Sunday, December 13, 2015

An Exercise in Futility

Now, you no longer need to wade through the analyses of COP21, whether critical or congratulatory, - as we all try to forget the obscene excesses of the misguided activists.

In one brief cathartic series of his signature limericks, Benjamin the Donkey has the most astute commentary imaginable.  Dramatized in poignant settings with inimitable disarming sincerity and humor, enjoy his latest foray into the world of youtube, and hope for many more.


Friday, December 4, 2015

Extinction Goes Glam

Following is the transcript for the 18th Dispatch from the Endocene, which will air on Extinction Radio.  

Thanks so much for producing Extinction Radio, Gene  - and welcome listeners, to the 18th Dispatch from the Endocene.

In conjunction with the Paris Climate talks, the Discovery Channel has broadcast a film called Racing Extinction.  It is no doubt a well-intentioned effort, and a cinematic dazzle - but for all  that, it unwittingly embodies the very human blindness that imminently condemns our species - and most others - to the dustbin of evolution.

According to a review in The Verge, the director conceived of the movie as an “eco-thriller”, believing that “…imagery is the ultimate motivator to incite change”.  That sort of hubris and infatuation with technology is also expressed by one of the participants in the documentary, a NASCAR driver, who is described evidently without irony as an environmental activist in Rolling Stone.

According to the magazine, she “…races a tricked out Tesla through city streets, projecting huge images of endangered species onto buildings…” and is quoted as saying:  “The most important part of my journey is that I can drive a racecar. The car is the only thing that gives me the ability to talk to 75 million race fans. If I was just a biology grad…trying to get people to give up meat, put solar on their roof and buy an electric car, they'd never hear me.”

There doesn’t seem to be any excuse too ludicrous when it comes to justifying the use of modern wizardry.

Of course, this attempt to educate people about the crisis in biodiversity and the Sixth Mass Extinction is laudable, since most people remain oblivious - in fact most people, even the director of this film, are unaware that humans first embarked upon the Sixth Mass Extinction at least 15,000 years ago.  And bravo for the emphasis on hunting and habitat in a world obsessed with the political debate over climate change from CO2.  But there is a fatal flaw that renders just about all of their efforts ineffectual.  What underlies the apparently altruistic desire to stop the destruction of nature is a simultaneous belief that this can be accomplished while maintaining the most privileged of lifestyles.  And I really mean the absolutely MOST privileged of all time.

You can’t find a more stark example of this than last year’s campaign by Conservation International, in which Hollywood celebrities narrated a series of videos collectively titled, “Nature is Speaking.”  I’m going to read excerpts from the post about it on my blog, Wit’s End.

The claim of human exceptionalism is familiar - the notion that our species is special, the crown of creation, subject to different rules and even unique evolutionary influences, than other more lowly animals - or plants for that matter.  This idiotic conceit underlies everything from fanatic veganism (if only we didn't eat meat we could save the world and feed 10 billion people!) to techno-worship (we can have infinite growth on a finite planet!).
But there is deeper variant of human exceptionalism that presents a final irrevocable obstacle to any prospect (long since obsolete anyway) that we might mend our ways.

We EACH think our own individual selves are exceptional, even within the already exceptional human race.  Which of course is why it is so perennially droll when Garrison Keillor introduces his Lake Wobegon radio show with "...all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average".
Or think about the environmental icon who inspired Earth First!, Edward Abbey, who loved the wilderness so much he was against immigration, calling for "...a halt to the mass influx of even more millions of hungry, ignorant, unskilled, and culturally-morally-genetically impoverished people", but had five children himself - and loved the desert so much he liked nothing better than to tear around off road in his pickup truck.
This brings us to the absurdly ignorant, painfully ironic campaign to save nature AND humanity, concocted by the group known as Conservation International which debuted at the beginning of the week.  An executive vice president and senior scientist at CI describes the project as an attempt to "rebrand" environmentalism to be less about preserving wildlife and more about preserving humans, by emphasizing that people are dependent upon nature.  Like the World Wildlife Fund, also founded by royalty and other elites, the leadership is so steeped in privilege that they have no clue at all what a bitter taste emanates from their efforts.

Julia Roberts as Mother Nature sternly warns us naughty children that she doesn’t need us - oh no, we need her - and she is going to take away our toys if we don’t take better care of the gifts she has given us.  That's alright as far as it goes but then she declares:  “One way or the other, your actions will determine your fate, not mine. I am Nature. I will go on. I am prepared to evolve. Are you?”

