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.

Spring Miracles

Early spring!  Winter’s bleak landscape is airbrushed with a haze of soft greens and reds.   Vital forces pulse from underground roots,  pushing leaves out of their winter hibernacula.  Birdsong cracks through months of silence and the air itself shimmers with new life.  To the outwardly-oriented, biophilic member of our species the spring’s miracles can be overwhelming.  Why have so many cultures  felt a need to embellish them?

Ancient Egyptians had their god, Osiris, murdered by his brother, Set, and his body carved into pieces. Osiris’ mourning wife collected and reassembled them (except for one vital member for which she had a golden prosthesis made!) and then miraculously brought her husband back to life long enough to have him use it to sire their son, Horus, after which Osiris redied – but only after regaining control of the seasons of growth and harvest.  The Phrygians had their god of vegetation, Attis, bleed to death after castrating himself (as a religious act) or, in a less gruesome version, killed by a boar, and then get resurrected as a sacred pine tree – an event celebrated by them each spring by an orgiastic festival.   Ancient Greeks had Persephone – sentenced to remain in the underworld each year for one month per pomegranate seed she had consumed while held hostage there by Hades, after which she could return to earth and bring spring to the land.  A Hopi story explains that winter is transformed into spring because a young girl sacrificed her beloved Kachina doll at the request of the great spirit who then resurrects the doll in the form of legions of bluebonnet flowers.  And for Judeo-Christians, the two key holidays – Passover and Easter- with their associated miracles just happen to fall right when spring is beginning.

Stories and metaphors like these compete with the real miracle for our attention.  Instead of reciting the tired stories of the Creator visiting ten plagues on the Egyptians and then parting the Red Sea, or arranging for His son’s execution and subsequent resurrection, why not enthrall us with a tale of how the earth was spun, top-like, on its tilted axis during the birth of our solar system.  Then delve into the details of how this miraculously results in increasing daylength and rising temperatures, resurrecting life in uncountable trillions of tree buds, triggering powerful hormonal changes in birds, sending great schools of fish northward and causing humans to arise from their winter torpor and go out into their gardens!  

Then again, some of our great poets can’t seem to get it straight either.  In the final stanza of “Sailing to Byzantium”, William Butler Yeats fantasizes about how he hopes to be resurrected:

Once out of nature I shall never take

My bodily form from any natural thing,

But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make

Of hammered gold and gold enamelling

To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;

Or set upon a golden bough to sing

To lords and ladies of Byzantium

Of what is past, or passing, or to come.

Translated, Yeats is saying that when he dies he wants to be resurrected as an artificial  bird rather than a living one.   It’s quite extraordinary – preferring to be recreated  (not reincarnated which, after all, means becoming flesh)  as a  piece of painted gold rather than something with the intricate workings of a living creature!  No humming mitochondria, no pumping heart, no oxygen molecules hitching and unhitching from hemoglobin, no hormonal surges, no genetic maps of migration routes – just a banged on painted-over piece of the most inert of metals.  Instead of soaring above the earth on summer thermals, probing nectar from sun-dappled flowers, plunging toward prey in a 200 mile per hour powerdive, Yeats wants to sing mechanically to some elites.

Granted, he pleads his case in hypnotically poetic language, but his case is not for me.   And to be fair, “Sailing to Byzantium” is a lament about the process of aging and death and he sees this golden artifice as something with more permanence than his “bodily form”.  But wouldn’t it have been sweeter if Yeats had used his poetic gifts to celebrate the way, when our physical selves die, our parts are recomposed into new life, so eloquently described by proponents of the Urban Death Project.

From what I understand, Yeats never visited the Harvard Museum of Natural History, but had he, he no doubt would have been enthralled by the Ware collection of glass flowers.  In it, glass replicas of  830 botanical species are visited yearly by over 200,000 people – each of whom is willing to ante up $12 to do so.  How many of those visitors, you might ask, would spend $12 and an equivalent amount of time looking closely at a far greater number of botanical species in the nearby Mount Auburn Cemetery?  And those living botanical miracles are orders of magnitude more intricately fashioned than the Blashkas’ glass replicas. Not only that,  one can touch them, watch insects pollinate them, observe how they grow day by day and even inhale their fragrance!

Who needs a golden phallus when you can have hummingbirds and bees!  They not only procreate but in addition fly!   And then not just fly but soar for months over the open ocean or travel twice a year between arctic and antarctic circles.  Having the Red Sea part so you can get to the other side pales in comparison.

But one can rightfully ask “what difference does it make?”  Why not let people believe what they want and be entertained in the process.  All that nature stuff is so commonplace.  Folks need something you don’t bump into every day.     But it does make a difference, and here’s why.

There was a sea of signs at the recent Climate March reminding us that “There is no Planet B”.  And while the estimates vary widely, most ecologists agree  that the current species extinction rate is manyfold greater than the historical baseline – observations which have led many to describe the present era as the sixth great extinction, a phenomenon carefully documented in Elizabeth Kolbert’s Pulitzer-winning book by the same name. Yet the health of a nation is still estimated by its economic growth, a decline of which is sure to doom any incumbent politician.  And unless the metrics are mightily rearranged, economic growth translates into more resource extraction, more asphalt, more concrete, more plastic bits in the ocean and more energy consumption.  If a way could be found to rechannel the energy and passion devoted to those old stories, if it could be redirected to worship  the real miracles bursting around us every day, the chances of turning things around would improve dramatically.  If clearcutting a stand of old growth trees for lumber or turning a rainforest into an oil palm plantation were condemnable as blasphemy with the same energy as was expended by those who railed against Andres Serrano’s controversial photographs, the chances of slowing the gradual impoverishment of life on earth would significantly improve.

Much of the Old Testament is devoted to rooting out “false gods” by either converting pagans or eradicating them.  I’m not advocating anything like that.  In fact, with a little reinterpretation and modernization some of those old stories are fine.  Adam and Eve’s punishment for eating of the Tree of Knowledge was expulsion from the garden of Eden. It is not a stretch to imagine that this actually means that  mankind’s hubristic overuse of technological innovation without consideration of downstream damage – think DDT, PCB’s, mercury, chlorofluorocarbons, neonicotinoids, Chernobyl, Fukushima, plastic miocrobeads etc etc. – will be punished by our own loss of the Edenestic qualities of our planet.

 

In the New Testament, the Easter story includes this extraordinary plea from a man dying on a cross.  “Forgive them Father, for they know not what they do.” Redirect those words to Mother Nature and we have a powerful and poetic description of the crucial challenges facing our modern world. 

Do Facts Merit a Taxonomy?

Tyco Brae’s instrument for measuring the angle between celestial objects.

There’s been a fair amount of discussion lately about alternate facts.  I don’t have anything to add to that conversation that hasn’t already been said, but it has gotten me thinking about another kind of fact – namely “scientific” ones.  Truth be told, that phrase always sets my teeth on edge.  Here’s why.

Is there something about a scientific fact that makes it, unlike other facts, require an adjective?  Does being a scientific fact make a fact more or less believable than some other kind?  

I suppose there are non-scientific facts.  If I awaken in the morning with a headache, that surely is a fact for me, though not really a scientific one. And the kind of facts historians work to document are not usually referred to as “scientific” ones – unless, of course, they are unearthed using some special techniques such as documentation of a past poisoning by chemical analysis of an exhumed body.  Then so and so’s death by poisoning would rise (or fall) to the level of scientific fact.

But a scientific fact is a fact, plain and simple.  Unfortunately I think that for many, calling a fact a scientific one describes a phenomenon or cause and effect relationship not immediately accessible to all.  It might be a truth uncovered with the help of some kind of complex sensing device that identifies things beyond our five senses – think electron microscope, pH meter, volt meter, x-ray telescope – things like that.  But there are other kinds.  Surely Gregor Mendel had no more fancy instruments than paper and a quill pen in his studies of pea genetics which revealed previously unrecognized ground-breaking facts.  All he did was make multiple systematic observations in his monastery’s garden, carefully record and organize them and think logically about what he had observed.

