Welcome

Come in, come in.  I’m  glad you’re here.  It is wonderful of you to take the time.  I’ll do my very best to make it worth your while.

Not a diversion, though.  Not by any means.

Not an escape either.  And you’re more likely to find questions than answers.

But for some who find their way here and choose to stop and taste what’s offered, some food for thought, I hope, with pleasure in the chewing.

Homelessness, Houselessness or Habitatlessness?

Skunks were an important part of night-life when I was a kid in the 1950’s spending idyllic summers in a sleepy community on the Rhode Island shore.  Any trip outdoors after dark – to fish on the beach, visit friends or look at the stars – was accompanied by whistling or gently repeating “Here I am, Mr. Skunk” to avoid startling these typically peaceful cohabiters.  When my mother spent summers there alone after my dad died and I was away at college, she regularly left a few food scraps for them in our small yard.  “They’re my guard dogs” she’d respond, if asked why.

 My dad had built a three room cottage on piers when land was cheap after the area had been ravaged by the Great  Hurricane of 1938. Thickets of viburnum, beach plum and even Japanese honeysuckle remaining in the salt-ridden soil were celebrated by those fearless or foolish enough to rebuild.

Now, of course,  the area is cheek-by-jowl spacious second homes.  The crawl spaces underneath the modest open-stud, unheated summer cottages have been replaced by concrete foundations and cellars housing central vacuums, water softeners, air conditioners, furnaces and playrooms.  It is the rare resident who doesn’t have landscapers maintaining their property and keeping it manicured and brush free.

The skunks, of course, are gone.  There are no longer open, dry crawl spaces or cozy brush piles in which they can sleep, make nests or raise their offspring.  They’ve all moved on, and in all likelihood met their fates crossing a strange road or at the jaws or talons of a predator as they wandered, exposed, in unfamiliar territory.

It is difficult to pick up a newspaper these days without being faced with a headline about our housing crisis.  The accompanying article typically details tent cities, blocked sidewalks, and heart-breaking human interest stories. Please notice and reflect on the words “our” and “human interest”.

The irony is, of course, that ours is far from the only species experiencing a housing crisis.  And while it may be difficult to get an accurate count of the number of homeless Homo sapiens in a city or state, it is hugely more difficult to even begin to count the number of other species, let alone individuals of a species, made homeless by habitat loss. But when an investor buys a 1000+ acre tract of open land with the intent of erecting 4000+ homes surrounding a golf course and connected by paved roads and sidewalks, virtually no publicity is given to the hundreds of thousands of birds, arthropods, annelids and mammals to be, at best, displaced and, more likely, to be disappeared.

Until I outgrew it, I was an avid bird hunter.  Shortly after I moved to Reston, Virginia in the 1960’s I made friends with a fellow hunter who knew the local hot spots.  One weekend he took me to his favorite quail covert. That was the only time I got pinched by a game warden. 

At the time, Reston was at the western edge of Washington, D.C. sprawl and the covert was a couple of miles to its west in the area now heavily built up around Dulles Airport.  We parked beside a large excavator which we were later to learn was obscuring a  “Private Property, No Hunting” sign and spent a fruitful afternoon terrorizing coveys of bobwhite quail. On return to the car we were greeted by a game officer.  “I see you fella’s can’t read.” he said,  pointing to the sign.  Despite our protestations we were both issued citations. 

The following spring, as I drove by the site, several other pieces of heavy equipment had joined the excavator – all of it now mercilessly tearing up the habitat.  The No Hunting sign had been replaced by a large poster advertising “Luxury Homes in a Happening Neighborhood” A couple of hundred Homo sapiens were going to render an untold number of other species – including lots of quail –  homeless…… and reduce the quality of life of two avid sportsmen.

“Home” is a tricky concept. Is it the place we grew up, the place that is currently sheltering us, the place where we raise a family, all of the above? Robert Frost gave this some thought in his classic “Death of a Hired Man” In it, a woman talks about an itinerant and apparently unreliable old hired man’s return:  “He has come home to die.”  In response, her rather more hard-hearted and cynical husband scoffs: “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.”Verlyn Klinkenborg in Smithsonian Magazine comes at it from another direction: “…..it’s more than just a place. It’s also an idea—one where the heart is.”  Leaning into it a bit more, Klinkenborg points out that a vireo’s true home is her habitat while her nest is “merely a temporary site for breeding”.

As generalists, our species can make our home in so many different habitats, as can our usual coinhabitants – rats, pigeons, starlings and English sparrow – that speaking of a human habitat feels off.  Climate change, however, is making clear that even our generalist nature does not protect us from habitat loss, as waves of immigrants risk their lives to escape increasing desertification or inundation.  Viewed in this light, climate change exposes the typically overlooked truth that we are just another species – not some unique life form deserving special treatment by a benevolent greater power.  The sooner we learn that lesson the better for all of us – and here “we” refers to we human beings and “us” refers to all living species – “we humans” included !

There is an award-winning children’s PBS series called the WildKratts which features a pair of brothers who visit a variety of habitats.  Each of its 225 short animated episodes showcases a species dwelling in that habitat and that creature’s special creature power.  A tiger’s ability to hide in the tall grass of its habitat is, of course, its stripes.  For orb weaving spiders, living in habitats with stiff vertical structure, it is their amazing ability to spin sticky silk so strong that, if scaled up to the size of a pencil, could stop an airliner at its landing speed of 80 meters/second. For grasshoppers living in open grasslands, it is their ability to jump many times their body length.  You  get the idea.  Of course each of these creatures has additional supportive but not unique powers – for tigers, teeth and claws; for spiders, immobilizing venom, for grasshoppers, their coloration and supplemental wings.  But what each episode highlights is the starring specie’s unique, or at least unusual, power developed to the extreme.

As far as I know, the Kratt brothers have not yet taken on the super power of Homo sapiens.  Were they to do so, I suspect it would involve our extraordinary brains and their ability to see the utility of so many foods and  materials around us and figure out how to extract their energy or fashion protection and comfort from them. Yuval Noah Haran in his wonderful children’s book Unstoppable Us describes this as storytelling – one dimension of which is the ability to use our brains to visualize an as yet only imaginary future.  

E.O. Wilson, the brilliant myrmecologist turned evolutionary biologist, has offered a variation on this train of thought.  Wilson suggests that like ants, we have a nearly unique ability to be altruistic towards members of our particular tribe or group while also being fiercely hostile against members of our own species who are not members.  Robert Boyd and others writing in PNAS suggest that culture – the ability to learn behaviors from one another – is an important supportive, though not unique, superpower.  

Possession of this combination of unique and supporting super powers has made Homo sapiens the most powerful as well as one of the most prolific species on earth.   Unfortunately, it has also led to the extraordinary crises the present generation faces – global warming, consumption of all the resources upon which we and the rest of life on earth depend, and perhaps even (despite its histrionic tone) the eventual extinction of virtually every current life form on the planet.


The critical questions we humans now face are 1. Can enough of us use our special powers of imagination to foresee the impoverished future towards which we are headed in order to build a culture within which we and the rest of life can live?  2. Can we figure out how to sustain ourselves without consuming every calorie the earth’s arable land and fertile oceans produce?  And 3. Most importantly, can we be sufficiently altruistic to share the habitats and resources of planet earth with the incredible variety of non-human species we have not yet driven to extinction?  More and more of us seem to be answering these questions with a resounding “yes” and a growing number of those seem to be rolling up their figurative sleeves and taking whatever action suits them best to turn those imaginings into reality. They are our bonafide heroes and leaders.

Begging Forgiveness on Earth Day

Dear grandchildren (and their progeny),

I am writing to ask your forgiveness .

