Grandfather’s Encyclopedias and the Life Cycle of the Sowbug

I wrote this a few years ago as a submission for a compilation of essays. It didn’t get chosen, and I don’t actually remember what the theme of the compilation was supposed to be. But I’m pleased with it and wanted to share.


They came as a surprise, at least to me; probably to my mother as well. I don’t recall that she was prepared to deal with the several large cardboard boxes full of books, at any rate. Perhaps they were delivered by the post office or by UPS; more likely, they came to my grandfather’s house and he summoned my mother to collect them. I only recall the pleasure of opening the first box and running my hand over the leatherette covers, feeling the substantial weight of the volume that I held in my lap. It was the 15th edition, the thirty-volume set from 1978. I was eleven years old and far more in love with books than I was with people.

My mother may have been uncertain about where to store this many large books in my tiny bedroom, but I remember that she was clear in speaking about their significance. “It’s the Encyclopedia Britannica, the whole set. The best encyclopedia in the world. They’re from your grandfather. He ordered them for you.” She looked around the room and shook her head. “I don’t know where you are going to put them.”

Later that week, she went out somewhere and bought an inexpensive shelf unit that came to dominate one corner of my room. It had five deep shelves, and the middle shelf had a clever drop-down desk that could be folded up out of the way when not in use. I stowed the Britannica on the other shelves and kept my other treasures in the desk portion, and we retired the cramped little schoolroom desk that I had been using. I didn’t wait until I had the shelves to start my perusal of the Encyclopedia; despite that inconvenience of digging around in a flimsy box to find what I wanted, I burned with the need to get the books out and begin reading. A first reverent thumbing-through of that random volume placed on my lap had shown me that within its pages, mingled with articles on history and language and geography (all of which I enjoyed) and with information on sports and entertainment (at which I tended to scoff) lay long, detailed articles on Science. And even Medicine, that holy of holies. I knew, even though we never spoke of it, that this gift was my grandfather’s way of nudging me along in my obsession to become a physician. He had known my dream since I was quite small, and took it with great seriousness.

Books from my grandfather were already an established part of my childhood. He regularly sent us the Britannica “Book of the Year” and some other publication that I recall as the Yearbook of Science and Medicine. I don’t remember for certain, but I think that the Time-Life Nature Library and Science Library volumes that resided in my brother’s room were also gifts from him. I devoured those hungrily many times over, especially The Plants, Evolution, The Birds, and The Sea. At times, I must have been inexpressibly boring to my family; I can remember explaining Darwinism to my grandmother (a former Missouri farm girl deeply suspicious of such things) and drawing diagrams of mitosis for my mother. I don’t recall subjecting my brother to these lectures; perhaps I trusted him to read the material on his own, or perhaps he was simply not as good at pretending to be interested. He read nearly as much as I, but his interests ranged more into the political, historical and cultural.

Certainly he was less comfortable than I with the world of creeping and slithering creatures. While he could be relied upon to help catch (and torment) the occasional harmless garter snake to horrify our mother, my fascinations with ant colonies, large spiders, and scurrying sowbugs left him mystified. With the science books we already possessed, and now the matchless information riches of the Britannica at my disposal, I reveled in my discoveries of the natural world in the universe of my own backyard. I caught anything on legs or wings that I could, with the exception of spiders. I liked to study them, and would get quite close, but even I drew the line at plucking a leggy brown spider from its web and bringing it into my room. In caterpillar season I would keep a few furry prisoners in a plastic margarine tub and lie awake at night listening to the sound of the tiny jaws scraping the leaves I had picked for their dinner. I snatched moths and butterflies and tried to keep them alive on sugar water fed from a bottle cap, but they always died quickly. The sowbugs became a favorite: easily found and caught, flightless, and unable to bite, they were the perfect inoffensive home laboratory creature for a pre-adolescent. I raced them around my desk, dissected them, and occasionally, with a child’s clinical cruelty, took them back outside and fed them to my favorite spiders. I should have felt sorry for the poor little sowbugs, but I loved to watch the spider’s quick dash from a corner of the web and the skill with which it wrapped its victim in silk.

My interest in ants got me into a certain amount of trouble. As a busy, working single mother, Mom had little time for gardening as a leisure activity, yet she persevered in trying to create a little rock garden underneath an immense Douglas Fir near our driveway. Now that she is retired, she coaxes violets and pansies to grow there, but in my childhood it rarely held much besides the aforementioned rocks. Boulders, really; big heavy irregular things that Mom had tucked just so into the slope formed by the roots of the tree. I knew that ants liked to build their colonies under such rocks, and I could not resist turning over the rocks periodically to check for signs of ant-ish building progress. If I found a mature colony, with worker ants, larvae and pupae, I knew I would be in for a long spell of entertainment as the discovered insects worked hurriedly to move everyone to safety. The workers would grasp the larvae and pupae in their impressive jaws and hustle along at top speed, presumably to a lower level, while I watched from above, the impassive child deity of destruction and mayhem.

