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and nearly all the cellarless small cottages built up on piers so plumbing could be drained from beneath each fall have been replaced by substantial “summer homes”.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 refuelling 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  modern advice like that in Forbes magazine that we should  “…… 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 yet subsequently had 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 .

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On Filleting a Fish

 

 

 

Fair warning:  People for whom I have great respect have suggested that this essay is better suited to a sporting magazine than Cereflections.  But it has been over a year since anything new has shown up on the blog. Call it a dry spell, writer’s block, or sloth; the spell needs breaking and this effort aligns with a basic belief that there is much to be gained from thinking below the surface of mundane activities.

Apology – In this essay, the word “fisherman” is not intended to be sexist.  There are plenty of women who love to fish and are excellent at it. “Fishermen” is used in a purely gender-neutral sense rather than fishermenandwomen” or “fisherpeople” simply out of convention.  It is intended to mean all people who fish.

 

You can learn a lot filleting a fish.   Yesterday a flock of raucous gulls telegraphed the arrival of a school of Morone saxatilis and one member mistook a blue and white plastic surface plug for breakfast.  You’d think she would have known better. Based on her thirty inch length she had run this gauntlet at least ten times before and should have come to recognize the vast majority of lures dragged across her path by fishermen as she moved north in the spring and south in the fall along the rocky glaciated shores between the Chesapeake Bay and Labrador.

A fish can be either skinned or scaled.  The latter occurs before any cuts are made and takes advantage of the fact that scales are carefully arranged to overlap like shingles, with the unattached edge pointing tailwards.  This makes sense aquadynamically for the fish and lets the scaler, while securing the fish with one hand, draw the back of a stiff knife headwards, popping off a snowstorm of scales along the way.  

These snowflakes look like simple miniature shingles until the fish slips out of the butcher’s hand leaving it covered with a handful of slippery slime. The first reaction is often “yuck” but on second thought it raises a couple of questions.  Where does that mucus covering the scales come from? Does it do anything besides annoy the fisherman?

It turns out that each scale is not an inert slab but rather a flat piece of fingernail-like material sandwiched between very thin layers of living skin which is loaded with the same kind of tissue which produce slippery surfaces in………us……. lining the insides of our mouths, our GI tracts and the other slippery slidey parts of our anatomies.  That mucus covering of fish is created in situ  from the surface of each scale.

And it serves many purposes.  A slippery fish arrows through the water with less friction than an unslippery one, expending less energy getting from here to there.  Also, It turns out that there are lots of tiny things swimming around in most fish’s environments aiming to settle on a fish and do all sorts of damage.   But since the mucus layer of a fish is constantly being washed off and replaced as the fish swims along, many of those would-be pathogens and parasites trying to hitch a ride are simply sloughed off along with the surface layer before they can wreak any havoc.  And on top of that, chemical analysis of the mucus reveals a protective soup of antibodies and natural antibiotics! With luck, before many species are driven to extinction by ocean warming, we’ll be extracting powerful new weapons against human pathogens from fish mucus!

One can think of “fish” in one of two ways.  Either it’s that delicious and presumably healthful thing on our plate or it’s that whole creature driving bait to the surface, dangling at the end of a fishing line or swimming around in an aquarium.  And if you think about that whole fish’s parts, they include a tail, some fins, a head, some innards and the rest – and it’s “the rest” which ends up on your plate in the form of fillets.

Except for an occasional annoying fishbone,  those fillets are pure muscle. In the majority of fish,  fillets are mostly white but there is often a bit of darker muscle too. The darker red muscles are used for constant, relatively unenergetic exercise like holding position in stiller water.  The white muscle is specialized for strenuous activity that require lots of energy fast. That bass launched at the lure from some fast-moving chaotic surf and wasn’t kidding when she came out of the water and hit the lure with force: all that white muscle in action.

As many cartoons involving garbage illustrate, a fish skeleton involves a central backbone with backwards-slanted fishbones protruding in a single plane from its vertebrae.   The filleter’s job is to separate the muscle cleanly from those bones using a sort of sharp knife – “sort of” because razor sharpness risks slicing through the bones, leaving them in the fillet, while a dull knife makes the job exceedingly difficult and risks wasting large amounts of flesh.  

The process starts at the uppermost part of the fish and involves running the knife edge between the bones and their attached muscle while lifting up the separating flesh.  This process, done well, makes two things about fish anatomy clear. Each fillet, if it is peeled off those slanted fishbones, can be seen to be a series of parallel segments, and each of those segments is devoted to one of those slanted fishbones.  So when that fish blasted through the surf towards what it thought was breakfast those high speed white muscle segments were contracting in a carefully orchestrated fashion to create a powerful back and forth undulation propelling the fish lureward.

