Posts Tagged 'books'

Swallows and Swifts

Dr. Johnson, in his 59th year, 1768 (per wee Jaimie Boswell):

“He seemed pleased to talk of natural philosophy. ‘That woodcocks, (said he,) fly over the northern countries, is proved, because they have been observed at sea. Swallows certainly sleep all the winter. A number of them conglobulate together, by flying round and round, then all in a heap throw themselves under water, and lye in the bed of a river.’ He told us, one of his first essays was a Latin poem upon the glow-worm. I am sorry I did not ask where it was to be found.”

Note here that Sam. Johnson calls upon eye-witness evidence for the woodcocks (Scolopax rusticola) but has nothing to cite for the swallows (Hirundo rustica) except, presumably, common sense. Well, let that be a lesson to us all.

The notion that swallows sleep through the winter goes back quite a way. Aristotle thought they went into holes in the ground. fishingforswallowsSomehow this got translated as meaning underwater. A Swedish woodblock print from 1555 shows fishermen pulling up a net full of swallows from a lake. One of the English language’s earliest naturalists, Gilbert White, who was a contemporary of Johnson’s, believed this.

The pioneering ornithologist Edward Jenner, who revered White, wrote one of the first papers on migration (published posthumously in 1824). He thought it rather improbable that song birds would winter underwater. Indeed, after having drowned a swallow or two, he suggest that it was impossible. He was also one of the first to mark birds, by clipping off claws, showing that swallows returned to the same place year after year. From…somewhere.

Somewhere south of here, that’s for sure. In his case, Africa. In ours, Central and South America.

Well, by now the swallows should have returned to all the Capistranos of the land. Here in NYC, the nesting members of the Hirundinidae are the Barn, Tree, Northern Rough-wing, Bank, and Purple Martin.

I almost never see swallows from my windows on the Harbor Hill Moraine, but most evenings of spring and summer the Chimney Swifts (Chaetura pelagica) are overhead. Their chittering anticipates twilight. I saw my first of the year last weekend both in Upper Manhattan and locally, and heard my first on May Day.

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.

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!

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.)


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.

“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.”


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  • Dreamed about how hard it is to photograph damselflies. In a barbershop. In front of a heating duct which melted my phone. 14 minutes ago
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