It has become clear that my generation has behaved badly and will make life for yours enormously difficult.  In the words of the Anglican Book of Common Prayer: “We have left undone those things which we ought to have done; and we have done those things which we ought not to have done; and there is no health in us.”

Everyone knows what we ought not be doing.  We ought not continue to extract fossil fuels and turn them into atmospheric CO2.  We ought not eat beef or drink cow’s milk. We ought not destroy the richness of earth’s biome with pesticides, herbicides, and industrial farming practices; we ought not convert every bit of the planet’s arable land to monocultural ecological deserts; we ought not manufacture non-biodegradable products.  And every mother’s son or daughter of us ought not whine because it will be too big a sacrifice and is going to cost us more

However, we ought to twist the arms of our political, industrial, and financial leaders until they turn off support of the fossil fuel industries and turn on full force the support of renewable energy.

But…….why must I personally apologize?  Here’s why.  I still have a fracked gas furnace.  I still go places using a gas powered automobile, I still eat some meat and some groceries that are not organically grown.  Half the stuff I buy is at least partly made of non-biodegradable plastic.  The list goes on.

It’s been over thirty years since James Hansen, then Director of NASA’s Goddard Space Center, testified before the US Senate that our massive release of carbon dioxide was warming the earth. There were probably articles in the lay press about it then but they didn’t cause a blip on my radar.

I’m not sure when the first blip did occur, but by the time I retired in 2010 there was plenty of coverage. Now, twenty years later, I am sorry to say that fossil fuels continue to be mined and burned, and the planet’s ongoing warming is obvious even to a non-scientist.  Big storms are more frequent, heat waves more dramatic.  Portland, Oregon hit 113 degrees Fahrenheit last summer, species that used to be plentiful in Rhode Island, like mussels and lobsters, have moved north and previously southern species like black sea bass are now common.

Since the industrial revolution, the USA has pumped more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than any other nation.  But even last year, our carbon dioxide emissions rose by 6%.  At this rate we will double our CO2 emissions by 2032.  This is beyond unconscionable; it is evil, and I sincerely beg your forgiveness.

Oh, I have put in some token effort. We don’t own a car, but when we take a trip we borrow one of our daughter’s. I bike the eight blocks to the grocery store. (Well hooray for me!) We have solar panels on both our houses, ( though we fly cross-country between them). It’s been a long time since I had a steak though I still have yoghurt with my granola. The fact is, it’s nowhere near enough.

I hold in contempt the generation that wiped out the passenger pigeon, and nearly exterminated bison for the fun of killing them. But my generation is leaving a legacy which is far worse.

For this, I beg your forgiveness.

Apologetically,

Your grandfather

(This essay was initially published in the Guest Columnist “Your Turn” feature of the Providence Journal on April 22, 2022)

We Need More Emulsifiers

Either/or thinking is intellectual sloth.  Framing tough political, cultural or even personal divides with that mindset is easy but rarely gets to a satisfactory resolution.  It is not hyperbole to say that much of the world is presently in the midst of such a standoff.  On one side are the tree-huggers, the rewilders, the half-earthers, in short, those damn environmentalists.  On the other are the capitalists, the pragmatists, the realists, in short, those damn developers. Like oil and water, they repel each other. The fact is, we need both and everything in between.

While it is easy to villainize the capitalists and developers, the oil drillers and frackers, we are all presently in their thrall.  If they were to disappear tomorrow, each of us would suffer enormous inconvenience or, more likely, worse.  Yet without the natural world, we are all spiritually and aesthetically disabled; life loses much of its wonder and, in the long run, our species winks out.

A full, rich life must combine the comforts, conveniences and artifices of civilization with the sacred and miraculous complexity of the natural world.  If you frowned after reading the last half of that sentence, you have never looked carefully at a blade of grass and asked how it captures a photon’s energy, sends it through a black angus steer and eventually turns it into……..you.  If you frowned at the first half, you are taking for granted the absence of biting insects in your house, the fact that you can go to the grocery store and find almost anything you want for supper, or our ability to place the Webb Telescope precisely in the second Lagrange point, where the gravitational pull from the earth and sun exactly cancel each other out, thus allowing the telescope to remain orbiting the earth for the next decade.

Modern civilization is amazing and urbanization, economic growth and development has  brought us to where we are today. Beethoven’s 9th Symphony is a wonder, Ulysses is a literary masterpiece and Guernica captures the horrors of war perfectly on a 12’ X 26’ piece of canvas; we fly across continents and have wonderful analgesics, antibiotics and cancer chemotherapeutic agents. But it was birds that inspired the Wright brothers’ wing design; aspirin was synthesized eons ago by willow trees, and poppies make morphine.  The cochineal beetle produced the red pigment for Vermeer’s 1670 The Love Letters, and remains the source of much red food coloring to this day.  And the chemotherapeutic agents vincristine and vinblastine are made from plants as are a number of other anti-cancer drugs.

There is plenty of reason to value either “side” of this dialectic.  It is hard to imagine coming indoors on a frigid winter day and being unable to shed one’s parka and turn up the thermostat.  And many beef lovers would have to change their dietary ways if, instead of picking up some aseptic, plastic-wrapped steak at the supermarket, they were the one who had to smash a furry creature with big baleful eyes in the skull, string the carcass up on meat hooks, and flay and dismember it themselves.  Similarly, the distress of those who relish the bell-like notes of Baltimore orioles as they return from the tropics each spring would be understandable were they no longer able to look forward to that event from the depth of winter.   And nearly anyone who has looked up at the cathedral-trunks of old growth redwoods would also lament if they knew their grandchildren could never have the same experience.  

But loggers don’t usually attend Sierra Club gatherings and Chamber of Commerce meetings usually don’t attract environmentalists.  The two camps tend to behave like oil and water. What we need is some egg yolk or mustard.  In short, an emulsifier.  We need a blending of the two. 

When a bit of mustard, or egg yolk is shaken in a bottle with oil and vinegar, what were previously two distinct clear layers, become a single homogeneous liquid.  What happened?  If you had an electron microscope which could work submerged in this mixture you would see zillions of tiny droplets of oil each surrounded by a coating of water molecules.  Holding the water to its oil droplet would be a bit of yolk or mustard with one end attracted to the oil and the other to water.  The mixture had now been emulsified.

To do away with the conservation/development standoff we need human emulsifiers – someone or someones recognizing the value in both and working to bring them together.

This is not just pie, or salad dressing, in the sky.  In fact, some individuals and groups already do just that.  Amory Lovins  comes to mind.

An advocate of private enterprise and free market economics,  Lovins has claimed both  MacArthur  and Ashoka Fellowships as well as the Blue Planet Prize, the Volvo Environment Prize and the Time Magazine Hero of the Planet Award.  Among many other accomplishments he co-founded the Rocky Mountain Institute a “think and do tank” devoted simultaneously to sustainability and the development and promotion of profitable innovations in resource and energy efficiency.

The Nature Conservancy  is another example.Its vision statement advocates strongly for Nature and biodiversity while acknowledging the primacy  of mankind’s needs and wants:  “….. a world where the diversity of life thrives, and people act to conserve nature for its own sake and its ability to fulfill our needs and enrich our lives. (italics mine)”.  The Conservancy explicitly relies on a collaborational rather than confrontational model and devotes its considerable staff of naturalists, MBA’s and others to finding win-win solutions.  Like the Rocky Mountain Institute the conservancy looks for opportunities to marry conservation with the market economy –  supporting ecotourism to bolster economies of undeveloped areas and showing how marine protected areas can actually improve the incomes of commercial fishermen.

