Archive for the 'Art Culture Politics' Category

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.

A Preview

In October, there’s going to be an exhibition at the Smithsonian American Art Museum called Birds of a Feather: Avian Imagery in Contemporary Art. I was digging around the scheduled artists and found this (which may not be on exhibit, btw):

Rachel Berwick, which is a good name for a bird artist, has trained parrots to speak a dead language. The back story: the great Alexander von Humboldt is said to have been given two parrots that were all that was left of an Amazonian tribe who had all been killed off by another tribe. The parrots, mimicking what they knew, were thus the last “speakers” of the language of the May-por-e’ (there are variant spellings); Humboldt transcribed their words, making a record of a dead language. Well, there’s some debate about the parrots, since this guy says Humboldt’s journals don’t mention any, but he did makes notes on the language. Check out Berwick’s other projects.


stungIs it too early for a couple of quick ones? Non-Russian vodka, with Bloody Mary camouflage, if you please. This book is unrelievedly depressing and despairing. It makes you want to jump in the ocean and drown… but you’ll probably be stung dead by jellies before that happens. Should your grandchildren ever get ahold of this book, and see how you were warned, they will pummel you with it. And who will blame them? jelly-1Stung! On Jellyfish Blooms and the Future of the Ocean, by Lisa-ann Gershwin details all that is ailing Planet Ocean. (“How inappropriate to call this planet Earth when it is quite clearly Ocean,” said Arthur C. Clarke.) And what isn’t? Overfishing, pollution, acidification, warming, eutrophication, and above all these massive jellyfish blooms clogging nuclear power (oh, wonderful!) and desalination plant intakes, fish farms, beaches, bays, bights…. As Gershwin shows, these processes are not unrelated. Jellyfish — or since they are not remotely fish, just jellies — thrive on disruption. They have been practicing survival for half a billion years — they may be the oldest multi-organed animals — and in barely a blink of an eye, time-wise, we have made it easier for them, warming the water, killing their predators, removing their competition, poisoning and sucking the other life out of the water. They do what they do — in an amazing way, too, reproducing both clonally and sexually — but of course, their boom will inevitably lead to a bust, too. They can also eat each other.New York AquariumAn analogy Gershwin borrows from some other scientists: we aren’t just extracting the capital from the bank of the sea, we are burning down the bank, destroying those breeding grounds of future generations of sea life in the coral reefs (tropical, and the little known cold-water reefs), mangrove swamps, saltwater marshes, etc. Like weeds, the jellies come upon our ruins and feast, growing wildly. For every pound of seafood, ten or more times that weight is wasted, crushed, killed, rotted; this “bycatch” includes mammals and seabirds. Thousands of miles of “ghost nets,” and barbed long lines continue to float through the sea, lost from ships, but continuing to trap and kill. Recall all those false alarms in the Pacific and Indian Ocean over that missing plane; oil slicks and garbage far, far from humans (and that’s just what we can see — many of the most deadly things are invisible). And all that CO2 we’re pumping out, a good portion of it is absorbed into the oceans, radically changing them. Starry-eyed amoralists dream of terraforming other planets; we are recreating the primal seas of algae and jellies right here. The grim news goes on and on, cascading. Thalassa, Thalassa!
jellyApropos graffiti on panel truck.

I used the word “warned” above. But it seems much to late for that. Gershwin’s epigraph is from Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner, “And till my ghastly tale is told/This heart within me burns.”

I’m so glad I haven’t reproduced. I could not bare to look them in the eye when they turn back from staring at ghastly seas of slime.

Eating Crow

crow posterI’ve been hearing and/or seeing crows most days lately in my Brooklyn neighborhood. There seems to be a family of three — as highly social birds, they will maintain multi-generational family units — in the area. The other day I saw one with nesting material in bill.

Meanwhile, in other counties of New York (outside of NYC, that is: all of upstate and the rest of Long Island), you can actually murder crows from Friday to Monday, September to March, sunrise to sunset, with no bag limit; non-toxic shot and migratory bird stamp aren’t even required. Toxic shot can be carried by wounded birds to other animals who prey on the shot birds, spreading the poison. I had no idea this went on, particularly after West Nile fever did such serious damage to the American Crow population, and still remains a threat. There were several years in the Oughts when I saw no crows at all in Brooklyn.

