Archive for the 'Art Culture Politics' Category

Raptor Wednesday at the Movies

The first sight of a church yard in Copenhagen triggered a memory that bloomed in Sweden. I’d seen such graveyards before: the gravel plots fenced in by foot-high hedges rigorously trimmed, the raked patterns in the somber gray sand. Very orderly, compact, clean.

It was all in the 1999 Swedish film Falkens öga/Kestrel’s Eye, about a pair of Common Kestrels nesting in a church building. The Swedish name for Kestrels is Tornfalk, which means tower falcon. How apt. In the film, we see the humans below come and go, tidying up their family plots; there’s a wedding and, inevitably, a funeral; hedge-trimmings are vacuumed up by a machine too big for the task. It’s all from the Kestrel’s POV (albeit without their greater span of the light spectrum!). The falcons dine on voles and, in one case, a lizard. Every descent to prey portrayed in the film is a successful kill, which is not particulately accurate; raptors miss a lot. The birds have six eggs. Five fledge: the fate of the sixth is not explicated; indeed, there’s no narration and the only human voices present are overheard from below.

Anyway, I found the film on Kanopy, which NYPL library card holders can use for free, and watched it again to refresh my memory. It turned out to take place at the very church in Skanör where we hunted for hedgehogs one night. The indented circle is where the falcons perched. Their nest was just below that to the left; you can barely see the top of the hole in the side of the wall. If I’d only realized this was the location as we ate breakfast next to it every day (the best breakfasts we’ve ever had out, by the way, even if there were no lizards or voles among the varied fare), I would have taken a more appropriate picture. The Flommen marshes, where we saw quite a few Kestrels hunting (perhaps the descendants of this pair?) are visible in a few scenes in the film. Skanörs borg, a ruin of a 13th century fort that’s mostly just a little hillock in the otherwise very flat terrain, is next to the church (parts of which date back about that far, too). This photo is from the top of the borg. The moat in the foreground was a lot less crowded with common reed in the late 1990s.

I also finally saw Birders: The Central Park Effect, 2012, on the same Kanopy platform. It was better than I expected. Though Central is justly renown as a birding location, I’m a Brooklyn boy and only get there a few times a year, if that. But I certainly recognized some names and faces from the bird-watching community there. Loved seeing the late Starr Saphir, a wonderfully flinty and wise birder. She talks about the second-best bird sighting she ever had from her apartment, a juvenile Goshawk — quite a good fire escape bird that — but this made me wonder what her best ever bird sighting was from her apartment.

So it turned out to be a bird film festival, because then I watched The Messenger: An Ode to the Imperiled Songbird, originally released in 2015. I know people are always looking for the silver lining, celebrating small victories in conservation, but the overriding story remains one of gloom, so damned well documented in this movie. Climate change, habitat destruction, hunting, city light pollution and glass buildings, cats, poisoning via pesticides, etc. are all resulting in fewer and fewer birds (and other animals, of course). “The messenger” is the old canary in a coal mine, as well as the ornithologists on the front lines. Meanwhile, a Frenchman who gobbles up Ortolans in contravention of the law insists he’ll stop when science proves to him that the birds are disappearing, echoing all those fisherman who said the same thing, denying the facts until there were no more fish to fish.

A rune stone in the Danish National Museum, at least a thousand years old. I like the way it echoes the first picture above.Bonus! Film studies comrades of yore: do you know which Swedish film opens with a short view of a Tornfalk hovering, here skillfully caught off the screen by your correspondent?

Counter Friction

“Let your life be a counter friction to stop the machine,” H.D. Thoreau wrote in “Civil Disobedience.” Or at least gum it up a bit with your sabots, right?

Of course, we’re all deeply imbedded, imbricated, enveloped in a befouling system. But we do have some choices, don’t we?

Nobody makes you order from Amazon. Nobody forces you to watch television. What keeps you on Facebook now that you know you’re nothing but cattle to them to be sold to the highest bidding Nazi or Russian autocrat?

Did you ever wonder about the transformation of the word “brand”: from a mark of ownership seared into the flesh of slaves to a willingly sported symbol of attachment to corporate identity. Not such a long jump, really, except for the smell of burnt flesh in the air, and the fact that the slaves were bound.

How about “consumption”? The word means to burn up from within; it’s an old name for the scourge of TB, a horrible wasting away. Now it’s what keeps our deranged economy going by necessitating the burning of the very planet.

Sure, unless we would prefer not to, we have to eat. Yet a huge proportion of conventional supermarkets are filled with processed junk, entire aisles of pseudo-foods.

“No” is the beginning of liberation.