And then there are the kind of facts that emerge from varying specific conditions and observing the result.  An example that comes to mind is mixing  antibodies (the chemicals our bodies make to fight infection) with antigens (a substance – usually a protein – that is not one made by the same organism creating the antibodies).  If one begins to add antibodies to a solution of antigen nothing happens initially.  As more antibody is added a cloudy precipitate forms  as the  antibodies combine with the antigen and are no longer kept in solution,.  But if still more antigen is added the precipitate re-dissolves.  Discovering that kind of antigen-antibody binding relationship by systematically changing the mixing ratios was important in unravelling how immune systems work.

What these examples have in common is that they reveal realities not immediately apparent to the casual bystander.  Of course, when such findings appear for the first time on our intellectual radar they can cause trouble.  Unfortunately, as the sensing devices become more complex, the observations more numerous and the logic of interpreting them more involved it becomes easier to reject the findings either because they fly in the face of previously held beliefs or they inconveniently  threaten vested interests.

In his eagerly anticipated annual lab session on chemical energy my 11th grade science teacher held a match under a hydrogen-filled balloon. The shock wave from the resulting explosion nearly blew his glasses off.   The class applauded.  Mr. Kilgour had made his point. Science was cool!  A few weeks later he convened the class after dark one evening to watch the reflected light of Sputnik – the Soviet Union’s first-in-the-world satellite – as it orbited  Earth.  That clinched it.  I was going to be a physicist.

But college sophomore physics convinced me otherwise.  Courses in Quantum Mechanics and Probability, Statistics and Random Error separated sheep from goats and I was definitely a goat.  Struggling over those equations and laboring long into the night to solve the problems was humbling.  I could get through most eventually, but for some of my classmates it came quite naturally.  I passed, all right, though my colors were definitely at half mast and I did learn some important things.

For one, those courses were usually accompanied by hands-on lab exercises where one learned  how meticulously conditions had to be controlled to get consistent results.  Those labs also made clear that one could prove the correctness of an idea by performing an action which depended on it.  Like so many of his ideas, Galileo’s intuition that the gravitational force acting on an object was independent of the object’s mass was greeted with skepticism by many.  Today an introductory physics lab can easily demonstrate its veracity by dropping a feather and a lead ball in a glass tube from which all the air has been evacuated and watching them hit the bottom at precisely the same time.  The right action performed carefully under the right conditions turn a theory into a fact – one of many such facts that allowed mankind to walk on the moon and launch a rocket from earth to land a  motorized vehicle on the surface of Mars!

And one of the other things those science classes taught me was that science comes in many different flavors: be it combining or separating materials as in chemistry, measuring the way matter and energy interact as in physics, systematically observing life forms as in biology or combining these modalities as in biochemistry or physical chemistry.  And most rewarding of all is when different methods of seeking truth converge, as they did when Mendel’s observations of pea characteristics fell into place with Watson and Crick’s biochemical unravelling of DNA’s double helix and the two fit elegantly with Darwin’s observations of natural selection – creating a set of harmonies as beautiful as Bach’s “B Minor Mass” or, if you prefer, The Beatle’s “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”.

This convergence of different scientific disciplines on the same slice of reality from multiple different perspectives is what might be called “settled” science.  Sadly, a recent poll in England found that 35% of the population felt that scientific findings are adjusted to give the answers a researcher wants  and nearly as many think research is never, or only occasionally, checked by other scientists.  The wrongness of these beliefs is clear to anyone who has submitted an article to an established peer reviewed scientific journal.   The unblinking critique one gets back from the journal’s editors pointing out every possible weakness of the data and the conclusions drawn from them makes clear how very far off the mark those beliefs are! Similar survey information doesn’t seem to be available for the US but given our current political dialogue it is hard to believe the numbers would be any different.  And these are polls from countries with highly educated populations!

So let’s face it.  All facts are bits of verifiable truth, plain and simple. To describe something as a scientific fact is a redundancy.  It is a superfluity. It is a prolixitous pleonasm.  It is longwinded logorrhea!  It is like saying something is a cow cow or a chair chair to distinguish them some other kinds of cows or chairs.  

And what is most sinister, it frames the concept in a way which can imply a hierarchy of facts.  In fact (sic), it paves the way for that most oxymoronic of oxymorons – the alternative fact!

All things considered, then, I think it’s time to do away with subcategorizing facts.  Other beliefs or beliefs expressed as words might be called hunches,  suspicions, guesses, best judgements, feelings, impressions, conjectures, inklings, ideas, notions, intuitions, or instincts but let’s agree to let the word “fact” stand on its own.  Let’s keep it free of modifiers that create the dangerous impression that on any given subject there are a cluster of different kinds of facts from which one is free to choose a favorite out of which to construct one’s beliefs

 

Sights Sounds Smells and Scotoma

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A good movie draws me in. I soon forget I’m sitting in a large hall surrounded by strangers.  I forget I’m looking at a flat surface from which millions of tiny mirrors are reflecting back the colored light from a projector.  I grimace and laugh at the predicaments of the characters with whom I am identifying or I ooh and aah at the startlingly close scenes of iconic animals and their remarkable behavior.  When I go to an iMax theater the experience of an alternate reality is especially intense.

I occasionally get a visual scotoma https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scotoma.  When I do I notice a flickering arc of sparkles overlaying  part of my vision.  I can’t look at it directly; if I try, the shimmering rainbow moves so as to remain in the same part of my visual field, always a bit off to one side.   Closing one eye or the other makes no difference.

I know neither the movie nor the flickering rainbow is “real”.  If I reach out to touch the scotoma I feel nothing.  It is well established that the scotoma is originating not in my eyes or in the nerve fibers that transmit the series of blips from individual light receptors in my retina.  Instead it originates in the part of my brain where these digital sequences are being reassembled into a visual image and relayed to my consciousness.  Most of the time, I take for granted that  what I see is exactly what is out there, plain and simple.   But the scotoma makes me reconsider. Here is what I mean.

Right now I am looking at the surface of my desk:  brown wood with sheets of white paper here and there; a shiny metallic pencil sharpener, some pencils, my computer screen with its flashing cursor and below it some black shiny keys on which are printed white letters and numbers.  From past experience I know there is no arc of flashing lights on my desk but it certainly looks to me as though it is there on the surface now.  That part of my brain reconstructing those blips is temporarily malfunctioning.  It is creating its own version of what I am seeing.   Then I imagine that I am a dolphin.

If I were a dolphin, that scotoma might still be there – but this time it would be a stuttering arc superimposed over a somewhat different reality. That reality would almost certainly not be the product of visual inputs.  Rather it would be assembled from the rich series of blips coming back to my brain from my acutely sensitive acoustic machinery as it picked up the returning echoes of the clicks I was sending out.  Instead of a brown grain-patterned desk surface my dolphin brain would be reconstructing a medium hard, ever-so-slightly-rough flat surface, though the edges and general shape would still be that of the desk I am working at. The sheets of paper scattered about would be there but probably perceived as rectangles with a slightly smoother texture than the desktop itself.  That metal pencil sharpener would probably be very “bright” and the pink pencil eraser tip – soft echo-damping rubber that it is – would probably be just a smudge.  The white letters of my computer keyboard  would be indistinguishable, echo-wise, from each hard plastic computer key on which it is printed – unless, of course, they were embossed there as well.  

But there would be more to it. Depending on the strength of my clicks and the sensitivity of my receiving apparatus I might even perceive a second layer  of objects – the stuff in the top drawer beneath the  desktop.  By assembling a second fainter series of returning echoes which vibrated their way back and forth through the desktop and created a sound silhouette of the rulers, stapler, paper clips and cough drops I keep in the underlying drawer, my dolphin consciousness would be “seeing” – or rather “hearing”- through the desk surface much as we see through a window. Of course the distant scene my human self looks at through that completely echo-opaque pane of glass, to my dolphin self, would be invisible.

And then there are bats.  Probably the same deal as dolphins.  After all, they fly around at high speed in total darkness and zero in on thousands of mosquito-sized insects nightly.  And what about the moles chasing earthworms and grubs under our lawn. What does their underground landscape “look” like.  And how would my desktop and computer “appear” to the mole after it had snuffled all over my desk and sniffed its entire surface in order to “see” it.

