Saturday, April 26, 2008

Girl Factory by Jim Krusoe

Girl Factory by Jim Krusoe

Jonathan might seem like an average person, but once we get into his head, we realize he is anything but. His narration of this bizarre tale is full of odd tangents, strange observations, and off-kilter perceptions. In addition, he is actually stuck with a strange situation involving his workplace, a frozen yogurt shop, and his boss, Spinner. I’ll say no more other than that this is Jim Krusoe’s third book, and maybe his weirdest. His first book had a certain Annie Bloom’s cult following which is why we’re still reading.

Smiles to Go by Jerry Spinelli

Smiles to Go by Jerry Spinelli

Will Tuppence is a bit uptight. He is a planner and enjoys the predictability of his regular Saturday night Monopoly games with his best friends Mi-Su and BT. He’s also a chess champion and aspiring astronomer. He is profoundly affected by learning that protons die...vanish in a puff of energy...which means that the universe is dying very slowly. This, combined with his annoyance at his younger sister Tabby’s shenanigans (she eats her dinner with a plastic pliers, screwdriver and saw), and some changes with his friendships, make for a difficult year...a year which counts up from PD (protons die) day. Organized, smart, in control Will says “I feel like I’m playing chess in water. The pieces keep floating away. I don’t know where things are.”

Sunday, August 13, 2006

As always, I’m immersed in several amazing texts—some books, some other. Here are four recent favorites, stuck in new (job hazard) nonfiction (who knows?) written by middle aged men (culture hazard?) these days:

A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson blew me away. I’ve flirted with natural history for the past few years and have a sense of the general trends and themes. Which is why it was so cool to see so much wrapped up into a pretty package of fun and funny stories. Bryson is so cool. And the natural history from big bang to present is fascinating and the story of the “discovery” of this natural history is most bizarre.

A book review by an Bryson-esque author (Tim Flannery) that I like hooked me into Life in the Undergrowth by David Attenborough which is about terrestrial invertebrates (another part of the review was about locusts and the extinction of the Rocky Mt. Locust and it turns out that locusts are simply another form of grasshopper. When grasshopper community gets too full, the next generation of grasshopper children are born as locusts ready to fly and do their crazy thing…which some humans welcome because it’s ready protein and others curse because they are smallminded and fixed on controlling their particular crops and the locusts kind of fuck that up. …So I began this book (Life in the Undergrowth) by reading the captions and looking at all of the pictures—every other page has them—which are incredible. Apparently, old camera lighting would have made many of these pictures impossible (overheat the poor creatures), but new photographic technology has made them possible. Whew, they are some really cool pictures.

Did you know that scorpions—some of the first animals to come out of water to live on land—can withstand freezing for several weeks or survive underwater for two days, they can go for 12 months without food or water, and they live up to 30 years. There’s an amazing picture of a 14 inch centipede hanging off a cave roof in Venezuela holding&eating a bat which he/she had hunted…yes hunted…ie: intentional about where these creatures are and sought out a place to hunt/catch. The larvae (shit, what’s plural and what’s singular. I took a year of high school Latin and still can’t remember this) of dragonfly spend up to 6 years underwater before emerging to be the flying creatures we are more familiar with. With their four independently beating wings, they can do all sorts of acrobatic tricks as well as fly 40 miles/hour. They can use their 6 legs to form a basket to scoop up insects in the air. Crazy shit.

The sagebrush cricket male offers his hind wings to his mate during copulation, during which she eats them. The European mole-cricket builds underground chambers that help amplify his song so that it can be heard a half a mile a way. Since they’re hermaphroditic, when slugs mate, they both go away pregnant. Among banana slugs, usually one of the partners of the mating eats the penis of the other partner after mating. Enuf of that.

Another book. 1491: new revelations of the Americas before Columbus by Charles Mann is about the last few decades worth of archeology/anthropology research about what the subtitle says. The portrait of these two continents is quite different than that which is in the textbooks. Two things stick out for me. One is how ingeniously several cultures altered their landscapes in an ecologically positive way. Another is how huge the civilizations were in this hemisphere compared to what was happening in “the old world.”

In terms of peak oil stuff, The Long Emergency: Surviving the End of the Oil Age, Climate Change, and Other converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-first Century by James Howard Kunstler is tops.

And I’m gradually enjoying The Omnivores Dilemma by Michael Pollan.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Going Going by Naomi Shiab Nye

Going Going by Naomi Shihab Nye

Florrie enjoys the streets of San Antonio. She loves the restaurants, the cultural flavor, the funky and the old shops and restaurants that make it distinct, especially her mother’s restaurant, El Viento. Others know Florrie as being “a little different” in part because she is unafraid to speak her mind. When she realizes that all of those independent places that she loves are being destroyed by large chains; her passion is ignited. As she says “once you find out what you care about in life, you have No Choice. You have to work for it.” On her 16th birthday she initiates a campaign. With an eclectic mix of friends and family, she embarks on her mission to save the independent places of her beloved town. Lovers of independent bookstores will love this book. (as well as lovers of Stargirl and Larry of The Gospel According to Larry and Vote for Larry)

Monday, May 16, 2005

haven't been reading novels

I haven't read an adult novel since December when I read With by Donald Harington. This novel struck me hard with it's beauty and melifluousness. (Get it?) A beautiful story that begins with a not-so-beautiful story. If you try it, be sure to persevere past the first part.