Acknowledgement of the importance and value  of sustainable behavior within the private sector has also led to the formation of  B Lab,  an organization which bestows “B Corp” certification on businesses demonstrably meeting verifiable criteria within the “triple bottom line” of profit, societal benefit and sustainability. Founded in 2006, B Lab now operates world wide and points the way towards an economy which is both market-based and sustainable.  

A nice house salad isn’t too tasty dressed with straight olive oil.  Neither is one dressed with straight vinegar.  The two shaken together with a bit of mustard are transformed.  For a future world to be both comfortable and also spiritually and aesthetically satisfying we need  more emulsifiers like the Nature Conservancy, B Corp and Amory Lovins.

Not Exactly an Homage

My father was a hardworking carpenter who prided himself on being a good provider and who expected dinner to be ready when he got home from work.  He’d been born into a family of first generation immigrants and had come of age during the Great Depression. When I was born he was working as lead carpenter at the Hartford Electric Light Company which had been deemed an essential domestic industry during WW 2 so he’d been excused from military service. He was apparently well-respected there as a hard worker and skillful tradesman.  By the time he retired he was supervising a small crew. He and I never developed a particularly close relationship.

I’ve had trouble finding the right title for this post.  Webster defines “homage” as “…..something that is done to honor someone…..”.  That’s not what this is.  It’s not a paen either for that’s “……a thing that expresses enthusiastic praise….”  I thought about calling it “Remembrances of…”, or “Reflections on my Father” but the memories are not what are important here. What I’ve wanted to express is the feelings I now have for him. For even though we shared a great deal genetically and ethnically, I didn’t feel my father and I connected emotionally or intellectually when he was alive.  Now, however, I have a better sense of what it was like to be him. I don’t really feel closer to him in the usual sense of the word which implies an emotional closeness.  But he’s less remote.

He was a man of few words.  He took for granted, I imagine, that child-rearing, like housework and doing dishes, was best left to women.  I don’t recall him ever playing a game with me, though he did enjoy playing poker with his old childhood buddies. He loved to fish, and when I reached the age of ten or so he did take me trout fishing at a nearby pond.  He’d drop me off on one side with some worms, then go to the other to fly cast.

From what I can recall, hunting and fishing were  his only hobbies. He didn’t read much, had no collections.  He wasn’t much of a sports fan though he did listen to big boxing matches on the radio.  He’d had an English setter before I was born.  It was my mother who told me how he had trained it himself, and how much he enjoyed hunting pheasants with it, though we never hunted together as I was growing up.  It was my uncles who taught me how and I did enjoy hunting quite a bit after he died.

I’ve often thought about why I enjoy these two “ blood sports”.  I don’t consider myself at all macho – in fact I consider machismo kind of “uncouth” and  feel scornful of those who are.  I never considered my father to be macho either – but I suppose there may be an element of that in both of us. I do think there may be something primitive written in my genes that derives satisfaction from returning from the hunt with food. 

Male cardinals in North America and male blue tits in Europe both regularly bring food to their incubating mates – bird behaviors which seem much more likely to be driven by genetics than by any conscious desire to be macho.  Even as a kid, I was drawn to natural history.  During visits to the American Museum of Natural History in New York my favorite halls were the ones involving the  animal dioramas.   And for me, one of the attractions of both hunting and fishing is the way one needs to remain intensely aware of one’s natural surroundings and of the likely behaviors of one’s quarry.  It’s hard to know if that was a factor for my father; he may have felt drawn to that dimension of hunting and fishing but if he was, he never spoke of it. 

I think both hunting and fishing do connect me to him in some way, though.   Perhaps part of it is the simple idea that since he did it when I was a child, I should do it now that I am “grown up.” But there’s more to it than that. The gaps between us in years and temperaments and interests and states of being shrink when I  fish from a rock that I watched him fish from when I was a boy.  The gap gets even smaller when I use one of the lures he made.

Before I was born and well before they ever owned a year round house in Hartford, my parents had built a small cottage on the Rhode Island shore when land prices there were in the tank following the Great Hurricane of 1938. He provided the labor and I suspect that much of the hardware in the place and maybe even some of the lumber was courtesy of Hartford Electric Light.  He  was clearly a good craftsman.  I have a couple of his well worn hand tools in my workshop and it pleases me to use them.

Now, over 80 years later, the section of the cottage which my wife and I have not deconstructed is as sound and snug as the day he built it.  Even much of his original joinery remains in good shape, including the dadoes and tongue-in-groove wooden windows, while the high end manufactured windows we installed in the year round place we built fourteen years ago have begun to fail. And while he didn’t care a bit about automobile maintenance (I don’t think he ever changed the oil in our cars) one of my enduring memories is of him meticulously scraping and repainting the woodwork of the cottage he’d built.

Last year we never got to the place because of COVID 19 travel restrictions. It’s proximity to the sea is hard on paint so there’s been  even more scraping and painting to be done this year, and as I‘ve been doing it I feel closer to my father than I ever did while he was alive. Somehow, scraping off the loose paint, meticulously feathering the edges of the stuff that won’t scrape off, running the new paint just enough onto the glass that it seals the gap between it and the putty but isn’t visible as a splotch –  that process connects me to him

It’s not exactly a feeling of fondness,  or even respect, particularly.  It’s more as though I understand where he was coming from and I’m now pretty much in the same place.  When I’m focused on the job at hand – getting the paint on and dry enough before the weather turns bad – and a friend, even a friend I haven’t seen in a while, stops by to chat, I’m impatient.  After the initial pleasantries I’m ready to say goodbye.  If they aren’t, I go back to painting, even though it may look rude.  And if it’s a familiar acquaintance who just likes to chat, even the pleasantries are barely pleasant.

I’d observed that same scenario play out dozens of times with my father but only recently did it come to mind when a friend stopped by as I was painting. But the weather was threatening and if the paint dries in the brush it is the devil to clean off. So I kept painting.

Today we use the part of the original uninsulated cottage which remains as a bunkhouse for grandkids and a place for me to work on my fishing gear. When I do that I again get that paternal connection. I still have the mold he hand-carved out of sandstone for making his own metal jigs.  He melted down junked refrigerator coils to cast his. I use an ingot of pewter a goldsmith friend got me for mine.  He tied his own bucktail hooks; I buy mine.  But catching a striped bass on one of those jigs evokes a cascade of feelings and memories:  the image of him casting into the surf – pipe clenched in his teeth Aldo Leopold style; the outdoorsy smell of his fishing clothes.  I’m sure he knew a lot of tricks about how and when to catch stripers – he sometimes caught enough to sell a batch to a local fish restaurant.  I’ve learned my tricks from scratch as I suspect he did.

Sometimes when I’m fishing from one of his spots, or scraping a window he too scraped years ago, I feel much closer to him than when he was alive. I think of questions I’d like to ask him but never did.  When planing a piece of wood, how does one keep the plane from chattering?  What did it feel like when you saved that man from drowning when the bridge over the Connecticut River near the Electric Light Company collapsed?  What were your dad and mom like? Who taught you to fish?  Things like that.   Then I try to imagine his answers.  I’m not channelling him, exactly, but I do feel we are, to some degree, more connected. It’s a good feeling.

Sky Diving, Snakes and Body Odor

 Photo : Michelle Johnston @ michleajohnston

 

 

I have a friend who coaches football when school is in session.  In the summer, he rebuilds New England stone walls and he has the physique and temperament for both jobs.  Unfortunately, however, snakes terrify him and snakes tend to live in stone walls.  My friend is aware of this and knows full well that almost all snakes in New Hampshire are entirely harmless, but on lifting a rock under which a small garter snake is sleeping peacefully, he inevitably screams, drops the rock, and leaps away;  then looks around sheepishly to see if anyone saw his reaction.  

