Posts Tagged 'books'

The Nature of the Beast

imagesLast Sunday, I discussed the enemy. Shall we call it capitalism? In his short book Extinction: A Radical History, Ashley Dawson certainly does. “Our economic system is destroying the planetary life support system upon which we depend.”

Is this a controversial idea? I don’t think so, but I suppose it will be met with resistance in some quarters. Certainly everywhere people went as they diffused across the planet, the large animals disappeared–except interestingly enough in the place we started–long before the capitalist system emerged. Some might point an accusing finger at agriculture and the complex, hierarchal societies that developed from the need to store and record grain surpluses and manage rising populations. Talk about terraforming! Yet where today is Mesopotamia (Humbaba may have had his revenge over Gilgamesh after all)? The breadbasket of Rome? Rapa Nui? The only place “we” didn’t destroy the megafauna was back in the cradle of Africa, but we’re catching up there now.

Yet capitalism seems a particularly virulent engine of planetary destruction, predicated on continuous consumption and constant growth, which as Edward Abbey pointed out was an impetus shared by cancer cells. Likewise, everything must be commodified: resources, certainly; but also genomes; personal and familial relationships; such givens of the commons as water. Recently yet another bottled water company has admitted it’s nothing but tap water in the plastic containers that will outlive all of us by generations upon generations.

Inevitably, the “tendency of capital accumulation to destroy its own conditions of reproduction” has resulted in our present condition: the sixth great extinction event on planet Earth.

I am always struck by the old echoes in the word consumption, which used to be a disease. Isn’t it still? The root of the word means a burning up from within; consumption the disease, better known now as tuberculosis, was seen as a consuming fire that wasted away the body. (Humans are such survivors that consumption, until it was beaten, temporarily, by antibiotics, was adopted as sort of fashionable pose, tragic yet worthy of operas.)

Now, one of the problems with fire is that it makes smoke. Pollution has long been capital’s smoke, from the toxins poured into the air, water, earth, and quelle surprise, human and all the other life forms, to the chemistry of fossil fuels itself. Human beings have never seen so much carbon in the atmosphere as there is right now.

(Next Sunday: the once and future world.)

Rosamond Purcell

If you dig deep enough into this blog, you will come across a near-surreptitious image of a part of Olaus Worm’s famous cabinet of curiosities. The original print of the Museum Wormianum was published as the frontispiece of the 1655 Worm’s Museum, or History of Very Rare Things, Natural and Artificial, Domestic and Exotic, Which are Stored in the Author’s House in Copenhagen. I noted it originally because there was a Horseshoe Crab up there on the wall.

Imagine my delight, then, when in the new documentary An Art That Nature Makes: The Work of Rosamond Purcell, I found out that Purcell recreated Worm’s room. It is now located in the Natural History Museum of Denmark.

Photo of Purcell's photo of Red-wing Blackbird egg, for which there was no collection data available. Red-wing BB eggs are quite variable.

Photo of Purcell’s photo of Red-wing Blackbird egg, for which there was no collection data available. Red-wing BB eggs are quite variable.

I had not heard of Purcell before this film. But the image below is being used for the movie poster, so I figured I needed to see what was going on. I recommend the film.

Thanks to the public library, I’m now looking further into Purcell’s work.

Egg & Nest is a volume of photos of eggs and nests from the Western Foundation of Vertebrate Zoology; the curators give a rousing defense of such collections.

Swift as a Shadow documents extinct and rare species through specimens mostly at Leiden’s natural history museum; there is a short but telling piece about islands and extinction (we learn the name of one of the cats that killed all the Stephens Island Wrens in the world).

Crossing Over: Where Art and Science Meet is one of her three collaborations with Stephen Jay Gould (a voice sorely missed in an age when unreason propels so much political bile).

Owl’s Head shows she can write as well as use a camera.

The Great Egret (Ardea alba). Photo by Rosamond Purcell.

The Great Egret (Ardea alba). Photo by Rosamond Purcell.

Fireflies

LucidotaYou know what I like about this blogging project of mine? The fact that there is always something new to learn. It’s the universe, after all, and I will never ever even begin to contain it.LucidotaFor instance, this is one of the Lampyridae family of beetles, the fireflies, lightning bugs, glowworms. But hold on a moment: this and several of its fellows (yes, the long, elaborate antennae tells us they’re male) were flying in the daylight. This is one of the dark fireflies, day-fliers who do not glow or blink or light up magically. So how can it be a firefly? I mean, besides looking like a firefly? Well, what unites the Lampyridae is that they all have larvae that produce bioluminescence. Yet not all the adults do: and this is one of them, a member of the Lucidota genus. LucidotaInstead of using light to attractive females, these dark fireflies do it with chemicals; that’s why the antennae are so elaborate, and why they were so busy, waving in the air, searching for female Lucidota pheromones in Van Cortlandt Park. k10667I recently attended a talk by entymologist Sara Lewis, who discussed her study of fireflies and her new book, Silent Sparks: The Wondrous World of Fireflies. Afterwards we all walked into Prospect Park, where a fog after sunset made for wondrous effects. And yes, we saw fireflies, Big Dippers (Photinus genus). And everybody was happy.
PhotinusHere’s one of the night-flying blinky-blink lightning bugs, a Photinus Big Dipper, hiding out during the day.

