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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.)


They get no respect, the two-winged insects known as flies. The biters, bloodsuckers, shit-eaters, in-flesh laying parasites, maggot-spawners.

Ooooog, you say, why are you doing this to me on a Sunday morning?

Well, at least they’re not Republicans.

There are an estimated 17 million flies for each and every human. We’d be drowning in excrement and corpses if not for all these flies, or at least the types that do the dirty work. But as Erica McAlister, a curator of diptera at London’s Natural History Museum, tells us, they do a lot more besides. There are also, for instance, vegetarian flies and pollinators. Indeed, chocolate depends on Forcipomyia genus midges for pollination. Paradoxically — or humanly, if you prefer — the expansion of cacao tree cultivation has meant clearing the forests in which chocolate midges live. Uh-oh. McAlister notes that cultivated cacao trees already have a very low pollination rate….

Obviously in love with her life’s work, McAlister’s enthusiasm is infectious.

And speaking of infection (this is a book review by Borscht Belt routine, evidently…) it’s not the mosquitoes — yes, they’re types of flies — who cause trouble; it’s the disease they carry. And they carry those because of the blood they need to produce their young. As vampires know, blood is very rich food; there are even tiny little midges who tap the blood mosquitos fill themselves with.

Cue up Jonathan Swift:

The vermin only teaze and pinch
Their foes superior by an inch.
So, naturalists observe, a flea
Has smaller fleas that on him prey;
And these have smaller still to bite ’em,
And so proceed ad infinitum.
Thus every poet, in his kind,
Is bit by him that comes behind.

Tree Omnibus

The trees are singing. If only we would listen. Tolkien suggested it might be quite hard to hear them, since they sing on a whole different time scale. David George Haskell is listening with microphones and an acute biologist’s senses. The Songs of Trees was one of last year’s best naturalist books, beautifully written and globe-spanning in reach. If you missed it, go get it.

The fig is absolutely remarkable. Of course, there isn’t just one fig; the Ficus genus has 750 plus members, from the house plant standard to the edible fig to the strangler species which dominate tropical forests. Each one of these species has at least one tiny fig wasp species that specializes in pollinating the “fruits” — which actually aren’t fruits but rather collections of inward growing flowers — in what are essentially suicide missions. I’ve written about figs before. Mike Shanahan has written a short, engaging book on the genus, and the vital role figs play in vast life webs around the world. Go exploring Ficus with Shanahan from the bodhi tree to Wallace to the Rhinoceros Hornbill to the Mau Mau rebellion, with a dozen or so creation myths thrown in. Was the fig the forbidden fruit of Eden? It sure is sexier than the apple, which definitely wasn’t the verboten fruit.

Shanahan notes that a 100 meter by 100 meter piece of old growth rainforest in Borneo (what’s left of it, anyway) can harbor 600 tree species. In Britain, by contrast, there are 36 native tree species. There, in 1664, John Evelyn’s Sylva was published by the Royal Society. This famed work, one of the first English language books about the cultivation of trees, was inspired by the Royal Navy’s worries about the shortage of timber for its boats. An example: the Mary Rose, launched in 1511, required 1,200 trees, mostly oaks but some elms as well; later and larger ships gobbled up 2,000 oaks each. The white pines of North America were a major draw for the journey across the Atlantic.

Now comes The New Sylva by Gabriel Hemery and Sarah Simblet to update things. There are certainly more than 36 tree species in Britain today. Actually, Hemery and Simblet say there are 60 native species, subspecies, or hybrids in Britain. They note that the native cut-off (1492 for us) stretches back circa 8,200 years for Britain, to when the land connection to continental Europe was submerged by the rising ocean. American readers, meanwhile, will recognize quite a few of the species in the transatlantic botanical exchange, species we gave them/species they gave us. Note that this book is primarily about silviculture, or timber-hunger, not the complex ecosystems known as forests, but then the un-human touched woodlands is non-existent today. Which reminds me: shouldn’t we date the Anthropocene back to the killing of Huwawa/Humbaba, the guardian of the sacred cedars, by Gilgamesh?

Simblet’s black and white drawings, from microscopic to landscape in detail, are wonderful. This book certainly works on a coffee table.

Off the subject, but Mike Wallace’s Greater Gotham, which I’m still reading, is majestic. It covers just two decades of NYC’s history, but these were the years the city became a world capital of capitalism. More than a century later, we still live there.

And the new edition of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein “Annotated for Scientists, Engineers, and Creators of All Kinds” turns out to be quite a course in ethics.

Water, Water Everywhere

A toponym is a place name, a notion of maps, signs, and our heads but rarely actually written onto the land itself. These names are packed with the histories of the peoples who did the naming. Rivers in particular hold onto ancient names, however filtered by later folk, as this nation so amply demonstrates. George R. Stewart’s classic Names on the Land: A Historical Account of Place-Naming in the United States, originally published in 1945 and back in print, is a good place to start on this topic. Kill brook creek run, if you know what I mean.

Here in the city, many of the old names have been paved over, like the topography itself. We live atop the Harbor Hill Moraine, but I know very few people who have ever heard of it. Yet its path is marked by the names of Brooklyn neighborhoods: Bay Ridge, Dyker Heights, Greenwood Heights, Windsor Terrace, Park Slope, Prospect Heights, Crown Heights, Cypress Hills… you’re sensing a pattern: the moraine stretches all the way out to the far eastern end of Long Island. It’s why the mere 4th floor here gives us such an expansive view, from Staten Island to Midtown Manhattan with the long smudge of the Watchung range in New Jersey in-between. Walking up and down the hill everyday reminds us of all this glacial rubble, a feeling a car can not provide.