Friday, February 04, 2005

The Quiltmaker’s Journey by Jeff Brumbeau, illustrated by Gail de Marcken

Lovers of beautiful children’s books will remember The Quiltmaker’s Gift. Now this author/illustrator team has created a prequel. When the quiltmaker was a girl, she had everything. She grew up in the storybook equivalent of a gated community with all the money and servants she’d ever need. Her dining hall was so large, the servants had to ride bicycles to get from one end to the other. “Yet, she was as unhappy as she was rich.” The Elders of the town have severely warned the children not to try to leave, which encourages the young future-quiltmaker (we never learn her name) to rebel. She sneaks out and is scared and shocked by what she finds. The world outside the walls is full of poverty and suffering and hunger, but as she travels she finds that the generosity of these poor folks inspires her own, and she finally finds happiness. Becoming the quiltmaker is the natural extension. This is an epic story with each page full of rich illustrations.

Wednesday, January 26, 2005

The Spiral Staircase: My Climb out of Darkness by Karen Armstrong

When she was 17, Karen entered the religious life in preparation for being a nun. Seven years later, she left with lots of baggage and some of her own instability. “My years as a nun had somehow made me unfit for the world, had broken something within me, and now I seemed unable to put myself together again….I felt that I was a soft, mollusklike, hopelessly vulnerable creature who needed a thick shell in order to survive, and I was learning to use words to create this carapace.” Thus academia became another form of cloister for her. All of this is backdrop for her “climb out of darkness” which she does in her own distinct way. Karen Armstrong is an extraordinary person. Her writings about the world’s religions are profound and (unlike much academic writing) readable, and knowing this part of her story makes me thankful that she was able to push through her difficulties into light.

Tuesday, January 25, 2005

I Am the Messenger by Markus Zusak

There is nothing special about Ed Kennedy. He describes his unambitious self this way: "Taxi driver. Local loser. Cornerstone of mediocrity. Sexual midget. Pathetic card player." His accidentally heroic intervention in a botched bank robbery changes it all and he has to add to his self-description: "weird-shit magnet." Mysteriously, after the bank incident, a playing card arrives in the mail with three addresses on it. He feels compelled to pursue this unknown task, follows his hunches, and begins to carry "messages" to variously afflicted people, following the clues on the playing cards. And the story takes off from there. Redemption always comes in unpredictable ways, often refreshingly so. This book is a lot of fun. In addition to Australian slang, it's full of flamboyant metaphors: "my words land on my feet and slip off, to the grass...the days and nights come apart. I feel them corroding at the seams," and brief telepathic conversations with his dog named the Doorman. A bit of mysticism, an edgy Fight Club quality, and full of Stargirl heart. A dazzling read.

Tuesday, December 21, 2004

With by Donald Harington

A story like no other. This is most wondrous. I'm glad I pushed past the creepy opening pages. Adbuction is unsettling and Sog isn't a pleasant character. But most of the other characters are. And they continued to pleasantly surprise me all the way to the end. What a great story.

Tuesday, November 23, 2004

Crow by Boria Sax

I found this book at random looking at the library shelves. It's part of a really cool animal series by British publisher Reaktion Books. A look at this animal (actually corvids in general: crows, ravens, jackdaws, magpies, rooks, etc.) in Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece, Rome, Europe, Asia, American, and Native American cultures. It's a bit like Barry Lopez' Of Wolves & Men but not nearly so deep. Jim Crow, scarecrows, and a thousand stories involving crows. A cool book. In his musing on the Hebrew bible: "If we think of the Ark as a grand experiment in the domestication of animals, perhaps the story of Noah and the raven records the inability of certain animals to follow human direction." (34)

I've been watching crows recently. Despite their urban ubiquity, I hadn't really thot of them as more than an annoyance to me when I was in high school and I wanted to sleep in and they wouldn't let me with their incessant cawing from the birch trees 50 feet from my ears. So, the more I watch, and now having read this, I realize the brilliance of this species. When he set out to study ravens, Bernd Heinrich was warned by his advisor "Ravens...are smarter than you are, and it will take you years to outwit them enough so that you can begin to get meaningful data." (Ravens in Winter 59) I think I know what he means.

And, I'm now going to read "Has Success Spoiled the Crow?" by David Quammen.

Saturday, November 13, 2004

Walking on Water: Reading, Writing, & Revolution by Derrick Jensen

a brief review:

Thru a recollection of teaching sessions at Eastern Washington University and Pelican Bay State Prison; Jensen explores love, regrets, identity, authority, the unsustainability of industrial civilization, and coercion in teaching. This all done with humor and grace. A truly inspirational book without a touch of sentimentality.

Wednesday, November 03, 2004

The Secret of Castle Cant by K.P. Bath

<>a brief review

The Barony of Cant is too small to appear on most maps and so it remains isolated from the rest of the world, including the corrupting influences of technology beyond the 17th century of Europe. Charming and odd Lucy Wickwright gets into trouble when her mistress drags her into a prank involving dirty laundry, a catapult, and a public square. Lucy is obedient, to a fault sometimes, so when she gets involved in the Cause which seeks to liberate the Barony of oppression by stopping the chewing of gum, she follows orders well. But who can blame the niece of Hock Tooey.