Once the fillets are off it becomes clear that for striped bass, the head occupies about a third of the animal.  If we were built like that our chins would be just above our navels. But on closer look (at the fish) that comparison is not bad because the head really extends backwards to include the gills, and the gills, after all, are the fish’s lungs – and our lungs would be in our heads if our chins were down around our navels!   The similarity doesn’t stop there because right between their two gills, tucked under the nape of the fish’s neck (if there is such a thing) is the fish’s heart – like ours – located between the two structures that extract oxygen from whichever medium the fish or we have evolved to survive in.

Under the gill covers – those flat hard semicircles at the back end of a fish’s head – lie parallel rows of hundreds of delicate red finger-like projections.  Looking into the fish’s mouth makes it clear that between each row of these gills is a linear gap through which water can pass as the fish moves forward.

Predatory fish typically pursue their prey by lunging through the water, mouth open like the leading edge of a fishing trawler’s net.  What rushes in is split into two parts. Water and the small particles suspended in it are sent out over the gills to be drained of its dissolved oxygen in the process.  Before entering the gills, however, it must pass through a set of coarse boney fingers called gill rakers which deflect larger material down its gullet: a nice arrangement if you are hoping to catch your dinner while charging through the water with your mouth open.  In fact, you never have to stop eating to breathe!

But once you crawl up on land and don’t catch your food by rushing around with your mouth open, a lengthy commonality between food and air passageways is nothing but an accident waiting to happen.  Nonetheless, in most mammals the route food takes as we eat shares, for several inches, the route air takes as we breath. Considering the number of “cafe coronaries” (adult sudden death from food suddenly lodged in the airway), and the number of childhood choking fatalities (an incidence of 0.66/100,000) one wonders why the slow grind of evolution hasn’t fixed that Darwinian handicap.  

Seagoing mammals with blowholes, however, are way ahead of us.  In whales and dolphins, the airway is completely separated from the esophagus; no deaths from choking for them.  So maybe all that speculation about their brains also being more advanced than ours isn’t so far off. Of course, there is a tradeoff – cetaceans are unable to breath through their mouths.  But whoever heard of a whale with a stuffy nose?

But back to the task at hand.  Most good fishermen after they have filletted their catch, take a look at what it had been eating.  Tucked along the fish’s belly right behind its chin is a cavity containing the animal’s visceral organs  – among them its liver, gonads, and digestive tract. The stomach is easily identified as a muscular pouch which often is bulging with the creature’s last meal.  Opening it can be revealing. Sometimes its emptiness gives a hint that the creature was hungry enough to take a chance on an iffy looking meal. But since striped bass are notoriously unpicky eaters their stomach contents are often more interesting.   Sadly, an occasional plastic straw or tampon applicator comes tumbling out but more typically the stomach contains all sorts of prey fish like menhaden, silversides and herring, as well as crabs, shrimp, mussels, baby lobsters and squid. The more curious fishermen take a closer look and make sure their next lure bears some resemblance to what the fish have been feeding on that day.

Tucked neatly into the same cavity as the fish’s stomach are its gonads.  Since female bass are larger than males of the same age, most keepers are female and the one that fell for that blue and white piece of plastic was no exception.  Just inside her belly two glistening golden, structures bulged with next springs eggs. Most fishermen feel a twinge of remorse on looking at all these future trophies – leading many to advocate for what is called a “split” size limit – restricting keeper bass to those between, say, 24 and 30 inches.   This would allow more wise old “cows” to lay their huge clutches of millions upon millions of eggs, making for more young fish per clutch and possibly selecting for more challenging ones.

Striped bass prefer rocky shorelines and one of the commonest places to clean a fish is right on the shore  using a boulder as a work table. By the time the task is wrapping up the fisherman has typically attracted an audience of those same gulls which had earlier telegraphed the fish’s presence.  Now, as if expecting payoff for their betrayal, they eye the process hopefully. In the event of carelessness on the part of the butcher – a trip to the water’s edge to rinse hands for example – they are not above pulling a double cross and lifting a fillet or two from the pan in which they lay.  More experienced butchers know better than to turn their backs, however, and may even disappoint the audience by taking everything that remains home for stock. A more common finale, though, is to send the fish’s head back into the sea for the crabs to dine on and toss toss chunks of viscera to the waiting avian audience, underscoring the fact that we humans are just one more step in a great ecological loop.              

 

A Wild September Ramble

Today is the kind of early September day that makes me want to swallow the earth, imbibe all of its fragile enormity, fall down on my knees before its dazzling beauty and worship it with all the passionate zeal my amygdala can muster – accepting with humility the eucharist of this glorious blue globe.  Today is the kind of day when my heart sparkles with the crystal clarity of the sky and ocean.  Today I want to join those murmurations of tree swallows flowing in liquid synchrony, their morphing river an unvirtual kaleidoscopic screensaver against a cerulean sky as they scour the feastladen air for tiny fellow fliers whose bits of energy will fuel the trip to the swallows’ winter home.This morning is the kind of morning whose light makes the air itself a visible, tangible thing and reveals the fact that all that holds this essential life-sustaining aura against the earth and keeps it from flying off into the darkness of space is gravity!

