Archive for the 'Reviews' Category

The Once & Future World

Ischnura positaThis is a Fragile Forktail (Ischnura posits), spotted recently in Prospect Park. But it has been a lousy year for damselflies. I’m seeing neither the species nor the numbers I’ve seen in the past, particularly in Green-Wood. There, the “waters” are a mess: Valley Water has had no lilies all season; the Sylvan Water is so green it hurts the eyes — I suspect it’s saturated with too much nitrogen from fertilizer run-off. As nitrogen-supercharged algae dies, it consumes the water’s oxygen in decomposition, making a hypoxic dead-zone. The cemetery, concerned with maintaining absurd lawns, also still sprays pesticides. This summer’s heat hasn’t helped. In Prospect, fish died like crazy, also probably due to the oxygen-depleted water.

imagesMy comparison of damsel numbers with past seasons is purely anecdotal. I just know what I know. When I post a picture here to celebrate a form of fellow life, do not forget that our normal is not necessarily the normal of the past, nor necessarily the normal of the future.

J.B. MacKinnon discusses the phenomenon of “change blindness” in his book The Once and Future World. Our lives are so short we just know what we know. What we see of the natural world is what we then assume it’s always been like and always will be.

There is, for instance, a now classic study of big-game fishermen posing with their fish. The fish from the 1950s are larger than anything caught in the 2000s (by taking the big fish of a species, we removed the genes for larger fish in the gene pool for that species), but until they see the evidence, modern fishermen didn’t believe this, because they think they’re the one’s who caught the big ones. This goes along with the depletion of species in general: some studies argue that as much as 97% of the fish life off the East Coast is gone. “Shifting baselines” is each generation’s acceptance of what they know, the diminishment remains invisible. An even scarier study was done of (mostly poor, mostly minority) children in one of our most polluted cities; they didn’t think they lived mired in pollution because that was their normal, all they’d ever known. “Memory conspires against nature,” says MacKinnon of “knowledge extinction.”

MacKinnon calls our world the 10% world, one in which 90% of the natural abundance of the earth is gone. When the “once” was is as contested as the percentage point. But the record seems pretty clear: as humans spread around the world, they killed off the large species and began a radical transformation of the planet, diminishing the environment and, he argues, our own imaginations. We now call this the Anthropocene, the geological era where the works of humans are written onto the planet; just when it started (agriculture, industrial revolution?) is a big question.

We’re not the only life-form to have radically changed the planet. A few examples would include the single-cell organisms that began the oxygenation of the atmosphere 800 million years ago; the whales who played an enormous role in fertilizing the oceans; and beavers, both the extinct giant Castoroides and the ones we know, nearly made extinct, that terraformed North American in advance of the human migration via Barring.

Yet what a mess we have made! It’s not accurate so say we’re the only creature that fouls its nest: some will do it for defense! But we are the only creature that kills wantonly, often unknowingly, like a storm, a blind force of nature. Yet we know!

Ischnura posita

The Nature of the Beast

imagesLast Sunday, I discussed the enemy. Shall we call it capitalism? In his short book Extinction: A Radical History, Ashley Dawson certainly does. “Our economic system is destroying the planetary life support system upon which we depend.”

Is this a controversial idea? I don’t think so, but I suppose it will be met with resistance in some quarters. Certainly everywhere people went as they diffused across the planet, the large animals disappeared–except interestingly enough in the place we started–long before the capitalist system emerged. Some might point an accusing finger at agriculture and the complex, hierarchal societies that developed from the need to store and record grain surpluses and manage rising populations. Talk about terraforming! Yet where today is Mesopotamia (Humbaba may have had his revenge over Gilgamesh after all)? The breadbasket of Rome? Rapa Nui? The only place “we” didn’t destroy the megafauna was back in the cradle of Africa, but we’re catching up there now.

Yet capitalism seems a particularly virulent engine of planetary destruction, predicated on continuous consumption and constant growth, which as Edward Abbey pointed out was an impetus shared by cancer cells. Likewise, everything must be commodified: resources, certainly; but also genomes; personal and familial relationships; such givens of the commons as water. Recently yet another bottled water company has admitted it’s nothing but tap water in the plastic containers that will outlive all of us by generations upon generations.

Inevitably, the “tendency of capital accumulation to destroy its own conditions of reproduction” has resulted in our present condition: the sixth great extinction event on planet Earth.

I am always struck by the old echoes in the word consumption, which used to be a disease. Isn’t it still? The root of the word means a burning up from within; consumption the disease, better known now as tuberculosis, was seen as a consuming fire that wasted away the body. (Humans are such survivors that consumption, until it was beaten, temporarily, by antibiotics, was adopted as sort of fashionable pose, tragic yet worthy of operas.)

