Archive for the 'Art Culture Politics' Category

Elegy for Martha

One hundred years ago today, Martha died of old age in Cincinnati. She was 29 years old and had been raised since birth in captivity. She never reproduced.the_passenger_pigeonMartha was the last of her species, the Passenger Pigeons (Ectopistes migratorius). Of course, by the time of her demise, the species was already functionally extinct in the wild. She was the coda, the famous last one perching. From billions to one to none in a century. Just thirty years previously, hunters were killing 50,000 Passenger Pigeons a day at one of the last big breeding sites, in Michigan. And further back, in 1813 Kentucky, J.J. Audubon and company famously saw them darken the sky for three days running. There were more Passenger Pigeons, it has been estimated, then there are now birds of all migratory species in North America. passenger_pigeon_slaughter 1884But isn’t there something wrong with those numbers? They don’t seem right: how could that kind of population be sustained? It probably couldn’t have, and may very well have been a result of the radical transformation of the colonial American landscape in the first place. European settlers quickly reduced the pigeon’s competitors — mice, squirrel, turkey, deer, etc., and of course the local humans — for mast — acorns, beechnuts, chestnuts, walnuts, etc. — setting the stage for an astonishing boom. The inevitable bust, however, was driven to extremity by a combination of forest clearance and unparalleled slaughter. The photo above is from late in the game, the late 1880s, after a slaughter for this cheap source of protein.

So when you remember this lonely caged pigeon today, think of the whole continent, the whole world, behind her. That’s what is gone.

Pigeon on a wall


Watching (and Weeping?)

Lost Ladybug Project.
Monarch Watch.
Dragonfly Pond Watch.
Bumblebee Watch.
Firefly Watch.

Noticing a pattern? These citizen-science projects are concerned with dwindling numbers of particular insects, micro-studies in population decline and disappearance. Start putting them together and you realize that the recent study in Science which found a 45% drop in invertebrate populations over the last four decades, is the bigger picture. The reasons: habitat loss, climate change, invasive disruption, and wholesale application of poisons (insecticides). The article cited makes the point that there is much we don’t know about these animals and their long evolutionary place in the world, although we have some ideas. They are fundamental to life on earth. I loathe the term “ecological services” since it suggests that nature is akin to the capitalist system, which it isn’t, but the ecological reality of insects is that they are key to pollination, waste-disposal, soil health, and the populations of amphibians/reptiles, birds, and mammals that eat them.

But few of them are cute, furry, or have adorable scrunchy faces that make people squeal in excitement. You’re unlikely to find a YouTube of a wasp hugging a roach. These are problems: if you don’t know about them (or hardly even notice them), and don’t care about them, then you’re unlikely to do anything about their disappearance. Sarcophaga pernixFor instance, nobody likes flies. But you don’t have to like something to appreciate the part they play in the world. This is a Flesh Fly (Sarcophaga pernix), damned right off by both its common and scientific names. Yet without the likes of this creature, we’d be up to our necks in much slower rotting carcasses and shit.

Events and Calls to Action

I’ll be leading these tours in the next few weeks:

August 27 and Sept 4, 9pm: Prospect Park ~ Night Listening with Brooklyn Brainery. Join us as we listen to the night. Register at the link. $5 (Updated: 8/27 is full, but there are still spots for 9/4.)

September 3rd, 6pm: Brooklyn Bridge Park ~ Bugs and Blooms. RSVP at link. Papilio polyxenes

Ridgewood Reservoir is a unique natural area in a city starved of them. The reservoir basins were drained, abandoned, and fenced decades ago, and, as it will, nature moved in. The powers that be generally frown on such things, instead of fostering them. Here’s a petition I urge you to read and sign to prevent these sunken gardens from being developed.

Sunday, September 21st is the People’s Climate March here in NYC. Your grandchildren will be expecting you to have been there.


barclay1Today is Open House New York‘s Art Deco Scavenger Hunt, which I’m taking part in, so I wanted to share with you some of the city’s Art Deco wonders because many were inspired by the natural world. barclay2These first three photos from the Barclay-Vesey Building, designed by Ralph Walker for the New York Telephone Co.; the building today is utterly dwarfed by the neighboring WTC tower in height, but certainly not in terms of character, quirk, and decoration. barclay3“Art Deco” is a fairly loose term, but we tend to know it when we see it. The name is derived from the title of the 1925 L’Exposition internationale des arts décoratifs et industrials moderns in Paris; the tendency — it was never really a movement of manifesto and/or school — flowered between the two world wars. Jazz age streamlined, it is above all eclectic, incorporating cubist and medieval aspects, the machine age and the iconography of ancient civilizations; such crafts as stone-carving and metal-working with high steel and advanced, for the day, communications. GE1Some have called it modern classical; it was definitely not Modernism, the “International Style” of white boxes, which triumphed in the long run. Above is a detail of the original RCA Victor building at Lexington & 51st; subtly chamfered at the corners so that its narrow tower is actually eight-sided, this brick high-rise miraculously complements the church it towers over, the peak to its foothills; its spire-top, with its geometric lightning bolts and stylized faces with flame-like halos, is I think, a match for the Chrysler’s stainless steel rays as the most exciting in the city.

Virtually every building today is an interchangeable glass box or rectangle. That shit is cheap, after all, and that’s what counts to the tiny minds in charge, cost/revenue per sq. ft. But when you look at New York City’s skyscrapers, which buildings stand out? Which ones ones do you love? Sure, I like the Lever Building, most particularly its (open) secret brick spine, and, across the street, the Seagram’s Building has its moments, but I love the Chrysler Building, and 70 Pine St (originally Cities Service), and 20 Exchange (originally City Bank-Farmer’ Trust). There is no exuberance or joie de vie in a shiny, reflective glass slab on a grid of steel. There is no detail for the human eye, the human imagination, to grasp ahold of. Often, there is nothing human at all in these cold, corporate command and control towers, and their offshoots, the blank apartment towers.ChaninThe bronze frieze above the ground floor of the Chanin Building tells a loopy story of evolution on the three exposed sides: 42nd, Lexington, and 41st Sts.chaninBut keep looking up, because the forth floor has this band of lush foliage running around it. The Chanins were developers, no doubt as ruthless swine as their contemporary manifestations; but compare their face to the world with Donald Trump’s brute gracelessness. chaninThe Chanin lobby is also amazing, as are many of the lobbies is in these buildings. (Sadly, the lock-down state prevents many of them from being open to the public). One lobby that is still open is the Chryster’s Building. Imagine going up in those elevators ever day! The Chanin is diagonal the intersection from the Chyrsler’s stainless steel raptor and winged hubcap gargoyles, making this intersection the veritable Art Deco heart of the city.contrastI don’t need a building to reflect the sky when I can look at the sky. Consider the moral, philosophical, political distinctions between the cold and the warm, between the individual and the group, between citizen and corporation.

Stain? Ghost?

pinSearching to find out why leaves makes these stains on concrete, I find a lot of webpages dedicated to getting rid of them (bleach, blech!). I love the things! And find them deeply satisfying. In a cursory search, I didn’t get much further than the organic pigments in the leaf become embedded in the concrete’s micropores. Put another way, you can pave paradise, but paradise won’t let you forget it.


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.


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  • The escape, for those who afford it, from New York to the far north of Greenwich Village during summer yellow fever outbreaks. 8 hours ago
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