Archive for the 'Art Culture Politics' Category


Carya ovataShagbark Hickory (Carya ovata) is one of the great trees of the eastern forests. This distinctive peely bark makes them easy to distinguish from most of the other species of native North American hickories. However, the Shellbark (C. laciniosa) is also known as Bigleaf Shagbark; its uncommon in rich bottom lands in the arteries of the Midwest, the Mississippi and Ohio River valleys.

The hickories make strong, durable wood: I have a hickory hiking stick. And not for nothing was Andrew “Old Hickory” Jackson so nicknamed. He was one tough SOB: sword-slashed and bullet-ridden from youth on, as an old man he helped subdue the first attempted Presidential assassin. Pity he was so genocidal.

Hickory nuts are a major food source for wildlife, and most are edible to humans (except the warningly named Bitternut [C. cordiformis]), but among the hickory family only the pecan (C. illinoinensis) is cultivated.

Thoreau’s Birthday

Turdus migratorius

“I saw Brooks Clark, who is now about eighty and bent like a bow, hastening along the road, barefooted, as usual, with an axe in his hand; was in haste perhaps on account of the cold wind on his bare feet. When he got up to me, I saw that besides the axe in one hand, he had his shoes in the other, filled with knurly apples and a dead robin. He stopped and talked with me a few moments; said that we had had a noble autumn and might now expect some cold weather. I asked if he had found the robin dead. No, he said, he found it with its wing broken and killed it. He also added that he had found some apples in the woods, and as he hadn’t anything to carry them in, he put ’em in his shoes. They were queer-looking trays to carry fruit in. How many he got in along toward the toes, I don’t know. I noticed, too, that his pockets were stuffed with them. His old tattered frock coat was hanging in strips about the skirts, as were his pantaloons about his naked feet. He appeared to have been out on a scout this gusty afternoon, to see what he could find, as the youngest boy might. It pleased me to see this cheery old man, with such a feeble hold on life, bent almost double, thus enjoying the evening of his days. Far be it from me to call it avarice or penury, this childlike delight in finding something in the woods or fields and carrying it home in the October evening, as a trophy to be added to his winter’s store. Oh, no; he was happy to be Nature’s pensioner still, and birdlike to pick up his living. Better his robin than your turkey, his shoes full of apples than your barrels full; they will be sweeter and suggest a better tale.” ~ HDT journal entry, 10-20-1857

(Robins, like many other birds no longer considered game, were eaten then.)

George Bird Grinnell and Others

gbgI went up to Woodlawn Cemetery to visit the grave of Herman Melville, and I stumbled upon George Bird Grinnell. Grinnell was born in Brooklyn and tutored by Lucy Bakewell Audubon, widow of John James, at the Audubon home in upper Manhattan. He started the first Audubon organization, believing the name should live on. Bird Grinnell, who was born with that name, was an influential editor of the magazine Forest & Stream, campaigning for national parks, respect for Native Americans, saving the bison, and protecting birds from the slaughter of the millenary trade (one of fashion’s many dark hours). This headstone is modest, by the way, but the family obelisk is pretty imposing (it is a competitive neighborhood; the robber barons flocked to Woodlawn in their effort to perpetuate their names after death).Patricia CroninPatricia Cronin’s stunning “Memorial to a Marriage.” Stunning because this is rather good, and because it depicts two women, Cronin and her wife (a little disconcertingly, they’re both still alive), and you know how often you see sculptures of actual women (non-symbolic), and how often you see sculptures of women lovers. Also, chipmunks, who are all over the cemetery, have burrowed underneath it, which means it has natural history value, too. It’s not as shiny as certain parts of Victor Noir, but give it time… Quercus albaA sprawling old White Oak (Quercus alba), one of the city’s Great Trees, said to be the oldest in the cemetery, but I couldn’t find any dates associated with it. Woodlawn opened in 1863.Procyon lotorA scratchy clambering sound on a tree turned out to be this youngish Raccoon (Procyon lotor) who had clearly just been in the lake. The last time I was in Woodlawn, some 19 years ago (!), I saw a Coyote. QuercusAnd Melville? I’m planning a group walk from his birthplace in lower Manhattan to his death place (26th St.) to his final “resting” place here, c. 17 miles, and wanted to be sure of the destination. The whole unhappy gang is there, with a cenotaph (marker without a body) for Stanwix, who was buried in California. Next to the family plot is a fine oak, Black, I think (Q. velutina), with huge leaves.Gleditsia triacanthosSpine of a Honey Locust (Gleditsia triacanthos); postulated as defense against now-extinct giant herbivores. Sure could do a number on a mammal. Speaking of which:furIt was darker than it looks here, with some white, so I thought skunk.

Declarations of No

Happy Fourth of July! The Revolution being unfinished, this may be a good time to consider the power of saying “no.” The collective power of it, I mean, for individual acts of rebellion are largely useless. History shows us over and over again that only the gathered power of people can counteract the power of gathered wealth.

And yet, I still think it important, morally, to say “no” as an individual. I say no to owning a television or a car; I say no to fast food and shopping in malls; I say no to consumption, as much as I can, buying much of my food from a co-operative and many of my clothes second-hand; I say no to the pirate banking corporations, and keep accounts at a union bank; I say no to celebrity and most other aspects of pop culture (I haven’t been to a contemporary movie in well over a year); I say no to the sports spectacle complex, “amateur” or pro (FIFA and the IOOC are criminal enterprises); I say no to wearing “brands,” which to me are marks of ownership on the flesh of animals and slaves; I say no to the impotent irony/satire packaged under the aegis of multinational corporations (e.g., Viacom’s Jon Stewart).

