Posts Tagged 'books'

Thoreau Thursday

Yesterday in Prospect, the rites of spring were springing. An astonishing twenty-six Wood Ducks were to be found on the Pools. Chipmunks and turtles were out and about in the unseasonable warmth. Behold, two European Goldfinches, far from home. The first Mourning Cloak of the year, velvet over the sere leaves. A pair of male Hairy Woodpeckers jostled for territory. A female American Kestrel on an antenna, right outside the park, was grooming. The frequency-jamming of Red-winged Blackbirds: first time I’ve heard them this year, the avant garde of spring. There were a dozen and a half by and above the Terrace Bridge. Heard a Kingfisher on the other side of the bridge, too.

And now over to a special guest appearance by Helen MacDonald:

“I think of what wild animals are in our imaginations. And how they are disappearing — not just from the wild, but from people’s everyday lives, replaced by images of themselves in print and on screen. The rarer they get, the fewer meanings animals can have. Eventually rarity is all they are made of. The condor is an icon of extinction. There’s little else to it now but being the last of its kind. And in this lies the diminution of the world. How can you love something, how can you fight to protect it, if all it means is loss?”

Hm. This is going swimmingly until that last sentence.

Another way of looking at this to think that those who fought like hell to rescue California Condors, and Peregrines, Bald Eagles, etc., from the wretchedness of human society did so precisely to prevent the loss, and to suggest that there was something more than humans in the world that mattered. That was a dog-damned good fight! The Condors are still a touch-and-go situation, bedeviled by death-worshipping hunters, and so richly coddled that they’re only half wild. But what a half!

Books of a Feather

I grew up with Roger Tory Peterson’s field guide in the house. I was not a bird watcher then (“birder” with its exciting, action-orientated flavor, had not yet taken over the lingo). My mother was. I didn’t get it. I could definitely identify a Northern Cardinal.

When I started to watch birds I decided to go with D.A.Sibley. Why? I don’t remember my reasoning. Anyway, here it is, my original copy, 15 years later, bashed a bit, slightly foxed (aren’t we all?) but with the signatures still holding. In general I don’t carry a book out into the field anymore — unless there’s a vehicle involved.By now, I have copies of both Sibley and Peterson. One of my two Peterson’s is this lichen-green clothbound 1956 version of the 2nd revised & enlarged edition. (The bust, which may be a 19th century European Tour fake, is just parked on it for fun.) An unknown Harry gave this book to the equally unknown Helen for a birthday present in 1958. The endpapers of this one have roadside and flight silhouettes, an excellent learning tool considering the spectrum of lighting conditions one encounters in the real world. Attention Houghton Mifflin: these would make a great tote bag!

Glancing over my shelves, I see I have more than a dozen field guides for birds, some by location, some for complicated categories like shorebirds and raptors. Sure, I have a couple of ID apps, but I still consult these books with some frequency.

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After years of studying the issue and thinking hard about it, ha-ha-ha, the House GOP came out with a cobbled together piece of ACA-“replacement” garbage that rewards the wealthy and healthy and punishes the poor, sick, and old. And by old, they mean those over 40, but really 50 and 60-somethings. (AARP is already running ads against the “age tax.”) Better win the lottery to be able to afford health care. (Or Darwin forbid, mad Dr. Ben Carson drilling a hole in your brain so you can recite a book you didn’t read 60 years ago about slaves being immigrants.) Republicans gotta Republican, of course, serving their billionaire masters and shafting the nimrods who continue to vote for them. It’s not Trumpcare, it’s Trumpneglect. 2018 can’t come fast enough to start flushing these nasty bastards down the drain.

Earth in Mind

img_2650David W. Orr’s Earth in Mind: On Education, Environment & the Human Prospect has been turning my mind over and fertilizing it with good compost.

“My point is simply that education is no guarantee of decency, prudence, or wisdom. More of the same kind of education will only compound our problems. This is not an argument for ignorance but rather a statement that the worth of education must now be measure against the standards of decency and human survival — the issues now looming so large before us in the twenty-first century. It is not education, but education of a certain kind, that will save us.”

(And pee-yew, it sure isn’t the fundamentalist poison Betsy Devos is selling — or buying, when it comes to her servant Senators.)

Someone who turns up several times in Orr’s book is Vaclav Havel. We should remember his conception of people power.  “Many more people realize, as Havel did, that arbitrary and inhuman power cannot deprive them of the inner freedom to make moral choices, and to make human community meaningful. They are shaping a redemptive politics of dissidence in the free world, nearly three decades after the fall of Communism. To measure the American dissidents’ success in electoral or any other quantifiable terms would be beside the point. For they are creating a “parallel polis”: the vital space where many, over the next four years, will find refuge from our age of anger, and learn to live in truth.”

And yes, that picture above was taken in the Bronx.

