Why Asexual Organisms Are on Their Last Legs

A fungi-infected bdelloid rotifier.

Scientists who study how organisms reproduce know that asexual reproduction is more efficient — for one thing, it’s about twice as fast as sexual reproduction, since every offspring can produce more.

But if the asexual way is so efficient, why do almost all animal species reproduce sexually, and why are most asexual reproducers on their last legs, evolutionarily speaking? One hypothesis is that asexual organisms have locked up their genome, while their pathogenic enemies are constantly evolving to defeat them.

Paul W. Sherman and Christopher G. Wilson of Cornell University have now come up with evidence supporting that hypothesis, by studying bdelloid rotifers, tiny invertebrates that for 30 million years have reproduced asexually.

“We wanted to know how they’ve managed to last so long without sex,” Mr. Wilson said, “how they managed to escape parasites and pathogens.”

Their findings, reported in Science, suggest that rotifers have escaped by drying up and blowing away.

Rotifers can survive in a desiccated state, called anhydrobiosis. Mr. Wilson and Dr. Sherman infected rotifers with lethal fungi and dried them for periods before wetting and reviving them. The rotifers, they found, were far more capable of handling the desiccation — beyond 21 days most survived, the fungi having died.

Dried rotifers are also easily carried on the wind. The researchers found that infected rotifers that had been desiccated only seven days, not long enough to kill the fungi, and were blown away survived at about the same rate as in the first experiment. The fungi were not as good at dispersing, enabling the rotifers to go to new, parasite-free locations.

Dr. Sherman said the study showed that rotifers were “the glaring exception that proves the rule, because they are uniquely able to do these things to escape the parasites and pathogens in a mechanism other than sexuality.”

Henry Fountain, New York Times

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Full article and photo: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/02/02/science/02obroti.html

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No Place Like Foam for Tropical Frogs

A tiny foam nest created by tungara frogs. The dots are eggs.

Around the tropics, there are hundreds of species of frogs that build their nest out of foam, as a home for eggs or larvae.

Foam is a pretty flimsy building material, yet frog nests are not slapdash affairs. As Malcolm W. Kennedy and Laura Dalgetty of the University of Glasgow point out in a study published in Biology Letters, they are built in deliberate fashion with specific characteristics.

The researchers looked at the tungara frog, Engystomops pustulosus, which is found in the Caribbean and Central America. It builds its nests in small puddles or ponds.

Dr. Kennedy said the male did the foam-making, first taking a fluid from the female and mixing it with pond water to create a “raft” of sorts. The fluid includes surfactant molecules that reduce the surface tension of the water, making the foam. It also contains proteins that, by preventing infections and inhibiting enzymal action, protect eggs from pathogens in the water and the harsh tropical sunlight.

Once the raft is built, the female starts to deliver three or four eggs with each batch of fluid, and after fertilizing them, the male puts the eggs into the bulk of the nest as it is made.

“You’d think that the eggs should be randomly mixed in, but they’re not,” Dr. Kennedy said.

No eggs are placed in the outer half-inch or so of the mound, which forms a protective cover.

Dr. Kennedy said that further study of the female’s fluid might be worthwhile. “Here’s a compound that protects very sensitive cells against bacterial and fungal infection,” he said. “That kind of a cocktail of molecules could be really useful for medical purposes.”

Henry Fountain, New York Times

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Full article and photo: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/02/02/science/02obfoam.html

How Seabirds Follow Fishing Boats’ Routine

It’s a typical sight in fishing areas: a trawler or other boat being followed by seabirds eager to gulp down the unwanted fish the crew throws back. Research has shown that the supplemental food such discards provide can affect bird populations, in some cases improving reproductive success.

Now a study has shed light on a different impact of fishing-boat discards. Researchers report in Current Biology that they can affect birds’ patterns of movement on large scales.

Frederic Bartumeus of the Center for Advanced Studies of Blanes, in Blanes, Spain, and colleagues analyzed satellite tracking data for two species of shearwaters on foraging trips off Spain’s Mediterranean coast.

Fishing trawlers operate in the region Mondays through Fridays but are prohibited from working on weekends and holidays.

Dr. Bartumeus, who conducted the research while at Princeton University and the Catalan Institute of Climate Sciences, said that the birds’ travel patterns differed on fishing and nonfishing days.

