Posts Tagged 'books'

Marsh

“Some enthusiastic entomologist will, perhaps, by and by discover that insects and worms are as essential as the larger organisms to the proper working of the great terraqueous machine […] The silkworm and the bee need no apologist; a gallnut produced by the puncture of an insect on a Syrian oak is a necessary ingredient in the ink I am writing with, and from my windows I recognized the grain of the kermis and cochineal in the gay habiliments of the holiday groups beneath them.”

George Perkins Marsh’s Man and Nature, Or, Physical Geography as Modified by Human Action of 1864 is a milestone of environmentalism. One-time Congressman, long-time diplomat, something of a serial disaster as a businessman, scholar, traveller, Marsh looked at the environmental desolation of the Mediterranean and suggested that humans can quite effectively spoil the nest. His book was a warning to his fellow Americans. The book, contemporary with On the Origin of Species, was highly influential in its day, part of the intellectual support for the national forest system and the New York Forest Preserve (of which Adirondack Park is a piece). It still has much to say.

Trouble is, Marsh doesn’t say it very well. Even William Cronon, in the foreword to the U Washington Press edition I have, admits it can be a chore to read through. Marsh is no Rachel Carson or Aldo Leopold when it comes to “plainsong style.” Marsh might be better likened to out- of-tune baroque…. not everyone’s cup of hemlock. Cronon recommends a secular variation of the Sortes Vergilianae, picking and choosing sections in any order opening at random, jumping about. Recently, I opened to the quote above.

Something jumps out on most pages, actually, often in the footnotes. (The footnotes, and I am a connoisseur of footnotes, are glorious: why, for instance, do we call winds after the direction they blow from rather than the direction they blow towards?) Marsh is already at ease with the phrase “climate change”; he uses “consumption” in its modern sense (which I don’t think has completely lost its diseased, burning-from-within etymology).

I’ll be fishing in here for a while.

In Praise of Geography

Tim and Máiréad Robinson earned a living by making maps. Both passed away in the early wave of COVID last spring. They were in their 80s, but god-damn the eugenicist scum who blithely write off “underlying conditions” as an excuse. (This crowd of filth, the base of a GOP lately heard bleating about how divisive calls for impeachment are, is of the kind that deny that there were victims at Sandy Hook, to the extent of harrying parents of the children killed.)

Tim Robinson wrote books about the Aran Islands, the Burren, and Connemarra, what he called the “ABCs” of western Ireland. His subject was the “web of placelore,” the cultural encrustation of human habitation of the land, which he teased out by walking, for years, over the terrain.

I’ve read Stones of Aran, in which he details his walk around the edge of Arainn, the biggest of the Aran Islands (volume 1, Pilgrimage), and then through the interior (volume 2, Labyrinth). So good. I’m reading the first volume of his Connemara trilogy, Listening to the Wind, now. It’s better.

There’s a chapter in this latter book about remains that encapsulates Robinson’s method. On foot, he explores the depths of human presence in the land, from the pre-historic to what’s remembered by the old fisherman to what he himself sees, hears, smells, all the while paying particular attention to the names on the land: Irish, anglicized Irish, and English. (“Irish placenames dry out when anglicized, like twigs snapped off a tree.”)

The chapter, “The Boneyard,” discuses the prevalence of burial sites for unbaptized babies, not allowed on “consecrated” ground because of the cruelty of the Church; the local use of dog welks to make purple dye (albeit on a smaller scale than with the famed murex of Tyrian purple); the prevalence of tiny forams in the oceans, where they’re major players in the carbon cycle, and on the beaches when they die; and the site of a labyrinth made by a “land artist” in 1971, which the artist did not want pin-pointed on the Robinsons’ map. Robinson points out that the stones, like these other bones, hardly belong to the artist now.

In college, I majored in geography, which of course means “earth writing.” It is good to get back to a master of it.

NYRB Classics published the two-volume Stones of Aran here in the U.S.
Milkweed Editions has published Listening to the Wind, the first volume of the Connemarra trilogy. I’m not clear on whether they’ll do the other two volumes.
Penguin UK has the complete trilogy.