Any observant dog owner knows that the sensory input of greatest meaning  to their pet is not the incoming photons reflected off the surface of things, or the sounds it is hearing but the molecular traces of organic compounds wafting in the rivers of air through which it runs.

Some years ago, my wife and I were walking along the edge of a pond near our house with Mocha, our sweet labrador retriever.   About ten yards ahead we watched a sinuous brown mink emerge from the pond, run humpy inch-worm style across the path and disappear on the other side – all well out Mocha’s line of sight since she’d fallen a bit behind – probably sniffing the water’s edge for dead frogs she could roll in.  Shortly, she came bounding forward at full speed to regain her traditional position as pack leader.  Then, running pell-mell ahead of us, mid stride she appeared to hit a brick wall.   Head buckling under her front legs she did a full somersault – right where the mink had crossed the path moments earlier.  Like the act of throwing up one’s hands in response to an object flying fast at one’s face, that scent had triggered a set of reflexes just as powerful in Mocha.  After taking a moment to get a sense of where she had ended up, she bounded into the brush over the precise path the mink had followed.  It certainly looked as if that scent had instantaneously constructed in Mocha’s mind a useful version of the reality surrounding us, and one, incidentally, of which we humans were entirely unaware.  

After I began thinking this way I found myself playing this mind game now and then. I wonder what Helen Keller’s mind-map “looked like” to her.  Was it  an exclusively tactile representation of her surroundings similar to the one the blind heroine of Anthony Doerr’s wonderful novel, All the Light We Cannot See https://www.nytimes.com/2014/05/11/books/review/all-the-light-we-cannot-see-by-anthony-doerr.html, gets from retracing with her finger the scale model of her town crafted by her father?

So let’s take this one step further.  Most of us are familiar with those eerie recordings of whale sounds.  The deep rumbles and songlike bleeps that carry long distances under water and are presumed to be whale communication.  In the past, when I’ve thought about this, I’ve imagined that what was going on was some sort of message or, if whales are as sophisticated as some believe, a kind of wordy symbolic language.  But if you are willing to imagine that a dolphin or a bat may be reconstructing a three dimensional landscape from returning echoes, what if those whales are actually sending out sounds from which the recipient whales’ brains immediately construct some sort of real-time landscape. Maybe the pitch and timbre of those deep booms paint a picture of the blue green seascape through which the whale is diving,  and those bleeps become, in the recipient whales consciousness, a school of soft tasty squid – the whole forming a virtual copy of the sending whale’s version of reality in the recipient’s consciousness.  Wouldn’t that be something!

It’s not beyond the realm of possibility, if you think about it.  If a series of blips from our retina can reconstruct a sweeping visual landscape, if a sequence of four base pairs can recreate an entire organism, if a series of zeros and ones can create in our headset a 360 degree visual “virtual reality” why can’t those booms and bleeps transmit a whole non-visual but equally “real” reality in a whale’s brain. Instead of trying to figure out what whales are “saying” to one another in words perhaps we should try to decode their communications into a wordless but perhaps even more meaningful representation of what is going on in the sending whale’s consciousness.

As I’ve reread the drafts of this piece, I’ve grown increasingly self-conscious of the number of times I’ve put words in quotes. Usually when I read something peppered with this kind of punctuation I find it offputting and wish the writer had just said what they meant.  But when I try – as I have – to avoid using quotes in this essay it weakens my intended meaning.  Words like “appear”, “visible”, “bright”, etc do not have full equivalences for mentally reconstructing a non-visually dominated world.   I am also becoming increasingly aware of how our sensory hierarchy shapes our language and how both shape our “view” of the world – points more deeply explored in David Lukas’s interesting book, Language Making Nature http://www.humansandnature.org/creating-language-that-re-connects-us-with-nature.

But back to the movies.  I do my best to avoid the ones with a typical formulaic series of tropes – couple find each other, fall in love, meet danger, undertake heroic and risky acts, save one another etc.  But sometimes I make mistakes and find myself bored and distracted.  That’s when my dolphin self takes over and I find myself looking at a huge blank monoechoic screen.  Then my attention lurches elsewhere.  All around me sit perfect strangers, many of them quite lovely.   The distracting thing is that their clothing transmits echoes very well.  At that point the details of the reality surrounding me becomes much more compelling than any Hollywood drama.

What’s in a Name?

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In Shakespeare’s classic romance, Juliet tells Romeo his being named Montague is unimportant:  “What’s in a name? That which we call a  rose by any other name would smell as sweet”.  Well, it would indeed.  But there is more to it.  Names can make a difference.

 

Several years ago, an unusual red-tailed hawk showed up in our neighborhood.  Almost pure white and technically a leucystic genetic strain, this bird was easy to spot and clearly distinguishable from any other hawk for miles around.  At the time, there weren’t any devoted birders in the neighborhood but the white hawk soon became a quasi-celebrity.  Some neighbors began calling him “Whitey”.  When he was not spotted for a few days people began inquiring about his whereabouts.  When he resurfaced word went around that he was back.

 

This is not a case like that of Pale Male, the first red-tailed hawk known to nest on a building in Manhattan.  That event led to a documentary and several children’s books.  Pale Male even made several appearances on the Late Show with Conan O’Brien http://(http://archive.boston.com/ae/movies/articles/2010/12/22/legend_doesnt_live_up_to_reality_of_pale_male/).  We live out in the country.  We have always had plenty of plain old red-tailed hawks in our area and no one cared.  But Whitey was an individual.  One with whom we became familiar, whom we recognized and came to know, about whom we cared enough to name.  Not just one of “them”.

Since 2004, Rhode Island’s Aquidneck Island – home of the Newport Jazz Festival, renowned America’s Cup races and exemplary mansions of the country’s Golden Age  – has been the site of a rigorous study of coyote-human interaction.  It has been sponsored by  a scientific, non-profit  organization dedicated to the conservation of natural biodiversity http://theconservationagency.org/narragansett-bay-coyote-study/.  One of the study’s goals has been to develop best management practices for human coexistence with coyotes.  Populations have been assessed, pack territories mapped, and many coyotes on the island have been outfitted with radio collars.  Recently one of the collared animals seemed to have lost his fear of humans and regularly  sauntered through populated areas in broad daylight.  Anticipating trouble with human/coyote interactions, the study’s lead scientist recommended that the by then familiar coyote, nicknamed Cliff by townsfolk, be killed.  

 

Unfortunately for the police chief issuing the order, but fortunately for Cliff, the animal had become something of a local celebrity.  Within days the police chief rescinded the order in response to an online petition of 25,000 signatures.  A crowdsourcing campaign rapidly raised $8,000 to pay for the trapping and relocation of Cliff.  A number of people commenting on the crowdsource cite urged rehabilitating Cliff instead of “imprisoning” him in a  zoo.   (https://www.gofundme.com/2qpxhyk)  All this is against the background that nearly every state in the country has a coyote hunting season and the state of Colorado actually offers a bounty for each coyote killed.

 

The story brings to mind the worldwide outrage following the killing of Cecil, the lion, shot by a dentist who’d paid $54,000 for the lion hunt.  More recently, Harambe, a male lowland gorilla was put to death while interacting with a toddler who had fallen into his zoo enclosure.  This event, too, sparked global outrage and within a matter of days garnered over 300,000 signatures demanding that the boy’s parents be held responsible for the gorilla’s death.

 

These incidents and many others like them exemplify the complexity of wild animals and humans in close contact and the contradictory nature of the relationship between Homo sapiens and other species.  As human habitation expands, wild habitat for other species shrinks.  As wild animals, especially iconic ones,  venture into people’s back yards biophilic bonds emerge, particularly if a particular animal changes from “one of them” to “he or she.”  Sharing food, then naming is  evidence of growing fondness and trust.  In the case of Cliff the coyote, tracking made possible by his radio collar showed him making the rounds to a number of houses on the island.  This certainly makes it looks as if he was being fed by certain households  in spite of a town ordinance, put forward by the same agency sponsoring the study, forbidding intentional feeding of coyotes..

