Posts Tagged 'books'

Two Degrees

“What happens if one changes a systems’s parameters — the temperature, the weather, the climate? What will collapse and what will endure? Who will live and who will die?”

A two-degree rise in global mean temperature, which now sounds optimistically low for the results of global warming this century, may be compared with effects of the two degree drop during the Little Ice Age. Nature’s Mutiny, by Philipp Blom, details how, in the words of the subtitle, “the Little Ice Age of the long seventeenth century transformed the west and shaped the present.” The entire socio-political fabric of western civ. was ripped to pieces. Millions died of war, disease, and starvation from Spain to Russia. Irrationalism became triumphant with messiah-mountebanks running amuck. Some 50,000 people were burned or otherwise executed as witches, often blamed for crop failures, earthquakes, hail storms.

Feudalism was obliterated. Capitalism was born along with it’s eviler twin colonialism. In 1607, the first summer at Jamestown (Virginia) was the driest in nearly 800 years. The colony was reduced to cannibalism before reinforcements arrived from England.

The past is not prologue, of course, but using this model, we should think hard about massive demographic transformation, profound changes in political economy, and a radical up-rooting of everything we’ve known — in one-two-three generations. Of course, all this has already begun. The news from the Greenland, Alaska, Antarctica, the Himalayas… New Orleans, is all bad.

In these pages, I discovered William Shakespeare doing some script-doctoring for the play Sir Thomas More. He wrote this speech for More’s character. This fictional (the real More was fairly awful) More is confronting an anti-immigrant mob, asking them to put themselves in the place of strangers in a strange land — say someplace of virulent nativists, for-profit concentration camps, fascist thugs in uniform, orange pancake makeup-wearing ogres:

Why, you must needs be strangers, would you be pleas’d
To find a nation of such barbarous temper
That breaking out in hideous violence
Would not afford you an abode on earth.
Whet their detested knives against your throats,
Spurn you like dogs, and like as if that God
Owed not nor made not you, not that the elements
Were not all appropriate to your comforts,
But charter’d unto them? What would you think
To be us’d thus? This is the strangers’ case
And this your mountainish inhumanity.

A Specimen Day

The spotted hawk swoops by and accuses me, he complains
of my gab and my loitering.

I too am not a bit tamed, I too am untranslatable,
I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.

Walt Whitman was born this day 200 years ago, “starting from fish-shape Paumanok” or Long Island as the prosaic call it. (What a boring day for geography that was! “It sure is a long island, by nab, so we might as well call it ‘Long,’ right?”).

Whitman was a resident of Brooklyn for 28 years, but only one of the places he lived has survived in the constant urban churn. 99 Ryerson Street is nondescript: no matter, he was living there when the first edition of Leaves of Grass was published in 1855. He kept reworking and revising this protean salmagundi of a book, taking it from a dozen poems to over 400 for the “deathbed edition” of 1891. I take my quote above from the last section of “Song of Myself” from that last edition. (I’ll be taking part in the SOM Marathon on 6/2.)

John Burroughs, who supplied the motto of this blog, wrote the first biography of Whitman, Notes on Walt Whatman as Poet and Person published in 1867. Whitman quotes Burroughs in Specimen Days, with some changes and deletions to the original (which was itself edited by Whitman before it was published). The collage-like Specimen Days begins with some delightful reminiscences of the Long Island of the Paumanacker Walt’s youth, by the way, and includes notes on nature very much worth reading.

“Specimen” comes from the Latin specere, to look; the first commandment of the naturalist. So, although Days also includes his writing about of the bloody horrors of the Civil War, he doesn’t mean the clinical or laboratory sense of “specimen,” the usage used almost exclusively today. He means exemplary. “Loafe with me on the grass,” and if you haven’t got meadow, the beach pebbles…

Now, let’s not get too carried away. Whitman both transcends his time and is mired in it. His views of women were quite traditional, even as he befriended feminists and paved the way for a new sensuality, a new sexuality (all kinds: hetero- and homo- sexuality were not then words). He was a cool abolitionist, not a “hot” one. As Henry Louis Gates, Jr., notes in the necessary Stony the Roady: Reconstruction, White Supremacy, and the Rise of Jim Crow, “Being an advocate of the abolition of slavery was not the same thing as being a proponent of the fundamental equality of black and white people, or the unity of the human species.” As Redemption terrorism literally executed the vestiges of Reconstruction, WW got more and more racist as he aged.

If you’re in or near NYC, there are Whitman exhibits at NYPL, the Grolier Club, and the Morgan. For three weeks in June, they’ll all be running at the same time, so you can see them all in one specimen day. (I’ve written about the exhibits for Fine Books and Collections magazine, out in June).