Another thing we’ve covered over is most of the water bodies of the city. But you can’t keep a good water down. Sergey Kadinsky’s Hidden Waters of New York City (2016) explores the waterways visible and invisible in guide-book form (but unaccountably without maps!). The most famous example is the Minetta in the West Village. This stream is completely covered over, and gives its name to a lane and street, but it still moves towards the river and the occasional basement. The big apartment complex at 2 Fifth Avenue has a glass pipe in its lobby where the water can sometimes be seen bubbling up.

You’ll learn much in these pages. But a caveat: I spotted some errors in places I know best. Green-Wood’s Dell Water has not been filled in; I think he means Dale Water. And he gets the cemetery’s Sylvan Water and Valley Water confused. That’s easy to do because Sylvan Water, the largest pond, is actually in a valley. (Green-Wood reeks of Victorianisms.) Also, no explanation for why Whale Creek, an offshoot of the Newtown Creek, is so named…

You may have noticed that when I link to books discussed in these pages, I do not link to Amazon. There are other ways to get your hands on books, not least libraries. Yet Jeff Bezos is now the richest dick in the world. I’m glad to say I’ve had very little to do with that. (I stopped using the company many years ago when learning of their labor practices.)

The price of convenience, so called, has turned out to be oligarchy and a ruling 1% smashing the shit out the rest of us. No one with a critical take on history — consider slavery, the Money Power, the Gilded Age, fascism, contemporary China — should be shocked by this. Yet Americans are indoctrinated with the fantasy that democracy and capitalism are entwined, that one equals the other, that a “free market” leads to liberty. This is bullshit piled so high people are drowning in it. No actual capitalist has ever believed it. Why should you?


We caught Ted Levin talking about his book, America’s Snake: The Rise and Fall of the Timber Rattlesnake this week at the Linnaean Society. It’s a damn good book and deserves to be read far and wide.

Too many people fear and loath snakes, an irrationality that leads directly to massacre. There are still bloody snake-killing events held around the country as savage tribes (mostly white Americans) celebrate the slaughter. Meanwhile, cars do serious damage to male snakes, who must travel good distances between matriarchal snake dens. And collectors empty out dens for the (illegal) pet trade, destroying hibernacula that may have been used for centuries and will probably never be used again. And there’s a subset of a-holes who capture and pose with the snakes because, I guess, it makes them feel like men to be a=holes. Doesn’t it seem a pity, then, that only about 5 people a year die from snake bite…

As Levin noted in his talk, many more people die falling out of bed in this country than die from snake bite. And it would be pointless to compare fatal snake bites to the number killed by people driving automobiles (37,000+) or using guns (14,000+). Indeed, there is no comparison. By the way, should you actually be bit by a timber rattlesnake, keep calm and get medical attention ASAP; the venom is slow-acting. The Boy Scout stuff we learned about sucking out the poison is nonsense.

Rattlesnakes are strictly New World animals. You’ll recognize the rattler from early American iconography: Franklin’s “Join, or Die” cartoon and the “Don’t Tread On Me” flag used by the early Navy. But we’ve been chopping their heads off in terror since then, too. As a result Crotalus horridus is doing quite poorly today. Levin fictionalizes locations to keep them secret. So son’t publicize the locations of your sightings, should you be so lucky. I never have been. (iNaturalist should have built-in warnings about giving locations for this species, as well as other rare animals, and, of course, rare plants.)

One place Levin doesn’t hide is Glastonbury, CT. The town has learned to live with rattlers in their midst. And guess what, the payoff, besides beauty, wonder, and marvels, is that the town has less Lyme disease. Rattlers eat mice and chipmunks, the vectors for Lyme. Just saying.

Diamondback rattle handed around by Levin.

Ants in Your Stockings

Better than coal, right? Hell, what isn’t?

The Eleanor Spicer Rice series of books about ants are for the younger naturalist, but we can all learn a thing or two about these omnipresent critters in these pages. I perused Dr. Eleanor’s Book of Common Ants and Dr. Eleanor’s Ants of New York City; Chicago and California are covered in two other volumes; there’s also a Book of Common Spiders which I’m awaiting.

I’ve always been struck by the kinship between ants, bees and wasps, the main members of the order Hymenoptera. But don’t bees and wasps all have wings, you ask, “membrane-winged” being the translation of Hymenoptera? Well, reproductive ants do have wings. After mating flight, the female or queen discards hers for a life in the colony. The males, who often look even more like wasps than ants in general do, are evidently little studied. Like drone honeybees, they don’t seem to do much besides mate with queens. Nice job if you can get it? Worker honeybees (non-reproductive females) throw the drones out of the hive before winter; unable to fend for themselves, they die.

I’m now happily in possession of this fact: an ant’s abdomen is called a gaster. I think “Aunt Gaster” would make a very fine character name.

The pictures — no easy task when it comes to tiny moving insects — are by Alex Wild. The table of contents has pictures of all the ants, but otherwise it’s hard to compare and contrast the species for identification purposes. I’d like to have seen field marks, however small, highlighted. Also, there’s a bit too much repetition for my taste, both internally and between volumes, and the stories told are too cute for the old curmudgeon class, but I soldiered on.

Your best bet if not in NYC or Chi-town or Cali is to get the Book of Common Ants, which is a bit larger, with 18 species. The NYC volume covers 14 species. A drop in the ant bucket: there are at least 42 species found in the city.

Other natural history book to consider as gifts.


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.


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