Archive for the 'Reviews' Category

The Corporate Killers

Over and over again, industry has attacked science to further the profitability of… killing. The paradigm is Big Tobacco: cover up your own evidence and fund obfuscation and denial. The oil and gas oligarchy has followed that playbook: they knew about global warming decades ago; they knew pumping carbon into the atmosphere would heat the planet; but they carried on, suppressing their own scientists’ reports, funding doubt and lies, giving birth to thousands of social media crazies who don’t even have to be paid to spread the Petroleum Institute of America’s disinformation, ignorance, and calumny.

But as Gary Fuller shows in The Invisible Killer, this is all old hat for the corporate killers. The leaded gas industry pulled the same trick. Knowing it was poisonous — even the ancient Romans knew it was bad news — DuPont (Joe Biden’s feudal lords), Standard Oil (one of whose successors is Exxon…), and General Motors founded the Ethel Corporation and then proceed to lie, deny, and savage critics who said pumping lead into the environment was a deadly idea. Note that these producers of tetraethyl lead (TEL) as a gasoline additive made damn sure to keep the word “lead” out of their corporate name and PR. They knew, but they proceeded to poison the planet anyway, shortening lives, destroying cognitive ability.

Fuller introduced me to Thomas Midgley (1889-1944), the chemist and inventor who not only gave us lead additive but also the CFC known as Freon, the ozone-destroying gas once used in refrigerators and air conditioners. Somebody else could easily have been responsible for either of these deadly inventions, but what a ruinous double-header for one man! He’s been described as the person who “had more impact on the atmosphere than any single organism in earth history.” He seems to have strangled himself to death in the home-made system of pulleys he used after he was stricken with polio.

Acid rain? Ditto. When Norwegians pointed to British smokestacks as the source of sulfur from burning coal that was destroying Scandinavian forests and waterbodies, the industry obfuscated, discredited, belittled, delayed. Here the flip side was that the British power industry was then nationalized, so it was government doing the lying and attacking. Typically, it’s industry and government working together incestuously until — unless — the government is wrested from its corporate-capture.

Fuller’s book is also discussed in this New York Review article, along with a couple of other books and reports on the topic of air pollution, a problem we DID NOT actually fix in the 1970s.. Our lives are still being shortened by air pollution. And industry is still blocking clean up, still making money at the expense of premature human deaths, still assaulting the planet.


Some good news! Isabella Tree’s Wilding: Returning Nature To Our Farm has been published. This is a revelatory story of a family’s abandonment to natural processes of their losing-proposition farm in the clay-laden Weald, some 44 miles southeast of London.

Tree is a very fine writer. It’s worth reading this just for the great way she tells it, mixing history, memoir, and natural history, along with strong opinions. She’s the latest in a line of writers who have revealed that England’s lyrical “green & pleasant land” trademark is a charade, a hoax, a mask covering over an astonishing diminishment of natural heritage, habitat, and biodiversity. Since the Second World War, the UK has become one of the “most nature-depleted countries in the world.” (See also Michael McCarthy, The Moth Snowstorm.) Hedgerows vanquished, chemicals poured, sheep fetishized, a necrophilic orderliness established hither and yon — all have led to the stripping away of the very nature that spoke through Shakespeare, Clare, Keats — hell, even people’s grandparents — as the quintessence of Britishness.

Turning their marginal agricultural land into an experiment on re-wilding, Tree and her husband Charlie Burrell have seen an explosion of life-forms, including rare birds, bats, and butterflies, as well as dung beetles, fungi, orchids, and a host of others creatures. Knepp Castle estate is now on all the twitchers’ lists — but of course it’s only an island in the wastelands.

But, but, but… what about food? Tree covers the topic extensively, since a generation in the UK has been taught to value productive farming above all else. Yet the world produces so much grain and pulse (think soy beans in the burning Amazon) that they are pumped into animal feed, ethanol, and ever more tricksy-marketed junk-food instead of directly into people’s mouths as actual food. (Famine and malnutrition are political results.) Also, Knepp’s balance sheet is helped immeasurably by selling pasture-raised beef — meat that’s much better health-wise compared to the sick-cow stuff sold most places. They aren’t out of the food chain completely. But her argument that land that’s marginal for farming is better not farmed is a strong one indeed. It’s even better for the neighboring farms.

