Archive for the 'Art Culture Politics' Category

Brooklyn Botanic Axes Arborist

Two Monday’s ago, the management of the Brooklyn Botanic Garden cut down a quirky and beloved tree. Staff and community opposed the arborcide. The garden’s own staff didn’t think the gloriously stumpy “BBG Treehouse” needed to come down, so, like some capo di tutti capi, the institution got outside contractors to do the killing.

Then, on Monday the 30th, the BBG cut down the arborist who stood up for the tree! Alec Baxt, an eight-year Garden veteran, one third of the aborists on staff, was fired. I’ve never met Baxt, but from what I’ve read, read, and heard, he sounds like someone you’d want on your team.

Except, of course, he wasn’t “professional”: no, he spoke out, he protested. He was a good citizen, not just an employee. But that’s a surefire way to lose your job in this nasty neoliberal economy (even with a union; his union is appealing his summary dismissal). Whistleblowers in a non-profit? Welcome to 2018. The corporate mentality demands a cowed, submissive “family” of employees. No thinking, no criticism! They basically want serfs under them. Even in a botanical garden.

Democracy dies in darkness, they say, but it also dies at work, where we spend a good deal of our lives.

The Pharaoh at BBG is Scot (with one T) Medbury. He works for a board drawn from the ranks of our upper classes and, boy, we know how well they like workers. Some years ago, Board/Medbury got rid of the science staff and science mission in their effort to turn this grand old institution into what an anonymous insider calls a “posh park.” It’s more a wedding venue now than a botanical garden. The garden is on city land, by the way, and receives city funding. Medbury’s leadership betrayal of the garden’s civic mission, including ending a time-honored route to STEM careers for Brooklynites, was a real blow to the city, yet it went unnoticed by a Bloomberg administration busy making the city more accommodating to billionaires (…who sit on boards).

This president’s 2016 salary was reported as $291,210. I don’t know what the aborists and gardeners make, but you can be sure it’s rather less. The people who actually do the important work, as in so many other places, are undervalued, ignored, and belittled by cadres of vice presidents, senior vice presidents, and executive vice presidents, not to mention dictator-presidents (mostly men still, but now with corporate feminism women can be corporate ogres, too). You could prune a tangle of managerial deadwood from this organizational tree and nobody would notice.

Don’t get me wrong: the BBG does great things, but that’s because of the dedication and knowledge of its frightened and demoralized staff. And now, with Baxt’s firing, these workers know that the terrible swift sword of the HR department is always there to slice them down, like a hapless tree, in punishment.

Medbury, spare that tree!
Touch not a single sprout!
Everybody loved it:
Visitors, staff, especially kids
Who enveloped themselves in it.

Wait, what? Damn it,
You chopped it down!
And whoa! Now your vengeance
Takes a power saw to the staff.

(With apologizes to George Pope Morris.)

UPDATED: Andy Newman of the New York Times wrote about this. In case you find take overwrought, consider that this fine institution threw him, his photographer, and Baxt out of the garden…


Did you know the verb parking originally meant setting up strips of park, often with trees, in the center or the edges of roads? Then those trees along the road were roped into being used to tie up horses. The meaning of parking thus changed: it became what you did to your horse. From there it was a short and fateful jump to the urban hellscape of cars, including cutting down the original trees to make room for more “parking.”

I’m sorry to ruin your day. So here’s a Black-crowned Night Heron standing on a flooded patch of tarmac that was formerly a runway. Not much consolation, but some.


Have you gotten to that long NYT Magazine piece blaming “human nature” for the radical disruptions of global climate transformation? Say what? What about, you know, politics, or the way political power is distributed, or who actually runs things? Not to mention which humans have used up all those carbon-releasing resources. Hello?

There are other critical reminders out there in the way of this publishing event, but these two are particularly good:Kate Aronoff and Naomi Klein both cut to the quick.

(Rich does provide a perfect illustration of ideological blindness, though. He, and his paper, simply can’t see the neoliberalism for the fire.)

BBG Treehouse Razed

It’s evil tidings Tuesday, evidently.

Yesterday, the Brooklyn Botanic Garden removed the last of a beloved London Plane tree. Most of the giant old tree had been cut down earlier. Left until yesterday was a viable, hollowed-out stump, continuously, gloriously sprouting at the top. It was known as “the treehouse,” a quirky landmark that quickly became beloved: kids called it a fairy house, and adult visitors were fascinated by it. It should have become an educational focus.

Instead, according to someone who was social media-ing as the tree, contractors removed it while staff were on break yesterday. Both staff members and community members opposed the removal. The garden’s brilliant horticulture department, however, doesn’t make the rules. The BBG’s President mysteriously claimed that the sprouts were a danger. Coppicing and pollarding, ancient tree management strategies, evidently weren’t an option for him. This is, by the way, the same President who dismantled the garden’s science department in 2013.

