Archive for the 'Art Culture Politics' Category

One Way, or Another

img_1521Northern Mockingbird defending its territory.

Trump’s choice to dismember the Department of Education and feed off its corpse is another of these cultish, right-wing, plutocratic nutbags this country produces far too many of, but of course even most Democrats have been fine with undermining public education. Yet privatization of education, as other public goods, only serves to enrich plutocrats and increase social inequality; it manifestly fails at “ejucating Amurca’s children.” Diane Ravitch, who began her career thinking “school choice” was reasonable — before she realized it was the way white Southerners weaseled out of de-segregation — is now one of our most trenchant critics of the corruptions of privatization.


feetTo meander, wandering this way and that, like the ancient Greek river Maiandros, by way of the Latin Maeander. The word itself has meandered down to us. There was no guarantee it would ever arrive here after its strange journey.

That river was in Phrygia, Anatolia, now Turkey. The province also bequeathed us the the cap of liberty, the bonnet rouge, through, evidently, some confusion with the pileus, the conical hat worn by the manumitted in Rome. It was a revolutionary American symbol before it was Revolutionary French one, by the way. Absurdly, however, about the only vestige of it here is in the U.S. Senate, a house designed to contain democracy, which sports a red Liberty cap on its seal. But I meander…220px-bust_attis_cdm(2nd Century CE marble of the young Attis, sporting a Phrygian cap; picture from Wikipedia.)

One can meander in thoughts, among books, especially dictionaries and encyclopedias, on streets, in the woods and meadows and along rivers and, endlessly, the shore. This is a wandering course. It is good for thinking, the solvitur ambulando, solving your problems by walking them out. The flâneur—who wasn’t supposed to have any issues to resolve, being a wealthy idler—is the 19th century’s ideal of the meanderer, Seine-ing all about the town.

Interestingly, meander’s earliest uses in English suggested confusion, intricacy, dare we say byzantine? Mazes, labyrinths, convolutions. Meandrine means to be characterized by convolutions, used in describing brain-corals, and, of course, the coral-complicated brain itself. Meandrous means winding, a word that broken in two suggests the habit of raptors seen outside my window: wind-ing.

Today, though, meandering signifies a kind of liberty, like its coeval cap once did. The straight and narrow is no match for the convoluted trail: what’s your hurry when death is the end of the race? Meandering is the course of the world.


In “Walking,” Thoreau writes “Perchance, when, in the course of ages, American liberty has become a fiction of the past,—as it is to some extent a fiction of the present,—the poets of the world will be inspired by American mythology.”

For the love of moth snowstorms

the_moth_snowstorm_for_web_df271fb2-a6f7-4703-9f9a-23ea2dbb7f70_1024x1024A public service announcement: I wrote about Michael McCarthy’s necessary book The Moth Snowstorm for Humans and Nature. I hope you’ll pop over and read it.

Biophilia must be political.

The Chat of the Town

For more than two weeks now, a Yellow-breasted Chat has been haunting the northern side of Trinity Church graveyard in lower Manhattan, the side opposite musical-comedy star Alexander Hamilton’s grave.

Chats are small, distinctive songbirds, their creamy yellow breasts contrasting sharply with their olive green tops. Bold white spectacle-like markings about the eyes jump out at you amid the Starlings, House Sparrows, and White-throated Sparrows otherwise found on the church grounds. Always rare in the city, by this time of year Chats should already be in Central America.

The city’s large parks are renowned for their bird populations, but smaller patches of green, including Park Avenue medians and midtown vest-pocket parks, can host a surprising variety of birds during the spring and fall migrations. Bryant Park is the best known of these: there have been 121 species seen there according to ebird, the Cornell/Audubon database to which birders submit their sightings. Trinity Church, with more gravestones than trees, has 75 species recorded.

This may not be all to the good, for tall buildings and bright lights at night seem to act as malign vortices for migrating birds, trapping them in the greens below until they can recover, if they can recover, and fly out again.

Chats, generally skulking creatures of thick, brushy habitat, seem particularly out of place at Trinity. There is a short stretch of low plantings on the graveyard’s western end, overlooking Trinity Place. You might spot the bird there, underneath in the shadows; or the search may take longer, because, after all, it’s a bird, darting, tree-hopping, ground-hugging.

Recently, a birder was looking for the Chat in a drizzle. He ran into a man with a camera who asked him with exasperation, “Have you found him yet?” “No,” the birder had to say wistfully, “but there’s a nice Winter Wren over there…” The non-birder was perplexed. “A what? I meant Hamilton!”

