Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Brief: mendings & metaphors

Hedden Park in Morris County, New Jersey consists of 389 acres of forest—predominately maple, beech, and witch hazel. Many years ago, during my awkward youth, it was a favorite after-school wandering place; in my awkward adulthood I came to frequent Hidden Valley.

These woods took a savage pounding when Hurricane Sandy rolled through in 2012. During my first visit home after the storm, the trunks fallen over the trails and gaping holes in the canopy were disheartening sights indeed. The most concentrated area of devastation lay on a hillside where every standing tree within an area of about half an acre was knocked over. Looking at it though an elevated distance (it lies in a depression within sight of a trail) was like looking out over the cusp of an impact crater. Seeing into the clearing from the path was (and still is) difficult—the dense shrubs and creepers prevent walkers from getting close unless they're prepared to crawl through the dirt and suffer the briers. All that's visible is the evidence of a rupture in the treescape.

Four days ago, on a different trail than I usually take, I followed a line of flattened weeds up the hill and found myself inside the hollow.

Here's what it looks like now: ecological succession at work.

I'm certain this image would deliver a greater impact with a "before" picture preceding it. We'll just steal one from a (serendipitously relevant) Atlas Obscura article to get an idea of what this scene would have looked like in October 2012.

In conversation I heard myself likening the scene to scab tissue forming over a wound—and immediately regretted it.

Sunday, September 2, 2018

the pristine, the natural, & the anthropogenic, pt. 1

Frederic Edwin Church, El Rio de Luz (1877)

There's a certain cast of person I've met—he tends to be a somewhat overweight grad student or adjunct humanities professor with a stubbly neck—whose lip curls slightly when I tell him about my interest in conservation and wilderness preservation. I give him credit for listening, at least: usually when I grouse to a stranger about land-use policy and diminishing biodiversity or share my frustration with our inadequate conceptions of "nature," a visible frost accrues on their corneas. But after hearing me out for a minute, this sanguine fellow raises a finger to remind me that "pristine" spaces in the world are a cultural fiction, adducing theorists like Baudrillard and scientific studies. He's eager to cite a 2017 piece in The Atlantic which summarizes the findings (published in the journal Science) of an exhaustive, cross-disciplinary inquiry into the natural history of the Amazon rainforest:
For more than a quarter-century, scientists and the general public have updated their view of the Americas before European contact. The plains and the Eastern forests were not a wilderness, but a patchwork of gardens, they’ve found. The continents were not vast uninhabited expanses but a bustling network of towns and cities. Indigenous people, we’ve learned, altered the ecology of the Americas as surely as the European invaders did. 
For more than 8,000 years, people lived in the Amazon and farmed it to make it more productive. They favored certain trees over others, effectively creating crops that we now call the cocoa bean and the brazil nut, and they eventually domesticated them. And while many of the communities who managed these plants died in the Amerindian genocide 500 years ago, the effects of their work can still be observed in today’s Amazon rainforest.... 
[C]ultivation eventually altered entire regions of the Amazon, the study argues. Levis and her colleagues found that some of these species domesticated by indigenous people—including the brazil nut, the rubber tree, the maripa palm, and the cocoa treestill dominate vast swaths of the forest, especially in the southwest section of the Amazon basin....
Some geographers, anthropologists, and indigenous people have all rejected the idea that the Americas were an untouched wildernessthe pristine myth,” as they call this tale—since the early 1990s. (Fifteen years ago, it was the topic of 1491, Charles C. Mann’s article in The Atlantic, later a best-selling book.) But this paper further belies that myth in one of the most biodiverse places in the continent, suggesting that humans did not just farm in the Amazon but helped determine some of its major ecological communities.

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

excerpt #1: Montesquieu

Alfred Bendiner, Coffee (1936)

Some months ago I read The Persian Letters (1721), Montesquieu's seminal faux-naïf epistolary novel about expatriates from Isfahan settling in Paris and trying to figure out French society. It is at once a vehicle for the author's humanist beliefs, a series of satirical episodes, and an uncomfortable cautionary tale about patriarchy. What we'll be looking at today are some passages from the letters written by the character Rica, who of all the emigres goes the furthest in assimilating to French society and is the most eager to explore the city, converse with the locals, and issue sardonic reports on what he discovers. (To give credit where it's due, the edition from which these were stol'n was translated by Margaret Mauldon.)

