The Voice of the Turtle, essay 3 of #52essays2017

Ganymede the turtle close up2:10 My beloved spake, and said unto me, Rise up, my love, my fair one, and come away.

2:11 For, lo, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone;

2:12 The flowers appear on the earth; the time of the singing of birds is come, and the voice of the turtle is heard in our land;

2:13 The fig tree putteth forth her green figs, and the vines with the tender grape give a good smell. Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away.

 

I.

There is a burbling box in the bedroom of our friends’ house in which lives a red-eared slider named Ganymede. I cannot see this turtle and have never touched it, but I hear it jump into its water when I enter the room and swim excitedly. I hear its tank’s pumps work ferociously and spout fountain-like when the water evaporates and I fill the tank until the pump returns to a soothing swooshy hum. And I hear it chirp in the night.

I like to say I turtle-sit, but truthfully, most of Gany’s needs are fulfilled by Alabaster, who feeds it and cleans its tank by fishing for detritus. For me, this turtle named Ganymede is but a collection of sounds and a glowing box. There was a time when I not only saw red-eared sliders, but also handled them regularly, with little pleasure on either side.

II.

I believe I would not feel so much for Ganymede if I had not the visual and even more, the tactile memory of the red-eared slider. When I was a kid I volunteered for several years on the Nature Trail in the San Francisco Zoo, handling the animals brought out from the Animal House to be touched by other kids and sometimes their parents.

Before we took our first animals for the day out to the trail, we cleaned cages and performed feedings–some more unpleasant than others. One of my least favorite morning chores was feeding live crickets to the red-eared sliders. This was done by pulling toilet paper and paper towel cardboard tubes from the cricket bin and shaking them out into their turtle doom.

When assigned to turtle station in the first round of the Nature Trail, we’d put the turtles, snapping and scratching, into their carrying case and lug them out to turtle pond, which sat atop a blustery little hill. It was generally a cold and thankless station to man.

We’d open the door and watch the advance guard scramble out, scrabbling over one another in their hurry to be free. Necks stretched, red stripes flashing, they’d hurl themselves into the pond. Others hung back with noses poking out tentatively, pulling back when we reached for them. Still others were resolutely still as stones, until we picked them up and tossed them into the pond. Then all four limbs and head would pop out and start swimming.

Ah, Turtle Hill! It was a miserable station most days, especially for the morning and late afternoon shifts, when the fog was thick and penetrating, wrestling turtles who insisted on rushing steadfastly away from their happy pond towards unknown lands. Stubborn turtles! Our hands were wet and cold for two hours, hours that creeped by far more slowly than the turtles, who were in fact pretty quick on land though their grace shows in their true element of water.

III.

We’d have to let the kids touch them; then of course, they’d all be in the bottom of the little dark pond, and we’d have to reach in with our already numbed hands and grab a reluctant turtle with sharp nails and furious thrashing head, who would like nothing better than to snap at our momentary pupils and us.

But I liked the chatting and the feeling of power that came with knowledge and the answering of questions.

“What do we have here?” the parents would say as the child reached for it. Then I launched into my Nature Trail patter:

“This is a red-eared slider, a semiaquatic turtle native to the Southern United States, but now common in all parts of the world. The carapace, or upper shell, of this species can reach more than 16 inches in length, but the average length ranges from 6 to 8 inches….”

We had been given binders with colored pages: blue for birds, green for amphibians, orange for reptiles and pink for mammals. I was very excited to be a volunteer at the San Francisco Zoo. I studied hard and learned everything there was to learn so that I would be the most well informed kid with the most entertaining docent patter. I did not know that during my three years at the Nature Trail I would begin losing my vision to a degenerative retinal eye disease.

IV.

As I volunteered from age ten to thirteen, my eyes grew subtly worse. The first thing I remember was how hard it was for me to walk into the Animal House from the bright outdoors. I would be temporarily blinded and would stop short, blinking, until I could make out the silver line of small mammal cages on the right, and judge my direction accordingly.

One of my earliest and most vivid moments of self-awareness came when I was at the turtle station, looking for a turtle to pick up and offer to a visitor, and reached for a rock instead. I blushed, ashamed.

It was a strange aspect of my eye disease in the visually impaired years that when I touched something, it revealed itself to me in full, as the object it was in reality, not what I thought it was. Once seen, the rock could never again (at least that day) reappear as a turtle. But without movement or touch verification, I grew less confident in my ability to find and name things.