But No Defense For Us

These posts are usually scheduled to publish in advance of the date. Yesterday I was barely awake before I saw the news from Las Vegas. By then my post for the day was up and running. But I can’t just put up another nature post today. It’s been too awful a week, another nadir in the Trump kakistocracy.

The massacre in Las Vegas was one of the deadliest in our violent history, although, unlike the pogroms at Colfax, Wounded Knee, and Tulsa/Greenwood, this was just one person with unbelievable firepower at his disposal, all evidently purchased “legally.”

Nauseatingly, the gun industry thrives on these mass-shootings. Stocks surge; stores put more weapons on display; sales go up. Everybody’s happy, right? Capitalism is a marvel. But don’t forget the state! The U.S. is the world’s largest arms dealer. The Pentagon, and the departments of State and Commerce, all foster this domestic death industry. State capitalism is completely complicit with the flood of guns and ammunition out there.

We should actually think of all these military-grade weapons as “military surplus” dumped on the home front. Much is spent helping the gun industry provide weapons abroad. Billions in “defense” spending bloats an industry to ever more production. And then some of our tax dollars ricochet back to us in form of industry lobbying, to prevent sensible notions like keeping weapons of mass slaughter out of civilian hands.

We are essentially subsidizing the lunatic fringe that is the NRA and the berserk industry they represent.

Yes, Republicans are, in word and deed, perfectly fine with dead Americans, from Puerto Rico to Las Vegas. Their dreams for a savage “libertarian” oligarchy have been common knowledge for more than a generation now. They like to say all this is the “price of liberty,” but what they mean is that death is the price of their profits and power.

At the same time, I don’t see the ostensibly gun-control Democrats being able to do much about commonsensical gun regulation as long as they continue to foster and subsidize the arms industry in the name of “defense.” Their candidate last time, you may recall, was in charge of State, meaning one of her jobs (in that famous resume) was to sell weapons abroad and therefore coddle the death industry here at home.

Calling Names

Robert Macfarlane’s essay on nature and children, naming and literature, got me thinking about the first big book I read myself. It was Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, which is, of course, three books. I was ten-ish, a late bloomer. As it happens, a new book called Flora of Middle Earth also delves into the name theme.

Since Middle-Earth is supposed to be an prehistorical version of the northwestern corner of Eurasia, the plants in this book are not unfamiliar, although evolution is evidently not a factor, and plate tectonics the dark work of Morgoth…. Actually, this is, of course, a flora of Britain. Just add some New World tobacco (pipeweed, that famous Longbottom leaf that doesn’t cause cancer or emphysema) and some mythological trees. Otherwise the oaks, rowans, alders, willows, daisies, roses etc., are all old friends, or their cousins across the sea. “References to heather [or ling or ljung (Swedish) or lyng (Old Norse)] are frequent” in Tolkien.

We learn here, too, that JRRT changed “tomatoes” to “pickles” in a later edition of The Hobbit. New World goodies just didn’t make sense, but he kept the lone reference to “coffee” in that book as well, since that came from the other direction.

One of the best things about this Flora are the etymological notes. Tolkien was a language maven; his fiction was cosplay to dress up his invented languages. Here’s an instance: the name of the fruit of the Blackthorn (Prunus spinosa), the sloe, is from the Old English slah, plural slan. (Slan is the Swedish today.) This comes from the Proto Indo-European *sleie, meaning “blue, bluish, blue-black.” (The * before PIE words indicate that they are historical reconstructions by linguists.)

Havtorn in Danish and Swedish. Seathorn, Seaberry, Sea Buckthorn, Hippophae rhamnoides. Not a plant of Middle-Earth, evidently, which I find hard to believe. These berries are edible and have a complex, appealing tartness, just thing for Hobbits, who are, as you know, tougher than they look.


Some parts of the United States will see a total solar eclipse today. This will be a lifetime event for many. The superstitious, Republicans, and other ignorant fools may want to stay inside: the Sun God is very, very angry with them.

Here at Backyard & Beyond, we’re only getting a partial eclipse. (And this is written long before a weather forecast for the day, because hey, clouds happen.) It lasts from 1:23-4 p.m. here, with maximum coverage at 2:44. Take a late lunch.

Remember not to look at the thing with your naked eyes! Put some clothes on ’em. I’ve been known to use the hole in my MetroCard to project the tiny image onto a business card. The hole in a MetroCard is rather bigger than a pinhole, but it still works.

I hope to see some boxheads.

This one looks good, too.

I wrote this about Victorian eclipsers for JSTOR Daily.

Also, try standing underneath a richly-leaved tree. You may have noticed in the past that the light that gets through the leaves hits the ground in soft circles. The tree is acting as a multiple pin-holed camera at large. During an eclipse, these circles will be eclipsed, and if it’s breezy they will moving with the dancing shadows.