When boats were present, the birds appeared to know roughly where they would be and went to those locations. While they spread out initially to find boats, their spreading slowed over time.

By contrast, Dr. Bartumeus said, on nonfishing days the birds kept moving from area to area seeking fish. The rate of spreading increased, and the birds “end up spreading all over space,” he said.

Dr. Bartumeus said the study showed that “local human activities can transform the transport properties of other organisms at much larger scales than we can imagine.”

The study has implications for research into subjects like disease transport by animals, since patterns of movement may affect to what extent pathogens are passed along.

Henry Fountain, New York Times

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Full article and photo: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/02/02/science/02obtoss.html

Rules Worth Following, for Everyone’s Sake

In the more than four decades that I have been reading and writing about the findings of nutritional science, I have come across nothing more intelligent, sensible and simple to follow than the 64 principles outlined in a slender, easy-to-digest new book called “Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual,” by Michael Pollan.

Mr. Pollan is not a biochemist or a nutritionist but rather a professor of science journalism at the University of California, Berkeley. You may recognize his name as the author of two highly praised books on food and nutrition, “In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto” and “The Omnivore’s Dilemma.” (All three books are from Penguin.)

If you don’t have the time and inclination to read the first two, you can do yourself and your family no better service than to invest $11 and one hour to whip through the 139 pages of “Food Rules” and adapt its guidance to your shopping and eating habits.

Chances are you’ve heard any number of the rules before. I, for one, have been writing and speaking about them for decades. And chances are you’ve yet to put most of them into practice. But I suspect that this little book, which is based on research but not annotated, can do more than the most authoritative text to get you motivated to make some important, lasting, health-promoting and planet-saving changes in what and how you eat.

Reasons to Change

Two fundamental facts provide the impetus Americans and other Westerners need to make dietary changes. One, as Mr. Pollan points out, is that populations who rely on the so-called Western diet — lots of processed foods, meat, added fat, sugar and refined grains — “invariably suffer from high rates of the so-called Western diseases: obesity, Type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and cancer.” Indeed, 4 of the top 10 killers of Americans are linked to this diet.

As people in Asian and Mediterranean countries have become more Westernized (affluent, citified and exposed to the fast foods exported from the United States), they have become increasingly prone to the same afflictions.

The second fact is that people who consume traditional diets, free of the ersatz foods that line our supermarket shelves, experience these diseases at much lower rates. And those who, for reasons of ill health or dietary philosophy, have abandoned Western eating habits often experience a rapid and significant improvement in their health indicators.

I will add a third reason: our economy cannot afford to continue to patch up the millions of people who each year develop a diet-related ailment, and our planetary resources simply cannot sustain our eating style and continue to support its ever-growing population.

In his last book, Mr. Pollan summarized his approach in just seven words: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” The new book provides the practical steps, starting with advice to avoid “processed concoctions,” no matter what the label may claim (“no trans fats,” “low cholesterol,” “less sugar,” “reduced sodium,” “high in antioxidants” and so forth).

As Mr. Pollan puts it, “If it came from a plant, eat it; if it was made in a plant, don’t.”

Do you already avoid products made with high-fructose corn syrup? Good, but keep in mind, sugar is sugar, and if it is being added to a food that is not normally sweetened, avoid it as well. Note, too, that refined flour is hardly different from sugar once it gets into the body.

Also avoid foods advertised on television, imitation foods and food products that make health claims. No natural food is simply a collection of nutrients, and a processed food stripped of its natural goodness to which nutrients are then added is no bargain for your body.

Those who sell the most healthful foods — vegetables, fruits and whole grains — rarely have a budget to support national advertising. If you shop in a supermarket (and Mr. Pollan suggests that wherever possible, you buy fresh food at farmers’ markets), shop the periphery of the store and avoid the center aisles laden with processed foods. Note, however, that now even the dairy case has been invaded by products like gunked-up yogurts.

Follow this advice, and you will have to follow another of Mr. Pollan’s rules: “Cook.”

“Cooking for yourself,” he writes, “is the only sure way to take back control of your diet from the food scientists and food processors.” Home cooking need not be arduous or very time-consuming, and you can make up time spent at the stove with time saved not visiting doctors or shopping for new clothes to accommodate an expanding girth.