This is ignorant on at least two levels.  First, humans cannot willfully evolve.  Evolution has no purpose, and it doesn't happen because we decide we want it to, and certainly not in any timescale that could matter.  Conflating natural selection with a wish that humans had a different brain wired for more altruistic behavior should not have made it through an organization that employs scientists.  Second, it isn't at all clear that Nature will go on, once we are no longer capable of trashing her, if we have unleashed amplifying feedbacks that will lead to a runaway greenhouse Venus effect.

But to the more interesting question (at least, as long as humans are alive and capable of curiosity) which goes to the heart of the problem of consciousness, it seems fair, even requisite, to inquire - how are Julia and the other movie stars in these videos doing at reducing their impact on Planet Earth?  Well, let's see…Julia has three children and at least four houses - Hawaii, New Mexico, Malibu and New York, which she shuttles between via private jet.

Hey though, she makes up for it, as described in TreeHugger:

"The pretty woman will be helping biodiesel producer Earth Biofuels promote a program to encourage the use of biodiesel in more than 500,000 diesel school buses nationwide. A recent addition to the Earth Biofuels board of directors, Ms. Roberts will serve as a spokesperson for the eco-fuel. ''It's very important that we expand our use of clean energy and make a long-term commitment to it. Biodiesel and ethanol are better for the environment and for the air we breathe,'' Roberts said in an announcement about her new role. She will be joining current Earth Biofuels celeb board members Willie Nelson and Morgan Freeman.

The idea that biofuels are better for the environment is so discredited it is astonishing to see it being promoted, but keep in mind that this series was screened on Virgin Air, and Richard Branson’s $25m reward for carbon capture is still unclaimed.  Airplanes won’t run on solar or wind.  To see how deep the corruption is, take a look at the webpage for Virginearth/The Prize where you will find him jointly holding a globe with Al Gore, their faces beaming with tender reverence.

Speaking as the Ocean in another of the series, Harrison Ford recites:  "It’s not their planet, anyway.  Never was. Never will be. But humans, they take more than their share. They poison me and then expect me to feed them. Well, it doesn’t work that way."

"I’m only going to say this once, 'If nature isn’t kept healthy, humans won’t survive. Simple as that. I mean, I could give a damn. With or without humans, I’m The Ocean. I covered this entire planet once and I can always cover it again.'"

Let’s just check how Harrison is doing in terms of responsible stewardship, by reading his own words in an interview

1.  There's nothing better than seeing a herd of elk right outside the window of my house in Wyoming.   My land gives me an opportunity to be close to nature, and I find spiritual solace in nature, contemplating our species in the context of the natural world.

2.  All of my planes are great to fly, and that's why I've got so many of them.  I have a Citation Sovereign, a long-range jet; a Grand Caravan, a turboprop aircraft capable of operating on unimproved strips; and a De Havilland, a bush plane. I have a 1929 Waco Taperwing open-top biplane; a 1942 PT-22 open-top monoplane trainer; an Aviat Husky, a two-seat fabric-covered bush plane; and a Bell 407 helicopter. I also have more than my fair share of motorbikes - eight or nine. I have four or five BMWs, a couple of Harleys, a couple of Hondas and a Triumph; plus I have sports touring bikes.

3.  I'm a big fan of Prince Charles.  I met him because I worked on a little film project for The Prince's Trust last year, and he's a charming man, very nice and a very smart guy. We may be working together on an environmental project this year for Conservation International. I'm on the board, and we're very happy because Prince Charles asked to join us. A few weeks ago we voted to place him on our board of directors. We'll probably do something together soon connected with the protection of the environment.

Kevin Spacey is the voice of the rainforest.  I can't find much about him although I will say, staying on the 37-meter superyacht The Tango while in Sydney for performances of Richard III might have been less than ecologically prudent.

Edward Norton, who is honest as dirt and humble too in the “Soil” segment, inherited millions from his grandfather, inventor of the modern American mall (thanks, Grandpop!).  In addition to the houses around the world he was left, he has since acquired more of his own - a pad in NY, a few houses in Malibu and a mansion in the Hollywood Hills.  He has a Mercedes and a couple of Range Rovers - but they don’t count because he also, being a passionate environmentalist, has a hydrogen-fueled BMW.

Penélope Cruz, who represents “Water” travels by private jet between her houses in LA, Madrid and NY - and various vacations spots like the Bahamas.  She takes helicopters for shorter jaunts.

Perhaps avid skier Robert Redford's claim to environmentalism is the most egregiously, outrageously hypocritical of all when he speaks to us as “The Redwood”.   Men's Journal recounts the adorable story about how he fell in love with Utah and single-handedly turned it into the luxury resort, Sundance, which is somehow presented as modest because it doesn't serve the numbers of Vail.

“…His master plan for the resort – which he insists is named for the way sunlight dances off the peaks and not his mustachioed character in 'Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid' – tops out at 106 artist studios and homes, none marring the open areas above the tree line. The ski resort is small – four lifts, 450 skiable acres, and a top elevation of 8,200 feet – and that suits him just fine.”

