Archive for the 'Art Culture Politics' Category

Turtle Underground

turtleThe great turtle or tortoise holding up the world is an ancient story from China and India — and the New World, whose original inhabitants came from Asia.

Less well known is the race of giant tortoises who hold up New York City. Your engineer, the very definition of quotidian, will insist on schist — Manhattan, for instance, is said to be “gneiss but full of schist” — as the foundation of all that challenges the sky, but those of us in the know, know better. It is upon their mighty backs, their rock-like carapaces, that all of this Oz rests.

The trouble with these stout, bold, strong creatures, doing the heavy lifting of our metropolis, is that they are rarely seen. They shun the limelight, they have no interest in celebrity, or even, it may be said, humanity, at all. turtleWell, you know how I like keep my eyes peeled like a grape for evidence of the world rushing in, so when I was in SoHo recently — an aberration on my part, but the tarts are delicious — I happened to catch one of these secretive animals passing below the sidewalk grating. Zounds! The shell is a full yard long! The creature was of course lumbering in that deliberate time-is-different-for-us way. Judging from the shiny baubles around its bullish neck, I’d say it was either returning from a bender, if not N’Orleans, or an anointing by a cult of Kurma-worshippers. March on, noble Testudinidae!

Misc.

Long-time readers may know of my interest in the Two-spotted Ladybugs of Brooklyn Bridge Park. I wrote about them for Humans and Nature this week. I hope you’ll visit and read this and other interesting takes on the intersection of humans and nature.

Some of my recent JSTOR Daily work may be of interest to you.

In the field:

And as of yesterday, there was one spot left on my April 4 spring Listening Tour with Brooklyn Brainery. We go in search of Brooklyn’s spring peepers and American Woodcocks’ mating “display” — which is most aural since it takes place after sunset.

I’ll be doing a Jane’s Walk in celebration of the urban vision of James S.T. Stranahan on May 3rd. Whenever I meet people for a walk or project in Prospect Park, I say “let’s meet at the Stranahan statue” and damned if anybody knows what I’m talking about. I’d like to make the statue, and the man, better known. Without him, Brooklyn would probably look very different. Extra bonus here: I’ll be wearing a top hat.

I’m also doing a Listening Tour for NYC Wildflower Week on May 9th at 6am (pencil this one in; final schedule isn’t published yet).

Of note also: the genius behind Wildflower Week, Marielle Anzelone, is fundraising for a forest in Times Square and getting plenty of attention for it. But funds are better than attention, so consider contributing to the project here.Turdus migratorius

Word-Hoards

Home_ground-cov-210Kame, karst, kettle, key, kill, kipuka, kiss tank, knob, knoll, krummholz, kudzu. These are all the entries under the letter K in Home Ground: Language for an American Landscape, put together by a team of 45 writers and with an introduction by Barry Lopez. What a treasure trove! Sometimes, I’m down on the ol’ species H. wish-it-were-more sapiens, the home team no less, but we’re awful fine with language.

Robert Macfarlane’s Landmarks, just published in the UK, is something similar for those islands across the sea. In this article, which has the flavor of being a variation on the book’s introduction, Macfarlane notes that a recent edition of the Oxford Junior Dictionary culled a passel of nature words, namely “acorn, adder, ash, beech, bluebell, buttercup, catkin, conker, cowslip, cygnet, dandelion, fern, hazel, heather, heron, ivy, kingfisher, lark, mistletoe, nectar, newt, otter, pasture and willow.” (Doesn’t it seems as if the heart of the British landscape has been obliterated from the dictionary? The backlash to this b.s. was vigorous.) He also cites two writerly heroes of mine, for whom he was written introductions in the NYRB Classics editions: J.A. Baker, whose The Peregrine is one of the great immaginative works of nature writing, and Tim Robinson, who has taken the geography of place to new levels in the two volume Stones of Aran.A book he mentions that I don’t know, Nan Sheperd’s The Living Mountain, seems most worthy of searching out.

What word-hoards about planet Earth are you reading lately?

Arctic Longing

UnknownWhat an amazing and awe-inspiring book. I’ve long heard about Barry Lopez‘s Arctic Dreams but have only just got around to reading it. I was nudged by a fellow conspirator, Erin of the Familiar Wilderness on the other end of the Long Island. And now I want to read it again. Combining human and natural history with beautiful prose, Lopez’s subtitle “Imagination and Desire in a Northern Landscape” captures his mission. Originally published in 1986, just a couple years before James Hansen testified before Congress about global warming, the book now reads like a premature elegy. Lopez was already noting the radical transformation of landscape and indigenous culture under the onslaught of – well, what can only be called, from the perspective of the far north, southerners. But the Great Melting was on very few people’s minds then. Indeed, in the 1970s, a mainline scientific assumption was that, based on historical patterns, we were cruising along in an interglacial era, and the Ice Age would return, oh, some time in the future. (A formidable story of my youth was A.C. Clarke’s “The Forgotten Enemy,” about the return of the glaciers.) So by default, in the whiplash-rapid Anthropocene, Lopez’s book is becoming a record of a lost world.

King Carbon still hungers to devour the North Slope; circumpolar nations are now jockeying to strip what they can from the de-iced Arctic Sea. The ignorant and/or mendacious still mouth nonsense about the “wasteland” of the tundra, and celebrity sociopaths like Sarah Palin whip up the lynch-mob-minded cretins who enable her with her fascist porn about executing wolves from helicopters, but the human story of the north transcends all these enemies of the planet, and hence, inevitably, humanity.

