Archive for the 'Reviews' Category


In Raptor: A Journey Through Birds, James MacDonald Lockhart loosely follows William MacGillivray, the nineteenth century ornithologist, from Scotland south, searching for the fifteen species of British raptors.

You may recall MacGillivray from the Audubon connection: he was John James’s ornithological ghost writer. I was struck by this: MacGillivray called his knapsack a “machine.” A quick glance at the OED shows that we’ve much reduced machine’s meanings since then. “A structure of any kind, material or immaterial” is the base definition. Human and animal bodies, siege engines, plots and conspiracies, ships and vehicles…

I’m familiar with most of the UK raptors, for we share several genera and species, but the Honey Buzzard (Pernis apivorus), a rare bird in the UK, is quite new to me. This is a bird that favors feeding on wasp larvae, its feet and bill rather different from the run of the meat-ripping-raptor mill. It will dig up nests to get the grubs. Here’s some video of the wasps’ response.

In the middle of the last century, Lockhart would have found many fewer raptors or none at all. This is the undercurrent of J.A. Baker’s remarkable The Peregrine. Hunters, farmers, egg collectors, habitat-destroyers, then DDT. Today, re-introductions, legal protections, and education mean there are many more raptors British Isles.

“You cannot separate the story of Britain’s birds of prey from the birds’ relationship with man. That relationship is the birds’ story.” For at the edges, the ravening hominid still lurks, the old battle is still being waged between the destroyers hungry for profit and the conservationists. The Hen Harrier (Circus cyaneus)*, for instance, is ruthlessly persecuted by “gamekeepers,” employees of large grouse-killing estates. These bastards kill all the raptors they find, just to be sure they get the harriers. In fact, the Hen Harrier rarely predates grouse, but reality, as you know, doesn’t match up well with belligerent ignorance. And of course, the oligarchical types who blast grouse out of the sky are the same shits assaulting the precarious protections we’ve managed to carve for our only planet and its soil, air, water, and food.

This isn’t a tangent. I didn’t expected Lockhart, in his peregrinations, to discuss the clearances and enclosures that have so brutalized Britain. But there you go. Wandering the land you should not miss them (the same goes for here, where traces of ethnic cleansing and genocide stain the map). “In the end all landscapes tell the same stories,” he says, “Everywhere is layered with the same strata of clearances, displacements, resettlements.” This nasty history is rarely portrayed in the reactionary television soaps about the toffs and their servants, classes created by this violent usurpation of land and justice, that some Americans seem to devour like sticky toffee pudding.

*Just this year, the nabobs of taxonomy split our Northern Harrier from C. cyaneus; our sole harrier species is now C. hudsonius.

Deep Maps

William Least Heat-Moon’s PrairyErth is an close exploration of the place now called Chase County, Kansas. The book is large and sprawling. I read it over several months, usually just a few chapters at a time, letting the details build up like the old prairie soils. Much, as he notes near the end, has been left out, as must inevitably be the case. Yet there’s a richness here that is amazing. You’ll learn, for instance, the 140 different variations of the word for the Kaw, the Wind People; one of these names was used to name the state by those who cheated, robbed, and finally ethnically cleansed the eponyms.

For naturalists, the chapters on cottonwood, osage orange, and wood rats are worth the price of admission. The rats are also known as pack rats and trade rats, since they’re known to swap what they’re carrying home with something nicer they find along the way: “campers have awakened in the morning to find a pocketbook or compass traded for a pinecone or deer turd.”

Melville said “It’s not down in any map, true places never are.” Now, I love maps, but recognize them for what they are: human representations, with all the caveats that implies. Such simplifications and flattenings have reached their nadir in the most commonly used digital maps, where the streets are all that seem to matter.

John Hansen Mitchell’s Ceremonial Time: Fifteen Thousand Years on One Square Mile and Tim Robinson’s two Stones of Aran books of a similar deep-mapping genre. I’ve read Robinson, and highly recommend him, and have Mitchell on deck.

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.

Inexhaustible Thoreau

Forty-seven manuscript volumes, seven thousand pages, two million words: the journals of Henry David Thoreau have been edited, extracted, and analyzed over and over again. Beginning with himself, since he used his journals for notes and drafts of articles, books, and speeches. It was his practice to write every day (life, of course, made exceptions); it could be a fine practice to read from him everyday, because he is quite inexhaustible. Let’s admit his published books sometimes make for hard reading; but not so the journals.

These voluminous writings serve as the basis of the exhibit at The Morgan Library and Museum, running until September 10th, entitled This Ever New Self. It’s moving to the Concord Museum, source of more than a few of the items on display, in late September and staying there until 1/21/18. See it!

The words are the things here, but you can also see such stuff as his walking stick, incised by the inch as a handy reference; his desk, pictured above, of Shaker-like simplicity; his ruler, inscribed D.H.T.; samples of the famous Thoreau & Co. pencils, and a lovely blue display box they would have been sold from; and two of his herbarium sheets. Above all, the flowing hand of his writing across pages of notebooks. This liquid scrawl is really quite difficult to read now. But judging from the finely-chiseled clarity of a letter sent to him, it was probably difficult to read Thoreau’s handwriting in his own time. Yet the words make an admirable pattern, a trace of vitality. It scootles across the page.
156 years after his death, we are still reading. Some people don’t get this; wowza, are they missing out!

Earth in Mind

img_2650David W. Orr’s Earth in Mind: On Education, Environment & the Human Prospect has been turning my mind over and fertilizing it with good compost.