 

Why do we care more about Cliff than we care about all the other coyotes being shot countrywide?  Does becoming an identifiable individual – even of another species – create an empathy bridge across the “us” and “them” barrier?  Does the same thing happen among different ethnic or cultural groups within our own species?  If biophilia merits a definition in some dictionaries as “an innate and genetically determined affinity of human beings with the natural world” does Cliff’s situation represent a subset of that phenomenon – let’s dub it  “idiophilia” –  a genetically determined affinity for identifiable and familiar individuals of another species.  And finally, are there lessons to be learned here?  Could conservation efforts make more use of this phenomenon by aggressively showcasing individual named members of endangered or persecuted species as ambassadors for the rest of their kind?

 

Life on earth is badly out of kilter.  The intricately interlocking branches of its ecosystem  – one which has taken billions of years to construct – are being drastically truncated at an unprecedented pace.   Its rich tapestry is now daily diminished and simplified as species wink out. (100 species per million species per year as opposed to a pre-human rate of 0.1 species per million species per year – bacteria and viruses not included.) (http://www.iflscience.com/plants-and-animals/current-extinction-rate-10-times-worse-previously-thought/)  The trend is unsustainable.  We need every trick in the book to turn it around. Perhaps individual named species’ ambassadors ought to be one of them.

 

Late this summer, a conventionally colored red-tail was seen following Whitey around, calling regularly.  Neighbors speculated that this was one of Whitey’s recently fledged offspring  being taught how to hunt by its parent.  Previously bird-neutral folks remarked with interest.  All because of a little quirk in the coding of one hawk’s DNA.  Perhaps with a little constructive genetic modification we could create more species’ ambassadors by making some individuals more easily identifiable as individuals.  Come to think of it maybe someday we’ll even be tweaking the genes of our own species to upgrade our level of idiophilia!

 

The Word “Nature” Just Doesn’t Do the Job

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Introductory Note

This essay was originally posted in early 2015.  It was subsequently removed from the blog while it was being submitted for publication.  It is being reposted here since the editors of the publication to which it was submitted were unable to find it space.

Lewis Lapham, Editor emeritus of Harper’s magazine, usually chooses single trenchant nouns (“Death”, “Eros”, “Intoxication”, etc.) as titles for his wonderfully eclectic periodical, Lapham’s Quarterly.  But he chose to call Volume 1 Number 3 The Book of Nature.  Why would an experienced editor add those extra words?

I  believe it is because the word “nature” alone is vague and vapid.  What if there were a single word for all perceptible colors and sound?  Even the sub-vocabulary devoted to nature is impoverished and, frankly, obfuscating.

The three section headings of The Book of Nature hint at the scope of the problem:  “Howling Wilderness”, “The Gardens of Earthly Delights” and “Terra Incognita”.  But there could have been more:  Mother Nature, Human Nature, Human as a Small Part of Nature, Nature as that which Does Not Need Humans, Nature as Opposed to Humanity, The World Without Us, The Universe Including Us, The Sound of Wind Blowing, Mountaintop Sun, Birthing and Dying.  The list goes on. When we say “nature” what are we talking about?

Much of the time, “nature” means that part of the world which occurs independent of man.   Federally designated Wilderness Areas are supposed to be big chunks of it. Grass growing in sidewalk cracks is a bit.  A typical summer thunderstorm certainly is.  A hyperhurricane fueled by global warming – well that’s a tough call.

And what about the fellow who shot the last wild passenger pigeon?  Was he destroying nature or just playing a part in it – just like that meteor which altered the planet’s climate and wiped out the dinosaurs.

Back in prehistory, when language was emerging and the human species consisted of a few thousand tribes teetering on the edge of extinction, it probably made some sense to draw a bright line between us and everything else.   Everything else there was and everything else that was happening. Nowadays of, course, unless you’re out in the middle of the Pacific Ocean (and. while you’re at it, steering clear of the pile of plastic in the North Pacific Gyre) or alone in the Amazon basin or the Siberian steppe, it’s pretty difficult to find a view or experience an event devoid of all human influence.  Walking in the New England woods you find yourself hopping over stone walls which, once upon a time, separated farmers’ fields; experience a near fatal accident and it’s much more likely to be an automobile straying over the center line than a pouncing carnivore.  And even the Great American Frontier explored by Lewis and Clark is being understood more and more as an environment significantly altered by the first Americans.

Nature as something entirely independent of humankind now comes in bits and pieces.  More and more it is a mercurial concept and not an actuality – unless, of course,  you include mankind as an integral part.  In that case nature is everywhere and everything – but then what is the stuff that is non-us?  What are the grand vistas, the silent soaring forests, the coral reefs, the migrating birds, the sparkling night sky?  As I said, the word lacks precision and the vocabulary around it is impoverished.

The problem is not trivial.  While Whorfianism – the old idea that thought was shaped by language – has been pretty well debunked, more recent thinking by philosopher Jerry Fodor in his book The Language of Thought, suggests that words function as a kind of mnemonic helping us formulate and call to mind memories of complex ideas.  So there is work to be done.

E.O.Wilson, the Pelligrino University Research Professor, Emeritus  in Entomology at Harvard, and a two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Non-Fiction has been hard at work on the problem for years.  In 1984 he introduced the concept of “biophilia” in his book by the same name.  Wilson defines biophilia as “the urge to affiliate with other forms of life”.  Maybe having that word isn’t entirely responsible for the idea of feeling close to other living things, but it does seem to highlight the fact that it’s a generalizable phenomenon.

Back when Lapham was still Editor in Chief of Harper’s Magazine an article by him appeared in the February 1990 edition.  It was called “What’s the Word For…..?”  In it Lapham, striving to introduce “….new words to make sense of new circumstances and relationships…..with the hope of filling the lacunae in today’s dictionary,”  asked “an assortment of English speakers – politicians, writers, actors, union organizers, musicians and miscellaneous wordsmiths – to identify those meanings they thought absent from the common lexicon…” and “….coin an appropriate neologism.”  Conspicuously absent from that assortment were any ecologists, conservationists or natural scientists.

To address this oversight  – and also just for the fun of it – here are some neologisms which might have appeared in that article had Latham not ignored those noble and underpaid professions.  Like all good neologisms, they may serve the purpose of expanding our thinking about or at least make it easier to recall certain aspects of nature:

Bewonderment – The feeling of awe and reverence in the face of a  non-human phenomenon such as the Grand Tetons or a wildebeest migration.

Extrospection – Moving ones consciousness outside oneself and one’s species to become part of the non-us.

Delerium terrers – The distress experienced by someone who craves natural beauty but has just spent the past five days working in an office cubicle.

Landscrape – A landscape following large scale mineral extraction.

Populution  – Problems created by an abundance of humans ignorant of the need to cherish the environment.

Infiniterror – The mistake of believing that a resource or non-human entity is limitless (think passenger pigeon or giant redwood or codfish)

Allospecexion – A technical term for sensing a connection with a member of a different, typically non-domesticated, species. May refer simply to the emotional impact  of a close physical encounter with a wild animal.  A subcategory of biophilia.

Domesticexion – A subcategory of allospecexion relating to a pet.

Knorght – An ugly or disgusting natural occurrence: maggots in the face of a decaying corpse, the odor of the giant flower of Amorphophallus titanum, the mucus layer of eels.

Williwild –  An encounter with nature-engendered fear:  being lost alone in the woods as night falls or adrift in a lifeboat as a storm approaches

Morzored – Killed or injured by a natural event:  attacked by a tiger, drowned.  May apply to inanimate objects: a town morzored by a landslide; a vehicle mozored by a falling tree branch.

Fulfillaction – The feeling – perhaps hypothetical – engendered in an organism when it is successfully performing an act for which it has specifically evolved in a hospitable and familiar environment:  The satisfaction experienced by a peregrine falcon as it strikes it’s prey after a 200 MPH dive over open ocean or by a human in a protected and comfortable space discovering a new use for a material. (Note – when an individual is morzored by a member of a different species, it often results in fulfillaction on the part of the individual who did the morzoring.)

