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.

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.


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. 



For those fortunate enough to experience love’s first physical touch, the accompanying rush of joy is unforgettable.  Whether it comes as the the warmth of a newborn child held against a parents chest or the first time hands are held between partners who will spend a lifetime together, the accompanying shiver of ecstasy etches an indelible memory.

I put up a wren house behind our place last fall, hoping to reproduce a childhood experience of being awakened by the energetic song of a pair nesting in the woodpile outside  my bedroom. This spring a cascade of lusty trills broadcast success. https://www.almanac.com/content/bird-sounds-house-wren  A pair of house wrens were romping about like a pair of smitten lovers.  Hopping from branch to branch, their trembling bodies radiated ecstatic energy.  Every few seconds one of them would pop into the box entrance, stay inside for a bit, then pop back out.  Then they both would do a whole body shiver. It was a scene of pure joy.

Some would dismiss that description as baloney.   Alexandra Coughlan in her review of Richard Smyth’s book  A Sweet Wild Note reflects common wisdom: “Birds sing not for joy or exultation, as the poets would have us believe, but for immensely practical reasons. They need to advertise for a mate, mark their territory or warn other birds of danger.”   She may be right, though I believe something more was going on with those two wrens. First, they’d already found each other. Second, there wasn’t any other bird around against which they needed to protect their discovery of a perfect nest site.  And third, there was no danger in the vicinity. Those birds certainly looked as though they were celebrating their discovery of one another and of finding the perfect place to raise a family.

Quintessentially joyous events – falling in love, experiencing the birth of a child, hearing one’s true love say “I do”, learning of a loved one’s recovery from a serious illness – are mostly even more about the future than the present. Pleasure is feeling good now.  Joy is certainly pleasurable now but it is multiplied by the anticipation of intense pleasure in the future. Happiness is a toned down version of joy. Ecstasy is joy spiritualized.

One isn’t smitten by pleasure or even happiness but one can be smitten by joy.  It often comes unexpectedly and typically evokes a physical response at the smiting moment:  hopping, dancing, clapping, shouting – for joy. The word apparently has its roots in the Latin  – gaudere – to rejoice – and the Oxford English Dictionary says of rejoice “To feel or show great happiness.” (italics mine). Assuming those wrens were experiencing great happiness, they were clearly showing it.

Some scientists – Richard Dawkins prominent among them – theorize that all of existence consists only of matter and energy as we know them. He and his fellow evangelical ontological materialists urge us to believe that ideas and feelings are exclusively explained by electrical discharges careening along a network of biological wires.  Joy, for them, is fully explained by a physical brain some of whose hypercomplex connections have been made super-efficient by a sudden dopamine bath. Watching those wrens, and reflecting on my own firsthand experiences with the undeniable substantiveness of a flush of joy, I find that explanation hard to swallow.

Philosopher Thomas Nagel comes at the issue from a different direction, arguing that the most undeniable element of reality is the primacy of our own perceptions, thoughts and feelings.  The physical stuff follows.  That goes down better for me.

Stephen Hawking says that a theory is basically a model for making predictions.  He’s given some thought to how to tell a good theory from a not so good one and offers up four criteria which the ideal theory should fulfill.     “1. It is elegant. 2. It contains few arbitrary or adjustable elements.  3. It agrees with and explains all existing observations and 4. It can make detailed predictions about future observations that can disprove or falsify the model if they are not borne out.”

Ptolemy’s geocentric cosmology, he says, was a fairly satisfactory model of reality given the mathematics and instruments of his time, though it required some arbitrary tweaking to create an accurate calendar.  Then Copernicus, using more sophisticated math and more careful geometric measurements, demonstrated the superiority of a heliocentric view of the solar system in predicting the movement of the planets and producing a calendar with fewer illogical fudge factors. Copernicus’s view, Hawking says, better fulfilled the four elements of a good scientific theory.

