Archive for the 'Art Culture Politics' Category

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

More Blackbirds

bb2Right inside the “wellness center” at LIU Brooklyn’s campus. I assume it used to be a “gym,” short of gymnasium, which was where ancient Greeks played naked (Putin would plotz); gymnós meaning naked. Moving right along: those are pretty good corvid forms, if massively oversized. But what the hell is this on the corner of the same building?bb1Suddenly the crow has turned hawkish. (There are black hawks, but not in this part of the world.) But of course crows — smart, family-oriented, beautiful, not nearly the nest-robbers that o-so-cute chipmunks are — get very little respect. How many other sports teams are named after them? LIU’s name evidently comes from their switch from blue to black uniforms in the 1930s. Note how they evidently feel the need to raptor-up the mascot today in our overly militarized culture.

Meanwhile bb3“Crow Hill” is an old name for the section of Brooklyn that was christened Crown Heights in the early 20th century. Folklore suggests that the treed hills east of Prospect Park — the moraine above the flatlands to the sea — were happy crow grounds, but historians note that the “crow” comes from the free blacks who settled in the area, in communities they named Weeksville and Carrville. The black bird/black people association, made by whites, is most infamous in “Jim Crow,” the short-hand term for the near-century of legal and customary apartheid that ruled the American South after the defeat of Reconstruction. Jim Crow was a character created by white performer T.D. Rice, who “blacked up” in minstrelsy in the 1830s-40s. He was so popular nationally, other minstrels copied his act, even his character name. And so, by the late 1830s, “Jim Crow” had become a derogatory name for African Americans, about par with “coon” and “darkie.” From there, it was only a nightmarish step for the power-base of the Slave Power, and their cracker myrmidons, defeated but not destroyed, to give their Black Codes a folksy name.

To every thing there is a season

In memory of Pete Seeger, some photographs of the great Hudson River, which he campaigned to clean up, rather quixotically when he started in 1969, after more than a century of its being used as an industrial toilet. And some reflections.


Looking north from Fort Tryon on Sunday.

In Ullapool, Scotland, some years ago I went to a pub late in the long summer day to hear some traditional music and drink the local water of life. There was a fellow from Glasgow at the bar whose accent was so thick I needed subtitles, but I got his gist: he’d come up there especially just to hear the band, claiming there were few places to hear the stuff now in Scotland. The quartet’s songs were unfamiliar, but those tunes and melodies were like ghosts in my ears. I heard the rolling river of “Shenandoah” and I kept trying to place it. (Springsteen and company on the Seeger Sessions album have an affecting version.) The long journey of the Scots to Ireland and then America seemed to roll out of that music. Some of them may have been my ancestors, particularly on my mother’s side, but I don’t know enough of that history to say for sure.
Looking south from Little Stony Point.

Looking south from Little Stony Point.

My mother I know about. She was an “Okie,” born on a farm in a hamlet southwest of Oklahoma City, abruptly uprooted as a youngster during the Depression. Instead of the classic route to the promised land of California (or maybe not, if “you ain’t got that do-re-me,” as another Oklahoman, Woody Guthrie, noted), her parents retreated to the Illinois they’d started from. Then, somehow, she signed up with the State Department after a couple years of college in St. Louis and ended up in Baghdad, Iraq, in the 1950s. Later she worked in Frankfurt, where she was secretary to the head of the Escapee Program (escapees from the Eastern Bloc, that is; the then current immigration law was too exclusionist to let them into the US as refugees). That’s where she met my father, who was working for State’s Courier Service. When I was very young, she played folk music on guitar, much influenced by Joan Baez’s folk revivalist phase (that song book survived many a move around the world), complete with long straight hair (later, also like Joanie, she wore it short). Somewhere along the way she stopped playing and singing. Perhaps it was just a fad, as it was for many.
Looking north past Storm King.

Looking north past Storm King.

To this day, though, folk music — especially those plaintive gal singers (like Baez doing Seeger’s “Where Have All The Flowers Gone”) — tends to make me cry.
Sloop Clearwater

The tiller of the sloop Clearwater, docked on Pier 5 last year.

“A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance” ~ from the third section of Ecclesiastes, the King James Version — certainly the only worth-while committee-written book — put to music by Seeger in the much-covered “Turn Turn Turn.”

Goodnight, Pete, rest in song.

Meanwhile, in the Wedding Venue Garden

In the last week, two employees of what many are still calling, for sentimental reasons, the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, confided in me about the low level of morale there since the purge of its research program in August. In September, the Garden’s Board of Trustees approved a new mission statement; the old one had proved inconvenient in the face of being violated by the Garden’s leadership. From a resounding statement of mission uniting horticultural display, research, education, and community-building to bland marketing puffery. Like most branding statements, unsurprisingly, this one is bullshit, since there is no “research focused on understanding and conserving regional plants and plant communities” going on there: they fired everybody doing that in August, after years of whittling the research staff down to the bone. The Garden’s PR crew seems to have done little to nothing about publicizing this new brand statement, a rather telling point.

So, the state of the BBG: employees fear for their jobs and are powerless against the administration; the Board of Trustees, a club for funders and their scions, sip their cocktails as they provide no oversight at all; the Garden’s Facebook page allows no dissent (I’m one of the critics who have been blocked). The President has manifested no understanding of science, research, history, or the importance of the Herbarium and the research library.

Clearly, nothing is sacred, or special, or worthy, there now. Since the old mission statement only exists in our memory, I want to quote in full the Garden’s webpage on its Rare Book Room for posterity, while it still exists:

“Charles Stuart Gager, the first Director of the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, was a man of extraordinary vision, a distinguished botanist, and a bibliophile. For Gager, assembling a great botanical library to support the historical and scientific study of plants was an integral part of building a great botanical garden. Through special endowments and generous gifts, Gager and those who followed built a collection of significant botanical and horticultual works that has few rivals. The non-circulating rare book collection, comprising some 1500 volumes from the 15th century through the 20th century, is particularly strong in: Early European herbals, including those by Brunfels, Dodoens, Fuchs, and Mattioli; The great color-plate books, including those by Blackwell, Miller, Loudon, Hooker, and Redouté; Landmark works by Linnaeus, including correspondence, Hortus Cliffortianus, and Species Plantarum; New World floras by early travelers in the Americas, like Bartram, Catesby, and Michaux.”

“A man of extraordinary vision, a distinguished botanist, and a bibliophile.” The likes of founding director C.S. Gager would be laid-off there today, to make way for another VP of Marketing. It is so terribly sad to watch a great institution being gutted from within.

My previous posts about the BBG’s radical transformation into a flowery wedding venue:
Whose Botanic Garden?
The BBG Purge, as news of the summary summer firings of the research staff broke.

Flatbush Gardener, long a supporter of the BBG with his time and money, explains why he has ended his support. His post includes links to several must-reads.

A petition is circulating to restore science (even the word has been stripped now from its branding statement) to the BBG. If you haven’t already signed, please do so and help to publicize it.


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