He shouldn’t be ashamed.  To one degree or another, all of us are wired this way.  Big spiders move us to action.  So does being suddenly confronted by a threatening face.  The sound of footsteps behind us on a dark night gets our attention. And most of us, surprised by a snake, would react as my friend does. 

In 2008, some psychiatrists and bioengineers at Stonybrook University in New York taped gauze pads to the armpits of individuals about to take their first tandem sky-dives.  Immediately after the neophyte divers hit the ground the gauze pads were collected and sealed in containers designed to prevent  desiccation  and bacterial growth. Later, armpit sweat was collected the same way from the same individuals after a vigorous treadmill run of the same duration as the flight.  Subsequently, a different group of volunteers were asked to sniff the stuff and then rate how threatening a series of ambiguous facial expressions were and also undergo MRIs.  A whiff of the post-skydive armpit sweat registered a greater likelihood that a facial expression would be interpreted as intensely fearsome as well as more MRI activity in parts of the brain known to be related to emotional intensity.   

You don’t have to be an evolutionary biologist to make sense of this.  Fear, after all, is adaptive.  If suddenly confronted with a creature  which has been killing our forebears since they swung from branches, it makes sense that we are programmed to leap away before putting our rational mind to work considering the probabilities.  And a good simultaneous scream warns other troop members to be en garde. At the same time, electric impulses shoot through sympathetic nerves, speeding up  heart rate and telling your adrenal glands to dump all the adrenalin it has into your bloodstream to prepare you to fight or flee.  All very reasonable.  So why not add to the armamentarium a blast of chemical signals saying “Yipes, danger!”

With climate change, however,  it’s another story. No serpentine forms. No loud noises.  No scary surprises.  No big creepy crawlies.  Merely a steady slow-motion march towards the destruction of all life on earth!

You would think that prospect would terrify and spur us to action but we just don’t pay much attention to things happening at that speed.  Trees grow like that.  So do children.  And to some extent that’s the rate at which we age.  Imperceptible from day to day; but look back ten or fifteen years and those white pine seedlings have become big trees;  that eight year old grandchild is in college; and when did my nose hairs start to grow out instead of in?

 The evidence that we are headed to big trouble is everywhere – except, of course, when we’re in the comfortable fabricated indoor environments we’ve created for ourselves or in the climate controlled cubicles where the majority of us spend most of our working hours.  In those two spots we are essentially removed from the “real” environment and have grown  accustomed to the one we have created for ourselves.  Four walls and a roof fend off the elements, our HVAC servo-systems keep our environment right in the middle of our comfort zone, and the vast majority of us are fully confident that our next trip to the grocery store will find every shelf full. Nothing even vaguely close to being startled by a snake.

But if you’re old enough, and have lived in the same spot for most of your life; if you are a gardener, or a birder;  if you’ve got a streak of the hunter gatherer in you and like to forage for morels, pick mussels from the rocks at low tide or cast a lure for striped bass on their fall migration or you’re a weather junkie who has kept your own record of meteorological data and catastrophes over the years, you don’t have to plough through geophysical research papers or even believe the lay press to know that radical changes are afoot. The morels appear earlier, the bass head south later and we keep breaking temperature and hurricane records.   If you combine those two sources of “knowing” –  if you have been a reasonably careful observer of the world outside your office and home for six or seven decades and read the lay press and an occasional scientific report –  then you are probably ready to scream in terror like that scared football coach.  And unlike being suddenly startled by the surprise appearance of a harmless snake, applying your rational mind to the problem of climate change makes you more terrified, not less.

In the past decade, there have been no publications replicating this study of frightening body odor nor any which have sought to isolate the offending compound.   The small print of the 2009 article reveals that the work was funded by the U.S Army.  One can only wonder if there is not now an active research program in some top secret military lab working to mass produce a substance which can be sprayed on the enemy to precipitate panic and retreat.  Of course, a better use of such a material would be to include it in mailings by organizations trying to motivate people to vote for legislation to promote sustainable energy, keep fossil fuel in the ground and prevent the release of greenhouse gases!

Globalized Corporate Capitalism: Good, Bad or Just Ugly?

Maxfield Parish, The Fisherman and the Genie

Before the pandemical pandemonium struck I attended a symphony concert that sent my heart and head spinning, as music often does.  How do those combinations of vaporous vibrations reach so deeply into our being? What neuronal maze do they electrify? What mysterious auras fluoresce in the mists of our souls?  And what process coordinates the strumming and plucking and huffing and thumping and sawing of all those individual artists? What creative magic gave the music birth in some genius composer’s mind, and what about the legions of genius minds before that which conceived of the notation that lets all those musicians read that dead composer’s mind simultaneously?

 

A stirring musical event exemplifies our amazing ability to work collectively.  Of course we’re not the only species to thrive because of our unusual ability to cooperate.  Ants, bees and a few other mammals share it. But as far as I know, there are no ant symphonies.  By synergising cooperative behavior with imagination, forward thinking and other forms of intelligence we’ve become uniquely able to concretize one another’s imaginings.  And the fact that a concert performance can then twitch the insides of a batch of microphones and instantaneously reproduce the concert in thousands of living rooms a continent away gobsmacks.  What a species we are! Little wonder people have trouble believing we descended from apes.

 

But we did.  Once upon a time a few globs of protoplasm obtained a competitive advantage over their peers by clumping together and coordinating their activity.  The great evolutionary clock ticked onward and a couple of billion years later the survival advantage of group hunting by those who could rein in their selfish instincts and work together to implement a group plan  surely made it easier to put a mastodon haunch on the table and assure the survival of one’s offspring. It doesn’t take much imagination to attribute the subsequent development of centralized government, nationalism, team sports, symphony orchestras and the modern-day corporation as steps along that same trajectory.  Combine that with a concatenation of ideas, culture, global diffusion and an economic system which pools resources, promises profit, protects investors from consequences and gives that abstraction personhood before the law and the colossus of corporate capitalism is born!

 

The benefits have been uncountable. When a group of us humans see benefit and profit in a common goal it is as good as achieved.  From health to welfare, from tawdry entertainment to profound intellectual stimulation, from convenience to comfort, we have been reaping those benefits.  Look what we’ve done to scourges like measles and poliomyelitis and what we no doubt will one day do to this damn coronavirus; how we fly around the globe in hours pushed by solar energy stored in distillates of the goop of rotten leaves hidden underground eons ago until we found a way to suck it out; how we’ve doubled our lifespan; shrunk suffering; warm or cool ourselves with the flick of a switch; and –  instead of having to make every implement we want or need by hand – we simply pluck it off the shelves at WalMart and soon will be 3D printing it in our homes!  

 

Unfortunately, like the loaded phrases buried in telecommunications contracts, there have been hidden costs. Like the creeping decrepitude of aging, they’ve been accumulating silently, at a speed just below our perception threshold.  Then one day we walk by a reflective storefront and don’t recognize the stooped old guy walking next to us.  

 

Once the scales fall from our eyes, the unintended consequences of our cleverness are everywhere. Some we’ve recognized early and been able to mitigate.  Let’s stop drenching our fields with DDT before all the hawks and eagles are gone. Get thalidomide out of the pharmacies pronto. Don’t attribute the bone marrow failure and jaw necrosis those radium girls are dying from to their “loose morals”; instead, stop asking them to lick their brushes in order to get delicate lines of radium on watch faces.   But there are many more consequences for which the solution remains elusive. The diffuseness, power and anonymity of the perpetrators are so great; the engines fueled by those thousands of points of self interest so powerful .