In the following excerpt, substitute in your mind the coffee shop wits debating Homer with YouTubers, bloggers, and comments-section dwellers arguing about video games. The academics and students who "live on obscure reasoning" in the final paragraph can still be academics and students; just imagine they are dressed differently.
Coffee is widely drunk in Paris: there are a great many public establishments where it is served. In some of these establishments news is disseminated; in other, people play chess: there is one place where coffee is prepared in such a manner as to sharpen the wits of those who drink it; at any rate, of those who emerge from there, not a single one fails to be convinced that he is four times cleverer than he was upon entering.

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

preoccupation: gloomblossoms

Sometimes I get wrapped up in something strange and/or beautiful (really the two attributes seldom occur independently) I find out in the woods, like damselflies or wood thrushes or spring peepers. Lately I've been into Monotropa uniflora, which I must insist on calling gloomblossoms. They're already called Indian pipe, ghost pipe, ghost flowers, and corpse plants; what's one more colloquial name?

Via the Botanical Society of America:
The plant is entirely white, and each step is tipped by a single flower. If the plant is bruised or dries up, it turns dark brown or black. The fact that the flowers bend over probably relates to the wet places where they grow: if the flowers pointed upward, they might collect rainwater, and the nectar that they offer visiting insects would be diluted. The pollen grains would also be wet and wouldn't cling to visiting insects properly. 
The indian pipe gloomblossom is a flowering plant, but it isn't green, so how does it get its food? Even today, you see misinformation about that. People thought that it lived on decaying leaves and called it a saprophyte. Today we know that it has short, stubby roots that contain fungi. And the fungi, extend in a web-like way through dead rotting leaves and connect up to the roots of conifers. The conifers provide sugar, which the fungi carry to the Indian Pipe gloomblossom plant. So it's really a parasite, but on fungi.
Field observations:

Monday, July 16, 2018

Stray thoughts: on wood thrushes & cetera

Apologies for leaving this "web log" of mine to sit unattended and cultivate moss. I've been absorbed in a longform fiction project (superstition inhibits me from calling it a "n-v-l" until it's finished) which has swallowed most of my (non-procrastinatory) leisure time. I don't think this one will be a mere wind egg, though I'll be skipping directly to self-publishing instead of spending a year trying to get the attention of the small presses and gatekeepers. I already know that this one has no chance of impressing them, but it is nevertheless a project I'm compelled to see through to completion.

*               *               *

Bench where yr correspondent jotted down the rudiments of this post

Today I'm visiting the folks in North Jersey again. As usual during these trips, I stopped by Hidden Valley, a public park I've written about before, and where most of my Instagram photos are taken. As usual, I got a lot of thinking done; saw a lot of ghost pipe (gloomblossoms) and dwarf ginseng, encountered several different dragonfly species in the meadows, chewed on some wild raspberries and blackberries, and got my feet muddy following after a pileated woodpecker. Good times. But I was dismayed to to find the woods much quieter than expected.

At 3:00 PM on a mid-July day, with the sun out and the temperature approaching 90° F, I heard jays shouting, catbirds mewing and rambling, chipmunks yipping, the distant thudding of a woodpecker banging its face against a tree trunk, and the sibilant agitations of the leaves in the way of the wind. But on an afternoon that should have been ideal for them, I heard almost no cicadas, and not one wood thrush.

Monday, June 11, 2018

exordium to some excerpts.

