Archive for the 'Reviews' Category


bear1On the liturgical calendar, today is St. Martin’s Day. In the late Middle Ages, “Martin” was often the name given to bears abused and belittled in circuses and other equivalents of side-shows. This is not coincidental, Michel Pastoureau shows in his fascinating The Bear: History of a Fallen King. bear3The Church waged a long war against bears, which in Europe were already being represented in Neanderthal and Cro-Magon painted caves, the very caves bears may have lived in. (These would have been cave bears, now extinct; Pastoureau is most concerned with the brown bear, now pushed to remote parts of Europe and threatened everywhere there.) The Germanic tribes who butted against Roman expansion were bear-worshippers. The Viking Berserkers wore bear shirts, which is what “berserker” means. Kings and other heroes once proved themselves by battling bears man-to-bear. The nurturing she-bear raised various Greek and other mythological heroes. The hyper-sexualized male bear threatened female humans, as did the quasi-bearish Wild Man, whose hairiness was akin to the bear’s. Bärenfähigkeit means the capacity to become a bear. Half-bear/half-human figures populated the old tales.

This all enraged the Church, who promoted the (foreign) lion as the true king of the beasts and painted the bear as a tool of, if not actually, Satan, in its efforts to stamp out old forms of non-Christian worship. St. Martin’s Day was laid over older celebrations of the beginning of bear hibernation, a sure sign of the coming winter.

Rich in cultural references, Pastoureau’s book reminded me of a couple of things. I’ve only dipped into Phillip Pullman’s Golden Compass trilogy, where giant bears play a critical role, an interesting comparison with the Christianology of The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, and J.R.R. Tolkien’s character, Beorn, a sort of werebear. The name Beorn — and Bjorn, Bern, Ursula, Arthur, and many others — all come from various languages for “bear.”

Pastoureau has also written three books on the history of colors. I’ve read Blue and Black and and recommend them.

“In killing the bear, his kinsman, his fellow creature, his first god, man long ago killed his own memory and more or less symbolically killed himself.”bear2Bear ceramics at Cortlandt St. R train station by Margie Hughto. “Trade, Treasure and Travel” originally placed in 1997, survived the World Trade Center bombing and was reinstalled in 2011.


BombusA bumblebee rumbles into the heart of the flower.

k10219Identifying bumblebees of the genus Bombus is not an easy task. In their new identification guide, Bumble Bees of North America, Williams, Thorp, Richardson, and Colla note that color patterns “can be strikingly variable within species and strongly convergent between.” As an example of the variability within a species: for the Yellow-banded (B. terricola) they show five queen bee patterns, five worker bee patterns, and seven male bee patterns; they also note its similarity to five other species. Oy! From my limited experience, I’d go with the bee systematist they quote: the genus is “morphologically monotonous.”

This guide uses color patterns, but also tongue length and cheek size to break down the forty-six species in North America north of Mexico. (Also used to differentiate these are male genitalia and genetic evidence, things even more remote from field observation.) Measuring a bee’s cheek isn’t something a lot of amateurs are going to do (and never mind the knees!). bombusMany of you are doubtlessly aware of the importance of honeybees as pollinators, and how their numbers have plummeted because of Colony Collapse Disorder. But bumble bees are also used commercially in pollination, especially in greenhouses, where their services are worth $10 billion annually. Unfortunately, the bumble bee pollination industry has spread bee diseases through their practices, introducing hazards to wild populations around the world. World-wide, bumblebee populations are mostly in a bad way, due to habitat loss, insecticides, climate change, pathogen spillover, and the introduction of exotic/invasive species. Systemic insecticides used to treat seeds are particularly insidious, as they remain present throughout the growing plant, including the pollen and nectar gathered as food by bees; if not immediately toxic, these poisons can disrupt foraging and colony development over time.

Since the beginning of this century, one North American species, the Franklin (B. franklini) has had such a rapid decline it is considered close to extinct; another, the Rusty-patched (B. afinis) is the only bee on the federal endangered species list.


Among many things gleaned from this volume, I learned that Bombus diversity is greater in habitats with cooler temperatures and montane landscapes, unlike most other bees, who prefer warm dry, Mediterranean style habitat. The Polar B. polaris, for instance, is found across the far northern swath of the continent.

BTW:”Bumblebee” seems more English English; “bumble bee” more American English. bombusPhotos taken around Brooklyn in recent weeks. Join me next Wednesday at Brooklyn Bridge Park where we should see a few late afternoon bumblers. Also, could it possibly be that you aren’t subscribing to these posts yet?