“Individually, none of the names I have mentioned is of much intrinsic interest. But if we think of all the place names that humanity has applied to the surface of this planet as constituting a single vast fingerprint, can we neglect even its most minute particularities in trying to identify ourselves?”

The Flying Zoo

The Blue Jay’s “flying zoo” includes “one flea, six species of lice, five types of ticks, and eight species of mites, in addition to being infected by nine kinds of flukes (trematodes), three tapeworms, one acanthocephalan (thorny-headed worm) and sixteen kinds of roundworms.”

Michael Stock’s The Flying Zoo: Birds, Parasites and the World They Share can get a little gross. Nasal leeches, anybody? Your adorable bird may be laden with parasites externally and internally, fighting off feather-chewers, blood-suckers, and gut-robbers.

A birding friend and reader of this blog (thank you, Janet!) thought I would like this book, and how right she was. The details are fascinating.

A few tidbits: Black swans have black lice, white swans with white lice, good camouflage for the lice. Different species of lice can be found on the wings, head, and body (not unlike the three specialized species that enjoy H. sapiens). A species of soft tick can stay dormant for 18 years, particularly helpful in bleak, isolated, seabird colonies. A nest being a great place to get lice, researchers can find out which bird species fostered Brown-headed Cowbird chicks by identifying the lice.

But beyond the details is the co-evolutionary story between parasite and host. “It does seem clear that intense selection pressure involving the immune system by birds against fleas has promoted flea specialization and likely flea speciation as well.” Eastern Screech Owls transport Blind Snakes to their cavity nests, where the snakes live off fly larvae, beetles, and fleas. “Owl nestlings in nests with snakes grew faster and lower mortality rates.” Fleas in the nests of Great Tits make it too humid for blowfly larvae; blowflie can have a worse effect on nestlings, so the fleas “may actually be helpful to their hosts.”

Using the example of a Black-capped Chickadee, Stock notes that a lot isn’t known about even common birds and their parasites.

This is a book that will make you look at birds with very different eyes.

On Yeast

Apples don’t make true. That is, a seed of a Newtown Pippin—one of my favorite varieties, developed in nearby Queens in colonial days—won’t grow into a tree that produces Newtown Pippins. The resulting tree might produce Newtown Pippins, but it will also produce all sorts of other kinds of apples. The ur-apples way out in the ‘Stans are like that: trees with a variety of fruit, sweet, sour, large, small, crisp, mealy, red, green, etc. The reason we have orchards at all, that is, trees that produce a single kind of apply variety (and there are thousands, contrary to the sad limited choice seen in most supermarkets), is because the trees are grafted. We farm clones.

Which by the ol’ “commodius vicus of recirculation” brings us to Merlin Sheldrake and his very good book. In his discussion of the vital importance to us of yeasts, he writes that he scrumped some apples from a tree in the Cambridge Botanical Gardens that is a scion of a four-hundred year old apple at Isaac Newton’s home. It’s a clone of that apple tree, or it is? As Sheldrake writes, Newton nowhere tells the story we all know about watching an apple fall… There is a story that someone told in which he says Newton told him the apple story, but otherwise there’s no direct evidence an apple’s fall sparked Newton’s gravity-thinking. (Something must have hit him on the head to bring on his later alchemical craziness, though.)

This makes for a second famous and fabulous fallen apple, the first being the fruit Eve ate in the Bible. That fruit was definitely not an apple. “Apple” is either a bad translation or oft-repeated folk-myth substituting “apple” for “fruit.” There’s debate about what fruit it is from the tree of knowledge—pomegranate being one candidate—but it’s not an apple, a fruit unfamiliar to the Biblical Hebrews.

(Next, Virginia, I’ll have to break the news that Washington’s cherry tree is pure applesauce invented by mythographer-bullshitter Mason Locke “Parson” Weems.)

Anyway, Sheldrake crushed these Newton apples and let nature take its course with the juice. There’s yeast all over the place, of course, in the air, on apple skins. Some of these yeasts love sugar and while eating it convert it to alcohol. In short, Sheldrake made some cider, or, more appropriately, gave the yeasts an excellent opportunity to make apple juice into a bi-product that we happen to like to drink.