 

Today is the kind of day that makes me look at the migrating monarchs with respectful awe, imagining the miracle of their silent flight, fueled by sips of flower juice and taking them, pollutionless, from here to the mountains of Mexico – all in vivid contrast to the growling steel fabrications that carry us to Walmart while spewing streams of stuff to soil our personal space.  Today is the kind of day where thousands of sunshards ricochet off perfectly angled wavelets and put to shame the bejeweled artifices of all history’s emperors combined.  Today is the kind of day that  makes me think, as the sea levitates in response to the pull of the rising moon, that you and the moon and the sea and I are all made of the same stuff and that the same force deforming our globe and lifting entire oceans of seawater moonward pulls on us.   The force and the idea both stretch my mind, lift my spirits.

 

For anyone who cares to listen, the whole of it plays like a great symphony – individual beauties blending in magnificent harmonies  The music swells, expands, explodes like a grand fireworks show, then ebbs to a fragile poignant thread.  Aldo Leopold heard it.  So did Rachel Carlson.

 

Paradoxically though, just as my spirit swells,  I grow brutally aware of my personal insignificance – spatially, temporally and intellectually.   Somewhere between the inner workings of subatomic particles and the edges of the outer ripples of the big bang – somewhere between that first unimaginable flash of the beginning of what we know and the end of everything – my MEness comes and goes as a far-thinner-than-a razor’s edge scintilla. Stephen Crane expressed a similar feeling:

 

” A man said to the universe:
“Sir, I exist!”
“However,” replied the universe,
“The fact has not created in me
A sense of obligation.”

 

Are the two viewpoints reconcilable?  I think so. The crucial word in Crane’s poem is the “I”. By getting the distinction between “me” and “it” into better perspective the distortions created by our sense of personal self-importance can be at least partially corrected and the tragedy of our inconsequential evanescence softened.

 

Martin Buber explores the issue with his reflections on the I-Thou and I-it relationships.  Zen “enlightenment” may be getting at the same thing  by  jettisoning the distractions of our personal cravings to achieve peace and understanding. So may the Old Testament’s description of man created in God’s image if thought of  in its broadest sense with God being more the whole of Creation rather than some creator.  And so is the modern conservation movement’s theme of recognizing that Homo sapiens is an inseparable part of nature – a reality which may explain why wilderness, given the opportunity, can be so spiritually uplifting.

 

To begin to get things right, to correct the distortions, to reconcile our sense of self-importance with the vastness of time and the cosmos – requires merging the “me” with the “it”  by giving ourselves to creation rather than having dominion over it, by giving the earth and things on the outside of our thin skins the same sacred value as the “us” and the “ours”.  This needn’t involve asceticism or self sacrifice.  Deep appreciation of the miracle of creation and the value and interconnectedness of all things is a place to start.  Replacing self-satisfied certainty with curiosity about how a butterfly thinks is progress.

 

And there is other brainwork that can help.  The ideas of Copernicus and Galileo exposed the hubris of a geocentric universe.  Jane Goodall showed us that tool-making didn’t make Homo sapiens so very special.  Myriad researchers have proven that those bird brains do many things well beyond the capacities of ours. Carl Safina lays out plenty of evidence that other species have very complex systems of communications.  And even within our own skin, we now know that, thanks to work of microbiologists at the Weizmann Institute, there are just about as many bacterial cells cohabiting the very space I call “me” as there are cells that bear my DNA!

 

But even though we are not the center of the universe, not the only tool making species or the only one with a language, not even the only occupant of our own skin, we are singular in some ways:  our species is growing in number faster than any other, we are rapidly depleting global diversity, we are steadily devoting the surface of our planet to the few types of organisms we can eat or wear and we seem to be dead set on turning the whole thing upside down by monkeying with the very air all of life breathes! So if we want to keep glorious September days like this one appearing every time we hit this part of our annual trip around the sun it’s time to do whatever we can to get things right.

 

Thankfully,  today is the kind of day that makes my mind strain at its moorings, to free itself to explore new ways of thought, to head off toward the horizon of its eye and explore uncharted waters. Today is the kind of crisp September day which makes me want to think with the clarity of its air and realize that my conceptual world is not as flat as it seems, that its horizon is really not the end of what there is and, as I hope and suspect, instead of that worn out image of an old guy with a beard reaching out to make stuff for his personal entertainment, the beyond reveals startling unimaginableness.  Even if the success of such a mental voyage is a long shot, this is the kind of day which makes it feel right to give it a try.

Words, Coming and Going

   

 

As a grandfather, I now regret my misguided childhood indifference to the snippets of my own grandparents’ talk about being taught Polish grammar in their basement.  They had been born in Poland in the late 1800’s – a time when their homeland had been “disappeared” under the welter of partitions of the previous century.  Their basement home schooling was a response to the criminalization of the use or instruction of their native tongue – one of many efforts by Tsar Alexander II to Russify the Polish Slavs. If only they were alive today, how I would be pressing them for details!

