Archive for the 'Art Culture Politics' Category

Red Star

Sweetgum (Liquidambar styraciflua) amid oaks and others.

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Hannah Arendt, who died on November 4th, 1975 wrote this: “The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the dedicated communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction, true and false, no longer exists.” (Alabama Republicans the latest marks of demagoguery.)

For the Pollinators

I recently attended a pollinator working group meeting here in Brooklyn sponsored by the City Parks Foundation and the National Wildlife Federation.* I’d like to share some of the things I came away with.

Honeybees are ever in the news, but there are over two hundred other species of bees found in New York City. There are many more species found across North America. And these are just the bees. Butterflies and moths, as well as some wasps, ants, flies, and beetles also do the work of pollination. As do birds and bats. In general, though, most people would probably point to bees, and maybe butterflies, as the preeminent pollinators around here.

And all insect populations are falling. So what can we do? Education, education, education, for one. But also work towards making more habitat for plants and the animals that pollinate them.

Rather like us, these animals need food, water, and shelter. More flowering trees and plants, please. Even some wasps, who feed other insects to their young, eat nectar themselves. And make these plants regionally-native species, since that’s what these animals have spent millions of years evolving alongside with. (Some non-native species provide plenty of nectar, but this is less rich in lipids than that of native species, so it tastes great, but is less filling.)

Shelter. Have you heard about “bee condos”? Here are plans for a simple one. Here are some even better looking ones.

Excellent! But guess what? Most local bees (indeed, most of the world’s bees) are ground-nesters. So let’s not forget about them. Patches of different kinds of soils, free of mulch, with minimal plant cover, are a good place to start. Ah, but yellow jacket wasps also live underground, meaning it’s a good idea to be able to make a distinction between bees and wasps; the quickest is that bees are hairy and wasps are not. And once you know that, be cool: let the wasps live. You leave them alone, they leave you alone. Frankly, as hard as it is for some people to imagine, insects don’t seem to care much about us at all.

Aesthetics: the average garden is orderly, pretty, and rather sterile from the perspective of planet Earth. Indeed, “garden” has long been the antithesis of “nature.” This aesthetic/philosophical perspective is not an easy one to transform. Yet the planet is in crisis, largely of our doing, so habitat really needs to come before our egocentric concerns about pretty flowers and charming borders.

For instance, we need more disorder, more mess, more clutter. Did you know that some bees nest inside stems? Lawn and clean-edge lovers, like the Parks Department and your average gardener, don’t like “dead” stems. But you should, and you should evangelize your love for habitat wherever you can.

Three more strategies:

1. Avoid pesticides.
2. Don’t use pesticides.
3. Stop using pesticides.

Some resources:

Greenbelt Native Planet Center.
Million Pollinator Garden Challenge.
Mayor’s Monarch Pledge.
More on how to attract native bee species.

*I have done some elementary and middle school outdoor/indoor presentations for a NWF project in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. An enjoyable time was had by all, and nobody got stung. The fact that (some) bees (rarely) sting is the one thing just about everybody knows about bees. So that’s where I usually start when I talk about bees.

Megachile on Asclepias

On The Shoulders of Giants

You probably know Isaac Newton’s famed homage to his predecessors and rivals, especially the last line here, addressed to Robert Hooke: “What Descartes did was a good step. You have added much several ways, and especially in taking the colours of thin plates into philosophical consideration. If I have seen a little further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants.”

Here’s an earlier version: the 12th century theologian John of Salisbury wrote “We are like dwarfs sitting on the shoulders of giants. We see more, and things that are more distant, than they did, not because our sight is superior or because we are taller than they, but because they raise us up, and by their great stature add to ours.”

Paging through Wildlife of the Mid-Atlantic: A Compete Reference Manual by John H. Rappole (University of Pennsylvania, 2007) I was stopped dead in my tracks by a picture. (I was horizontal at the time, so my tracks were all quite mental.) (The book doesn’t have photo credits).

That’s Robert Ridgeway (1850-1929), the famed-ornithologist in training, on the left, and an unidentified man sitting at the base of a giant American Sycamore in southern Illinois in 1870. Look at the size of that tree! It’s staggering, Redwood-scale. Historic pictures of American Chestnuts tell a similar story. There used to be unbelievably large trees east of the Mississippi.