Lewis begins with the near-universal fascination with fireflies, one of those insects are that loved wherever they are found, which is not something you can say for most insects for most people. I still delight in seeing the blink of fireflies at night: there is something awe-inspiring and magical about them. There are some who say that science takes the awe out of the world, but I think this is silly. Knowing that bioluminescence is a chemical process may demystify it, but doesn’t make it any less amazing. The fact that evolutionary processes resulted in such things makes it infinitely more fascinating than the snap of the fingers/tentacles notion of creation by some kind of superior being/presiding genius.

P. domesticus

Passer domesticusMost overhanging stoplights in the city are supported by these t-shaped structures, and most seem to have a House Sparrow nest on each end. (And everybody knows it: we once watched a crow poking its bill into a couple of them, to see if there was anything to eat inside.)

Passer domesticus: the House Sparrow’s affinity for human domesticity, including our food and our engineering, is built right into the species’ binomial. Here is a perfect example of a synanthrope, an animal that benefits from its relationship to us.

Synanthrope is a new word for me; I learned it in Jennifer Ackerman The Genius of Birds in a chapter called “Sparrowville,” from which I glean some of my sparrow IQ. I also recently wrote this on the great Sparrow Wars of the 1870s for JSTOR, digging into citations in that vast archive I get to play around in.

Initially introduced to the US in the 1850s, in Brooklyn (first at the Brooklyn Institute; then at Green-Wood Cemetery) and then other cities, the House Sparrow rapidly spread across North America. And beyond: today it’s found on all the continents, excluding Antarctica (but for how long?). This is one remarkably adaptable species, smart, aggressive, and open to novelty, innovation. And it has changed, evolved, as it has spread, making for yet another case study of evolution in human-time. Today, there are more than half a billion of them on Earth. It’s the epitome of an invasive species, negatively affecting other bird species profoundly.

Curiously, however, in its native England, “English Sparrow” numbers have plummeted drastically for unknown reasons in the last quarter century; in two recent trips to England, I saw only a lone pair, a strange experience considering how omnipresent they are here. Actually, numbers around the world have dropped; all birds, even the most adaptable, are suffering from our wanton degradation of the planet’s life systems.Passer domesticusHere’s a particularly boldly patterned male, with chestnut nape and large black bib. They start singing around here after the American Robin who greets the fore-dawn.

The Genius of Birds

unnamed-1Birds can see more of the light spectrum than we can; they can re-generate their hearing while we lose ours as we age; some of them have acute senses of smell that helps them find food, and home.

Jennifer Ackerman’s new book is a synopsis of recent scientific discoveries about birds. If you are not up to date on the topic, at least as it has filtered into popular consciousness, prepare to be blown away by what she presents. So much detail has been discovered about avian cognition and intelligence in recent years that many of the old beliefs about birds have been utterly stood on their head. “Bird brain” is no longer a slur, it has become instead a mark of the ignorance of the person who uses the expression.

Ackerman discusses brain development, memory, navigation (both spatial and temporal ingenuity), song acquisition (it’s much like human speech acquisition), aesthetic aptitude, and adaptive genius. Just as an example: nest-building was long considered instinctual; it is that, but it also requires “learning and memory, experience, decision making, coordination, and collaboration.[…] It’s work that requires a suite of decisions about location, materials, and construction itself.”Turdus migratoriusAs a commonplace example, here’s an American Robin (Turdus migratorius) gathering a mouthful of nesting material under the tree the nest is in. Robins also use mud to help cement their structures of natural and unnatural materials.Turdus migratorius

While some of us believe in the study of life for its own revelations, others demand what is in it for them. Studying birds of course turns out to tell us a lot about ourselves. For something revolutionary is going on, or should be going on, in our consciousnesses: we’re learning that human beings are animals on this planet, too, intimately connected through the long chain of genetics and evolution. This is very much one of the points of Carl Safina’s magisterial book Beyond Words.Troglodytes aedonThis House Wren was proclaiming his territorial sway over the neighborhood of the Native Flora Garden recently. This is a rather small bird, but it sure is loud. His singing is fueled by testosterone, and the act of singing releases dopamine (more so in the spring) and opiates (more so in the fall). It’s long been a sneaking suspicion of mine that, while song certainly has its instrumental purpose, the birds do indeed enjoy it.

There were a couple of surprising editorial bloopers in Ackerman’s book, and one comment about NYC that was as out-dated as it was dubious to begin with. Editing, alas, gets little attention even at major publishers (Penguin in this case). The striking Scrub Jay on the cover is by Eunike Nugroho, who also did the Great Tit on the back. The internal illustrations, by another artist, are less eye-popping.