 

Of course using the eradication of a language as a weapon to murder a culture isn’t something restricted to countries other than our own.  In a recent edition of Orion magazine –  that wonderful ad-free chronicler of the natural world – Robin Wall Kimmerer writes of her Potawatomi grandfather being sent to the Carlisle Indian School of US Cavalry officer Captain Richard Henry Pratt at around the same time the Tsar was busy throttling Polish.   There, children were forbidden from using the Potowotami language as part of the school’s avowed purpose, in the founder’s own words, as a means to “kill the indian and save the man.”    To Pratt’s credit, he was among a minority of conquering Americans who did not consider native Americans to be ‘subhumans’ and is credited with being one of the first people to use the term ‘racism’ in a pejorative sense to criticize policies of racial segregation .  But his willingness to blame the native American way of life while apparently believing in the individual native American’s biological equality bespeaks the complexity of issues of nature vs. nurture.

 

Kimmerer goes on to explore ways English and Potowotami portray different views of the relationship between man and the rest of the world – perhaps best exemplified by the familiar pronouns ‘he’, ‘she’ and ‘it’.  In English the two former are reserved almost exclusively for fellow human beings and the last for nearly everything else.  The Potawatomi tongue, however, avoids pronouns and relies more on verbs and word placement in their stead.  Verbs come in two forms, one which relates to inanimate objects (‘it’ in English) but the other for animate ones.  As a result, humans stand on equal footing with flora and fauna and even, possibly, some important rocks.  As Kimmerer so eloquently puts it:

 

“You hear a blue jay with a different verb than you hear an airplane, distinguishing that which possesses the quality of life from that which is a mere object (italics are mine).  Birds, bugs and berries are spoken of with the same respectful grammar as humans are, as if we were all members of the same family. Because we are.  There is no it for nature…………..personhood is extended to all who breathe and some who don’t. I greet the silent boulder people with the same respect as I do the talkative chickadee.”

 

Kimmerer takes her thoughts two steps further.  In  one she explores ways in which blurring the bright English linguistic line between humans and the rest might ameliorate the harm done by the extractive, capitalization-heavy foundation of much of modern Western civilization.  In the other  she considers replacing  ‘he’ and ‘she’ as well as ‘it’ with the word ‘ki’.  Then she reflects on how this might even help us be more humble and worshipful when we exploit a natural resource or take a non-human life.  (It might also, it seems to me, serve to defuse some of our counterproductive gender conflicts.)

 

Authoritarian linguicide, however, is not the only way cultures and worldviews can be eradicated.  Robert Macfarlane in his wordly-wise book, Landmarks, explores historical word disappearance and reflects on how this may mirror or influence our thinking.  In the process he reports that the Oxford Junior Dictionary’s newest edition has made some telling, and to my mind sinister, substitutions:

 

“Under pressure, Oxford University Press revealed a list of the entries it no longer felt to be relevant to a modern-day childhood. The deletions included acorn, adder, ash, beech, bluebell, buttercup, catkin, conker, cowslip, cygnet, dandelion, fern, hazel, heather, heron, ivy, kingfisher, lark, mistletoe, nectar, newt, otter, pasture, and willow. The words introduced to the new edition included attachment, block-graph, blog, broadband, bullet-point, celebrity, chatroom, committee, cut-and-paste, MP3 player, and voice-mail.”

 

The logic behind the editors’ choices is clear and largely driven by modern usage, but the implications give one pause, or at least should.   Aside from frequency of use those new introductions are all products of the human brain with all its limitations and distortions. Somebody or somebodies had an idea and that drove each word’s creation.  But the deleted words had a different origin.  Somebody standing under an oak got bopped on the head by something, or was gathering nutlike things to grind into flour, or saw a squirrel running off with something in ki’s (sic) mouth and needed a word to describe the object.  The real meaning, the full meaning, the comprehensive meaning of the thing the word ‘acorn’ stands for is enormously – perhaps infinitely – complex and ranges from the genetic code it contains, the symmetry and biochemistry of the acorn itself, the magnificent oak tree it has the potential to produce etc., etc.  And those new introductions?  I’ll admit some of them are kind of complicated.  I can’t begin to explain how broadband works.  But there are lots of people who can and some body or some team of somebodies thought it up and got it to work. Every one of those new introductions signify the physical manifestations of someone’s idea and therefore are entirely limited by the creative imagination of a mere person.  The word ‘acorn’ and all those other deletions signify the creative imagination of something very else.  

 

Weaponizing the eradication of a language to murder a culture may be more sinister than the Oxford editors’ actions.  But the consequences – unintended or not – are similar.  The Oxford Junior Dictionary’s linguistic move forebodes an eradication of awareness of the natural world through death by a thousand cuts.  As an act of resistance, when my grandchildren come to visit I plan to take them down to the basement and talk to them about acorns, newts and otters.

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.

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.

What Good are Grizzlies and Gryphons?

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“Everybody knows that the autumn landscape in the northwoods is the land, plus a red maple, plus a ruffled grouse. In terms of conventional physics, the grouse represents only a millionth of either the mass or the energy of an acre. Yet, subtract the grouse and the whole thing is dead.