The Rip Van Winkle Rod & Gun Club of Palenville, in Greene Co., hosts this particular crow slaughter — calling it a “hunt” or a “sport” would be a disservice to those words. It’s a contest to see who can kill the most birds, plain and sick. It smacks of a hold-over from the 19th century, when crows were persecuted as pests. Neither colorful nor cute, crows have never had a good reputation among those who aren’t familiar with them. Some birders even dislike crows because they prey on eggs and nestlings of other species (which they do, but not nearly as much as those cute-muffin Chipmunks).

An email I saw from the club seemed to suggest that the crows they shoot are actually eaten, and cited the old English rhyme “four and twenty blackbirds baked in a pie” for evidence of this long tradition — but of course those were Blackbirds (Turdus merula), a Eurasian relative of the American Robin (T. migratorius). “Sing A Song of Sixpence” dates to the 18th C., if not earlier; a 1744 version has “four and twenty Naughty Boys” instead of birds. And of course the birds are alive and singing when the pie is set before the King — recipes for these live-bird between-the-courses fancy food spectacles for aristos go back to the 16th C.

I suppose you could eat crow, but it is not known for tasting like chicken. Just the opposite, in fact. “Eating crow” is of course a well-known colloquial phrase for having to take back an opinion, in a humiliating way. The British “eating humble pie” is similar, the humble here being the “umbles,” from the French for deer innards (the “pluck” and the “lights”). Both phrases are meant to suggest the unpalatable. Farther back still, if you put your faith in desert tribes, the rule-giving Leviticus decrees that ravens and their kind, the Corvids, are among the birds that “shall not be eaten, they are an abomination” because they were associated with scavenging the remains of battlefields. (Typical, blame an animal for taking advantage of human-on-human slaughter.)

Judging from their 2nd Amendment misinterpretation, moral suasion won’t be working on the gun-fetishists of the Rip, whose members also prove their sadism by shooting squirrels in another regular “contest,” a event that also seen protest from more humane humans. State law will have to be changed. A law is being proposed by NY Senator Avella to end such crude and cruel events, which many actual hunters decry.

Update: There is a petition in support of ending wildlife killing contests in New York State.

Unreal Nature

MITREEOn a recent trip to Croton Point, a friend noted how much he has been conditioned by television nature shows to expect spectacular close-ups, stunning cinematography and photography, and dramatic incidents in the wild. The real world is something quite different. Missing in those shows are the hours of footage, sometimes the days and even weeks it took to get those scenes, left on the cutting room floor. We were lucky that day to have a Bald Eagle fly over our heads at a relatively low height, giving us a breathtaking look. Usually these birds, and much else in the natural world, is at some distance, necessitating binoculars, patience, hours in the field, but here was an experience up close and personal. And… perhaps never to be repeated, unlike the DVD. Falco peregrinusThe Peregrine is best known for its lightning stoop, hurtling downwards at up to 200 miles an hour on its avian prey. I’ve seen that happen precisely once. Most often, I see these falcons flying swiftly, or perched far away, as on this Osprey nest platform at Marine Park. And perched for long periods of time: the House of Detention falcons don’t “do” much. The wind ruffles their feathers. They preen. They perch on one foot, they perch on both feet. This one vocalized, almost mewling, before it finally took off and flew low over the water, failing to scare up any Buffleheads into the air. I could experience this all day, but, by most lights, it would make for boring television.

Gregg Mitman’s Reel Nature: America’s Romance With Wildlife on Film (…and television and now the Internet) is a history of a tangled relationship. Since film-making began, there’s been a struggle between science/education and commerce/entertainment. This isn’t just a case of documentary vs. fiction, since plenty of documentaries have use staged, sometimes even faked, scenes, and anthropomorphic narratives. Nature usually isn’t dramatic; entertainment evidently always must be. This historic tension holds true today: compare the tabloid-trash Discovery — which has done real harm with its nature porn — vs. the more “serious” — but hardly perfect — productions of PBS, or the different ways David Attenborough’s work has been presented to American audiences.