I wrote about this at the time. Scientists renowned in the field were terminated; New York City lost some great educators. The herbarium was about to be shipped out of state, until another institution jumped in at the last minute to keep this vital local resource local. The New York Metropolitan Flora Project was terminated … though the BBG’s web page claims scientists are still working on it!

I also wrote on the occasion of the subsequent transformation of the garden’s mission statement into marketing blather. Getting rid of science and scientists went against the garden’s mission, so they simply changed the mission. (Orwell died before such non-profiteers became a thing.)

We often assume non-profit institutions are free from the corruptions that beset… institutions. But when staff are too intimidated to speak out in public, you know something is profoundly wrong.

There’s an awful lot of ugliness under the veneer of the sanctified appellation “non-profit.” The way this big-institution philanthropy thing works is that boards of directors made up of the wealthy, who get tax breaks at the expense of the rest of us, hire Presidents whose job is to fawn over the board. It’s institutional incest: they protect each other (see also: WNYC, AMNH). It’s no aside to note that the rich folk on these big institution boards are also often supporters of Republicans assaulting democracy and the environment.

Meanwhile, legions of unnecessary VPs combine in a front against the employees, those with all the actual botanical and horticultural knowhow, and the community. (Let’s not forget that in the BBG’s case, the city, that is, us, are also funders via our tax dollars.) Sadly, the vicious social relations of management lording it over employees are replicated everywhere.

Pesticide Terminal

What is the Parks Department thinking here just above the salt-water marsh?According to this, they’re applying Triclopyr by “hand placement” for the control of Cottonwood (Populus deltoides). But if they’re doing it by hand, why don’t they physically weed out the potential trees instead of putting another biocide down? Yeah, Cottonwood is a bear: a sprout can drill down a root feet deep in a very short time, but:a hundred yards away is a serious thicket of Cottonwood. The species is a very prolific seed disperser. The understory here is now practically a wall of Cottonwood saplings (along with some kind of bedstraw). Won’t this just continue to spread out into the wetlands and necessitate continued applications of poison? What’s the end game here? Our old friend Ranger Robin, gone rogue, can’t believe this nonsense still goes on.

Three Books: Paths Not Taken

“One could be an environmentalist, or a social activist, but not both, and the recent rise of environmental justice helps underscore just how little justice has historically meant to environmentalism.”

Daegan Miller’s vital This Radical Land: The Natural History of Dissent explores the paths not taken since Henry David Thoreau mixed it all up. Thoreau is one of the founders of environmentalism, but a funny thing happened on the way to the present: we lost sight of him. “Instead of Thoreau’s multifaceted radicalism, mainstream American environmentalism has followed the lead of Theodore Roosevelt — a man dedicated to wilderness and whiteness and wealth and martial manliness and the market — the nation’s ‘eugenicist in chief'[…].”

Miller digs into the dissenting, counter-modern tradition, not to be confused with the antimodern. Things like the abolitionist settlement of African American farmers in the Adirondacks, and communards in the red woods long before the 1960s, two histories I wasn’t aware of.

The fiction that “nature” is some kind of thing outside human history erases the genocide and ethnic cleansing that depopulated the lands that became our national parks. These weapons also set the stage for the colonial settlement and exploitation of land, minerals, water, even the air. I bet most Americans still remain ignorant of the Gold Rush-sparked genocide in California.

All this is important not least because the big conservation groups are creations of capitalism. Is it any wonder they have proven themselves so impotent against climate change? Of course, they’ve done some good things, but they have also helped lock up what Miller calls a “free-ranging green imagination” into a capitalist box whose walls are closing in. For “progress,” this thing that is always supposed to be moving ahead and expanding possibilities, is quite plainly thinning out and reducing the Earth’s life systems.

Be sure to read Miller’s final chapter.
Here’s another, echoing book. Colors of Nature: Culture, Identity, and the Natural World, edited by A.H. Deming and L. Savoy, can serve as an further opening into these themes. It’s a collection of essays exploring the question “why is there so little ‘nature writing’ by people of color?” As you can imagine, the category “nature writing” is itself interrogated by the thirty contributors. Nature was as segregated as society, and in some cases still is (take that train up to Breakneck Ridge). Poisons are still disproportionately dumped on the poor: lead in cities; pesticides on farms; toxic dumps next to black communities. The black bird watcher still has the cops called on him or is threatened more directly by the racism-twisted, who’ve been so savagely unleashed by Donald “neo-Nazis are fine people” Trump.
Let’s explore another text: Gina Crandall’s Tree Gardens: Architecture and The Forest. A study of trees used in parks and memorials, the book uses Gateway Memorial Park as one of its case studies. Maybe you’ve been there? The Gateway Arch was built on land fronting the Mississippi in St. Louis. That space was created by “urban renewal,” which James Baldwin more appropriately called “Negro removal.” The so-called “blight” was home and workplace of thousands. It was wiped clean off the map. Then the space was left abandoned as a big empty lot for a decade because WWII stymied plans for the arch. The ground-level erasure of history was complete. The ironies are bitter indeed: this ethnic cleansing was done to celebrate westward expansion. Then the construction unions building the arch and surrounding park refused to hire black workers. None of this is mentioned in the book. You may argue that this is not the book’s topic. My point here is that history must be a part of such stories.