There are a few sacrifices, of course. I don’t have as many free ATMs available; I have to walk to the bookstore instead of pushing an Amazon button; I would like to see some soccer. But because I think complicity only empowers the corporate kleptocrats/oligarchs/authoritarians, these are hardly sacrifices.

Of course, try as I might, I’m as wrapped up in this world as the next person. But I really do make an effort to try to create a little breathing room for myself. What do you do to breathe? After all, there is so much we don’t need to live lives of depth and meaning.

It may seem somewhat ugly to have to keeping saying “no” all the time. Culturally, this is considered excessively negative, but then, I have a beef with this culture. I’ll wear the badge of “killjoy” proudly if that joy is nothing but corporate pablum. Because, really, that’s no joy at all.

You may gather from this blog that I do not take my contrariness from Bartleby. True, I would prefer not to, and often choose not to, but not to the nihilistic ends of that poor, hopeless clerk. Old B needed to get out of his cubbyhole and smell the Thoreau.


While in the Native Flora Garden the other day, I was surprised to find this, part of a series of stylish new informational panels:science?Actually, the BBG terminated its science staff last August, the final act of a long-term whittling away of the whole unprofitable notion of research at the institution that began with the new administration of Scot Medbury in 2005 (note the inclusion of “science” in this presser; those were the days; since then the Garden’s leadership has quietly watered down its robust mission statement into branding blather). There are no more “BBG scientists,” so it follows that none are doing any research on the plants of NY and NJ watersheds. Luckily, we don’t have to depend on these now non-existent scientists to help protect our still-vital watersheds. Making things even more egregious, one of those canned last year was Paul Harwood, who is the gentleman pictured.

The BBG doesn’t like criticism: I’m blocked from commenting on their Facebook page. I laughed when this happened last year, since it seemed at once both so petty and authoritarian, but this blatant lie really takes the prize. It shows how deeply entrenched the corporate mentality is at the Garden, which was founded as a public service on public land.

As always, my sympathy and empathy goes to those struggling within the Garden to maintain their livelihoods, dignity, and love of plants in the face of destructive managers and their propagandists (and in the face of a city population, who, through its political class, has so let them down).

Mushroom Print

loislongOne of Lois Long’s lithographs for the collaborative work, Mushroom Book, she and John Cage created in 1972. It’s on display at the Horticultural Society of NY until Thursday. Cage was instrumental in re-starting the modern of New York Mycological Society.

I was at “The Hort” to hear a lecture on using mushrooms for dyes for “protein fibers” (wool, silk). I had no idea. Many of the colors were quite earthy, as you might expect, but others were surprisingly not. Most of the mushrooms on display were dried, but there was one fresh fungus:Sarcosoma globosumLike a dark chocolate jello shot, Sarcosoma globosum.

Notes for Further Reading and Doing


Rob Jett’s ebook The Red-tailed Hawk Journals: A City Birder in Brooklyn is now available. Rob has been documenting the Red-tails of Brooklyn for more than a decade and tells how he first came to these adventures. It’s a great story.

Liam Heneghan has written a fine essay on the #1000UrbanMiles project he instigated. (I am quoted.)


I’ll be doing two Listening Tours in Prospect Park this spring.
Listening Tour May 4th 6am, with Brooklyn Brainery
Listening Tour, May 10 6am with NYC Wildflower Week.

Here are some of my previous musings on these curious mediations
Just Listen
The Listening Tour

Audubon Part II

audubonThe second of three John James Audubon exhibits is up at the New-York Historical Society. These are the original watercolors JJA did for his printer in England. Go! (I snapped a few details before being busted by museum security; since I wasn’t using a flash, I thought it would be ok.)audubonIt was a curious experience to see several species I’d just seen in Texas for the first time, for example Long-billed Curlew, Reddish Egret, and Lincoln’s Sparrow. And…somewhat unsatisfying. Nothing beats the actual individual animal. This, of course, is hardly fair to any representation, but JJA is often much too dramatic — all those twisted neck poses — for me. Not to take too much away from JJA’s towering achievement, however, which remains impressive indeed.audubonThe only dead bird JJA portrayed that wasn’t the prey of another species was this Eskimo Curlew, which has what I think is a haunting binomial, Numenius borealis. (Numenius: new moon, for the shape of the bill, but so close to numinous!) Haunting because the species is now considered extinct, with the last confirmed sighting half a century ago (as someone who was born half a century ago and destined to go extinct myself…). They ate blueberries, people, blueberries! It is of course coincidental that JJA portrayed one member of this species as dead; the birds were plentiful in his day, as were the Passenger Pigeons; this is just one of those damnable ironies of history. All the birds he used as models were dead, the standard operating procedure before photography and binoculars. He was a re-animator.

He Xie

aiweiweihirshhorn2Ai Weiwei’s He Xie of 2010. At the Brooklyn Museum’s Ai Weiwei: According to What? exhibit, which just opened and runs through August 10th. The phrase “he xie” means river crabs — these are made of porcelain — and is also slang for the Chinese state’s censorship of the internet, because it sounds like the word for “harmonious,” as in the Communist Party/kleptocracy’s jack-booted “realization of a harmonious society.”

As consumers of the world’s corporatist authoritarianism — even academics now realize we also live in an oligarchy — it behooves us all to see this exhibit, which puts a decisive finish to the long-peddled nonsense that capitalism necessarily means democracy. aiweiweiSeen on 6th Avenue Friday night.

Gowanus Dragon

gowanusThe anti-freeze color of the water is just about right here.


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