Posts Tagged 'books'

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

IMG_3050Reading:

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.)

Doing:

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
Listening
The Listening Tour
IMG_2995

Strand Birds

WGPThe bird section at Strand Books is quite worth reviewing. There are actually two nearby sections, the other for over-sized volumes, jammed with photo books and some very fine references; there’s a third section if you count field guides. The prices are, well, Bass-y — père et fille Bass are pirates from way back. I did score an OP copy of Thoreau on Birds (1964) for a mere $1.33, but that’s because I had to buy a $15 gift card to go to a reading there.

Wisconsin Grouse Problems, by Wallace B. Grange, was published in 1948 by the Wisconsin Conservation Commission. It was part of the Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Project series. You can guess the problems: loss of habitat, shrinking population size.

A lovely cloth cover with embossing. Fancy, but then grouse are game birds, and that got more people’s attention in those days. I hazard to guess that the book is still there; it’s not available electronically, much like many more books than most people suppose.

Stung!

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.

The Age of Wonder Is Perpetual

wrightAn Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump, by Joseph Wright “of Derby,” 1768. The painting is in the National Gallery, London, where I saw it in the oil this summer. Dramatically lit by a single candle, this tableau shows a scientist conducting the eponymous experiment and freaking out the children. Actually, in 1768, the word “scientist” was still some 65 years premature. This long-haired fellow, who reminds me of Newton in his later, alchemist, stage, is a natural philosopher (or, given that robe, possibly even a wizard…), even as he demonstrates actual principles and technology. One isn’t too sure how far he’s going with the experiment. Will the bird, a Cockatoo of all things, live or die? Probably live, since it’s so showy a creature he’ll want to reuse it over and over. (Very little concern for the lives of others as yet.) Not that the young couple on the left are paying any attention; their interest in each other is rather greater.

Richard Holmes actually uses another Wright painting as the frontispiece of his very enjoyable book The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science. WrightOrrerySmA Philosopher Lecturing on the Orrery, or three-dimensional model of the planets in orbit around a lamp-sun, is another of Wright’s dramatic case-studies in light (if not Enlightenment). Either painting would have worked for this book, which shows how the Romantics basically invented the idea of the lone scientist having his — usually, but Caroline Herschel gets much attention here — “Eureka!” moment, even though that’s hardly ever the case, even if some scientists eventually become convinced that that’s how it indeed happened. The Romantics also gave us, of course, Dr. Frankenstein.

Holmes ends his book criticizing the standard “two cultures” division that has arisen between science and the humanities: “We need a wider, more generous, more imaginative perspective. Above all, perhaps, we need the three things that a scientific culture can sustain: the sense of individual wonder, the power of hope, and the vivid but questing belief in a future for the globe.” [Italics in original] Three cheers for that! The Age of Wonder should be perpetual.


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