Redford considers Sundance home.  “…a great, great part of it is still untouched, still pure. I came because I like being around hardworking agricultural people. I like the contrast of moving from an urban, edgy place like New York to this place with people working the land for generations."

"Utah is not the only landscape that has a hold on Redford - he's building a house in Napa and owns another in Santa Fe".  

Take a look at a picture of nighttime Sundance on my blog - it’s as bright as a Christmas tree, and the forest on the mountain is slashed with trails.

The Sundance Airport website - which claims “The skies are meant for flying” - says they have 190 T-hangars for everything from single-engine aircraft through small corporate jets, in addition to a main terminal.  Redford also chose the name out of respect for the Native American Sun Dance, while the Institute is ostensibly “committed to the balance of art, nature and community.”  Does he really think that nature is served by 50,000 people descending into the town for an annual film festival?

This is the hubris and blindness inherent in our unwise species of which I speak.  I would not characterize it as evil, or shameful - because it is immutable and endemic.

Elizabeth Kolbert - author of The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History - sums it up.  In one clip from Racing Extinction linked at the Rolling Stone article, she says in a voice of weary resignation, “We have these prehistoric brains, and we have this god-like technology…and when you bring them together, the result is not necessarily a happy one”.

Prehistoric brains…god-like technology…not necessarily happy results.

Perhaps that is the understatement of all time.

Thanks for listening.

Elizabeth Kolbert at 2:14 in:

Friday, November 20, 2015

That Feathered Thing

This fall I finally visited the Storm King Art Center, an enormous rambling sculpture park north of New York City I have driven past many times, on my way to somewhere else, wishing I had time to stop. 
It is debatable whether some of the gigantic pieces enhance the landscape - or detract from the rolling hills and forest...
...but some were thought provoking, and powerful -  conjuring thoughts about deep time and our place in the universe.
It was the last day of a special exhibit of whimsical fountains.
Even though these are made of petroleum-derived plastic, I admired the bright, garish color flaming against the natural backdrop - and the playful organic moldings.
This gravity defiance was breathtaking, and I’m sorry I can’t supply the movement and sound of the water, or the wonderful clear sky and sunshine on that windy afternoon.
One permanent installation is a memorial, a lovely tribute to someone the sculptor must have cared deeply about.  Every time a visitor rings the bell, it is a vibrating resonant reminder of a life that once existed but is now over.  Of course I never knew the man this iron poem was dedicated to, nor do any others who pass by.  But, this sort of profound gesture of love reaches each of us, even when we can't have ever known the individual the artwork commemorates.  This expression of love is one of many that make humans unique in the animal kingdom, and very much part of the theme for my latest Dispatch From the Endocene on Extinction Radio.  You can listen to it online, and/or read the transcript below. Links follow the text:

Thanks Gene, and welcome listeners, to the 17th Dispatch From the Endocene.

It seems a natural and common reaction when people encounter the certainty that the sixth mass extinction has begun - and the likelihood that the human species will not be spared - to wonder why and how this has been allowed to happen.  The concept of mass extinction, especially our own, challenges the deepest cherished faith we nourish - in progress, in the ultimate perfectibility of fallible humanity, in divine forgiveness of our sins and foibles.  It is the end of all that.  It requires confronting our worst enemy, ourselves.

Even the few people who are able to understand that our species is doomed by our own actions often remain in denial that, sooner or later, it was inevitable.  Instead of accepting the immutability our self-imposed destruction, it is comforting to turn to the illusion that things might have turned out differently.   This is a tempting fallacy because embedded within this rationalizing is an implicit desire, that we might yet change and improve our fortunes, perhaps even avert our untimely demise as a species.  To truly accept our role in the 6th mass extinction, it is essential to understand the human propensity to deny and to hope, and how such delusions arose, inextricably and genetically entwined, in tandem with a consciousness of our individual selves, language, symbolism, and the foreknowledge of death.

One pertinent indication of our inability to overcome the primal instinctual behavior that developed over countless generations is the tendency of populations to become obese and develop related diseases once the supply of fatty, salty, sweetened food, scarce for most of our evolution, becomes readily available and inexpensive.  Usually the notion of free will is invoked and industrial civilization is blamed, along with individuals for their “life-style choices”, while our evolved imperatives are overlooked.  Similarly, we compulsively binge on power from cheap energy and on the products that derive from it.