Although the most wholesome eating pattern consists of three leisurely meals a day, and preferably a light meal at night, if you must have snacks, stick to fresh and dried fruits, vegetables and nuts, which are naturally loaded with healthful nutrients. I keep a dish of raisins and walnuts handy to satisfy the urge to nibble between meals. I also take them along for long car trips. Feel free to use the gas-station restroom, but never “get your fuel from the same place your car does,” Mr. Pollan writes.

Treating Treats as Treats

Perhaps the most important rules to put into effect as soon as possible are those aimed at the ever-expanding American waistline. If you eat less, you can afford to pay more for better foods, like plants grown in organically enriched soil and animals that are range-fed.

He recommends that you do all your eating at a table, not at a desk, while working, watching television or driving. If you’re not paying attention to what you’re eating, you’re likely to eat more than you realize.

But my favorite tip, one that helped me keep my weight down for decades, is a mealtime adage, “Stop eating before you’re full” — advice that has long been practiced by societies as diverse as Japan and France. (There is no French paradox, by the way: the French who stay slim eat smaller portions, leisurely meals and no snacks.)

Practice portion control and eat slowly to the point of satiation, not fullness. The food scientists Barbara J. Rolls of Penn State and Brian Wansink of Cornell, among others, have demonstrated that people eat less when served smaller portions on smaller plates. “There is nothing wrong with special occasion foods, as long as every day is not a special occasion,” Mr. Pollan writes. “Special occasion foods offer some of the great pleasures of life, so we shouldn’t deprive ourselves of them, but the sense of occasion needs to be restored.”

Here is where I can make an improvement. Ice cream has been a lifelong passion, and even though I stick to a brand lower in fat and calories than most, and limit my portion to the half-cup serving size described on the container, I indulge in this treat almost nightly. Perhaps I’ll try the so-called S policy Mr. Pollan says some people follow: “No snacks, no seconds, no sweets — except on days that begin with the letter S.”

Jane E. Brody, New York Times

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Full article and photo: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/02/02/health/02brod.html

Tale of an Unsung Fossil Finder, in Fact and Fiction

Mary Anning was one of the few women to make a success in paleontology and one of the fewer still whose success was not linked to that of a paleontologist spouse (or any spouse: she was single). She made five major fossil discoveries from 1811 to her death in 1847, and many lesser ones.

Why then is she best known as the inspiration for the tongue twister “She sells sea shells by the seashore”?

The answer lies in her gender, her poverty, her lack of formal education, her regional accent — as it might even today. But as Shelley Emling says in “The Fossil Hunter,” her readable biography of Anning, she had one major advantage in the place and time of her birth: Lyme Regis, 1799.

The beach at Lyme Regis, on the southern coast of England, was littered with fossils, and every storm tore away at the limestone cliffs to reveal new treasures. The area is now a Unesco World Heritage Site known as the Jurassic Coast. But when Anning was born it was an isolated village.

Anning’s finds, beginning with her first major discovery, when she was 12, coincided with the emerging debate over extinction. In 1811, she found a complete ichthyosaur, the first extinct animal known to science. The concept of extinction struck at the very heart of the prevailing belief that God’s creatures were immutable and eternal, fueling a debate that preoccupied early 19th-century Christians that continues over intelligent design.

Scientists like William Buckland, Henry de la Beche and William Conybeare walked the beach with Anning and wrote about her discoveries, which came in quick succession and soon included the first complete plesiosaur and the first British pterosaur. Too often she received no credit. (She also often received no money, though fossil hunting was the family’s primary source of income.)

Ms. Emling cites numerous instances throughout Anning’s life of a scientist’s or an institution’s failing to acknowledge her role. As a contemporary wrote, “Men of learning have sucked her brains and made a great deal by publishing works, of which she furnished the contents, while she derived none of the advantages.”

A rigorous autodidact, Anning taught herself comparative anatomy by dissecting marine animals. She read as much scientific literature she could find, at one point asking the British Museum for a complete list of its holdings. She cleaned and prepared her specimens so professionally that when a prominent scientist brought her ichthyosaur to public attention, he praised the preparation — but credited the collector, apparently unable or unwilling to grasp that a girl could have been responsible. She documented her finds with skillful scientific drawings.