Mitman shows how the eras in which these nature films were made very much influenced what got made. This was technologically, but also ideologically, determined. In the 1950s-60s, during the Cold War, family life was especially stressed in both the suburban and the animal dens. Good wives stayed home and took care of the children, just like in the animal kingdom! (Beware all arguments that boil down to “it’s natural.”) And when that wasn’t the case in the animal kingdom, it was suppressed. For instance, starting in the 1950s, Americans were presented with dolphins as suitable subjects of wholesome entertainment at the movies, on TV, and in the new marine theme parks. There was a conscious decision to censor the sometimes violent, masturbatory, and homosexual sex lives of these mammals from the consumer. Voyeurism, yes, but not too much voyeurism. Meanwhile, John C. Lilly — even before he went off the deep end — was essentially torturing dolphins in experiments for the Defense Department, which was eager to militarize the creatures. This was the ugly backstory behind Flipper, cute-ification until death.

Mitman notes that one of the benefits of nature entertainment has been to interest more people in conservation. I’m not sure what evidence there is of this beyond the anecdotal. Such propaganda was very much the point for some nature film proselytizers during the last century. It is not for nothing that conservation organizations have concentrated on charismatic species like pandas — a concentration which has often short-changed supposedly non-charismatic, but just as important, creatures. But even when an encompassing ecological viewpoint is stressed, there’s still the problem of passive consumption of visual spectacle, which necessarily separates the viewer from the actual world. Sitting in a theater, in front of the tube, or, more likely, now, alone in front of the tiny screen, watching exotic, distant, highly manipulated material divorces one from what is all around us. There is no thrill of the serendipitous find, the startling discovery, the learning for one’s own, in these productions. Sure, there maybe some information worth learning, but I think the relationship of consumption to nature is the same as consumption to democracy: you’re not a citizen sitting in front of the screen, you’re a target audience.

I haven’t been to a zoo in decades. I was against the likes of SeaWorld long before Blackfish. I don’t think wild animals should be exploited for entertainment and profit. The urge-to-domestication in giving fluffy-wuffy names to wild animals is harmful, perpetuating a warped relationship in which humans are the masters, the imperialists. Everything Disney makes me sick. So I found a lot of this book hard to read, but it’s an important history, one everyone should be armed with.

What Is To Be Done?

Here at the Thoreau Meeting, Sunday’s as good as any other day for a sermon.

We have no one to blame but ourselves when it comes to the corruption of our public institutions, as well as our private ones and everything in between. Our consent and complicity have been given entirely too freely.

I’ve been writing about the Brooklyn Botanic Garden’s revising of its noble heritage of science and education in the community interest into a leisure garden funded by the rich, with a veneer of bread and circus flowers for the rest of us. Typically, such despoilers latch onto an ugly neologism like “revision,” management Newspeak, for such awfulness because they can’t even admit the truth to themselves. This is only one small example of the societal transformations we have been living through, but it is one close to my heart, and one that illustrates the larger problem.

For instance, in Prospect Park, the unelected Alliance running it has become the plaything of wealthy donors (“I want this thing here with my name on it or else you don’t get any of my money,” goes the extortionate philanthropist, who also gets a tax credit, increasing the non-rich’s share of the tax burden). Civic-minded reformers like Stranahan, Olmsted, and Vaux would be aghast. (Make no mistake, those men, all white Protestants, were paternalistic as all get-out and shared the racism of their day, but, like the deeply compromised U.S. Constitution, it’s the ideas and ideals they unleashed that count above all human faults; also, at least they weren’t creepy eugenicists like a later generation of conservationists.) Brooklyn Bridge Park will soon be dominated by the Floodplain Estates, as I call them for their irresponsible situation in the floodplain, apartments whose existence was part of the money deal to make the park possible in yet another perverse abandonment of the public weal. The High Line, meanwhile, turns out to have been a gold mine for developers, now milking a public amenity for their own profit. It may not come as a surprise that all of the boards in charge of these entities, the “conservancies,” are dominated by wealthy white elites.

I love all these places and I have now spent four years documenting on this blog the life-forms found in them. The crumbs are good, but they are still crumbs. We have come a long way indeed from what the founding director of the BBG, Charles S. Gager, defined as that institution’s mission: “For the advancement of botany and the service of the city.”

In NYC at large, like the country, cultural institutions have become dependent on the money of Bloomberg-like tycoons like so many junkies on their dealers; Bloomberg’s a relatively enlightened plutocrat, but the trouble with policy-by-plutocrat is that there are also some really nasty ones out there, like the Koch boys, who imbibed Bircher toxins from birth. These plutocrats are avowedly working to dismantle citizenship and community, and trash the planet as they do so, as they plaster the family name on Lincoln Center, the American Museum of Natural History, and etc. Tiny numbers of very wealthy people should not be given rein to forge our future.