Key to Knepp’s transformation has been the introduction of long-horned cattle, deer, Exmore ponies, and pigs, stand-ins, essentially, for the extinct megafauna that once browsed, churned, and fertilized landscapes. The idea that megafauna made and unmade meadows and forests, to a much greater extent than has been traditionally thought, is a controversial one (for some). The UK has a myth of closed canopy forest covering it after recovery from the glaciers. (We share this myth in the U.S., too, with tales of the forest running uninterrupted from the Atlantic to the Mississippi upon the arrival of Europeans.) But animals have been geo-engineering long before there was such a word. Consider the beavers, herds of grazers, large herbivores.

The Knepp couple were inspired by Frans Vera, whose project in Holland, Oostvaardersplassen, has rewilded a portion of some of the most human-intensive land in the world. Vera: “We forget, in a world completely transformed by man, that what we’re looking at is not necessarily the environment wildlife prefer, but the depleted remnant that wildlife is having to cope with: what it has is not necessarily what it wants. Species may be surviving at the very limits of their range, clinging on in conditions that that don’t really suit them. Open up the box, allow natural processes to develop, give species a wider range to express themselves, and you get a very different picture.”

Controversy at the Dutch experiment has been sparked by the “animal rights” activists, who protest against culls and starvation, a natural process of population balance. At Knepp, meanwhile, they aren’t allowed to leave large animal corpses to decay, and foster more life via scavengers, decomposers, etc. Nor can they have large predators — keystone species in habitats, as the reintroduction of wolves to the Yellowstone have shown.

Tree: “Allowing natural processes to happen, and having no predetermined targets to meet, no species or number to dictate the plan, is a challenge to conventional thinking. It particularly unsettles scientists who like to test hypotheses, run computer models, tick boxes and set goals. Rewilding — giving nature the space and opportunity to express itself — is largely a leap of faith. It involves surrendering all preconceptions, and simply sitting back and observing what happens.”

This… is difficult to do. Burrell inherited Knepp. The land was and remains bound up in EU and UK regulations (farmers are some of the most cosseted and straight-jacketed people in the western world). Neighbors were outraged when B & T left farming and let “weeds” and “wasteland” — the horror, the horror — grow, although many seem to have calmed down since. Some “animal lovers” forced them to kill one of their pigs because she tried to protect her young from their off-leash dogs, which of course weren’t supposed to be off-leash to begin with. (Entitled “dog people” are emerging as some of the worst enemies of the wild, in prioritizing their domesticated pets over all else. They’re joining the feral cat-lovers, who are already solidly against nature with their fetish for this deadly invasive species.)

The literal bottom line: you will be fascinated, inspired, and perhaps even empowered by this book.

Paulson on the Odonata

Dennis Paulson’s new Dragonflies and Damselflies: A Natural History‘s is a great introduction to odonating.

Paulson has written the standard field guides to American/Canadian odes as well as dozens of journal papers on odonates. The pictures in his field guides are too small; that’s these guide’ principal fault. But consider: there are 461 species to be covered in the US and Canada. There is strong sexual dimorphism in odonates, meaning at least two images for each species. Some damselfly species have four or five color forms. Dragonflies and Damselflies of the East is 519 pages long, not including glossary and index. Gotta be some hard calls for the author and publisher in this field of field guide publishing.

This new book, however, is coffee table format. It’s aimed for a popular readership. While there is a Further Resources appendix, I note the absence of a real bibliography. There’s a lot of scientific literature out there; touching base with it would have been a good thing, especially with our unparallelled ability to pull up scientific literature on the ‘net (if not full text than at least the abstract).

Chapters on natural history alternate with two-page spreads on individual species from around the world. At the time of publication, there were 6,299 described odonate species. That number is sure to change. Nearly two hundred of these were first described between 2015-2017. Only a small sample are included here, obviously, representing the great range and diversity of this order of insects.

News to me: the Common Winter Damsel (Sympecma fusca), found in southern and central Europe east to central Asia, stays dormant through the winder. They grab hold of something and sit out the winter in dormancy. The two other species in this genus are the only overwintering adult Odonates we know of. Advantage: very early start to reproduction, before predatory migratory birds show up. Disadvantage: they suffer “moderately high mortality from rodent predation” in winter. A frosted-over damselfly is still fresh meat, after all.

On the Azores, the population of Citrine Forktails (Ischnura hastata) is all female. They’re the only ode that manifests parthenogenesis. With so many species, there are many strategies and adaptations and habitats. The basic plane is the same, but the differences are what fascinates.
The Eastern Pondhawk (Erythemis simplicicollis) rates an entry because it is one of the few species in the world that seems to be increasing its numbers, going against the general decline brought about by… us. I photographed this one in Brooklyn. They thrive in any kind of fresh water; many other species have rather more specific requirements: gravel bottoms, slow moving streams, fast moving streams, muddy bottoms, etc.

