Archive for the 'Reviews' Category

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.

Go Forth This Fourth

There have been, on occasion, squawks of outrage in the comments here by people upset that I bring politics into the mix along with pretty pictures of nature. How anyone can separate the two is beyond my understanding. This is the Anthropocene: humans are geosystem engineers on an unprecedented level, transforming the planet as we breathe. We are an “infrastructure species.” And we’re reducing the number of species and thinning the number of those that survive. We’re radically changing the chemical composition of the very atmosphere! And the sea, for fuck’s sake, source of a good portion of the world’s oxygen. And we garbage everything, from heavy metals at the poles to gyres of plastic in the most remote oceans. And always, toxins in our very bodies.

Take a smaller example: a few hundred people own half the private rural land in Scotland. This land is made up of estates, long ago (well, not that long ago) cleared of the indigenous population by laws made by rulers and the force of arms backing up them up. Clearances and enclosures did similar things south of the border in England, but Scotland is particularly screwed by the relics of feudalism. These estates are maintained for the benefit of wealthy grouse and deer hunters: banksters, tax cheats, oil barons, Russian gangsters, and the other examples of the awful 1%.

Every year, “game keepers” employed by these estates illegally slaughter raptors. The Hen Harrier, for instance, is touch and go in Britain as a result. These killer-keepers believe the harriers are taking grouse; that is, they think these raptors are competition for massa’s power-given right to grouse. Yes, that’s right, the oligarchs are afraid of the competition! But then, those who fetishize competition as the only way to go about ordering our universe are talking bollocks and always have been.

I have been recommending Mike Wallace’s incredible Greater Gotham: A History of New York City from 1898 to 1919. It takes as its foundation Consolidation, the political unification of Brooklyn and Manhattan and the rest of what become the boroughs into a supercity. It was the age of consolidation. For the capitalist class also hungered for consolidation. Those who had made their piles as robber barons HATED competition. They wanted massive corporations, trusts of oligarchs if not outright monopolies. They wanted order in business and in their control of the nation. They wanted a state that took care of troublemakers for them or at least didn’t bother the private armies that did their head-breaking and killing for them.

The reason to read Wallace’s book isn’t just for the pleasures of history, however many there are; the reason to read it is as a mirror on our own time. We’ve returned to the days of yore, the new Gilded Age, of corrupt gangster-like oligarchies the world over dismantling liberal democracy in the name of their profits, property, and wealth transfers from the rest of us. That’s what “tax cuts,” corporate-written international trade deals, and outright theft amount to.

Ah, that word “liberal.” It has meant so many things. “Neoliberalism” for instance, seems to confuse a lot of people. It means a return to the classical 19th century liberalism of “free markets.” Of course, that “free market” talk was always nonsense: the reigning free market state, England, was fueled by slave sugar and slave cotton, and THEN it ensnared the economy of India to suck it dry. Neoliberalism most definitely does NOT mean a return to New Deal liberalism (which had to save capitalism from a descent into what now seems the inevitable result of unfettered capital: fascism).

“Neoliberalism claims that we are best served by maximum market freedom and minimum intervention by the state. The role of government should be confined to creating and defending markets, protecting private property and defending the realm. All other functions are better discharged by the private enterprise […] By this means, enterprise is [supposedly] liberated, rational decisions are made and citizens are freed from the dehumanizing hand of the state.” This succinct definition is from George Monbiot, in How Did We Get Into This Mess: Politics, Equality, Nature, his collection of snapshots from our collective (but mostly British in his case) neoliberal hell.

Oddly for a creed that is always going on about “freedom,” the first great neoliberal experiment after the high tax post-war era took place in Chile under a dictatorship. Thatcher and Reagan were the great tribunes of this anti-statist ideology, lavishly bankrolled by oligarchs (many of them inheritors of wealth), who also set up think tanks, university chairs, and bankrolled existing parties to defeat democracy, common wealth, public life, community, and civilization. All the parties: in the UK, Labour, and in the US, the Democrats, followed slavishly behind the Conservatives and Republicans in kowtowing to the plutocrats.

And so today we have the massive wealth disparities caused by these policies and, it follows like day following night, rapidly diminished democracy. Democrats actually get more votes in the US, but have fewer representatives; and the Supreme Court — having been returned to its horrible traditional role of defending wealth — recently ok’ed wholesale voter list purges.

Here’s an elegy for a great city, hollowed out by the bandits and their bipartisan toads.