Miller organized his history around “witness trees,” — “green, enchanted, ungovernable, wild-talking” trees rooted in living history. The trees in Gateway have entirely too shallow roots.

201 Years Young

Happy birthday, Henry David Thoreau! Here are some delicate yet immensely strong lacewing eggs suspended from swamp milkweed bespangled with aphids. A perfect posy for you!

Now, it’s hard not to feel despair as kleptocratic-fundamentalist fascism runs rampant over the land. But don’t let the bastards get you down. They’re counting on our acquiescence and apathy. Call “bullshit!” and remember your history.

Amongst that glorious tapestry of dissent, I always find solace in Thoreau, one of our greatest radicals. Here’s everything I’ve posted about him in this blog — which was originally inspired by the example of his journal. Dig in.

The Big Lie

The headline, one of many examples now, reads “Trump blames rising German crime rate on immigrants.” Yes, that’s what he said, so in that sense that is the “news.” Now his legions of the night will repeat it ad infinitum. But the facts are quite different, as is so often the case with the President of Mendacity: German crime is way down (as in the U.S.), so Trump is actually incorrect. But the headline variety of news, which more people see/hear than not, megaphones his dangerous propaganda.

As George Lakoff argues, media should be reporting Trump’s statements, an astonishing proportion of which are untrue, within a reality or truth “sandwich” which brackets the untruth with the actual facts and some fact-checking. Everything else plays into Trump’s hands. On one of those malignant hands, he needs the media, because it fuels his monstrous media-made celebrity; on the other, he and his allies attack the press, one of the foundations of democracy, in ways unprecedented in our history but very familiar in the regimes Trump has avowedly praised: Russia, China, North Korean. Trump himself has called reporters the “enemies of the people” because some of them do challenge his lies and his administrations’ lies. The NRA’s spokesmodel has called for journalist to be “curb-stomped” and the fascist protege of American Museum of Natural History Trustee Rebekah Mercer has called for journalists to be assassinated. 

The Nazis called the opposition press, before its liquidation, Lügenpresse, the lying press, and some of Trump’s supporters have actually revived the word.

There have been a lot of Nazi analogies flying in the air of late. Nazism is historically specific, and while Trump has disgustingly praised neo-Nazis as “fine people,” it’s really the mutable beast of fascism that we need to be looking at. MAGA is text-book: a cultural revivalist fantasy, vague enough to mean whatever you want, powerful enough to attract nativists like shit does flies. See also the tactic of the Big Lie, perfected by Hitler and Goebbels, in which lies are bold and often. Key too is the targeting of some scapegoated portion of the population. This has worked repeatedly for conservatives over the years: communists! immigrants! blacks! Muslims! immigrants! MS-13!

See Fintan O’Toole for more on these days of “pre-fascism,” the testing out of barbarism, the preparing of Republicans to accept even more outrage and savagery.

Now, we know that facts do not necessarily change people’s opinions. Many actually double-down in determination (nobody wants to be wrong) when presented with evidence that they’re wrong. Cognitive scientists and Republicans know this very well. When we combine authoritarian-mindedness, fear, and ignorance, with perhaps a soupçon of conspiracy-thinking, there’s a hardcore of Trumpian zombies out there. They’re a minority, but their party is working hard to lock in its minority power by hook and by crook. And every single lie of Trump’s bakes them in further.

I’m continuously stunned that people fall for this garbage, but there you go. I suppose it’s garbage in, garbage out for these fools. They actually remind me of the crowds that gathered for lynchings. It was a big ol’ picnic for many of those folks. These public displays of torture were a communal celebration of white supremacy, a performance of terror that validated their racism. They took home souvenirs — pictures of the corpse, pieces of burnt flesh. They displayed castrated genitalia in store fronts.

And no doubt they all claimed to be good Christian folk thinking themselves besieged by their enemies, who they fantasized were as legion and vast as the night.

Every action and contribution counts: some thoughts on resisting behind the scenes.


Bookmark and Share

Join 549 other followers

Nature Blog Network