It turns out that there’s now a lot of thinking that Fertile Crescent agriculture, the beginning of civilization (or the beginning of the end, depending on how you look at it in light of our carbonization of the atmosphere), was because of the need for beer. Not bread, which of course is also measurably made pleasurable by yeasts. In other words, that people domesticated grains to ferment them. (Fertile Crescent gets all the credit, but this fermentation for intoxication was discovered independently all over the world.) The sociability of feasting and drinking may have been rather more important than accounting and taxes. (Ok, this last sentence is my hypothesis, as I’ve always grumbled, being at heart an anarchist, over the statist aspects we attribute to the origins of written language/civilization.)

Book and Flowers and Bugs

A month of summer yet, at least as the calendar goes. But Carol Gracie’s Summer Wildflowers is good the whole year through. You’ll love opening this in early January!

I can’t better the foreword by NYBG’s Robert Naczi: “Gracie seamlessly integrates diverse facets about these plants—history, geography, habitats, human uses, morphology, classification, pollination, conservation, and more. Truly, this book has something for everyone, whether beginner or expert,hikeror gardener, entomologist or etymologist.”

In honor of Carol, who reads this blog (!), here are some interactions with common milkweed, Asclepias syriaca. (If you’ve ever wondered why the species epithet means, essentially, “of Syria,” she explains the chain of errors that resulted in that.)
A tiny bee. Perhaps a sweat bee.
Nomada genus bee.
Scirtes orbiculatus, a marsh beetle.
Monarch egg.
That’s a honeybee on the left. I was trying to capture in pixels the pale ant here, but this is a bonus since it shows a yellow pollinarium, the two connected pollen sacs, or pollinia, that milkweed sticks to you in exchange for giving up its nectar.
Bembix genus sand wasp.
Great Golden Digger wasp.
And right next to this patch of milkweed in Green-Wood, a Great Golden Digger digs her nest site. While she sups on nectar, she provisions her young with crickets and katydids.

Twins

MACRO:

A Planet To Win: Why We Need a Green New Deal

“It is clear the political establishment is collapsing in the United States and beyond. Clinging to it makes it possible for reactionaries like Trump to gain more ground the world over and brings climate catastrophe closer. The fundamental issue is this: As the center shrinks and the time for decarbonization tightens, milquetoast climate action on the margins will satisfy hardly anyone. If centrist Democrats spurn the insurgent Left and instead see centrist Republicans [i.e Bloomberg, Buttigieg, Klobuchar] as their most reliable allies, they’ll pull the planet out of the frying pan–and into the fire.”

For every young person you know.

MICRO:

Nature’s Best Hope

“We need to practice conservation where we live, where we work, and where we farm, because we humans now occupy or have seriously altered nearly all of the spaces outside our parks and preserves.”

Douglas Tallamy, entomologist and ecologist, has been particularly influential. His Bringing Nature Home is a key source for a lot of people in the field(s). His newest book charges us with doing what we can. Chief amongst these things is turning our lawns from sterile water-and chemical dependent dead zones into habitat, into parts of what he calls the Homegrown National Park.

But not every plant is equal. Gardeners and plant-sellers are still pushing an out-dated aesthetic of what makes a pretty yard and garden. They’re still releasing invasives, still contributing to the reduction of carrying capacity, biodiversity, and ecological complexity. Of many examples he gives: most of Portland, Oregon’s street trees are, by far, exotics from abroad or other areas of North America. Everybody ooohs and ahhhs over the tree-lined streets. But these trees simply do not support the insects that feed on native plants (and the insects that feed on native plant feeders); fewer insects mean the birds don’t have anything to eat. In Portland a few years ago, I saw damn few birds until I got up in the hills.

An example Tallamy doesn’t use. It’s new: the Brooklyn Botanic Garden is touting its brand new crape myrtle (Lagerstroemia) hillside. It’s 2020 and these damn fools, who should be leading the city in education about native plantings and biological complexity, are planting this ecologically useless exotic! And celebrating it! They are actively contributing to the reduction of our insect, and hence bird, carrying capacity. And they are modeling this for gardeners.