And on top of all this, indeed, it’s apotheosis: the deranged rampages of Donald Trump leading a party that has made no bones about its yearning for authoritarianism and a fundamentalist white ethno-nationalist state in the service of corporate power.

“These are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman.” Tom Paine’s the only Founder worth reading today, and he’s not even one of the official ones. Who will make a musical about him? But we’ll end on Franklin, even if he might not actually have said to the lady who asked him if the boys in the backroom had come up with a monarchy or a republic: “A republic, if you can keep it.”

Re: Rachel Carson

I finally read Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring in this handy new Library of America edition with an excellent introduction by editor Sandra Steingraber. Along with the chronology and notes, the volume puts Carson in a deep context of the burgeoning environmental activism of the 1950s, which was sparked in important ways by atmospheric nuclear testing.

Just as important was the reactionary response to Carson by the biocide industry. These swine, their flacks, their purchased academics, etc., attacked Carson furiously once the book took off. Misogyny was, you won’t be surprised to learn, one of their weapons, along with a barrage of lies. (The tobacco and petrochemical barons would follow a similar playbook.)

A condensed version in the New Yorker before the book itself came out and a nod from JFK all helped boost the book’s success. By awful coincidence, the book came out right in the midst of the thalidomide disaster. The human assault on the earth was on everybody’s mind.

I hadn’t known that Carson was fighting cancer during the writing of the book. It was published in September, 1962; she died in April, 1964.

Considering we* are still killing, with even more advanced poisons, life on earth for profit, this book certainly bears up. Unbearably so. The eradication and simplification of life on earth at our hands continues with breakneck speed. Perhaps there is nothing new under the shadow of humanity after all. (“We*” in the sense that we tolerate it, collaborate with it, sheepishly surrender to it.)

This edition also includes letters, essays, and addresses. An additional volume of Carson’s three books about the sea and the littoral is forthcoming from LOA. Let me call your attention to one of the essays in the new volume, which was originally published in Women’s Home Companion in 1956, “Help Your Child to Wonder.” Here she argues for the importance of exposing children to the natural world. No, no, not like some antique Greek dumping their spawn off on a hillside to meet the fates of the elements, but to the sounds of the sea, the stars at night, the trees in the wind; the smells, sights, sounds, tactile experience of the life that surges all around us. Don’t let your kids become cyborgs!

I was with some kindergarteners in the dirt of a Greenpoint community garden recently. We found worms, centipedes, grubs, snails, slugs, spiders, and there was much rejoicing, specifically shrieks commingling horror and awe. That did my cynical old heart much good. Another day, another K herd; one girl said rather seriously and sadly that if they killed off the bugs, there wouldn’t be any when she was all grown up.

“Instead of trying to impose our will on Nature we should sometimes be quiet and listen to what she has to tell us.” Carson, in a speech at Scripps College, 1962.

International Bird Migration Day

In Ruth Padel’s On Migration: Dangerous Journeys and the Living World, the Aeneid is offered as the great story of the present century: “the displaced man who has seen his city burn and has lost one identity forever must make a new home and new identity in an unknown land.”

Padel’s book is a modern prosimetrum, originally a medieval genre combining prose and poetry. The theme is migration long and short, horizontal and vertical, historical and present. Bat, bird, butterfly, dragonfly… whale, wildebeest, zooplankton: migration is one of the great facts of biology. And, it is, of course, the human story. Humans peopled the planet from the continent we now call Africa, then re-peopled it again and again through invasion and colonization. So much to meditate on here.

The birds arriving here today came from Central and South America. They have no nation; they may have passed over several and some are continuing on to another further north. Here, we always say migratory birds “spend the winter” down there, but really, what they do is they follow the summer, the sun that gives life to us all.

Personally, I started my journey in Japan. My parents were of mostly European ancestry; my mother’s lineage goes back in the U.S. to at least the early 1800s, my father’s to the late 1800s. His mother was born in Nova Scotia; she was bought here as a child in an influx of economic refugees from the Atlantic provinces into New England.

You might consider, given today’s nativist revival, thinking about the days before the 1920s. There were very few laws concerning immigration to the US, except for the exclusions aimed against Chinese. For most everybody else, however, there was no legal road to immigration, either; you just got off the boat. So when the Trump-supporting asshole (sorry for the redundancy) says “my ancestors came here legally,” that’s just more bullshit.
Moving right along…

In addition to being a fabulous poet, Padel is also one of the ambassadors of the New Networks for Wildlife in the UK. I was privileged, and delighted, to show her some of Brooklyn’s wildlife in Prospect Park last month. Her book about her great great grandfather, Charles Darwin, is very much worth reading.

