Tuesday, October 28, 2008

I Don't Need a Weatherman . . .

. . . to know Sarah Palin blows, and I don't have any doubt that Bill Ayers is vastly more intelligent and would make a better vice-president. Ah well, one corrupt oil-loving animal-hating Alaskan Republican down and one to go. Actually there's a lot more than two, but you have to start somewhere.

. . . to report that I saw my first snow of the season yesterday. Just a few flakes though some areas got an inch or so.

. . . because I've got Henry Thoreau's records. An article (with a bad typo--a missing not) on the disappearing plants in the Walden Pond area--27% gone since his time. And some photos from the area.

Adding a much better article on the subject from the Times.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Alex & Irene; P & I

Yesterday I wrote an Amazon review of the latest free book I'd gotten from their Vine program. The title of the book, by Irene Pepperberg, is Alex & Me: How a Scientist and a Parrot Uncovered a Hidden World of Animal Intelligence--and Formed a Deep Bond in the Process. That about covers it, don't you think?

Actually there are a lot of topics touched on in this quick read: the dominant attitude of humans and scientists toward non-humans, a woman in what had traditionally been a man's academic career, infighting and jealousy among humans and parrots, humans and parrots teaching other parrots, how a bored parrot being repetitively tested causes mischief just like I did in elementary school, grief, laughter, and testing methods. See, I can string a lot of words after a colon also.

I want to give you a funny example of that bored parrot, but first, if you don't know Alex's story, he was a bird who changed the meaning of birdbrain, demonstrating his ability to learn many things it was assumed he couldn't possibly learn. Among them were colors, different objects, and numbers--one of his regular tests involved being presented with a tray of various objects in various colors and quantities and being asked how many of a certain colored object there were on the tray.

Now, in the name of scientific proof, Alex had to do this sort of thing over and over and over again, long after he'd shown he knew the right answers. On one occasion when the correct answer was two, Alex repeatedly replied either one or four. Alex was sent to his room for a time-out for misbehaving, but as soon as the door was closed behind him: "Two ... two ... two ... I'm sorry ... come here ... two."

On another occasion, Pepperberg decided to replicate Bernd Heinrich's experiment in which Heinrich had tied food to a long string hanging below a raven. The raven then pulled the string up bit by bit, stepping on it before pulling up the next section. First tested was a young parrot who duplicated the behavior of the raven. Next came Alex who by this time was a famous star, used to being waiting on by scientists when he demanded food or toys. He took a look at the almond hanging below him, looked over at Pepperberg, paused, and said, "Pick up nut!"

Alex died one night, some twenty years earlier than the usual life expectancy of his species. One chapter consists of excerpts from the condolences which poured in. Anyone who has ever bonded with an animal is likely to get choked up over the stories told here.

Less than twelve hours after I posted that review, I received an email from someone I met about 25 years ago. She'd just had to euthanize her 13-year-old Golden Retriever, a wacky dog I'd had the pleasure of hiking with.

I started to write an email back and thought about that chapter of condolences. I called her and we spoke for the first time in a few years, about animals and pain and sanctuaries, social work and deep ecology, the arts, books, nature, the economy, people we knew and people we were. I'm sorry ... come here ...

Sunday, October 19, 2008

A Sacred Diet? and Other Matters

Recently there was a comment over on the funniest vegan cooking blog about the justification for a vegan diet. First up came admiring vegans' willpower, and then questioning why it's OK to kill a plant but not an animal: both reproduce, react to external stimuli, either all life is sacred or none, etc.

First up for me, I'm quite content being a near-vegan; the reasons for my choices would be a long and different topic but they have nothing to do with willpower. This notion that it takes great willpower to be a vegan, that we're constantly fighting the urge to kill a cow and it's tearing us up inside is just plain wrong. To believe that's what's going on indicates a complete lack of understanding of why people become vegans.

On to the more interesting questions of plants and animals and sacredness. Depending on my mood and the tone of the conversation, I'd be inclined to agree with both the all and the none are sacred theories. Yes, everything's connected and of value; no, it's not because of a magic being in the sky.

But the issue for most vegans is that they want to reduce suffering, not that they think they can eliminate it. I agree with a recent discussion I read that use of the term vegan implies an ethical choice on that basis, rather than a diet choice based on health or environmental reasons.

Possibly it's a sign of my own speciesism (I guess it would be kingdomism actually) or
lack of understanding, but I believe a cow or a pig is more aware of existing and more capable of emotional and physical pain than a green bean or a pea. So since humans have a choice of which to eat, choosing the plant reduces the suffering.