What else? Much else. Up to 60% of the weight of a dragonfly is muscle used to power their four wings. “Although they operate independently, the fore- and hindwings interact with one another. The hindwings suffer slightly increased drag owing to the turbulence created in front of them by the forewings, but the positive pressure generated by the hindwings actually decreases drag on the forewings.”

There are even some numbers on flight speed: average speed of a moderate sized dragonfly: 4.5 mph. The largest dragonflies, the darners, can hit bursts of 34mph!
Sweetflag Spreadwing (Lestes forcipatus) female. Photographed in Alley Pond Park in Queens, on the same day as this
Slender Spreadwing (Lestes rectangularis). These are now the only Queens records for Lestes genus spreadwings at Odonata Central. iNaturalist has one more, seen in 2016, but nobody could get it down to species level. I have a similar problem with the third spreadwing I photographed in Ally Pond Park that day. Without the specimen in hand, identification can be impossible, but I’d rather see them flying than tucked into someone’s drawer. Brooklyn, by the way, has only one record of a spreadwing, but here too the picture is too obscure for species-level.

To Market, To Market

Are we locusts? In telling the “hidden histories of seven natural objects” consumed by humans, Edward Posnett ponders the question in Strange Harvests. True, he puts it in other words, but that’s what it boils down to.

Female Common Eider (Somateria mollissima) with ducklings in Iceland, 2010.

Edible birds nests, civet coffee, sea silk (byssus), vicuna fiber, tagua (“vegetable ivory”), and guano are six of his subjects. (I’ve also written on guano.)

Eiderdown is the first object he tackles. Did you know that female eiders pluck their own belly feathers to line their nests? The down, a remarkable light-weight insulator, is really, really warm. After the breeding season, this eiderdown is gathered by Icelanders. The Russians, who also have a lot of eiders, just wantonly slaughter the birds. The feather-for-filling industry is another horror-show; in addition to filling comforters, some feathers, along with human hair, are turned into a “dough conditioner” called L-cysteine used in garbage-bread manufactures like Dunkin Donuts.

Some Icelandic eider “farmers” have the nests all around their homes; the birds have learned to associate these places with safety from predators — gulls, skuas, foxes. The Arctic fox is actually the only indigenous mammal on the island. The eider-gatherers kill the foxes with abandon.

This is the chaser, as it were, to the seemingly simple story of Icelanders living in harmony with nature, which is actually a component of the international capitalist nexus, where big money is made in pure Icelandic eiderdown — money generally not made by the Icelanders who clean the bird shit out of the down.

The subsistence-gatherer makes little of the ultimate boodle… a story repeated over and over in this book on the global and rapacious reach of the market.

Only seven objects? Well, a book can only be so long. But think too of horseshoe crabs, bled for medical purposes. Or scale insects ground up for red-food dye, lipstick, and Campari. Or the driving to extinction of fresh water mussel species in the U.S. for the button industry.

Our jaws are munching, munching, munching everything in the fields of the planet.

Two more Common Eider, this time in Maine.

Some Books

Francis Hallé’s Atlas of Poetic Botany is delightful. It’s a botanist’s record of encounters with remarkable life forms, tropical plants that walk, listen, mimic (like a chameleon, yes), among other things.

I hadn’t known that rubber trees were native to the New World. However, they can’t be grown plantation-style in the Amazon because if they’re too close together a parasitic fungus takes them out. The trees need to be separated by at least 300 meters. The great rubber plantations of Asia — Thailand is still the world’s main producer of natural rubber — don’t have this problem. Hallé says the fungus (Hemileia vastatrix) is going to reach them someday.

We don’t even know why rubber trees produce latex? It’s not an insecticide? Do we really need to go to other planets when we’ve hardly gotten to know this one?

This book would make a wonderful gift for a friend who cares nothing for plants or doesn’t bother to notice them. Yes, it is all exotica to those of us in the temperate zone, but it may very well plant some seeds of curiosity.

Or spores. For instance, in a woodland near you, there may be plants whose ancestors reach back hundreds of millions of years, who survived two mass extinctions, and almost got shut out by the shade-stealers angiosperms. Robbin C. Moran delves into A Natural History of Ferns and lycophytes, spore-bearers all. (Consider all the pollen, microbes, spores fungal and pteridophyte, you breath in through the year. Fresh air? Times Square! By the way, it’s the proteins on the surface of pollen grains that are causing your immune system to fire off. Fern spores don’t have surface proteins and don’t make you sneeze.)

