Helena Writes #37: On jumping genes and three oranges

Helena Writes, Helena Clare Pittman's monthly Center column on her writing life
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Helena Clare Pittman, one of the Center’s most dedicated teachers, has written, painted, and taught her entire life. In her monthly Helena Writes series, she shares a lifetime of wisdom, one pearl at a time.

In her 37th post, Helena recalls a chance meeting with a revered scientist, which she connects to a love of Russian ballet music. Enjoy!

Barbara McClintock and jumping genes

“When you know you’re right you don’t care. It’s such a pleasure to carry out an experiment when you think of something...I’ve had such a good time, I can’t imagine having a better one.” -Barbara McClintock, genetic scientist, on her work being disregarded

“I just have been so interested in what I’m doing and it’s been such a pleasure, such a deep pleasure, that I never thought of stopping....I’ve had a very, very satisfying and interesting life.” -Barbara McClintock, not long before she died at the age of 90

Because of the work Barbara McClintock began in the 1940s, using corn (maize) to observe its genetic structure, genetic science is what it is in 2021: A science that in less than a year turned its ongoing research into the vaccines that are immunizing us against the COVID-19 virus, altering the face of a pandemic. Her work—done quietly, with microscope and maize kernels, no computers, over the course of 40 years, unknown except amid the inner circles of the world-wide scientific community, that, along with the deciphering  of the genome by George Watson, her neighbor at the Cold Spring Harbor Lab in the town of the same name on the North Shore of Long Island, the town next to mine—changed the face of science and medicine. 

McClintock worked against the prejudice of the male scientific community. Yes, even after Marie Curie and the long list of women’s names that do not come to mind because they are still unknown to the public beyond the scientific community. Curie’s research, too, was ignored, though that was not unusual for any research that uncovers something that goes against the prevailing understanding.

McClintock discovered that, rather than remaining static, in fixed, immutable order, as science had understood thus far, genes jump. And, in the jumping of a gene lay a new possibility, a new substance, a new immunization tool, a revitalizing of infinite possibility where science had assumed there was none. Her work was published, she lectured, but the importance of what she had found over 40 years of dogged observation was dismissed. Recognition only came when the scientific community caught up to her. In 1983, McClintock was finally awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine. Watson had been awarded the prize in 1962, sharing it with two other scientists.

Watson and McClintock were my neighbors. I lived in Huntington, the next town going east on Route 25A. I passed the Cold Spring Labs several days a week, on my way to The Nassau County Museum of Art, where I taught figure drawing and painting.

Degrees of Separation: One, None

George Watson’s wife, Elsbeth Watson, was a friend of my good friend, Elmira. Elsbeth taught at Friends World College, a progressive place fitting of those times, that drew students from all over the world. It thrived for 10 years. 

The building that housed the college was the old Livingston Estate, one of the Gold Coast mansions built in the 1920’s, that time of the robber barons, when the town of Lloyd Harbor, a significant port on the Long Island Sound during Colonial times, was barely populated except for such wealthy families as the Livingstons and the Lloyds and the people who served them. Elmira and I gathered watercress from an inlet near the Livingston Mansion, planted by that family, who Elmira had known. And one day she invited me along to a picnic with the Lloyd Harbor Friends, the Quakers, where I met Elsbeth, a dark-haired, pleasant and seemingly self-assured woman.

One degree of separation between me and her Nobel Laureate husband.

But I encountered Barbara McClintock directly. 

I’d read about her and her work when the prize was announced. I was so intrigued with her quiet, devoted life, in a room at the Labs, working with only her microscope and the maize people hung on their doors in autumn. The maize the first people here gave to the colonists, a seed they eventually bred into corn.

Barbara McClintock lived a hermit’s life, working as if underground. Then, suddenly, the world’s eyes were opened to her existence. Her colleagues understood the possibility her work revealed.  Science changed course. 