Now, one of the problems with fire is that it makes smoke. Pollution has long been capital’s smoke, from the toxins poured into the air, water, earth, and quelle surprise, human and all the other life forms, to the chemistry of fossil fuels itself. Human beings have never seen so much carbon in the atmosphere as there is right now.

(Next Sunday: the once and future world.)


LucidotaYou know what I like about this blogging project of mine? The fact that there is always something new to learn. It’s the universe, after all, and I will never ever even begin to contain it.LucidotaFor instance, this is one of the Lampyridae family of beetles, the fireflies, lightning bugs, glowworms. But hold on a moment: this and several of its fellows (yes, the long, elaborate antennae tells us they’re male) were flying in the daylight. This is one of the dark fireflies, day-fliers who do not glow or blink or light up magically. So how can it be a firefly? I mean, besides looking like a firefly? Well, what unites the Lampyridae is that they all have larvae that produce bioluminescence. Yet not all the adults do: and this is one of them, a member of the Lucidota genus. LucidotaInstead of using light to attractive females, these dark fireflies do it with chemicals; that’s why the antennae are so elaborate, and why they were so busy, waving in the air, searching for female Lucidota pheromones in Van Cortlandt Park. k10667I recently attended a talk by entymologist Sara Lewis, who discussed her study of fireflies and her new book, Silent Sparks: The Wondrous World of Fireflies. Afterwards we all walked into Prospect Park, where a fog after sunset made for wondrous effects. And yes, we saw fireflies, Big Dippers (Photinus genus). And everybody was happy.
PhotinusHere’s one of the night-flying blinky-blink lightning bugs, a Photinus Big Dipper, hiding out during the day.

Lewis begins with the near-universal fascination with fireflies, one of those insects are that loved wherever they are found, which is not something you can say for most insects for most people. I still delight in seeing the blink of fireflies at night: there is something awe-inspiring and magical about them. There are some who say that science takes the awe out of the world, but I think this is silly. Knowing that bioluminescence is a chemical process may demystify it, but doesn’t make it any less amazing. The fact that evolutionary processes resulted in such things makes it infinitely more fascinating than the snap of the fingers/tentacles notion of creation by some kind of superior being/presiding genius.

Heather’s Birds

UnknownMy friend Heather Wolf’s Birding At The Bridge has just been published. This handsome volume detail’s Heather’s adventures watching and photographing birds in Brooklyn Bridge Park over the course of a couple of years.

BBP is where I first ran into Heather. She was carrying her long lens, which is what you really need to get such close-ups of birds. (And these things are the size of half a bazooka, and weigh as much.) And then I ran into her some more. For here was somebody visiting BBP much more than I was when I lived in Cobble Hill. (Well, she lived two blocks closer…)

This is a great example of “patch birding,” visiting the same spot over and over again through the seasons to see the changes, the cyclical arrivals and departures, the unexpected appearances, with discipline and commitment. Winter of course makes it a commitment, but I’ll let you in a secret: being outside in winter is unbelievably invigorating; and one of the wonderful things about the city is that there’s usually some hot chocolate near at hand. Sure, there’s less to see in winter, but there’s always something to see. I hope Heather’s book (which covers all the seasons) inspires more people to get out in nature during winter to look around.

You’ve got to always be worried about color reproduction, a tricky thing in publishing, especially since plumage is so important. Well, the pictures look great here. This is a little gem of a book. And that’s not the hot chocolate talking.

P. domesticus

Passer domesticusMost overhanging stoplights in the city are supported by these t-shaped structures, and most seem to have a House Sparrow nest on each end. (And everybody knows it: we once watched a crow poking its bill into a couple of them, to see if there was anything to eat inside.)

Passer domesticus: the House Sparrow’s affinity for human domesticity, including our food and our engineering, is built right into the species’ binomial. Here is a perfect example of a synanthrope, an animal that benefits from its relationship to us.

Synanthrope is a new word for me; I learned it in Jennifer Ackerman The Genius of Birds in a chapter called “Sparrowville,” from which I glean some of my sparrow IQ. I also recently wrote this on the great Sparrow Wars of the 1870s for JSTOR, digging into citations in that vast archive I get to play around in.

Initially introduced to the US in the 1850s, in Brooklyn (first at the Brooklyn Institute; then at Green-Wood Cemetery) and then other cities, the House Sparrow rapidly spread across North America. And beyond: today it’s found on all the continents, excluding Antarctica (but for how long?). This is one remarkably adaptable species, smart, aggressive, and open to novelty, innovation. And it has changed, evolved, as it has spread, making for yet another case study of evolution in human-time. Today, there are more than half a billion of them on Earth. It’s the epitome of an invasive species, negatively affecting other bird species profoundly.

