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The Overstory

“What use are we, to trees?”

Richard Powers’s novel begins with Roots, separate stories, capsule biographies. These are illustrated at chapter start with leaves of the trees prominent in each story. In one case the tree isn’t named, since the character is oblivious to this tree, but the description is more than suggestive and the unique leaves starting the chapter, as in some medieval tome, confirm it. Of course, this tree comes to play another role later.

While this reader was wondering how all these roots would all come together, on or about page 131, things start jumping. The next section “Trunk” is separated by the crosscut ornament illustrated on the title page. (Another dingbat! Shall we call this one a… dendron?) But this is fiction, and I will reveal no more than the question I came away with: what use are we to the trees, or the oceans, or the atmosphere? Some of the beginnings of answers in the book are profoundly thought-provoking.

So, what are we to do? Particularly in light of the latest UN climate report, which warns of dire consequences within two decades. Two decades! This is not climate change, it’s climate breakdown, and it’s already occurring. The IPCC report, remember, is by its very nature conservative, watered-down and consensus-driven: these are not radicals by any means.

I’ll be a septuagenarian if I make it to 2040. Most of the children of friends will only be in their twenties or early thirties. Damn, I’m so old I remember when we had centuries or at least a century, before really bad things were going to happen. When cautious scientists said such and such was of only of the extreme probability. Now some of those things –the end of Arctic ice, the death of coral reefs (among many other devastations to the sea), the undermining of West Antarctica– are virtually yesterday’s news. One of the best advocacy groups fighting against increasing CO2,, started in 2008. They named themselves after the goal of keeping CO2 in the atmosphere under 350 parts per million. It’s now 405 ppm.

Actually, I have to admit to being a worst-case scenario-ist from the get-go. I don’t think this is pessimism on my part.

“What is to be done?” The crises of the present, never mind the coming hellscape of geo-political draught/flooding/mass migration, seem to have already thrown us into the era of “Climate Behemoth.” Neo-fascist, demagogic, the last orgy of plutocracy as it holds democracy down and chokes it.

Bay Co. Florida, where Panama City is, voted 71% for Trump.


The very next book I picked up after No Way But Gentlenesse was Tim Birkhead’s The Wonderful Mr Willughby: The First True Ornithologist. And the very first section break, after a discussion of Honey Buzzards, which Francis Willughby distinguished from Common Buzzard at the dawn of taxonomy, is this dingbat of three soaring raptors.

A book designer friend suggests, along the lines of fleurons, that these ornaments should be called ornithons or aviettes. You may remember the snake dingbat in America’s Snake. I like this trend! (Sneak preview: I’ve got another in a new novel I have on tap, and it’s not animal or mineral….)

The plot? Francis Willughby (1635-1672) died young. His mentor/science partner John Ray (1627-1705) finished up their work, foundational tomes titled (for short) Ornithology, History of Fishes, and History of Insects. Ray, who initially called himself Wray, has traditionally gotten the lion’s share of credit by history. Birkhead addresses the imbalance. His lads were co-workers, Willughby (spell-check wants to add the O) just had the misfortune of kicking off early.

Here’s something I found particularly interesting. Our heroes were young during the English Civil War. The Commonwealth Puritans were anti-intellectual, so they really tried to purge and transform the universities (Cambridge and Oxford). Where they succeeded was in displacing the lock the Anglicans had on everything. Theocracy thwarted by theocracy! Into the opening came those taking up the new mantel of science, less received truth from the ancients by way of the Bible than observation, experiment, personal experience. The “new philosophers” put some Bacon on the sandwich: of “histories of all kinds.”

The European Honey Buzzard, as Voltaire might have said, is neither (strictly) European, an eater of honey, nor a buzzard. They winter in Africa, putting paid to any notion they belong to either Africa or Europe. They generally eat wasp larvae, digging the grubs out with their short strong claws. They have scale-like feathers on the face, to protect them from understandably upset adult wasps. And while they look like buzzards (Buteo hawks), they’re more actually related to tropical kites. Birkhead argues they should be called Willughby’s Buzzard. I’ve only had some distant views of them in flight, in Sweden.

