Archive for the 'Art Culture Politics' Category

Perception

rockThis is a detail of a volcanic rock I picked up in Iceland a few years ago. Do you see what I see? The chocolate brown portions look like they are above the darker blue-black portions. They look like hills.

But they’re actually the subsurface part of the rock, the pits. Twice now I’ve experienced my eyes bringing this background to the foreground, as if it was a moving image, rack-focused. Now I can’t get my eyes to see it correctly.

This was a nice reminder that we should always consider our perception as well as our perspective. You all know about the classic social science studies which show how biases of various kinds color our perception of events (the majority of white students who say the white man who barges into the classroom with a gun is black, etc.), how malleable human witness turns out to be. TV dramas have long perpetuated the opposite notion, how foolproof eye-witness is, but then that bullshit industry has also convinced many that crime is much more prevalent than it actually is.

I was reading some comments in a piece on the myth of the black panther, which a fair number of people claim to have seen in the Southeast and elsewhere. After a thorough explanation of why there are no “black panthers,” the first comment essentially says: I know because I’ve seen one and everybody who disagrees with me has a closed mind. Actually, no; sorry, although mind might be the best place to look for your conviction. The fact that there are no black panthers will no more stop some from believing in them than the lack of verifiable UFOs stops UFO-spotters (or alleged abductees).

Interestingly, there don’t seem to be so many UFOs anymore. Could that phenomenon have been specific to its time and place? And aren’t these black panther sightings very much a phenomenon of our now? Doesn’t it seem to speak to a longing for the wild, a diminishment of the natural world, a rebellion against the shrinking of the imagination, not to mention a guilt-ridden sense of denial? The Thylacine, for instance, was “seen” for decades after its extermination in Tasmania. Many species are gone now, but we obsess on some examples: everybody knows the dodo, or thinks they do. Mostly they picture John Tenniel’s illustration for Lewis Carroll, for only a few parts of the bird remain; what it looked like is a conjecture.

We live in a time of a longing of another sort, too, at least among some. Too many, as it happens: millions are clamoring for a corrupt, orange-tinted reality-TV huckster, a con-man who wants to be a strong-man. A creature of astonishing mendacity, even on the spectrum of politician-bullshit, yet he still appeals to a crowd of sucker-punching racists and authoritarians as well as that desperate and broken contingent abandoned by the Democratic Party. I strive to understand how someone who lies so much can have a following, but Reagan long taught the Republicans that “facts are stupid things.” Rationality is irrelevant here: it’s emotion that empowers fascists, above all rage and resentment, and gives wing to the fantasy that Trumpenstein will get the trains running on time.

To return this to nature, which is of course inseparable from politics, consider the experiences of J. Drew Lanham, who “birds while black”: that’s the deplorable America Trump supporters are voting for, regardless of their reasons and/or their grievances.

Crane

parlorRowhouses are damned dark! With windows only on the short ends (and skylights on the top floor), the late 19th century brownstones Park Slope, Brooklyn, make for a gloomy weekend. The one we were recently house-sitting in had some amazing original details, like the door knobs, but boy were they a challenge to photograph in the permanent twilight. The hardware for the front door and the parlor doors were a sort of Chinoiserie/Japonesque style; the great gates of the parlor doors had hinges illustrated on both sides. I was particularly taken by the crane on the handles.door

Glazed Beetle

beetleCortland St.

The Nature of the Beast

imagesLast Sunday, I discussed the enemy. Shall we call it capitalism? In his short book Extinction: A Radical History, Ashley Dawson certainly does. “Our economic system is destroying the planetary life support system upon which we depend.”

Is this a controversial idea? I don’t think so, but I suppose it will be met with resistance in some quarters. Certainly everywhere people went as they diffused across the planet, the large animals disappeared–except interestingly enough in the place we started–long before the capitalist system emerged. Some might point an accusing finger at agriculture and the complex, hierarchal societies that developed from the need to store and record grain surpluses and manage rising populations. Talk about terraforming! Yet where today is Mesopotamia (Humbaba may have had his revenge over Gilgamesh after all)? The breadbasket of Rome? Rapa Nui? The only place “we” didn’t destroy the megafauna was back in the cradle of Africa, but we’re catching up there now.

Yet capitalism seems a particularly virulent engine of planetary destruction, predicated on continuous consumption and constant growth, which as Edward Abbey pointed out was an impetus shared by cancer cells. Likewise, everything must be commodified: resources, certainly; but also genomes; personal and familial relationships; such givens of the commons as water. Recently yet another bottled water company has admitted it’s nothing but tap water in the plastic containers that will outlive all of us by generations upon generations.

Inevitably, the “tendency of capital accumulation to destroy its own conditions of reproduction” has resulted in our present condition: the sixth great extinction event on planet Earth.

I am always struck by the old echoes in the word consumption, which used to be a disease. Isn’t it still? The root of the word means a burning up from within; consumption the disease, better known now as tuberculosis, was seen as a consuming fire that wasted away the body. (Humans are such survivors that consumption, until it was beaten, temporarily, by antibiotics, was adopted as sort of fashionable pose, tragic yet worthy of operas.)

