Archive for the 'Art Culture Politics' Category

Wild Remains

For some, the aesthetics of the native meadow will take some getting used to.

Consider, if you will, the lobster

Andrew Selkirk, the inspiration for DeFoe’s Robinson Crusoe, ate a lot of crawfish and spiny lobsters while marooned in the Juan Fernandez Islands. When he returned to Scotland, he took up lobstering.

This is the kind of thing you learn in Richard J. King’s Lobster. This book is one of the Animal Series from Reaktion Books, distributed by the University of Chicago in this country. Each book tackles one animal, or, sometimes, several — since there may be more than one species of said animal. One taxonomist has tallied 248 species of lobster, for instance. Some are still being discovered. Each of the Animal books interweaves biology, history, and human culture with great illustrations. I wasn’t aware of the Dürer work above, for instance, and I’m pretty aware of Dürer.

I’ve found the series uneven. King’s a good writer, though, and knows his A-B-seas. I’m looking forward to his natural history of Moby Dick, officially released next week from Chicago.

The word lobster comes from the Latin for locust. Lobstermen call ’em bugs. I once found one on the rocks near the foot of the Manhattan Bridge in Brooklyn Bridge Park (one park, two bridges). A ranger said it was probably swept down from Long Island Sound by the ferocious currents of the tidal strait we misnamed the East River. The Sound used to host a vibrant lobstering industry, but warmer waters, pollution and pesticides, and over-fishing put paid to that. Further north, however, in the Gulf of Maine, lobstering is going gangbusters, and is considered one of the most sustainable fisheries there is.

But for how long? We’ve seen this movie before, many times.

Some lobster species have extraordinary larval forms. They are thin, transparent, all legs. This was news to me. I thought they were just smaller lobsters…. But then crustaceans are most wondrous and curious creatures. Remember that Darwin was fascinated by barnacles, which are basically crabs who glue themselves to a substrate and batten down the hatches when the tide runs out.

Vocabulary builder: what’s the opposite of anthropomorphizing, the giving of human characteristics to animals? What about when you give humans animal characteristics? King uses theriomorphizing, from theriomorphic, meaning a deity in animal form.


The Cumaean Sibyl spoke in oak leaves, which, when scattered by the wind, tended to result in the most ambiguous prophesies.

In John Dryden’s bouncing-ball translation (Aeneid 6, 126-129), she says to Aeneas:

The gates of hell are open night and day;
Smooth the descent, and easy is the way:
But to return, and view the cheerful skies,
In this the task and mighty labour lies.

The hill of Cumae is close to Lago Averno, which was called Avernus in the classical period. This was one of the entrances to Hades, the one guarded by the three-headed dog Cerberus. (Man, that’s a riot-lot of barking!) Trojan-boy Aeneas — I didn’t not like Virgil’s suck-up nationalist fantasy — didn’t have far to go to slip the hound some narcotic and descend.

2000-ish years later, apropos: algae in the Averno’s waters turned the round lake a dark red in summer. It was a sight on the road from Napoli and Pozzuoli to Parco Azzurro, where we lived up on the terraces. From which we could see Cumae. More prosaically, the hotels along the beach would suck up all our water in summer, so we had to use the outside tape, which had to be boiled. One day, it was regular, potable inside water that filled the tub with twitching red larval something or other.

This is a cratered and caldera’ed landscape. Historically a trampoline. Parts of old Pozzuoli (Puteoli)) are now underwater. Other parts used to be underwater; c.f. the “Temple of Serapis“. The U.S. Navy’s Carney Park, also nearby, is ringed by the steep walls of an old volcano. In my day in the early 1970s, there was a drive-in theater there along with the baseball diamonds. Carney Park — our military myrmidons never name an overseas facility after a local — is where I discovered how poor my eye-sight was: I couldn’t read the scoreboard at the football game. I got glasses, but have never been to another football game.

Mustard Seed Shot

In his sparrow book, Rick Wright references “mustard seed shot.” Never having heard of this, I was most intrigued. Remember that early naturalists, ornithologists, and their agents collected birds — the skins — by shooting them. Audubon didn’t have a good day if he didn’t bag a hundred or more. But consider a songbird: there’s not a lot of stuff there. Two Blackpoll Warblers, for instance, together add up to an ounce of weight. A blast of buckshot, for instance, would leave nothing left to behold. Mustard seed did the killing without damaging the specimen.

This was old school stuff, but in a cursory internet search, I did find one person noting that his father used mustard seed shot to get the mice in the barn. The seeds wouldn’t go damage the barn walls. Nor would a cat, or a family of Barn Owls.

There’s plenty of store-bought birdshot today. People still kill birds wantonly all over the world. Birdshot comes in all sorts of sizes, depending on the “game.” Much of it, horrifying enough, is lead. This toxic element is thus spread wantonly throughout the environment by the gun-happy sporting crew. It follows that bird killers are poisoning their children with game so tainted. Lead weakens and destroys cognitive abilities; it also seems to make you less able to control your violent impulses. All and all, it is perfect for the child abuse necessary for making future Republican voters.

The recovery of the California Condor has been much hampered by lead-poisoned animals. Condors are scavengers. With all the megafauna hunted and/or climate-changed to extinction long ago, condors scavenge the carrion left around by hunters, gut piles and whole animals that bleed to death from wounds. The sociopaths at the NRA have long fought bans on lead-ammunition. Between cashing their dirty checks from the Russians, hiring hookers and whatnot, the worthies of that fascist organization oppose any commonsense good thing as bad for the business of death. California nonetheless implemented a lead ammo ban in 2013. But that leaves plenty of other states still poisoning the future.