Almost unbelievable — but not when you know the recent history of the place. The destructive head of that debased institution — who fired all the scientists, eviscerated the historic mission, tried to ship the herbarium out-of-state, and turned the place into a wedding venue — has finally left town, but the board who let him hijack the garden remains in place. What a dreadful legacy he leaves behind and the board perpetuates.
***

If you don’t have a bookstore, bookshop.org is a new alternative to paying for Jeff Bezos’s five hundredth bathroom.

Oaks to Caterpillars to Birds

The National Wildlife Foundation has a county-level guide, the Native Plant Finder, to native plants that support caterpillars. Why caterpillars? Because they are esentially the foundation of the food chain for song birds. Even the seedeaters that come to your feeders for seeds and suet in winter feed their young caterpillars. Caterpillars are relatively soft as insects go, and they are simply packed with fats, proteins and carotenoids, which are vital for avian development and feather pigmentation.

The stats on caterpillar consumption are mind-boggling: a single nesting pair of Carolina Chickadees will feed their young ones 6000-9000 caterpillars before fledgling, meaning over sixteen days on average. After fledgling, nobody has counted, but fledged Chickadees get feed for up to three more weeks. It’s rare to see Carolina Chickadees in Brooklyn.

Here’s another: a Wilson’s Warbler pair were closely observed. The male carried food to the nest 241 times a day, the female 571 times a day. For five days. That’s a minimum of 4060 caterpillars, if each trip was one caterpillar’s-worth. Often as not there are more than one caterpillar in the parent’s bill, at least in places un-assaulted by chemical warfare and invasive species.

Bobolinks: parents brought food to nest 840 times a day for ten days in a row.

A UK study of ten different passerines found an average of 259 food trips to nest per day.

Audubon’s Plants for Birds is another good source for information on plants to grow in your area. Many of the plants sold for yards and gardens are the WORSE thing you could do for local food webs. After all, they’re for sale so people can make money. Pretty and exotic is sterile. Ornaments and decorations, it turns out, are actively working AGAINST nature.

“Bird-friendly” shade grown coffee? Nope, not if the shade is being thrown by eucalyptus trees, which are often used because they grow fast… and provide shade. But they provide next to nothing for the birds because they provide nothing for local insects.

(In California, where they went crazy for eucalyptus a century ago, precisely one species of insect has adopted to living off these exotic and invasive trees in that time.)

It’s not just biodiversity. The kind of plant makes a lot of difference. Some keystone species are disproportionately productive for food webs. “A landscape without keystone genera will support 70 to 75 percent fewer caterpillar species than a landscape with keystone genera, even though the keystone-less landscape may contain 95% of the native plant genera in the area.”

The single best insect-friendly species to plant in 84% of U.S. counties are white oaks and their relatives. They support some 934 caterpillar (butterfly and moth) species nation-wide. Compare with tuliptree (21 caterpillar species), black gum (26), Sweetgum (35), persimmon (46), and hemlock (92). In the mid-Atlantic states, white oaks host nearly 600 species of Lepidoptera larvae.

Do you know how many species of butterfly in their larval state live on Buddleja, the famous “butterfly bush” much touted as food for butterflies, in North America? One out of the 725 species.

But wait! Of the 511 caterpillar species found on oaks in Chester Co., PA, 95% of them fall to the ground when they’re fully grown. They don’t pupate in the trees themselves, probably because they want to escape predators. Instead, they burrow into leaf litter, dig themselves into the ground, and even chew their way into rotten wood. So a stately oak in a patch of turf grass, well-mowed and sprayed, with hard-packed soil, tidied up every fall of all those rich leaves, is a desert. Put in native shrubs and/or flowers like wild ginger, foamflower, and woodland phlox. Or keep the leaf “litter.” (Change the name of litter to “natural fertilizer” and/or “habitat.”)

All data and quotations taken from Doug Tallamy’s new book, Nature’s Best Hope, to be discussed tomorrow. A book for your neighbors, I’m guessing.

Caterpillars at Backyard & Beyond.