Present-day culture is frequently reviled as overly preoccupied with status, as expressed by rampant consumerism - but like culinary excesses, the urge to flaunt possessions is simply an extension of behavior that evolved long ago.  Humans began bargaining with fate as soon as they started to bury their dead, something no other species does, entombing remains with offerings starting with simple bones, shells, then clay figurines, and ultimately fantastic, elaborate and ostentatious objects such as are found in the ancient pyramids of Egypt.  Rituals and ceremonies arose as religions and worship of spirits permeated cultures from primitive to the most complex and are always accompanied  by tangible objects of value. 
It’s amusing that current obsessions with fancy watches and cars, body sculpting and plastic surgery are denounced as a shallow fetish, when the same impulses in native tribal cultures are lauded as “indigenous spirituality” and considered sacred “ethnic traditions”.  Among some of the more outlandish practices have been crippling and painful bodily re-configurations such flattened heads, bound feet, corsets, the insertion of enormous lip plates from as long ago as 8700 bc, requiring the removal of teeth, earlobe gauging and let’s not forget some horrible genital mutilations.   More often relatively benign self-ornamentation has been used to denote membership in a tribe, and one’s position within it, such as tattoos, piercings, jewelry, headdresses and clothing style.  To expect that people in today’s society eschew such symbolic displays of reproductive fitness, or to forsake totemic possessions that defy death, is to ask humans to stop being humans.  We have brains big enough to understand how meaningless and futile it is to appease mythical gods in hopes of immortality…but not big enough to stop us doing it.

