Archive for the 'Art Culture Politics' Category


“Brooklyn with its hills.”
“The ample hills of Brooklyn.”
The view from the morainal hill.

Here’s Whitman again, talking of the borough I’ve lived in for a quarter century. Hills? You ask quizzically if you’ve never walked up Union Street from Carroll Gardens across the Gowanus Canal up to Grand Army Plaza. Whitman was a great walker, and that’s the only way to discover Brooklyn’s Romanesque topography.

The hills are too shallow to really notice by car and the subway simply bores through them. The buildings and grids of roads obscure the topography. Of course, instead of the Eternal City’s seven, we actually have just one, a long, curving hillock that reaches 220 feet above sea-level at its highest. This is the Harbor Hill moraine, the depository of the glacial bulldozer. It’s pieces of upstate, jumbled till, bouldery erratics. It stretches, roughly, from the south of Bay Ridge and Dyker Heights through Sunset Park, and Park Slope, and turns east at Prospect Heights. Through Crown Heights and Cypress Hills the great mole hill moves into Queens and then keeps going to the end of Long Island. The names of these neighborhoods have their altitude (if not attitude) written into them, although admittedly “Sunset Park” is a bit ambiguous, although its view isn’t.
An Atlantic Fiddler Crab, on the mucky edge where Brooklyn peters out into Jamaica Bay and the Atlantic.

Both Prospect Park and Green-Wood Cemetery nestle on the divide between moraine and outwash plain. Their eastern-most sections are as flat as Flatbush and Flatlands, names of neighborhoods on the other side of the moraine, out there in the outwash plain that used to stretch a hundred miles south when all that water was locked up in ice. Both Green-Wood and Prospect also have the borough’s highpoints: Battle Hill (220ft) in the cemetery, Lookout Hill (196ft) in Prospect. Combined with Mount Prospect (198ft) above Grand Army Plaza, across Flatbush Avenue from the park, these are the highest spots in the borough. Fiddler better watch out…

A Specimen Day

The spotted hawk swoops by and accuses me, he complains
of my gab and my loitering.

I too am not a bit tamed, I too am untranslatable,
I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.

Walt Whitman was born this day 200 years ago, “starting from fish-shape Paumanok” or Long Island as the prosaic call it. (What a boring day for geography that was! “It sure is a long island, by nab, so we might as well call it ‘Long,’ right?”).

Whitman was a resident of Brooklyn for 28 years, but only one of the places he lived has survived in the constant urban churn. 99 Ryerson Street is nondescript: no matter, he was living there when the first edition of Leaves of Grass was published in 1855. He kept reworking and revising this protean salmagundi of a book, taking it from a dozen poems to over 400 for the “deathbed edition” of 1891. I take my quote above from the last section of “Song of Myself” from that last edition. (I’ll be taking part in the SOM Marathon on 6/2.)

John Burroughs, who supplied the motto of this blog, wrote the first biography of Whitman, Notes on Walt Whatman as Poet and Person published in 1867. Whitman quotes Burroughs in Specimen Days, with some changes and deletions to the original (which was itself edited by Whitman before it was published). The collage-like Specimen Days begins with some delightful reminiscences of the Long Island of the Paumanacker Walt’s youth, by the way, and includes notes on nature very much worth reading.

“Specimen” comes from the Latin specere, to look; the first commandment of the naturalist. So, although Days also includes his writing about of the bloody horrors of the Civil War, he doesn’t mean the clinical or laboratory sense of “specimen,” the usage used almost exclusively today. He means exemplary. “Loafe with me on the grass,” and if you haven’t got meadow, the beach pebbles…

Now, let’s not get too carried away. Whitman both transcends his time and is mired in it. His views of women were quite traditional, even as he befriended feminists and paved the way for a new sensuality, a new sexuality (all kinds: hetero- and homo- sexuality were not then words). He was a cool abolitionist, not a “hot” one. As Henry Louis Gates, Jr., notes in the necessary Stony the Roady: Reconstruction, White Supremacy, and the Rise of Jim Crow, “Being an advocate of the abolition of slavery was not the same thing as being a proponent of the fundamental equality of black and white people, or the unity of the human species.” As Redemption terrorism literally executed the vestiges of Reconstruction, WW got more and more racist as he aged.