V.

I made the mistake of Googling “voice of the turtle” and find that the turtle of the Solomon text has been hotly debated for centuries. At Biblical Hermeneutics Stack Exchange I learn that the voice of the turtle probably does not refer to a turtle, nor even a turtledove, but rather the generic creature that “‘creepeth upon the earth’ (Leviticus 11:29).” And that a possible candidate, the frog, may be heard to sing in the spring–“a perfect fit with the Solomonic context.”

The biblical scholars have not heard the turtle chirp, and do not believe in its voice. But, in the deep silence of the night, I have heard the voice of the turtle, the chirping of Ganymede, like the peeping of a solitary chick, and, even if others, even my lover, do not hear it, I am comforted by the tiny sound.

 

*This is essay #3 of #52essays2017, written with all four senses and remembered sight. Read essay #2 “What I See/Saw” here*

Helen Keller on Smell, The Fallen Angel

[“SMELL, THE FALLEN ANGEL” is Chapter SIX of The World I Live In (originally published in 1908), a magnificent book that tells of sensations beyond seeing and hearing. It is also the book from which I took the heartbreaking preface that ends Helen Keller Tries To Tell You Her Story. This has been gently edited for apparent scanning errors and the odd British spellings Americanized. 

 

Helen Keller, with full dark hair and wearing a long dark dress, her face in partial profile, sits in a simple wooden chair. A locket hangs from a slender chain around her neck; in her hands is a magnolia, its large white flower surrounded by dark leaves.
Helen Keller, Los Angeles Times, 1920.

FOR some inexplicable reason the sense of smell does not hold the high position it deserves among its sisters. There is something of the fallen angel about it. When it woos us with woodland scents and beguiles us with the fragrance of lovely gardens, it is admitted frankly to our discourse. But when it gives us warning of something noxious in our vicinity, it is treated as if the demon had got the upper hand of the angel, and is relegated to outer darkness, punished for its faithful service. It is most difficult to keep the true significance of words when one discusses the prejudices of mankind, and I find it hard to give an account of odor-perceptions which shall be at once dignified and truthful.

In my experience smell is most important, and I find that there is high authority for the nobility of the sense which we have neglected and disparaged. It is recorded that the Lord commanded that incense be burnt before him continually with a sweet savor. I doubt if there is any sensation arising from sight more delightful than the odors which filter through sun-warmed, wind-tossed branches, or the tide of scents which swells, subsides, rises again wave on wave, filling the wide world with invisible sweetness. A whiff of the universe makes us dream of worlds we have never seen, recalls in a flash entire epochs of our dearest experience. I never smell daisies without living over again the ecstatic mornings that my teacher and I spent wandering in the fields, while I learned new words and the names of things. Smell is a potent wizard that transports us across a thousand miles and all the years we have lived. The odor of fruits wafts me to my Southern home, to my childish frolics in the peach orchard. Other odors, instantaneous and fleeting, cause my heart to dilate joyously or contract with remembered grief. Even as I think of smells, my nose is full of scents that start awake sweet memories of summers gone and ripening grain fields far away.

The faintest whiff from a meadow where the new-mown hay lies in the hot sun displaces the here and the now. I am back again in the old red barn. My little friends and I are playing in the haymow. A huge mow it is, packed with crisp, sweet hay, from the top of which the smallest child can reach the straining rafters. In their stalls beneath are the farm animals. Here is Jerry, unresponsive, unbeautiful Jerry, crunching his oats like a true pessimist, resolved to find his feed not good–at least not so good as it ought to be. Again I touch Brownie, eager, grateful little Brownie, ready to leave the juiciest fodder for a pat, straining his beautiful, slender neck for a caress. Nearby stands Lady Belle, with sweet, moist mouth, lazily extracting the sealed-up cordial from timothy and clover, and dreaming of deep June pastures and murmurous streams.

The sense of smell has told me of a coming storm hours before there was any sign of it visible. I notice first a throb of expectancy, a slight quiver, a concentration in my nostrils. As the storm draws nearer, my nostrils dilate the better to receive the flood of earth-odors which seem to multiply and extend, until I feel the splash of rain against my cheek. As the tempest departs, receding farther and farther, the odors fade, become fainter and fainter, and die away beyond the bar of space.