Of course, that’s not all. Those were not “pristine” forests found by Europeans. Native Americans used a potent technology, fire, to transform patches of the Americas for deer parks, berry gathering, and swidden (slash and burn/fire-fallow) agriculture. According to this, so anthropogenic were these peoples that, after the devastation of the Columbian genocide, their absence was felt in the global climate. Without native forest-managers, the woodlands grew so much in the Americas, sucking up so much carbon, that they contributed to the Little Ice Age.

A contemporary American Sycamore record-holder, a West Virginian 112 feet high and 25 feet in circumference at breast height, was some five centuries years old when a seventeen-year-old set fire to it in 2010, damaging it so much that it had to felled. Dwarves, indeed.

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Here’s a listing of the sex crimes alleged against Donald J. Trump, current President of the United States.

What’s the opposite of anthropomorphism?

I used to follow the rules forbidding anthropomorphism. But this old thought, allegedly “scientific,” has fallen to the wayside the more I observe animals, and the more I learn about them. This, then, jumped out at me in Lynda Lynn Haupt’s Pilgrim on the Great Bird Continent:

“In his observations of seals and caracaras and ovenbirds and earthworms, in his records of their behaviors and his sensing of their thoughts, [Darwin] utterly, and even joyfully, abandoned his privileged human status. He threw his own thoughts and behaviors right into the animal mix, putting all creatures, including humans, on the same continuum of consciousness. Rather than imposing human concepts upon animal behaviors, he animalized consciousness in general. The human “privileges” imparted by advances such as language grew out of this continuum ran than being plopped down on top of it.”

Long-time readers will know I get itchy and scratchy over the inane human names imposed on charismatic fauna. Eagles named George and Martha, that kind of thing. (Nobody seems to name bees, on the other hand, except for Monty Python’s “Eric the Half a Bee”). And don’t get me started on the animal metaphors we use on ourselves.

For we humans are fairly distinct in our monstrousness. There’s no reason to insult, say, pigs, rats, snakes, et al. by comparing us to them. It’s more accurate to describe those creatures who do, on occasion, waste food or befoul their nests, as so human.Yet we’re always — for as long as there are records, including cave paintings — drawing, singing, and emulating animals. We must be jealous. Of course, now that so many people are urbanized and digitized, animals are receding from our consciousness…

Image: Darren Waterston, embossed cover to A Swarm, A Flock, A Host: A Compendium of Creatures by Mark Doty & Darren Waterston (Prestel, 2013)

The Canary on the Windshield

Or rather, the lack of one. The canary in this case is all the dead bugs people used to have to wipe off their windshields. Michael McCarthy, who titled his book on the great decline of life on earth during our watch The Moth Snowstorm, writes about being old enough to remember all those dead bugs. But this doesn’t happen anymore.

Yesterday, I read of a new study that found that insect populations in Europe have plummeted over the last 27 years.

Here’s the news item.

Here’s the study.

Here’s the abstract:

“Global declines in insects have sparked wide interest among scientists, politicians, and the general public. Loss of insect diversity and abundance is expected to provoke cascading effects on food webs and to jeopardize ecosystem services. Our understanding of the extent and underlying causes of this decline is based on the abundance of single species or taxonomic groups only, rather than changes in insect biomass which is more relevant for ecological functioning. Here, we used a standardized protocol to measure total insect biomass using Malaise traps, deployed over 27 years in 63 nature protection areas in Germany (96 unique location-year combinations) to infer on the status and trend of local entomofauna. Our analysis estimates a seasonal decline of 76%, and mid-summer decline of 82% in flying insect biomass over the 27 years of study. We show that this decline is apparent regardless of habitat type, while changes in weather, land use, and habitat characteristics cannot explain this overall decline. This yet unrecognized loss of insect biomass must be taken into account in evaluating declines in abundance of species depending on insects as a food source, and ecosystem functioning in the European landscape.”

OF COURSE it’s pesticides and habitat destruction, for f’s sake! Will this, one day not too far from now, be like those images of aurochs painted in caves?

Raptor Wednesday at the Movies

The first sight of a church yard in Copenhagen triggered a memory that bloomed in Sweden. I’d seen such graveyards before: the gravel plots fenced in by foot-high hedges rigorously trimmed, the raked patterns in the somber gray sand. Very orderly, compact, clean.