Saturday, October 30, 2004

The Pirates! in an Adventure with Scientists by Gideon Defoe

This book is boisterous, preposterous, & presumptuous. It's filled with big words and anachronisms and caricatures. It is funny, witty, quirky, and frequently ridiculous. I think some of you reading this review may like it very much. A ship full of pirates getting bored of their relaxed lives seeks new adventure. Lead by their fearless Pirate Captain and a bad tip on finding gold, they end up mistakenly sinking the Beagle which carries Charles Darwin. After rescuing Darwin and the rest of the crew, the real adventure begins. Along the way are outrageous happenings, unlikely sequences, and even plenty of footnotes containing historical tidbits. I think of this book as a cross between The Onion (in which it’s being advertised), The Magic Treehouse, Dave Barry, and The Three Stooges. If that sounds like the ride for you, come along.

Monday, October 18, 2004


I can’t remember who put me on to Kay Ryan, but I’ve been enjoying her poems in Say Uncle. I’ve also been reading Gary Snyder’s recent offering, Danger on Peaks. He has not published a book in a while. The first time he climbed Mt. St. Helens was in 1945 and to parallel that with a hike I took a few weeks ago to a drastically different mountain is fun. I’ve also enjoyed some of Richard Hugo’s poetry (from The Complete Richard Hugo) that describes the Olympic forests and mountains, Cascadia not Greece. I’m not a very big poetry reader, but at when I do find an accessible poet and the space for reflection, I’m always thankful (to myself) for having done so.

Saturday, October 16, 2004

Tequila! A natural and cultural history by Anna Valenzuela-Zapata and Gary Paul Nabhan

Keeping consistent with my interest in the intersection of humanity with other species, I grabbed my new favorite biologist's latest work and jumped in. A fascinating story of the agave plant and the roasting and the pulque and mezcals created from it. I learned that since the tequila boom of the past couple of decades, tequila is now the most frequently consumed spirit in the US, having surpassed whiskey. This also fits with the popularity of spicy foods and with the outpacing of salsa compared to "traditional" catsup as America's most-consumed condiment. (80-81)

In 1893 (Devil in the White City--for you readers), "the internationalization of tequila, crowned by the 'brandy awards' given to the Sauza family's mescals at the Chicago World's Fair in 1893, ushered in this upscaling of fermentation and distillation of technologies." (48)

And because of the boom almost a century later...
"The problem was one of demographic vulnerability--two-thirds of the two hundred million agaves growing in Jalisco were planted within just a couple of years of one another, all derived from the same clone, blue agave." (57) ie: monocultures are not very smart (ecologically or--in the long term--economically)

and some tidbits:
"It is remakable that jimadores around Tequila still retain knowledge of the ancient and formerly widespread practice of descogolle. This demonstrates the complex of agronomic and ecological issues addressed by orally transmitted reservoirs of traditional knowledge, which, unfortunately, scientists misunderstand more often than they understand. There remain many parts of the agrarian tradition of the jimadores that have yet to be investigated, and there will be many surprises when this tradition is given proper attention. It is important to document the logic of traditional practices before they entirely disappear." (42) italics are matt's

from Malcolm Lowry's Under the Volcano (1971): "The real cause of alcoholism is the complete baffling sterility of existence as sold to you." (18) (matt's note: the hotel where the movie version of "Under the Volcano" was filmed was bulldozed a few years ago so that a Costco could be built)

Sunday, October 10, 2004

The Middle Mind by Curtis White

This book just appeared in paperback. I read it a few months ago and typed a few passages for my dad. It's worth the read for a person in the context of academia, media, entertainment, religion, or the context of caring what is happening with this culture.

Reality=imagination. “The reality that we refer to as our daily reality is simply the work of the human imagination that has become ossified, codified, and generally naturalized. It is imagination that has achieved such consensus that it is an ‘of course.’ This is so in both a good and a bad sense. We need a shared reality because we need to live together, we need to be able to communicate, and we need to be able to trust that we’re part of a shared world. This is ideology, or a shared imaginative understanding of the world…. We’re not much in the habit of poking at these dominant realities that are so much the ‘of course’ of our lives. We’re delicate. We’re used to deferring. What parents, teachers, presidents, and media spokespeople like Dan Rather (the bosses in our social factory) say is good enough for us. We demur out of habit and fright over what not demurring might require of us. We sacrifice our lives out of a feeling that there is some sort of comfort in deferring.” (3-4) For instance, here in Central Illinois, it makes sense to people to think, ‘It’s a good idea to plant corn to make into ethanol to put into our cars so that we can continue to undermine the present and future quality of our lives through [count the marvelous ways!] congestion, pollution, endless asphalting, stripping the nutrients from our topsoil, eroding the topsoil, traffic injuries and fatalities, and the spiritual damage of endless consumption, debt, and work.’” (6) “Instead we endure a situation in which we are free to think and say what we like so long as what we think and say doesn’t matter, doesn’t threaten dominant state/corporate/military narratives.” (22)

“The imagination is real, and its defining concept is freedom. Without freedom it cannot do its work and so cannot be itself.” (9) “I will argue that we need to allow the imagination and its impulses to instability and change a central role (and incorrigible part of me wants to say a “promiscuous” role) in our national conversation about our shared future. Let art out of the museum and out of the university. Deinstitutionalize it. Take off the straightjacket of philanthropic support. Defeat the corporate ownership of what little imagination we have.” (20-1) “…one does not begin philosophy with a definite notion of method. One begins by beginning. My models of the concrete sublime, then are books without method, books that begin by beginning, that are not sure what they think, but think passionately and purposefully nevertheless against the administered world of the ‘automatic.’ These works of the concrete sublime are antagonists to the status quo in entertainment, intellectual orthodoxy, and political ideology. They are advocates for change, and they need to be much larger public presences.” (23-4)