“… I restore my book to the bracing and buoyant equilibrium of concrete outdoor Nature, the only permanent reliance for sanity of book or human life.”(Cover of the 1855 edition, on display at NYPL.)

Recent Books

Lewis Dartnell’s Origins: How Earth’s History Shaped Human History is hard to put down. He’s a determinist, arguing that our species have been ruled by Milankovitch cycles; climate change; plate tectonics; and geology, among other physical factors. Some of this is probably too superficial and glib, but it sure makes for fascinating reading. By the way, you’re reading this on a screen controlled by microchips made of silicon dioxide, which is also the basis of glass, and, back in the Stone Age, a major component of the kinds of rock (chert, flint, obsidian) used to make tools. The more things change…?

Speaking of geology, Sandra Herbert’s Charles Darwin, Geologist reminds us that young Darwin went out on the Beagle as a geologist. In fact, he wasn’t even the ship’s naturalist initially. He shipped as the gentleman companion to the captain, Robert FitzRoy (who later turned fundamentalist), who couldn’t socialize with his crew and needed someone of his own class to dine with. The ship’s official naturalist (and surgeon, the two tasks often went together) was Robert McCormick, who quit after seeing Darwin in action. Darwin also paid his own way, or rather his father did: £600 for outfitting for the journey and £1200 or so during.

Everybody remembers “Darwin’s finches,” except Darwin, who bollixed his collecting of these birds on the Galapagos. Ornithologist John Gould sorted out the bird specimens, realizing the mixed-up birds from the islands were all finches. In the Galapagos archipelago, it was different types of mockingbirds (and turtles) that got Darwin seriously wondering about transmutation. For four decades now Peter and Rosemary Grant have been documenting how the islands’ birds evolve in real time in relation to the climate.

With Extinction Rebellion making headlines, Keith Makoto Woodhouse’s The Ecocentrists: A History of Radical Environmentalism may be premature.
Sprout Lands by William Logan.

What are you reading in natural history (writ large) lately?

A.C. Bent & Co. on Raptors

Arthur Cleveland Bent published twenty-one volumes in his Life Histories of North American Birds between 1919 and 1968. The last two volumes were posthumous. They originally came out in the U.S. National Museum Bulletin. Later they were republished by Dover. There’s an internet edition now.

The Dover paperbacks are a standard sight in used book store natural history sections. But I’d never seen the volume(s) on raptors until last month. Turns out Bent produced two volumes on diurnal and nocturnal raptors, originally published in 1937 and 1938. The Dover edition I purchased at Oasis Books in Gloucester Court House, VA, came out in 1961. One Frank Schoff put his name and “1962” inside Part 1. “3/62” is written in Part 2, but seems to be in a different hand. These covers, though….

Bent’s method is to cite the literature, his own (evidently extensive) notes (dating back to the 1880s), and many correspondents. There are a fair number of collaborators, too. For instance, the Eastern Sparrow Hawk (what they used to call American Kestrel) chapter is written by one.

It’s all wonderfully anecdotal stuff. There is some great material in these things. But if you’ve never delved into them, beware! Bird-people were a bloody bunch back in the day. Egg-collectors, bird shooters, stomach content turner-outers (to see what the birds ate) galore.

Bent goes to subspecies level. It was also an era of “splitters,” meaning rather more species than are now accepted.

Here, for instance, is how I use such archaic material. Driving south, we saw a good number of Ospreys. More recently, I counted five kettling together over Woodland Cemetery in the Bronx. I’ve often wondered how many of these fish hawks a habitat can contain. Bent, writing before DDT, speaks of regular colonial breeding. E.g.: in 1911, Gardiners Island, at the eastern end of Long Island, had an estimated 200 nests. The island is about 3000 acres. Through the magic of ebird, I thought I’d check out how many Osprey have been reported there recently. However, there’s not a single report from the island! The island, rather remarkably, has been privately owned by the same family… for nearly four centuries. There are no ebirders in the current crop, evidently.

It seems to be World Horseshoe Crab Day… I’ve written quite a bit about these creatures.

The Fate of Us?

Environmentalist eschatology has it that the world is ending. Nature? I think not. The human world as we’ve known it, undoubtedly — that has been the pattern for as long as there have been humans; it’s just a question of timing. But the planet will abide. Much simplified and profoundly poisoned by humans, true, but the Earth will keep spinning, life will keep living, however much we’ve knee-capped it. One day, all this will just be a toxic layer in the geological strata. The HS — for Homo sapiens — Line?

It’s we who are the worry. Among ourselves, anyway. Ain’t nobody going to miss us when we’re gone.

