Frankenstein’s Planet

I re-read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus, recently. The book is 200 years old this year (see the exhibit at the Morgan). If you have not read it, it is profoundly different from the Frankenstein created by the commercial media over the years.

The strangest transference may be the naming thing: “Frankenstein” has become the creature created by Victor Frankenstein. The man has become his monster. And the prefix “Franken-” has become shorthand for any and all technological nightmares.

Above all it is an astounding work, especially when you consider that Shelley was twenty when it was published. True, her parents, anarchist William Godwin and feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, were remarkable in their own right. Mary Godwin (or Mary Jr. as I like to call her), however, never knew her brilliant mother because she died soon after giving birth. And of course Mary Jr.’s partner was no mean cultural force himself. Percy Shelley wrote the preface to the first edition, published anonymously, which he dedicated to his hero William Godwin. (He was initially thought to be the author of the whole thing.)

The novel begins and ends in the Arctic. The first of three narrators, Walton, is determined to get to the pole, that icy lodestar of the northern hemisphere, focus of so many European obsessions. On the voyage into the ice, he runs into both Frankenstein and the creature. Cue Frankenstein’s narration: he is chasing his creation. And his creation is urging him on: “Follow me: I seek the everlasting ices of the north, where you will feel the misery of cold and frost, to which I am impassive.” (Yes, this creature talks, and talks well.)

It’s notable that the early world of the industrial revolution makes no appearance in the novel. (The Romantics were quite reactionary in some ways.) The sciences, too, are scarcely discussed: Victor’s means of animating life are kept a secret. But there is no escaping this context of the novel; coal-power was exponential increasing the power available to humans. Their own muscles, those of draft animals, wind and water, were as nothing compared to steam heated by burning ancient fossilized lifeforms. Here was the letting loose of a creature of another kind, Prometheus unbound, burning past millennia for power… and carbon dioxide.

Frankenstein’s creature, that unnatural born philosopher, is last seen heading into an Arctic that two centuries later has shrunk to a shadow of its former self. He plans on burning himself to death in a funeral pyre. presumably made out of the wood of the sled.

The fire was lit: the “everlasting ices” turned out to have an expiration date.

[Pictures: Iceland, 2010, the closest I’ve been to the imaginary line of the Arctic Circle.]

The Return

Look who showed up on the knob perch across the street! It’s a male American Kestrel. I think it is the male American Kestrel, the pater familias of the falcon family who nested on the corner. I’ve seen a male a few times over the last few months; I don’t think he went anywhere. This is his territory. But this was the first time in months that I’ve seen him here.And here! Another old perch. This was Thursday, the coldest morning so far of the fall: this perch is out of the wind and in the sun. Friday, he was up on the chimney pot and roof post he used to favor in late winter.on Thursday I saw two male American Kestrels perched within a 100 yards of each other in Green-Wood. One was being harried by two Blue Jays.Friday: I spotted a male on a distant antenna across the street from Green-Wood. Another Blue Jay was policing the situation.

In The Kingdom of Kinglets

Golden-crowned Kinglets were raining down on the city this week. This one got to within two feet of my shoes hopping and flitting and carrying on, while half a dozen others worked over the ground and branches of some ornamental cherries. Their calls are like whispers.Regulus satrapa, the little king ruler: a bit redundant? Not hardly at all. One of our smallest birds. (I couldn’t capture such busy-ness with my old camera. GoFundMe in action!) This one is showing some of the actual orange crown. Most of these little kings are passing through for points further south. In the Appalachia north, into Maine, they’ll stick around all year, but they generally don’t hang out in NYC for the winter.But they do pass through. Sadly, a new glass monster on the corner of 110 St (Central Park North) and Frederick Douglass Blvd is threshing these tiny migratory marvels out of the sky. They smash into the reflective glass. Down at Columbus Circle, another building on a corner of Central Park is taking a toll of Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers, also flowing through now. It’s 2018, and unconscionable that architects and developers around parks aren’t taking the lethality of some types of glass into account. New Yorkers can report window-strike birds here and find out more about NYC Audubon’s Project Safe Flight.


Tongue-of-a-skipper — my new all-purpose exclamation — but some of the Hesperiidae family of critters are hard to identify. The ones that perch with wings half-cocked, looking like jet fighters, are the folded-wing type in the Hesperiinae subfamily, the grass skippers.

Wings are more moth-like than butterfly-like; antennae are generally hooked. They just don’t really want to be in either camp. Here, by the way, the tongue is curled up and out of the way.


To be absolutely honest with you, I could follow the sounds of nuthatches all day long, from tree to tree. You won’t always see them as they scurry about pines and hardwoods searching nooks and crannies, but they pack a lot of voice in their small bodies. What they’re looking for in the crevices of bark and cones: larvae, spiders, nuts, seeds. The “hatching” part of their name comes from their tendency to take larger foodstuffs and chisel them open or into smaller pieces by wedging them into the bark and whacking away with their bills.This is an irruption year for Red-breasted Nuthatches (Sitta canadensis), meaning they should be around all winter. Here’s what they sound like.The White-breasted (Sitta carolinensis) pictured here was patrolling the trunk of a large tupelo (Nyssa sylvatica), which was also alight with warblers. This is one of those species that will join in mixed flocks, especially in winter. Here’s what they sound like.The Red-breasted is smaller than the White-breasted. This one is almost lost amid the walnuts. This one flew into a cherry tree I was standing under. It was no more than a foot from my face for a few seconds.They’re even smaller up close.

Both the Red and the White are found in most of the U.S. Two other species grace narrower ranges. The Pygmy Nuthatch is found in the coniferous forests of the west. The Brown-headed Nuthatch is found in the piney woods of the southeastern coastal plain, from the Delmarva peninsula south.


Same patch, same day.Crab spider lurking…

Another generation of something arthropod…

Mammal/Mushroom Combo Monday

A melanistic variation on the ubiquitous Eastern Grey Squirrel, Sciurus carolinensis. These darker ones are said to tolerate colder weather better. Another notion has it that urban environments, with less predators, are also more likely to see greater numbers of both black and white variations of S. carolinensis. Our first example is digging up a nut or berry, but these squirrels are so successful because they’re practically omnivorous. The leftover-monger with snout in the hazelnut spread is from 2015 in Prospect Park. Besides scavenging our ample waste-food, gathering seeds, nuts, and fruits, and the occasional invertebrate and even vertebrate, they also eat mushrooms. Not sure if the small, tentative bite marks here, however, are squirrel. This mushroom was found in Green-Wood, which interestingly doesn’t have as high a density of squirrels as Prospect Park or the botanical garden in the Bronx (first picture).


Bookmark and Share

Join 551 other followers


Nature Blog Network