In the introduction he references Wallace Stevens, Dante, David Byrne, Paul Goodman, Herbert Marcuse, David Foster Wallace, Jim Jarmusch, Mingus, Messiaen, Francis Ford Coppola, Frank Zappa, Coltrane, TS Eliot, Derrida, Michael Moore, Ezra Pound, Molly Ivins, Bill Moyers, Kant, Henry James, Hegel, Marshall McLuhan. In chapter one he takes on icons like Terry Gross of Fresh Air, “Saving Private Ryan,” and Radiohead, He’s clearly jumped thru the academic reading hoops but is also well-read and his scope is wide. His arguments are sufficiently complex so that I find myself (only 50 pages into the book) agreeing with him, disagreeing with him, and being pulled back and forth. Overall, I like his clarity, his passion, his humor, and his provocation.

I rarely read a nonfiction book cover-to-cover but I was compelled all the way thru with The Middle Mind. It’s sloppily written (for me, this adds to the appeal…with right kind of sloppiness with style). It’s full of synthesis, full of rant & diatribe, full of half-completed arguments (again, good in my evaluation log). I appreciate his general argument (The Middle Mind is currently integral to American Culture and far-too-prevalent in academia/media/entertainment/religion/etc) and I also appreciate his arguments about/against the technological imagination (core is pp. 99-108). And in many more ways, I appreciate his arguments.

Having finished this book, I feel both despair and hope/beauty/imagination. Despair because Americans have been stupefied by schooling/media/culture/religion/etc. Hope/beauty/imagination because I see so many bright hearts and big-minded people and even a few full-spirited folks willing to tango.

This fucked-up world has far-too-much room for the bullshit inanity of our culture as it stands and far-too-much room for the normalcy of our culture as it stands. Can you speak about current TV Shows or national Sports Teams and their happenings? You’re a part of this culture for better or worse. When hundreds or thousands or ten thousands of Oregonians have more energy to expend caring about the results of a football game than they expend thinking about those thousands of humans dying for lack of clean drinking water and those other thousands dying for lack of food; something is desperately wrong.

A few more quotes from Curtis White’s The Middle Mind:

“The fundamental lack in the approach taken by American Cultural Studies is that it looks at culture only as a critic, as a member of the faith of criticism, and it can’t imagine what it might mean to look at texts from the perspective of artists….For an artist, difference is everything. The difference between the hack, the dilettante, and the artist as both master of a tradition and inventor of the ‘next best thing’…is everything. The reason that these distinctions are important has nothing to do with supporting high culture, or disdaining pop culture, or maintaining standards, or appealing to timeless and transcendental notions of the beautiful. It is much simpler than that. It has to do with the difference between feeling alive and feeling dead….Each day’s practice [for the artist] is the requirement of going once more to that abyss, where life’s failure is a real possibility, and plucking life out in the possibility (if not the realization) of its human capacity. This cannot be done in a context in which, as [Wallace] Steven’s wrote, ‘the deer and the dachshund’ (or Eschenbach and Manilow[--referring to earlier Terri Gross’s Fresh Air] are one.” (64-5)

“Cultural Studies utterly fails to see why certain aspects of the past are values that we ought to want to insist on. This is something that artists understand very concretely. The past is something that lingers. It is carried in the body. The internalized music of Shakespeare’s phrasing, that is what matters to the artist, not his status as Harold Bloom’s culture hero.” (67) “I think what has happened in these so-called Culture Wars has been unfortunate, unnecessary, and destructive of the social and artistic health of the imagination. A review of the positions of the academic left and conservative traditionalists should reveal that the Culture Wars are a mere sideshow in relationship to the real action: the operations of the media-oriented Middle Mind. Taking sides in this pitched battle royal, the Great Canon Debate, the most recent Battle of the Books in which moderns fight it out with classics, is a fruitless diversion. Commitment to either side is an error, especially as the Middle Mind marches on, its truth on four hundred clear channels, coming soon to HDTV, wireless, broadbanded, and downloadable into every frontal lobe.” (71)

“The traditional practices of the humanities, based in deep engagement with primary artistic texts and not abstract theoretical renderings, provide clear instances of art’s capacity for creating imaginative environments.” (72)

In the context of the “Culture Wars” debate about “canon” about how the canon inclusion question frequently skips the idea of those qualities that make for a work that is worth reckoning with as “great.” “Shklovsky pushes this understanding of complexity by introducing the aesthetic force of ‘difficulty.’ We could say simply that difficult comes with complexity, but Shklovsky would remind us that difficulty is also about the risk of moving outside of the familiar, outside of the diatonic, outside of what Derrida likes to call our ‘closure.’ The virtue of the difficult, or what we often call the ‘experimental,’ is that it keeps the necessary stability of our ‘closure’ (which we surely need in order to share a common culture and live together in it), but it keeps that closure from becoming something deadening. The problem that art helps us face, and great art helps us face best, is the problem of creating social stability without creating a state of administered conformity. In other words, art helps us to think what it would mean to live together as a whole and yet be fully human as individuals.” (86)