It was all in the 1999 Swedish film Falkens öga/Kestrel’s Eye, about a pair of Common Kestrels nesting in a church building. The Swedish name for Kestrels is Tornfalk, which means tower falcon. How apt. In the film, we see the humans below come and go, tidying up their family plots; there’s a wedding and, inevitably, a funeral; hedge-trimmings are vacuumed up by a machine too big for the task. It’s all from the Kestrel’s POV (albeit without their greater span of the light spectrum!). The falcons dine on voles and, in one case, a lizard. Every descent to prey portrayed in the film is a successful kill, which is not particulately accurate; raptors miss a lot. The birds have six eggs. Five fledge: the fate of the sixth is not explicated; indeed, there’s no narration and the only human voices present are overheard from below.

Anyway, I found the film on Kanopy, which NYPL library card holders can use for free, and watched it again to refresh my memory. It turned out to take place at the very church in Skanör where we hunted for hedgehogs one night. The indented circle is where the falcons perched. Their nest was just below that to the left; you can barely see the top of the hole in the side of the wall. If I’d only realized this was the location as we ate breakfast next to it every day (the best breakfasts we’ve ever had out, by the way, even if there were no lizards or voles among the varied fare), I would have taken a more appropriate picture. The Flommen marshes, where we saw quite a few Kestrels hunting (perhaps the descendants of this pair?) are visible in a few scenes in the film. Skanörs borg, a ruin of a 13th century fort that’s mostly just a little hillock in the otherwise very flat terrain, is next to the church (parts of which date back about that far, too). This photo is from the top of the borg. The moat in the foreground was a lot less crowded with common reed in the late 1990s.
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I also finally saw Birders: The Central Park Effect, 2012, on the same Kanopy platform. It was better than I expected. Though Central is justly renown as a birding location, I’m a Brooklyn boy and only get there a few times a year, if that. But I certainly recognized some names and faces from the bird-watching community there. Loved seeing the late Starr Saphir, a wonderfully flinty and wise birder. She talks about the second-best bird sighting she ever had from her apartment, a juvenile Goshawk — quite a good fire escape bird that — but this made me wonder what her best ever bird sighting was from her apartment.

So it turned out to be a bird film festival, because then I watched The Messenger: An Ode to the Imperiled Songbird, originally released in 2015. I know people are always looking for the silver lining, celebrating small victories in conservation, but the overriding story remains one of gloom, so damned well documented in this movie. Climate change, habitat destruction, hunting, city light pollution and glass buildings, cats, poisoning via pesticides, etc. are all resulting in fewer and fewer birds (and other animals, of course). “The messenger” is the old canary in a coal mine, as well as the ornithologists on the front lines. Meanwhile, a Frenchman who gobbles up Ortolans in contravention of the law insists he’ll stop when science proves to him that the birds are disappearing, echoing all those fisherman who said the same thing, denying the facts until there were no more fish to fish.

A rune stone in the Danish National Museum, at least a thousand years old. I like the way it echoes the first picture above.Bonus! Film studies comrades of yore: do you know which Swedish film opens with a short view of a Tornfalk hovering, here skillfully caught off the screen by your correspondent?

Counter Friction

“Let your life be a counter friction to stop the machine,” H.D. Thoreau wrote in “Civil Disobedience.” Or at least gum it up a bit with your sabots, right?

Of course, we’re all deeply imbedded, imbricated, enveloped in a befouling system. But we do have some choices, don’t we?

Nobody makes you order from Amazon. Nobody forces you to watch television. What keeps you on Facebook now that you know you’re nothing but cattle to them to be sold to the highest bidding Nazi or Russian autocrat?

Did you ever wonder about the transformation of the word “brand”: from a mark of ownership seared into the flesh of slaves to a willingly sported symbol of attachment to corporate identity. Not such a long jump, really, except for the smell of burnt flesh in the air, and the fact that the slaves were bound.

How about “consumption”? The word means to burn up from within; it’s an old name for the scourge of TB, a horrible wasting away. Now it’s what keeps our deranged economy going by necessitating the burning of the very planet.

Sure, unless we would prefer not to, we have to eat. Yet a huge proportion of conventional supermarkets are filled with processed junk, entire aisles of pseudo-foods.

“No” is the beginning of liberation.


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