We have driven species to extinction not just for the necessities of life, but because they were collected purely for trivial decorative purposes, such as tree-dwelling snails in Hawaii, sea turtles, horns from animals of all sorts, ivory, abalone, coral.  The enchanting nautilus has been depleted in the Philippines by 80 percent since 1980.  Thanks, US, for importing more than 100,000 a year!  But this frivolous collecting began at dawn of time.  When people blame civilization, or capitalism, or the neolithic revolutionary turn to agriculture for the trashing of the natural world, they forget that it was civilization that finally enabled people, albeit too late, to deem our behavior wrong and attempt to ameliorate prior and ongoing damage.  Modern people have deliberately set aside large tracts of land for wilderness, and designated species endangered in an attempt to protect them.  Our ancestors thoughtlessly took until there was nothing left, and then resorted, when they could, to some other resource or location.
Shells aside, there is probably no finer illustration of the phenomenon I am describing than to trace the use of feathers.  Recently my daughter informed me with a fine sense of outrage that down comforters and pillows are an evil indulgence, because the feathers are cruelly yanked from living geese and ducks.  I checked and unfortunately, she’s right.  But this atrocity isn’t an invention of contemporary manufacturing.  It has been a world-wide habit.  Nobody can know how long ago it started, because it began before records were kept.
The following is some history from BirdLife International.  It may seem a tedious recounting, but I feel like it is important to acknowledge the scale and ubiquity of the carnage, to honor the unique and dazzling creatures we have mercilessly exploited for tens of thousands of years.
“Feathers have always been part of human self-adornment, betokening status, wealth, vitality, ardour and defiance (Diamond 1986). Across the world, tribal peoples had used the most colourful and extravagant plumes of the birds they hunted to decorate themselves. Zulus once wore turaco feathers as headdresses. The King of Swaziland and traditional Masai men still do. In West Africa, a porcupine quill and red flight feather from Bannerman’s Turaco in a man’s black hat indicate his position as a traditional council member.
“In the Palas valley in northern Pakistan, people wear the colourful plumes of the near-endemic Western Tragopan  in their caps. In Borneo the tail-feathers of the largest hornbills are used in ceremonial dances and rituals. In New Guinea the birds of paradise were (and again still are) the chief targets, and dried skins were used in trade as far east as mainland South-East Asia and as long ago as 3000 BC; but cassowaries are used more completely—their feathers used in ceremonial headdresses, their bare quills carved into nose-pins and ear-rings, their leg-bones fashioned into implements and their sharp claws fitted to arrow-tips (on top of all this, they furnish a spectacular amount of food).
“In New Caledonia, Kagu feathers were used in the war headdresses of chiefs, and their calls mimicked in war-dances. Polynesians trapped Red-tailed Tropicbird on the nest, plucked their long red streamers to wear in their hair or nose, and—with admirable self-restraint and forethought—let the birds go.
“Rulers in Hawaii made capes out of now-extinct drepanid finches, and probably contributed heavily to their demise: the ceremonial cloak made for Kamehameha, the first king of all the islands, is composed—to the most exacting of standards and to memorised incantatory rituals—of nearly half a million yellow feathers from an estimated 80,000 birds belonging to one species, the Hawaiian Mamo.
“In North America the feathers of the Bald Eagle formed the almost legendary headdresses of native Indians, but they also made necklaces and tiaras from the feathers of Red-headed Woodpecker, quails and hummingbirds, with one surviving cape being made entirely of the red head-plumes of Acorn Woodpeckers, several thousands of which would have been needed for the purpose. In Central America, the extraordinary blue-green iridescent snaking back-plumes of the Resplendent Quetzal were woven into royal gowns; besides quetzal plumes, the gown belonging to the Aztec king Moctezuma had many hundreds of trochilid feathers, interspersed with tiny platelets of gold.
“In South America, many kinds of exquisite feathers were used by native tribes, notably from cotingas, hummingbirds, toucans and parrots: certain tribes made headdresses from the wings of the Hyacinth Macaw, and the Emperors of Brazil had cloaks made from Channel-billed Toucan plumes and mantles made of Guianan Cock-of-the-rock feathers.
“At the height of the Aztec empire, five provinces which contained cloud-forest were compelled to furnish tributes in the form of as many as 2,480 “bunches” or “handfuls” of mostly tail-streamers from Resplendent Quetzals. If it is assumed that each “handful” contained 10–50 such feathers (four from each bird), this would have meant a harvest of 6,200–31,000 Resplendent Quetzals per year! Even if the lives of the birds were spared (and despite the edict of death on those who killed them, it seems inevitable that a large proportion might have been seriously injured in the capture/plucking process), the figure is still astonishing, and indicates that the species must have been very much more abundant in pre-Columbian times than it is today.”
Elsewhere I learned that Plains Indians obtained feathers for their war bonnets by capturing young eagles from the nest.  Once the bird reached maturity they could pluck tail feathers three times, until they no longer grew back, yielding a total of thirty-six feathers.  The same nest could be raided annually.  I could find no information on the fate of the thrice-plucked birds that could no longer fly but I doubt it was auspicious.
Feathers are still somewhat popular, but nothing today approaches the absolute mania around the turn of the 20th century for exotic feathers - to adorn hats, as well as for fans and other accessories.
For that history a wonderful resource can be found at a blog that highlights a traveling museum exhibit, titled “Fashioning Feathers”, which was a collaboration between several artists and scholars.
That global massacre was only possible because indigenous people were already skilled at trapping or killing birds to obtain their feathers.  The hunt for bird of paradise plumage in Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia and New Guinea was described in 1869 by naturalist Alfred Russell Wallace, who, like Darwin - to whom he proposed the concept of natural selection  - was searching for the origin of species.  Over eight years he traveled 14,000 miles collecting 125,660 specimens, mainly insects but also birds, plants and animals.   Following is an excerpt from the book that chronicled his findings, “The Malay Archipelago: The Land of the Orang-utang and the Bird of Paradise”:
“…the males assemble early in the morning to exhibit themselves in the singular manner already described…This habit enables the natives to obtain specimens with comparative ease. As soon as they find that the birds have fled upon a tree on which to assemble, they build a little shelter of palm leaves in a convenient place among the branches, and the hunter ensconces himself in it before daylight, armed with his bow and a number of arrows terminating in a round knob. A boy waits at the foot of the tree, and when the birds come at sunrise, and a sufficient number have assembled, and have begun to dance, the hunter shoots with his blunt arrow so strongly as to stun the bird, which drops down, and is secured and killed by the boy without its plumage being injured by a drop of blood. The rest take no notice, and fall one after another till some of them take the alarm…The indigenous mode of preserving them is to cut off the wings and feet, and then skin the body up to the beak, taking out the skull. A stout stick is then run up through the specimen coming out at the mouth.”

I’ve put an etching from the book of that scene on my blog, Wit’s End ~
The website describes the extent of the “harvest”.  The market was worldwide, but the industry centered in the UK:

“At the height of the ‘Plume Boom’ in the early part of the 20th century the business of killing birds for the millinery trade was practiced on a large scale, involving the deaths of hundreds of millions of birds in many parts of the world…around 1901-1910, 14,362,000 pounds of exotic feathers were imported into the United Kingdom at a total valuation of £19, 923, 000…The overwhelming majority of egret plumes (at their finest during the breeding season) were obtained by shooting the birds as they nested, with the inevitable result that the young slowly starved to death.”
Eventually the obscene carnage inspired protest, leading to the formation of the first Audubon Societies and legislation in the US and UK protecting wild birds.

And so we read on the website:  “W. H. Hudson, a representative of the Society for the Protection of Birds (SPB,) recoiled with horror as he witnessed the sale of 80,000 parrot and 1,700 Bird of Paradise skins late in 1897:  Spread out in Trafalgar Square they would have covered a large proportion of that space with a grass-green carpet, flecked with vivid purple, rose and scarlet.”
It also quotes W. T. Hornaday, author of Our Vanishing Wildlife, published in 1913.