But this is the neoliberal triumph in all its naked ugliness. “Neoliberalism” is an unfortunate term, since “liberal” is a word of variable meanings over time and at the same time. And we are not generally trained to think in terms of political economy. What it means is a revival of classical 19th century Liberalism, defined now essentially as the primacy of private property — including, of course, in its day human property — and “free trade” and the “freedom” of individuals to do what they will, pollute, cheat, steal, colonize… etc., with the understanding that corporations — pervertedly defined by the majority Republicans on the Supreme Court as having the same rights as individuals — stand in for actual flesh and blood humans. (It’s a theory that was only adopted by Britain and then the United States after they rose to prominence through protectionism: do what we say, not what we actually did.) Neoliberalism is largely accepted by both wings of the ruling American consensus, however fractious they may be on the details and however far apart they maybe on social issues; I call this consensus the “Corporate Party,” although I’m also fond of its historic names, understanding that it’s obviously not exactly the same thing: Slave Power, Money Power, Business Party. The socially liberal (that word again) wing of the Corporate Party — let’s call it the CP — is represented by the Democrats (Carter, Clinton, and Obama, all true believers; witness the horrible Trans-Pacific Partnership being negotiated now) and the socially reactionary, frequently extremist, wing represented by the Republicans.

Yes, there are differences between these wings, particularly when it comes to the basic human rights and dignity of women, LGBT people, and people of color. But there’s no question the dismantling of the reformist checks on the inequalities and undemocratic realities of capitalism (during Progressive, New Deal, Great Society eras) is driven today by many if not most Democrats cautiously and by all Republicans recklessly and/or sociopathically. Maggie Thatcher famously boasted that there was “no alternative” to this authoritarian regime, in which instead of the state feeding us soma, it’s oligarchical corporations turning us into treadmill consumers, happily eager to be sold to advertisers like so much chattel, while both statist and private security monitors and, on occasion, thuggishly represses dissent.

It is a step between the corruption of public and non-profit institutions within the ruling ideology and, say, the tear-gassing of sitting Occupy protesters and the collection of data on all Americans, but it’s not a leap. A minority will defend its power to the last. The scariest thing to them is our belief in our own agency, our consent (the only thing, as George Monbiot notes, that has not been globalized), something many have abandoned for their mess of pottage (shopping, video games, porn, mood-altering pharmaceuticals, whatever), throwing over citizenship for consumption.

Tonight, the new Cosmos will be airing on just about every Fox channel there is, including its NatGeo components (was ever a brand more quickly destroyed than after National Geographic’s TV efforts were captured by Murdoch?). Space Time continuously interrupted by commercials for things you don’t need in any multiverse. I won’t be watching it, because a) I don’t own a television (which I believe is the base-line step towards freedom/enlightenment/citizenship), and, since I could watch it on-line, b) there is no way I will support Fox. I found it quite saddening to hear host Neil deGrasse Tyson expressing his hopes that his show would educate a woefully undereducated population, while his efforts go straight towards supporting Fox News’ endless anti-science poison. (Of course, every cable subscriber in the land does this, too.) But even ignoring the Fox angle, his argument isn’t supported by sixty plus years of television history. It has been pointed out to me that The Simpsons boldly mocks Murdoch’s vile empire, but this sort of mockery is impotent, just as Viacom’s John Stewart’s satire is, since all that matters for the bottom line is that the audience is watching and that the advertisers are paying for their oh-so-knowing eyes.

The light in your eyes

Mimus polyglottosI wonder who it was who painted the first portrait with that little bit of white in the eyes signifying reflection? You can wander a museum for hours fixated on these daubs of paint, geometries suggestive of where the subject posed — rectangular for natural light through a window, for instance — which suddenly give so much depth and life to the image. A portrait is dead without them.

Get close enough to other animals, and if the sun is behind you, it will bounce off their eyes as well, as this Northern Mockingbird (Mimus polyglottos) shows. Mimus polyglottosMimus polyglottos


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  • Blog post: Notes for Further Reading and Doing: Reading: Rob Jett’s ebook The Red-tailed Hawk Journals: A City... 4 hours ago
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