“…what consequences can we expect from the work of Chalmers Johnson or Noam Chomsky? None. Their writings are taken up as part of the spectrum…of info-pornographics. The truth-function of Chomsky’s work is neutralized because there are people who will participate in actions leading to death and worse all over the world and then tell you about it. In detail. In great detail. The truth that everything is known, the revelation grotesquely vivid. Turn Salvadoran death-squad commanders into millionaires for killing peasants? We do that. It’s called the Fort Benning School of the Americas. There’s a budget line for it every year. Every year you pay for it. It’s a crime without consequences. By any traditional standard, the United States is a corrupt society because it refuses to be responsible before ethical facts that it knows perfectly well. This is corruption: after years of disgraceful shilly-shally, in the spring of 2002 the administration of George II acknowledged that there is a scientific basis to global warming but that there is nothing to be done about it (or nothing to be done that wouldn’t piss off Detroit, Exxon-Mobil, the so-called soccer moms,” who are now, according to Republicans, the wild card in national energy politics). So, we’ll just have to adapt. Truth without consequences is a good working definition of corruption. The only bizarre ‘unconsciousness’ provided by the New Censorship, where everything awful is pink and in your face, allows this corruption a shred of cover.” (96)

(reread 99-108)—good shit about the technological imagination!

“Let me suggest a little experiment to you. Take a copy of the Sierra Club’s Sierra magazine in one hand and a copy of Wired in the other. Go someplace quiet and read the two at the same time. Now you have the substance of a real Culture War. It has nothing to do with C.P. Snow’s ‘two cultures,’ and it has nothing to do with postmodern tenured radicals. Both magazines are utterly dependent upon science. But the narrative trajectories of their social imaginations are wildly different. Do trees even exist for Wired?” (115)

“I wish I could tell you that the well-funded scientists at Carnegie Mellon are off on some delusional trip with no real consequences. But the truth is that they’re behaving as if they were in an arms race with themselves, and the insane point is to accelerate and push technical reasoning in a long, slow suicide. But I can also tell you this, about technology as social destiny. That fate is not internal to technology itself. That fate is elsewhere. Technology will not drag us to its Faustian destination if its stories are not good. Thus the real battle is at the level of the imagination. If other stories about the role of technology are stronger and more persuasive, a future ‘beyond human’ won’t happen. Unfortunately, the technophiles, those who think of technology as destiny, are not only good scientists; they’re pretty sophisticated storytellers as well.” (134-135)

Thomas Berry The Dream of the Earth

“Beyond Human [PBS documentary about robots/humans] and AI [Spielberg movie] are both cunning in the way they make their arguments. They are not even willing ot confess that in fact they are making arguments. The purport to be merely ‘documenting’ or ‘entertaining.’” (138)

“The wrong, as I’ve said repeatedly, is that the vocationalizing of creativity has the tendency to impoverish the imagination and thereby impoverish the imagination’s most basic social functions: to critique and to imagine alternatives to the social status quo. The imagination is really at work only when it is biting the hand that feeds it.” (161)

Hegel and Marx: “Their story is noe of freedom, ethical community, and the end of exploitation of humans. Hegel…argued that in the end the only ethical human condition is the mutual, shared, respectful, civic recognition of human interdependence. This vision…is an ultimately spiritual vision. To talk about these things is to talk about religion. For Hegel, spirit was not something existing in a superior or transcendental realm. It was exactly the condition of our social lives in a given moment; it wa exactly wha tw think and do. If our culture is corrupt, cynical, and cruel that is exactly what our spirit is. In Hegel’s thought, corruption, cynicism, and cruelty cannot endure fo rthe simple reason that they are inadequate to our true end: freedom. Freedom, in this tradition, is the ultimate openness to human possibility. The gap between what we want and what we are creates a despair that spurs us to change. We are obliged to try something else. In other words, the difference between what we want and what we are is the goad to dialectic.” (163-4)

“Because our culture is besotted with commodity and entertainment, we are a culture in despair….that feeling we have that we’re living in a foreign culture even when we’re in our own. It is the shame we feel when we think that our community itself behaves badly. Dropping uranium-hardened missiles on Iraqi cities, killing some citizens immediately and others over time due to radiation exposure, is not something of which any of us should be proud, never mind what our political representatives tell us. We know at some level that it cannot mean anything good to have political leaders such as George Bush, a man who has betrayed the public trust to the interests of corporations—and not furtively, but as an open, fundamental premise of his campaign. He is a man who, as of July 11, 2002, could advocate jail terms for corporate criminals accused of precisely the same corrupt accounting practices that he and Vice President Cheney were being investigated for (in Cheney’s case with Haliburton, one of the firms implicated) and with exactly the same deceitful accounting firm, Arthur Andersen….With regard to foreign policy, it cannot mean anything good to be hated by so much of the rest of the world. And we’re hated for good reason. Here’s our lofty foreign policy in a nutshell: muck about in the world ‘protecting our national interests,’ and when this mucking about blows back (as it has in Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Israel, and many other countries), return to overt indignation with B52s and cluster bombs. Bunker-busters. Stuff that bursts lungs and eardrums for miles. And it cannot mean anything good to live well at the expense of those who live in squalor. Once we get past Tiger Woods’s beguiling smile, his entertaining style, and the lust for Buicks that he inspires, it cannot be good to have as a national ‘role model’ a man who makes millions from a company like Nike that has the millions to give only because it is willing to run a global sweatshop. What Tiger Woods must represent for African Americans is bad enough, but what does he represent for his mother’s people, the Thai, who along with other Asian people must live with the reality of these sweatshops? We might as well have Imelda Marcos for a role model. If I’m wrong and facts like these don’t cause us any national despair, I, for one, am willing to say that I despair over the absence of despair.” (164-5)