The rocks were heavy, and difficult to get back into the exact spot after the ants had fled, and eventually my mother figured out why her boulders were slipping around so much. By that time I had gotten into the habit of tipping them over so frequently that the ants never had the chance to get their ant civilization back to normal, and so I was ready to give up both ants and rock-tipping for a while. I could still find my old friend the sowbug, under flowerpots and under less massive and less proscribed rocks, and went back to staring at the little crustaceans with a hand lens and later a cheap microscope from a garage sale.

Looking back, I realize I must not have done much actual reading about the sowbugs. I knew that they were not insects or spiders, but I don’t think that I knew they were crustaceans until we studied a marine isopod, cousin of the terrestrial sowbug, in a junior-high oceanography class. If I had read a little more, I might have noted the female sowbug’s remarkable way of hatching out her young; instead, I found it out myself by observation. The eggs, once laid, are carried on the female’s abdomen under a translucent membrane; they grow into teeny little sowbugs and just before hatching are clearly visible and even moving about under the membrane. I used to catch the gravid females and keep them until I saw that the offspring were just about ready to come out, and then “deliver” the babies by scratching open the membrane with a straight pin. Viewed under the low-power lens of the microscope (difficult, as even the babies could move at a pretty good clip) they were perfect miniatures of their parent.

I dabbled in botany as well, and again was drawn to the cycle of reproduction. I had a patch of California poppies next to the garage; they grew wild, really, but I did my best to weed them and help them along. After reading in the Time-Life books and in the Britannica about pollination and seed development, I ripped open a multitude of flowers in order to study the process and watch the seeds progress from milky pearls to hard black spheres. I also took a primitive delight in removing the sepals from almost-open buds and watching the brand-new pale-orange petals expand and spread into a flower. Elsewhere in the yard, I experimented with my own version of biological controls. I took aphids from a severely infested ornamental tree (something non-native and never identified by me, but always sticky with honeydew) and tried to establish them on the rather lush weed population. I hated weeding, and hoped to enlist the help of the aphids in eliminating them, but the little creatures proved to have discriminating tastes and I don’t remember any success with my scheme… at least, not before I was required to pull up my experimental hosts by the roots.

My backyard natural history ventures led me naturally into taking extra science at school. I was fortunate to attend a junior high with a strong science program; not only the aforementioned biological oceanography class was offered, but also chemistry, physical oceanography, ecology, and astronomy. As the years passed, I spent less time with bugs and buds in the yard and more with books, and I began to hear the call of the Britannica even more strongly. As I entered the ninth grade, I began to plan my solo science education, with the encyclopedias as my curriculum. As I saw it, I only had a few more years left before college, and my future education depended on how well I could prepare myself academically. There was no money for college, and I had always known that I would need to earn a scholarship if I wanted to get there. I knew, vaguely, that I needed four years of college and then four years of medical school. I knew also, from the appendix of one of the Time-Life books (The Physician) that there was a medical school in my hometown, which I found comforting. Surely they would admit me when the time came; in the meantime, I buckled down to study.

At first I read randomly. The 15th edition of the Britannica was divided into two sets of sub-encyclopedias. The Macropedia promised “knowledge in depth” and contained lengthy articles on broader topics. The Micropedia functioned as a hybrid between index and encyclopedia, with many more short entries on anything I could imagine. My mother was puzzled by the organization of knowledge; I found it delightfully esoteric and perfectly suited to my needs and habits. I used the Micropedia if I simply wanted an answer, but the Macropedia I read for pure pleasure. I would grab a volume and perch upon my bed, and leaf through it looking for a topic that caught my fancy. At fourteen, I became familiar with such terms as medulla oblongata (brainstem) and placenta praevia (when the placenta grows over the cervix, causing bleeding). I read about surgeries and birth defects and iron lungs and smallpox with ghoulish pleasure.

There were occasional forays outside of the sciences. I liked to read about mysterious cultures of the past, the kinds of people who built inexplicable monuments out of immense stones. Great disasters, natural and man-made and just plain puzzling, also held my attention. Exotic locations such as Tierra Del Fuego, Siberia, and India made wonderful subject matter. I developed an enduring fondness for both the Arctic and Antarctic and the history of exploration of those regions.

But time was running out and college was getting closer every year. I began to hear about things like the SAT exams and academic contests. I also heard someone mention, casually, that a student with perfect grades received the honor of being something called Valedictorian. The Valedictorian had to make a speech at graduation (shudder) but was usually considered highly likely to win scholarships. With these considerations in mind., I decided I needed to become more systematic. The Britannica was extensively cross-referenced. Entries in the Micropedia usually gave reference to longer articles in the Macropedia where more information could be found. The Macropedia articles, in term, contained a myriad of cross-references, both within the articles and at the end of each article, to related subject matter. To give shape to my reading and to keep from having to make decisions about what to read next, I came up with a system perfectly suited for the naïve, driven, and obsessive-compulsive young student that I had become.

