Archive for the 'Reviews' Category

McCarthy on the Roof, With Wildflowers

Tomorrow night, Michael McCarthy will be speaking at Kingsland Wildflower Roof in Greenpoint, right next to the egg-shaped digesters of the sewer facility. the_moth_snowstorm_for_web_df271fb2-a6f7-4703-9f9a-23ea2dbb7f70_1024x1024McCarthy’s The Moth Snowstorm: Nature and Joy is just out from NYRB. I intend to write further about the book soon, but suffice for now to say that it is a most thought-provoking elegy for life on Earth and a plea for using joy and wonder at the natural world to counter our own worst instincts and efforts. moth-snowstorm-pic(The British cover.)

The Trouble With Tibbles

img_0140Tibbles is right up there in the roll of famous cats, along with Hodge, who has a statue in Gough Square; Mrs. Chippy; and Unsinkable Sam, originally Oskar, who abruptly abandoned the Kriegsmarine for the Royal Navy and then proceeded to survive two more ships going down.

Tibbles was the pet of Lyall the lighthouse keeper on Stephens Island, off the coast of New Zealand. She was first brought to the island in 1894, evidently already pregnant, so it was either Tibbles or one of her offspring who ate the last of the island’s endemic wrens, a rare flightless passerine. Over a hundred cats were hunted down on the island in 1899, but it was already too late for Traversia lyalli.

Along with the Stephens Island Wren, cats have helped cause the extinction of 122 other species of birds; 25 species of reptiles; and 27 species of mammals. They kill many millions of birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians, and insects each year in the U.S. alone — the numbers are highly contested, but the thing about cats is that they are “subsidized predators,” fed by their keepers, which makes them (50% of the 86 million pet cats in the US are allowed to roam free) able to survive at extraordinarily high densities outside the house. Another 80 million or so cats are feral, outside all the time, and some of these are also fed, or subsidized, by humans as well, meaning they continue to do their thing out there. k10809A new book details this slaughter, its implications, and the struggle to stop it. The cat lobby has chosen, in classic style, to challenge the science and not the enormous problem. (This strategy goes back at least to the chemical industry’s response to Rachel Carson.)

I like cats. I like dogs, too. I grew up with both as pets. It seems to me a peculiarly limited mind that must distinguish itself between being a “cat person” or a “dog person.” But I am whole-heartedly on the side of all the other species against the cats.  This is an invasive species run absolutely amok.

If you have a pet cat, you must not let it out. It’s obviously healthier for the cat, too.

For the armies of feral cats, Trap, Neuter, & Release (TNR) programs superficially sound like a good idea, but they presume continuous management & funding since the supply of cats from fertile  domestic cats and the pet industry remains unchallenged. Meanwhile, the individual TNR’ed cat continues to kill during its lifetime. Feral cats have to be removed from habitat where they don’t belong.

Pet owners helped create this problem, but like consumers everywhere they don’t really want to take responsibility for it.img_9785This cat has an enclosed porch she can use, which lets her get plenty of fresh air but keeps her from stalking the animals she sees outside (we saw pigeons, doves, squirrels, cardinals, and a hummingbird in this Park Slope backyard over a few hours of lazy summer attention). Cat patios (“catios”) are a thing now; friends of mine have made window-box versions. Turns out to be pretty easy to stop a cat from what it wants to do. Rather less so for people.

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.


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  • Been so long since I've flown that I forgot that a pony-tail could hide something. I was nearly buzz-cut last time. 9 hours ago
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