I know by smell the kind of house we enter. I have recognized an old-fashioned country house because it has several layers of odors, left by a succession of families, of plants, perfumes, and draperies.

In the evening quiet there are fewer vibrations than in the daytime, and then I rely more largely upon smell. The sulfuric scent of a match tells me that the lamps are being lighted. Later I note the wavering trail of odor that flits about and disappears. It is the curfew signal; the lights are out for the night.

Out of doors I am aware by smell and touch of the ground we tread and the places we pass. Sometimes, when there is no wind, the odors are so grouped that I know the character of the country, and can place a hayfield, a country store, a garden, a barn, a grove of pines, a farmhouse with the windows open.

The other day I went to walk toward a familiar wood. Suddenly a disturbing odor made me pause in dismay. Then followed a peculiar, measured jar, followed by dull, heavy thunder. I understood the odor and the jar only too well. The trees were being cut down. We climbed the stone wall to the left. It borders the wood which I have loved so long that it seems to be my peculiar possession. But to-day an unfamiliar rush of air and an unwonted outburst of sun told me that my tree friends were gone. The place was empty, like a deserted dwelling. I stretched out my hand. Where once stood the steadfast pines, great, beautiful, sweet, my hand touched raw, moist stumps. All about lay broken branches, like the antlers of stricken deer. The fragrant, piled-up sawdust swirled and tumbled about me. An unreasoning resentment flashed through me at this ruthless destruction of the beauty that I love. But there is no anger, no resentment in nature. The air is equally charged with the odors of life and of destruction, for death equally with growth forever ministers to all-conquering life. The sun shines as ever, and the winds riot through the newly opened spaces. I know that a new forest will spring where the old one stood, as beautiful, as beneficent.

Touch sensations are permanent and definite. Odors deviate and are fugitive, changing in their shades, degrees, and location. There is something else in odor which gives me a sense of distance. I should call it horizon–the line where odor and fancy meet at the farthest limit of scent.

Smell gives me more idea than touch or taste of the manner in which sight and hearing probably discharge their functions. Touch seems to reside in the object touched, because there is a contact of surfaces. In smell there is no notion of relievo [relief], and odor seems to reside not in the object smelt, but in the organ. Since I smell a tree at a distance, it is comprehensible to me that a person sees it without touching it. I am not puzzled over the fact that he receives it as an image on his retina without relievo, since my smell perceives the tree as a thin sphere with no fullness or content. By themselves, odors suggest nothing. I must learn by association to judge from them of distance, of place, and of the actions or the surroundings which are the usual occasions for them, just as I am told people judge from color, light, and sound.

 

From exhalations I learn much about people. I often know the work they are engaged in. The odors of wood, iron, paint, and drugs cling to the garments of those that work in them. Thus I can distinguish the carpenter from the ironworker, the artist from the mason or the chemist. When a person passes quickly from one place to another I get a scent impression of where he has been–the kitchen, the garden, or the sick-room. I gain pleasurable ideas of freshness and good taste from the odors of soap, toilet water, clean garments, woolen and silk stuffs, and gloves.

I have not, indeed, the all-knowing scent of the hound or the wild animal. None but the halt and the blind need fear my skill in pursuit; for there are other things besides water, stale trails, confusing cross tracks to put me at fault. Nevertheless, human odors are as varied and capable of recognition as hands and faces. The dear odors of those I love are so definite, so unmistakable, that nothing can quite obliterate them. If many years should elapse before I saw an intimate friend again, I think I should recognize his odor instantly in the heart of Africa, as promptly as would my brother that barks.

Once, long ago, in a crowded railway station, a lady kissed me as she hurried by. I had not touched even her dress. But she left a scent with her kiss which gave me a glimpse of her. The years are many since she kissed me. Yet her odor is fresh in my memory.

It is difficult to put into words the thing itself, the elusive person-odor. There seems to be no adequate vocabulary of smells, and I must fall back on approximate phrase and metaphor.

Some people have a vague, unsubstantial odor that floats about, mocking every effort to identify it. It is the will-o’-the-wisp of my olfactive experience. Sometimes I meet one who lacks a distinctive person-scent, and I seldom find such a one lively or entertaining. On the other hand, one who has a pungent odor often possesses great vitality, energy, and vigor of mind.

