Saturday, August 29, 2009

A Book Which Should Have Stayed Hidden

I've written my first one star Amazon review, and the winner is The Hidden Life of Deer by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas. Marketed as a naturalist's observations of deer, the book winds up being more of a defense of feeding them and hunting them. Here's what I wrote.

If spoilers are possible for a non-fiction book, there are a lot of them ahead to explain my strong opinion.

Welcome to the first one star review I've ever given. I didn't plan it that way; I thought it would be interesting to read something about deer from a non-hunting perspective, and I was just going to take the feeding as an unpleasant given without comment.

But the author spends so much time trying to justify her feeding the deer that it's impossible to not write about it. The attempt at justification of a primate feeding deer relationship is very poor and the author surely knows this. The fact that langur monkeys in India eat only parts of leaves and chital deer wait beneath the trees to eat what's dropped is completely irrelevant to putting out hundreds of pounds of corn.

Ultimately, her stated reason for feeding them is that they are individuals who want to live. To fully appreciation my opposition to her behavior, you need to understand that I live by that principle more than the author does--I don't eat animals, don't believe in using them for entertainment or experimentation, and I don't support hunting them. I've been a wildlife rehabilitation volunteer, and I occasionally toss something out the window for squirrels or crows or whoever wants it and enjoy watching them eat. In short, I completely understand the desire to feed them and if deer existed in a vacuum, I'd say feed away.

But of course they don't exist in a vacuum and her choice has far-reaching consequences, from directly depriving other animals of the food which would have been provided by predation and scavenging of weakened and dead deer, to the later destruction of rare plant life and ecosystems by the resulting overpopulation of deer. Anyone able to view things objectively can see what the overpopulation of the human species has meant to other life forms.

She cites one example of seeing a deer with claw marks which she hypothesizes came from a bear, and wonders with pride if her corn gave the deer the strength to escape. If it did, shame would be a more appropriate emotion for anyone who actually cared about nature as a whole. And of course by feeding the deer in a year of low acorn production, she's directly undermining the reason why there are years of low acorn production. Even the deer themselves attempt to override her feeding of them when the strongest prevent the weakest from eating.

In any case, the fact that deer are individuals who want to live apparently doesn't matter to the author when it comes to hunting. She declares that she'd rather be shot than killed in a slaughterhouse as if it's an either/or choice when in fact neither one has to occur. And then goes on to mention overpopulation as a justification for hunting even as she contributes to that overpopulation.

Although she claims that she has no interest in taking a life, she eagerly goes along to watch a hunter do so, and after he kills a deer he doesn't think is good enough for him, agrees to his suggestion that she lie and claim she killed the deer so he can kill another bigger one. This from someone she considers one of the best hunters, a man who elsewhere in the book she prevents from killing an injured bear who then lives for many years, a man she also criticizes for painfully dragging a deer who'd been hit by a car into the woods instead of shooting the deer on the spot. Considering her claim that the will to hunt is deep in our psyches, I suppose we should all be amazed that the overwhelming majority of people don't do it. Or maybe her claim is just nonsense.

Most of what she writes about the deer is as much imagination as observation which was OK but is there anything actually good in this book? Yes, there's a page about scat which is well-written, and the last chapter of non-deer related nature anecdotes was good enough that I was going to boost my rating up to two stars. Then I came to the epilogue where she declares she's going to keep feeding the deer as long as she's alive regardless of conditions. One star is being generous for the way this book left me feeling.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Ocean, Lake

I finally got the chance to watch the dvds of Whale Wars, the cable show which followed Sea Shepherd's Antarctica anti-whaling campaign. I was disappointed they didn't have subtitles or any extras, only the seven 42 minute episodes, and the show's content was a mixed bag. There was a lot of repetition in this format, both between episodes and after obvious commercial breaks within episodes. Dramatic moments were sometimes sent over the top by music and narration. It's impossible for me to guess at how editing affected the accuracy of what was shown, but much of it was troubling.

It was very interesting to witness the action, although also frightening to see the inexperience of many of the volunteer crew. Obviously not their fault that they know nothing about how to do things they've never done, but not very encouraging for people considering volunteering. Risking one's life for whales is one thing; risking it due to incompetence is another. No one died but a couple people were injured and there were a lot of screw-ups which could easily have been fatal.

Along with the inexperience of the new folks, the officers of the ship didn't inspire much confidence in me either, and apparently not in at least some of the crew either as there was lots of grumbling and some quit when the ship had to return to port for repairs. There seemed to be a great disconnect between the officers and the crew with neither paying much attention to what the other side was doing or planning (officers didn't know a drunken party was going on until the next day, nor did they seem to have much respect for the people volunteering).

Still, I felt that these were people I could relate to far more than most of the people I've known in my life because of their values, and I developed both an old man's crush and a lot of respect for one member of the crew. And there were some nice scenes of whales and snowstorms and being at sea is always appealing to me. It's very possible the internal discord made more of an impression on me than the confrontations with the whalers because it was new to me while the confrontations were well known. Keep fighting, Shepherds, you could still be in my future.

