Archive for the 'Art Culture Politics' Category

Behold the Imago!

A flesh fly of the genus Sarcophagi. You don’t particularly want to see the larval (stage, part, being) of this insect, since as their name suggests they are carrion-eating maggots. On the other hand, you probably don’t want to see carrion slowly decomposing by bacteria and the weather alone; that would take much too long: the stuff would quickly pile up high and deep.

The adult or reproductive stage of an insect that goes through metamorphosis is an imago, “the image or essential form of a species” to quote Stephen Jay Gould, from whose essay “Glow, Big Glowworm” (in Bully for Brontosaurus) I take today’s sermon. Linnaeus gave us “imago,” as well as “larva” (mask) and “pupa” (girl, doll/puppet). The great namer essentially said the reproductive form was the true being of the animal, the essence, the complete insect; earlier stages are immature, imperfect, juvenile, unfulfilled, and, oh, hey, female.

Linnaeus’s developmental metaphor takes humans as the model (a child is the immature form of the adult) and sets this on other life forms. But there is no reason to think that larval and imago aren’t equal parts of the life cycle of these animals. Both are fly; ladybug; butterfly (the caterpillar-butterfly metamorphosis was long taken as a metaphor for the soul’s release). Gould suggests an economic metaphor instead, a division of labor between the components. “By allocating the different, sometimes contradictory, functions of feeding and reproduction to sequential phases of the life cycle, insects with complete metamorphosis have achieved a division of labor that permits a finer adaptive honing of each separate activity.” (But note that Gould here is still imposing one of our human conceptions on this relationship; sure, that’s we humans do, but is it right? I mean “right” in both the senses of accuracy and morality. Maybe it’s the best we can do.)

[The same essay has a postscript on how faulty our conceptions are when it comes to distribution (of stars, glowworms on a cave ceiling, etc.). It looks to us as if randomly generated things have a pattern because of the clumps and strings that inevitably get created in a random array. A non-random distribution, on the other hand, looks random to us because it lacks the clumps and strings and patterns and constellations we see. We just don’t seem to be mentally attuned to understanding probability. We crave patterns and design. We want origins, order, and above all meaning. Oh, gods, how we demand meaning! Cue the theologies, the conspiracies — yes, even the narratives. We want a story and by jiminy we want to be its heroes.

But life isn’t a story and we’re not the stars.]

Let’s Hear It For Humility

“Area Closed/Protected Natural Area.”

Just being a fan of the natural world’s beauties doesn’t mean you’re a friend of nature. Some people think their photography or their bird lists are more important than anything else. But no, they aren’t, not by a long shot. Primary is the care, caution, and respect we pay to the world we’ve done so much to harm. Humility dictates that we come second.

Photographers can sometimes be quite egregious, and bird-watchers get hopping mad about them, but there are also bird-watchers who trample and trespass, pound on trees to stir up owls, play recordings of birds during breeding season, and otherwise throw ethics under the SUVs of their ego and/or their wallets.

Birds and Flowers

From 1982, a set of stamps illustrating each state’s bird and flower. A gift from a friend whose father was a stamp collector. (Click on image to get larger version.)

Montana’s, in case you were wondering during the special election: Western Meadowlark and bitterroot. In the election to fill the seat vacated by the new Secretary of Looting (formerly Interior), the Democrat got $650,000 in out-of-state funding, while the plutocrat who won got $5,600,000 in out-of-state funding. Over $5 million of that was for negative campaigning, aimed against the Democrat. (Montana’s population is just over a million.)

The night before the election, the new U.S. Representative from Montana assaulted a reporter who was working on revealing his investments in Russia. Then, of course, he lied about it, only admitting the truth the morning after. Lying is now the primary strategy of the Republican Party. Tragically, their audience of morons, suckers, and authoritarian-minded fools lap the bullshit up.

Gianforte also had the support of Sinclair Broadcasting, a corporation that makes no bones about backing Trump in its quest for oligarchy: Sinclair’s local “news” didn’t cover the assault. Sinclair owns 173 TV stations around the country, particularly in the South and Midwest, making it the nation’s second largest TV station owner. Do they own in your neck of the woods?

