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Our week of books continues with Gods of the Upper Air, by Charles King.

This is a collective biography of anthropologist Franz Boas and his students Margaret Mead, Zora Neale Hurston, Ruth Benedict, and Ella Deloria, who took on the “scientific” racists, eugenicists, ethnocentrists, and anti-immigrant forces of a century ago. It is a fascinating story. They helped to transform how we think about race and sex, but they didn’t kill the reigning monsters off. This has been made all too clear in the excrement-personality, elected by a minority of America, to the Presidency. Trump has expressed eugenicist thinking, supported white nationalists and nazis, and is a misogynist of the first rank.

I’m a pretty close student of that era, but I was surprised to discover that the Married Women’s Act of 1922 stripped citizenship from American women who married non-white foreign men. Paging Stephen Miller, who, of course, would not have been considered white in the 1920s because he’s Jewish. (One imagines the nazis clustering around him as he tries to get credit for concentration camps, baby-kidnapping, and walls at the border: “Guys, we did it!” “What do you mean ‘we,’ Stevie?”)

As King reminds us, the original Nazis were careful observers of the American system of authoritarian apartheid. They modeled their race laws on America, substituting Jews for African Americans. The best-selling eugenicist Madison Grant, the originator of the “Great Replacement” myth in The Passing of A Great Race, and the man who exhibited an African at the Bronx Zoo’s earlier incarnation, was one of Hitler’s heroes. (See also Henry Ford.) The Germans made sure to catch up on the eugenics congresses hosted by Grant’s institutional base, the American Museum of Natural History, whose president, Henry Fairfield Osborn, was another leading eugenicist, and one of Boas’s detractors.

The American program of sterilizing “morons,” sanctified by a 1927 Supreme Court decision based on lies about the women at the heart of the case, was another model for the Nazis. Lies and bogus science were, in fact the basis of all this horror.

There used to be an attic at AMNH filled with the shelves of busts of the dozens of supposed “races” of humans, taking Johann Blumenbach’s 1777 notion of five races — American (i.e Arctic), Caucasian, Ethiopian, Malay, and Mongolian — to even more outlandish levels of absurdity. “Caucasian” is the only one of Blumebbach’s terms to have survived. Grant, by the way, changed the name of his top race from “Teutons” to “Nordics” once the U.S was in WWI: we couldn’t have the best race raping Belgians, now, could we?

The cranky, crusty Boas died in 1942. His reputation went south as successive generations of anthropologists took him to task for various things. The “critical studies” crew has been even more critical in the post-modernist, post-colonial era. The academy, after all, works best by eating its antecedents. (King’s second epigraph is from Max Planck, who said science progresses because the opponents of the new eventually die off.) But King makes a very good argument that Boas and Co. are worth revisiting in our ugly times.

Meanwhile, don’t take any b.s. from racist old Uncle Joe at the Thanksgiving table tonight. Happy holidays to you!


Oh, the French! Everybody knows Gérard de Nerval had a pet lobster, but who knew Henri Toulouse-Lautrec had a trained cormorant he would walk on a leash? “Tom” “supposedly” drank absinthe but met his (it’s hard to sex them) demise when a hunter shot him. Hunters being hunters…

Richard King’s The Devil’s Cormorant: A Natural History examines the cormorant, or rather multiple species of them. One species, the Spectacled, has been extinct since the 19th century, with only a few skins and bones left over; there was no image of it from life. The Chatham Shag is critically endangered. The Bank Cormorant and Pitt Shag are endangered. Ten more species are vulnerable. Four are threatened.

In the West, they birds are generally disparaged, especially by sports fishers and aquaculture industries, who can not abide competition, nor hearing about their own culpability in depleting fish stocks. They will sometimes illegally slaughter the birds to show who is boss. But mostly they depend on the feds and the states to manage, that is, kill, cormorants. It’s a little know fact that even before Trump’s thugs came in, the federal Wildlife Services program existed to kill wildlife for special interests, including recreational fishing. King cites estimates that 15-31% of the Double-crested Cormorant population had been killed legally in the seven years before his book was published (2013). Even nature advocacy groups get in on it, bemoaning the power of cormorant guano to threaten habitat for prettier birds on isolated rookeries. In Mississippi, the farmed catfish industry built ponds in the middle of the cormorant migration route, so now they blame the birds for depredating “their” fish.