Thoreau Thursday

All biographies end. And, of course, the ending is always the same. Nearing the literal and figurative end of Laura Dassow Walls’s magisterial life of Henry David Thoreau, I suddenly found myself not wanting to go on. I didn’t want him to die. Not right now. Not during our political upheaval. I started reading “Wild Apples” to delay the inevitable, even though I’ve another new Thoreau biography, Expect Great Things, by my friend Kevin Dann, lined up and ready to go, as if it were a reincarnation. img_2462Concord, Massachusetts was never completely abolitionist, even after the travesty of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850. But it was a bastion of anti-slavery, so when, in April 1860, federal marshals attempted to arrest Franklin Benjamin Sanborn, one of the so-called Secret Six funders of John Brown, the town erupted in demonstration. Citizens blocked the marshals and “Annie Whiting immortalized herself by getting into the kidnapper’s carriage so that they could not put the long legged martyr in,” wrote the young Louisa May Alcott in a letter. Thoreau, another supporter of Brown, called the fire alarm, rung that night to rouse the citizenry, a sign of “the hottest fire he ever witnessed in Concord.” The marshals ignored a hand-scribbled writ of habeas corpus, but when the country’s deputy sheriff said he wouldn’t hold back the hundred demonstrators, they gave Sanborn up. Thoreau stood watch over Sanborn’s house that night. The next day, a federal judge voided the warrant (the Congressional investigation into Sanborn was made moot by the war a year later). Concord’s subsequent “indignation meeting” against tyranny was addressed by Sanborn and others, including “Civil Disobedience” Thoreau, who insisted that it was precisely because Concordians hadn’t obeyed the law that Sanborn was free. img_2461

Thoreau Thursday

Orwell is our go-to guy for the political perversion of language, but I discover that Ralph Waldo Emerson was on a similar track a century earlier. Corruption of character leads to “the corruption of language,” he wrote in “Nature.” “In due time, the fraud is manifest, and words lose all power to stimulate the understanding or affections.” Hoo-yeah!
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Anticipating the Progressives who formed the national parks in the face of rapacious despoilers by almost half a century, Thoreau thought we should save our wild lands “for inspiration and true recreation. Or shall we, like villains, grub them all up, poaching on our national domains?” Well, the Republicans in the House have an answer to that: grub ’em up, sell ’em off, privatize ’em, turn ’em over to their cronies in the states to do as they see fit to line their pockets.

“True recreation.” Recreation in English originally meant refreshing oneself by taking in food, nourishment. Then it turned metaphoric: a nourishment of mental or spiritual consolation. Finally, more broadly to an activity for pleasure–a broader definition, yes, but one that seems to have constricted, like the word itself sometimes, as in “rec center.”

Yet rarely do our words reveal themselves so well as “re-creation.” And what a metaphor of the physical processes of life itself, constantly recreated, new cells replacing old. Much of your body is under ten years old. (But not all, and there, as they say, is the rub, if you’re inhuman enough to want to live forever.)

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But there’s living right now to be done. I’m leading a Brooklyn Brainery walk at Croton Point Park to look for Bald Eagles on the 11th. We will ride up on MetroNorth and enjoy the extra scopes set up the good people of the Teatown Hudson River Eagle Fest.

Facing the Wind

Larus delawarensisHave you ever noticed how gulls, like these Ring-billed (Larus delawarensis) hunkered down at Bush Terminal, always face the wind? The better to take off into, of course, the better to fly. The specimen to the rear is a first winter bird, the one in front an adult.

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“Thoreau’s quest for the “bottom” of the pond was also his quest for a bedrock truth, that face-to-face confrontation with “actuality” that drove him to the pond to begin with. But once you found the bedrock truth, what should you do about it? This was his second discovery: each person’s answer will depend upon, and will reveal, the exact height, breadth, and depth of their individual character. The angle intersections inscribed by our particular daily experiences, the coves and inlets of our lives, will ground the decisions we make, our actions in the world. And the sum total of all our moral actions combined will constitute the ethical character of the society we build together.” Laura Dassow Walls, Henry David Thoreau: A Life.

And this Timothy Snyder quote: “To abandon facts is to abandon freedom. If nothing is true, then no one can criticize power, because there is no basis upon which to do so. If nothing is true, then all is spectacle. The biggest wallet pays for the most blinding lights.”

We Are Petroleum Junkies

Hydrocarbons are a dog-damned miracle. The things we get out of crude oil, from fuel to explosives, from fertilizers to clothing, from pharmaceuticals to candle wax, from pesticides to plastics, from asphalt to inks… it’s just mind-boggling. Mostly we think of gasoline, but that’s not the half of it. The stuff both powers and rules civilization: we wear it, we eat it, we breath it. And what happens to the stuff when we burn it radically transforms the planet.

That old baked plankton, all that life from at least a 100,000,000 years ago, we shoot it up the mainline! I’ve been reading Eric W. Sanderson’s Terra Nova: The New World After Oil, Cars, and Suburbs. I think everybody should have a copy at home. The first half of the book is how we got here. The second, where we should go. (There’s a discussion of the book in this Roosevelt House/CUNY video.)

Here is where oil, cars, and suburbs have left us. Sanderson gives us a great primer on hydrocarbons and their “siren song,” which lured us into the mess we’re in now, especially during the halcyon days of the “cheap oil window” of the 1930s-1970s. I lived through some of this, but of course the times you grow up in always seem like the way things are, and always have been.

Part Two of the book is his vision of a new world. Here’s a teaser: we have to get rid of the automobile. Check! I’ve been on that track for some 35 years, never having owned a car.

You may have noticed the paucity of optimistic thinking about the future in recent decades, barring the usual bubble-mania-hype of the market. The Right even believes — gotta defend their privileges any way possible — that utopian thought leads, inevitably, to the gulag. Yup, straight line.

Yet in this mire we’re bogged down in, clear-headed thinking about the future, envisioning it (with actually existing technology, not science fiction), and proposing how to make those visions come true (politics) are more vital than ever. With The Dumpster approaching the White House, now more than ever. That makes this book a weapon. Arm yourselves!


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