“From the trackless jungles of New Guinea, round the world both ways to the snow-capped peaks of the Andes, no unprotected bird is safe. The humming-birds of Brazil, the egrets of the world at large, the rare birds of paradise, the toucan, the eagle, the condor and the emu, all are being exterminated to swell the annual profits of the millinery trade. The case is far more serious than the world at large knows, or even suspects. But for the profits, the birds would be safe; and no unprotected wild species can long escape the hounds of Commerce.”

But it was not noble efforts at conservation that finally spared surviving species.  A sad footnote records the reason that millionaire ostrich farmers in Australia lost their mansions, some driven to suicide by the bubble collapse:
“Yet, as absurd as it may sound, it was really a fashionable new hairstyle that ultimately saved the birds. In 1913, the bob and other short hairstyles were introduced—cuts which would not support large extravagant hats. Plain slouch hats and ‘cloches’ became very popular, and it was for this reason that most plume-hunters were forced to abandon their trade.”
Feathers have been symbols of eternal life, ascension, and wisdom in many cultures.  An inscription on a Egyptian tomb from nearly 3500 years ago is translated “May I walk every day unceasing on the banks of my water, may my soul rest on the branches of the trees which I have planted, may I refresh myself in the shadow of my sycamore.”  But in those days, it was believed that after death, the Goddess Ma’at would weigh the purity of a soul’s heart, and only those lighter than the white feather of truth would reach the afterlife.

One of Emily Dickinson’s most beloved poems begins with the line, “Hope” is the thing with feathers - that perches in the soul.
It was very disappointing to me to find that so many reviews, even very sophisticated critiques, take it to be a childlike affirmation of the value of hope in the human experience.   Almost without exception readers depict her portrayal of hope as sentimental, if not saccharin trope.  But, it seems to me that her self-imposed exile from society was at least partly related to her refusal to accede to the strong familial pressure to accept the religious fervor of her time.  She eschewed hope and eternal salvation through a deity in favor of a devout pagan worship of nature, and instead embraced a stubborn delight in the natural world, and a felicitous desire to experience life as it is.   As a subtle but profound sense of irony wends through her oeuvre, and a playful mockery of dogmatism, I imagine her reflection on “Hope” was intended to be sardonic.  When it is unrealistic, which it so often is, hope is an inescapable, stifling trap that humanity can never escape - and I suspect that Emily was shrewd enough to know that.
I thought I was alone in this interpretation until finally I came across author Derek Murphy, who wrote the following on his unique and intriguing blog, Holy Blasphemy:  “Emily Dickinson strikes me very much like Camus’ character in The Stranger. Facing death for murder, a preacher comes to save him, and he yells, “leave me alone! I don’t have much time left, I want to focus on this life, not the next!” (Or something like that, I’m paraphrasing and it’s been awhile since I’ve read it.) A common mistake is to take each of her poems separately and tug out a stand-alone meaning. In this way the body of work Emily produced can mean anything to anybody. But taken at face value, and read collectively, Emily’s anti-organized religion stance and outspoken blasphemy is clear.”

I will leave a link to that post with the only others I located that venture into the darker side of Dickinson, on my blog for anyone interested to read more.  Thanks for listening to this Dispatch from the Endocene.


nautilus shells

funny - appropriating native headressess

BirdLife International:
quetzetl, Aztec:  

Museum Exhibit on feathers:


more on Emily:

A 2010 post from me, about Emily Dickinson and her poems about the garden and nature:

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Fallen Leaves That Jewel the Ground

October 29, 2010
This fall, there have been just enough bright colors to serve as a cruel reminder that I will never again see a sight as deliriously sublime as the pond in Peapack when I saw it, in 2010.
October 25, 2015
Five years since then (less four days) and the inexorable, accelerating decline of trees presents us with ever more fading of the former glory that was autumn.
Even leaves on the brightest maples are damaged, pale ghosts of what should be flaming scarlet.
I can find a few bright areas, but right next to a spray of fiery leaves on the same tree are too many shriveled, burnt branches.
Even worse, many more leaves, like these honey locust, have remained obdurately green as of today.
They have become limp, turning grey or brown, and then fall onto the ground without even the feeblest nod to the vibrant colors we expect in autumn.
I planted this katsura in front of the chicken coup about fifteen years ago.  It started as little more than a twig and it's now at least 30 feet high.
Every fall for at least five years it has been shedding leaves early - turning yellow even in the summer.  But this year, they didn't even get that far.  They just turned brown.
One author wrote, in 2011, of his first discovery of the katsura, "...the aroma originated at a beautifully shaped tree with magnificent apricot-yellow foliage".  Although the lollipop scent if anything is even more pungent than usual, leaves on the entire crown of the kasura are leathery and dessicated.
They will not be turning "magnificent apricot-yellow" ever again.  Interestingly, the smell is supposed to occur only in fall as the leaves reach the end of their life cycle, stop photosynthesizing, and produce maltol, a sugar - but I can smell it all summer long.
And so too the redbud, a larger heart-shaped leaf, which shows no sign of ever displaying the contrasting purplish and orange hues it is known for.
Ironically, these two species both made the top ten list of fall plantings for bright color in This Old House Magazine, in an article published at least five years ago.
Not any more, unfortunately.