Cormorants have a black reputation that goes way back: they are evil, gluttonous beasts, sea ravens. No charismatic cuteness here, but snake-like necks, Gothic wings spread. Milton called Satan a cormorant. In the 19th century, a “cormorancy” was another name for plutocracy. It’s true, these birds can be quite visible when they swallow large fish, and we hominids are particularly liable to be by influenced, even made hysterical, by spectacle. (And also by color-coding?)

In the East, cormorants, much like dragons, aren’t considered evil. But they were for a long time exploited as fishers, with rings around their necks so they couldn’t swallow their catches. In Japan, the state subsidizes this traditional fishery as kind of heritage show.

This is a good, deep look at the interface of humans and animals. As usual, the animals — as if we weren’t animals ourselves — get the short end.

“We are shooting the coal mine canary. We are poisoning the messenger. We are taking a pickax to the tip of the iceberg because this is easiest to reach,” writes King. Not the over-fishing by humans, the pollution, the habitat destruction, the dams on rivers, the climate change. King notes that he doesn’t quote many coastal fishermen in his book: they look for the birds, who tell them where the fish are. Lots of birds equal lots of fish. “It’s not smart to shoot your indicators,” says one.

Double-crested, the main species around here, showing the double crests of breeding plumage finery. And, of course, those eyes!

For those still wondering what the impeachment is all about, Walter Schaub, former director of the Office of Government Ethics, explains.

The Incredible Egg

Tim Birkhead’s The Most Perfect Thing: Inside (and Outside) a Bird’s Egg is a perfect thing in and of itself. This a short but intense look at what we know and don’t know about bird eggs. We know an awful lot because of hens and the billions of chicken eggs that are produced every year around the world. Yet there is still much that is not known about eggs. Especially those produced by the many other species of birds out there.

Here’s something that was cleared up for me. In temperate zones, the low ambient temperatures can keep eggs in suspended animation for two or more weeks. Birds generally only lay one egg a day, and some clutches have as many as ten eggs. Incubation doesn’t have to start until they’re all in the nest.

And blue eggs? American Robins are famous for them, but this color is not uncommon among open-nest builders. They certainly seem very visible to predators. But this threat may be balanced against the blue part of the light spectrum being absorbed by the embryo, which reduces the duration of incubation and hence vulnerability to predation.

Also, what you may know about extremely pyriform guillemot eggs safely rolling around in a circle on a narrow cliff is wrong. This standard story is based on empty egg shells, the blown eggs once so feverishly collected around the world. (A few collectors still persist in threatening endangered birds, especially in the UK.)

Birkhead does the egg in vinegar trick too.
Chicken eggs from a Westchester Co. backyard.

It’s books all week here. Please don’t use Amazon, whose “fulfillment center” sweatshops are permanently maiming workers.The ruthless company has twice the national average of severe injuries on the job. Yesterday also saw another report on the exploitative conditions right here in NYC, in the Amazon sweatshop on Staten Island.

Degenerate Americans

Does the stereotypical boastfulness of Americans — da biggest & da bestest, by jimminy! — stem from a deep insecurity?

Mr. Jefferson and the Giant Moose: Natural History in Early America, by Lee Alan Dugatkin, is about the mammoth chip on the shoulder of the early European Americans. Their betters in France told them they were degenerate, puny, and sickly, because of North America itself. The cold and the damp here shrunk everything, animals wild and domestic, people native and come-ashores.

The world’s most renown naturalist, Georges-Louis Leclerc de Buffon said so, over and over again in the dozens of volumes of his 36 volume Histoire Naturelle. The theory of New World degeneracy was spread further by the nasty Prussian clergyman Cornelius de Pauw, shilling for the Prussian ban on out-migration. Back in France, Guillaume-Thomas Raynal, often referred to as the Abbe Raynal although he was always getting in hot water with the church, piled on. Even after Franklin had the Americans and Frenchmen at dinner together stand up, proving the Frogs were shrimps in comparison. Raynal was at that dinner.

The Englishman William Robertson’s monumental History of America (1777) ventured “the principal of life there seems to have been less active and vigorous.” Kant, Hegel, John Keats, even young Charles Darwin all followed Buffon’s lead. Meanwhile, on the side of evidence were Humboldt, Byron, and Mazzei, who wrote 14 volumes in defense of the New World after having introduced viniculture to Virginia.