Aldo Leopold:  A Sand County Almanac

 

Fortunately, there are still ruffed grouse around, but doesn’t the fact that there are no more passenger pigeons mean that the autumn sky over Ohio is dead – or at least deader than it used to be?  Does the absence of those awe-inspiring flocks of birds darkening the skies matter, now that they remain only in our imaginations?  What does it mean when a natural phenomenon which has the capacity to impress and inspire disappears?

 

Monarch butterflies are under the gun across North America.  If that species winks out one of these years our lives will be just a little bit more drab and uninteresting.  And suppose the unthinkable happened. Suppose all butterflies disappeared – not entirely impossible given the widespread use of pesticides and, now, manufactured plants with built-in caterpillar poisons. Of course, with butterflies gone, those flowers which depend on butterflies for pollination would disappear as well.  A generation or two after that happened would butterflies and their pollination-dependent flowers continue to inspire the decorators of children’s pajamas and the animators of the idyllic countrysides of Disney films?  Would those creative souls turn to images of corn fields and combines?  Or would the non-existence of two symbols  of carefree, natural gentleness gradually cause the feeling we get from a warm summer day to atrophy?  Not entirely, of course, but a little bit?

 

And what about bats?  If white nose syndrome has its way, these creatures of the night could be gone one day as well.  Won’t Halloween lose a little bit of its scariness?  Won’t our mind’s eye’s stereotypic image of a dark threatening place be a bit impoverished?  And even though bats apparently weren’t the inspiration for the widespread vampire myths of ancient cultures they do inhabit Graham Stoker’s Dracula, and the discovery of true vampire bats in the Americas certainly lends a degree of tangibility to those stories and their effect on us.

 

Butterflies, bats and a few flowers gone – no big deal, really.  But what if we had succeeded in eradicating whales by 1850 – the year Herman Melville wrote what many consider to be the greatest American novel?   Would Melville have been inspired to write Moby Dick?   Would our individual and/or collective sense of good and evil, of mankind’s place in the universe, of our conflict with fate be quite as rich without a literary canon which included that monomaniacal sea captain and his enigmatic archenemy?   One can argue, I think, that the existence of whales has played a non-trivial role in what it means to be a 21st century American human and that without Moby Dick ever having been written and read by so many, our spirit and intellect would be just a bit less than it is.

 

Fortunately, we didn’t drive most species of whales to extinction, and there still are butterflies and some bats.  But consider wooly mammoths.  There’s a good bit of evidence suggesting that Homo sapiens and those huge hairy behemoths overlapped for some time after humans arrived in the Americas, though the exact role the latter played in the extinction of the former is still being worked on.  Nonetheless, the woolies are gone.   Wouldn’t we – even those of us working in urban cubicles – wouldn’t we be just a bit more alive if somewhere in the very backs of our minds we knew those hairy beasts with their enormous recurved tusks were still thundering around somewhere on the tundra?

 

Once you start thinking this way, other things come to mind, like those mountaintops in West Virginia being relocated into the valleys to expose coal.  When that state is finally bulldozed as flat as Kansas will stories of the Hatfield’s and McCoys in their respective “hollers” still resonate?   Will sipping Maker’s Mark bourbon still taste the same if we picture those moonshine stills where it was developed exposed for all to see on a prairie?  And then there’s the disappearing Colorado River.  Will our grasp of our place in the universe when we look at the work it’s done sculpting the Grand Canyon over eons remain as secure if we realize that now the Colorado fails to make it all the way to the Sea of Cortez because of those thousands of trickles we’ve tapped off along the way to keep our lettuce growing?

 

Some years ago, my son and I did some wilderness camping in grizzly bear habitat.  During time in the backcountry we did see one grizzly, at a respectful distance, but the knowledge that we might confront one around every bend kept us hyperalert and lent the whole trip an experiential dimension which is difficult to express but, in the retelling at least, was distinctly pleasurable. Of course, I’d be thinking differently if my son and I had startled a grizzly up close.  Very differently, in fact, if he’d been maimed, or worse.  But in the grand scheme the evil of such a rare human tragedy is offset by the spiritual enrichment of all those fortunate hikers who thought hard about but never actually confronted a grizzly.   Experiencing the possibility is enlivening.

 

Like the Eloi of H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine, do our spirit and awareness atrophy if we come to consider our environment totally tamed and our place in it entirely secure?  Don’t potential predators like the grizzly enhance our personal selves and enrich our collective being – AKA our culture?