I do vaguely remember reading an article about trees sending warning signals to nearby trees, and suspect that plants probably are much more complex than most people give them credit for. I once had but never read a copy of The Secret Life of Plants. If anyone knows of a more recent book on the subject of plant awareness or communication which falls somewhere between New Age woo woo and a botany dissertation, please let me know.
Before attending the weekly planetarium show, I stopped by the university library to check out the moose-wolf display leading up to next month's events celebrating 50 years of study on Isle Royale. There are skeletons of each species, posters, and possible evidence of evolution via the length of the metatarsus of moose on the island. Very interesting.
Creepy as it is, ya gotta love this article from today's New York Times about the men supporting Sarah Palin because she kills animals and well, to put it bluntly, they want to fuck her.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

To Interfere or Not to Interfere

Here's an article about a new debate going on: Should humans help species move ahead of global warming? If an area is becoming too hot or rainfall levels are changing, should we dig up plants and move them north or uphill? Should we move them past cities and around thousands of square miles of agriculture?

Some would argue it's merely an extension of things we do now--reintroducing a species to its former habitat such as wolves to Yellowstone, shipping Dennis the wayward manatee back to Florida, wildlife rehabilitation of injured animals. Almost everything about our society interferes with the processes of the natural world; why not try to do good and alleviate the harm we've done? I can appreciate the sentiment; I think to even care whether another species is going to survive automatically qualifies a person as a better than average human.

But my opinion is that this going too far in trying to manage the world, and is a desperate attempt to assuage our guilt. I oppose it philosophically and more importantly, practically. I think the more apt comparisons are to the many alien species which we have deliberately or accidentally introduced to an area and thereby caused the extinctions of the species which were already there.

Despite the attempt of humans to do so, a species does not live in isolation in its location. It is dependent on an entire web of uncountable seasonal events and interactions with other species, from the time of year different plants grow in a forest to animal migrations to birth times and rates. The notion that we are capable of managing the natural world is simply false, and exactly the type of attitude which is responsible for the problems that world now faces.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Dennis the Manatee

I let this story go yesterday, but I guess I have to plug it. It's about a manatee, named Dennis after the Cape Cod town where he's hanging out, farther north in the Atlantic than any manatee has gone before (to the best of our limited knowledge). Global warming? Booming population? You decide.

P.S. As a child, your humble greentangle blogger was known as Dennis and often visited this town which I thought was named after me.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Wolves: Cinematic, Political, Biological, Cultural

11/26/90 I'm coming back
from a state of being stunned. I we
nt to see Dances with Wolves and came out of the theater in a daze. . . . The movie swept me up completely and I had no sense of three hours passing--And that is what caused the daze--being totally in that world, feeling part of a life of respect, love, brotherhood--and not wanting to leave it. . . . The massive shots of the South Dakota prairie, the connection of human to horse and wolf. . . . There were tears in my eyes several times during the movie, most strongly during the killing of the wolf which was caused by Dunbar's need to break him, to destroy the wild in the wolf, the need to have him eat out of his hand. And the buffalo hunt was difficult to watch even knowing that artificial animals had been used. . . . That name seemed very powerful to me, how he came to a crisis point and chose to see himself as Lakota instead of as white man, how he chose that path because it was what felt right to him even though he knew that way of life was doomed, how that matches my own sense of fatalism but still the need to do it.

Wolves have been featured in political ads from both of the big two parties this year, in one as vicious attackers, in the other as the victims of vicious killers. No surprise which party the NRA endorsed.

Some local hunters are upset that they won't get to kill wolves (legally, anyway) now that the wolves have been returned to federal protection under the Endangered Species Act. It must be hard for them to keep a straight face while one side of their mouth talks about how there are too many deer and the other side talks about how there are too many wolves. We need many more wolves, not fewer.

2/23/91 Still had very little sense of three hours passing--I was immersed in that world. Longing to be a part of that world, crying for the beauty and innocence lost. Wishing to have that communion with people, wolf, horse. Wishing to earn their respect by following the trail of being a human being, to be among people who are close to nature, who understand the sacrilege of a field of buffalo slaughtered and left to rot. To fight for a noble cause.