Debeingation – Physical or spiritual destruction of a creature by a member of another species:  a gazelle killed and eaten by a leopard, an elephant forced to perform in a circus. Debeingation is often a result of being morzored.  (Physical destruction of a creature caused by another of the same species is called sacrifice or murder.  Spiritual destruction within the same species is called slavery.)

Hyperdebeingation – Destruction of one entire species by another.

Since originally posting this essay, I have come across a wonderful book by David Lukas called Language Making Nature.  This scholarly but eminently readable book explores the history of neologination and urgently advocates for the making of new words to enrich our perceptions and descriptions of nature.  In it, Lukas implores the reader to consider making new words a hobby – sending them out into the world in hopes that some will  “go viral” and eventually end up in common usage.  Whether one goes on to read Lukas’s book or not, I invite readers to let their imaginations soare and add some of their own wildewerds in the comments section.

Why Keep the Aliens Out ?

wordsworth-lonely-daffodils1-500x334       Caterpillar on dogwood

I have nothing against daffodils, really.  They did, after all, inspire Wordsworth to write one of the best-known poems in the English canon. He and the other 19th century Romantics reminded us of the tremendous spiritual potential of nature. We need that more than ever these days to inspire us to reverse all those unintended consequences of population growth and the industrial revolution.  And I know it’s risky to quibble with one of Romanticism’s best beloved poets.

 

The narcissi are lovely, I admit, and the fragrances  of some varieties put Chanel’s commercial concoctions to shame..  But all those daffodils popping up in suburban gardens as winter gives way to spring give me pause.

 

Like starlings, purple loosestrife, dandelions, English Sparrows, house mice and Norway rats, daffodils are aliens – one of so many species native to elsewhere and brought to this hemisphere by us either as stowaways or intentionally for one reason or another.  (The American Acclimatization Society brought  European Starlings and English Sparrows as part of a campaign to introduce all the birds mentioned by Shakespeare into the New World!  Fortunately the plan expired soon after it was hatched.)  Most alien birds and mammals thrive in man-made environments:  house eves, under bridges, near dumpsters.  Alien plants typically thrive because they have no natural “enemies” in their non-native habitat.  I put “enemies” in quotes because both the native species and the herbivorous critters that munch them are part of an ecological balancing act which keeps them both in check.  But the aliens exist outside the equipoise.

 

Chipmunks, squirrels and moles won’t molest a daffodil bulb. Deer leave the leaves alone.  In England there are narcissus flies both large (Merodon equestris) and small (Eumerus spp) but there are none in this country and daffodil flowers and foliage in the U.S. rarely look motheaten.   Alien species typically thrive in their non-native environment precisely because they are not part of an established ecosystem and have leapfrogged coevolving herbivorous critters designing digestive systems able to make use of their flesh.  Given tolerable growing conditions, aliens thrive unmolested – and their flowers and foliage look pristine.   That is great news for the gardener but it turns out to be pretty bad news for birds.

 

Douglas Tallamay, Professor & Chair of Entomology and Wildlife Ecology at the University of Delaware,  studies the biodiversity associated with alien versus native plants and finds that, typically, native plants support 29 times the biodiversity that aliens do.  That’s not 29 percent more.  That’s 29 times or 2900 percent more!  It makes sense once you think of it.  If you were a bug in an arms race with a plant that was gradually evolving chemical defenses to poison you (as is what happens in nature, after all) wouldn’t you in all likelihood gradually evolve biologic detoxifying systems to neutralize the poisons which that otherwise tasty native plant is producing?  

 

Of course you would, but that takes time – a lot more time than it takes to ship a bunch of plants from one continent to another.  So fine gardens end up being filled with a bunch of plants that “pests”  ignore.  But those “pests” just happen to be sustenance for lots of other species.   In his book, Bringing Nature Home: How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants, Tallamay notes that in the 16 days between hatching and fledging, a clutch of Carolina chickadees requires 9000 caterpillars from their parents. Studies of native oak trees have shown that they, on average, support 530 different species of caterpillars and butterflies.  Non-native ginko trees (Ginko biloba), on the other hand, support only three.  Ginko’s, of course, are just an example of the generic problem.  Kousa dogwood (Cornus kousa) supports no native herbivorous insects.   Our native flowering dogwood (Cornus florida), on the other hand supports 117 species of moths and butterflies.  If all there are in your neighborhood are blemish free ginko and kousa dogwood trees replacing all those tasty natives, where are the chickadees going to go to get enough supper for their chicks?   The fact is that a yard full of non-native species will be less biodiverse, its soundscape impoverished of birdsongs, and fewer butterflies will float around the weeding gardener.  Unfortunately, what isn’t there is easy to overlook.

 

In the spirit of full disclosure, I have to admit that I have daffodils popping up all over my yard.  And a while ago I planted a kousa dogwood.  But that was before I knew about Profesor Tallamay’s interesting findings.  Now when I go to a nursery, I at least ask the proprietor whether or not the plant I’m considering is a native – just like I ask my fishmonger about the origins of that good-looking salmon fillet.

 

So, with apologies to Mr. Wordsworth, may I suggest that had he lived in this country instead of England he might have begun his famous poem this way:

 

I wandered lonely as a cloud

That floats on high o’er oaks and pine,

When all  at once I saw a crowd,

A host. Of native columbine

Beside the lake, beneath the trees,

Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

 

Mogielnicki’s minnow ?

pasted image 0

 

Recently I received an appeal from the development office of one of the institutions of learning I’d attended. For $10,000 I could have a lecture hall seat named for me or someone I chose. It shouldn’t have surprised me. Think of all those dormitories, libraries, laboratories and sports stadia bearing the names of generous donors. In fact a large enough amount can even buy the name of a whole school. The UCLA Medical School became the David Geffen School of Medicine for a gift of $200,000,000 and Cornell Medical School became the Weil Cornell Medical College for the same amount. There are lots of other examples according to a recent NYTimes article by Danielle Ofri who ruminates that since medical students often say they learn most from their patients perhaps the schools and their various parts should be named for patients. An interesting idea. My mind peregrinated.

The present state of  biodiversity appears to be on the cusp of a sixth extinction – the rate of loss of existing species exceeding by orders of magnitude that of new species formation. According to those who study these things, anything approaching this scale of downsizing of life forms has occurred only five previous times in Earth’s history. Each of those episodes has apparently been triggered by a cataclysmic physical event –  a massive meteor strike, widespread volcanic eruptions, a comet collision – that sort of thing. This time the cause appears to be the unintended consequences of the doings of a clever hairless ape making life easier for itself.  So it appears that the burden is on him and her to find a way to turn things around. The problem is that almost any way one can imagine takes lots of money and lots of effort. Generating either will be a challenge but we have looked to the sages of academic institutions for guidance in the past.  Maybe now we should take a cue from their fund raising methods. (Perhaps you can you see where this is going…..)

There are already plenty of eponymous species’ common names and most of them commemorate a long dead 19th century naturalist who was the first to collect a skin and show it around among the naturalist establishment of the time. Think Swainson’s hawk, Dall’s sheep, Wilson’s plover and Thomson’s gazelle. A few names honor even less meritorious individuals. The common Anna’s hummingbird of the West Coast was named by its naturalist discoverer after the wife of an amateur ornithologist friend. (Could there be an interesting back story here?) And the name of the Minke whale seems to have originated as a jibe at a Norwegian whaler who mistook Minkes for the much larger blues. (Is it to honor this confusion that Norway continues to allow the killing of both Minke and blue whales?)

So here is a modest proposal. Change the common names of selected species – particularly endangered or threatened ones – to honor the individuals who have contributed in a major way for their welfare. How about the Carlson’s osprey and the Leopold’s cougar – the former to honor the ground-breaking work of Rachel Carlson showing the devastation DDT causes to bird reproduction and the latter that of Aldo Leopold for defining the critical role of predators in maintaining ecosystem stability. There are other obvious candidates: the Fossey gorilla, the Goodall chimpanzee, the Nielsen orangutan. And there are many less celebrated but equally accomplished individuals: let’s have the Rabinowitz jaguar for Alan Rabinowitz, founder and CEO of Panthera and let’s give Paul Watson due credit for founding Sea Shepherds and co-founding Greenpeace by bumping the bumbling whaler Minke and having instead the Watson’s whale.