Nagel’s view fulfills the Hawking criteria a lot better than Dawkins’. Elegance?  For something to be perceived as elegant, it must create a feeling of rightness in the observer.  Adjustable elements? The face reality of a perceived intense feeling requires no arbitrary or adjustable elements. Explaining all existing observations(aka perceptions)? Well yeah!  But when it comes to making detailed predictions about the future, our ideas and feelings do fall short, as efforts to time the stock market prove time and again! The evangelical materialists miss all of Hawkings’ criteria.  At least Nagel gets three out of four.

I got used to the happy avian couple singing and dancing around their little house for a couple of days, but then they vanished.  A cat on the loose had been prowling the neighborhood and I suspected that one of the wrens had fallen prey to that critter’s feline instincts.   I was sad that the pair didn’t complete their nest but I  imagine the remaining mate felt much worse. Grief comes to mind.

The high altitude thrill of a joyous event undoubtedly risks grief should tragedy befall the object of one’s delight. Viewed from 100,000 feet, the trajectory of my own mortal span (for which I don’t recall signing a contract)  ends in some pretty significant losses and goodbyes, at least as we currently understand things. In the meantime, though, knowing how fragile and ephemeral joyous things are makes them all the more precious.

Perfect Oysters; Imperfect Produce

I rarely open the NYTimes Style Magazine but last year one of its headlines caught my eye, asking, in 23 point New Times Roman,  “With Cultivation Have Oysters Become Too Perfect?


The essay summarizes oyster farming’s history (which apparently dates from ancient Rome) and oyster popularity (which has waxed and waned for generations).  The article ends with a description of the way modern aquaculture methods produce a handsome standardized product year-round with fewer of the risks and less of the romance of the wildlings of the past.


Come to think of it, that’s something which can said about much of modern life.  Crossing the country in a covered wagon in 1840 must have been a lot more romantic than a commute to work but the per mile risk of dying on the Oregon trail was 0.167% compared to the .000001% risk of driving a mile in 2008.


Of course eating a wild oyster isn’t as risky as trekking the Oregon trail but you can still die of cholera or cut yourself on the razor sharp shell.  Meanwhile the farmed ones are checked regularly for pathogens and often tumbled by their growers to knock off those nasty sharp edges and , as one grower brags, tumbling makes their shells “prettier”.



The Merriam, Webster Dictionary defines “pretty” as “pleasing in a delicate way”.  That may be stretching it a bit as a descriptor of tumbled oysters but it does seem to properly describe a quality present in abundance in the produce section of grocery stores.  Its pursuit has surely boosted the bottom line of pesticide manufacturers – thereby threatening butterflies, honey bees and who knows how many other arthropods – and that standardized perfection is a major hardship for organic farmers since their crops often rank low on the prettiness spectrum.


Recognizing that produce falling below the aesthetic standard of grocery chains often was destined to rot in the field or in a farm’s compost pile proved inspirational to the entrepreneurial founders of “Imperfect Produce” whose mission is “to eliminate food waste and build a better food system for everyone.”

By strengthening the market for fruits and vegetables that don’t look exactly like the archetypal apples and beets on the pages of children’s books the company claims to help farmers, make food more affordable and help the environment by reducing pesticide, fertilizer and water used to grow food that would eventually go to waste.  We signed up a while back and have been entirely happy with the way the food tastes, sometimes even entertained by the way it looks, and consistently feeling self righteous in that we were doing right by the planet……. until we came across an article in the New /Republic.


Not so fast, the author said:  sounds like greenwashing. Aren’t these folks just competing for produce that would otherwise be sold to outfits that don’t care about looks like catsup producers and cider makers?   Or, worse, wouldn’t much of that produce otherwise be donated to food banks or scavenged by gleaners? And, since they won’t reveal their sources, aren’t they just another customer for corporate agriculture. Meanwhile those oyster farmers trumpet how their hundreds of thousands of caged and tumbled shellfish prevent coastal “dead zones:” by purging  our estuaries and coastal lagoons of excessive algae from our overzealous use of fertilizer. Side effects, however, are that their mechanized power equipment contributes to our atmospheric CO2 load while the areas they’ve leased from the state are off-limits for recreational use by fishermen, clammers, skin divers, and kayakers.