 

Climate change, of course, is the poster child of these creeping consequences.  Granted,the industrial revolution led to generations with steadily improving standards of living but we’ve known about the coming crisis for over a decade and the smokestacks and tailpipes keep spewing. The incredible promise of plastics foreshadowed in the single word of advice given to Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate has borne incredible fruit but by 2050 the stuff is projected to exceed the weight of fish in the ocean and now,  with no knowledge of the consequences, we unwittingly slurp down microplastic particles in the flesh of every shellfish we consume without a clue of the consequences.  Enormous dams power millions but in the process trigger cultural, ecological and geophysical tsunamis that extinguish salmon populations, reduce forest floor fertility,  destroy ancient cultures, threaten orca extinction, and even cause polar drift and speed up the rotation of the earth

 

We need to rethink the  grand scale with which we produce and do things because now  (Warning – here comes a bouquet of mixaphors)  it’s looking more and more as if we’ve been making some pretty big Faustian bargains and the bill is coming due. Let’s admit we sorcerers’ apprentices have lost control of the Frankensteins we’ve conjured up.  It’s time to pay the piper or else our goose, and most everything else, including us, is cooked! 

 

We’ve been attempting to rein in the apocalyptic cayuse of corporate capitalism since the Interstate Commerce Law of 1817  followed by the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890, The Federal Trade Commission Act of 1914 and the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act of 2010 but those were just directed at minimizing  economic injury to consumers.  Now, as grandiose at it may sound,  we need a second go at taming this beast if we are to salvage life on earth as we know it – including our own.  We need the hard working naturalists who are each documenting the decline of the species du jour, the geophysicists warning about the reconstitution of our atmosphere, the climatologists measuring the global temperature rise, the oceanographers following sea acidification, the multitude of reporters dishing this up in lay language we can all understand, the environmentalists working away in their NGO’s for a fraction of the salaries they could earn in the private sector and – yes, and, – every single one of us doing our share to generate the political will to take back control of the system we’ve brilliantly created.  We also need radical new ideas. 

 

How about an FDA-like body to oversee a thorough study of the possible unintended consequences of every industrially produced chemical  before it leaves the manufacturer’s door .  How about really considering all those cost externalities – maybe require plastic manufacturers (Exxon Mobil is the world’s largest producer) to be responsible for fishing a certain number of tons of plastic out of the ocean before they issue a stock dividend.      How about taking down the legal walls protecting CEOs’ personal fortunes from destructive blunders their companies make whether or not they covered up the problem. Sound like crazy pie in the sky? Social Security and Workmen’s compensation did before they were passed into law. So did women’s suffrage.   And you can be sure those snake oil salesmen squawked and hollered to try to block the establishment of the FDA.

 

We face a big challenge.  How do we unstick ourselves from the tar baby we’ve unwittingly smacked.   What twelve steps will lead us away from our addiction to comfort and convenience and the incredible power we’ve harnessed?  I don’t have an answer, but I take hope in a wonderful poem a dear friend sent recently:

 

It may be that when we no longer know what to do

we have come to our real work,

and that when we no longer know which way to go

we have come to our real journey.

The mind that is not baffled is not employed.

The impeded stream is the one that sings.”

                                                     Wendell Berry:  Standing by Words, 1983

 

Most of us will get through the corona crisis, but in the rear view mirror  it will look like a trivial bump in the road compared to the cataclysmic climate crisis we’re hurtling towards.  Between now and when that Big One becomes unbearable we’ll get back to going to concerts and watching all those hardworking musicians create music.  But to succeed at the troublesome task ahead we are going to need extraordinarily effective leaders, like orchestra conductors, who can get us all working together.   Coaxing the genie back into the bottle and all those furies back into Pandora’s box is going to be nowhere near as easy as it was to let them out. We’re going to need to work in an unprecedentedly cooperative and coordinated way and use all our creative and intellectual gifts, be they god-given or the product of evolution,  to turn things around.

Walt Kelly:  Pogo, 1970

Becoming a Man, 1940 – 1950

“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

Martin Luther King, Jr. paraphrasing Theodore Parker

 

 

This essay is not a nostalgic wish that we return to the “good old days” nor is it  a plea for sympathy or commiseration. Rather it is simply a personal reflection on the evolution of one element of an individual’s identity and an admittedly superficial and naive look at some of the forces which have influenced it.

   *   *   *

 

In 1951, as a ten year old with one Y and one X chromosome,  it never occurred to me that anything related to the gender associated with that genetic combo was anything but rock solid. But unbeknownst to me I was straddling  the peak productive years of masculinity’s most visible spokesMEN with one foot on the world of Ernest Hemingway (The Sun Also Rises) and Rudyard Kipling (If)) the other on the deep analysis of gender begun by Simone de Beauvoir. (The Second Sex).    Now, at age 79, I find myself reading a NYTimes Magazine story titled Becoming a Man and written by someone presumably born XX, married to another woman, then undergoing a medical sex change (converted medically to a man) at age 50. 

 

My mother had become convinced that she would remain childless until, ten years after she and my father were married, I announced myself with a missed period.   Since I’d been so long in coming, I was considered especially precious. And she took her parenting responsibilities very seriously – to the extent that when she learned that the kindergarten teacher to whom I’d been assigned had a crankypants reputation she petitioned the principal to put me in a different class – alleging I was allergic to the stuffed animals in the room of the rejected teacher.  But in spite of this hyperprotectiveness she let two of her five younger brothers take me on a crow hunting trip with them when I was eight.

 

I’d been given a BB gun by the two of them the previous Christmas and they were eager to teach me how to put it to use.  Both had served in World War 2 a few years earlier, one as an airplane mechanic and the other a gunner on the USS Yorktown.  Suffice it to say they were at the oat-feeling stage of life. The one who had been an aircraft carrier gunner was nicknamed “Uncle Crash ” because he’d totalled several cars since being discharged from the Navy.  He’d just gotten a job as a guard at the state prison and entertained me with graphic descriptions of how he subdued unruly inmates with the liberal use of his regulation blackjack.

 

Shortly after they’d turned 16, both uncles had worked in the nearby slaughterhouse  – referred to in the neighborhood as “Sloppy Charlie’s”. One of their jobs had been to haul the enterprise’s unuseable offal out to nearby fields, turn on the manure spreader into which it had been heaped and shower its content over the adjacent fields. The nearby farmer’s free-roaming pigs then helped themselves to the feast as did flocks of hungry crows. Those both were our targets.

 

My two uncles slaughtered the crows.  The ones that weren’t killed outright were allowed to flap and flutter around on the ground as living decoys. My BB gun was no match for their shotguns against the birds so I was assigned the pigs as my target.  I’d know my aim was accurate when one let out a satisfying squeal, after which I’d be warmly congratulated by my mentors.

 

That weekend we sat around my grandmother’s kitchen table regaling the rest of the family with the success of the “hunt” – my uncles praising my excellent marksmanship as they joined my grandfather (who, as “head of the household” had forbidden my grandmother from applying for US citizenship) tossing down shots of homemade hootch and puffing away on stogies, Camels and Lucky Strikes.  All good, manly fun.

 

Though my father also smoked Luckies and enjoyed his shots, his was a less colorful masculinity:  bring home the pay, expect dinner on the table when you get there, fish, play poker with your childhood buddies once in a while, no dishes, no frills, never laugh, never ever look sad. The only emotions allowed: disappointment, disapproval and, rarely, disgust. His favorite entertainment was listening to radio broadcasts of boxing bouts and attending demolition derbies – events involving a dozen or so unmodified used vehicles smashing into each other until the last one still running was declared the winner.    