The first act of resistance should be cutting the cable television cord. An added benefit of this: you’ll no longer be funding Fox News, and that will make the bloated corpse of Roger Ailes fester even more!

Though Trump is a incompetent clown, he functions as plutocratic authoritarianism’s great entertainer. His arrogant ignorance sucks up all the oxygen in the room, Wizard of Oz-style, as the stake is driven ever deeper into the heart of American democracy. This is why the GOP is on a rampage: they believe that money can crush us.

I am not sanguine about the prospects until all of us on the side of justice and truth realizes that every penny we spend is political.

Vigilance Against Poachers

Yesterday, some bird poachers were interrupted in Prospect Park by Park Rangers and park staff. Earlier, one of the poachers actually walked through a group of birders with a caged American Goldfinch in one hand and a glue stick (used to trap birds, a variation on bird lime; very nasty stuff) in the other.

It’s illegal to kill, capture, trade, etc. migratory birds and bird parts, including feathers, nests, and eggs.

Also recently: several people were caught wet-handed stealing turtles from the park. Meanwhile, over in the BBG Wedding Venue, a patch of ramps, no easy thing to propagate, was raided. Ironically, the BBG has posted on foraging for ramps, when what they should have done is say onions and leeks and scallions are more than good enough for all you cooking needs.

What unites all these thefts from the natural commonwealth? Money, of course! One of the bird catchers evidently admitted he was paid to capture the bird for the other. The turtles were probably headed for the market. I know of five people whose “business model” is actually teaching people to forage in the city.

If you see such destructive greediness in the wild commons, call the Park Rangers 718-421-2021; Park Enforcement Patrol (less effective): 718-437-1350; and/or 311. Here are the numbers for NY state DEC’s Environmental Conservation Officers. If you’re elsewhere, put the local authorities on your phone.

Audubon and Murals

Endangered Harlem by Gaia.

[By popular demand, here’s the short talk I gave in celebration of John James Audubon’s birthday to the Riverside Oval Association and friends last week. A good time was had by all, I think, and the cake was delicious. Photos are from the same day: I walked around looking at some the Audubon Murals in the neighborhood, a joint project of National Audubon and Gitler &_____ Gallery. There are some 80 murals up now, less than half of those planned; all of birds threatened by climate change.]

“The opportunity to speak today means I got to do something I’ve hardly ever done, and that’s read some Audubon. Everybody’s familiar with the art, I assume, but Audubon was also a prolific journal keeper, letter writer, and author.

Cerulean Warbler by Tom Sanford.

If I may quote the birthday boy: “Doubtless, kind reader, you will say, while looking at the seven figures of Parakeets represented in the plate, that I spared not my labor. I never do, so anxious am I to promote your pleasure.”

So wrote Audubon about Carolina Parakeets in his Ornithological Biography—the five-volume work that accompanied the original four double elephant folios of The Birds of America.

Those magnificent Carolina Parakeets, by the way, ranged up the East Coast as far north as where we are today, and were the only indigenous parrot in this part of the Americas. The very last one died 99 years ago in a Cincinnati zoo.

We must credit Lucy Audubon and William MacGillivray, his Scottish collaborator, with revising and polishing Audubon’s prose and science, but the voice in the writings seems to me to give a good sense of Audubon himself. Just add those Quaker “thee’s” and “thou’s” he used after learning English in Pennsylvania at the age of 18.

Brown Pelican by Jason Covert.

“I am anxious to promote your pleasure.” These are the words of a showman; his life’s work was a performance, which is not say it wasn’t also stupendously hard work. Carrying a hundred-pound portfolio; walking hundreds of miles; braving the weeks it too to cross the Atlantic multiple times; working day and night hunting and painting birds; then hustling door-to-door subscriptions for the masterwork in Britain, Canada, Europe—well, at least Paris—and the antebellum United States.

It culminated in Birds of America of course. The final volume was completed in 1838 after a decade’s worth of publishing.

It was the profits from the smaller, cheaper, royal octavo version that helped the Audubon family move uptown from White Street to where we are today. They named it Minnie’s Land, after Lucy’s Scottish diminutive, and because the property was in Lucy’s name, since John James still owned debts from the great Panic of 1819.