I yearned to interview her. I tried to find a magazine that was interested, to give me the credentials to call her. Cricket Magazine said they would look at it if I did the interview. I was probably as shy as Barbara McClintock. It seemed clear that she was. She worked without recognition. I see the parallel now—one reason I may have been so drawn to her. I’d published a fair number of books and stories; but I am an uncommercial person, and I was struggling to express myself in a commercial market. I thought seriously about calling the lab, but the impulse and moxie never came. I thought a lot about her, living not six miles away.

The Love of Three Oranges

The music of Russian composer Sergei Prokoffiev is one of my passions. His ballet music for Romeo and Juliet may be one of the last things I forget. It’s a love I share with my daughter, who danced until she was fourteen. I was a ballet mother. I took her to lessons in Manhattan, to the Joffrey School, where she studied. From the time she was five, her dream was to be a dancer. I took her into the city then, and we were told to come back when she was eight. She was a wonderful dancer. 

I passed the time waiting during her classes in the rooms outside studios, like the women in Degas’ paintings. And often in the car, when I couldn’t get a parking spot, I would draw. I always had my sketchbook.  When I didn’t have a good drawing pencil with me, or my Rapidograph, I drew in ballpoint ink—a medium I’ve always loved. I think da Vinci would have drawn in that oil ink if it had existed in his time. 

Being an artist, I’d occasionally be granted permission to sit in the studio during class to draw, out of courtesy and respect, maybe a memory of Degas. We were all artists. My daughter’s teacher, Oldyna Dynovska, had been a principal dancer with the Ballet of Canada. I have sketchbooks full of drawings done in sepia, Rapidograph ink, of Theo, who we then called Theodora, and her classmates at the Barre, and of Oldyna, with her leotards and mesh skirts and green ballet shoes, filled in later with green ink. Oldyna had danced in the chorus of the Broadway production of Camelot. They were part of her costume. Dancers are not rich, and Oldyna made good use of that pair of slippers. 

I listened to Prokoffiev for years on vinyl, then cassettes and CDs, swept away by the beauty and power of his music. But I’d never turned my attention to his ballet, The Love of Three Oranges. I knew parts of it were in his symphonies. I listened to the March last night, and it was familiar. The ballet is based on an old story of a spell cast on two young people. Like Romeo and Juliet, the theme is familiar: love and malice. Three Oranges is comedy. The male character is cursed to fall in love with three oranges. Within the oranges are fairy princesses. They are thirsty, and without water, they will die. Just one princess survives. She holds the key to breaking the spell and reuniting the lovers.

I’d seen album covers for the opera. The image of those three oranges seems so vivid. I don’t know if I saw or imagined it. Three beautiful round oranges like Cezanne’s, like oranges I’ve painted with oil and pastel. Soft-edged and dreamy, on a deeper brown neutral ground, so that the beauty of orange, with its green tones and reds, its yellows and lavender grays, is revealed. The image alone captivated me. 

One day that image came to life.

Jumping oranges

I finally met Barbara McClintock at King Kullen, our supermarket.

We were both food shopping, each with a shopping cart. It was some time in the 1980’s, a year or so after she won the Nobel. She was small and wrinkled. She looked like an aged child. Why wouldn’t she? Her vintage was the way an artist ages, childhood never disappearing. A sprite, a spirit. I’ve seen it and seen it. A mind awakened, excited by life, forms the body, radiates. Sometimes you can see the light cast. I’ve known so many aged writers and artists. And isn’t science also art?

Aged children. You can see them on the street, pick them out in a photo, identify them in a crowd. 

They are in the history books, dressed up in their period formals looking like adults. And maybe those artists were adults. Art and science found acceptance in most cultures, if not our own. We are outliers. Counter our culture. Still, look at Curie’s eyes. Monet’s. Prokoffiev’s. Pure life.

I forgot about my shopping list and followed her at a discreet distance. Thank heavens the shopping cart was a good one. No wheel askew, no squeaks.

The place was crowded. She’d never detect it. I walked up and down the aisles, maybe I took something from a shelf that I needed and put it in my cart. My heart must have been beating then the way it is now, as I remember.