 

Though he never said as much – or much at all for that matter – I imagine my father felt that as the bread-winner, childcare was just not in his job description.  His peers, no doubt, felt pretty much the same. So my immediate gender role model was the strong silent type. Most of what I was “taught” verbally, however, came from my mother who, I think it is fair to say, wore her heart on her sleeve.

 

While she was doing housework, one of my mother’s stock expressions was  “It’s a man’s world”.  Fortunately, even though there is still lots to be done, things have changed for the better in many ways.  But as an XY living through the changes it’s been a bit like paying the utility bills or undergoing an appendectomy – absolutely necessary and the right thing to do but not exactly pleasant. Voluntarily exchanging a position of power, privilege and authority for one of humility and equality is not stress-free and while rational considerations of fairness and empathy are noble,  the fact that not everyone is playing by the same rulebook doesn’t help. Watching a flagrant male chauvinist pig strut around before an adoring crowd of cheering thousands, many of whom are women, and doing it with an extremely attractive though, in all likelihood, entirely ditsy one-time model on his arm, distresses. It’s hard not to wonder if one is being played the fool. Doesn’t boarishness (sic) still have its rewards?

 

Personality typing is big these days and, according to the Truity tests I took recently,  my Myer-Briggs personality type is INFJ – introverted, intuitive, feeling and judging.  Apparently this is an uncommon combination, occurring in less than 2 % of both males and females.  But among those who are in this bucket, there are twice as many females as males. Whether this type of testing  gives a full picture of personality is arguable as is the degree to which nature or nurture determines personality.  By those numbers, however, if they have any bearing on reality, one might say that I am somewhat more feminine than masculine.  Was it nature or nurture that did this to me? I suspect that my father would be surprised and likely disapprove of my sharing dishwashing duties on a nearly equal basis with my spouse.  

 

And then there’s biology to contend with.   As a general rule, the XY combination in most mammals brings with it greater size and strength and a certain amount of aggressiveness and pugnacity – think bulls, stallions, great apes etc.  Since muscle mass as a percent of total body mass is about 15 percent higher in men than in women it’s easy to imagine that as cultural patterns emerged among H. sapiens, domination of the XXs by the XYs became the rule.  Helped along by a handful of just the right mutations, that seems to have been a successful survival strategy and and led to the development of well-fed big brains and the ability to conceptualize abstractions like fairness, justice and equality. Underlying aggressiveness, however, influenced in some way by my XY chromosomal combination still lurks somewhere necessitating the expenditure of psychic energy if it’s to be kept at bay.

 

Which brings us back to my cognitive dissonance.   Simple physical superiority makes it tempting to play the “might makes right” card and, within the protective bubbles of family and peer group, use force or the threat of it to make things go one’s way.  And that works particularly well if the religious belief system and existing cultural hierarchy reinforce XY privilege. On the other hand, our species’ high-functioning brains and the logical and ethical abstractions they’ve created push all that brutishness aside and scowl at the use of force over reason. And I seem to have had the fortune, or misfortune, to have a lifetime spanning the tipping point. Sometimes it feels a bit like standing with one foot on a dock and the other on an untethered rowboat which is drifting slowly away.

Consider the Mussel

 

Consider the mussel.  Not the invasive zebra or quagga mussel – those freshwater invasives that plug sewers and ruin turbines in the midwest – nor the foul tasting ribbed mussel that buries itself in salt marsh mud and tastes just like it.  No, consider the blue mussel, Mytilus edulus –  “edulus” from the latin: edible.

 

So edible, in fact, that Moules et frites  is one of Belgium’s national dishes.  A Belgian restaurant in Washington D.C.  we ate in once had what seemed like dozens of delicious-sounding variants on the menu. Moules marinière, Moules natures, Moules à la crème, Moules parquées, Moules à la bière, Moules à l’ail, etc. – the blue bivalve seems to electrify the culinary imagination.

 

Once steamed open, there are two distinctly different types of blue mussels – yellow and orange.  They taste identical and there are about equal numbers of the two colors. Turns out that the creamy white ones are male while females are described as being of a “warmish orange”.  It makes one wonder if our species’ propensity for racial bigotry might evaporate if the sexes of us humans were similarly divided by color.  

 

Blue mussels epitomize the word sedentary –  spending their adult lives stuck fast to the surface they first settle on – but “sedentary” doesn’t do justice to the tenacity with which they adhere to structure.  Wresting them off the rocks to which they typically anchor themselves can be nearly impossible thanks to a two part system involving a unique glue laid down at the ends of multiple thread-like structures known as “the beard” to mussel eaters and byssus to marine biologists.  For eaters, the beard is a bother. It feels like a foreign body in the mouth and tastes and feels like chewing on sewing thread. Attached to a muscular organ in the muscle’s innards it needs to be forcefully removed before the mussels are cooked. But to bioengineers and inventors, what byssus is made of and how it is formed is a beckoning path to fame and fortune.   The threads are unique among fibers since they combine bungee cord elasticity (stretchable to 160% of original length) with Herculean strength (5 times stronger than the human Achilles tendon) – an extremely unusual combination of fiber properties. https://www2.clarku.edu/departments/biology/biol201/2002/LBrentner/byssal_threads.html,https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=124319594

 

How byssus fibers adhere to rocks has been another active focus of scientific investigation. There are mighty few good glues that can be used under water, yet mussels know how to make an excellent one.  Sadly, they never patented the process. Now, after slicing, dicing, crushing and otherwise murdering to dissect bushels of mussels, bioengineers from Genex and Bio-polymers have done just that. Soon heart  surgeons may have a glue to close bloody wounds, the U.S. Navy may be doing underwater glue repairs and we may someday see a ruptured Achilles tendon replaced with a byssal cable stuck to our heel and calf muscle with mussel glue!  Stockholders in Genex and Biopolymers will smile but it’s unlikely that marine ecologists studying mussel dieoff will see big grants based on mussel royalties.

 

We H. sapiens are not the only ones with a taste for Mytilus edulus. Like our own species, a blue mussel typically spends its youth drifting around aimlessly – though these little mussel trochophores, veligers and pediveligers face armies of filter feeders ranging from sunflower seed-sized crustaceans to schoolbus-sized  whale sharks. And even after they settle down and stick themselves fast to a huge chunk of granite they remain vulnerable to being harvested and boiled alive by us, swallowed whole by diving ducks, crushed by the toothy jaws of blackfish, drilled into by dog whelks,  or subjected to the dismal fate of being pried open by a starfish’s arms and then hosting that creature’s whole stomach which the echinoderm has everted onto the mussel’s newly exposed innards.

 

As a child, summering on the Rhode Island coast where the rock-drop from receding glaciers makes perfect mussel habitat, I could pick a meal’s worth in half an hour.  That was well before they started showing up in supermarket seafood cases in the ‘70’s followed soon after by appearances in NYTimes recipes. Since then, I’ve watched their price steadily increase and their numbers among the rocks steadily dwindle to the point that a summer supper of wild mussels is now almost unheard of.

 

Speculation about the causes of the decline includes over-harvesting, pollution, ingestion of microplastics, higher water temperature, excessive non-human predation, degradation of native DNA by the escaped gametes of coddled farmed mussels, a mussel epidemic or some villainous mix of all these usual suspects.  Scientific consensus seems to be settling on the fact that the decline’s causes are multifold and man-made, a fate now being suffered by untold numbers of other species. One peer reviewed paper documented that the southernmost edge of the blue mussel’s range drifted 350 km northward from Cape Hatteras North Carolina to Lewes, Delaware between 1960 and 2010.  In Rhode Island now, if we find any they’re hidden in deep crevices on the northeast side of rocks – protected from the intense heat of the afternoon sun. And now when we bring home a meal’s worth of mussels, they come from farms in colder Canadian waters.