I came across references to 14, 20, and 30 acres of land purchased here, with 300-500-yards of the Hudson shore. Such are the loose details of history. The Audubons introduced a menagerie of poultry, horses, cattle, deer, elk, bears, foxes, and wolves here; they planted pear, apple, quince, apricot, nectarines, and plum trees; and built a new house they moved into in April of 1842. Their first summer they caught an 8-foot long, 200-300 pound sturgeon from shore.

Bald Eagle by Peter Daverington.

By rights, the 57-year old, nearly-toothless John James should have been in retirement, but he and the Reverend John Bachman [BACKMAN] continued work on The Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America.

So in 1843, he journey out West for the first time beyond the Mississippi. This was a trip he wanted to do years earlier. He and his companions travelled up the Missouri to what’s now North Dakota through the summer and fall, through a landscape which had been devastated by a recent smallpox epidemic. At one point they were so hungry they came close to eating a wolf, before a last-minute bison was shot, back when there still were last-minute bison. In addition to numerous mammals, he bagged several more bird species to add to the royal octavo.

Of course, The Viviparous Quadrupeds, in two volumes, has nothing like the fame of Birds of America. As completed by [BACKMAN] and Audubon’s sons John Woodhouse and Victor Gifford, Viviparous Quadrupeds isn’t the monumental, mind-blowing production Birds is. What could be? Birds was one of last monster-oversized, hand-colored, engraved art book. Havell, the London publisher, had 50 employees working on the project at one time. Lithography, the new printing technology used for the octavo Birds and Mammals, was not nearly so impressive.

Williamson’s Sapsucker by ATM.

Audubon was described at the age 57 as “a tall, thin man, with a high arched and serene forehead, and a bright penetrating grey eye; his white locks fell in clusters upon his shoulders, but were the only signs of age, for his form was erect, and his step as light as that of a deer.” But upon his return to Minnie’s Land in late 1843, he began a notable decline. His failing eyesight forced him to stop painting within three years. In the Matthew Brady daguerreotype of 1848, he has no teeth at all. That year, his old friend and co-worker [BACKMAN] said his “mind… was all in ruins.” The next year, Lucy wrote “Alas, I have only the material part of my old friend, all mind being gone.”

John James Leforest Audubon, who was given the name “Jean Rabin,” when he was born on Saint-Domingue, (SAN DOMING] passed away in January 1851, at the age of 65. Now, one of his biographers thinks he worked himself to death, but 65 was a pretty respectable age in 1851.

Black-chinned Hummingbird by Ashli Sisk.

Dying in 1851, though, means he never met George Bird Grinnell, who was born in Brooklyn in 1849. Minnie’s Land still resounded with Audubonalia when the young Grinnell’s family moved to upper Manhattan. There were antlers, stuffed birds, animal skins, and of course the original paintings (before Lucy had to be sell them in 1863). The elderly Mrs. Audubon, who survived her husband by 23 years, and outlived both her boys, had gone back to her old calling of teaching to make ends meet, opening her school in 1857. Grinnell was one of her students.

Lucy Bakewell herself seems to have possessed an indomitable character. She born in relative comfort in England in 1787 and immigrated to America with her family in 1801. Coincidently, the Bakewell family physician was Erasmus Darwin, Charles’s pro-evolution grandfather. Lucy’s favorite book was one of Erasmus’s epic poems about the love life of plants. The half-hearted medical student Charles Darwin himself heard Audubon’s paper on turkey buzzards in Edinburgh in 1826 and quoted Audubon in Origin of Species and later works. We should take this as testament to Audubon’s powers of observation, since Darwin was nothing if not a compiler of evidence.

Swallow-tailed Kite (and Others) by Lunar New Year.

So, while John James was out shooting and painting and trying to get his opus published, Lucy was an independent frontier woman holding the family together in Kentucky and then Louisiana. The marriage was a strong and difficult one, fraught with financial worries and the sheer physical distance of a world in which their letters—addressed “my Dearest Friend”—took months to reach each other.