Butterflies Are Free

Recognize this? This was a surprise at the recent Whitman exhibit at the Morgan Library and Museum, where the image for the exhibit shows a famous photograph of the older WW holding a butterfly.

Yup, one and the same. (Bigger on the M’s site…)

And in that spirit:
A full house, Monarchs high.

The Case Against Honeybees

No other exploited farm worker has gotten the attention Apis mellifera has. Our urge to “save the bees” and “save the pollinators” has concentrated on the photogenic and familiar honeybee. They are, after all, a species with the publicity machinery of industrial farming behind them, and the romance of DIY rooftop farming.

But we should have been thinking of the thousands of wild bee species, not this one domesticated species. The evidence is quite clear from around the world: honeybees are a big problem. They undermine wild pollinator species via competition and disease transmission. Perhaps most disturbingly, they also disrupt pollination itself.

And yet this news hasn’t gotten through to the general public. And it certainly hasn’t gotten through to honeybee fans. Honeybee hives dot NYC and many other cities. European cities have gone honeybee-hive mad.

People who still think they are doing good with honeybee hives are actually doing just the opposite. Most recently, I heard about community gardeners in the Bronx eager to get two hives. I know that excitement personally. I took part in the campaign to legalize hives here in the city. I was very nearly involved in setting up some hives in a community garden in Brooklyn when it was still illegal. But knowing what I know now, I look back on that effort with regret.


Here’s bibliography of journal and news articles about the hazards of the invasive honeybee. Please share.

Science journal articles:

A study in Paris finds high-density honeybee colonies negatively impact wild pollinator species: Ropars L, Dajoz I, Fontaine C, Muratet A, Geslin B (2019) Wild pollinator activity negatively related to honey bee colony densities in urban context. PLoS ONE 14(9).

Honeybees spread pathogens to wild bees: Mallinger RE, Gaines-Day HR, Gratton C (2017) Do managed bees have negative effects on wild bees?: A systematic review of the literature. PLoS ONE 12(12).

More on disease transmission from honeybees to wild bumblebees: Alger SA, Burnham PA, Boncristiani HF, Brody AK (2019) RNA virus spillover from managed honeybees (Apis mellifera) to wild bumblebees (Bombus spp.). PLoS ONE 14(6).

Disrupting plant-pollination itself: Valido, Alfredo, C. Rodríguez-Rodríguez, Maria C., Pedro Jordano: Honeybees disrupt the structure and functionality of plant-pollinator networks. Scientific Reports volume 9, Article number: 4711 (2019).

In Toronto, honeybees are the dominant pollinator of native milkweed. JMacIvor, James Scott,corresponding author, Adriano N. Roberto, Darwin S. Sodhi, Thomas M. Onuferko, and Marc W. Cadotte.Ecology and Evolutino. 2017 Oct; 7(20): 8456–8462.

News items:

Honeybees help farmers, but not the environment. (NPR)

Three more studies… (JSTOR Daily)

Keeping honeybees doesn’t save bees or the environment. (

Conserving bees doesn’t help wildlife. (Science Magazine)

Diversity of bee species vital to the blueberry industry. (NC State Extension).


And here you can learn all about “bee-washing,” in which “companies mislead consumers to buy products or subscribe to services under the pretense of helping bees. Bee-washing is also used to improve the public image of companies and has become an increasingly common marketing spin.”

Some Books

Francis Hallé’s Atlas of Poetic Botany is delightful. It’s a botanist’s record of encounters with remarkable life forms, tropical plants that walk, listen, mimic (like a chameleon, yes), among other things.

I hadn’t known that rubber trees were native to the New World. However, they can’t be grown plantation-style in the Amazon because if they’re too close together a parasitic fungus takes them out. The trees need to be separated by at least 300 meters. The great rubber plantations of Asia — Thailand is still the world’s main producer of natural rubber — don’t have this problem. Hallé says the fungus (Hemileia vastatrix) is going to reach them someday.

We don’t even know why rubber trees produce latex? It’s not an insecticide? Do we really need to go to other planets when we’ve hardly gotten to know this one?

This book would make a wonderful gift for a friend who cares nothing for plants or doesn’t bother to notice them. Yes, it is all exotica to those of us in the temperate zone, but it may very well plant some seeds of curiosity.

Or spores. For instance, in a woodland near you, there may be plants whose ancestors reach back hundreds of millions of years, who survived two mass extinctions, and almost got shut out by the shade-stealers angiosperms. Robbin C. Moran delves into A Natural History of Ferns and lycophytes, spore-bearers all. (Consider all the pollen, microbes, spores fungal and pteridophyte, you breath in through the year. Fresh air? Times Square! By the way, it’s the proteins on the surface of pollen grains that are causing your immune system to fire off. Fern spores don’t have surface proteins and don’t make you sneeze.)

Fern reproduction — which has sexual and asexual generations — was figured out late in the game, in the 1840s… I mean, we humans figured out how ferns went about it. The plants have obviously known a very long time. Moran begins with Shakespeare referring to the common belief that ferns reproduced by invisible seeds, fair enough since you need a microscope to get a good look at the spores. The invisible seeds were thought to make you invisible if you managed to get a hold of some.

A perfect pendant to Moran’s collection of essays is Lynn Levine’s Identifying Ferns the Easy Way . This slides into cargo-pants pocket with ease. And it works very nicely.


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