Masculine exhalations are as a rule stronger, more vivid, more widely differentiated than those of women. In the odor of young men there is something elemental, as of fire, storm, and salt sea. It pulsates with buoyancy and desire. It suggests all things strong and beautiful and joyous, and gives me a sense of physical happiness. I wonder if others observe that all infants have the same scent–pure, simple, undecipherable as their dormant personality. It is not until the age of six or seven that they begin to have perceptible individual odors. These develop and mature along with their mental and bodily powers.

 

What I have written about smell, especially person-smell, will perhaps be regarded as the abnormal sentiment of one who can have no idea of the “world of reality and beauty which the eye perceives.” There are people who are color-blind, people who are tone-deaf. Most people are smell-blind-and-deaf. We should not condemn a musical composition on the testimony of an ear which cannot distinguish one chord from another, or judge a picture by the verdict of a color-blind critic. The sensations of smell which cheer, inform, and broaden my life are not less pleasant merely because some critic who treads the wide, bright pathway of the eye has not cultivated his olfactive sense. Without the shy, fugitive, often unobserved sensations and the certainties which taste, smell, and touch give me, I should be obliged to take my conception of the universe wholly from others. I should lack the alchemy by which I now infuse into my world light, color, and the Protean spark. The sensuous reality which interthreads and supports all the gropings of my imagination would be shattered. The solid earth would melt from under my feet and disperse itself in space. The objects dear to my hands would become formless, dead things, and I should walk among them as among invisible ghosts.

Accessible Coding chronicle

Last week’s ScreenReader Coding Workshop took place in a portion of a giant complex in Brooklyn called MetroTech, which is home to NYU’s Tandon School of Engineering. Within one of the several large building surrounding the square, on a floor buzzing with giant video game consoles and laptops with huge monitors and kids chatting about code and playing/creating video games, we found the Ability Lab, where we were to begin learning code as blind people.

I had rushed to the restroom (because once I’m sitting, I don’t tend to want to move) so that by the time I got to my workstation, the others were already settled. I plugged in my earbud–it is easier to hear both what’s going on around you and what your screen reader has to say with one earbud in and also, in a class with six computers chattering away, earbuds rather than speakers are vital if you don’t want to lose your mind.

But the volume was too loud so I couldn’t hear what was going on outside my computer. I went to the volume mixer to turn it down, but that proved more complicated on this laptop than the one I have at home. An assistant helped me. Finally, I was present to the sounds around me but I had already missed much of the introductions. All I can tell you is that the three instructors–Claire, Atul and Taeyoon–all do cool things involving art and accessibility and programming–stuff that’s hard to internalize when you don’t have much in the way of reference points.

I’m sorry to say that mine is the introduction that I remember best. I said that I got my PhD at NYU, but in the Humanities, so I knew nothing about coding except that a while back, when I first took over my WordPress site from my web guy, I figured out how to <a href=http://www.drmlgodin.com/>The Greatest Blog Ever</a> and was positively thrilled when the link worked. And, to those savvy coders out there who want to interrupt me right now, “You forgot the quotes.” I’ll get to that momentarily, but first we had to tie our shoes!

Or rather, in the interest of learning about algorithms, we had to write, step-by-step instructions of how to tie shoelaces. The test would be Claire tying (or failing to tie) her laces based on our precise instructions.

There was much mumbling and grunting as we worked out how to tell a pretend computer how to tie its shoelaces. Then it was time to share. Chancey, who is famous in the blind community because she put together many of our computers when she worked at the Lighthouse Guild tech center and now organizes many cool events as the Assistive Technology Coordinator at the Andrew Heiskell Library, went first. At a particular instruction, I almost cried out to say, that’s not right! But before I could, Claire said, “my shoes are tied.”

“What, really?” Gus, who was sitting across from me and with whom I hoarded the Oreos, and I were perplexed. “We don’t tie our shoelaces like that!”

I’ll spare you the messy details of a comparative analysis of the two-loop-double-fold and the single-loop-wrap-around-pull-through methods, and simply say that one very important lesson was learned: there is often more than one way to get the same job done. This is apparently true in programming as well as in shoelace tying, and really, when you think about it, in most realms of life.

My first action to beginning any computer class is to open a separate document for notetaking, but I did not realize that there was already a screen open to notepad, so that for the first half of a three-hour class I was taking notes in the sample open html document. In other words, I was taking notes in the middle of a page of code. For those of you who can see, it is very obvious, I think, how many windows and programs are running, but unless we perform a key stroke to list these things, or clumsily alt tab around in circles to get the lay of the land, you don’t really know what’s going on.