Speaking of voyages: a paternal great great great grandfather was living on St. Helena when Darwin passed through on the Beagle in 1836. The Willses stayed a couple more generations on that isolated Atlantic island, at least until the 1870s, when, searching for a better life, they brought the whole family to Boston.

Bird Boxing

It’s a little late in the year for this, but I just found this book. It’s a very good place to start if you want to set up and maintain — stress on the maintain — bird homes for the next breeding season and the ones after that.

Habitat, siting, building, monitoring, maintaining are all covered here. Those cute little bird houses sold in garden stores and the like? Usually useless.

Thompson reminds us that the vast majority of bird species in North America are NOT cavity nesters, but those that are are quite spectacular: Tree and Violet Green swallows, Purple Martins, Chickadees, Titmice, Nuthatches, House/Carolina/Bewick’s wrens, Wood Ducks, all three species of blue bird, Great Crested and Ash-throated flycatchers, Screech Owls, and… American Kestrels! All of them could use the extra help. Thompson stresses that you MUST baffle to keep mammal and reptilian predators at bay. And that making a commitment for certain species means you have to be aggressive about House Sparrows and Starlings; these two invasive species will take over nest boxes unless you, as the “nest box landlord,” keep them out. (Note that wrens can be aggressive too, destroying other species eggs in nest sites they favor.)

The book also includes plans for a simple shelf set-up for Barn Swallows, Phoebes, and American Robins. Another book Thompson has written details the ins and outs of feeding birds. Baffles and commitment, you won’t be surprised to learn, also come into play when it comes to feeding. (When I see bird feeders in the city, I usually think of the rats getting fat on the seed.)

More bird nest information can be found here, with detailed regional needs.

The Amateurs

The root of the word amateur is the Latin for love. In our hyper-specialized world, “amateur” has become a put-down, which is a shame. The study of birds begun with amateurs. And it’s one of the few contemporary branches of science where amateurs can still regularly rub shoulders, or wings if you prefer, with professionals.

I suspect human beings have always had an intimate awareness of birds. As flying creatures, they must have captured our imaginations early. Birds, with their flocking and speed were also early-warning symbols of predators, weather, fire, and the like, which is probably how they came to be thought of as augurs. “Auspices” has its roots in the Latin for bird and the auspex, the observer of birds, both their flight and their entrails. Hunters and shamans both paid great attention to birds for obvious reasons, but where do we date bird-watching as we now understand it?

Ornithology has a solid history, but it was from its beginnings more about bird-killing than observing. Indeed, right into the beginning of the last century, the President of the American Ornithological Association refused to speak before the new Audubon Society with a huffed “I do not protect birds. I kill them.”

Here are three histories of ornithology and/or bird-watching for your consideration.

Michael Walters’s A Concise History of Ornithology. The thirty appendices documenting taxonomic plans from Charleton to Gadow gives a good sense of the density of this slim volume. It’s pretty relentless in its capsule biographies and race across the centuries. Best read in small bursts.

Walters doesn’t shy away from the dishonesty, feuds, frauds, and downright theft of ideas and specimens that have plagued the endeavor. He is, however, reticent about making the connections between imperialism and natural history. These are inseparable and really need to be discussed. Noted but without comment is this about Johann Friedrich Blumenbach (1753-1840), who is better known as an anthropologist, “of which study he has been described as the founder, and first divided mankind into five races.” That’s significant, considering all the evil that has come from these human-imposed divisions. (It was certainly a step forward to class humans as animals, but then to put them in a hierarchy, as these racial divisions inevitably did….) Bernd Brunner’s Birdmania also has a strong internationalist perspective. And includes more women than I’ve ever seen in my readings in this field, so extra points for that. The book is also sumptuously illustrated. It’s translated from the German, but I wish it had been edited with a firmer hand since the paragraphs leap all over the place. I did find one whopping historical error that I’m told will be corrected in the 2nd edition, so you may want to hold off until that comes out.
As the title says, Scott Weidensaul concentrates on the American scene, this time avowedly as birding. (I haven’t reread this one since it came out, but I remember it fondly.)


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  • Double double feature: Harold and Maude and McCabe and Mrs Miller and Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice and Thelma and Louise. 1 hour ago
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