For now, I settled on taking a tourist cruise on Lake Superior last week. After being here nine years and soon to be gone, I decided I needed to go on one even though I've always scoffed at the brief little spin the boats do along the Lake shore. If they actually headed out away from land, I would have gone my first year here.

Going out of the harbor under the lift bridge was probably the highlight for me, seeing the great expanse of water ahead, with lots of imagined possibilities. But Lake time is very limited as the cruise quickly returns under the bridge and goes around the harbor. I did get some good looks at some terns along with the usual gulls and geese.

The cruise would be most relevant to people who are interested in shipping and industry, but a couple things the tour narrator said made me question the general accuracy of the spiel. He pointed out the old armory building and said it was one of the last places Buddy Holly played before his plane crash, but then completely ignored the local relevance of the story by not mentioning that Bob Dylan attended. He also questioned whether additions to the Lakewalk would happen because of the economy, apparently not swayed by the fact that the work on it was being done as he spoke.

So, lots of water recently, include a very gloomy rainy period which unfortunately resulted in hundreds of thousands more gallons of overflow from the sewer system, a problem the city and EPA have long been working on.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Perverted Primates

And not only the primates. The elephants are being perverted too. You can read about their perverted acts in The Wauchula Woods Accord: Toward a New Understanding of Animals by Charles Siebert.

The chimpanzees and orangutans have been deliberately perverted for amusement and experiments by the most perverted and dangerous primate of them all: in television shows and commercials (until they reach more than a few years of age and are no longer controllable), in circuses and zoos, by psychologists turning chimps into family members until they get tired of them, by scientists still deliberately infecting them with human diseases; it's a long and ugly list.

Elephant perversion, such as their increased violent behavior and the raping of rhinos, is simply a byproduct of the destruction of their social groups and territories by, well, you know who. This section of the book features Gay Bradshaw, an expert in animal trauma who has a book
titled Elephants on the Edge: What Animals Teach Us about Humanity coming out in October, and Eve Abe, a Ugandan animal ethologist who draws parallels between the breakdowns in elephant and human societies.

Advocates of legal rights for animals might be interested to read that until about a century ago animals were sometimes put on trial--however, not being judged by their peers, it usually didn't end well for the accused. Victims of bestiality were killed for being too enticing and elephants were hung for murder. Meanwhile, Thomas Edison publicly electrocuted animals on a regular basis in an attempt at personal gain of currency.

The book contains several of these interesting historical and present events within an added for dramatic effect framework (a night spent with one chimp) which seems to go nowhere during most of the book but pays off in a big emotional finish. All of this is to serve what the epilogue calls the book's central premise--"the degree to which we humans will finally stop abusing other creatures and, for that matter, one another will ultimately be measured by the degree to which we come to understand how integral a part of us all other creatures actually are." Modern humans need to relearn what earlier societies knew--we're not the only people on the planet. Chimps and elephants and all the others live here too.

There's also a bit of science throughout the book such as the similarities of brains of various species, the increased acknowledgment of various personalities within each species, and that damaged individuals, non-human as well as human, can improve with proper treatment and conditions. The book's title comes from the location of one of the places trying to repair the damage, The Center for Great Apes. Other organizations featured in the book include Chimp Haven and Save the Chimps.

I don't know why you were diverted,
You were perverted too.
George Harrison

Monday, August 10, 2009

The wind that talks in trees speaks pine in my ear.

It's lines like that one, along with the lines of his excellent detailed artwork, which make me love the books of David M. Carroll so much. His latest, Following the Water: A Hydromancer's Notebook, shows and tells his annual observations from the first breaks in the ice through its reforming in a New Hampshire wetland.

The evocative opening page describes his winter pathways in his old house, amidst overflowing bookcases and paintings and art supplies. The words which follow, whether in the forty page title essay in which he describes his route through the wetland, a route you can follow on his detailed map inside the covers, or in a chapter consisting of a single paragraph, are like paintings themselves. You'll want to savor them with the same method he uses in his walks/wades: very slowly, with frequent stops.

Turtles are his first love, and there are many of them here: Spotted, Wood, Blanding's, Snapping, Painted. The early chapters are filled with more suspense than you might expect in such a book as he finds the first turtles of the year. He beautifully mixes his own emotions regarding individual animals he's observed for years with reflections on the never-ending processes of evolution and species interactions. His pain, anger, and despair result not from what occurs in nature but from the modern gods of "development" and "progress".