If you’re in or near NYC, there are Whitman exhibits at NYPL, the Grolier Club, and the Morgan. For three weeks in June, they’ll all be running at the same time, so you can see them all in one specimen day. (I’ve written about the exhibits for Fine Books and Collections magazine, out in June).

“… I restore my book to the bracing and buoyant equilibrium of concrete outdoor Nature, the only permanent reliance for sanity of book or human life.”(Cover of the 1855 edition, on display at NYPL.)

A.C. Bent & Co. on Raptors

Arthur Cleveland Bent published twenty-one volumes in his Life Histories of North American Birds between 1919 and 1968. The last two volumes were posthumous. They originally came out in the U.S. National Museum Bulletin. Later they were republished by Dover. There’s an internet edition now.

The Dover paperbacks are a standard sight in used book store natural history sections. But I’d never seen the volume(s) on raptors until last month. Turns out Bent produced two volumes on diurnal and nocturnal raptors, originally published in 1937 and 1938. The Dover edition I purchased at Oasis Books in Gloucester Court House, VA, came out in 1961. One Frank Schoff put his name and “1962” inside Part 1. “3/62” is written in Part 2, but seems to be in a different hand. These covers, though….

Bent’s method is to cite the literature, his own (evidently extensive) notes (dating back to the 1880s), and many correspondents. There are a fair number of collaborators, too. For instance, the Eastern Sparrow Hawk (what they used to call American Kestrel) chapter is written by one.

It’s all wonderfully anecdotal stuff. There is some great material in these things. But if you’ve never delved into them, beware! Bird-people were a bloody bunch back in the day. Egg-collectors, bird shooters, stomach content turner-outers (to see what the birds ate) galore.

Bent goes to subspecies level. It was also an era of “splitters,” meaning rather more species than are now accepted.

Here, for instance, is how I use such archaic material. Driving south, we saw a good number of Ospreys. More recently, I counted five kettling together over Woodland Cemetery in the Bronx. I’ve often wondered how many of these fish hawks a habitat can contain. Bent, writing before DDT, speaks of regular colonial breeding. E.g.: in 1911, Gardiners Island, at the eastern end of Long Island, had an estimated 200 nests. The island is about 3000 acres. Through the magic of ebird, I thought I’d check out how many Osprey have been reported there recently. However, there’s not a single report from the island! The island, rather remarkably, has been privately owned by the same family… for nearly four centuries. There are no ebirders in the current crop, evidently.

It seems to be World Horseshoe Crab Day… I’ve written quite a bit about these creatures.

The Fate of Us?

Environmentalist eschatology has it that the world is ending. Nature? I think not. The human world as we’ve known it, undoubtedly — that has been the pattern for as long as there have been humans; it’s just a question of timing. But the planet will abide. Much simplified and profoundly poisoned by humans, true, but the Earth will keep spinning, life will keep living, however much we’ve knee-capped it. One day, all this will just be a toxic layer in the geological strata. The HS — for Homo sapiens — Line?

It’s we who are the worry. Among ourselves, anyway. Ain’t nobody going to miss us when we’re gone.

Climate instability, global networks of trade, exotic diseases sparked at the ever expanding human/wilderness frontier. These three horsemen go together.. and have done so for some time now. This is the thought that inevitably bubbles up while reading Kyle Harper’s The Fate of Rome: Climate, Disease, & the End of Empire. “The precise conjuncture of environmental damage, political disintegration, and religious ferment decided the final sequence of Rome’s demise.”

As we race towards our own climatic fate, much of historiography is now climatological. There was, for instance, a Roman climate optimum (200 BC – 150 AD), when the glory of Rome was something to write home about. It was warm and wet — only August didn’t see rain, unlike now when the Mediterranean climate is essentially dry through the whole summer. (Great for tourists, more problematic for food-production.) Remember marveling at the idea of North Africa being the granary of empire? Times were good (-ish, it depended where you lived and who you were, of course).

Then came three centuries of climate transition, becoming dryer and dryer. This transitional era saw two devastating plagues (165 AD, probably smallpox — hey, anti-vaxxers, this one’s for you, you selfish fuckers) and (249-262 AD, possibly something Ebola-like). Recoveries of sorts were made, but there was no going back; the borders were busted, the economy in decline, the barracks emperors a dime a dozen to the last trump.