The New Yorker, The Nation, Mother Jones, New York Review of Books, Harpers… are all excellent magazines to subscribe to in these darkening times.

Pitcher Plant

SarraceniaOne of the Sarracenia pitcher plants at NYBG; they’ve at least 7 American species in the Native Garden, though only one, S. purpurea, is native to New York.

Something’s blocking the tube here, but this moth still can’t seem to get out. No, this isn’t a metaphor for the times.

But, speaking of natives: my people came to the U.S. at least 200 years ago on my mother’s side and in 1870 on my father’s. I myself was born overseas, in Japan, where my parents were stationed with the U.S. State Department. I grew up in Poland, Canada, Italy, and Germany, as well as in MD and VA around DC.

Cosmopolitanism has always been my thing. There are lots of different kinds of Americans, and I like it that way. I live, after all, in the multicultural-polygot metropolis of Brooklyn, New York.

Yet this scoundrel of a con man Trump has used the filthy flag of nativism to gain power, giving unprecedented moral support to the worst aspects of our history, the Klan and neo-Nazis, causing a spike in verbal and physical violence against people black and brown, not least in schools. Eternal shame on those dupes who voted for this garbage, even if all they thought and hoped they were voting for was “change”; eternal support for all they threaten. I’m a middle-aged white man, but I utterly repudiate the bullshit stereotypically assigned to my ilk and will do all in my power to undo it.

Picnic, Lightning

snacktimeJunk food lives beyond the jaws.img_0570God-damned balloons kill and maim animals. Even good environmentalists I know continue to buy these things for their kids. Stop it, already. Your kids don’t want to choke turtles and strangle birds to death, do they?

Nothing Against Mars Per Se, But Earth First!

The technological cheerleaders, much the same crowd who have facilitated the increase in inequality, diminishment of democracy, and general all-around debasement of society, are awfully excited by prince Elon Musk’s plan to remake human civilization… on Mars. Frankly, it looks as optimistic as a Popular Science cover from the 1970s, but publicity is the key to all things, so onwards, ad astra!

I read a lot of science fiction back then, though, and thought the best of it was about us, not the gizmos, but that lesson doesn’t seem to have settled so well with the technocrats.

From what I understand from the Elongated One, there’s been no thought advanced on how this Martian society of his will be organized, how decisions will be made, who will surveil and police it (will they shoot unarmed black men there, too?), and who will clean it. Will be the liberal plutocrats, those smart, decent folk who went to the best schools, go to the weddings of their gay hedge-fund manager friends, raise their daughters to be CEOs who are lauded for the innovation of killing jobs, and are full of virtue, dedicated to a philanthropy that gives them more say than the rest of us?

Well, maybe not that last task, the cleaning, I mean. An underclass must always be good for something. Using their neuro-smart apps, the impeccable Uber-menschen can contract out microhour-laborers to swab down those embarrassing space sickness incidents. I can just see the trouble those hot Venusian au pairs are going to cause in the pod with Mr. & Ms. Furturismo.

Mars! Imagine living in an air-lock. Colonization will be like buying a house, Musk speculates — an interesting word, speculates, in our casino-lottery economy of bubble and bust. I suppose for some the enclosed sterility has its attractions: there’ll always be Paris, or at least pictures of it, and Pokemon.

There’s a movement among our masters that goes by the name transhumanism — I envision a brain floating in a bespoke broth — which fears mortality, which loathes the pitiful meat of the body, which is alienated from the planet and the glorious web — even as much as we have punched holes in it — of life here on Earth. Evidently, they can’t wait to get away from the devastation they’ve profited off of here. So where better to build the ultimate gated community, the Martha’s Vineyard and Burning Man of the heavens, than Mars?

Imagine not seeing and hearing the Chimney Swifts overhead in summer. Imagine not experiencing the wind moving the leaves of a big tree, and a whole troupe of trees swaying in impossible combination. Imagine missing out on the dragonflies, moths, skippers, grasshoppers, bees, zinging around a meadow on a hot summer day. Imagine not being able to stand on a beach as gulls float by in the wind. Imagine never being woken up by a passing kestrel or feeling the rain pelt down on you.

I don’t know about you, but being immured in a sealed station on an airless planet with a bunch of libertarian assholes sorta sounds like… death.

But the true horror is that, for so many, already, this won’t be so different from what they know now, having forgotten they live on a planet so rich with life it can make you ache in your bones with wonder. img_0186


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