Many Forests Gone

UnknownEric Rutkow’s American Canopy: Trees, Forests, and the Making of a Nation is a history of America’s woodlands. It is therefore a history of loss: the great forests that once stretched from the Atlantic to beyond the Mississippi were certainly touched in part by native Americans, who burned for deer parks and plots for seasonal plantings, but it was annihilated in ruthless, regimental progression by the arriving Europeans. The primitive peoples of Europe who came to set their rather ironically named plantations here feared dense woodlands, the abode, it seems, of Satan. And yet they coveted them, too. The Pilgrims get all the attention, but a colonial project is always also about resource-extraction: an early flurry of interest in sassafras because it was believed to cure syphilis, but mainly tall white pines for ship masts ~ Britain was long tapped-out of mast wood and depended on the Baltics for lesser wood than New World’s. No ruling the seas without wood.

It was a wood-based culture for a long time. Even into Levittown, wood was in most everything, although people often didn’t realize it. The logging industries sliced their way through the Northeast, then the Great Lakes, then the South, and finally the Pacific Northwest. Introduced disease took care of the elms and the chestnuts.

This book is organized into many sections, entirely too many to turn into anecdote here. Here’s one,though: wood pulp paper. Newspapers actually became cheaper in the 2nd half of the 19th century because of the transition from rag paper to wood paper, marking the rise of yellow journalism (ancestry of the tabloids and television’s excremental effluvia, currently piling the Trump high and deep). It’s a telling example of how technology transforms society.

Rutkow has some happier tales, victories against complete devastation — of, for instance, the redwoods, and the saving of the Bristlecone Pines — so I guess we should be satisfied with those peanuts. (Peanuts, by the way, were about the only thing that would grow once the yellow pine forests were scalped.) Not to suggest the remaining redwoods are peanuts, but we only have scraps now, and I for one am not satisfied with just scraps.

Whalers, Ho!

During the First World War, whale oil was used to make glycerin for explosives. The irony here is leviathan: huge numbers of whales were killed so that parts of them could be used to slaughter huge numbers of humans.

Other fats could be used for glycerin, but the British didn’t want to use these other edible oils because of the politics of war-time scarcity. Of course, whale oil was also eaten in the UK and across Europe, transformed into margarine. In the U.S., meanwhile, a federal effort to get Americans to eat whale during WWI was unsuccessful. Of course, by 1900, the heyday of the American whaling industry was over, out like the old sperm whale candles. But whale oils were still used in watches, sewing machines, and industrial lubricants (spermaceti oil was particular prized by the U.S. military). The British and the Norwegians dominated the early 20th century whaling industry. Factory ships took to the seas in the 1920s, peak years for slaughter. The Depression put a damper on things, but as the ’30s progressed, the killing expanded as Germany and Japan entered Antarctic waters.

Whales were turned into fertilizer, pet food, animal feed (for chickens, mink, and silver foxes), soap, and cosmetics. The things made out of whalebone (baleen), like corset stays, horsewhips, and back-scratchers, would eventually be phased out by fashion and petroleum’s child, plastic. At the end of the Second World War, as large parts of Europe and Asia were threatened with starvation, international organizations looked greedily to whales to provide fats and meat for the hungry.(One counter-attack: Disney’s Willie the singing whale of 1946, a Bambi of the ocean, who just wants to sing opera, but is blasted by a harpoon. I generally can’t stand Disney product, but in this case it seems to have formed a generation that grew up to “save the whales.”)

We Americans don’t have a tradition of eating whale. (I wrote about this in my other venue.) We just liked them because money could be made from them. Whale products are now illegal in the U.S., but since there was no tradition of killing whales for food outside of aboriginal populations (who were made an exception to the rule) in North America, the ban was no hardship for the great majority of us. Those are the easiest bans of all. The nations that do go against the world-trend of not eating whale — Norway, Iceland, Faroes, Japan, etc. — maintain their defiance.

I have of late been reading D. Graham Burnett’s The Sounding of the Whale: Science and Cetaceans in the Twentieth Century. It is a big book, deeply researched, about the personalities, politics, and bureaucracies of whale research and science’s often entirely too close relationship with industry. I thought reading this would be a chore, but it is in fact hard to put down.

One particularly intriguing section details how American mammalogists took a leaf from the ornithologists who’d fought to save birds from being eradicated by hunters, the fashion industry, and even the state, which paid bounties on pest species. There was an interesting sense of pessimism amongst mammalogists in the Teens and Twenties. Looking back on the great extinctions of the end of the Pleistocene, they thought mammals were on their way out. (A century later, they’d be sickened at the devastation since). Disturbing statistics from the Antarctic whale fishery only added to the gloom.

Burnett’s earlier book, Trying Levianthan, is about a curious 1818 New York legal decision that firmly declared whales to be fish. The case was fought over taxes, but it was part of a larger debate between the new field of taxonomy and common sense, which is sometimes profoundly overrated. The jury came in on the side of biblical truth, evidence be damned, and as late as 1851, Melville’s Ishmael was sure as Jonah that whales were fish, too. Did I say “as late as”? 75 years later, the Jonasistas were going strong at the Scopes trial in Tennessee, which is usually remembered as the “monkey trial” but also very much concerned with the evolution of whales, the emergence of mammals, and the return of some of them to the sea.


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