Tomorrow night, Michael McCarthy will be speaking at Kingsland Wildflower Roof in Greenpoint, right next to the egg-shaped digesters of the sewer facility. McCarthy’s The Moth Snowstorm: Nature and Joy is just out from NYRB. I intend to write further about the book soon, but suffice for now to say that it is a most thought-provoking elegy for life on Earth and a plea for using joy and wonder at the natural world to counter our own worst instincts and efforts. (The British cover.)
Posts Tagged 'books'
Tags: birding, birds, books, mammals
Tibbles is right up there in the roll of famous cats, along with Hodge, who has a statue in Gough Square; Mrs. Chippy; and Unsinkable Sam, originally Oskar, who abruptly abandoned the Kriegsmarine for the Royal Navy and then proceeded to survive two more ships going down.
Tibbles was the pet of Lyall the lighthouse keeper on Stephens Island, off the coast of New Zealand. She was first brought to the island in 1894, evidently already pregnant, so it was either Tibbles or one of her offspring who ate the last of the island’s endemic wrens, a rare flightless passerine. Over a hundred cats were hunted down on the island in 1899, but it was already too late for Traversia lyalli.
Along with the Stephens Island Wren, cats have helped cause the extinction of 122 other species of birds; 25 species of reptiles; and 27 species of mammals. They kill many millions of birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians, and insects each year in the U.S. alone — the numbers are highly contested, but the thing about cats is that they are “subsidized predators,” fed by their keepers, which makes them (50% of the 86 million pet cats in the US are allowed to roam free) able to survive at extraordinarily high densities outside the house. Another 80 million or so cats are feral, outside all the time, and some of these are also fed, or subsidized, by humans as well, meaning they continue to do their thing out there. A new book details this slaughter, its implications, and the struggle to stop it. The cat lobby has chosen, in classic style, to challenge the science and not the enormous problem. (This strategy goes back at least to the chemical industry’s response to Rachel Carson.)
I like cats. I like dogs, too. I grew up with both as pets. It seems to me a peculiarly limited mind that must distinguish itself between being a “cat person” or a “dog person.” But I am whole-heartedly on the side of all the other species against the cats. This is an invasive species run absolutely amok.
If you have a pet cat, you must not let it out. It’s obviously healthier for the cat, too.
For the armies of feral cats, Trap, Neuter, & Release (TNR) programs superficially sound like a good idea, but they presume continuous management & funding since the supply of cats from fertile domestic cats and the pet industry remains unchallenged. Meanwhile, the individual TNR’ed cat continues to kill during its lifetime. Feral cats have to be removed from habitat where they don’t belong.
Pet owners helped create this problem, but like consumers everywhere they don’t really want to take responsibility for it.This cat has an enclosed porch she can use, which lets her get plenty of fresh air but keeps her from stalking the animals she sees outside (we saw pigeons, doves, squirrels, cardinals, and a hummingbird in this Park Slope backyard over a few hours of lazy summer attention). Cat patios (“catios”) are a thing now; friends of mine have made window-box versions. Turns out to be pretty easy to stop a cat from what it wants to do. Rather less so for people.
Tags: books, Climate
Last 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.)
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.
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.
Tags: beetles, books, Bronx, Brooklyn, fireflies, insects, invertebrates
You 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.For 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. Instead 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. I 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.
Here’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.
Tags: birding, birds, books, Brooklyn
Most 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.Here’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.
Birds 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.”As 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.
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.This 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.