But it's not only turtles he observes and records. Many fish, insects, birds, frogs, snakes, and plants are also found in these pages. An encounter with a gray fox comes in a fine chapter in which he's exploring a suburban wetland on behalf of a group trying to stop further development, trying to remain out of sight from nearby houses and roads, the roads named after what used to be there--Trillium Way, Ferncrest Drive, Birch Lane. After describing his reluctance to do this because of past frustrations after doing this sort of fact-finding comes this wonderfully understated line: "There is also the fact that paid turtle work is uncommon and sometimes hard to turn down." He's not at all surprised when the police show up to watch him--having spent a lot of time downtown looking for falcons with binoculars and in various other fascinations over the years, I could relate.

The final chapter raises the question of preservation vs. conservation in a very personal way for the author. Should some areas be left completely wild, not "saved" as parkland for people's recreation? Is there any room left on the planet for nature to be nature without human presence? To misquote a famous doctor, "Who speaks for the turtles?"

The merging of an artist's close observation of the natural world with a love for and need of that world, the emotions its destruction stirs in him, and his talent at putting all of that into words is a combination I can't resist. The man is my favorite living nature writer; it's not for nothing that he was awarded a MacArthur Foundation "genius grant" a few years ago. I hope you'll check out all his excellent work.

You can read an excerpt from the book here, and there are also links to a video/interview you should definitely watch and an older article the magazine published about him. If you'd like a t-shirt with his artwork, you have a choice of turtles or a dragonfly here.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Five Shelves

What was once five bookcases overflowing with additional books in piles on the floor and boxes in the closet is now five shelves. I've always had Read and Unread bookcases and have kept that split with the shelves. Here's a look at what's worth keeping for now.

1) Read books, predominantly by and about Thoreau and Abbey. Some nature writing by Robert Finch and John Hay, a couple nature study books, a couple by Roderick Nash, Tom Brown's Field Guides series, Into the Wild.

2) Read books including Shakespeare, The Alexandria Quartet, some histories of eco-radicalism, works by my two favorite Davids--Carroll and Quammen, The Abstract Wild, about a dozen fictions of eco and/or apoco variations, a few books about hiking in the Porcupine Mountains and the Boston area, The Hopes of Snakes, Writing Down the Bones which renewed my writing after a long time away, Cold Comfort about Duluth, and Landscape with Reptile, a wonderful hodgepodge (much like this shelf) of a book about rattlesnakes near Boston.

3) Field guides and such, including Audubon, Peterson, Stokes Nature Guides, Sierra Club Naturalist's Guides (I've come close to selling the ones for areas I'll never see, but haven't been able to part with them so far), the Eastman and Hansen series on plants and birds, tracking books by Elbroch and Rezendes, some specific species (whaddaya mean, it's repetitively redundant?) books including crow & raven, red fox, raccoon, bald eagle, woodpeckers.

4) Unread books by and about Thoreau, and a stack of half-read Wild Earth.

5) Unread books including more by some of my favorites--Finch, Gruchow, Hay, Quammen--and some by writers I've yet to explore--Eiseley and Krutch. Also, the 50-year-old classic Curious Naturalists by Niko Tinbergen, a couple about the New England landscape, the revised edition of the excellent nature writing reference This Incomparable Land, and a variety of other one-of-a-kinds including the Encyclopedia of Religion and Nature.

Of the more than 1000 books I've sold is there anything I regret? I'm surprised by quite a few of the books I've gotten rid of, but haven't given most of them a second thought since they disappeared.
I've gone back and forth mostly on field guides. Only if I think of my former collection as a whole do I feel a little bad about its loss. Everything's temporary, including us.

Willy DeVille, Dead at 58

It is with heavy hearts that we let you know that Willy passed away peacefully last night, August 6, 2009. His music and spirit will always be with us.

Willy won't be on the cover of a dozen magazines in every grocery store, but I think he's more deserving of it. That lack of American appreciation will be nothing new for DeVille who, in the tradition of many American jazz musicians, was always more popular in Europe--several of his recordings were only available here as imports. I hope some label will release a good box set now. With a mix of punk, New Orleans, soul, and blues, his voice shone whether crooning or growling. Wikipedia seems to have a pretty good article.
(AP 2002 photo)

Friday, August 7, 2009

Mr. Bird's Corvid Proves Aesop's Fable

Do you ever wonder how many stories like this it would take to make the average human start treating other animals with some respect? I would wonder if I had more respect for the average human, but who wants to consider the intelligence and emotions of animals? That might make people think twice about eating, shooting, skinning, caging, drugging, and using them for amusement.

Maybe not the best story to make my point since it involves captive rooks, but that's the top story today on a great blog I just discovered. The Water Cache Project gathers dozens of wildlife stories almost every day and provides links to them. Bears, raccoons, skunks, deer, cougars, bighorn sheep, eagles, turtles, and wolves are all found on today's list. And that blog goes to the top of my list.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Cuteness Overload

Now that's not something you associate with this blog, is it? Relax, I'm just going to give you a link to it. You're adults; you can make your own cuteness overload choices.

Whenever I need a pick-me-up, I go here to look at some raccoon photos. But now there's a baby beaver in the mix. Oh, my goodness.