Neither Buffon, de Pauw, or Raynal had ever seen North American in person. Buffon believed the reasons for American biological inferiority were climatological. The cold and damp made the natives childish and the Creoles, meaning Europeans born in the New World, degenerate to the same level. (Other than this wildly influential but baseless crotchet, Buffon was an impressive naturalist for his day; he accepted the fact of extinction, something Jefferson didn’t. Raynal was vocal in his anti-slavery sentiments. History is complicated.)

Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia is a sustained argument against Buffon’s theory of degeneracy. He also thought a large moose who show Buffon up. But it would take more than that: most of the 19th century was about Americans trying to get over their inferiority complex in regard to Europe.

One of the most galling European charges about the Americas is that the birds here did not sing. Yes, you heard that right.

The all-singing all-dancing Alexander Hamilton, writing in the Federalist Papers, put the only footnote in that whole corpus: taking de Pauw to task for claiming the dogs in America were mute.

All this Euro-trash nonsense may have made Americans overcompensate. The boosterism, ignorant jingoism, and fundamentalist bellicosity of “God’s country” now boils down to grunts of “We’re number one” — in the face of much statistical evidence to the contrary.

Our week of books continues.

Re: Wild

“We’re not just losing the wild world. We’re forgetting it. We’re no longer noticing it. We’ve lost the habit of looking and seeing and listening and hearing. We’re beginning to think it’s not really our business. We’re beginning to act as if it’s not there any more.”

I am preaching, as they say, to the converted. But we all know there are many out there who could use the good word. Simon Barnes’s Rewild Yourself: Making Nature More Visible in Our Lives is for them. it is short and to the point of breaking the terrible trend he describes (quote above) in his introduction.

While his dependence on the spells and magic metaphors tried my patience, I skipped his chapter epigraphs from C.S. Lewis and J.K. Rowling. (If that’s what you have to do to hook the young ones, then “ok millennial.”)

Basically, Barnes has lessons for paying attention. One of his “spells” is getting some waterproof pants. It is an English book, after all, but his point about getting out there and watching, and sitting on your bum in the mizzle, is well taken.

We have the senses enough already, but we’ve muffled them. I’ve been leading dawn chorus listening tours for years now to encourage people to open up their city-shuttered ears. His chapter on peripheral vision is after my heart. Many of us are tunnel-visioned into our screens all day long. (As I began that last sentence, I glanced outside and saw a small flock of birds out one window, then the accipiter they were crowding.) Catching movement at the peripheries is nine-tenths of nature observation.

Writes Barnes, “Nature will be with you always. I remember being baffled by a survey that asked how often I went birdwatching. I don’t go birdwatching. I am birdwatching.”

Which reminds me of a better translation of Descartes famous cognito: not “I think, therefore I am,” but “I am thinking, therefore I am.”

“The poet’s eye, in a fine frenzy rolling,
Doth glance from heaven to Earth, from Earth to heaven
And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.”

A month before the big gift-giving holiday, so I’m inaugurating a week of posts on books. Please don’t use Amazon; the obscenely profitable company looks like its escaped from paying even a single $ in federal taxes again this year. Even if he’s incontinent, Jeff Bezos does not need another (the 26th?) bathroom in his DC mansion. Try Indiebound if you don’t have a local bookstore.


I like to amble, let the way take me. Looking, but without an agenda other than looking. And then being surprised by what I find.

There were still insects out and about when I spotted the above structure in mid-September. It’s a mud nest of, probably, a Eumenes potter wasp. Like this one, perhaps:
Fraternal Potter (Eumenes fraternus), I think, seen the same day, but not by the mud nest. Just think of all that work, gathering the bits of mud. How does she get it so circular?

And while we’re on the topic of masonry, more masonic wasp works:

At least I think these is all the work of mud-daubing wasps. Were humans inspired by such structures to start exploring clay? The first clay things were air-dried, after all. Firing came later. (I’ll give us some credit.)

“Democracy, which depends on shared truths, is in retreat, and autocracy, which depends on shared lies, is on the march.” Sasha Baron Cohen’s speech this week at the ADL, rather accurately describing the Republican Party after a week of histrionic GOP Representatives attacking truth-tellers under oath and regurgitating Russian propaganda, while the President continues go off about crazy conspiracy fantasies — which he may actually believe.

Wild Remains

For some, the aesthetics of the native meadow will take some getting used to.


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