Three Books

Unknown-1Sometimes I find the perfect description about what I’m up to here:

“In an age when the ecological integrity of our planet is threatened on so many levels, anything that strengthens those connections, or makes meaningful our daily arrangements with the world around us, is a form of resistance, a kind of love forged with home that has the potential to be fiercely protective.” Julian Hoffman, in The Small Heart of Things. Born in the UK, raised there and in Canada, Hoffman lives in Prespa, Greece; the Prespa Lakes area is a unique tri-national park, shared by Greece, Albania, and the awkwardly, absurdly, named Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (Greece protested the use of the name “Macedonia,” also the name of region within their own country, if you remember Philip and that whole crowd sweeping down from the north). These belles lettres never forget the human history, as horrible as it has sometimes been, soaked in the landscapes.

UnknownDesert Solitaire, by Edward Abbey, is something completely different. At least at first glance. Abbey was one of the spiritual grandfathers of the activist environmental movement. He was also, based on these essays, curmudgeonly, cranky, and a pain-in-the-ass. But his writing about the desert of the Four Corners area are remarkable; this a classic of nature writing for a reason; I’ve taken a long time to get to it. He is best on the elemental: water, rock, sky. The heart of the book is a voyage through Glen Canyon, something no longer possible because it was flooded soon after he and his friend made the trip. The American madness about the desert is that we pretend it isn’t a desert; the greater Phoenix obscenity boasts 200 golf courses! And all around them, the evidence of a previous civilization that failed in the dry country stares back at them. With a grin, perhaps. Glen Canyon Dam created Lake Powell, named after explorer John Wesley Powell, who saw the desert for what it was. That naming honor was a bitter irony. Jet-skiers today zoom over the drowned glorious side canyons, Native American ruins, and whole world of habitat that was the canyon. Now we have just this book and Eliot Porter’s photographs. (That’s the original cover above; I like it much more than the softcover I found.)

Unknown-2Birds Britannica, by Mark Cocker and Richard Mabey. I discovered this through a reference in the Hoffman and got hold of a library copy on this side of the Atlantic. It’s amazing: a mix of field guide (but too big for that!) and cultural study of the British love of birds. Hundreds contributed to this species-compendium of names, lore, and traditions, as the rise and fall and sometimes rise again of species over the centuries is charted. But let’s not forget the hate: game keepers are the great villains of the piece, slaughtering any- and everything that might interfere with some fucking aristo’s potted hunt. And the egg-collecting sociopaths, who still present a threat. While you may never enjoy any of these birds in the feather, this book should still interest you.

Animal Sex

nnrIt turns out that one of the best ways to tell species apart is to examine their genitals. There’s an incredible variety of forms of male and female sex organs, even within the species gathered together in a genus, and so for years biologists have been separating, for example, beetles that otherwise look rather similar, into different species because their genitalia look and correspondingly work together completely differently. This holds true for humans and our closest relatives, the apes and other primates, as well.

It’s only been more recently that scientists have been looking at the reasons for all this genital variety. Menno Schilthuizen’s new book, published by Penguin, is a fascinating look at the evolutionary underpinnings of the “naughty bits,” which of course are only naughty in an absurdly Puritan culture like ours.

So they might not actually be naughty, but they sure are varied! I was continually surprised by the examples here — the aforementioned beetles and primates, plus squid, spiders, ducks (NSFW!), dragonflies, sharks, mice, snails, and more — all making us H. sapiens seem rather, as we say, vanilla. But only seems: research discussed here on human strategies — of sperm dumping, sperm scooping, etc. — what our bodies are up to without us having any idea of what’s going on, should make us question most of what we know, or rather assume, about human reproduction and sex.

Schilthuizen begins with fundamentals and definitions. Among these is that excellent question of why lifeforms even bother with sexual reproduction at all when cloning is just so much easier, particularly when we consider that the first instances of sexual reproduction were probably something like the way fish do it still, the broadcasting of eggs and sperm into the water, a rather random and wasteful approach. Yet the random mixing of DNA (culturally, we usually call this “making babies”) turns out to a brilliant way to counter the also-random dangers of the environment and breakdown-prone life-systems (disease, mutation). So, it’s actually a good thing, biologically, that your kid looks like the postman; it’s a blow against the enemy in the endless war against viruses, bacterium, mutations. Which reminds me of the bower birds: super-successful bower-builders do get the lion’s share of mating opportunities, but unsuccessful ones are still in the game, sneaking around while the master-builders are hard at work on their bowers. It’s a wide, wonderful world out there, and this book makes for great reading about it. I highly recommend it.

*On a personal note, I ran into Menno birding in Prospect Park last month. An ecologist and evolutionary biologist based at Naturalis Biodiversity Center in Leiden, the Netherlands, he was here in the erstwhile New Netherlands to promote his book and enjoy some of our fabled spring migration. I’m glad I asked this unusually well-dressed birder if he was seeing anything interesting — he said he was, because it was all interesting to a European used to a completely different avian fauna — since I hadn’t otherwise heard about this book. Check it out. And prepare to start thinking differently.

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


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.

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.


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