It’s hard to disagree that both perfect produce and pretty oysters accomplish little more than catering to our whims, but some  say the benefits are simply not worth the costs. Both sides have their points but something gets lost in the argument. I don’t think many people find grocery shopping exciting.   All that familiar packaging. All those time-worn logos lining the shelves. The soulless pyramids of carefully stacked identical apples – all precisely the same size, shape and shade of Granny Smith green.  In contrast, there’s actually a bit of adventure when it comes to opening the week’s Imperfect Produce delivery and discovering a corkscrew carrot or, as one happy customer exclaimed, “a sweet potato as big as my head !”.  It’s a feeling not entirely unrelated to slurping a misshapen wild oyster and then marveling at its uniquely ugly shell. As our corporate culture gets better at discerning every detail of what maximizes sales, and as economies of scale wipe out the variety afforded by competition, our lives themselves bit by bit become standardized.  And as each of our whims and caprices are met at lower and lower personal costs our individual skills at doing things for ourselves atrophy. Personal creativity – a quality often stimulated by a surprising turn of events or an unexpected variation – ceases to be necessary or inspired. And the deep sense of fulfillment, and personal accomplishment achieved by making one’s own life better in a uniquely idiosyncratic way is diminished.


A while back, on a road trip out West, my son and I stopped for lunch in a small Montana town.  On one side of the street was a modest mom and pop luncheonette; on the other, a familiar pair of golden arches with its predictably satisfying hamburgers.  We talked over the choice and although we both liked Big Macs well enough we took a chance on the luncheonette. The owner turned out to be a talkative woman and rather than repeating a well-rehearsed corporate script she chatted with us about the area as we watched her carefully assemble our sandwiches on the other side of the bar.  Among the things she told us was that off on a side road on the way out of town there was a bunch of folks from The Smithsonian digging for dinosaurs. That unexpected tip led to an unforgettable adventure exploring a bonafide paleologic dig site. Sometimes taking a chance really pays off. Modern grocery chains, oyster farmers and fast food franchises give us predictability. In exchange, we lose something which is easy to overlook but hard to articulate.  An economist might call it an opportunity cost.


Chemistry has given us those bins of archetypic apples, but in the process we’ve quietly lost some beautiful butterflies while Harvard labs work on miniature drones to pollinate crops in case bees disappear.  We have food science to thank for those perfectly predictable burgers which have so successfully outcompeted the quirky mom and pop operations. The electrifying frisson one experiences on hearing a sound outside one’s tent while camping in Yellowstone Park disappears if apex predators are exterminated because they may reduce the incomes of ranchers’ by taking an occasional calf,  born, incidentally, on public national forest land leased by the rancher for grazing.


H.G. Wells, in  The Time Machine, creates a distant dystopian future occupied in part by the Eloi, one future branch of the human race shaped by progress:  “For countless years I judged there had been no danger of war or solitary violence, no danger from wild beasts,…… no need of toil…….They were…. delicate ones” …of …“childish simplicity, decayed to mere beautiful futility, physical and intellectual inadequacy…..And the little people displayed no vestige of a creative tendency. …….. They spent all their time in playing gently, in bathing in the river, in making love in a half-playful fashion, in eating fruit and sleeping …..A flow of disappointment rushed across my mind. Strength is the outcome of need; security sets a premium on feebleness. The work of ameliorating the conditions of life—the true civilizing process that makes life more and more secure—had gone steadily on to a climax. One triumph of a united humanity over Nature had followed another.”  A bit of an overstatement of the point I am trying to make, but beautifully articulated.


In his contemporary best seller, Enlightenment Now, Stephen Pinker takes the opposite tack. Extolling the Enlightenment’s methods of thought and the value of quantification, he exhaustively catalogues  (556 pages, 120 graphs, 1297 footnotes) the undeniable and well-known benefits of the modern age. But since technology and the scientific method rely heavily on measurement, Pinker necessarily gives short shrift to the non-quantifiable.  Ignored in his cost-benefit analysis of the Enlightenment’s methods of thought are the thrill of exploring the unknown, the deep pleasure of creating or experiencing beauty, the joy of a happy surprise, the zen of immersion in the natural world, the pride in triumph over adversity,  the wonder of viewing the stars in total darkness. Yes, many of us are warm, comfortable, healthy and well fed, but like the individual whose only tool is a hammer, we keep looking for nails to pound even if, in the process of pounding, less visible things of great value are destroyed.