 

And then there are the unicorns, Loch Ness monsters, dragons, harpies, sea serpents, yeti, gryphons and the rest of the menagerie of imaginary beasts.  Why have we invented these non-existent creatures?  What makes them such universal characters in stories – especially the formative stories we read as we transition from childhood to adulthood?  Often threatening and  bearing exaggerated combinations of features of creatures we know – fangs, hooked beaks, talons, excessive strength – these iconic creations of our collective imagination have populated our stories from pre-literary oral myths to the science fiction of today.  What accounts for the archetypal universality and longevity of these creations of our minds? Just as our most gripping stories usually involve deep yearning – romanticized love, sudden good fortune, heroism, “happily ever after” etc. – isn’t it likely that the monsters of our imagination owe their origins to some biophilic longing such that our minds create creatures at least the idea of which we need in order to be fully alive?

 

The philosopher Thomas Nagel, in his book Mortal Questions begins his examination of what it means to be dead by making the deceptively simplistic observation that – setting aside considerations of some sort of afterlife – death can be thought of as the end of the constitutive elements of human life namely “perception, desire, activity, and thought.”   Later he concludes, “If death is an evil at all, it cannot be because of its positive features, but only because of what it deprives us of.”   To the extent that the natural world, with its intricate tapestry of species and its seascapes and landscapes, leads us to think, to the extent that we may actively seek out elements of nature just to experience them, to the extent that they stimulate our imaginations as we read a book or they play a role in our deciding which pair of pajamas might appeal to our children are we not more alive?  

 

So I would say that Leopold was only half right.  His acre of northwood autumn landscape is indeed dead if the grouse is subtracted.  But there’s more to it.  Take away the passenger pigeon, the whale we may never even see but know is there, the bat flitting across our backyard at dusk, the grizzly, the tiger, the raging river, the glacier, the rolling Appalachian landscape,  –  and a part of you and a part of me dies as well.  

 

 

The Frame’s the Thing: More Worship, Less Worry

iStock_000017039684Large I confess. I’m a list keeper and on of one of my lists is “Subjects to be blogged about.”  For some time now the phrase “Sacredness of Nature” has been on that list. As an enthusiastic environmentalist I often wonder what it is about the natural world that stirs me to write about it, volunteer to protect it and donate to organizations that promote it.  Articulating the reasons for this expenditure of time and treasure might help motivate others to do the same. Then along comes an article in the online NYTimes that tells me how to do it more effectively.

The author, ­ a professor of sociology, psychology and organizational behavior at Stanford University ­ notes that while environmentalism is not inherently political (after all, Republican Teddy Roosevelt greatly expanded the National Park Service and Republican Richard Nixon founded the Environmental Protection Agency) it has become a movement associated primarily with liberalism and the Democratic Party. This in spite of the fact that when polled individually, about half self­-identified Republicans favor government action to address global warming.

To shed more light on this apparent paradox, author Robb Willer and a colleague offered one group of self-­identified conservatives a message about maintaining the purity and sanctity of nature and preventing its desecration. A second group received a message about protecting the environment from harm and a third group’s message did not mention the environment at all.  Consistent with previous work showing that conservative values tilted towards patriotism, respect for authority, purity and sanctity, the conservatives receiving the moral purity message subsequently said they were significantly more likely to favor environmental legislation and even professed a stronger belief in the reality of global warming (which hadn’t even been mentioned in the messages).

So it looks as if framing conversations about environmental causes in terms of what is pure and sacred is mighty important. To get conservatives on board we need less tree hugging and more wonder at the soaring ​sanctity ​of old growth forests; less emphasis on ​saving​ fuzzy critters ​with big eyes or ​protecting ​tracts of habitat and more emphasis on s​topping the desecration​ of God’s creation.  After all if God – the ultimate authority after all – ­ went to the trouble of getting Noah to build that ark to His exact specifications and then commanded him to herd  onto it “every thing of all flesh, two of every sort…of fowls after their kind and cattle after their kind, of every creeping thing of the earth after his kind“, then we descendants of Noah should probably think twice about bulldozing the sacred places that sustain those creatures.

A previous study by the same authors gives these findings additional relevance . They analyzed 51 environmentally­-oriented public service announcements and 402 opinion pieces in major American newspapers and discovered that the majority focused on ​protecting ​people and ecosystems rather than on the importance of maintaining the purity and sacredness ​of the natural world.  There’s a takeaway here, albeit a subtle one.

It’s time to talk less about ​saving ​endangered species and more about ​worshipping ​the richness of creation. There needs to be less handwringing about ​protecting ​a wetland from the threat of drainage and more open s​hame ​on those who fail to appreciate the ​wondrous complexity​ of an ecosystem by paving it over. We need less emphasis on ​saving​ wilderness from encroachment and more on the purity​ of untrammeled wilderness and it’s ability to restore the human spirit.​  In short, the image of the natural world as s​acred and purifying needs to be emphasized above it’s being too weak to survive on its own.​

Of course the thoughtful reader may suspect a ruse. Aren’t we trying to get more converts to environmentalism precisely because the environment is under serious attack? Well, it is, but it doesn’t have to be. If nature and the integrity of the environment remain unaligned with the conservative value system the battle is going to continue. But if the environment can cease being a political issue and instead becomes a shared value for the entire political spectrum like motherhood and apple pie, sustaining our rich and sacred natural world will cease being the Sisyphean struggle it has lately become.  Once the values get realigned, the environment won’t be under constant threat. It won’t be in danger any longer. It won’t need to be protected and can be worshipped as it deserves to be.  And I can take “Sacredness of Nature” off my list of things to be blogged about.

