Archive for the 'Art Culture Politics' Category

Year of the Bird

This year marks the centennial of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, which has rightfully been called one of the most powerful conservation laws ever.

Audubon, BirdLife International, Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, & National Geographic* have all teamed up to celebrate this 100th anniversary with the Year of the Bird. The MBTA makes it “illegal for anyone to take, possess, import, export, transport, sell, purchase, barter, or offer for sale, purchase, or barter, any migratory bird, or the parts, nests, or eggs of such a bird except under the terms of a valid permit issued pursuant to Federal regulations.” Here’s the complete text of the law as amended. [Many species of ducks, unfortunately, are allowed to be shot by hunters, who also continue to pollute the world with lead shot.]*National Geographic Partners, which publishes the magazine and the produces the awful NatGeo TV network, are majority-owned by Murdoch’s Fox empire, which means they also support those oligarchs and their politicians, from the Liar-President down the slime-shoot, who oppose conservation measures like the MBTA. As part of its rollback of everything Obama, the Trump administration has already weakened the Act.

The Amateurs

The root of the word amateur is the Latin for love. In our hyper-specialized world, “amateur” has become a put-down, which is a shame. The study of birds begun with amateurs. And it’s one of the few contemporary branches of science where amateurs can still regularly rub shoulders, or wings if you prefer, with professionals.

I suspect human beings have always had an intimate awareness of birds. As flying creatures, they must have captured our imaginations early. Birds, with their flocking and speed were also early-warning symbols of predators, weather, fire, and the like, which is probably how they came to be thought of as augurs. “Auspices” has its roots in the Latin for bird and the auspex, the observer of birds, both their flight and their entrails. Hunters and shamans both paid great attention to birds for obvious reasons, but where do we date bird-watching as we now understand it?

Ornithology has a solid history, but it was from its beginnings more about bird-killing than observing. Indeed, right into the beginning of the last century, the President of the American Ornithological Association refused to speak before the new Audubon Society with a huffed “I do not protect birds. I kill them.”

Here are three histories of ornithology and/or bird-watching for your consideration.

Michael Walters’s A Concise History of Ornithology. The thirty appendices documenting taxonomic plans from Charleton to Gadow gives a good sense of the density of this slim volume. It’s pretty relentless in its capsule biographies and race across the centuries. Best read in small bursts.

Walters doesn’t shy away from the dishonesty, feuds, frauds, and downright theft of ideas and specimens that have plagued the endeavor. He is, however, reticent about making the connections between imperialism and natural history. These are inseparable and really need to be discussed. Noted but without comment is this about Johann Friedrich Blumenbach (1753-1840), who is better known as an anthropologist, “of which study he has been described as the founder, and first divided mankind into five races.” That’s significant, considering all the evil that has come from these human-imposed divisions. (It was certainly a step forward to class humans as animals, but then to put them in a hierarchy, as these racial divisions inevitably did….) Bernd Brunner’s Birdmania also has a strong internationalist perspective. And includes more women than I’ve ever seen in my readings in this field, so extra points for that. The book is also sumptuously illustrated. It’s translated from the German, but I wish it had been edited with a firmer hand since the paragraphs leap all over the place. I did find one whopping historical error that I’m told will be corrected in the 2nd edition, so you may want to hold off until that comes out.
As the title says, Scott Weidensaul concentrates on the American scene, this time avowedly as birding. (I haven’t reread this one since it came out, but I remember it fondly.)


Abraham Lincoln, who left copious scraps of paper with jotted thoughts instead of a diary, wrote upon one of them:

“As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master. This expresses my idea of democracy. Whatever differs from this, to the extent of the difference, is no democracy.”

When I read this to her, M said “that’s basically the Golden Rule.” And, as the old rabbi said about that, the rest is commentary.

Meanwhile, everybody by now should realize many Americans don’t share this idea and never have. The View From the Moraine: Liberty in the fog (in reality and metaphor).


Last Sunday, I gave a sermon here in the church of nature that was on the critical side of polemic. Thank you for sticking through the rant. You’re good people.

My complaint include the over-worked soundtrack of Planet Earth II. As somebody who has led “listening tours” (the mockery of politicians is intentional here) of spring’s dawn chorus, twilight’s spring peepers, American Woodcock mating rituals, and summer’s nighttime katydids, I really think the integrity of the sounds of nature should be defended.

In this light, I offer you some of my friend Mark Wilkinson’s recording in the field. In English fields, mind you.

Nature, “simple” (well, far from that, actually) and unadorned by foley artists, for earth’s sakes! Don’t skip the ants and wasps!

Nasty Circle: What’s Old is New Again

I once had the privilege of touring the attic of the American Museum of Natural History. In the mid-90s there were still shelves upon shelves of model heads up there illustrating the supposed “racial” categories of a century ago. Back in that era of eugenics, an Italian was considered to be of a different race from a neighboring Swiss. You can guess who was at the top and bottom of these bogus, power-based white-supremacist hierarchies. Founded and led by so-called “scientific” racists and eugenists, the AMNH has never come to grips with its long-discredited past as an intellectual bulwark for all the old devils of America, now so horribly resurgent under the deranged flailings of Dirty Donald.