Curiously, however, in its native England, “English Sparrow” numbers have plummeted drastically for unknown reasons in the last quarter century; in two recent trips to England, I saw only a lone pair, a strange experience considering how omnipresent they are here. Actually, numbers around the world have dropped; all birds, even the most adaptable, are suffering from our wanton degradation of the planet’s life systems.Passer domesticusHere’s a particularly boldly patterned male, with chestnut nape and large black bib. They start singing around here after the American Robin who greets the fore-dawn.

The Genius of Birds

unnamed-1Birds can see more of the light spectrum than we can; they can re-generate their hearing while we lose ours as we age; some of them have acute senses of smell that helps them find food, and home.

Jennifer Ackerman’s new book is a synopsis of recent scientific discoveries about birds. If you are not up to date on the topic, at least as it has filtered into popular consciousness, prepare to be blown away by what she presents. So much detail has been discovered about avian cognition and intelligence in recent years that many of the old beliefs about birds have been utterly stood on their head. “Bird brain” is no longer a slur, it has become instead a mark of the ignorance of the person who uses the expression.

Ackerman discusses brain development, memory, navigation (both spatial and temporal ingenuity), song acquisition (it’s much like human speech acquisition), aesthetic aptitude, and adaptive genius. Just as an example: nest-building was long considered instinctual; it is that, but it also requires “learning and memory, experience, decision making, coordination, and collaboration.[…] It’s work that requires a suite of decisions about location, materials, and construction itself.”Turdus migratoriusAs a commonplace example, here’s an American Robin (Turdus migratorius) gathering a mouthful of nesting material under the tree the nest is in. Robins also use mud to help cement their structures of natural and unnatural materials.Turdus migratorius

While some of us believe in the study of life for its own revelations, others demand what is in it for them. Studying birds of course turns out to tell us a lot about ourselves. For something revolutionary is going on, or should be going on, in our consciousnesses: we’re learning that human beings are animals on this planet, too, intimately connected through the long chain of genetics and evolution. This is very much one of the points of Carl Safina’s magisterial book Beyond Words.Troglodytes aedonThis House Wren was proclaiming his territorial sway over the neighborhood of the Native Flora Garden recently. This is a rather small bird, but it sure is loud. His singing is fueled by testosterone, and the act of singing releases dopamine (more so in the spring) and opiates (more so in the fall). It’s long been a sneaking suspicion of mine that, while song certainly has its instrumental purpose, the birds do indeed enjoy it.

There were a couple of surprising editorial bloopers in Ackerman’s book, and one comment about NYC that was as out-dated as it was dubious to begin with. Editing, alas, gets little attention even at major publishers (Penguin in this case). The striking Scrub Jay on the cover is by Eunike Nugroho, who also did the Great Tit on the back. The internal illustrations, by another artist, are less eye-popping.

Many Forests Gone

UnknownEric Rutkow’s American Canopy: Trees, Forests, and the Making of a Nation is a history of America’s woodlands. It is therefore a history of loss: the great forests that once stretched from the Atlantic to beyond the Mississippi were certainly touched in part by native Americans, who burned for deer parks and plots for seasonal plantings, but it was annihilated in ruthless, regimental progression by the arriving Europeans. The primitive peoples of Europe who came to set their rather ironically named plantations here feared dense woodlands, the abode, it seems, of Satan. And yet they coveted them, too. The Pilgrims get all the attention, but a colonial project is always also about resource-extraction: an early flurry of interest in sassafras because it was believed to cure syphilis, but mainly tall white pines for ship masts ~ Britain was long tapped-out of mast wood and depended on the Baltics for lesser wood than New World’s. No ruling the seas without wood.

It was a wood-based culture for a long time. Even into Levittown, wood was in most everything, although people often didn’t realize it. The logging industries sliced their way through the Northeast, then the Great Lakes, then the South, and finally the Pacific Northwest. Introduced disease took care of the elms and the chestnuts.

This book is organized into many sections, entirely too many to turn into anecdote here. Here’s one,though: wood pulp paper. Newspapers actually became cheaper in the 2nd half of the 19th century because of the transition from rag paper to wood paper, marking the rise of yellow journalism (ancestry of the tabloids and television’s excremental effluvia, currently piling the Trump high and deep). It’s a telling example of how technology transforms society.

Rutkow has some happier tales, victories against complete devastation — of, for instance, the redwoods, and the saving of the Bristlecone Pines — so I guess we should be satisfied with those peanuts. (Peanuts, by the way, were about the only thing that would grow once the yellow pine forests were scalped.) Not to suggest the remaining redwoods are peanuts, but we only have scraps now, and I for one am not satisfied with just scraps.


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