Here’s something completely different: rare Kemp’s Ridley sea turtles hatched on the Rockaways, a part of Queens, last month, for the first time ever this far north.

Time to downgrade the Supreme Court?

K is for Kestrel

Richard Hines’s No Way But Gentlenesse is a memoir of the stunting British class system, and his falcons. The first theme definitely grips one’s attention, the second, well, less so for this ornithologically-inclined kestrel-fancier.

Hines’s older brother Barry wrote a novel called A Kestrel For a Knave (1968), inspired by Richard’s experience with Falco tinnunculus. Richard had taught himself falconry as a teen. The novel was turned into a Ken Loach film called Kes (1969), now numbered amongst the top ten British films. It’s very Loach, if you know his work, and heart-breaking. (To those unused to Yorkshire accents, it’s also sometimes hard to understand.)

While the Hines were a coal-miner family for several generations, both the boys escaped the pits that killed one of their grandfathers and wore down their father (who died of cancer).

As in Helen Mcdonald’s H is Hawk and the ur-British modern falconry/therapy book, T.H. White’s The Goshawk, the birds here are the focus of the authors’s varied personal dramas and psychological issues. For hawk-watchers, there’s rather less to be had. I did perk up when Hines writes that a Merlin he trained in later life cached food and returned to the spot the next day. But all in all, three books about people breaking wild creatures to their will is the limit for me. I’d much rather reread J.A. Baker’s mad, poetic, “inhuman” The Peregrine.

Pictured above is the printer’s ornament or dingbat used as a section break within chapters of No Way. Spot on! (When these are stylized flowers or leaves, they’re called fleurons.)

The Experiment

For more than a century now, the planet has been under chemical attack. At first, we directed this attack at insects, then at humans, then again at insects, and now again, by default, at humans. It was war, literally and figuratively. Now it is war of another sort, a profit-driven war against life itself.

I recently explored the intertwining of technology, industry, and metaphor in the chemical war on insects and the chemical war on humans at Jstor Daily.

And I have been reading Kristin Lawless’s Formerly Known As Food: How the Industrial Food System is Changing Our Minds, Bodies, and Culture. This an excellent place to start digging into the terrible experiment life is being subjected to, with nobody’s consent. Contrary to industry’s leading argument, there’s no “choice” involved here, not when a handful of corporations control most food brands (and, perversely, are subsidized by tax-payers) and refuse to actually tell us what is in that can, plastic wrapped package, or box.

Thousands of types of human-introduced chemicals are in our food, air, water, soil, bodies. Most have never been tested. The testing that does take place is done by the very industries trying to sell the stuff. They use methods and tests that supposedly prove that low dosages are fine — while ignoring peer reviewed experiments showing that low levels are far from harmless, especially at the crucial hormonal/endocrinological level, where tiny amounts essentially create us.

DDT was banned, but not everywhere, and it still persists in the environment, which means we carry it too, all these years later. Glyphosate has been on the market since 1974; in 2015, the WHO declared it a possible carcinogen. It’s probably an endocrine and gene-expression disrupter as well. This weed-killer is poured on the foundation of the world’s human food supply: corn, soy, wheat, oats, barley, canola, barley. GMO and non-GMO; human feed and animal feed; soy and corn are also the sources of ingredients of much processed food. It’s also used to dry crops, to hasten their harvest. We know how Trump’s monstrous pirate gang is perverting the EPA and FDA so a few people can make a killing, literally, for profit, but both agencies have long been adjuncts to industry under the bipartisan corporate system. We have no idea how much glyphosate is in the food system. And that’s just one substance — as Rachel Carson pointed out long ago, almost nobody looks at how all these many introduced substances in the environment (in us) interact with each other.

So what is all this: the explosion of obesity; the lowering of the age of puberty in females; the drop in sperm counts; formerly adult diseases arising in children; cancers exploding in younger age cohorts; attention deficit disorders and autism; the well-known brain damage and psychological distortions caused by lead poisoning?