Last I checked, there’s still a diorama at AMNH named after Madison Grant. This supremely horrible person — yes people thought so then, too — once caged an African man in the zoo. He also wrote one of the foundational texts of American racism, which was, along with Henry Ford’s filth, hugely inspirational for the Nazis.

Which brings me to the present. You may know that David Koch, of the notorious Koch brothers — sons of a John Birch founder; those rotten fascist apples didn’t roll far — has lavishly plastered his name all over NYC’s cultural institutions. (Of course, philanthropy as cultural money-laundering, turning blood money into art and culture, has a long tradition in this country.) AMNH has a Koch-funded exhibit that soft-peddles global warming.

And take a gander at the museum’s board of trustees. One name sure jumps out: Rebekah Mercer, another right-wing horror show who funds Breitbart, Trump, Bannon (until Fire & Fury, anyway), and the resurgence of fascism. So much so that there’s going to be a demonstration against Mercer’s presence on the board January 21 at 1pm. A social media source clued me into another board member, hereditary builder Richard LeFrak, who’s a long-time ally of Trump in the city’s corrupt development biz. What other horrors are hiding in plain sight on this list? Who is following the money? Not the museum, certainly, they’re just cashing the checks in a ghastly amoralist way.

No reason to pick on AMNH, though. The money at the heart of the entire structure of philanthropy is suspect. For instance, at the end of the year, I received several email appeals from the chairwomen of the board of another local institution. I’m afraid I feel constrained from naming it because of the real and precedented threat of retribution against friends who work there. The chair pleaded for our pennies for such causes as biodiversity. Curious, I looked her up: she and her husband, a hedge-fund troll, fund the Republican assault against the environment (and democracy).

As reminder, if you need, here’s a succinct catalog of the profound damage Trump and the Republicans have done after a year.

Tree Omnibus

The trees are singing. If only we would listen. Tolkien suggested it might be quite hard to hear them, since they sing on a whole different time scale. David George Haskell is listening with microphones and an acute biologist’s senses. The Songs of Trees was one of last year’s best naturalist books, beautifully written and globe-spanning in reach. If you missed it, go get it.

The fig is absolutely remarkable. Of course, there isn’t just one fig; the Ficus genus has 750 plus members, from the house plant standard to the edible fig to the strangler species which dominate tropical forests. Each one of these species has at least one tiny fig wasp species that specializes in pollinating the “fruits” — which actually aren’t fruits but rather collections of inward growing flowers — in what are essentially suicide missions. I’ve written about figs before. Mike Shanahan has written a short, engaging book on the genus, and the vital role figs play in vast life webs around the world. Go exploring Ficus with Shanahan from the bodhi tree to Wallace to the Rhinoceros Hornbill to the Mau Mau rebellion, with a dozen or so creation myths thrown in. Was the fig the forbidden fruit of Eden? It sure is sexier than the apple, which definitely wasn’t the verboten fruit.

Shanahan notes that a 100 meter by 100 meter piece of old growth rainforest in Borneo (what’s left of it, anyway) can harbor 600 tree species. In Britain, by contrast, there are 36 native tree species. There, in 1664, John Evelyn’s Sylva was published by the Royal Society. This famed work, one of the first English language books about the cultivation of trees, was inspired by the Royal Navy’s worries about the shortage of timber for its boats. An example: the Mary Rose, launched in 1511, required 1,200 trees, mostly oaks but some elms as well; later and larger ships gobbled up 2,000 oaks each. The white pines of North America were a major draw for the journey across the Atlantic.

Now comes The New Sylva by Gabriel Hemery and Sarah Simblet to update things. There are certainly more than 36 tree species in Britain today. Actually, Hemery and Simblet say there are 60 native species, subspecies, or hybrids in Britain. They note that the native cut-off (1492 for us) stretches back circa 8,200 years for Britain, to when the land connection to continental Europe was submerged by the rising ocean. American readers, meanwhile, will recognize quite a few of the species in the transatlantic botanical exchange, species we gave them/species they gave us. Note that this book is primarily about silviculture, or timber-hunger, not the complex ecosystems known as forests, but then the un-human touched woodlands is non-existent today. Which reminds me: shouldn’t we date the Anthropocene back to the killing of Huwawa/Humbaba, the guardian of the sacred cedars, by Gilgamesh?

Simblet’s black and white drawings, from microscopic to landscape in detail, are wonderful. This book certainly works on a coffee table.

Off the subject, but Mike Wallace’s Greater Gotham, which I’m still reading, is majestic. It covers just two decades of NYC’s history, but these were the years the city became a world capital of capitalism. More than a century later, we still live there.

And the new edition of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein “Annotated for Scientists, Engineers, and Creators of All Kinds” turns out to be quite a course in ethics.

Twas the Night Before The Argument

Rock Doves in the rain, through a dirty window and screen.

Ready to do combat with pig-headed or worse (oh, much worse) relatives for the holiday? Here's some social science to mull over:

A brief explanation of why facts — like, say, about global warming — do nothing to convince people.

(It was a religious holiday once, after all.)

I wrote a little more about the backfire effect discussed in the above.

Happy winter festive season!


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