The crucial challenge of our age is how to deploy our intellectual gifts to escape the addictive power of satisfying our every material whim and caprice at the expense of slowly cooking our planet, driving out of existence a majority of it’s non-human life forms and extinguishing a great many of the profound ineffabilities which are so easily overlooked but much more deeply satisfying.  I do not claim to know the answers to these questions, but in the meantime while I’m working on them I think I’ll go to the grocery, pick up a dozen beautiful farmed oysters and enjoy myself.


Skunks, Sea Lions, Moose, Mice and Us

I paid a fair amount of attention to skunks during childhood vacations on the Rhode Island shore where my folks built a small cottage just before I was born.  The area had been mostly pasture until the 1920’s and by the ‘40s it was reverting to early scrub crisscrossed with stone walls. Most of the cottages were built on piers and the combination of stone walls, scrub habitat and cottage crawl spaces was perfect skunk habitat. The small lawn around each one often showed evidence of nocturnal skunk work as the animals dug for grubs, earthworms  and other mustelid fare.


Skunks lent an air of high adventure to any nighttime foray.   A flashlight was a must – its beam sweeping side to side in search of black and white stripes.  Once, when an exceptionally long afternoon Monopoly game at a friend’s house was followed by a flashlightless walk home after dark, a too-close-for-comfort encounter remains burned in my memory.  But years later when my then-widowed mother spent summers in the cottage alone, skunks provided considerable peace of mind. “Need to keep my guard dogs happy.” she’d explain as she tossed out food scraps in the evenings when I was visiting.


Over the past several decades things have changed.  Located, as it is, halfway between New York and Boston the place has attracted urban big money and nearly all the cellarless small cottages built up on piers so plumbing could be drained from beneath each fall have been replaced by substantial “summer homes”.   And to be honest, we’ve contributed to the trend – disassembling the original cottage and reusing as much of it as we could while building a year round house large enough to accommodate our children and grandchildren for lovely family vacations together.  But the skunks are gone.


It wasn’t intended.  We didn’t mean to make my mother’s guard dogs homeless.  But now they exist only in the realm of family lore. Meanwhile our neighborhood lawns are awash in chemical grubicides.  


Nowadays we spend part of each year on the west coast where sea lions have been in the news.  They’re members of a select group of non-human species with a high brain to body size ratio – joining elephants and dolphins and bypassing our primate relatives –  chimpanzees, monkeys and gorillas. They’ve been shown to solve IQ tests that many humans have trouble passing.  A captive California sea lion studied by the Long Marine Lab at the University of California, Santa Cruz could use basic logic (If A=B and B=C then A=C).  In rankings of zoo animals’ popularity sea lions rank just behind llamas and ahead of rhinoceroses .  One poll respondent said “Sea lions are cute, friendly, playful, happy and loving sea creatures.”   

But their populations are fragile.  As numbers approached endangered species levels in the ‘60’s and ‘70’s, the US congress passed the Marine Mammal Population Protection Act in 1972.  That law according to the US Fish and Wildlife service, prohibits, with certain exceptions, the “take of marine mammals in U.S. waters and by U.S. citizens on the high seas…”    Why, then, is the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife now killing them?  It’s a long story.


In the 1920’s the US Congress appropriated funds for the Army Corps of Engineers to examine ways the Columbia River might be developed to benefit flood control, navigation, irrigation and electricity – an action which had been advocated over a decade earlier by President Theodore Roosevelt’s Inland Waterways Commission.   In 1932 the Corps submitted their “308 report” whose recommendations found their way into then candidate Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s campaign promises and reached their denouement with FDR’s speech dedicating the completed Bonneville Dam on September 28, 1937.  Consideration of ways to mitigate the dam’s impact on salmon migration was begun only after construction was well underway. Fish ladders and bypasses were thus retrofitted and subsequent improvements in the fish bypass system have resulted in gradual recovery of salmon runs after the dramatic decline of stocks caused by interrupting the river’s free flow.    But here’s the thing:  before keying in on these bypass routes many endangered salmon now congregate in the area just below the dam.


