Christmas in July

Christmas in July

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From first sight, the Desolation Wilderness lived up to its name. Leaving Rte. 50, the burnt-out slopes rose beside us, dotted with bone-white stalks that were once evergreen.

I’m all for a good back-to-nature trek, but since Mad Max: Fury Road isn’t my image of Elysian beauty, I’d joined this trip to Desolation with some aesthetic trepidation. It was only when we arrived in the region, nestled in the Sierra Nevada mountains, just south of Lake Tahoe, that I fully accepted that of course Desolation looks nothing like the rusted dystopia of Mad Max.

Desolation is high and dry, twisted and empty. And beautiful.

Our trail into the Wilderness was all-too-often washed out by snow-melt, leaving mosquito-breeding mud-holes or rushing creeks that burst over our Gore-Tex boots and froze our wool-clad socks. Even outside the burn zone, the trees were tangled and twisted, sometimes spiraling wretchedly skyward, sometimes curving in on themselves until they were hulking, stubby masses. As the Sun set, the Moon rose, tinted red.

As we climbed higher, our feet started crunching over the snow itself, first small patches hidden in shade, then deep drifts covering lakes and mountainsides. How strange it was to be here, surrounded by snow in a California July! Something about the pine smell, the camaraderie of a hard day’s hike, and the incongruous snow reminded me, strangely, of Christmas.

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The weeks since my return from Desolation have been no less maddening than the preceding six months. BCRA the zombie healthcare bill seems to be in a race with BRCA mutations to send as many souls as possible to the brink of financial or medical ruin. Last Wednesday’s Internet Day of Action reminded us how little stands between the Internet – a now-indispensable tool for dissidents and innovators – and potentially ruinous throttling. A highly visible (if exaggerated) New York Magazine article painted a picture of a planet on the brink of near uninhabitability.

And of course, over it all looms the uncertainty and banal corruption of a government slouching towards catastrophe (even before any external impetus inevitably conspires to push it there).

But last Wednesday, there was a striking piece of good news. An FDA panel recommended the approval of a groundbreaking therapy for acute lymphoblastic leukemia. In the treatment, known as CAR-T, the patient’s T cells are extracted, genetically modified to target cancer, and then inserted back to the patient. If approved as expected, it would be the first such gene therapy on the market, and could give many children another shot at life.

The drug is an astounding scientific feat. The research capital invested in understanding the structure of our genome, sequencing it, and then figuring out how to modify it, is unfathomable. The targeted research leading to this particular therapy for this particular cancer is no less impressive. Entire careers in government, academia, and industry have led to this moment.

A detail with special resonance, especially as I spend the 50th anniversary of the Summer of Love in San Francisco: the T-cells are genetically modified with a tamed HIV virus. A plague that was first ignored, then stigmatized and used as a tool of oppression, has become a tool in the desperate fight to save children from their own cells.

Gee-whiz science aside, there are, of course, the concerns that come with any new treatment that springs forth from our broken healthcare system. The NY Times article on its approval, published as it was at the height of the BCRA “debate,” immediately drew comments bemoaning the inevitable cost of the drug, the corporate control over a therapy that originated in academic labs, and the unavoidable problem of insuring care and ensuring equitable access to an expensive, life-saving treatment. The insurance companies grow richer, and the luckiest (often wealthiest) children are saved – but where does that leave the suffering of so many others?

I’m sympathetic to these concerns. But none of these are reasons not to be thrilled for the scientists’ accomplishment, or the young lives saved.

In the darkest, most muddled days of a broken system, there are still these fragile moments where human cooperation and scientific elegance can and should give us hope. That, as much as anything, is why I write about science. To paraphrase Nadia Drake’s answer to “How Can We Write About Science When People Are Dying?,” it gives me a reason to look up. 

Eighty-five hundred feet above sea level, on the icy shores of the inscrutably-named Lake Aloha, I noticed the strange adaptations the trees around us had embraced to live in that alpine desert. The tallest trunks had branches growing only straight away from the lake – perhaps sheltered from the icy wind by the Sun-bleached trunk. Other trees had embraced the harsh terrain by, well, literally embracing it: they grew more like shrubs or vines, their roots spreading over razor-sharp stones, sprouting new green branches at intervals to draw the energy of the sunlight into the slow war between root and rock.

Perhaps it is not so strange that those stubborn pines reminded me of Christmas. It is that most incongruous of holidays, the celebration of light on the darkest day of the year, the celebration of radical love for a humanity that doesn’t deserve it. As Elizabeth Bruenig writes, there is a “note of madness” in the holiday.

This mad world needs more of that particular sort of madness.

Even at its most inhospitable, the natural world is achingly beautiful. Even at its cruelest, the human world, too, can be maddeningly... graceful. We struggle within broken systems to save dreams and hopes and lives. And, I think, more often than not we succeed. This is not a reassurance of happy ending – indeed it is a burden. In these mad days, we must beat on, making and finding our own life and hope as we cling to this desolate rock. It’s a good thing the desolation holds so much beauty.

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