Of course, there are many others who have spoken eloquently and effectively about the challenges of conservation and there are plenty of species to go around, but financial support is critical and here is where the conservation community may put the lessons learned from colleges, universities and prep schools to work. Let’s start renaming species to honor individuals who have contribute major financial support to their continued existence! It is, after all, economic forces which are pushing so many species to the brink. And in economic battles, money talks.  For a billion dollars (1/75th of his present worth) we could have the Gate’s tiger. That amount would go a long way towards rescuing the magnificent creature we now know as the Siberian tiger from extinction. For another billion (1/60th of his present net worth) we could have the Buffet leopard prowling the snows of the Himalayas. And for another billion, the grizzly could be renamed the Bezos bear.

To the uninitiated, this all may sound far-fetched and totally unachievable with overwhelming bureaucratic, cultural and behavioral obstacles. But there already is an ongoing process with plenty of examples of successful name changes accomplished by those stereotypically mild-mannered folks, the birdwatchers. Over the past decade the American Ornithological Union has changed the names of multiple species and gotten the changes into common usage. The once-upon-a-time slate colored junco was lumped with the Oregon Junco to become the dark eyed junco. What was once the whistling swan is now the tundra swan. What was once the rufous sided towhee has been split into the Eastern towhee and the spotted towhee. And a couple of birds have even gone from descriptive names to eponymous ones: the fork-tailed emerald is now Canavet’s emerald and the Arizona woodpecker is now Strickland’s woodpecker!

But the naming honor need not be restricted to conservation celebrities and the ultra wealthy. Less enormous contributions could be honored in smaller ways. For coming up with this fundraising idea the Devil’s River minnow could be named after…… me! There are plenty of other obscure endangered species whose nomenclature would be candidates for eponymization to honor modest contributions. And, returning to the institutions of higher learning that inspired this idea, if individual seats in a lecture hall can be had for smaller but significant contributions, one can even imagine the same happening for parts of iconic endangered animals. How about the left canine of the Bezos bear being the (your name here) tooth. Or that lovely fuzzy tail of the Buffet leopard being the (your name here) tail. Given the number of human anatomical eponyms ranging from the Adam’s apple to the zonules of Zinn the possibilities are endless!

Rethinking God’s Finger

 

sistine-chapel-ceiling-adam-and-god-michelangelo-the-creation-of-adam-genesis-god-art-poster-print-prynk-tattoo-1999423788Darwin's_finches_by_Gould

                                                    nasa black hole

Some  interesting things are going on out at the peripheries of the so-called sciences, the so-called humanities, and the so-called arts.  I say so-called because I think the distinctions, in many ways, lack a difference.  At least, that’s the way “they” should be conceptualized because considering them as separate creates an intellectual silo mentality, and a silo mentality restricts creativity.

 

Science is the process by which we seek a verifiable vision of the universe.  The humanities seek to understand humankind which, of course, is a part of the universe  – arising from the same creative force; presumably governed by the same set of laws.  And the arts  are individuals’ attempts to articulate a vision of some part of the universe. (By “universe” I mean the totality of reality – feelings, concepts, and abstractions as well as nuts, bolts and table legs.)  Art succeeds to the extent that it mirrors  the vision of the universe held by others.  As currently practiced, the methods used by the arts, the sciences and the humanities are different.  That is a large part of the problem.  But whether one  is walking, horseback riding, or sailing to Byzantium, the basic event is the same. One is questing Byzantium, whatever the mode of transportation.

 

But out at the edges the distinctions blur.  From the antiquities onward important geniuses have straddled disciplines.  One look at Da Vinci’s notebooks makes clear his identity as both artist and scientist.  Michelangelo was as much anatomist as sculptor.  And consider Herbert Melville and his masterpiece of whale biology and grand allegory.    

 

Lately, I’ve come across some fascinating modern examples of such hybrid vigor in the works of contemporary polymaths.   Missa Charles Darwin is a recent composition by Gregory Brown, written in liturgical polyphony and structured in the form of a traditional mass.   Music has long been a mainstay of religion – soaring melodies reverberating in the grand architecture of cathedrals, calls to prayer sung from minarets, gospel choirs – lyrics  relating ancient stories or prayers.  The text of Brown’s Missa, however, is mostly quotations from the writings of Charles Darwin. And the notes of the music actually follow the base sequences of segments of the DNA of one of Darwin’s finches! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s3IsKOXjcbk The result harmonizes magnificently with that part of us yearning for spirituality.   Such use of music to underscore the awesomeness and wonder of Darwin’s idea – to “religiousize it” if you will – succeeds so brilliantly that the comments following one of its performances on Youtube include a barrage of hate and fury from the religious right as heated as the conflict between the Sunnis and the Shiites. Despite this vitriol, however the music critic of the San Diego Story writes, after hearing the piece, “I have heard a surfeit of contemporary sacred music, and no composer has impressed me more than Gregory Brown. A smart publishing house should toss him a hefty retainer and sign him up to a very long contract.
And there are similar things happening on the other side of the supposed art/science divide.  A group of molecular biologists at Harvard, recognizing the beauty and complexity of their field, have collaborated with some very talented visual artists and animators to create a stunning video of the dynamic chemistry of a cell.  http://www.nytimes.com/2014/04/10/science/watch-proteins-do-the-jitterbug.html?hpw&rref=science&_r=0  The work is funded by a grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and, perhaps to satisfy the “scientific” bent of that granting agency, its stated purpose is pedagogical. There is no doubt in my mind, however, that it could hold its own very nicely against many of the installations at the New York Museum of Modern Art.  Clearly it merits matching funds from the National Endowment For the Arts, bringing to life for the non-scientist  the wonder and awesomeness of  the inner workings of……well….. life.  Equally awe-inspiring is an animated reconstruction of an event at the other end of the size spectrum – a spectacular star/black hole encounter. http://apod.nasa.gov/apod/ap151028.html Given the right frame of mind, NASA artists’ visualization of this event – usually “explained” in terms of the mind-bending language of quantum mechanics – rivals the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel for its power-driven beauty.  Not only that, but it has the advantage of being evidence-based!

And the scientific/literary interface is  yielding up some inspiring treasures as well.   Several years ago Alan Lightman – PhD. in Physics from Cal Tech and subsequently assistant professor of astronomy at Harvard – wrote Einstein’s Dreams a novel which became a runner-up for the 1994 L.L. Winship/PEN New England award.   Each chapter in this delightful little book features time behaving according to a set of laws different from the ones with which we are familiar.  As well as creating some thoroughly fascinating challenges for its lovable characters, the book manages  to imbue the reader with a much deeper grasp of the nature of this elusive entity.  

More recently, E.O. Wilson, after a distinguished career as a myrmecologist and evolutionary biologist, offered up a novel which made it to  number 35 on the NYTimes hardcover bestseller list.  Barbara Kingsolver, reviewing Anthill for the Times Book Section http://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/11/books/review/Kingsolver-t.html wrote: “Scientists hardly ever write novels. Fabricating imaginary people is not the domain of the scientific method, to put it mildly. Constructing a plot, lacing it with clues to lead the reader to a well-prepared conclusion, is heretical business for those trained to unprejudiced observation. But any who take the leap may use their worldliness to good advantage, smuggling gems of empirical knowledge across the literary border to create fiction with unusually rewarding heft.”   Yes, “smuggling gems” across disciplinary borders – we need more of that.

We need more of this merging of silos.  Not just “interdisciplinary” work but broadened truth-seeking, rather than narrowed. More synthesis, less reductionism.  More Renaissance minds, less specialization.   More Da Vinci and his notebooks  – defining him as neither an artist or a scientist.