“The world in love is the reconciliation of ethical thought with the real. Spiritual life, and thus God, is achieved when the concept of the ethical is realized concretely in the community. This is in marked contrast to political leaders who feel free to pay lip service to religious faith in a very abstract God while behaving like warmongers in the service of death merchants such as Lockheed-Martin in their everyday life.” (173-4)

“From Adorno’s perspective, the meaning of the Information Economy is the final victory of the organization of ‘facts’ over truth. The brutal consequence of this victory is suffering and death for certain ‘administered populations’ and, at the best in the First World, a great diminishment of what it means to be human. Demographics, population trends, market analyses, and gross national products replace truth. To say that such a context is a bad place for artists says very little. It is first the description of a general spiritual death.” (176)

Monday, October 04, 2004

The Party's Over by Richard Heinberg

This was the first book I read about such a topic. I've read a few since and they all point in the same direction. Finite resources, ideology of infinite growth. Can't work both ways.

One day the earth’s accessible oil will run out. What will happen then? More importantly, what will happen as the peak of global oil extraction hits in the next decade? (the US peak was in 1972) With great clarity, Heinberg explores the background and potential answers to this question. We learn how energy works, the story of Western Civilization regarding energy, the potential of alternatives to fossil fuels, and powerful analytic tools such as EREOI (energy return on energy invested). A wonderful blend of science and social science, ecology, history and hope. “It is realistic to hope for humankind to move collectively from being a colonizing species to becoming a cooperative member of climax ecosystems.”

Gifts by Ursula Le Guin

Here, we enter a feudal world in the Uplands where some people have Gifts, such as the gift of “unmaking” (Orrec’s family’s gift) or the gift of speaking to animals (Gry’s family’s gift). To protect the continuance of those Gifts (as well as horses, livestock, and farmland), families and feudal domains are in a constant tension. Orrec is caught in the middle of this. This is the story of Orrec growing up, and the deeper into the book, we realize how caught he is. Leguin is a master of storytelling. As she weaves episodes and flashbacks into the narrative, I found myself taken in and sharing the difficult emotions of Orrec. Though this is technically a “fantasy” book, the complex family dynamics, strong friendship, the struggle with ones place in the greater social order all ring true for growing up (as well as the rest of life).

Lionboy: the chase by Zizou Corder

I've been awaiting part two of this three part novel. Wow, not disappointing at all. Provocative, suspenseful. For young adults, this is a must, for adults, I think many might like it. Zizou Corder is a pseudonym for a mother-daughter team who write well and compellingly.

Millions by Frank Cottrell Boyce

A fun story of a young kid (who might be diagnosed with a disorder, but who's heart is pure and who's actions are totallly understandable and touching) and his brother and how they handle their social context and their mother's absence and an extraordinary circumstance that comes their way. Good stuff for a young adult audience or an adult who might be open to entering a form of literature that has so much to offer.

Sunday, October 03, 2004

Love, War, and Circuses by Eric Scigliano

"...Jumbo, the most celebrated elephant of all time, would share a large bottle of stout each night with his keeper, Matthew Scott, who pitched his cot by Jumbo's pen. When Scott forgot himself and drank the whole bottle, Jumbo shook him awake and demanded his nightcap." (13) This book is subtitled The age-old relationship between elephants and humans captures an interest of mine. I'm often attracted not just to "nature studies" or "ecological studies" but to those areas where humans affect and are affected by other species. Obviously, this happens every day in every hour, but Of Wolves and Men was fascinating because it tells the story of that relationship in many contexts. This book is about that human-elephant relationship and is also fascinating. Not as artfully crafted as Lopez' book, but worth reading none-the-less. But, I've got a stack ten feet high right now, so I contented myself with reading the first four chapters and quickly scanning/skipping the rest. Cool stuff about mammoths and mastadons and extinction. Also, one of his theses is that elephants created the ecological context into which early humans stepped. Because of their foraging habits, they converted some forested areas to savannah which made for optimal human terrain. Another tidbit: "Brain size alone is not a strict predictor of intelligence, but elephants' brains are richly folded and convoluted, indicating sophisticated development, with expansive cerebral lobes, the seats of memory (at least in humans). More telling is the degree to which their brains grow after birth, an indicator of learning ability. Most mammals already have about 90 percent of their ultimate brain mass at birth. Humans have just 26 percent, and chimpanzees about 50 percent. Elephants have 35 percent." (13)

Who's Who in Hell and Fortune's Bastard by Robert Chalmers

I found Who's Who in Hell buried in my pile of books to read. I picked it up a year ago when it came out and let it sit. Maybe this happens to you also: I have a pile of books to read or to consider reading. I sit down and read the first page of each one until I reach one that I really want to continue with the second page. Then the third. I promise myself to put it down the moment I’m not engaged. This book didn’t begin that strong for the mood I was in but something compelled me to turn to the next page and the next until I was thoroughly engrossed. The “Britishisms,” the simple observations of American culture, the familiarity, and the trueness of characters, the love, the outrageousness of contemporary life, and the wonderful humor all make for an extraordinary book.

So, I was pleased when this author came out with a second novel a few weeks ago. Fortune's Bastard is equally humorous, although a different sort of plotline. It's mostly less tender than Who's Who but more transformative. I've enjoyed talking with Derek briefly about both. Anybody interested in a couple of good novels, here are two, for the right taste.

