 flower, Day 1.”

My first iPhone photo down the eyepiece of a microscope. This is a year-old crystal structure grown by a Marta workshop from last summer, in a blue medium.

I think they look like palm fronds.

Marta made for dinner a cod stew with potatoes, hard boiled eggs, with bread and all sorts of cheese, including a Sotonida sheep cheese, a Monte do Pereiro goat cheese, and a Borqueijos sheep cheese. Somehow I think I won’t find these back home. Tomorrow we make a whole milk fresh cheese at home and wine soaked pears. She will also teach me to print mushroom spores. We had acorn brandy as a night cap. They discussed Maja’s performance with the wolves, whether love is just an exchange of needs and favors, and the many uses of human produced collagen.

Lunch in Mifuentes

We took the bus to Villa Nova Mifuentes (“Meel-fonch” to the English speakers) today because it is beach season and there’s more transport to the beach colonies then to São Luis. The weather was perfect: breezy, blue, and warm. We ate for about two and half hours at the Porto das Barcas. This is the expensive restaurant in town with a cliff view from the terrace of the ocean, where Maja Smrekar’s two dogs (Byron & Ada) were welcome to join us. The olives and tomatoes were local. My meal was like a frittata, with eggs and potatoes and rosemary all mixed together, but not as crispy and cooked in plenty of olive oil. We drank a local(ish) Vino Verde Soalheiro Alvarinho. For dessert Marta chose a “pajama” which she explained was a plate with one of everything: mousse, chocolate cake, stewed plum, lemon mousse, banana nut cheesecake, and the ubiquitous Portuguese flan.

Marta de Menezes has injured her knee, dancing at her birthday party, so she sent the more able of us over the cliff and down the marble laced granite to the waterside to look at anemones and shrimp and barnacles.

Maja explained that one of her art projects involved making a sort of chimera with her own mitochondria and her dog’s stem cells (retrieved at the time of spaying). But the law forbids such a thing from being grown into a puppy clone, in this case, with a few of her own cell parts. So the zygote is frozen somewhere in nitrogen until we can invent both a reviving process for frozen zygotes and some science that can actually do productive things with stem cells. And maybe an ethical science policy that actually understands the cloning process.

I was speaking with Emma Frow and Jamey Wetmore at ASU about stem cells: the stem cell therapies that are promised in American clinics that specialize in this are not scientifically validated in any way. People report feeling better, no client understands the actual science, and the providers are stealing money selling patent medicine to hopeful, suffering people who are without many options: 21st century style quackery. There are over 750 of these clinics operating in the U.S.

Marta has tubes of fruit flies in the living room. They can poop whatever color we feed them in their food. The plan is to hack a printer with color fly poop ink. And in another area, there’s a plan to make a hydrophilic silkscreen medium to print a seeded bed of colored ink in which plants will grow on the print.

After 36 hours awake

I find myself in Praça do Comércio in Lisbon for a free outdoor concert by the Orquestra Gulbenkian at 11pm (way past my bedtime in any time zone, but Lisbon has this effect on me). They played an Arturo Márquez composition that was so beautiful the crowd was shushing passersby. It’s the beginning of Festas de Lisboa, lucky me, to be in a country where they spend enough money on art to throw a dozen free concerts to mark the beginning of summer vacation and sardine season. We explored the Time Out market for dinner and ate a pig favored by god and drank some Kopke tawny port. My favorite art gallery: Vihls’ Under Dogs is missing from there. But Add Fuel has some new tiles! He does some of the best street art updates of azulejos going in Lisbon. Go Diogo Go!

We went by the pink street of night clubs are and found the Pensão Amor, loaded with sexy murals and decor to make a girl feel fabulous. Here’s a painting of a seaman with his thoughts:

Thanks to Claudia Figueiredo and Luís Graça for taking care of us in Lisbon.

The Maritime Museum offered this map gem: a 1502 account of the Arabian Sea, or all that was known to Portuguese explorers that year. The Red Sea is, um, red, the Persian Gulf is blue, and Longitude has not been discovered yet, only Latitude. I think this must have been like going to Mars for Afonso de Albuquerque. Aden and Calicut are among the huge coastal  cities.

On to São Luis today.