Following are the haunting lyrics from the Incredible String Band's October Song.  You can listen to the recording after a collection photos, which will be followed by the latest futile letter to the scientists.

October Song

I'll sing you this October song
Oh, there is no song before it
The words and tune are none of my own
For my joys and sorrows bore it

Beside the sea
The brambly briers in the still of evening
Birds fly out behind the sun
And with them I'll be leaving

The fallen leaves that jewel the ground
They know the art of dying
And leave with joy their glad gold hearts
In the scarlet shadows lying

When hunger calls my footsteps home
The morning follows after
I swim the seas within my mind
And the pine-trees laugh green laughter

I used to search for happiness
And I used to follow pleasure
But I found a door behind my mind
And that's the greatest treasure

For rulers like to lay down laws
And rebels like to break them
And the poor priests like to walk in chains
And God likes to forsake them

I met a man whose name was Time
And he said, "I must be going
But just how long ago that was
I have no way of knowing

Sometimes I want to murder time
Sometimes when my heart's aching
But mostly I just stroll along
The path that he is taking.

               ~ Robin Williamson, 1966

The other day I was stopped in the car at a red light, and someone in the vehicle next to me was listening to music so loud that I could feel it throbbing through both our closed windows.  It was some pop music that I couldn't name but recognized as silly, but happy.  I thought about how I rarely listen to music anymore, though it was once a joyful part of my life.

In fact, I avoid anything that triggers happy emotions.

Raw happy feelings bring up so much regret and grief in their wake, that I guess that, without deliberate intention, I have become practiced at numbness.  Which isn't to excuse it, let alone recommend it.  But the pine trees I see no longer laugh green laughter - they are fried and burnt and bare.  The fallen leaves no longer "...leave with joy their glad gold hearts..In the scarlet shadows lying..." - instead they shrivel up and turn brown and hang limp on the branches, without even the energy to turn color.  They are victims of poisoning that never was imagined in 1966 - when that exquisite ode to autumn was written - and are still almost universally ignored today.

Losing nature is as excruciatingly painful as losing a lover forever.  In that circumstance, it is better to forget than be overwhelmed by regret.  It is too painful to remember being breathless at the deep timbre of his voice on the other end of the phone; recall the anticipatory shivers when his footsteps reverberated late at night as he walked into the house; echo the melting felt at a glancing touch. Similarly, it is safer to push away memories of walking outside marveling at lush gardens full of scented flowers and butterflies, of climbing mountain trails through cool shady forests luxurious with ferns, of digging toes into gritty clean sand on a beach that smells of briney clean abundance in the sea.

My heart is constantly aching, wanting to Murder Time -  but there is nothing left but to stroll along.

I recently learned via a friend on FaceBook that there is a fabulous view to be found from the top of Bowman's Tower, a commemorative structure built in the 1930s in Washington Crossing State Park, located in New Hope, PA.  This past Friday was clear and sunny, so I decided to take the stairs to the top where I could record the condition of the trees.  I was reasonably confident that I would be able to find pictures from past seasons for comparison on the web, since it is a popular spot for tourists.
Sure enough, I later found lots of pictures and was able to match them approximately to mine.  This photo was taken on October 25, 2010:
Compare those vibrant colors to the empty crowns and dull foliage of October 23, 2015.

A staggering percentage of trees completely lost their leaves weeks ahead of normal.

This photo was undated, but was published in March of 2009, so it had to have been taken no later than the autum of 2008.
Here is what it looks like now, when it should be peak color:
I don't know when this photo was taken, but I do know it will never look like this again...
Because already the leaves are falling off, going from green to brown, before they ever turn those bright hues:

This photo is reliably dated -  as October 24, 2010
Here is a similar vantage I took on October 23 this year:
Another view from the same October 24, 2010 set:
Compare it to October 23, this year:
This photo was featured as Bucks County Fall Photo of the week in November, 2011:
In the intervening years the view has become more and more drab, earlier and earlier in the season, as shown in my picture from the 24th:
Does it look the same?  It's not!  Zoom in - today, almost half the branches are already bare.
From the tower, far below, it is possible to see the historic Thompson-Neely House, which is part of the park and open to the public for tours.  It retains the original pre-Revolutionary wide board floors, beautiful hand-made moldings, and of course the iconic stonework.
I decided to visit it, as long as I was there, and discovered to my non-surprise that it doesn't retain many of the trees that once graced the property.  There are stumps everywhere.