Saturday, August 28, 2004

Cross-Pollinations: the marriage of science & poetry by Gary Paul Nabhan

An extraordinary book.

of datura and hawkmoths
"Once when I had dusted the insides of an open blossom with an ultraviolet dye powder, which the moths transported from bloom to bloom, I discovered something neurobiologists wished to know, something that had been outside their line of focus. I discovered that a Manduca hawkmoth that first visited a dye-dusted flower was just as likely to fly 350 yards before dipping into another corolla as it was to move to the closest plant bloom. They are such strong fliers that they seem unimpressed by optimal foraging theories, which predict that they should move in the most energetially efficient manner, consuming more nectar by moving the shortest possible distance between two points. And so it is with poets. It is largely beyond their capacity to predict that the next item will be to capture their imaginations (to feed their souls), or how far they must be willing to travel before reaching their goals." (7-8)

"Excinction seldom comes in one fell swoop, with a bulldozer's scoop or the shot out of a single gun barrel. Instead, it occurs when a web of supporting relationships unravels. It occurs whenever we or any other species are unable to sustain mutually beneficial interactions with those around us, those with whom we have been historically associated.... They die by suffering from the loss of ecological companionship." (12-13)
Dan Janzen "extinction of relationships" (62)
finds sunburnt cactus and realized it's because an ironwood tree a few feet away was cut down.
the cactus dies a few days later
"Like the cactus, we stand in relation to others or we succumb to failure. Curiously, I am propped up by some relationships that I may have believed I only imagined at first, but they have been proven to be physically tangible for me and for others. That is to say, as Bill Stafford once suggested, that we benefit from 'stories that could be true'--that re recognize new possibilities in the world through our imaginations, and then we see that they become manifest in other ways." (63)

high school art class, after being diagnosed with colorblindness:
"Over that long and lonely semester, Dorothy Ives helped me be less reactive to what others thought of me; she offered me a means of understanding the ecology of colors as they interacted with one another and with my own eyes. Each hue's salience was embedded ina particular context, peculiar to the viewer's perceptual capabilities and cultural biases." (23)
"I could not see red when some friends giddily pointed out a crimson Indian paintbrush on a rock wall....I later learned that the opposite is also true: certain patterns boldly stood out for me when color-normal people paid them no mind." (23-24)

"whenever a people who had eaten desert foods for centuries had been displaced or had lost their traditional diet, their incidence of diabetes skyrocketed. This was not only true for Australian aborigines and the Pima, Papago, and other O'odham, but also for Yemenite and Ethiopian Jews who moved to Israel and adopted the Westernized diet of Israeli Jews." (51)

Scott Slovic on Nabhan: "tends to be relatively unconscious of the values aspect of this writing when he works in the storytelling mode, but that he clarifies his own thinking by exploring topics through story....story as a special 'zone of tension,' as a form of language that enales the illumination of scientific information and the articulation of personal and cultural values." (76-77)

Slovic: "Nabhan belongs to a rare group of contemporary scientist-writers that includes Edward O. Wilson, Robert Michael Pyle, Chet Raymo, Bernd Heinrich, Jared Diamond, and Tim Flannery. What's unique about all of these thinkers is their ability to gather and process information as field scientists and to express their findings with the imagistic, metaphorical, and narrative flair of poets, novelists, and literary essayists." (77-78)

Sunday, August 15, 2004

The Sunflower Forest: Ecological restoration and the new communion with nature

The Sunflower Forest: Ecological restoration and the new communion with nature
by William Jordan III

“Discussions about the environment and environmental problems often rely on ethical formulations and invoke virtues such as restraint, humility, respect, foresight, simplicity, thrift, and so forth in our dealings with other species and with the rest of nature generally…. What I propose is not so much an ethic as a way to an ethic, a process by which we might create the values on which any system of ethics is based while giving those values a hold on the consciences of individuals or groups of people—a way, as anthropologist Victor Turner said, of making the obligatory desirable.” (4)

our relationship with nature
1) colonial: “it’s there for resources” “utilitarian conservationists”
2) sacred place: “God’s most perfect sanctuary,” John Muir, “hands-off preservationism
3) community: “we are members,” Aldo Leopold

“Here we come to the root of all so-called environmental problems and also to the reason for the inability of environmentalism to deal with them effectively…. This is the idea, traceable to the biblical account of creation, in which shame, trouble, and badness are introduced into the creation peculiarly late and as a result of a human failing, the idea that nature itself is innocent and therefore morally discontinuous from human beings, whose lapse introduced shame, trouble, and evil into creation…. Beginning with Ralf Waldo Emerson, environmental thinkers have consistently rejected the old idea of Original Sin but have retained the peculiar biblical idea, figured in the Garden, of a creation prior to trouble and shame, and this has made it impossible for them to account for or to come to terms with the human experience of alienation. Insisting, as good evolutionists, that creation is ongoing, they have overlooked the message of mythology, which characteristically represents creation and origin, not necessarily as evil, but always as troubled, destructive, and shameful.” (40)