And it may well be that my history will seem less easy to read because of the absence in it of a romantic element. It will be enough for me, however, if these words of mine are judged useful by those who want to understand clearly the events which happened in the past and which (human nature being what it is) will, at some time or other and in much the same ways, be repeated in the future. 
——Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War (431 BCE), trans. R. Warner 

"Any single historical event is too complex to be adequately known by anyone. It transcends all the intellectual capacities of men. Our practice is to wait until a sufficient number of details have been forgotten. Of course things seem simpler then!" 
..."But we're getting away from the point," he went on. "I don't care how well historical facts can be known from afar. Is it important to know them at all? I submit that history never comes close to repeating itself. Even if we had reliable information about the past, we couldn't find a case similar enough to justify inferences about the present or immediate future. We can make no real use of history as a current guide." 
——B.F. Skinner, Walden Two (1948)

When I'm reading a book authored prior to the twentieth century, I habitually scribble notes in the margins when a remark or passage seems like it could apply to contemporary events if a few historical names were swapped out with modern ones. (I'd aspire to be a gentleman scholar, but let's face it, the best I'll ever be is a degenerate scholar.) My old copy of Thucydides, for instance, is full of references to Vietnam, Iraq, and the neoconservative milieu of the second Bush Administration, especially in the pages treating Athens's doomed Sicilian expedition.

Tonight I was thinking I would share a couple of passages from Montesquieu and Burkhardt and elaborate on some of my off-the-cuff annotations, but then I wondered if the exercise might amount to just a lot of pointless pseudo-intellectual paddleball.

Well, "pointless" goes without saying. If the longform personal blog ever served a useful purpose, that time is already past. I'm talking about the lay practice of trying to clarify the present through the lens of the narrative past. The method, such as it is, has lately seemed to me to stand on dubious ground, so I'd like to spend a few minutes probing it. Even if someone only seeks out knowledge for his own pleasure, and not for some utilitarian purpose, he shouldn't want to settle for a facile understanding.

Knowing the past is necessary to navigate the present, because history tends to repeat itself. This is the central dogma of historical studies, and common sense bears it out. If you get food poisoning at a restaurant, you don't go back. One shouldn't get back together with an ex because if it didn't work out the first time, the second won't be any different. We accept the truism's validity whenever we nod at and retweet the commentariat's reminders that the global order today is much like it was on the eve of World War I, or their exhortations to remember 1930s Germany here in year two of the MAGA epoch. An air of prophecy often emanates from the eloquent argument from history. The parallels seem to obvious to gainsay. But the line between "obvious" and "specious" is ever drawn with a fine-tip pen.

Monday, May 7, 2018

Animation April, belated: Samurai Jack, Season 5 (2017)

I wasn't planning on doing any Animation April writeups this year. I'm still pushing my way through a fairly big project elsewhere, and had no ideas for prolix toon-related posts that wouldn't have been huge wastes of time. (Just because one can examine all three X-Men animated series doesn't mean it's a good idea.) But then April dragged on, cold and cloudy and generally miserable, and in my gloomy mood I stayed inside and watched a lot of cartoons. Now that we've got a May that's looking and feeling like April waylaid, maybe a quick glance at an old favorite is in order.

It's been about a year since the fifth and final season of Samurai Jack (2001–2003; 2017) premiered on Adult Swim. Now with a TV-14 rating, its titular time-displaced ronin could finally incarnadine his sword with living blood after fifty-two episodes of oil-spurting robot villains. Was that what people were most excited about? To judge from The Comments, one might believe so, but I don't think that's actually the case. The prospect of bloodletting in a Samurai Jack cartoon was just an appealing corollary to the real cause for anticipation, which was the promise of a resolution at last. Samurai Jack had a definite beginning and an episodic middle, but no end.

Samurai Jack's very premise necessitates the eventuality of a conclusion. Jack isn't a protagonist like, say, Bruce Wayne, whose essential story is of being Batman forever. Until he either rids Gotham City of all crime (not going to happen) or suffers a case of superhero perma-death (probably not in my lifetime), his saga cannot end. Batman exists in the amorphous narrative space of myth, while Jack is more representative of the comparatively diminutive but more distinct figure of the novel. He sets off with one avowed purpose: to find a way back to his own era and defeat his archnemesis Aku before the shapeshifting master of darkness conquers the world for all time. The goalpost never moves. It doesn't change. When the fourth and once-final season concluded with an episode where Jack rescues a baby and tells it a Japanese fairy tale, Samurai Jack certainly didn't end with a bang, but not with a whimper either. It went out on an ellipsis.