Anning was plucky, determined, fearless and undaunted by the odds. Despite her not having formal education, she nevertheless made a lasting contribution to science. It is no wonder that she has been the subject of several children’s books. Now “The Fossil Hunter” and “Remarkable Creatures,” a novel by Tracy Chevalier, the author of “Girl with a Pearl Earring,” are appearing almost simultaneously.

Ms. Chevalier focuses on Anning’s early life and her relationship with another historic figure, Elizabeth Philpot, vividly imagining the former’s inner life. But the merging of fact and fiction can be frustrating because it is hard to know which is which.

Did the eminent French naturalist Georges Cuvier, for instance, send a condescending letter to Anning suggesting her plesiosaur was fraudulent? The historic record shows that he had doubts about its authenticity, but was such a letter written? In the novel, Philpot storms a Geological Society meeting in London in a satisfying rush to Anning’s defense. But did she?

Ms. Emling’s approach is journalistic, but she seems not to trust the inherent interest of her facts and too frequently semifictionalizes her narrative by suggesting what “might have” happened. Too many might haves, probablys and possiblys distract from a story than can stand on its own.

Her amply footnoted book skillfully puts Anning’s work into the scientific and sociological context. But some readers may wish she had also taken a more contemporary perspective. Amateur excavations are sometimes considered looting, and it would be interesting to know how Anning would have fared today. Nor does Ms. Emling tell readers whether the lack of scientific context recorded during Anning’s excavations limited the value of her finds.

Anning died of untreated breast cancer in 1847, a painful death not untypical of the times. Though she once described herself as “well known throughout the whole of Europe,” true scientific recognition was late in coming. Toward the end of Anning’s life, the naturalist Louis Agassiz named two different species of fossil fish after her.

Anning’s death was noted in the annual presidential address at the Geological Society, which did not accept women as fellows until 1919. As the 200th anniversary of her first discovery nears, these two books remind us that she was more than the girl who sold sea shells by the sea shore.

Katherine Bouton, New York Times

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Full article and photo: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/02/02/science/02scibooks.html

Homeless, Shoeless, Even Nameless

When the police brought Jane to 3East, the soles of her feet were blistered. Young and pretty beneath a layer of urban grime, she had been picked up for wandering barefoot around Portland, Ore., on a 90-degree August afternoon. She wouldn’t give her name and carried no identification, but went willingly with the young officer.

By the time she came upstairs from the emergency room, she had acquired a pair of blue paper slippers, an involuntary psychiatric commitment (she was deemed a danger to herself) and a name: Jane Doe.

I greeted her at the locked doors that secured 3East. The chain of custody had passed from a thoughtful cop to a psychiatric nurse.

Everyone has a story, but my patients’ histories are often obscured by hallucinations and delusions. In time we can translate their encrypted chatter and make sense of their stories. Jane was my first Ms. Doe. Her story, like her name, was still a mystery.

I escorted her to the interview room and brought her a basin of warm water medicated with Epsom salts. She settled her feet in up to her ankles. I introduced myself and asked her name.

“Jane,” she said.

“Is that your real name?”

“Yes, they gave it to me downstairs.”

I sat quietly while she smiled, nodded her head and moved her lips, apparently responding to internal voices. She didn’t seem distressed. I was accustomed to patients terrorized by the unpredictable commands and vicious criticism of auditory hallucinations. Jane reminded me of a child chatting with an imaginary playmate.

“Do you know where you are?” I interrupted.

“A psychiatric ward.”

“Do you have family? Someone who might be worried about you?”

“No.”

“Has anyone hurt you?”

She smiled. “No.”

I knew I had hit a wall. I took what medical history I could. She was healthy, sturdy even.

“I would like to go to my room now.”

She moved lightly on her damaged feet, like a sleepwalker gliding along the shabby hospital carpet. From our closet of donated clothes, she picked out a pair of pink chenille slippers.

The hospital placed advertisements in Oregon and Washington newspapers, showing a woman in her 20s with tangled blond hair. “Do you know this woman?” they asked. “Contact us.”