We moved on to syntax, which frankly went by very quickly–from <> to {} to tags, such as buttons and attributes, which is when I learned that you are supposed to enclose your link in quotes, but of course I was confused because it had always worked for me without the quotes. Atul explained that, for some very common syntactical constructions, there is some leniency in certain…browsers is it? Or platforms? Not sure, but the fact remains that I was doing it wrong and WordPress let me get away with it, though apparently not using the appropriate quotes might present problems down the line.

The biggest revelation of the day for me was the relationship between the Notepad++ document and the html page, and likewise one of my favorite moments was making a button to nowhere called “Nowhere Button.”

Perhaps I should pause here to explain to my sighted friends that buttons and headings and edit boxes are generally screen reader friendly. They help to organize pages for us. For example, when I’m on a new webpage, the first thing I usually do is press “h” which will move me to the first heading. On the other hand, fancy-pants websites that do not bother to delineate the HTML skeletal structure–May I blame CSS or Java for this?–are not so accessible.

Anyhoo. From what I could gather, CSS is rather the enemy of the blind, and I was dazzled by the acronym until I had a debrief with my buddy David who said it stood for cascading style sheet, which at least gives me a visual image, but it seems a very difficult thing to detect with a screen reader, and Java is apparently no cakewalk either.

Now we come to variables, which was my favorite part of the class, because we got to play a game. We were given a sack of tactile operators (<, >, ==, !=, etc.), and several tactile playing cards numbered 0 to 3. The game began as one of chance–drawing cards and placing them on either side of a random operator to see if the statement was true–but we immediately wanted some strategy, so Phil, who runs the New York City Tri-State Blind and Visually Impaired Community Facebook Group, and I developed a game in which one would draw an operator tile and then pick from his or her cards a number which would present the most difficulties for the opponent. We both realized instantly that a “0” could present a real problem if the opportunity arose, so Phil sat on his “secret weapon” until the moment struck, and he was able to hit me with a 0 is > than, for which, of course, I had nothing to make the statement correct. He and I both grew up in gambling cultures–he in Hong Kong and me in a Greek-American family where poker was played at every get together, so we were ready to throw down, but alas, it was time to move to the coding example…

There was a button named “click me repeatedly” that you clicked repeatedly until you got an alert message like, “that’s annoying” at 7 times and ” arrrgh! ” at 11. In other words, if the number of the variable is greater than 6, then you get one snarky alert, and > than 10 and you get another. The code for this, which included Java, was maybe more complicated than my brains, which were beginning to creak and grind, could handle in this first class. But as Claire said in her agenda, this was to be a “whirl-wind introduction” and therefore I accept ignorance and confusion.

At the end of the workshop, we had a lively conversation about processing, or rather how to make processing accessible. I confess my precise lack of understanding of what is meant by processing in this context. I think it refers to the output of our programming. That is to say, how can we check our work, which is typically presented visually. I offer some of the suggestions we came up with (as pilfered from Claire’s notes):

1) Artificial Intelligence for image recognition

2) Sounds

-Binaural audio (Gus mentioned the Papa Sangre video game)

-Sound fields with system of tonal output (eg. pitch changes for up and down movement)

-Do some math on the fly with coordinates and generate sounds (can’t tell if something is colliding)

3) How PowerPoint templates work in terms of accessibility

-graph or chart templates/frameworks that are manipulatable

4) P5 on a touchscreen?

 

By the way, I was very excited about the “video game without video” called Papa Sangre and downloaded it the next night, because as a sighted kid I loved video games (such as they were back in the Neolithic Period), but was quickly frustrated at my inability to master walking or orientation in the dark, and never did make it to the game. If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a thousand times, I’m really bad at being a blind person, and apparently, this extends to virtual reality. Sigh.

To finish up, thanks so much to Claire, Taeyoon and Atul for this great starter. Though the handful of us students had many dissonant opinions, we all agreed that we wanted more and can’t wait for the next one..!

Sighted and blind friends, non-coders and coders: please don’t be shy to comment below with questions and corrections…

Snake Oil Essentials: The History and Science of the Much-Maligned Medicinal

Chinese Snake oil, from the erabu sea snake, has been a traditional remedy for arthritis and bursitis for hundreds of years, and seems to have been introduced to the U.S. in the 19th century when thousands of Chinese laborers were contracted to help build the Transcontinental Railroads–an estimated 180,000 emigrated to the U.S. between 1849 and 1882, according to Richard White’s book Railroaded.