I would start with a randomly chosen science or medicine article in the Macropedia, and read it through to the end. I kept a clipboard and paper next to me, and every time I came to a cross-referenced term in the article (marked in small caps, the pre-Internet equivalent of a link upon which to click for further information), I wrote it down on the clipboard (using a favorite fountain pen). I continued to do this throughout the article. When I had finished, I would turn to the very first term on my clipboard list, and decide if it was a subject that fit within my realm of desired study. I had to decide before I looked up the article; to start reading and then stop because of boredom was cheating. As I read the new article, I would continue to write down terms that I encountered, to add to my running list, and I would scratch off the titles with glee as I read them.

I don’t actually remember how far this scheme took me, nor even much of what I read. I suspect I enjoyed the careful, systematic approach as much as I enjoyed the content. I didn’t have as much time to read as I would have liked. Teachers at school wanted me to complete the assignments they had given me, not read encyclopedias, and I was both aware of how the grading system worked and driven to succeed within it. I had a modest but satisfying social life with a few peers at school and church, as well as my brother, and this took up time as well.

By the time I reached my senior year in high school, the Britannica had been largely abandoned by me as pleasure reading. I still used it as a resource for school projects or to look up a short article in the Micropedia, but for the most part it sat on the shelves. The black-and-brown leatherette volumes seemed to reproach me when I sat at my desk working on a math assignment or an essay, and I remember thinking guiltily of all of the information still unread that lay between the covers. Neglecting the Britannica felt, to me, akin to wasting good food. But between a busy academic schedule, a part-time job, and wading through the paperwork jungle of SAT tests, college applications and financial aid forms, I could only look at it wistfully.

I survived the ordeal of graduation, complete with the valedictorian speech, and looked forward eagerly to college. I had surprised my classmates, few of whom knew me very well, when I announced my plans to major in chemistry. In my senior year I had won department awards in more ladylike subjects such as Spanish; while I continued to have a passion for the sciences it remained largely hidden in high school. I no longer dissected bugs in my bedroom or melted odd mixtures over my desk lamp, partly because I actually was allowed to do some of those sort of things in the sanctioned atmosphere of school, and partly because I feared being perceived as any odder that I already was seen.

The Britannica volumes were too bulky to take off to college. I reluctantly left them behind in my bedroom, knowing that I would soon have the run of a university library to compensate me for the lack of my encyclopedias. During my first two years at Willamette University, our library was a wonderfully dingy old building with innumerable study carrels tucked away in the “stacks”. I spent much of my free time in there, again searching out books on medicine whenever I could. I loved hiding away in the most remote corner of the stacks, reading until I realized that I had been lost in my book for hours. Later, they build a spacious new library, with lots of windows and comfortable seating and even individual study rooms, but I never liked it as much as the old one. I felt naked and exposed to the light of day, reading out there in public where anyone could see me and wonder why I was reading a book on obscure birth defects or schizophrenia, and I found the study rooms oppressive.

But I had fun in college. Chemistry lab was play in an almost primal sense, especially organic chemistry lab; physical chemistry, though damnably difficult for all of us, made me feel at times as if I were touching the very boundaries of knowledge. I did branch out and take classes in speech communication and English literature to supplement the chemistry and biology, but I often felt an outsider in non-science subjects.

My admission to medical school happened almost as I had planned it as a child; but by then I had far more knowledge of the odds piled against me and so was proportionally even more excited. When I interviewed for medical school I knew that it sounded hopelessly naïve to admit that I had wanted to be a physician all of my life, but I trusted in my instincts and told my interviewers the truth anyway. On some level, my words must have rang true to them. I was one of the very youngest in my class of about 95 students; the average age was twenty-seven or twenty-eight and I had just turned twenty-two. Most had applied more than once before being accepted.

My feisty old grandfather, the giver of the encyclopedias, lived to see me graduate from college (his first descendant to do so, but not the last). He lived to see me start medical school the following fall, but he grew more and more ill and confused over the next four years.  He was long buried by the time I finished my pediatric residency and started practice.

I’ve come full circle, in a sense: this year I bought the entire Encyclopedia Britannica once again, in electronic form to read on my new sleek little laptop. I marvel daily at the amount of knowledge contained on the disk, that I can read whenever and wherever I want. No longer must I write down a cross-referenced term and go searching for the correct volume; I have only to click on the link, and there is my old friend the sowbug. It’s magic of an everyday kind.

The volumes of my old Britannica remain in my old bedroom at my mother’s house; I often wonder if she ever reads them. Much of the information is now out of date, but much more of it is timeless. They wait on the shelves, mute witnesses of my childhood thirst for knowledge and of my adolescent drive to succeed against the odds, for me to return and read them once more.


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