Is Lightman in the Dark about Nature?

It’s distressing when you come across something written by one of your literary heroes and find you disagree with them entirely.  That happened to me the other day when I came across a piece by Alan Lightman in the May 2, 2014 New York Times called Our Lonely Home in Nature.

Lightman is a distinguished physicist  – and the first person to receive a professorship in both the sciences and the humanities at MIT. You may know him from a wonderful little book of his called Einstein‘s Dreams.   It became an international best seller back in the early ‘90’s and in it,  each chapter has time behaving in a different way.  Sometimes it moves at different rates for different people.  Sometimes it moves forward in fits and starts.  Sometimes it flows backwards.  You get the idea.  It is a wonderful book.

Early on in his NYTimes essay, Lightman and I are on the same page. For all of recorded history, he says, humankind has had a conflicted view of nature.  In ancient times, we made awesome and frightening gods of the natural elements.  But, “Aren’t we a part of nature, born in nature, sustained by the food brought forth by nature, warmed by the natural sun?  Don’t we have a deep spiritual connection with the wind and the water and the land that Emerson and Wordsworth so lovingly described, that Turner and Constable painted in scenes of serenity and grandeur?…….In the other direction, nature is constantly given human qualities.”

If he had left it at that, he would still be one of my heroes, but he spoiled it all in the last few paragraphs.  Just because he and his wife have a close call while sailing during a storm, he goes way out on the wrong limb. “We are fooling ourselves”, he writes. “Nature is neither friend nor foe, neither malevolent nor benevolent.  Nature is purposeless.”

To this I would respond, “Lightman doesn’t know what he’s talking about “ but I say this not in a way to put the distinguished professor down or make him out to be any less brilliant than he certainly is.  It’s not really his fault.  As I have argued in an earlier post ( “Nature” Doesn’t Do the Job), the fault lies with our language.

Lightman’s close call at sea was with the “nature” of natural selection.  Enough bad judgements about being out on the ocean in uncertain weather and that “nature” will gradually rejigger the genes involved in our species’ ability to asses risk.  But the thing which drew him out on the ocean in the first place had something to do with the elation he says he experienced:  the “nature” of vistas, mountains, soaring trees, birdsong.  And there are so many others.

Lightman says later on,  “We may find nature beautiful or terrible, but those feelings are human constructions. Such utter and complete mindlessness is hard for us to accept.”   How’s that again?  Our human constructions are mindless?  Or does our mind, being part of nature, make nature mindful?

I feel like I’m jogging on a Möbius strip.  And maybe that’s not a bad analogy. Maybe being on one side of the choice (Nature = Randomness) and being on the other side (Nature = Mindfuness) are really the same thing.  To stretch things a bit further let’s treat that as an algebra problem:  Randomness = Nature = Mindfulness.  Or…..Randomness = Mindfulness!  Wow!  That’s beginning to sound like another one of my previous posts ( Random:Thoughts).  But if you’re not mathematically inclined perhaps there’s another way of thinking about it.  If you accept your own thoughts as real and mindful and you accept that you are a small subpart of the natural universe then there you are.  There are at least sparks of mindfulness in nature.

Personally, I think those sparks are just part of a much larger conflagration. In fact if I try to let go of the idea that my species is the central entity of the cosmos (an idea which has led us astray more than once in the past) I start imagining my mindfulness as a temporarily detached bit of a much larger source of enlightenment.

But I’m straying from my story.  Eventually Lightman does redeem himself and I have to give him a lot of credit for where his essay ends up – even though I don’t like how he gets there.  For Lightman’s final point is that since “nature” is not about to look out in any special way for us humans and the things we value, we jolly well better look after ourselves.  And that means taking care of the planet we depend on for everything.

Leaf Litter and Rubber Duckies

Imagine two big bins.  One is filled with rubber duckies, pottery shards, space shuttles, DVD’s, playbills, books, skyscrapers, electronic gadgets – stuff like that. It also has an annex full of intangibles like symphonies and TV shows and stories and ideas like democracy, altruism, truth etc. The other bin brims with feathers, pebbles, some pond muck, twigs, clam shells, stars, leaf litter and the like. Its annex of intangibles contains things we don’t really have words for – undiscovered natural laws, the arrival of a thunderstorm,  Dylan Thomas’s “force that drives the green fuse through the flower”, etc.  Now put those bins inside your head.  Sometimes I think that’s the way our minds are divided.