And here’s the thing: we’re colonized by both the substances in food (sugars, sodium, bad fats, in addition to all the chemicals), which act much like addictive substances, AND advertising from day one. From before day one, actually, since the food a mother eats very much sets the pattern for the baby to come. (Lawless also explores the diminishment of our gut biota after millions of years of co-evolution, by antibiotics, the growth in C-section births, and the decline of breast feeding).

Lawless takes on a lot of topics in this urgent book. On eating, she stresses her “Whole Egg Theory,” that is food that isn’t processed or adulterated. Remember how we were supposed to give up butter and egg yolks and drink skim milk? Well, now we know those were terrible ideas. (Most aisles in the supermarket are worse than unnecessary, very much filled with terrible ideas whose only point is to make someone money.) Michael Pollan‘s mantra maybe helpful here as well: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” — with food being defined as what your great grandmother ate; by this definition, the vast majority of the supermarket isn’t food. (Lawless has some excellent arguments on Pollan’s essential weaknesses.)

Of course Lawless realizes it’s not just a matter of being a “foodie,” or buying organic (a category which is itself undermined by corporate control). This is a huge issue mixing social, cultural, and political factors, notably our virtual serfdom under corporate power and the vast wealth (and health) disparity produced by it.

But consider what industry has succeeded in doing: “it has completely upended American food culture to the point where simple, unadulterated foods are un-American or elitist and foods are are processed and full of environmental chemicals are true American fare.”(They’ve been exporting this pernicious notion, too, of course.) They’ve thrown us the rope of convenience, and in our desperation, we’ve tied it around our necks.

This is a hard book to read: we’ve really dug ourselves and allowed ourselves to be stuffed into, a terrible hole.

There Were Whales

D. Graham Burnett’s The Sounding of the Whale: Science and Cetaceans in the Twentieth Century is a whale of a book. He traces the… evolution (?) of whale science from the cutting room floor of factory ships by scientists who were more or less creatures of the industry, flensing their way through interesting collections of oils (which lubricated ICBMs, among other things) and data, ever so much more data, as species were hunted to the brink, to a rather sudden transformation, a re-mystification in many senses, of whales in the late 1960s.

By the 1970s, Greenpeace and other factors had made saving the whales a rallying cry, the focus of environmentalism. Weirdo-weird guy John C. Lilly, he of the dolphin “mind” and, uh, other parts, best (?) represents the transition: from Defense Department funded explorer of brain-washing and sensory-deprivation to Navy-funded (briefly) dolphin evangelist to LSD-dropping freak babbling about alien consciousness. (The Navy still exploits dolphins for war.) Lilly gave LSD to dolphins, too, by the way, but, as Burnett points out, researchers were doing to that to a lot of animals, including the two-legged kind.

The wretched International Whaling Commission, an entity of whale industry states designed to perpetuate the industry, was finally beaten to submission to a whaling moratorium (with too many exceptions) in 1982.

I started this book some time ago. Here’s what I wrote about it then. It’s a deep dive. I got out of the water for a while and only just recently returned. I’m glad I did. The last chapter is fascinating. You could do worse than just reading the conclusion, which breachs one of the great questions of history writing.

The Anthropophiles

Some animals have learned to live and even thrive alongside the greatest ecosystem engineers on the planet. In Darwin Comes To Town, Menno Schilthuizen tells some their stories. On the basis of the non-ant animals that live inside ant colonies, called myrmecophiles as a group, Schilthuizen uses the term anthropophiles for those animals that adapt to our colonies/hives, or cities. It is a thrilling story, very well told. Evolution is, after all, “the greatest show on earth” (as Richard Dawkins put it in one of his less jerky moments).

Real-time evolution. By real time, I mean observable in human life-spans. The Grants in the Galapagos, measuring finch beaks through drought and famine, are one of the paradigms of this, but Schilthuizen is on the urban beat. Of course, as he points out, cities are very much like islands, isolating and fragmenting populations into genetically separate sub-species and even species. Just consider the challenges these creatures (yes, including us!) face: heavy metals and other poisons, fast cars, light pollution, noise, junk food, stress, heat island-effects, habitat destruction.