The sheer presence of his teacher’s late husband must have impressed young George Bird Grinnell as he ran around the grounds here. By the way, did anybody ever have a more perfect middle name than George Bird Grinnell? This was the person who, after all, in 1886 founded the first Audubon Society. Named of course to honor Audubon and his proto-environmentalist concerns about dwindling numbers of birds—Birds of America portrays six now-extinct species—not to mention the disappearing forests and bison. For Audubon had seen the desolations wrought by England’s industrial revolution and thought they foretold America’s future. “I hate this infernal Smoaky London as I do the Devil!!” Audubon wrote in 1834 with two exclamation points.

In addition to memorializing Audubon, Grinnell is also credited with helping to bridge the gender divide in the first phase of conservation in America, between sportsmen and women reformers battling over the slaughter of birds for their feathers. This is how historian Carolyn Merchant describes it: “a gendered dialectic emerges during the 1880-1900s that moves back and forth between male and female blame and responsibility, to female activism, and finally to women and men working together […] to pass laws to halt the trade in feathers and preserve birdlife.”

Fish Crow by Hitness.

It’s true this first Audubon Society went belly up in 1889 for want of more members and funds. But it was the women who’d joined forces with Grinnell and who he published in his sporting journal Forest and Stream—women like Celia Thaxter, Florence Merriam Bailey, and Mabel Osgood Wright—who regrouped and started the organizations in the Nineties that, in 1905, joined together in the national Audubon, the ancestor of today’s organization, and led to the great laws that still protect the birds.

This is only a guess on my part, but not I think a far-fetched one: the example of Lucy Bakewell Audubon was what made Grinnell unafraid of strong women in an era when men who supported women, particularly in reform movements, were called “political hermaphrodites” by their enemies.

Talk about continuity!”

This is the Audubon memorial over the remains of John James and Lucy Audubon in Trinity Cemetery. His birthdate is wrong! It was actually April 26, 1785. Fittingly incorrect, considering he was always embarrassed to have been born illegitimately and told a whopper or two about his birth over the years?

Red-faced Warbler by ATM.

Swallows and Swifts

Dr. Johnson, in his 59th year, 1768 (per wee Jaimie Boswell):

“He seemed pleased to talk of natural philosophy. ‘That woodcocks, (said he,) fly over the northern countries, is proved, because they have been observed at sea. Swallows certainly sleep all the winter. A number of them conglobulate together, by flying round and round, then all in a heap throw themselves under water, and lye in the bed of a river.’ He told us, one of his first essays was a Latin poem upon the glow-worm. I am sorry I did not ask where it was to be found.”

Note here that Sam. Johnson calls upon eye-witness evidence for the woodcocks (Scolopax rusticola) but has nothing to cite for the swallows (Hirundo rustica) except, presumably, common sense. Well, let that be a lesson to us all.

The notion that swallows sleep through the winter goes back quite a way. Aristotle thought they went into holes in the ground. fishingforswallowsSomehow this got translated as meaning underwater. A Swedish woodblock print from 1555 shows fishermen pulling up a net full of swallows from a lake. One of the English language’s earliest naturalists, Gilbert White, who was a contemporary of Johnson’s, believed this.

The pioneering ornithologist Edward Jenner, who revered White, wrote one of the first papers on migration (published posthumously in 1824). He thought it rather improbable that song birds would winter underwater. Indeed, after having drowned a swallow or two, he suggest that it was impossible. He was also one of the first to mark birds, by clipping off claws, showing that swallows returned to the same place year after year. From…somewhere.

Somewhere south of here, that’s for sure. In his case, Africa. In ours, Central and South America.

Well, by now the swallows should have returned to all the Capistranos of the land. Here in NYC, the nesting members of the Hirundinidae are the Barn, Tree, Northern Rough-wing, Bank, and Purple Martin.

I almost never see swallows from my windows on the Harbor Hill Moraine, but most evenings of spring and summer the Chimney Swifts (Chaetura pelagica) are overhead. Their chittering anticipates twilight. I saw my first of the year last weekend both in Upper Manhattan and locally, and heard my first on May Day.

Audubon III

Welcome back to several ways of looking at John James Audubon.