 

Popular brain science has long told us that our right and left brains work differently – one side more devoted to things like perceiving emotion, appreciating art, recognizing faces; the other side more devoted to reading text, speaking, math and logic.  Predictably, this is being proven a gross oversimplification.  No matter.  In the thought experiment I’m proposing I’m using mind as opposed to brain.  Think of brain as your computer and mind as its program.  Hardware vs software.  iPhone off the shelf vs apps.  Brain is where stuff is stored, sensations are processed and body parts are made to do their thing.  Mind is – well, nobody really knows for sure.  Its where we experience things like meaning, identity, attention, memories, associations, ideas, emotions.  And maybe even conceptualizing it as a place is off the mark.

 

So back to our bins.  They’re in the mind, not the brain.  And it has probably already occurred to you that bin one contains only man-made things; bin two contains everything else.   The man-made stuff has all cycled through at least one mind – sometimes many – before it became what it is.  It started out as an idea.  Then it was mulled over, reconceived, perhaps talked or written about – then eventually became transformed from the idea to a “realer” reality.  The stuff in bin two – well it’s there with no help from us.  And we often dig into bin two for the raw materials to make the stuff in bin one.

 

I imagine everyone’s bins being different – different in what they contain and how big they are.  And I imagine the two bins get different amounts of people’s time and attention.  Take Aldo Leopold.

 

Back in the early twentieth century, Leopold was a bureaucrat working for the US Forest Service who later became one of the founders of the modern conservation ethic and author of the ecologic masterpiece Sand County Almanac.  I imagine Leopold had a huge bin two – full of  hills and partridge, sandhill crane tracks in the mud, carcasses of white tailed deer brought down by winter starvation, the smell of March.  Of course, like the rest of us, he had plenty of stuff in bin one as well; firearms and fishing poles, typewriters and directives from his boss in the forest service. But his bin two was the really big one – about the same size as Rachel Carson’s.

 

Now for the questions.  Are the bin sizes of each of us fixed or expandable?  Is the way we divide our time between the two something we’re born with or does it evolve?  If it changes, what causes the change?

 

My mind wanders. In his book, Collapse, Jared Diamond rigorously documents thriving civilizations which imploded in response to abuse and neglect of natural resources:  think Maya, Easter Islanders, the Norse Greenland Community.  I imagine that many of those citizens, as things were falling apart, spent more time rummaging around their bin two – trying to figure out what was happening and doing their best to cope as their world collapsed around them.  And I can imagine an inner city youth – one whose experience of nature in the commonplace sense has been limited to grass growing between the sidewalk cracks and pigeons cooing on his tenement window – discovering on a school field trip to a nature preserve that he has a big but almost empty bin two.  But it seems that usually – by the time we reach our productive years, we’ve pretty well established the ways we look at things and what kind of stuff gets our attention.  For some, the best way to relax is an afternoon reading a book or watching football.  For others, it’s a hike in the woods or an afternoon in a duck blind.  And for many, of course, it’s something of a toss up.

 

So what?  People differ.  In matters of taste, there can be no disputes.  Problems crop up, though, when one kind of taste overpowers; when the taste for bigger houses or ivory jewelry or snowmobile access to National Parks  means disappearing forests or the loss of a chance of anyone ever seeing an elephant in the wild or disturbing the experience of silent wilderness snowshoeing.  That’s one reason it becomes useful to know if the bin sizes can be changed – and if so, how to do it.  But there are others.

 

Consider that rubber duck bobbing in a bathtub.  When 15 month old Julie points to the air-filled yellow blob and utters for the first time something that sounds vaguely like “duck” her parents cheer.  How could anyone be troubled by that?  Well, what if Julie never has the opportunity to get up close and personal with a family of precocial anseriforme hatchlings chasing emerging mosquitoes over the surface of a woodland pond? What if if her idea of “duck” remains for the most part in bin one even if, as she grows older, it is enriched to include the idea of a delicious piece of protein covered in orange sauce.  If things go like that there’ll be some pretty important voids.   There’ll be no wondering how that newly hatched ball of fuzz can emerge from its shell already knowing how to chase mosquitoes, no appreciation of the fact that those webbed feet – so effective at motoring the hatchling through the water – collapse with each forward movement to minimize resistance,  no sense of the timescale involved in accumulating and sorting through all the DNA changes that led to the feet doing that.  In short Julie’s view of the real world will be greatly impoverished and, if one is prone to exaggeration, potentially dangerously so.

 

And one more thing, though it’s difficult to articulate.  Since everything in bin one has already cycled through someone’s mind, it’s meaning – what it has to teach us about the reality outside ourselves – is already framed, simplified, reduced and focused for clarity of human understanding or singularity of purpose.  The stuff in bin two?  That’s the last frontier.  And it happens to have been the first one too.

 

But this thought experiment has run way amok.  Just about every Julie will soon enough realize that there’s a lot more to “duck” than the thing in her bathtub.  She’ll come to distinguish between artifice and the reality it is meant to represent.   Nonetheless, I’ll wager there are orders of magnitude more people today that have held a yellow rubber duckie than have held a warm, feather-light squirming fuzzball while its mother, naturally, quacked hysterically nearby and maybe even risked her life to retrieve it.  And it’s hard to imagine that doesn’t have important implications.