Like humans, sea lions have the capacity for culture – defined by some as the accumulation of  knowledge, belief, and behavior that depends on the ability to learn and then transmit knowledge to others and then to succeeding generations.  They share another human trait as well which makes the Oregon Fish and Wildlife service’s step towards specicide more understandable. Like Homo sapiens,  Zalophus californianus relishes salmon.  Eventually, a few sea lions venturing upstream in the Columbia discovered the salmon smorgasbord below the dam and, intelligent and generous creatures which they seem to be, spread the word among other members of their tribe:  “There’s an easy feast to be had just a short swim up the Columbia.”


It is no small irony that the president who started the ball rolling towards this dilemma was the same one who established the US Forest Service, the US Fish and Wildlife Service, The National Wildlife Refuge System, doubled the number of sites within the National Park system and is considered by many to be the “conservation president”.   And it is even a less small irony, it seems to me, that the same creature which built the dam to improve its quality of life is now planning to kill off another creature (whose existence it had also once threatened) because it is taking advantage of a situation the first creature has created!    


In spite of our good intentions we certainly have a way of muddling things up.  In the 1950’s scientists discovered that the blood of horseshoe crabs contained properties that can very efficiently detect bacterial contamination of biological preparations like vaccines.  Horseshoe crab populations, already under pressure as a source of bait in crab and lobster pots, fell dramatically as their blood was harvested for this purpose. Then birders noticed that the red knot – a shorebird famous for performing one of the longest migrations known – was in serious decline.  Why? It turns out that a series of critical refueling stations along the route make it possible for these five ounce feathered fluffballs to fly from the arctic to the antarctic and back every year.

One of the critical refueling stops? – the Chesapeake Bay horseshoe breeding grounds.   For millennia the ancient crustaceans have been depositing billions of high energy eggs on the bay’s mudflats and red knot migration has evolved to correspond exactly with the blessed events.  Better detection of human infection, fewer horseshoe crab eggs, more malnourished red knots arriving on arctic breeding grounds, fewer knot eggs, fewer knots.


Of course, sometimes our species’ behavior unwittingly has actually boosted wildlife populations.  Our eating habits have been very beneficial for Mus musculus, North America’s native house mouse.  The mice have returned the favor and enhanced our population a bit by becoming a critical part of many successful medical research projects.  We’ve also given quite a boost to Periplaneta americana, AKA the American cockroach !


Sometimes our relationship with other species gets really complicated. Since the 1940’s Lake Superior’s Isle Royale National Park  has been home to a population of moose and some wolves. Over the years, the moose population has oscillated between 2300 and 700 and the wolf population between  50 animals and 12 – the balance between predator and prey keeping the herbivores from destroying their finite food supply and providing a living laboratory for a variety of ecological studies reported in hundreds of papers in scientific journals. This was how “nature” was supposed to work.  Recently, however, at the nadir of one of the wolf population oscillations, a confluence of events – accidents, illnesses, inbreeding – has brought the wolf population down to two – a nine year old male and his seven year old daughter/half-sister – both now geriatric animals.  What’s to be done? The response on the part of biologists, National Park Officials, and The Ecological Research Institute – after considerable thought – has been to capture wolves from elsewhere and replenish the Isle Royale population. So much for keeping National Parks “natural”.


There is a longstanding conversation about whether or not we humans are a part of or separate from “nature ”.   Most modern religions and many political conservatives hold the view that man and nature are separate. The idea spans millennia from the Old Testament’s charge that man “subdue” the earth  “and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth” to an article in   Forbes magazine entitled, “In the Battle of Man vs. Nature, Give Me Man”, which urges that we “…… give a clear mandate to leaders who celebrate man’s exceptionalism, understanding that the incidental problems created as we harness technology to bend nature to our will can be solved using more technology.”   In contrast, many of today’s environmentalists hold to the view, summarized by one-time White House Press Secretary and journalist Bill Moyers that  “We need a powerful new story that we are a part of nature and not separate from it.”