“My point is simply that education is no guarantee of decency, prudence, or wisdom. More of the same kind of education will only compound our problems. This is not an argument for ignorance but rather a statement that the worth of education must now be measure against the standards of decency and human survival — the issues now looming so large before us in the twenty-first century. It is not education, but education of a certain kind, that will save us.”

(And pee-yew, it sure isn’t the fundamentalist poison Betsy Devos is selling — or buying, when it comes to her servant Senators.)

Someone who turns up several times in Orr’s book is Vaclav Havel. We should remember his conception of people power.  “Many more people realize, as Havel did, that arbitrary and inhuman power cannot deprive them of the inner freedom to make moral choices, and to make human community meaningful. They are shaping a redemptive politics of dissidence in the free world, nearly three decades after the fall of Communism. To measure the American dissidents’ success in electoral or any other quantifiable terms would be beside the point. For they are creating a “parallel polis”: the vital space where many, over the next four years, will find refuge from our age of anger, and learn to live in truth.”

And yes, that picture above was taken in the Bronx.

We Are Petroleum Junkies

Hydrocarbons are a dog-damned miracle. The things we get out of crude oil, from fuel to explosives, from fertilizers to clothing, from pharmaceuticals to candle wax, from pesticides to plastics, from asphalt to inks… it’s just mind-boggling. Mostly we think of gasoline, but that’s not the half of it. The stuff both powers and rules civilization: we wear it, we eat it, we breath it. And what happens to the stuff when we burn it radically transforms the planet.

That old baked plankton, all that life from at least a 100,000,000 years ago, we shoot it up the mainline! I’ve been reading Eric W. Sanderson’s Terra Nova: The New World After Oil, Cars, and Suburbs. I think everybody should have a copy at home. The first half of the book is how we got here. The second, where we should go. (There’s a discussion of the book in this Roosevelt House/CUNY video.)

Here is where oil, cars, and suburbs have left us. Sanderson gives us a great primer on hydrocarbons and their “siren song,” which lured us into the mess we’re in now, especially during the halcyon days of the “cheap oil window” of the 1930s-1970s. I lived through some of this, but of course the times you grow up in always seem like the way things are, and always have been.

Part Two of the book is his vision of a new world. Here’s a teaser: we have to get rid of the automobile. Check! I’ve been on that track for some 35 years, never having owned a car.

You may have noticed the paucity of optimistic thinking about the future in recent decades, barring the usual bubble-mania-hype of the market. The Right even believes — gotta defend their privileges any way possible — that utopian thought leads, inevitably, to the gulag. Yup, straight line.

Yet in this mire we’re bogged down in, clear-headed thinking about the future, envisioning it (with actually existing technology, not science fiction), and proposing how to make those visions come true (politics) are more vital than ever. With The Dumpster approaching the White House, now more than ever. That makes this book a weapon. Arm yourselves!

Gotham Unwatered

IMG_1328.jpgTed Steinberg’s Gotham Unbound: The Ecological History of Greater New York is a history of the de-watering of the region. From the Dutch on, but particularly in the 19th and early 20th centuries, we have have pushed out the borders of the archipelago with landfill. The interior wet places have been drained, filled in, and covered over. We’ve bulkheaded the expanded edges and made impervious great swaths of the landscape, or rather hardscape. The vast tidal flats and marshes of Staten Island, Newark Bay, Upper New York Bay, Jamaica Bay, and Flushing Bay have all been completely landfilled (with ash, garbage, harbor sand, & bulldozed topography) or reduced to a small relict of their past glory. The three regional airports were all built on landfill on salt-water marsh. With rising waters and more powerful storm surges, these old marshes will be sorely missed; they will also be, in fact, the first to flood, as Sandy all too plainly showed.

The enormously rich biota of the estuary the New York megapolis is built upon is now a thing of the past. Some things have certainly gotten better than they were a century ago when the harbor was so polluted there were no fish and no Osprey to eat them, and the last of the shellfish beds were closed because of poison and disease, but the improvements we have made are definitely far from complete. The waters have gotten deeper and biologically more simplified. And we’re still pumping in far too much nitrogen!

While researching Ellis Island (which celebrates its 125 anniversary as gateway to America on New Year’s Day), I found that it was one of four “Oyster Islands” in the Upper Bay. Of the other three, one was dredged away; one is now home to a lighthouse; one supports the Statue of Liberty, or should we say Statue of Limitations? The great oyster richness of the region seems unimaginable now, something out of a fantasy of plenty, even with the evidence of shell middens dating back 5000 years. Oysters still grow here, but nowhere near the numbers they once did. And who would eat one? A local program with the memorable name Billion Oyster Project aims to bring them back in substantial numbers.

Yet, as Steinberg notes, there is “no recovering the biological glory of Henry Hudson’s day…. The only relevant question is how to manage the land to increase diversity and ecological complexity as much as possible in a profoundly human-dominated environment.”

And to leave you with one final gleaning from the book: NYC didn’t come up with seismic building building code until 1995. There was a one-year grace period: developers rushed to get permits in before then. One of those projects was Trump’s huge Riverside South complex, which is built on terrain prone to liquefaction.

Wait, earthquakes? Yup. I’ve felt two minor ones over the years here in Brooklyn. The actual threat, though, is something on par of the (estimated) 4.9 quake off of Rockaway Beach in 1884. A 6.0 there would have major affects through the area. There’s small hazard of such a quake, but it’s high risk because of the density of people and property.

The imperative of growth is what has driven New York’s colonization of the water, to swagger heedlessly over the floodplain. Developers and their realtor lackeys insist we should continue such — though growth for the sake of growth remains the ideology of the cancer cell, as Edward Abbey noted.  But “we must even seriously entertain the idea of retreat” from the coastline, and realize the true costs of our ecological footprint.


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