Did you hear the one about the person asking why the eclipse party couldn’t be held this coming weekend instead?

Torrey 150

This year marks the 150th anniversary of the Torrey Botanical Society, the oldest botanical organization in America. Namesake John Torrey was a Columbia College physician, chemist, and botanist. His 1819 Catalogue of Plants Growing Spontaneously Within Thirty Miles of the City of New York and his A Flora of New York State (1843), among other works, put him on the botanical map.

Next month, there will be a day-long symposium to celebrate the Society’s anniversary at the NYBG. And check out the field trips…

Wild Pigeons

“When an individual is seen gliding through the woods, it passes like a thought, and on trying to see it again, the eye searches in vain; the bird is gone,” so wrote John James Audubon on the Passenger Pigeon, which is of course now long gone. Audubon — who cribbed from Alexander Wilson more than once, including in his famous account of the three days passage of the birds overhead — was spot-on about this. Passenger Pigeons were rarely seen as individuals. They were an aggregate, a swarm. Ornithologists, for instance, hardly paid any attention to the bird until it was too late. There aren’t even that many skins of the birds in collections today.

Rather unexpectedly in the catalog of Notting Hill Editions, an English publisher of handsome editions of the art of the essay, I found John Wilson Foster’s excellent history of and meditation upon the Passenger Pigeon: Pilgrims of the Air. The book was originally published in 2014, the centenary of the very last pigeon to die, and is now being distributed here in the U.S. I strongly recommend it.

By now you probably know the tale: incomprehensible numbers of Passenger Pigeons flocking across the landscape of North America well into the 19th century. Then, in mere decades, literally just about twenty years, dwindling to near nothing. And now, for more than a century, nothing… not a single human-damned one.

Foster’s slim book gives us a very fine pocket history of ornithology in America, with some surprising appearances, such as the Rev. Dr. Cotton Mather, FRS. Audubon you probably know, but how about Peter Kalm, who described the pigeons in 1759, and Nicolas Denys, who wrote about them in his 1672 memoir?

Not every year was a “Pigeon Year,” mind you, but they came sporadically, tremendous booms that crushed woodlands with their weight. Of course, they also seeded forests out the other end…. They terrorized farmers and thrilled hunters and overjoyed the hungry, including the pigs that would be set loose on the killing fields and woods. There were, for instance, a dozen years between visitations of the pigeon horde in the Massachusetts colony (1631, 1643), “soe many that they obscured the lighte, that it passeth credit, if but they truth should bee written.” After the Civil War, the slaughter became industrial, aided by railroad, telegraphy, and bottomless urban markets. And when the birds stopped coming to be killed, the pigeoneers made all sorts of delusional excuses to point the blame elsewhere: the birds had all flown to South America; they had all drowned; and so on. Indeed, Foster notes that this nonsense echoed Cotton Mather’s old notion that the birds came from outer space.

Foster writes “early reports betrayed a similar ambivalence about the abundance of wildlife that both stretched credulity and in a disturbing way threatened preconceptions of an orderly world.” Even within the rich context of the New World’s flora and fauna, especially as seen by Old Worlders who came from lands already scoured of species, the Passenger stood out. Foster’s chapter on the overwhelming abundance of life in North America is hard to read, for now, verily, ’tis like we live in the aftermath of a plague… of ourselves: the two-legged locusts.

These birds were wanderers, nomads, opportunists, chasing down food (acorns, beechnuts, maple samaras, fruits, grains), not north-south migratory in the standard sense. Thoreau wrote in September, 1854 about their most famous food, acorns: “These are found whole in their crops. They swallow them whole. I should think from the droppings that they had been eating berries. I hear that Wetherbee caught ninety-two dozen last week.”

Thomas W. Neumann’s thesis was that these enormous flocks were freakish, the post-Columbian result of the removal of competition for mast. That competition had included humans, turkeys, deer, squirrels, etc, all tremendously reduced by the Europeans. Foster introduces this idea on page 108, after approximately 100 pages of evidence of enormous flocks dating almost from the first European contact. In 1634, for instance, when there were an estimated 6,000 Europeans in the colonies, the “Ayerie regiment” of these birds were flying in the “Millions of Millions.”

Benedict Revoil, otherwise quite unreliable, did have this distressingly accurate forecast in 1859: the Passengers “will eventually disappear from this continent; and if the world endure a century longer, I will wager that the amateur of ornithology will find no pigeons except in select Museums of Natural History.”

Well, precisely. I’ve seen ’em stuffed at the American Museum of Natural History. That is all.


Bookmark and Share

Join 492 other followers

Nature Blog Network