The laborers “may have offered snake oil to fellow workers as relief for suffering long days of physical toil,” writes Cynthia Graber in a 2007 Scientific American article. She continues, “Richard Kunin, a California psychiatrist with a background in neurophysiology research, became intrigued with the idea of snake oil in the 1980s. He had been following early research on the importance of omega-3 fatty acids for health and it dawned on him that the much-maligned snake oil might be a particularly rich source.

Kunin thus went to San Francisco’s Chinatown, bought some snake oil, and had it analyzed alongside the subcutaneous fat of two species of rattlesnakes. He published his findings in a 1989 letter to the Western Journal of Medicine, but before we look at his findings, let’s see about these rattlesnakes.

Common in the American Southwest, the rattlesnake has been widely adopted into religion and ritual. In her classic book of anthropology, Patterns of Culture, Ruth Benedict describes the Hopi Snake Dance: “In the first set the Antelope priest dances, squatting, the circuit of the altar, and retires. The Snake priest repeats. In the second set Antelope receives a vine in his mouth and dances before the initiates, trailing it over their knees. He retires. Snake follows, receiving a live rattlesnake in his mouth in the same fashion and trailing it over the initiates’ knees.”

In another account at The Free Dictionary, the Hopi Snake Dance ends thusly: ” A priest draws a circle on the ground, the catchers throw the snakes in the circle, the Snake priests grab handfuls of them and run with them to turn them loose in the desert.” Neither account suggests the killing of snakes for medicinal purposes, rather, they are explicitly released.

That did not, however, deter enterprising nineteenth-century medicine showmen who seem to have fused the efficacy of the Chinese Snake Oil (supplies of which were probably easily exhausted) with the sacredness of the native rattler, added a giant dose of entertainment, exploited the great yawning need for cheap cure-alls in frontier America, and presto, you get Stanley’s Snake Oil, and Arizona Bill’s snake oil, and Wormer’s Snake Oil and Miller’s Snake Oil… There were a lot of them and although, as Wayne Bethard describes in his Lotions, Potions and Deadly Elixirs, “most of the old medicine show formulas contained no real snake oil at all,” they were nonetheless ubiquitous.

If we are inclined to scoff at the great popularity of the medicine show, we ought to first consider our own television shows that squeeze more than one pharmaceutical ad in nightly! Ann Anderson makes the connection clear in her detailed analysis of the rise and (supposed) fall of the phenomenon in Snake Oil, hustlers and Hambones. It’s a great read and loaded with colorfully dusty characters, but here’s one example to the point: “Arizona bill was an Indian medicine showman whose Welsh origins and British accent did nothing to damage his credibility. Billing himself as “The Benefactor of Mankind,” he wore fringed buckskins and long hair in the manner of an Indian scout. He told a story about being stolen by Indians as an infant and raised in their midst, all the while learning their miraculous herbal cures. His specialty was Rattlesnake Oil, a liniment that when rubbed on sore muscles would enable the most decrepit Indian warrior to keep on fighting.”

Arguably, the most famous and notorious snake oil was that of Clark Stanley “The Rattlesnake King.” Stanley had been a cowboy before he turned to peddling snake oil and paints a convincing picture of “life in the far west” before he gets to recounting the origins of his formula in his little book The Life and Adventures of the American Cow-boy. I would like to quote the whole damn thing, for one cannot help but be charmed by, for example, his defense of the “cow-boy’s outfit” against the people of the East who have the impression that it is worn merely for “show and bluster,” or the many lonely cowboy verse and lively cowboy dance tunes such as this one: “Gents chase and put on style, Rehash and a little more style. Little more style, gents, a little more style. First lady out to the right; Swing the man that stole the sheep, Now the one that hauled it home, Now the one that eat the meat, And now the one that gnawed the bone,” but I must move along to the relevant:

“After the round-up in the Spring of 1879 I started with some of my father’s best friends to the Moki [Hopi], Pueblos at Wolpi, Arizona, to witness the snake dance which takes place once in two years; there I became acquainted with the medicine man of the Moki tribe, and as he liked the looks of my Colt’s revolver and asked me to show him how it would shoot, I gave him an exhibition of my fancy shooting, which pleased him very much; he then asked me how I would like to stay there and live with him, I told him I would stay until after the snake dance. …I was so much pleased with the dance I decided to remain with them and see the dance again. I lived with the Moki tribe two years and five months, and during that time I learned their language and dances and the secret of making their medicines. The medicine that interested me most, was their Snake Oil Medicine as they call it. It is used for rheumatism, contracted cords and all aches and pains. As I was thought a great deal of by the medicine man he gave me the secret of making the Snake Oil Medicine, which is now named Clark Stanley’s Snake Oil Liniment.”