I worked two back-to-back 16-hour shifts each week. When I returned to the hospital five days after admitting Jane, she was striding purposefully down the long hallway to the community room, hub of the ward’s activities: group sessions, meals, visits, Ping-Pong and, occasionally, violent assaults.

Our job was to stabilize patients in the acute phase of their mental illness. Jane’s psychiatrist had settled on a diagnosis of schizoaffective disorder, a combined mood and thought disturbance. He started her on low doses of a mood stabilizer and an antipsychotic drug to quiet the internal voices.

When I reintroduced myself, she remembered me. Her hair was clean and neat, her shabby clothes replaced by donated jeans and a T-shirt. I asked about her week.

It had been a bad one, she said. “They’re leaving. My friends are leaving.”

She did not mean her friends on the ward. She meant the ones in her head.

“Jane, you have a chance at something new,” I said. I hoped it was the truth.

“Is it O.K. if I don’t like it?”

“It’s O.K. You can try it for a while, before you decide.”

I had been complicit in taking something from her — her voices — and at this stage in her recovery I had little to offer in return. Jane was between two worlds. Without medication and an identity, she would soon slide back to homeless waif.

How we help the most vulnerable among us involves serendipity and the limited tools in our toolbox: conversation and medication, as much art as science. There are few, if any, “ta-da!” moments in psychiatry. Diagnoses are murky. The brain can be steadfast in guarding the secrets of its illnesses.

Timing is serendipity. Our intervention came early in Jane’s illness. She responded well to treatment; she was also nearing discharge with no place to go. She needed to be looked after, but no one had phoned to inquire about her. As so often happens, I didn’t have time to reach out to her once she had left 3East, but I thought about her often — a young woman so uncomfortable in her skin that she denied her name, a young woman running out of time.

The next time I saw her, she had a name and a family — a grandmother with whom she lived in eastern Oregon, who had prematurely grieved her granddaughter’s death until a neighbor knocked on her door holding an advertisement from the newspaper. She had a history. She had been an honors student in high school, then community college. She had plans. Then the voices began.

She quit school, was let go from a series of low-wage jobs because she talked to herself and made customers nervous. Friends fell away. She made it to Portland but left her name behind.

The door to 3East is a revolving one. Relapse is part of the struggle of mental illness. We see most of our patients more than once. Not Jane. She didn’t call or turn up in our emergency room. We hope for the best and brace ourselves for the worst.

Months later, her grandmother left a message that Jane was doing well and was back in school. Her story had some welcome new paragraphs now, if not yet a happy ending.

Evelyn Sharenov is a writer and psychiatric nurse in Portland, Ore.

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Full article and photo: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/02/02/health/02case.html

J. D. Salinger a Recluse? Well, Not to His Neighbors

The Cornish-Windsor Bridge connecting Cornish, N.H., where J.D. Salinger lived, to Windsor, Vt.

His most famous character, Holden Caulfield, said it was impossible to find a place that is “nice and peaceful,” but J. D. Salinger may have found something close for himself in the woods of this tiny town.

Here Mr. Salinger was just Jerry, a quiet man who arrived early to church suppers, nodded hello while buying a newspaper at the general store and wrote a thank-you note to the fire department after it extinguished a blaze and helped save his papers and writings.

Despite his reputation, Mr. Salinger “was not a recluse,” said Nancy Norwalk, a librarian at the Philip Read Memorial Library in Plainfield, which Mr. Salinger would frequent. “He was a towns- person.”

And last week, after his death, his neighbors would not talk about him, reflecting what one called “the code of the hills.”

“Nobody conspired to keep his privacy, but everyone kept his privacy — otherwise he wouldn’t have stayed here all these years,” said Sherry Boudro of nearby Windsor, Vt., who said her father, Paul Sayah, befriended Mr. Salinger in the 1970s. “This community saw him as a person, not just the author of ‘The Catcher in the Rye.’ They respect him. He was an individual who just wanted to live his life.”

The curious constantly descended on Cornish and the surrounding area, asking residents for directions to Mr. Salinger’s house. Instead of finding the home, interlopers would end up on a wild goose chase.

How far afield the directions went “depended on how arrogant they were,” said Mike Ackerman, owner of the Cornish General Store. Mr. Salinger, he said, “was like the Batman icon. Everyone knew Batman existed, and everyone knows there’s a Batcave, but no one will tell you where it is.”