The greatest stories ever told in Western civilization are Genesis,  Exodus, the biography of Christ and the Quran.  These artistic, humanistic efforts were, like modern day science, an attempt to explain the universe and humanity as they were thought of at the time. As great stories, they have had phenomenal staying power but they are rooted in an understanding of the world which is literally millennia out of date.  And the greatest music ever written echoes these stories in one form or another.

But reality as we have come to understand it since these great stories were originally told has the potential for even greater stories, the potential to inspire even greater respect for the Great Power that set it all in motion.  And there’s another dimension. Given how much we now know that we couldn’t begin to have imagined back when those first great stories were told, it makes considerable sense, as we look forward into the future, to forsake the hubris of certitude and realize that there is a great deal more miraculous stuff still out there beyond the horizon of our current knowledge.

Just imagine Moses living today instead of 3500 years ago and now being the privileged recipient of the story of earth’s creation. A modern Moses would be well-aware of the overwhelming evidence that the earth is four and a half billion years old, would have already studied the fossil record of humankind, and already seen the remarkable images of the universe posted on NASA’s Astronomy Picture of the Day website.  Talk about miracles!  Those stories are so much richer than the deus ex machina trope of Genesis.  In the hands of an E.L.Doctorow, James Michener or some other equally talented writer perhaps the Gideon Society would even begin leaving copies of the new version of Genesis in motel rooms!  And even that story will no doubt merit rewriting within a matter of decades.

 

Birds, Butter Cookies, and Night Blooming Cereus

color range

From Cool Green Science; smarter by nature By Joe Smith

Sometimes things just come together.  The other evening, as I was savoring one of my wife’s delicious butter cookies, a setting sun illuminated the west face of the hill to our east with a pink pastel wash.  At that moment Vermont Public Radio filled the air with the first notes of Ravel’s String Quartet in F major and, simultaneously, our night blooming cereus decided to open the blossom it had been working on for the past week or so, immersing me in its ambrosial scent.  Ecstasy!   Had it not been for the fact that my five senses were all aquiver, I would say that the experience almost knocked me senseless.

It got me thinking.  Each of those senses bring me but a sample of the reality which surrounds me. Chemical analyses of the air I inhale and the stuff I put in my mouth.  Mental reconstructions of the wavelengths of light bouncing off my surroundings.  Same thing for the vibrations in the atmosphere around me.  But mind you it is just a sampling.   There is so much more to it than that!

For example, I don’t see the ultraviolet that guides hummingbirds to nectar sources.  http://blog.nature.org/science/2015/08/17/field-guide-wrong-birds-eye-view-world-color-vision/ My infrared camera can tell where heat is escaping from around my windows but I can’t.  My friend’s dog’s nose can tell which way the woodcock that recently crossed in front of us was going when I don’t even know there is one in the vicinity.  http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/nature/dogs-sense-of-smell.html  And what about those fish that can sense electromagnetic fields radiating from prey buried in the mud?  http://www.pelagic.org/overview/articles/sixsense.html Just because we now know birds and dogs and fish have this expanded awareness doesn’t mean there isn’t even a lot more going on that we don’t have a hint of.

Before going any further, let’s recognize that the word “reality” has its problems.  For most of us, “reality” is the way we reconstruct our surrounding environment from the data gathered directly but there are some inadequacies in that concept. We know now that there are some very “real” qualities in the world around us that escape us entirely.  We know they exist only through indirect evidence.  Radio waves and x-rays are in the same boat.  To a red-green colorblind person, so are those colors.  So from now on, in an attempt to disambiguate, I am going to use “reality” to mean the world as we perceive it directly through our senses and the phrase “all of creation” to mean all of the qualities of our surroundings – our full context –  whether or not our senses sample them.

While I was eating that cookie, and experiencing all that other wonderful stuff, my mind wasn’t really focused on the cookie,the hillside, the music or the scent.  It was immersed in the whole integrated experience.  And that’s the way things go most of the time.

When I fell a tree, its crashing to the ground has both a visual and an auditory component which I experience as a single event.   The experience of a nearby lightening strike when the flash and boom are simultaneous is forceful and immediate and visceral. When I regain my wits I have an impressive concept of a lightning bolt.   Our senses are sampling the image of the tree falling and the sound of the crash: they register the photons released by the electrical discharge and the atmospheric tsunami of the air around the bolt.  Suppose we were endowed with those electrosensing organs that are believed to exist in sharks.  Wouldn’t  we have an even more intense understanding and appreciation of a lightning strike?

Some years ago we raised a few beef for our own consumption. They had their priorities.  Food.  Tender green shoots if possible. Hay was satisfactory. Molasses-laced grain was heaven.  When they weren’t resting, their noses were buried in the field unless they heard the grain bucket rattle.  Then they came on the run.  Their world was defined by the pasture’s fence but that didn’t matter as long as there was enough grass and a bit of grain now and then.

Getting to know those cows and thinking about their lives raises some provocative questions.  Might our own lives be similarly constrained, though on a larger scale?  After all, cows and we are both on the same evolutionary tree – way out on the branch labelled “mammals” though on slightly different twigs.  Their survival pressures got them horns, lots of muscle and the ability to meet their nutritional needs with grass.  Ours got us this big brain and some pretty complicated connections within it.  (There probably is a lot more to it than that for us children of Adam and Eve but that’s a matter for another essay.)  For now, let’s just imagine that our world view, though a good deal richer than those cows’, also has its limits, cutting us off from what is actually out there with as grand a chasm as the one that exists between their grain bucket and my listening to a Ravel quartet.  What if those limits didn’t exist?

Imagine our current senses expanded in range so we could hear the rumblings of the subsonic vocalizations of elephants and  the superhigh squeaks of bats.  Toss in an ability to see well out on both the ultraviolet and infrared light spectra.  Now add in those non-human senses found in other creatures – electromagnetism in sharks, remote vibrations in other fish. Let your imagination really run wild – Dr Seuss style.  Imagine us with the ability to sense weakness in tilting structures (“swooerp”), tension in a bent tectonic plate(“vroing”), the moods of others (“sympativity”) – that kind of thing.   Suppose when we entered a room we could perceive the intensity of the social connectedness between the people present (“cadbuster”). Imagine a couple entering a crowded room and one of them perceiving a powerful connection between her apparently faithful spouse and another woman that neither supposedly knew?  And finally, give us  the mental integrating power to resolve all that into a single awareness of the creation we presently inhabit.

Why bother with this odd exercise?  Well, first off, who can argue with the idea of appreciating how much more miraculous all of creation is than what our current restricted senses can take in and our mind can reconstruct?  More importantly, complicated issues written off with glib explanations can cause a heap of trouble.  Charles Darwin, in his introduction to The Descent of Man, cautions thatIgnorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge.”   Those early Mayans, confident that droughts were the result of angry gods demanding sacrifices, caused a lot of suffering. The conviction that dying as a martyr in jihad guarantees an afterlife enriched by scores of devoted virgins has wreaked plenty of havoc.   And clearly, believing that everything will be fine if we just put our faith in the invisible hand of the marketplace has caused its share of suffering too.  Though humbling, sometimes it is much preferable to admit one’s profound ignorance than to act confidently on the basis of flawed superficial beliefs.  For me, it is just as misguided to be confident that the bible or the quran is God’s truth as it is to be confident that everything – even our sense of self – can be explained by the current laws of physics and chemistry.

The creation we inhabit is incredibly rich; no doubt far richer than we can ever imagine.  Through painstaking observation, unforgiving peer review and many corrections along the way the scientific method has helped us delve a bit deeper into understanding our universe and our place in it.   But I suspect we have only scratched the surface.  Newton’s and Einstein’s laws are pretty amazing but I bet there are many – perhaps even an infinite number – of others waiting to be discovered.  And some may even be undiscoverable but operative nonetheless!

Direct experiences, like those butter cookies or the scent of a night blooming cereus are one thing. Why we are here, how we should live and what happens to us after we are no longer, well those are tough ones.  No doubt the possibilities exceed our imaginations.