Fern reproduction — which has sexual and asexual generations — was figured out late in the game, in the 1840s… I mean, we humans figured out how ferns went about it. The plants have obviously known a very long time. Moran begins with Shakespeare referring to the common belief that ferns reproduced by invisible seeds, fair enough since you need a microscope to get a good look at the spores. The invisible seeds were thought to make you invisible if you managed to get a hold of some.

A perfect pendant to Moran’s collection of essays is Lynn Levine’s Identifying Ferns the Easy Way . This slides into cargo-pants pocket with ease. And it works very nicely.


The Old English word unweder means bad, bad weather, a storm or tempest “so extreme that it seems to have come from another climate or time altogether” writes Robert MacFarlane in Underland. Exploring the rapidly shrinking ice of Greenland near the end of his new “deep time journey,” he’s in the thick of this uncanny weather.

“A ‘glacial pace’ used to mean movement so slow as to be almost static. Today’s glaciers, however, surge, retreat, vanish. The recession of Himalayan glaciers threatens the livelihoods and lives of more than a billion people in Asia, who depend on the water that is seasonally stored and released by these ice rivers.” India is already experiencing crushing heat. As is Europe, which saw all its records (the longest climate history in the world) shattered late last month.

There’s an awful lot in this book. The section on fungal tree interactions and communication is particularly fine. It will make you sad to see a street tree, which is basically an orphan. The section on nuclear waste, and efforts to warn future life-forms AWAY from it, is particularly horrific. The nuclear industry and its acolytes still push more power plants, but the problem of radioactive waste remains. They are trying to figure out a warning systems that needs to understood for as long as the human species exists… and beyond. The nonhuman needs to know, too. But by what right do we poison the future?

MacFarlane has an eye for the telling quote, too. “Are we being good ancestors?” asked Jonas Salk in the early 1990s. “What we excrete comes back to consume us,” wrote Don DeLillo in Underworld.

Wind At The Back

Just next month, a new edition of Lyall Watson’s Heaven’s Breath: A Natural History of the Wind.

The title is iffy and I question its dependence on the Gaia hypothesis for its overarching theme. This seems par for course of Watson, who was a prolific popularizer of science who verged into the paranormal and New Age foolishness, where he seems to have confused curiosity for credulousness.

But, the woo-woo aside, there’s much to be gleaned in this encyclopedia of fascinations. By all means take a ride in its swirling currents.

The book originally came out in 1984, which perhaps explains why, for something about the thin but all important layer between rock and space, it takes its time getting to the greenhouse effect. Watson was… optimistic about the coming climate shift: “This is bound to affect economic and political stability and to change our coastlines and our lives, but it could also be the making of a new world — one worth getting excited about all over again.” Like many a peppy prognosticator, he is no longer around to check his opinion.

What I most take away from the book are the pages on aeroplankton. The air is its own ecosystem. It’s absolutely packed with lifeforms. Insects, of course. Tons of them. What else are the swallows and swifts gobbling up overhead? And spiders, lots and lots and lots of spiders, although I’ll wager less than in Watson’s day. Ditto the other insects. (Windshields used to be covered with dead bugs after night drives, but no more, cf: Michael McCarthy’s The Moth Snowstorm.) There’s pollen, too, as your nose knows, from ten thousand species of wind-pollinated plants.

And there lots of bacteria and viruses. Also spores, of fungi, lichens, mosses, liverworts, ferns. Then there’s the dust, from plowed field, desert, volcanoes.

From more recent research: 56 million metric tons of dust per year crosses the Pacific to North America, and that’s just one pathway; “the earth’s atmosphere is like a conveyor belt for microbes”; “it is now understood that even dead cells can play a functional role in weather and climate as cloud and ice condensation nuclei.”

Don’t forget the pollution which settles on the ice of the poles, reducing its albedo, meaning less reflection and more heat in the atmosphere.

“”…the latin root anima, meaning both ‘wind’ and ‘spirit’ — which leads ultimately to animus the ‘soul,’ animare to fill with ‘breath,’ and ultimately ‘animal.’ And the root spirare to ‘breath,’ from which comes ‘spirit,’ ‘aspire,’ and , in the end, ‘inspiration.'” [Not to mention ”conspire,” to breath together.]

A dictionary of wind blows through the final pages of Watson’s book. Oe, Halny, Williwaw, Waltzing Jinn, Chinook. I remember the latter from my year in Calgary: sudden thaws would pour down from the Rockies in winter. Spring came early, for a day or two.

Hey, fun for the kids: how the world has warmed, down to the local level, and predictions on increasing warming in the place where you live.


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