Whether you consider man a part of nature or separate from it, whether we’re inadvertently making skunks homeless or advertently rebalancing a wilderness predator/prey ratio;  it’s pretty clear that we are an integral part of earth’s ecosystem. It is also clear that as our numbers increase geometrically, our impact on that ecosystem becomes disproportionately large.  Is this dominion, or, like a wolfless population on Isle Royale are we now in danger of despoiling our habitat, threatening our quality of life and even risking our own demise?


Fortunately, like sea lions and elephants, we are relatively intelligent. And, like those crows and parrots Jennifer Ackerman writes about in The Genius of Birds, , we are problem solvers.  So what’s to be done? Perhaps a place to start is revisiting the National Environmental Protection Act of 1970.  That Federal Statute requires that certain federal and non-federal projects require an analysis of their environmental impact. That may be a start, but the act has no approval or disapproval capacity nor does it establish a body to make such determinations.   It merely says the information needs to be collected and considered. And there seems to be a great deal of controversy about where the line is drawn defining which actions require an EIS and which do not.  While it would be quite a radical departure from the status quo and something not at all likely to happen in our current political climate, perhaps it is worth considering an agency more like the Food and Drug Administration which would either approve or disapprove projects of  large enough scope based on the project’s environmental pros and cons.


There would be lots of details to work out.  How would projects requiring approval be defined?  How would enforcement occur? Would there be an iterative process to identify the types of projects which should have fallen under the jurisdiction of the agency but did not, but turned out later to have important unexpected environmental impacts (like horseshoe crab phlebotomies).  Imperfect lines would surely have to be drawn., No matter what, I’m afraid,  such an agency could never go fishing with a project net fine enough to prevent a project that would result in a homeless skunk .

Going….going……… gone?


You’d think an apocalypse would rate more than a single appearance in the news cycle but the subject briefly came and went in the magazine section of the New York Times: “The Insect Apocalypse is Here”.  In it staff writer Brooke Jarvis reports on a growing number of recent studies documenting a dramatic decline in insects.   And then it struck me. Once upon a time a drive in the country would leave our car windshield with a bad case of bug juice acne.  In fact it wasn’t unusual to hear an occasional “splat” when a particularly juicy airborne arthropod crossed the road at the wrong time.  When was the last time that happened?


Apparently it was this kind of casual observation that piqued the curiosity of some members of a club of bug watchers* in Krefeld, Germany whose unique techniques and compulsive archiving had them systematically measuring the mass of insects in German nature preserves since 1989. https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0185809 Using standardized collection methods they were able to document an 80 percent decline in insect mass over 29 years. This quantitative analysis was entirely consistent with their casual observation that in 1989 a liter bottle was needed to hold the insects they collected at the site, while the most recent samplings required only a half liter bottle.  It also rang true for other observers who realized that now they ingested fewer bugs than they did several decades ago during bike rides through the Danish countryside.


The recognition of a tremendous decline in insect biomass puts into important context scores of previous carefully documented observations of the decline and extinction of  individual species and amplifies the significance of each. Instead of a large and growing number of soloists each singing their own woeful ballad we now have a huge orchestra and chorus singing and playing a single massive tragic symphony in a minor key.


The NYTimes magazine article strikes me as even more consequential than Rachel Carlson’s conservation milestone, Silent Spring.  Carlson called attention to the disappearance of iconic species at the top of the food chain – peregrine falcons,  eagles, ospreys – while the findings of the Krefeld group relate to species close to the bottom. The disappearance of birds of prey is an aesthetic tragedy.  Destruction of the opportunity of ever observing a falcon’s stoop or a fish hawk’s plunge is surely as great a loss for nature-lovers as destruction of Van Gogh’s Starry Night would be for aesthetes.  And the cultural damage from the loss of iconic species goes further – eroding the evocative choices of names for athletic teams (think Philadelphia Eagles), automobile brands (think Ford Falcon) and even military weapons (think the Marine helicopter V-22 Osprey).