Give Me That New Age Religion

reverend-billy-and-earth

Reverend Billy preaching the Gospel in the Church of Stop Shopping

Every once in a while, a well-scrubbed pair of young people in dark suits exit their car in front of my house and head for the door, Bibles tucked under arms, cheerful smiles radiating from their innocent faces.  It’s a signal for me to be really quiet and pretend there is no one home.

The media are abuzz these days with polling data showing a longstanding decline in American religiosity.  Nearly every Christian sect as well as religious Judaism has been steadily losing adherents for years while poll categories of “no religious affiliation,” atheist, agnostic and “undeclared” are growing.  What is going on?

Surely the well-publicized miseries wrought by religious fanaticism are a big factor.   The pedophilic scandals of the Catholic Church and the widely publicized peccadillos of a few charismatic Christian evangelicals have also no doubt played a role, but I suspect that a large part of the problem (if one can call it that) goes deeper.

Mainstream religions, it seems to me, share two main features: a good story and socially useful dogma.  In Judaism the story involves the creation of Earth and mankind, the downstream tribulations of a semitic tribe and the evolution of the tribe’s special personal relationship with God, a collective loyalty to whom is a prerequisite for successful warfare with other tribes. Christianity builds on this story with a mystical virgin birth, a life centered around love and forgiveness, a martyred death and a miraculous resurrection bundled together with promises of a blissful hereafter.

The dogma of Judaism involves behavioral edicts particularly well adapted to a nomadic desert people emerging from the fog of prehistory.  A clear set of basic behavioral laws (which, perhaps for mnemonic purposes, just happen to fit on the fingers of two hands) set out ways to minimize intratribal conflict and promote tribal cohesion:  don’t take your neighbor’s stuff,  leave your neighbor’s wife alone, etc.  The dogma of Christianity, coming later to lubricate emerging urban life with more far-reaching behavioral guidance, adds generosity, charity and forgiveness to the basics of the Big Ten.

The overlooked backdrop of both of these grand pragmatic codes of conduct is the fact that they developed during eras when mankind was essentially irrelevant to the successful ongoing function of the Edenic home planet.  Yes, organized agriculture had spread beyond the fertile crescent by the Common Era but the harnessing of millennia of solar power stored in fossil beds and the extraction of vast amounts of raw materials had not yet resulted in the agricultural domination of most of the earth’s arable land and the rearrangement of its geography and atmospheric balance.  And the onslaught of a sixth extinction was still far in the future as what are now considered the world’s major religions were establishing themselves in the minds of man.

The stories which breathed life into those codes of conduct reflected reality as it was perceived at the time:  asses and goats, tents and spears, slings and arrows, shepherds and stables, slayings with swords, crucifixions and duplicity, deserts and lots of wilderness – you could even see the stars in the night sky back then! They were magnificent stories and functioned exceedingly well as vehicles for the dogmas needed for human society, as it was structured at the time, to thrive.  Twenty-one centuries later, however, as the Hubble telescope brings us images of the edge of the cosmos, electron microscopes make visible things at the molecular level and magnetic resonance imaging lets us introspect in ways not dreamt of even a few decades ago, reality, as we now can appreciate it, has quite suddenly become orders of magnitude richer.  At the same time, and perhaps for similar reasons, our species has become orders of magnitude more powerful.  As part of the same process by which our societal structures have made it possible for our clever brains to figure out how to get things done, we find ourselves to be quite literally Masters of the Earth.  Suddenly the fate of the very space we inhabit is in our hands.   It is time for religion to catch up.  We need new stories and new dogmas.

I am not a big fan of David Brooks.  Perhaps it’s because, like me, he considers himself an authority on all things profound and important, and we usually come down on opposite sides of issues.  Nevertheless, a few days ago he and I seemed to inhabit the same page.

Brooks was talking about spirituality and referencing a book by Columbia University Professor of Psychology and Education Lisa Miller called The Spiritual Child.  Miller discusses evidence showing that spirituality is in part genetic and that the higher power that defines this sense may take the form of God, nature, spirit, or less well-defined universalism.(italics mine) Brooks faults Miller for her failure to “……pay sufficient attention to the many secular, this-world ways people find to organize their lives”  – by which I think he means different religions, philosophies and ideologies – but he ends up admitting that  “…..it does seem true that most children are born with a natural sense of the spiritual…… They have a natural sense of the oneness of creation. If they find a dead squirrel on the playground, they understand there is something sacred there, and they will most likely give it a respectful burial……”  I think Brooks is right on there, and I would take it one step further.

Back when those old time religions were evolving, they capitalized upon this instinctive awareness of a larger power to help organize human society and minimize threats to its integrity while couching the dogma in stories suited to the perceived realities of the times.  Today, since our understanding of reality is leagues greater than it was then, they have lost their punch. Mundane miracles like Red Sea waters parting (for which there are several very plausible physical explanations) or virgin births (some birds and bees do it after all) inspire less awe.  One need only watch James Gorman’s NYTimes Science Take videos or check out the molecular animations  on XVIVO to sample the high level miraculousness of our modern worldview.  So our current, enormously enriched reality requires new stories, but that’s not all.

That enhanced understanding has resulted in our species now having incredibly more power.    So much power, in fact, that our physical world has been transformed from the day when those old stories and dogmas originated.  God above now looking down at Earth from His seat in the heavens sees the urban centers of His planet ablaze in electric light at night and during the day watches its glaciers shrink, its rainforests transformed into plantations and its rivers redirected – all of this with precious little thought given to where this is leading by all but a few of those flawed folk he created in His image.

But thank God for those few voices crying in the wilderness and calling our attention to where it does seem to be leading, namely a hostile environment with drastically changed climate, flooded coastlines and a flora and fauna impoverished by overexploitation and habitat destruction.  Not a pretty picture, I would say, and one begging for new religious dogma to set things straight  and new stories added to the old ones to empower the dogma.

The dogma part is easy.  How about adding ten more commandments to the previous ones?

  1. Thou shalt not squander thy natural resources – leave what remains of the coal and oil in the ground, develop renewables, turn off unneeded lights, do not let thy parked car idle, conserve water, etc.
  2. Thou shalt honor the earth which, after all, sustains you – even though it is difficult to notice when your meat and vegetables are lined up neatly on supermarket shelves.
  3. Respect every living creature and recognize that it requires a suitable habitat and probably plays a role in the balance of nature and can offer you benefits about which you are completely ignorant.
  4. Do not flush pills or other toxic stuff down the toilet – remember that it eventually ends up in our rivers and oceans.
  5. Lobby hard to give the Environmental Protection Agency more power.
  6. Demand proper enforcement of the Endangered Species Act and work to strengthen it.
  7. Recycle.
  8. Limit family size.
  9. Eat less meat and fish.
  10. Do unto the rest of the earth as you would do to your own back yard.

The stories needed are, well, another story. We’ve got some of the parts, but there’s more work to be done.  The romantic poets – Coleridge, Wordsworth and Whitman in particular – gave us some ideas and a vocabulary.  Henry David Thoreau set the scene with Walden. Aldo Leopold added some lyrical prose with A Sand County Almanac.  Rachel Carlson opened more eyes with A Silent Spring and The Sea Around Us.  Edward Abbey jazzed things up a bit with The Monkey Wrench Gang and Desert Solitaire.   Al Gore wrote a Book of Revelation with An Inconvenient Truth.  And the likes of John McPhee, Bill McKibben, Carl Safina, E.O. Wilson and many many other fine writers labor away today, hoping that the pen is mightier than the oil rig and adding their contributions to the canon.  My sense is, however, that these separate chapters and verses now need a larger than life hero or heroine – a Moses, a Jesus, a Buddha, a Mohammad – in short, I guess, a Messiah or a Gaia preaching biophilia or even Reverend Billy and his Church of Stop Shopping – to breath life into the stories, galvanize the believers and send the disciples out to convert the masses.

No small task, really, but a much needed one and the time may be about right.  Now, when that gas-sipping hybrid pulls up in front of my house and a couple of young people wearing old backpacks and hand-me-down blue jeans head for my door with copies of Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything under their arms, I plan to put some water on the wood stove for tea, break out the granola bars and invite them in to hear what they have to say.