Archive for the 'Art Culture Politics' Category

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

McCarthy on the Roof, With Wildflowers

Tomorrow night, Michael McCarthy will be speaking at Kingsland Wildflower Roof in Greenpoint, right next to the egg-shaped digesters of the sewer facility. the_moth_snowstorm_for_web_df271fb2-a6f7-4703-9f9a-23ea2dbb7f70_1024x1024McCarthy’s The Moth Snowstorm: Nature and Joy is just out from NYRB. I intend to write further about the book soon, but suffice for now to say that it is a most thought-provoking elegy for life on Earth and a plea for using joy and wonder at the natural world to counter our own worst instincts and efforts. moth-snowstorm-pic(The British cover.)

The Trouble With Tibbles

img_0140Tibbles is right up there in the roll of famous cats, along with Hodge, who has a statue in Gough Square; Mrs. Chippy; and Unsinkable Sam, originally Oskar, who abruptly abandoned the Kriegsmarine for the Royal Navy and then proceeded to survive two more ships going down.

Tibbles was the pet of Lyall the lighthouse keeper on Stephens Island, off the coast of New Zealand. She was first brought to the island in 1894, evidently already pregnant, so it was either Tibbles or one of her offspring who ate the last of the island’s endemic wrens, a rare flightless passerine. Over a hundred cats were hunted down on the island in 1899, but it was already too late for Traversia lyalli.

Along with the Stephens Island Wren, cats have helped cause the extinction of 122 other species of birds; 25 species of reptiles; and 27 species of mammals. They kill many millions of birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians, and insects each year in the U.S. alone — the numbers are highly contested, but the thing about cats is that they are “subsidized predators,” fed by their keepers, which makes them (50% of the 86 million pet cats in the US are allowed to roam free) able to survive at extraordinarily high densities outside the house. Another 80 million or so cats are feral, outside all the time, and some of these are also fed, or subsidized, by humans as well, meaning they continue to do their thing out there. k10809A new book details this slaughter, its implications, and the struggle to stop it. The cat lobby has chosen, in classic style, to challenge the science and not the enormous problem. (This strategy goes back at least to the chemical industry’s response to Rachel Carson.)

I like cats. I like dogs, too. I grew up with both as pets. It seems to me a peculiarly limited mind that must distinguish itself between being a “cat person” or a “dog person.” But I am whole-heartedly on the side of all the other species against the cats.  This is an invasive species run absolutely amok.

If you have a pet cat, you must not let it out. It’s obviously healthier for the cat, too.

For the armies of feral cats, Trap, Neuter, & Release (TNR) programs superficially sound like a good idea, but they presume continuous management & funding since the supply of cats from fertile  domestic cats and the pet industry remains unchallenged. Meanwhile, the individual TNR’ed cat continues to kill during its lifetime. Feral cats have to be removed from habitat where they don’t belong.

Pet owners helped create this problem, but like consumers everywhere they don’t really want to take responsibility for it.img_9785This cat has an enclosed porch she can use, which lets her get plenty of fresh air but keeps her from stalking the animals she sees outside (we saw pigeons, doves, squirrels, cardinals, and a hummingbird in this Park Slope backyard over a few hours of lazy summer attention). Cat patios (“catios”) are a thing now; friends of mine have made window-box versions. Turns out to be pretty easy to stop a cat from what it wants to do. Rather less so for people.


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.


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.


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