Lucy Bakewell was born in Burton-upon-Trent, Straffordshire, England, on January 18, 1787. Seventeen years later, by then translated to Pennsylvania with her family, she met her neighbor John James Audubon. They were married for 43 years beginning in 1808. Then she survived him by 23 years. Their two boys (two daughters died in infancy) also predeceased her: Victor Gifford at 51 in 1860 and John Woodhouse at 49 in 1862. (In the pages of Rhodes’s Audubon bio, Lucy is often ill, but she clearly had a sturdy constitution.)

Whilst in England, the Bakewell family physician was Erasmus Darwin (1731-1802). What a marvelous coincidence! Darwin was a Midlands polymath: doctor, abolitionist, inventor, poet, translator of Linnaeus, member of Birmingham’s Lunar Society (they met on nights of the full moon), and grandfather of Charles Darwin (1809-1882), as well as of (hiss, hiss!) eugenicist Francis Galton (1822-1911). Erasmus was a proto-evolutionary thinker, sure that all life was related. For although Charles Darwin is often simplistically portrayed as pulling the idea of natural section out of thin air, the atmosphere of the late 18th and early 19th centuries was thick with thinking about evolution and the mutability of species. It’s not for nothing that Alfred Russell Wallace (1823-1913) grasped the principles of natural selection on his own out there in the jungle. The idea was floating around. It needed to be distilled.

Erasmus’s air was pretty bubbly stuff. He fathered at least fourteen children (with two wives and at least one mistress, possibly another). He chose to present many of his notions in rhyme. In fact, Lucy’s Bakewell’s favorite book was his The Botanical Garden, (1791), an epic poem on “The Economy of Vegetation” and “The Loves of the Plants” with “philosophical notes.” It has been called one of the first popular science books. “The Loves of the Plants” is an explanation of the Linnaean classification system, with all its gendered anthropomorphism (plant sex parts are brides and grooms, etc.)

Charles Darwin, as a young, half-hearted medical student, heard John James Audubon’s paper on turkey buzzards read at the Wernerian Natural History Society in Edinburgh in 1826. Audubon was in attendance, but his paper was read by another, which was standard operating procedure. Besides that odd fish Constantine Rafinesque, Audubon is the only ornithologist quoted in On the Origin of Species. Darwin quoted him more frequently in later works. They are not known to have met, however.

Audubon and the shambolic Rafinesque did meet, in 1818, a meeting that reminds me of Renoir’s Boudu Saved From Drowning.

Eight years earlier, Audubon had met Alexander Wilson. Wilson had come from Scotland in 1794 where he had penned a bestselling comic ballad and, more pointedly, some sharp political verse which saw him thrown in the pokey. At 42, he was in the midst of his projected ten volumes on American ornithology. Famously, Audubon would not take a subscription—the way such multi-volume works were sold then—to Wilson’s project, supposedly because his business partner said Audubon’s drawings were so much better.

It was a big frontier, but all the bird-mad knew each other. In Audubon’s biography, you come across Bachman, Baird, Bell, Bewick, Bonaparte, Harlan, Harris, MacGillivray, Nuttall, Sprague, Swainson, Townsend, and Traill, who were all memorialized in bird names. Someone Audubon never met was George Bird Grinnell (1849-1938), the man who went on to form the first Audubon Society in 1886.

For, to make ends meet in her widowhood, Lucy Bakewell had returned to teaching. One of her students was the Brooklyn-born Grinnell. Grinnell would go on to play a large role in the American conservation movement as editor of Forest and Stream and a campaigner for birds, bison, Native Americans, and hunting as a sport (yes, he contained multitudes). We may assume young George took in a lot of Audubonalia on the Minniesland property. But it doesn’t seem so far fetched to guess that he was also mighty influenced by the indomitable Lucy B. Audubon as well.

Grinnell, if not a feminist, was certainly proto-feminist, happy to include women in his pages and his organization. (Men who supported women reformers were then disparaged as “political hermaphrodites” by their enemies). Indeed, the author I write about here argues that he was instrumental in bridging a gender gap in the early conservation movement. (Manly hunters versus feathered hat wearers.) The women who joined Grinnell’s Audubon, which petered out for lack of funding, re-grouped and started again, first in Massachusetts in the late ’90s. The National Association of Audubon Societies came together in 1905.


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