Climate instability, global networks of trade, exotic diseases sparked at the ever expanding human/wilderness frontier. These three horsemen go together.. and have done so for some time now. This is the thought that inevitably bubbles up while reading Kyle Harper’s The Fate of Rome: Climate, Disease, & the End of Empire. “The precise conjuncture of environmental damage, political disintegration, and religious ferment decided the final sequence of Rome’s demise.”

As we race towards our own climatic fate, much of historiography is now climatological. There was, for instance, a Roman climate optimum (200 BC – 150 AD), when the glory of Rome was something to write home about. It was warm and wet — only August didn’t see rain, unlike now when the Mediterranean climate is essentially dry through the whole summer. (Great for tourists, more problematic for food-production.) Remember marveling at the idea of North Africa being the granary of empire? Times were good (-ish, it depended where you lived and who you were, of course).

Then came three centuries of climate transition, becoming dryer and dryer. This transitional era saw two devastating plagues (165 AD, probably smallpox — hey, anti-vaxxers, this one’s for you, you selfish fuckers) and (249-262 AD, possibly something Ebola-like). Recoveries of sorts were made, but there was no going back; the borders were busted, the economy in decline, the barracks emperors a dime a dozen to the last trump.

Finally (for Rome) the one-two of little ice age (450-700AD ) and the Justiniaic Plague (541-543 AD, then reoccurring for 2 more centuries). This last seems to have been humanity’s first pandemic. Mortality may have been as much as half the population of the Roman empire–in Constantinople they say 5000 died a day. This was plague of the plague, the same bacillus (Yersinia pestis) as the medieval Black Death.

Harper touches lightly on the similarities between that decline and fall and ours — which of course we can’t know beforehand, but…. He doesn’t need to be heavy-handed. History speaks for itself. Climate disruption, political instability, untold suffering, massive migration, dictators promising walls and fantasies of ethno-racial nativism. I read history in light of the present. How will our times be remembered?

Well, if you’ve made it this far, you probably need some BBs of H.


Hornaday and Gannett’s Map Illustrating the Extermination of the American Bison, 1889. (A digital version here.) They were on the eastern side of the Appalachian chain in the colonial period.One of the sheets of Harold Fisk’s Ancient Courses [of the] Mississippi Meander Belt, 1944. (More detail here.) 6000 years of sinuous riverine movement. That beast’ll return, by the way, there’s no stopping it. The epic floods this year are only a forecast of things to come as outdated methods of control and old levees are hit with the reality of radical weather. So too the vicious politics: in the great flood of 1927, they saved New Orleans by drowning Greenville. Hundreds of thousands of African Americans were displaced; 50% of the Delta population fled north within a year; it was ethnic cleansing by flood control.

Both of these were found in A History of America in 100 Maps, by Susan Schulten.

Wright On Sparrows

The big book of little brown jobs is here at last. The enviably erudite Rick Wright has written a very readable reference guide to the LBJs, sparrow division. It’s not a field guide: the hardcover large format precludes that. (I presume a paperback will follow; there’s also an ebook version, but you know those are bad for you, right?) And, as the beginning of the introduction states, it’s not the typical birder’s book. “Most bird books treat their subject as one entirely separate from the cultural world that humans inhabit, focusing exclusively on what for the past 2.500 years we have called “natural history”: identification, behavior, and ecological and evolutionary relationships. But birds have a human history, too, […].” Yes, each of the 76 species of Passerellidae family sparrows covered here has an entry that discusses field identification in depth, range and geographic variation, and subspecies. The photographs are excellent (each is noted to place, month, and photographer). But the heart of the book is made up of the stories of the birds and the bird people. “Everything we think we know, someone had to learn,” writes Wright, who’s blog also testifies to his deep familiarity with earlier ornithological work. “A fuller awareness of the slow evolution of ornithological knowledge over the centuries can inspire modern birders both to greater ambition and to greater patience with their own development. If scientific ornithology is still debating the status, indeed the very existence of, for example, the Cassiar Junco a century after its discovery, we field observers can be more comfortable in our own uncertainties.”For instance: the Little Sparrow, Fasciated Finch, Ferruginous Finch, or the Shepherd. These are all old names for the Song Sparrow, now known biologically as Melospiza melodia. Virtually cosmopolitan in my experience, by which I mean they turn up in most habitat I visit around NYC, Song Sparrows were the first birds I noticed having accents in their song. The ones on Nantucket don’t sound the same as the ones here. (They do peculiar things with their “r” — ahh — up there….). Turns out they’re “one of the most geographically diverse birds in the world.” In the past, ornithologists have counted up to 50 subspecies; today it’s about two dozen.Very much an addition to your hardcore natural history bookshelf.

(Sparrows from my blog archives, from the top: Field, Chipping, White-throated, Fox, Song, Olive, Grasshopper — the latter two photographed in Texas)


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