Archive for the 'Art Culture Politics' Category

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.

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.


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