Whale Ho

I came across some research that showed a Bombus bumblebee species whose members got physically smaller in competition with the commercial livestock that are honey bees.

I was reminded of this when I read Richard J. King‘s reference to the shrinkage in the size of whales killed between 1900 and 1986, when the international moratorium on whale-hunting finally went into effect. Sperm whales showed the most dramatic declines: ones killed in the 1980s were one average 13.1 feet shorter than those killed in 1905.

The diminishment of whale populations in absolute numbers and size has had ricocheting effects throughout the oceans. Whale excrement was a major source of nitrogen, essential for phytoplankton, before the run-off from farms and suburban laws poured too much nitrogen in. The death of a great whale was an enormous boon to deep sea creatures.

The more whales there were, the more other lifeforms in the sea.

Japanese cast iron whale, paperweight or totem, piloted into our ken by a friend.

Dinosaurs Past and Present

What do we know about dinosaurs now and, perhaps more interestingly, how do we know these things? Michael J. Benton lays it out in Dinosaurs Rediscovered: The Scientific Revolution in Paleontology . Origins, taxonomy, intelligence, reproduction, diet, locomotion, and, of course, the cause(s) of extinction are topics covered here.

Surely the most notable and surprising thing in our understanding of dinosaurs in the last couple of decades has been the discovery of dinosaur feathers. Colored feathers! (Good gravy, there were ginger dinosaurs!) With the added brain-expander that these feathered creatures were not fliers. They were using feathers for insulation and/or sexual attraction before feathers for flight.

Those scaly toes, those beaks! Most of the dinosaurs were wiped out 66 million years ago. But not all of them.
Birds in Winter: Surviving the Most Challenging Season by Roger F. Pasquier is a compendium of research. From migration to toughing it out, our feathered dinosaurs are no slouches when it comes to the cold. (The absence of cold, on the other hand, is already telling in our warming planet, especially for sea birds who depend on cold currents that enrich the seas at the base of their food chain.) There is no no one size fits all to this, by the way. The great takeaway from this relentless collection of natural history observations —there are thirty pages of bibliography — is that variety is all.

Just one example: American Kestrels cache food throughout the year. In the non-breeding season, they’ll often store food for later in the day, and sometimes even the next day. Vertebrate prey can obviously hold up longer in the cold. Our breeding pair seemed to store food overnight. I’ve seen no winter caching myself. Research suggests that the birds will eat before the long cold night.
***

And this just in: colorful bird eggs, not something seen in reptiles, are another inheritance from dinosaurs.

Against the Grain

“The founding of the earliest agrarian societies and states in Mesopotamia occurred in the latest five percent of our history as a species on this planet. […] Measured by the roughly 200,000-year span of our species, then, the Anthropocene began only a few minutes ago.”

And look what we don’t that tiny bit of our time here on Earth!

If you’re like me, you learned that the first states, and hence civilization, arose with agriculture and sedentary lifestyles (sedentism) in early city-states. But we now know that agriculture and sedentism predated all this by a couple thousand years.

James C. Scott’s Against The Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States is one of those books that overturns stale thinking and makes you look afresh at the world we’ve made. Things like the reluctance, until quite recently, of the great majority of the world’s population (call them barbarians, pastoralists, hunter-gatherers, peasants, etc.) to be sucked into cities/states. Cities were places of slavery, disease, and simplification. Nomadic people were far healthier than urbanites, until quite recently. The state is based on the domestication of fire, captives, livestock, plants, and women.

And from a wide range of plant and animal food, we’ve been whittled down to a handful of grains, hard little nubbins that are easy to count, tax, and control.

The book begins with this gut-punch quote from Claude Levi-Strauss: “Writing appears to be necessary for the centralized, stratified state to reproduce itself…. Writing is a strange thing… The one phenomenon which has invariably accompanied it is the formation of cities and empires; the integration into a political system, that is to say, of considerable number of individuals… into a hierarchy of castes and classes….It seems to favor rather the exploitation than the enlightenment of mankind.”

Our oldest story is Gilgamesh. It is not insignificance that the killing of the forest guardian Humbaba (Huwawa) precedes the cutting down of the cedars.


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