Finally (for Rome) the one-two of little ice age (450-700AD ) and the Justiniaic Plague (541-543 AD, then reoccurring for 2 more centuries). This last seems to have been humanity’s first pandemic. Mortality may have been as much as half the population of the Roman empire–in Constantinople they say 5000 died a day. This was plague of the plague, the same bacillus (Yersinia pestis) as the medieval Black Death.

Harper touches lightly on the similarities between that decline and fall and ours — which of course we can’t know beforehand, but…. He doesn’t need to be heavy-handed. History speaks for itself. Climate disruption, political instability, untold suffering, massive migration, dictators promising walls and fantasies of ethno-racial nativism. I read history in light of the present. How will our times be remembered?

Well, if you’ve made it this far, you probably need some BBs of H.


Three species of Plestiodon skinks are found in southeastern Virginia.Juveniles of the Common Five-lined (P. fasciatus) and Southeastern Five-Lined (P. inexpectatus) have these amazing blue tails.Adults are harder to ID if they’re not in the hand. I originally thought this one might be a Broad-headed (P. laticeps) because of the red in the head, but all the males of these three species seem to get this coloration during mating season. (There’s a tick crawling on this one’s head.)“Skink” comes from the Greek skigkos which made it to Latin as scincus, “a small N. African lizard (Scincus officinalis), formerly used in medicine” (OED). Tail of skink? We found ’em in three separate locations. It’s a skinky state.We watched this one scout every nook and cranny in this rotting log.

Land of Vultures

The vultures thicken as you drive south along the New Jersey Turnpike. The Turkey Vultures (Cathartes aura) soar and swirl, rocking their wings. Delaware and Maryland add more Black Vultures (Coragyps atratus) to the aerial ballet. These birds are notable for their shorter tails, silver/white-tipped wings, and a lot more flapping.

Road kill seems to have been a blessing for for vulture populations.

Something else is noticeably expanding along the NJ Turnpike. Enormous warehouse buildings. These are one story, windowless, lined with bays for semi trailers. They’re on both sides of the highway. Amazon, Logistics This, Logistics That.

So here’s one of the great distributive nodes of late capitalism, where all the crap in the world comes before it goes to the people who order it. From some grim factory in Vietnam, say, comes the widget, across the ocean by way of a shipping industry notorious for its shadiness, abysmal working conditions, and pollution. Then barreled down the highways and byways in great belching vehicles to one of these vast distribution centers. In these vast 21st century sweatshops — Amazon is notorious for the way it treats its workers — the bauble is sorted and packed and routed for its next stage.

Here in NYC, this next stage means delivery trucks blocking roads, hydrants, and crosswalks as they idle poisonously. Because the blessed consumer must have it now! (“Consumption” literally means to burn out from within.) How soon before this imperishable gimcrack is jumbled at the dump?

In the case of Amazon, all this garbage has enriched and empowered a grotesque plutocrat beyond the dreams of Croesus. And he only wants more: monopoly, subsidies, fealty from the consumer-serfs, ass-licking from the politicians, democracy as his plaything.

All that land covered over in these distribution centers used to be habitat, now it fulfills the dreams of buyers clicking away at their MAKE IT MINE buttons. But, of course, it’s not fulfilling at all, is it? Hence its continuation, the endless buying, the desperate attempt to fill the emptiness that just gets bigger the more things are poured into it.


Hornaday and Gannett’s Map Illustrating the Extermination of the American Bison, 1889. (A digital version here.) They were on the eastern side of the Appalachian chain in the colonial period.One of the sheets of Harold Fisk’s Ancient Courses [of the] Mississippi Meander Belt, 1944. (More detail here.) 6000 years of sinuous riverine movement. That beast’ll return, by the way, there’s no stopping it. The epic floods this year are only a forecast of things to come as outdated methods of control and old levees are hit with the reality of radical weather. So too the vicious politics: in the great flood of 1927, they saved New Orleans by drowning Greenville. Hundreds of thousands of African Americans were displaced; 50% of the Delta population fled north within a year; it was ethnic cleansing by flood control.

Both of these were found in A History of America in 100 Maps, by Susan Schulten.


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