This is an earlier, undated photo which shows a large tree in front of the house, with a tall sycamore beyond.
Here's another view of it from days gone by.
 Well, that tree is no longer there.
 And the sycamore is rotting inside, as evidenced by a gaping hole in the trunk.

Here's the content of my latest missive to the following scientists:

Craig D. Allen, David D. Breshears, Nate G. McDowell,
A.K. Macalady, H. Chenchouni, D. Bachelet, N. McDowell, M. Vennetier, T. Kitzberger, A. Rigling, D.D. Breshears, E.H. Hogg, P. Gonzales, R. Fensham, Z. Zhang, J.-H. Lim, J. Castro, N. Demidova, G. Allard, S.W. Running, A. Semerci, and N. Cobb

cc:  Daniel Bishop, Timothy Sullivan, Gregory Lawrence, Colin Beier

Dear Authors and Editors,

I am writing in reference to the following papers you have published:

On underestimation of global vulnerability to tree mortality and forest die-off from hotter drought in the Anthropocene” in the ESA journal Ecosphere“A global overview of drought and heat-induced tree mortality reveals emerging climate change risks for forests”, in Forest Ecology and Management.

I am concerned that the emphasis on drought from climate change (although I do not dispute climate change or its ultimate impact on forests) is neglecting a crucial factor in forest decline.  The contribution of tropospheric ozone and related excess nitrogen deposition could explain why tree mortality and forest die-off corrolated with drought and climate has been "underestimated".

The role of pollution is critical for two reasons.

First, as vegetation dies off, less CO2 will be absorbed, thus accelerating all the effects of climate change.

Second, if the underlying influence of ozone is not addressed, there will not be migration of species in response to climate change, there will be mostly extinction.

Research about the impact of ozone on plants has been conducted for decades.  Given the pernicious damage from ozone, the background level of which is inexorably increasing around the world, it would be surprising if forests weren't dying off, with attendant wildfires and landslides as a result.

I would be delighted to hear back from any of you with your thoughts.  I have many, many more links to research in substantiation - following are a small sample.  Another summary with more corroberation can be found on my blog, Wit's End  Thank you so much for reading.


Gail Zawacki
Oldwick, NJ

1.  When they absorb ozone, plants and especially long-lived species such as trees first lost root mass, making them more vulnerable to drought and wind.  See attached photo of a controlled fumigation experiment from - left, filtered air, center, ambient polluted air, right, elevated ozone.  And that difference is from just one season.  The US EPA has determined that damage is cumulative.

2. Plants also lose immunity to opportunisitic biotic attacks from insects, disease and fungus.  See the report, "Ozone Pollution: Damage to Ecosystem Services" from the ICP Vegetation Programme.

3.  Precursors to ozone circumnavigate the globe so that even remote places have injurious levels of background ozone.  The Southern Hemisphere is also encountering high levels due to agricultural burning and wildfires.  See Dr. Jack Fishman's lecture to the Max Plank Institute "Are We Creating a Toxic Atmosphere?".

4.  Trees are dying in areas that are not drier, but are wetter or within natural variation.  A focus on western US and other areas of drought misses the equally dramatic death of forest on the East Coast, in the UK and the tropics.

5. Crops and nursery trees and even tropical ornamentals in pots that are being watered are also suffering damage.  Trees at their northern range of habitat are dying just as fast as those at the southern range.  See this article about sugar maple decline which scientists cannot explain by acid rain or climate change:
The issue has been known for years but has been swept under the rug:

6.  Ozone has been harming sequoias long before the drought achieved historically unprecedented proportions:

7.  The Permian-Triassic extinction (265 mya), the worst of the past big five and the only one in which trees and insects died off significantly, is a closer analog to the current 6th extinction, which is usually compared to climate change in the PETM event (65 mya).  The earlier extinction also was precipitated by massive poisoning of plants, from erupting traps, leading to the same spread of fungus/algae (rampant lichen) that can be seen today.  Now, humans are erupting prodigious amounts of toxic aerosols.

8.  There isn't a place on earth that isn't experiencing tree dieoff.  Examples are as plentiful as places and tree species.  A few:

9.  Pollution both interferes with rain directly, and indirectly as it injures foliage and reduces tree evapotranspiration.  Thus drought is as much a result of tree damage as a cause.

10.  Ozone both reduces the scent of flowers and the ability of pollinators to detect the scent, resulting in impaired reproduction of plants.

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