Urban birds have learned/developed to sing so they can be heard in the urban cacophony. Urban fish can tolerate heavy metals to a much greater extent than non-urban fish. Seaside plants are spreading inland because they can tolerate roadsides sprayed with salt all winter. Urban mammals can handle a higher-fat diet. And of course you know that Rock Doves are geniuses compared to their country cousins. (The country and the city mouse are really things.)If you’re like me, a non-biologist, you probably grew up learning what Darwin thought: evolution happened over long periods. But ever since D, humans have been following things like the peppered moth; mosquitos in the London Underground; Starlings in the Americas; Cliff Swallows at their highway overpasses; Hawksbeards; Anolis lizards (there are 500 and counting species in this amazingly adaptive genus); Cichlids; Eurasian Blackbirds…

I’m only skimming the surface of this excellent book. Read it. The world is becoming increasingly urban (here in the U.S., however, our politics remain hostage to the non-urban) so this is the shape of the future. 

Three Books: Paths Not Taken

“One could be an environmentalist, or a social activist, but not both, and the recent rise of environmental justice helps underscore just how little justice has historically meant to environmentalism.”

Daegan Miller’s vital This Radical Land: The Natural History of Dissent explores the paths not taken since Henry David Thoreau mixed it all up. Thoreau is one of the founders of environmentalism, but a funny thing happened on the way to the present: we lost sight of him. “Instead of Thoreau’s multifaceted radicalism, mainstream American environmentalism has followed the lead of Theodore Roosevelt — a man dedicated to wilderness and whiteness and wealth and martial manliness and the market — the nation’s ‘eugenicist in chief'[…].”

Miller digs into the dissenting, counter-modern tradition, not to be confused with the antimodern. Things like the abolitionist settlement of African American farmers in the Adirondacks, and communards in the red woods long before the 1960s, two histories I wasn’t aware of.

The fiction that “nature” is some kind of thing outside human history erases the genocide and ethnic cleansing that depopulated the lands that became our national parks. These weapons also set the stage for the colonial settlement and exploitation of land, minerals, water, even the air. I bet most Americans still remain ignorant of the Gold Rush-sparked genocide in California.

All this is important not least because the big conservation groups are creations of capitalism. Is it any wonder they have proven themselves so impotent against climate change? Of course, they’ve done some good things, but they have also helped lock up what Miller calls a “free-ranging green imagination” into a capitalist box whose walls are closing in. For “progress,” this thing that is always supposed to be moving ahead and expanding possibilities, is quite plainly thinning out and reducing the Earth’s life systems.

Be sure to read Miller’s final chapter.
Here’s another, echoing book. Colors of Nature: Culture, Identity, and the Natural World, edited by A.H. Deming and L. Savoy, can serve as an further opening into these themes. It’s a collection of essays exploring the question “why is there so little ‘nature writing’ by people of color?” As you can imagine, the category “nature writing” is itself interrogated by the thirty contributors. Nature was as segregated as society, and in some cases still is (take that train up to Breakneck Ridge). Poisons are still disproportionately dumped on the poor: lead in cities; pesticides on farms; toxic dumps next to black communities. The black bird watcher still has the cops called on him or is threatened more directly by the racism-twisted, who’ve been so savagely unleashed by Donald “neo-Nazis are fine people” Trump.
Let’s explore another text: Gina Crandall’s Tree Gardens: Architecture and The Forest. A study of trees used in parks and memorials, the book uses Gateway Memorial Park as one of its case studies. Maybe you’ve been there? The Gateway Arch was built on land fronting the Mississippi in St. Louis. That space was created by “urban renewal,” which James Baldwin more appropriately called “Negro removal.” The so-called “blight” was home and workplace of thousands. It was wiped clean off the map. Then the space was left abandoned as a big empty lot for a decade because WWII stymied plans for the arch. The ground-level erasure of history was complete. The ironies are bitter indeed: this ethnic cleansing was done to celebrate westward expansion. Then the construction unions building the arch and surrounding park refused to hire black workers. None of this is mentioned in the book. You may argue that this is not the book’s topic. My point here is that history must be a part of such stories.

Miller organized his history around “witness trees,” — “green, enchanted, ungovernable, wild-talking” trees rooted in living history. The trees in Gateway have entirely too shallow roots.


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