Cornish, a town of about 1,700 on the banks of the Connecticut River, has two general stores, a post office, a church and miles of pines, oaks, farmland and rolling hills. The town has long been a summer haven for artists and writers, a solitary escape in the woods.

By all accounts Mr. Salinger loved the area. He would, until recent years, vote in elections and attend town meetings at the Cornish Elementary School, and he went to the Plainfield General Store each day before it closed. He was often spotted at the Price Chopper supermarket in Windsor, separated from Cornish by a covered bridge and the now ice-jammed river, and he ate lunch alone at the Windsor Diner. Mr. Salinger was also said to have frequented the library at Dartmouth College and to have attended the occasional house party.

In the 1950s, Mr. Salinger would socialize with students at Windsor High School, residents said, meeting them at Nap’s Lunch, a soda fountain.

Mr. Salinger and his wife, Colleen O’Neill, were “very generous” to the town of Cornish, said Keith L. Jones, a selectman and owner of Cornish Automotive. Ms. O’Neill, who married Mr. Salinger in the late 1980s, is a blue-ribbon quilter and is active in town issues. She is also a preservationist who bought tracts of land throughout the area that were threatened with development.

This summer Ms. O’Neill preserved an old barn on the couple’s property, which is said to overlook Mt. Ascutney and the Vermont landscape. “She would say, ‘Jerry just wants me to tear the barn down, but I want to keep it,’ ” said Stephen Taylor, a local resident.

Over the past few years Mr. Salinger made fewer trips out of his home, but “he loved church suppers,” Mr. Jones said.

Mr. Salinger was a regular at the $12 roast beef dinners at First Congregational Church in Hartland, Vt. He would arrive about an hour and a half early and pass the time by writing in a small, spiral-bound notebook, said Jeannie Frazer, a church member. Mr. Salinger usually dressed in corduroys and a sweater, she said, and would not speak. He sat at the head of the table, near where the pies were placed.

Mr. Salinger last went to a supper in December, and Ms. O’Neill picked up takeout the past two Saturdays. Mr. Salinger was one of the few who gave the children who waited on diners a few dollars. “Not everybody tipped,” said Stuart Farnham, whose son received a $2 gratuity from Mr. Salinger.

Merilynn Bourne, chairwoman of the Cornish Board of Selectmen, bought a home from Mr. Salinger’s former wife in the late 1970s. It had a tunnel that led from the garage to the main house for privacy. Ms. Bourne said she was fixing a leaky pipe in the kitchen soon after she bought the house when she heard a voice boom, “Who is in here?” from another room. It was Mr. Salinger, wondering who was in the home. She explained herself, and he left. The two never spoke again.

A few years later Ms. Bourne moved to a home closer to Mr. Salinger. Mr. Salinger would stop in his beige Toyota Land Cruiser and make small talk with Ms. Bourne’s children, who played in the front yard, asking about their day at school and toys. In the winter, the children would knock on Mr. Salinger’s door, asking if they could sled down his hill, and he always obliged.

“I could understand why, after years of being pursued, why adults were suspect but kids were not,” Ms. Bourne said.

Peter Burling, a Cornish resident and former state senator, grew up near Mr. Salinger’s home and remembers him as a friendly neighbor quick with a hello.

Years ago Mr. Burling built his young son a red, painted bus stop at the bottom of their hill. Web sites instructed those looking for Mr. Salinger’s house to turn at the stop. Mr. Burling later sold the bus stop to another resident, Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter, a German who passed himself off as a Rockefeller and was later convicted of custodial kidnapping. The curious would instead end up at Mr. Gerhartsreiter’s home, Mr. Burling said.

“People would turn into his driveway, demanding to meet J. D. Salinger,” Mr. Burling said.

Mr. Salinger did not approve of all the trappings of a New England life. Generations ago, towns appointed hog reeves — people who caught livestock that ran away — each year at a town meeting. In Cornish, for fun, newly married couples are appointed honorary hog reeves each year. In the 1950s Mr. Salinger and his first wife, Claire, were given the honor, Mr. Taylor said.

“By all accounts, he was not amused,” Mr. Taylor said.

Katie Zezima, New York Times

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Full article and photo: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/02/01/us/01salinger.html