 

It’s humbling to consider the mussel while watching surf crash on  the Rhode Island boulders where a few still remain . Here is a species that seems to have been around for about 200 million years.  It spends its infancy drifting defenseless in the ocean currents. Then after two or three months when it finally decides to settle down it typically chooses a spot regularly bashed by three or four foot waves every 15 seconds and by twelve or thirteen foot rogue rollers whenever an angry coastal storm comes along – and apparently loving it.  The fact that this hardy creature is now in trouble, as are so many other fellow travelers on spaceship earth is telling us something.  

 

Credible investigators  https://www.livescience.com/24805-undiscovered-marine-species.htm put the number of different species in the ocean at about a million, with about three quarters yet to be discovered!  Meanwhile we go on turning up the ocean heat with our greenhouse gasses and producing plastic from fossil fuel at a geometrically accelerating rate with annual production rising from zero to 400 million tons between 1950 and today https://ourworldindata.org/plastic-pollution.   One can only wonder what kind of miraculously useful substances like byssus and mussel glue will come from those yet to be discovered marine creatures if we can just get to them before warmer oceans cooks them out of existence  or we clog them to extinction with plastic. 

Interfaces, Uncrossable Boundaries and Event Horizons

 

When I reached the age of ten, I was judged old enough to accompany my father on Captain Harold McLaughlin’s 70 foot wooden trawler.  By then, I had watched the Marise enter the harbor of refuge at Stonington many times. Protected on three sides by massive granite breakwaters, the port was home to one of Connecticut’s few remaining commercial fishing fleets.  You could identify the Marise well on the breakwaters’ seaward side because she was the fleet’s only trawler with parallel masts front and aft instead of a mainmast and a diagonal sprit.

 

McLaughlin would jockey Marise into position – parallel parking style – next to the Bindloss Dock ice house and unloading site.  Then I’d watch crane jaws disappear down into the Marise’s hold and emerge – like a gynecologist’s forceps delivery – cradling wooden barrels of the catch and transferring them into the fish shed on their way to Fulton’s Fish Market in New York.

 

My mother was responsible for the friendship.  Before my father and McLaughlin knew one another we would sometimes tour Stonington as part of a Sunday outing.  One day my mother struck up a conversation with Mr. Bindloss, the dock’s owner, and after exchanging pleasantries he offered to give us a tour of his sparkling yacht tied up at the end of the dock.  Sensing after a while that my father was more of a fisherman than a yachtsman he offered to introduce him to “the finest damn fisherman in the Northeast” and a lifelong friendship began. Being a skilled carpenter my father pitched into the endless repairs on the hard working trawler and treasured the opportunity of going out on the Marise several times a year in exchange.

 

For me, trips out on the Marise were a summer highlight.  Shaken awake in the 3AM dark I’d doze on the ride to the dock and then rouse to the smell of fish and diesel fuel – the latter giving way to clean ocean air as we left the dock but the former a permanent part of the voyage.  McLaughlin would keep the Marise at half speed within the harbor but even below in the galley one knew we’d passed the breakwater as the engine pitch increased and the boat encountered the rhythmic swells of the open Atlantic.

 

Since it was usual for the boat to encounter them at an angle other than ninety degrees the resultant combinations of pitch, roll and yaw were irresistibly soporific- up and down, side to side, speeding down and forward , slowing and sliding back – movements mirroring those our womb-borne primate predecessors must have experienced as their mothers brachiated from branch to branch.  I’d sleep again until another sudden change in engine speed signaled we’d reached the fishing grounds.

 

Up on deck and firmly advised to stay out of the way I’d watch the set.  As the Marise crept forward in a gentle arc, the heap of tarred twine net piled astern was hand fed overboard by the one man crew.  Then as her speed increased, the chains connecting the still floating net to two huge oaken “doors tightened, the doors lifted up and over the sides and the huge drums holding the steel cables attached to them began to unspool.  It was at that point that the interface was breached – the doors splashed beneath the sea’s surface and, dragging the net down behind them, disappeared.

 

Their descent and disappearance was magical and would send my imagination into high gear.  What was it like on the way down – light dimming and pressure mounting as the doors, affixed on a tilt, drew open the nets entrance, the air-filled floats holding the top edge up, the leads and chains pulling the bottom edge down and the giant maw beginning to swallow fish even on the descent.  What was it like as the chains finally hit the bottom and were dragged like the edge of a giant hoe along the sea floor scooping up bottom-dwellers like flounder, crab, whelk and lobster; bushels of kelp; small boulders and the occasional upperworldly oddity like a boot or World War II shell casing?  What was it like to be a finfish suddenly finding itself crowded with thousands of others along with the occasional shark and ray into the bag at the net’s cod end ?  Was there fear, panic or just a reflexive impulse to swim away. And what did it sound like; were there shrieks of despair and cries of desperation?  Did the fish moan in pain at the end of the drag as the net was pulled upwards, water pressure fell and swim bladders burst?

 

Interfaces  do that – they get your imagination going.  It’s the mystery of it. Much of the time they represent inaccessibility.  Like crime scene tape. Or gated estates. Or the event horizons of black holes. You can’t help but wonder what’s going on on the other side.

 

Sometimes I’d slip back to age six or seven and become the skipper of an airborne trawler dragging its nets across farms and forests, the net’s chain-bottom edge uprooting trees and corn and outbuildings and along the way collecting rabbits and raccoons and packing them in with the occasional bobcat at the cod end and leaving behind a tornado-like swath of devastation.  As their homes exploded into splintered clapboards on the net’s ground-scouring weighted edge did mothers grab their children and run desperately forward, though hardly fast enough to escape? 

 

Not a happy picture at all, but when you think about it a pretty accurate reflection of what we’ve been doing to the ocean environment for decades.  Little wonder fish populations have crashed.

 

The most daunting interface, the most forbidding one  – unbreachable, actually – and one  readily overlooked is one for which we don’t even have a proper word.  Ego, identity, sense of self, consciousness, I-ness: they all circle the target but miss the mark. None connotes the unbreachability of the border separating us from everybody and every thing else – everything in the universe!  A person who is colorblind can’t even know what a fire engine looks like to someone with full color vision any more than we can ever really know what an other person thinks, let alone what a bat thinks or, God forbid, what or even if a galaxy thinks. 

 

Renee Descartes observed  that “I think, therefore I am” thereby setting off a couple of centuries of speculation that since one’s  “I”ness is the only thing one can be certain of then everything else might simply be a hallucination. Thomas Nagel took on a followup question posed by his famous essay “What is it like to be a bat?and ended up answering with a resounding “it’s impossible to know!”  And just recently British author, historian and birder Richard Smyth in his book A Sweet Wild Note: What We Hear When the Birds Sing reminds us that although bird song is given meaning in poetry, literature, film and music it is always the meaning which we and not the birds attribute to it.

 

We may strive mightily to bridge the gap, to fully connect with an “other”.  We may guess that we connect. We may pretend. But let us be honest. The gulf, even between I and the most cherished and intimate Thou,  remains.

 

In spite of the present apparent inaccessibility of any mind-entity other than our own, I can’t imagine that bats think nothing, that they have nothing resembling our mind,  that behind that furry face dipping and diving and uttering complicated squeaks and clicks there is not anything at all resembling thought or feelings.  And even though I tremble at the notion of disagreeing with a bonafide philosopher of Nagel’s stature I think it is wrong to claim that bridging the gap is impossible.   I suspect that Plato would have described as “impossible” ever being able to call up thousands of pictures of bats with a couple of finger twitches on a computer keyboard. 

