Posts Tagged 'books'

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.”

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!

Gotham Unwatered

IMG_1328.jpgTed Steinberg’s Gotham Unbound: The Ecological History of Greater New York is a history of the de-watering of the region. From the Dutch on, but particularly in the 19th and early 20th centuries, we have have pushed out the borders of the archipelago with landfill. The interior wet places have been drained, filled in, and covered over. We’ve bulkheaded the expanded edges and made impervious great swaths of the landscape, or rather hardscape. The vast tidal flats and marshes of Staten Island, Newark Bay, Upper New York Bay, Jamaica Bay, and Flushing Bay have all been completely landfilled (with ash, garbage, harbor sand, & bulldozed topography) or reduced to a small relict of their past glory. The three regional airports were all built on landfill on salt-water marsh. With rising waters and more powerful storm surges, these old marshes will be sorely missed; they will also be, in fact, the first to flood, as Sandy all too plainly showed.

The enormously rich biota of the estuary the New York megapolis is built upon is now a thing of the past. Some things have certainly gotten better than they were a century ago when the harbor was so polluted there were no fish and no Osprey to eat them, and the last of the shellfish beds were closed because of poison and disease, but the improvements we have made are definitely far from complete. The waters have gotten deeper and biologically more simplified. And we’re still pumping in far too much nitrogen!

While researching Ellis Island (which celebrates its 125 anniversary as gateway to America on New Year’s Day), I found that it was one of four “Oyster Islands” in the Upper Bay. Of the other three, one was dredged away; one is now home to a lighthouse; one supports the Statue of Liberty, or should we say Statue of Limitations? The great oyster richness of the region seems unimaginable now, something out of a fantasy of plenty, even with the evidence of shell middens dating back 5000 years. Oysters still grow here, but nowhere near the numbers they once did. And who would eat one? A local program with the memorable name Billion Oyster Project aims to bring them back in substantial numbers.

Yet, as Steinberg notes, there is “no recovering the biological glory of Henry Hudson’s day…. The only relevant question is how to manage the land to increase diversity and ecological complexity as much as possible in a profoundly human-dominated environment.”

And to leave you with one final gleaning from the book: NYC didn’t come up with seismic building building code until 1995. There was a one-year grace period: developers rushed to get permits in before then. One of those projects was Trump’s huge Riverside South complex, which is built on terrain prone to liquefaction.

Wait, earthquakes? Yup. I’ve felt two minor ones over the years here in Brooklyn. The actual threat, though, is something on par of the (estimated) 4.9 quake off of Rockaway Beach in 1884. A 6.0 there would have major affects through the area. There’s small hazard of such a quake, but it’s high risk because of the density of people and property.

The imperative of growth is what has driven New York’s colonization of the water, to swagger heedlessly over the floodplain. Developers and their realtor lackeys insist we should continue such — though growth for the sake of growth remains the ideology of the cancer cell, as Edward Abbey noted.  But “we must even seriously entertain the idea of retreat” from the coastline, and realize the true costs of our ecological footprint.

More Book Gifts

9781101875759Richard Fortey‘s book about his four acres of Chiltern beechwood is just out in the U.S. This is a natural history in every sense, a kind of archeology of an ancient forest whose trees are barely a hundred years old. Sound paradoxical? Read on! “I believe that all organisms are as interesting as human beings, and certainly no less important than the observer.”the_moth_snowstorm_for_web_df271fb2-a6f7-4703-9f9a-23ea2dbb7f70_1024x1024I wrote about Michael McCarthy’s The Moth Snowstorm for Humans and Nature. Buy this book!
9780226395883Size of images snagged from the internet are not measure of a book! Peter Marren’s Rainbow Dust: Three Centuries of Butterfly Delight is a history of butterflies in Great Britain. By this we mean, of course, a history of humans and butterflies.

(What is with all these Brits writing about nature? There’s a strong elegiac tone in these works, as well as celebration, as well as inspiration to do god-damned better, mates!)

I just started reading Ted Sternberg’s Gotham Unbound: An Ecological History of Greater New York and it’s off to a very good start.

Are there books you’re recommending this year? Please add them to the comments section.

Did you notice that under “Tags” above the title, I have the category “books.” Clicking on this or any tag will bring up every post (uh, unless I forgot to add it!) about books I’ve written.


And let us not forget that a man who encouraged thuggery as a campaigner now unleashes death and rape threats from his sociopathic supporters via twitter as a President-elect. Trump is an assault on democracy, decency, civility, and civilization. He will never be my President.


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