Next month, there are going to be several events in town celebrating 50 years of the moose/wolf study on Isle Royale in Lake Superior. (There's also currently a photo exhibit at the university library through October 24th.) I'm planning to attend these three:

George Desort’s documentary on the Isle Royale wolf and moose study, Fortunate Wilderness will be shown from 7 – 8:30 pm on Thurs., Nov. 6 in the Marshall Performing Arts Center. Fortunate Wilderness captures the science and wonder of the world’s longest large mammal study — the study of wolves and moose on Isle Royale.

“American Indian Ethics Meets Wolf-Moose Research” with wilderness scholar Michael Nelson will be presented from noon --1 pm on Fri., Nov. 7 in the Library Fourth Floor Rotunda.

“50 Years of Wolf Moose Research” with biologists Rolf Peterson and John Vucetich will be presented from 7 – 8:30 pm on Fri., Nov. 7 in the Marshall Performing Arts Center. They will present findings from the 50 years of large mammal study on Isle Royale.

5/8/91 Underway after watching Dances with Wolves for the third time. I think for me this is the most powerful movie I've ever seen. He leaves both the white world and himself as white man behind, follows the most important trail, learns to live as part of the system, the whole tribe, finds like minded souled people. Death comes with his choices but the death of that way of life was inevitable--at least for a time. My hope is that some will s
urvive to live that way again when this one is done; already its death is obvious and near to anyone who removes the blinders. . . . In the aftermath of battle as they call him Dances with Wolves, he reflects that he never knew who he was before, his old name had no meaning but now, his identity is part of his name. They are not just words to label him; they are him. . . . If an Indian must be an "apple" to survive in the dominant culture, what is the word for me--white on the outside, red on the inside? For surely indigenous culture, society, way of life, means much more to me than the white world. It speaks to what is true in me. To live joyously, naturally, to be aware of your life at all times, to be in community, to share, to suffer and give thanks together. To do those things instead of constantly trying to keep myself strong enough to survive in a society which does not support me but isolates me, wants to put me down so others can step on me, where each is an individual owing nothing to each other, allowing nothing to develop--those emotions get in the way of materialism. I must belong in a commune of some sort--I certainly don't belong in this society. . . . The movie makes me alive again. I feel like running and jumping and yelling out loud, echoing off the trees and rock. I smile and feel good and happy. I am who I should be once more, not trapped in the white man's world.

In 2000, I spent a day at a wolf education center. I'd known about it for years but hadn't gone because of mixed feelings about these sort of places, but now that I would soon be leaving the area I wanted the experience. There was classroom time spent watching film and learning about the meaning of various wolf behavior and postures. I knew most of this in advance; it was what was to come which drew me there. We headed outside and observed the main pack in their fairly large area. More fun, but still not why I was there. Eventually, in groups of two or three, we entered a cage with the two most socialized wolves. For all my negative feelings about captive wild animals, I don't regret the experience of having a wolf standing face to face with me with his huge paws on my shoulders. Sorry I can't share the photos I have of that experience.

I've seen the movie several more times over the years and recently watche
d it again, still hurt and angered by the white society's trashing of the natural world. The film's not quite as emotional for me as it used to be, due to the difference between a small tv and a movie screen, an extra hour of footage which while interesting slows the pace, repeated viewings, and 18 years of losing whatever hope I had left by 1990, but it still remains one of my favorites.

There are many potential pitfalls to be aware of: romanticizing, the Noble Savage, cultural appropriation, one-sided views, assuming ecological intent which may have been merely circumstance. For all of that, there are both cultural and individu
al differences, and I remain just as convinced that I was born in the wrong time and society. I remain just as convinced that our species has lost touch with what matters about being alive, and has traded our place in the world for insignificant products and illusions of control. I remain just as convinced we won't be the last species standing on this planet. I remain just as disappointed in our behavior and just as ashamed for all the species we'll eliminate before our turn comes.

All photos from http://www.all-about-wolves.com where you can see much larger versions of these and many more.

Monday, October 6, 2008

A Berry Busy Day

Today I was lucky to watch something I knew happened but hadn't seen before.