However much of Stanley’s story is true, I can’t say, but it bears a striking resemblance to those of other medicine showmen of the time. And, whether or not his original formula contained snake oil, by the time he came to making it in a factory in the East, there was not a trace of snake left, notwithstanding the rattlesnake holocausts: “I traveled through the Western and Southwestern States and met with unbounded success, and during the World’s Fair in Chicago in 1893, as an advertisement I made my Snake Oil Liniment in full view of the audience, killing hundreds of snakes which were shipped to me by my two brothers from my home in Texas.”

In 1917 his oil was analyzed by the government and shown to contain mineral oil, some fatty oil (presumed to be beef fat), turpentine, red pepper, and camphor. Stanley’s “secret formula” was actually very similar to others of its kind. “Miller’s snake oil formula, a popular remedy during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, rode the tail winds of snake oil’s reputation. Millions of bottles were sold, which contained camphor, turpentine, coal oil, paprika, carbolic acid, oil of cassia, eucalyptus, cloves, origanium, sassafras, and methylsalicylate, and they honestly said so right on the label,” writes Bethard, but of course not everyone labeled their ingredients because, before the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, they didn’t have to.

“The irony is, some of the old topical formulas actually worked on superficial aches and pains,” continues Bethard, who is a bona fide modern-day pharmacist. The typical snake oil formula resembles today’s over-the-counter liniments, which derive their analgesic properties from the same chemical compound that makes red peppers hot. In addition, camphor and turpentine, used since ancient times as decongestants and cough suppressants, are active ingredients in present-day cold products such as Vicks VapoRub, which, though I protested loud and long against my mother slathering it on me, did, I have to admit, work pretty well.

In other words, Stanley’s fakery was about false-advertisement, not necessarily efficacy. Blame for snake oil’s decidedly downward spiral may have been more diffuse if Stanley’s Snake Oil hadn’t enjoyed the unfortunate distinction of being singled out for analysis. In any case, the public turned quickly from buyers of snake oil to ridiculers of the same.

Stanley did not contest the findings and paid his fine of $20, but from that well-publicized moment forward, snake oil became synonymous with false cure and quackery, and the image was thence cemented in the public imagination with snake oil salesmen peddling their wares in the periphery of countless Westerns.

It may have been this universality that prompted Kunin, in 1989, to have the subcutaneous fat of two species of rattlesnakes (Crotalus viridis and Crotalus tigris) analyzed alongside the Chinese snake oil bought over the counter. The rattlers were trounced. As Graber puts it, “Chinese water-snake oil contains 20 percent eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), one of the two types of omega-3 fatty acids most readily used by our bodies. In comparison, the rattlesnakes had only 8.5 percent EPA. And salmon, one of the most popular food sources of omega-3’s, contains a maximum of 18 percent EPA, lower than that of snake oil.”

This begs the question: in an age where omega-3’s are coveted and everywhere praised and gobbled up in fish oil capsules and flax seeds, how is it that snake oil’s reputation has not risen with this tide?

Graber suggests the answer may have something to do with the fact that, when Kunin’s article first came out in the 1980’s we were just learning the wide-ranging health benefits of omega-3’s, and despite the fact that several Japanese studies have supported Kunin’s original findings, the Japanese research is not widely known in America. However, one might argue that it is not easy to overturn an ideology, even with the help of science. Despite several stories inspired by Kunin’s findings–NPR’s Code Switch for example–the quackery of snake oil is far too engrained.

Perhaps the biggest problem Chinese snake oil faces is that, in the western mind at least, there is as yet no romance surrounding the Erabu sea snake and plenty around the American rattler. The old medicine shows did too good a job making snake oil synonymous with rattlesnake oil, and then with fakery by not even filling their bottles with the real thing. Still, I’m sure those red-pepper liniments packed quite a bite!