Ending The Endless War

Last year was the the hottest year since modern record keeping began in 1880, capping all the other recent record-breakers. And it’s NOT going to get better. If you were born in 1985 or after, you’ve never experienced a year in which the global temperature has been below the 20th-century average.

And then there’s methane. Mother of Alessandro Giuseppe Antonio Anastasio Volta (who isolated Franklin’s “flammable gas”)! Methane is a much more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. For the length of human civilization, most of the CH4 on the planet has been frozen and out of the way, no bother at all to, say, Sumerian seal carvers, Medieval shepherdesses, Arabic astronomers, Incan princesses, Nri-Igbo traders, Australian song-line cartographers, or even lardy Americans bellowing from their couches at corporate sportainments on their big, big screens. Most of the gas has been locked up in the permafrost and at the bottom of the polar oceans in the form known as methane hydrate. But now our warming-by-CO2 planet is unleashing the CH4, adding it to the blanketing layer of atmosphere-trapping heat. And it will be astonishingly bad for humanity.

I call it the methane bomb ~ not with fire, and certainly not with ice… but with a fart?

The Arctic Methane Emergency Group — contemplate that name for a moment — is calling for a re-freezing of the Arctic to prevent this eruption. I think we can safely say that that’s a non-starter now, and if it ever is a starter it will be too late. The feedback mechanisms we have set in motion are no longer a matter of turning things on and off, even if we could. We’re hit 400 ppm of CO2 (not so long ago, 350.org put where they wanted to draw the line in their name). Among other effects, the AMEG gets to the rub of what is often confusing about radical climate disruption when they note that the methane bomb’s effects will be “disruption of jet stream behaviour, with abrupt climate change leading to crop failures, rising food prices and conflict in the Northern Hemisphere.” Because it’s not the planet that’s ending, not for a long time yet, barring a meteor collision. What’s going to end is the world as we know it, the world as the last 10,000 years of humans have known it. Yes, rising waters, fiercer storms, greater flooding, harsher droughts, — and yes, more snow when, as happened off New England this winter, very warm ocean water (unusually warm ocean water, soon to be the norm, not so unusual), pumping more moisture into the atmosphere, meets cold air from the north — but the really terrifying and terrible changes will be the resulting political ones, the human ones. Considering that the world is already a chaos of conflicts, beset by refugees, terrorism, overweening authoritarianisms, and the rapid movement of disease, lighting a massive fire under current conditions must obviously make things infinitely worse. (Remember, we’ve seen weather-related economic migration already within the US itself; they were called “Okies” by the Californians who wanted to keep them out; I called one of them my mother.)

Rebecca Solnit, who is one of the essential writers of our time, has a short essay in the February Harper’s that is mandatory reading. (It is, however, subscriber only, but this is a necessary publication amidst so much corporate shit, so don’t tell me you aren’t subscribing already.) She writes of the war being waged against Earth; she dates it as a kind of continuation of the Second World War (I might argue it’s older, but certainly it became fiendishly modernized in the last half century with plastics, pesticides and nuclear power). A servant of the oil and gas industry, the carbon lobby suicide squad that for all intents and purposes currently owns a significant part of our country, is quoted here on the “endless war” against the Earth and all its Earthlings. But it’s not endless; it’s going to end, sooner or later. That time should be ours to decree. Later will be very much worse for today’s children and their children.

King Carbon is as wrapped up in our economy and lives, our entire civilization, as slavery once was. Capitalism, with its bottomless maw for finite resources, can’t be permanent, which is why it desperately wants to devour other worlds. What this means, though, is that, like slavery, these things can be ended. Thomas Jefferson, for all his blindness, rightly called the Missouri crisis the “fire bell in the night” that “awakened me and filled me with terror” for the firestorm to come. Jefferson heard it late in the game; it had been ringing already for two centuries before the fire came, always louder and louder. We have rather less time now to heed the screaming klaxon.

The Bear and Me

I wrote this essay for Humans and Nature on the resonances of William Faulkner’s “The Bear” right here in Brooklyn, a long way and a long time since the “big woods” of the south. But there are actual remnants of those lost big woods just down the street from where I live, which got me thinking. I believe readers of B & B will be intrigued by my thoughts over at H & N.

Feral Brooklyn

c6I spend a fair amount of time exploring Brooklyn’s edges. These border zones are absolutely agog with feral cats. Here a few recent sightings.c1The standard wild city feline is a black and white job. Tiger-striped numbers probably come second. But there are all types, including the long-hair below, who looked like a slumming debutant.c7A street-side feeding station on 39th St; there’s always some well-meaning, but highly selective “animal lover” who encourages this plague. One or more of these people at Floyd Bennett Field’s Ecology Village has/have left the trash of dozens of empty cat food cans stretched along the edges of woods.c2Some of these cats are pretty cute and adorable looking. But the issue is that Brooklyn’s only part of one of the worst examples of invasive species running amuck.c4c5The damage feral cats do to wildlife is mind-boggling: 20 billion individual birds and mammals killed.c3What a mess! An irresponsible pet industry; idiots who don’t spay/neuter their pets; fools who release their animals when they never should have gotten one in the first place; the rat-feeders (because they are also obviously feeding rats); and, of course, those vocal defenders of such feral cats, unaware and/or unconcerned about their avian and mammalian toll. This is human-made problem. How shall we solve it?

I wrote about the science behind the problem for JSTOR Daily.


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