A chipmunk was busy in the trees out back, stuffing her cheeks with berries, traveling along branches which weren't even thick enough to be called twigs and which flipped under her weight and left her dangling. Several "whoa"s escaped my lips as I watched through binoculars. A small flock of robins was working the trees at the same time. Pouches full, she headed to her home directly opposite my window. Later, I saw her pursuing the safer course of picking up fallen berries from the ground. I imagine you could virtually share my experience by watching this video which I haven't seen, but that's a much sturdier branch than the ones my neighbor was coping with.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Words for a Foggy Morning (and a Decade or Two)

It was in the thirties early this morning when I headed out for groceries and the Lake had been busy making weather overnight. A thick dark cloud of fog hung low over the Lake and downtown, completely left behind when the bus made it a few blocks uphill into bright sunshine. If I were into technostuff I'd show you a photo, but I rely on my memory and you'll have to use your imagination. In an hour or so when I returned from over the hill, the fog had burned off revealing a ship at anchor which had no doubt been there unseen the entire time. Spooky.

When I made some lists a couple weeks ago I was busy looking over various lists of greatest books and authors and have now made a long roughly chronological list of reading which might well take longer than my eyes have left. Some are unread classics, some are annotated editions of classics I've read, some are rereadings from childhood and further exploration of favorite authors, some are recent fantasies, the ones I feel most excited about are several early 20th century authors unknown to me, and yes, there's still a lot of men on the list which follows.

Don Quixote, annotated Gulliver's Travels, Candide, Rousseau's Confessions and Reveries of the Solitary Walker, annotated Frankenstein, Victor Hugo, Charles Dickens, Moby Dick (I've got my doubts about this one but I want to try it), Count of Monte Cristo, Jules Verne, a sip of Henry James, Robert Louis Stevenson, annotated Huck Finn and more Twain, H.G. Wells, annotated Dracula, annotated Wizard of Oz, D.H. Lawrence, Lost World, Ethan Frome, James Joyce, Knut Hamsun's Growth of the Soil (and more?), annotated H.P. Lovecraft, Isaac Babel, Magic Mountain, Thomas Wolfe, Haldor Laxness's Independent People (and more if I like it), Karel Capek, Nathaniel West's Day of the Locust and probably more, a couple of Terry Brooks's recent trilogies (Terry, if you happen to see this buried in the paragraph, I remember years ago you asked me if I read one of the Terrys--was it this one or the other one?), and R. Scott Bakker.

Of course, those are all outside library books except for Rousseau. In my own unread mostly nature library, I'm working on Quammen's Song of the Dodo and there are still a couple Abbeys left, a shelf of Thoreau-related work, a half dozen of Hay, books on various species, a section of deep ecology, ecopsychology, and environmental ethics, the Oxford History of the United States series, a three volume biography of Martin Luther King, and assorted others. Hold my calls, and may the electricity stay on for the long cold dark winter.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Lessons Learned Lately

The Prophet of Dry Hill: Lessons from a Life in Nature by David Gessner. A plan to write a biography of nature writer John Hay becomes a contemplation of connections to land and between people and all of nature. Sadness and acceptance mingle as the health of Hay and his wife declines, they leave the land where they’ve lived for sixty years of witnessing the booming human population and resulting destruction, and the author also moves away from Cape Cod.

Conspiracy in the Streets: The Extraordinary Trial of the Chicago Eight

After what is widely considered pre-planned police violence during the 1968 Democratic convention, the government decided to put eight anti-war, anti-establishment leaders from three different groups on trial for conspiracy to incite that violence. Hilarity ensued. When the judge, in one of his many biased rulings, refused to allow former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark to testify, the New York Times called it “the ultimate outrage in a trial which has become the shame of American justice.” But it’s so hard to pick just one.

The book, which has inspired me to read some others on related topics, consists primarily of trial transcripts which alternately amuse and outrage. Editor Jon Wiener’s introduction sets the stage and gives an update on the defendants. Tom Hayden’s afterword discusses many of the parallels between government actions in the sixties and their attempts at intimidation and repression which began after WTO protests in Seattle, which I experienced personally the following year marching against biotechnology as rooftop snipers loomed above us.

The Unforeseen is a documentary film about “development” focusing primarily on a particular past issue in the city of Austin, but raising questions about the entire society’s values and choices. What is unforeseen is not only completely predictable but inevitable as long as you’re not blinded by short term profit and the idea that humans are more important than the world they’re dependent on.

Wendell Berry reads from his work over the opening scene and Patty Griffin’s Someone Else’s Tomorrow plays over the closing credits. In between is everything from Bush and the foreshadowing of the savings and loan crisis to Robert Redford’s local childhood and Ed Abbey’s cancer cell metaphor. The commentary track by director Laura Dunn and others adds much background information on the scenes and people shown. Alternately inspiring and infuriating, The Unforeseen, like all of the material in this post, makes me proud once again to be Un-American.