I can’t see the meat section, no chicken or fish. Maybe McClintock was vegetarian. I remember the aisles of groceries and the adrenaline coursing through me.

I do remember the produce. That was where she stopped, and so did I. I was self-conscious now. I was very near her in a small space. There was no crowd to lose myself in. Blood was hammering in my ears. What was I going to do?  Would I speak?  I stood there, conspicuous. Me and Barbara McClintock. No one recognized her but me. There wasn’t a crowd for a scientist, a Nobel Laureate. She lived quietly in a room in a community of scientists. Small and delicate, intent on her shopping, dressed in nothing I can picture now. She wasn’t Dolly Parton. And Dolly didn’t live in Cold Spring Harbor. I can’t imagine Dolly Parton doing her own shopping, anyway.

Barbara McClintock, who I’d longed to meet, to know, to enter into human warmth and discussion with, stood at the bin of oranges, flanked by apples and bananas. She held a bag. Was it plastic? She knew genes jumped, so she must have known the oceans were polluted with plastic, way before any of us were paying attention. In my memory, that bag is more like a market bag, maybe mesh. But who knows? Memory is mysterious. Next, she was choosing oranges, carefully, I think. But the balance was upset! As I type I can hear Prokoffiev, the March from The Love of Three Oranges. Dogged, steady, inexorable rhythm. It’s a march!

Suddenly! Oh! Suddenly! Three oranges escaped the bin. They were falling! They jumped, like genes.

Now the scene is clear. My head is blank. I am all action. I rush forward and catch those three oranges, in memory, before they hit the supermarket floor, straighten up, all in one movement, and offer them to Barbara McClintock. I am smiling, I know. I can see my forearms and hands, cradling those oranges. I am leaning toward her. I’ve saved them! That act is an expression of pure love, of agape—love of humanity. Of all the months of thinking about her six miles away, yearning to talk to her about her 40 years of work, and about her sense of life. It wasn’t Cricket Magazine that concerned me. It was affinity.

How can I describe accurately what happened next?  Her smile was warmth after what seemed a long winter. She leaned toward me with one shoulder, her knees bent. It was an expression of shared time. A ray of sun. The loveliest laughing, but silent. We exchanged not a word. She accepted the oranges. I see her standing there holding them. And that’s all I remember.

The encounter was over. I don’t remember how we bid each other goodbye. I must have turned away, and so must she have. I continued my shopping, seeing stars. I see them now. And that pastel of three bright and beautiful oranges, casting light against the gray neutrals of King Kullen, modified pure color that becomes brown and rich gray with mixing, the broken color of ordinary life. The oranges, beauty itself, revealed only against that neutral, dogged passing of days. I hear Prokoffiev, hear the March, see him hidden away, too, carrying his light, ushering in another age of music against the ground of a dark and heavy post-revolution Russian landscape.

Barbara McClintock never had a partner. I’ve learned through my reading that she and Louis Goldschmidt were friends. I knew someone who worked at the Cold Spring Harbor lab, a photographer. One day, she brought me a photograph she’d snapped of McClintock and a man, at a party there. It was a beautiful photo, a close-up of two faces, people comfortable with each other, deep in conversation. I treasured the gift, then lost it, and mourn its loss. Maybe it was during the move from Long Island. It could reappear someday, saved in a book. I remember she told me the two were close friends. Goldschmidt was geneticist who lived at the labs. I read that he’d recognized and supported McClintock’s work from its beginning, long before it gained recognition, even when she stopped publishing. He was seen as a maverick, also not taken seriously. They were both vindicated by the Nobel committee.

This is not the kind of story Cricket Magazine would publish. No. It’s taken a long time to write about Barbara McClintock. But here it is, at last.

“If you know you are on the right track, if you have this inner knowledge, then nobody can turn you off...no matter what they say.” -Barbara McClintock, after winning the Nobel Prize

Have you ever met or had an encounter with a public figure, someone you admire, perhaps someone famous? What did you think of Helena’s latest post? Share with us in the comments.

Related reading: Helena Writes

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