But insects?  Hardly iconic, though they do grace the names of a few athletic teams (think Charlotte’s Hornets).  Unlike raptors, however, insects are a critical element in the earth’s entire ecosystem – pollinators of a great many of the plants that feed the herbivores (as well as us humans) and a major direct food source for legions of reptiles, amphibians, birds and freshwater fish.  


If the Krefeld study turns out to be the tip of an arthropodal iceberg –  if insect biomass worldwide is dramatically dwindling – three questions loom.  What is causing it? Does it matter? And, if it matters, what should we do about it?


Possible answers are already being tossed about to the first question:  loss of habitat to agricultural monocultures, widespread pesticide use, changing climate, a toxic mix of a variety of pollutants, some combination of all of the above.  Answers to the second question are no doubt divided for a variety of reasons. Among the “noes”: “Bugs are a nuisance – the fewer the better.” “I couldn’t care less – there are more important things, like my 401K, to worry about.” “I’m sure human ingenuity will find a way to replace any important function they are performing, if there are any.”  


Among the “yesses”: “I’m an alfalfa farmer and my income depends on pollinating insects.”  “No birds, no bats, no frogs or toads – life is going to be all plastic toys and video games.”  “OMG, of course it matters!! If crop and forage pollination depends on insects, what is going to happen to us??”


Once conventional wisdom finally reaches the conclusion that it matters, what next?  By then, there may well be more clarity about causation. But my money is on multiple whammies.


If I’m right and the decline is the result of climate change, widespread insecticide use, a multi-pollutant stew and habitat destruction from monocultural agriculture we are certainly between rocks and hard places or, if one prefers a more literary metaphor, we are faced with the choice of boiling, baking or ficasseeing our children before consuming them.  In fact, it is almost as hard to imagine sustaining our present life in a world with less land devoted to agriculture, free of pesticides and without massive fossil fuel consumption as it is to think of the absence of insects and all of the subsequent downstream effects.


One response to this Swiftian dilemma is acceptance of our fate.   This problem, like our individual mortality is unsolvable. Therefore make the best of the present moment.  


Another is acceptance’s close cousin, denial.  Perhaps even more tranquilizing than acceptance, with an identical outcome.  But if neither of those choices is appealing, where to start?


First don’t hunt for a silver bullet.  We got where we are as a result of uncountable small steps by many many people over many decades. Backtracking is going to be the same. And there is no shortage of where to start.  Decline bags when purchasing small items, reduce or end your use of garden pesticides, walk or bike on short trips instead of driving, work to elect enlightened representatives, join another environmental organization, set an example, talk it up etc. etc. and so forth. Meanwhile realize that  it is impossible to live one’s life in modern day America without contributing to the headlong rush to destruction in many ways, but by keeping the problem foremost in our minds and taking every opportunity to make one more tolerable favorable action after another we will end up taking two steps backwards – unwinding the problems we’ve caused – for every one we take on our present path towards an apocalypse which may well include a lot more than insects.


Given the importance of the Krefeld study, other confirmatory reports are certain to appear soon and capture a spot in the news cycle.   When that happens – and perhaps even before – we can expect professional pushback and disinformation from some predictable corporate players.,  Pesticide manufacturers, crop dusters, agribusiness, fossil fuel extractors, shippers and refiners and other deep pocketed likely suspects are no doubt already hard at work plotting their response.  And there surely will be a segment of the population ready to amplify it.


Recently at a neighborhood association discussion about doing away with two cycle gasoline powered leaf-blowers one community member asked.  “What on earth…… What on earth are we going to use to get rid of all those leaves? ” Hmmmm. Somehow only a generation or two ago we got along with a much more modest arsenal of ways to destabilize the entire earth’s balance.  Maybe we need to get out of the box we’ve been drawn into and reinvent things like a tool with multiple bamboo tines on the end of a long wooden handle that runs on muscle power.


             *If bird watchers now prefer to be called “birders” should we consider people interested in watching insects “buggers”?