Now, one of the problems with fire is that it makes smoke. Pollution has long been capital’s smoke, from the toxins poured into the air, water, earth, and quelle surprise, human and all the other life forms, to the chemistry of fossil fuels itself. Human beings have never seen so much carbon in the atmosphere as there is right now.

(Next Sunday: the once and future world.)

The Real War

IMG_9542The great Bill McKibben is urging us to declare war on climate change, mobilizing like Americans did in the Second World War against the enemy. But is his enemy the right one?

We know how stunningly disruptive climate change is, and how much faster it is all happening, and how quickly the bad news piles up. But the definition of “enemy” needs to be more specific — for it is hard to fight a symptom (cf. “war against terror”).

Don’t we know the real enemy? Isn’t it the carbon industry, and beyond that an entire economic system that calls devouring the planet “growth” and pours its waste production into the commons (and commonwealth) as a cost the rest of us pay?

You may not know this, but McKibben, who is a personal hero of mine, has been on the climate front for a long time. The End of Nature warned about climate change two decades ago. But good deeds do not go unpunished. He has been declared a public enemy of those who profit off of carbon — the oil, gas, and related industries — and their wholly-owned representatives in the Republican Party. Hacks shadow McKibben, filming his activities, trying, it seems, to show he’s a hypocrite for living in this world, too. Similarly, climate scientists are constantly harassed by tools and fools, paid or not (and more than a few are just nihilistic antis) of the Koch brothers and others who have placed their fortunes and their twisted politics in the service of denying physics and chemistry.

For instance, we now know that Exxon has been well aware of the dangers of continued carbon pumping into the atmosphere for many years. Like the cigarette companies, they have spent decades lying, bullying their critics, and buying politicians, all in the service of profit-making misery and death.

The fight is political. The profiteers are well aware of this. True, some of the human beings at the helm of corporations are loathsome examples of humanity — the excremental monstrosity that wealth sometimes results in is too well personified, daily, by Donald Trump — but it is really the system that is the cause.

(Next Sunday’s sermon will return to this theme.)

IMG_9489

Maryland Monument Dasher

wreathTwo hundred and forty years ago today, the British and their Hessian swine-mercenaries walloped the still-loose conglomeration that was the Continental Army in Brooklyn. There’s a memorial in Prospect Park to the Maryland 400, troops who held the Old Stone House (the existing structure in J. J. Byrne Park is a recreation) down in the Gowanus while the rest of Washington’s soldiers made a pell-mell strategic retreat to Brooklyn Heights, and thence across the river. Geo. is supposed to have said “what brave fellows I must this day lose” about the sacrificial Marylanders.

Yet the British unaccountably did not press their advantage in Brooklyn. They occupied New York, but lost their opportunity of crushing the new American army right here. Big mistake. This, by the way, is also why we don’t have a national health system today.

Someone has laid a fresh wreath on the memorial in honor of the 400.

A pair of Blue Dasher dragonflies, concerned with their own history, were using the fence to tee up. This is the female.

Rosamond Purcell

If you dig deep enough into this blog, you will come across a near-surreptitious image of a part of Olaus Worm’s famous cabinet of curiosities. The original print of the Museum Wormianum was published as the frontispiece of the 1655 Worm’s Museum, or History of Very Rare Things, Natural and Artificial, Domestic and Exotic, Which are Stored in the Author’s House in Copenhagen. I noted it originally because there was a Horseshoe Crab up there on the wall.

Imagine my delight, then, when in the new documentary An Art That Nature Makes: The Work of Rosamond Purcell, I found out that Purcell recreated Worm’s room. It is now located in the Natural History Museum of Denmark.

Photo of Purcell's photo of Red-wing Blackbird egg, for which there was no collection data available. Red-wing BB eggs are quite variable.

Photo of Purcell’s photo of Red-wing Blackbird egg, for which there was no collection data available. Red-wing BB eggs are quite variable.

I had not heard of Purcell before this film. But the image below is being used for the movie poster, so I figured I needed to see what was going on. I recommend the film.

Thanks to the public library, I’m now looking further into Purcell’s work.

Egg & Nest is a volume of photos of eggs and nests from the Western Foundation of Vertebrate Zoology; the curators give a rousing defense of such collections.

Swift as a Shadow documents extinct and rare species through specimens mostly at Leiden’s natural history museum; there is a short but telling piece about islands and extinction (we learn the name of one of the cats that killed all the Stephens Island Wrens in the world).

Crossing Over: Where Art and Science Meet is one of her three collaborations with Stephen Jay Gould (a voice sorely missed in an age when unreason propels so much political bile).

Owl’s Head shows she can write as well as use a camera.

The Great Egret (Ardea alba). Photo by Rosamond Purcell.

The Great Egret (Ardea alba). Photo by Rosamond Purcell.


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