 

Drags on the Marise usually lasted for an hour or two and the most exciting times by far were when most of the net was hauled in by hand, a couple of turns of rope around the top of the cod end were hooked to the winch and the net’s bulging “bag” was lifted over the rail.  McLaughlin, as skipper, always was the one to reach under the dripping tonnage and pull the bowknot – sending a torrent of thousands of fish out onto the Marise’s deck while we, standing knee deep in the squirming flopping multitude, began sorting out the “keepers” and tossing the “trash” overboard.  At the time I gave no thought to the devastation of the seafloor environment we’d left behind or what it was like to be a flounder slowly suffocating in the hold below. Sixty-plus years later, looking back, it’s a different story.

Testosterone

A recent New York Times Opinion piece about testosterone by Katrina Karkazis and Rebecca M. Jordan-Young got me thinking, but not about what you might expect.  What it got me thinking about was my fraught relationship with athletics.  The article by these two distinguished sociologists began with a discussion of a ruling by the Court of Arbitration in Sport which declared that females with naturally high testosterone levels could not compete as women unless they made efforts to reduce their testosterone levels.

Unlike most normal men, I can’t sit through five minutes of a sports event on TV, and wouldn’t shell out five let alone five hundred dollars for tickets to a World Series game.  In a detached sort of way, I do appreciate a particularly skillful header into a soccer goal or a clever basketball fake out, though I’d much rather get a glimpse of a peregrine falcon’s daredevil stoop on a pigeon.

It has occurred to me that my current lack of interest in athletic events may have its roots in my youthful lack of athletic skills.  In high school, I was a well-practiced bench warmer. The only times coaches would put me in games were when our team had a comfortable lead.   Perhaps I was a terrible athlete because I had low testosterone – though my voice cracked, I grew a mustache and the rest of puberty’s weirdness happened right on schedule. Or maybe my brain is just wired funny.   Either way the decision by the Arbitration Court raises some provocative questions.

Clearly, many determinants of athletic success are genetic.  The average height of an NBA basketball player is 6’7” inches and the average male height in the USA is 5’9”.   I don’t think that’s because from the age of 5 on the NBAers strove to be good at basketball and worked hard to be taller.   Genetic science has DNA sequence determining 80% of adult height. Nutrition and childhood illness probably determines the other 20%. And according to the most recent report from the National Center for Biotechnical Information, the heritability of muscle strength ranges from 30 to 80% and the heritability of lean body mass is 50 to 80%.  

So, if the decision by the Arbitration Court becomes settled precedent and athletes with genetic advantages are to undergo interventions to return them to “normal”, NBA players will have to have ten inches surgically removed from their lower extremities and weight lifters would have to undergo fat transplants. That doesn’t seem particularly likely but it’s clearly wrong to make a woman with a genetic advantage undergo medical “correction” while ignoring the issue in men.

Interest in athletic competitions is deeply ingrained in much of the human psyche.   Competitive games which drew large crowds arose independently in widely separated ancient cultures. The Greeks had their Olympics, the first North Americans their lacrosse games, the Japanese their Sumo wrestling competitions, the Mayans their life or death ball games , and the ancient Chinese their Cuju.  Some of these activities had military origins but even before organized warfare, teamwork and physical skill were major factors in early human hunting success. It seems likely that the survival of a clan or tribe of our prehistoric ancestors was often determined by the success of the hunt. Those with genes for strength and teamwork were more likely to survive. 

Teamwork isn’t unique to Homo sapiens.  A step or two back from myopic anthropocentrism reveals other species demonstrating group activity towards a common goal.  The coordinated hunting behavior of our close relative the chimpanzee has been well documented as has that of wolves, hyenas, wild dogs, and lions  (all, curiously, close relatives of two of our favorite pets).  But other examples of similar behavior include orcas, dolphins, some birds of prey and a few species of ants.  It’s tempting to imagine some bit of genetic code in all those species saying “You are meant to get together, figure out who’s to do what and go for it.” 

But if so, mine seems to have been deleted and I must admit, it feels like a disability.   When a group of friends get together to watch the home team compete in a championship game on TV I find some excuse to beg out.  And when, after a win, the conversation turns to analyzing the details of the game my mind wanders. I imagine they feel the same way when I chatter about a recent bird sighting.  It sets me apart, and not in a particularly good way. 

I’d make a lousy soldier but I’m probably here, living a safe and privileged life, because coordinated groups in the past successfully defended themselves against invading hordes (or, just as likely, pillaged others and made off with their wealth and wives).  Either way, that’s risky stuff requiring teamwork and physical skills. How come I didn’t get some of those genes? Perhaps it’s because my ancestral line cowered in the shadows, dodged the draft, went AWOL when a battle threatened. Not really something to be proud of, but here I am.

 Despite Thomas Jefferson’s assertion, all men are not created equal.  Neither are all women. A random hit on a DNA base pair or just the right roll of the chromosomal dice can go a long way towards making  the difference between a star athlete and a bench warmer. But it’s not much fun to think of athletic contests in those terms. Too much cognitive dissonance.  Better by far not to pull aside the Ozian curtain and discover the real wizard, though the judgement of the Court of Arbitration in Sport makes this pretty hard to do.

I’m not sure whether it is a function of age and experience or the dizzying rate at which modern science and burgeoning information keep turning things upside down but we seem to be getting knocked out of our collective comfort zone more and more these days:  Modern agriculture will feed an ever increasing population. Oops, hold on.  All that plant breeding and monoculture has left us vulnerable to massive crop failure because of loss of genetic diversity in the food supply.  Antibiotics are wonder drugs.  Uh, think again, their overuse is causing the evolution of bacterial superbugs.  Those chlorinated biphenyls make terrific refrigerants. Wait a sec.  Ozone disappears and we all get melanomas.  Omega-3 fatty acids are the key to longevity.  Perhaps, but their source happens to be the small fish at the base of the oceanic food chain and seafood makes up a critical part of the diet for around 3 billion people. The industrial revolution freed humanity from incredible amounts of toil and suffering. Perhaps for a while, but our satanic contract with fossil fuels now threatens earthly life as we know it.

It seems virtually impossible for a person with half a conscience to make it through ten minutes without feeling guilty.  The alarm of our plastic clock goes off and we think of the great oceanic garbage gyre; breakfast – hens and hogs in crates too small to turn around in; clothes shopping online – child labor in china; trip to the grocery – should be using mass transit but it’s so inconvenient; pay the electric bill – ought to install rooftop solar but it’s so expensive; pay the heating bill – need to drop the themostat another 5 degrees; dinner – those avocados are shipped all the way from Mexico and the hamburg, well at least that particular cow is done farting.

I’m anything but a historian, but it is tempting to compare the proliferation of ideas, information and technology we’ve enjoyed since the Renaissance to the Greco-Roman age.  Then, as now, life for many became immeasurably better but old cultural assumptions and ways of thinking were displaced by new ones. Did that cause similar cognitive dissonance and, if so, was that the root cause of the ten centuries of darkness which followed?  It’s hard not to hear the jabber – “……climate change is a hoax”, “……vaccines make kids sick”, “…..Darwinian evolution is all wrong” – without fearing that there are barbarians at the gates.

But there is a glimmer of hope.  No less a genius than F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote  “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.  One should, for example, be able to see that things are hopeless and yet be determined to make them otherwise.”   Remaining determined to make things otherwise sounds like the right approach to our modern predicament.