As I remember it, Vole was already up and running when Lewis Thomas arose in our midst like some ecological genie, a combination of gentle evangelist and stand-up comedian. It was 1977, and Richard Boston, founder of the magazine, arrived at an early editorial gathering bearing a copy of Thomas’s book The Lives of a Cell, with the clear message that it was required reading. It had recently been awarded, unprecedentedly, two US National Book Awards, one in the Arts category, the other in Science, and been described in The New Yorker as a ‘shimmering vision’.
Thomas was something of a vision himself, as improbable as a tortoise with wings. He was a scientist who was not only literate but also poetic. He was a polymath, as learned about etymology as entomology. He had written a meditation on listening to Mahler’s Ninth Symphony, the subtext of which was a troubled attack on his country’s nuclear weaponry. And somehow he found time from his day job shaping policy for medical education in America to contribute a left-field column called ‘Notes of a Biology Watcher’ to the New England Journal of Medicine, on subjects that seemed as bizarrely disconnected as moth pheromones and Bach’s St Matthew Passion. But these ‘Notes’ weren’t disconnected, except in the most literal sense, and it was Thomas’s genius to conjure some thirty of them into a coherent treatise full of astonishing, reverberating knowledge and sublime prose. Against the grain of the times, The Lives of a Cell shunned environmental doom and New Age waffle, and celebrated instead the tenacity of life and the way, specifically and allegorically, it all joined up. And greatly to our point, it was wickedly, surreally funny. We fell on it as if we’d been handed down a house-style bible from on high.
Vole had been established to explore, in a necessarily more lowly, quotidian fashion, the same themes as Thomas. It wa
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