“for more than a century, environmentalism has shifted uneasily, unproductively, and often even destructively between the poles of an alienated preservationism and a resource-oriented conservationism, and has proved incapable of inhabiting the middle ground where community is achieved as selves confront each other, first to acknowledge and then somehow to transcend the irreconcilable differences between them.” (46)

his premises: (p 196)
“first, that what we call “nature” is creation, a process figured in the act of giving birth, as the metaphor of birth in the word “nature” itself suggests
second, that creation is not orderly but chaotic and violent, involving the radical violation of rules represented by genetic mutation
third, that, though chaotic, creation tends generally toward an increase in self-awareness
fourth, that because, like birth, creation generates difference and therefore limits, it is an occasion for the experience of shame, shame being the emotion that arises from a reflexive awareness of limits
fifth, that the human experience of shame does not represent a discontinuity with nature, or a peculiarly fallen condition, but is rather a natural response, at the level of reflexivity, to nature’s own shameful limitation and makeshift, trial-and-error amateurishness
sixth, that the experience of transcendent values such as community and value depends on a reflexive awareness of shame, which we deal with productively only in the realm of the imagination supported by the psychological and spiritual technologies of symbol, myth, and ritual
seventh, that he effectiveness of environmentalism has been limited by its skepticism regarding these technologies of the imagination which it shares with modernism generally, and by the limited repertory of stories, myths, and rituals it has provided for dealing with the shame inherent in the relationship between humans and the rest of nature
eighth, that restoration is important not only because it provides a way of interacting with the natural landscape in a positive way, but also because it provides a context for confronting the shame and for the invention of rituals for dealing with it productively.”

Of Wolves and Men by Barry Holstun Lopez

Of Wolves and Men by Barry Holstun Lopez
New York, Simon and Shuster, 1978; first Touchstone edition, 1995

Opening page quotations
"We need another and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals... We patronize them for their incompleteness, for their tragic fate of having taken form so far below ourselves. And therein we err, and greatly err. In a world older and more complete than ours they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not breathen, they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendour and travail of the earth."
Henry Beston, The Outermost House

“Presumption is our natural and original disease. The most calamitous and fragile of all creatures is man, and yet the most arrogant. It is through the vanity of this same imagination that he equals himself to a god, that he attributes to himself divine conditions, that he picks himself out and separates himself from the crowd of other creatures, curtails the just shares of other animals his brethren and companions, and assigns to them only such portions of faculties and forces as seems to him good. How does he know, by the effort of his intelligence, the interior and secret movements and impulses of other animals? By what comparison between them and us does he infer the stupidity which he attributes to them?”
Montaigne, The Defense of Raymond Sebond

The only real revolutionary stance is that 'nature' is the greatest convention of all. Perhaps there are no natures, no essences--only cateogires and paradigms that human beings mentally and politically impose on the flux of experience in order to produce illusions of certainty, definiteness, distinction, hierarchy. Apparently, human beings do not like a Heraclitan world; they want fixed points of reference in order not to fall into vertigo, nausea. Perhaps the idea of nature or essence is man's ultimate grasp for eternity. The full impact of the theory of evolution (the mutability of species--including man) is thus still to come.
John Rodman. The Dolphin Papers.

“One pack might even respond to pressure from a neighboring pack with a lot of surviving yearlings in it and not breed…sometimes not breeding—during a time of famine, for example—increases the chances for the pack to survive…” (28)
“But the term alpha…is still misleading. Alpha animals do not always lead the hunt, break trail in snow, or eat before the others do. An alpha animal may be alpha only at certain times for a specific reason, and…is alpha at the deference of the other wolves in the pack. The wolf is a social animal; it depends for its survival on cooperation, not strife. Human beings, particularly in recent years, have grown accustomed to speaking of “dominance hierarchies” in business corporations and elsewhere, and the tendency has been to want wolf packs (or troops of chimpanzees) to conform to similar molds. The social structure of a wolf pack is dynamic—subject to change, especially during the breeding season—and may be completely reversed during periods of play. It is important during breeding, feeding, travel, and territorial maintenance, and seems to served a purpose when wolves gather to reassure each other of the positive aspects of their life-style as reflected in this social order, one that enhances survival by collective hunting and natural population control.” (33)
“Group howling has a quality of celebration and camaraderie about it”, “…mood-synchronizing activities…” (39)
“Nunamiut Eskimos believe that during winter a healhy adult wolf can rund down any caribou it chooses, but it doesn’t always do this for reasons known olnly to the wolf. And perhaps the caribou.” (59)
CONVERSATION of DEATH: “The most beguiling moment in the hunt is the first moment of the encounter. Wolves and prey may remain absolutely still while staring at each other. Immediately afterward, a moose may simply turn and walk away; or the wolves may turn an drun; or the wolves may charge and kill the animal in less than a minutes. An intense stare is frequently used by wolves to communicate with each other…I think what transpires in those moments of satring is an exchange of information between predator and prey that either triggers a chase or defuses the hunt right there. I call this exchange the conversation of death…there is good evidence that signals go back and forth...” (61-62)
“…the sense of a community of creatures in the woods which we so often lack when we examine a single species…” (63)
community in which wolves live: some others feed off carrion from wolfkill, caribou act as snowplows, foxes provided burrows (67)
the wolf “apparently takes pleasure in the company of ravens….ravens will follow the trail of a wolf pack in hopes of inding a carcass. They roost in neighboring trees or hop about eating loody snow while the wolves eat, approaching th ecarcass when the wolves have finished….But the relationship between the two is deeper than this…. (games between them described by Mech pp67-68) …’Both species are extremely social, so they must possess the psychological mechanisms necessary for forming social attachments.’” (67-68)
Anthropologist Nicholas Gubser, wrote: “'The more reflective Nunamiut do not search for a primordial cause, a complete explanation or order of the nature of ultimate destiny. For the Nunamiut there is no 'ultimate wolf reality.' The animal is observed as a part of the universe. Some things are known, other things are hidden. Some of the wolf is known, some is not. But it is not a thing to be anxious over.’” (80)
preface to comparison between Nunamiut & wolves (86-87)
“the wolf…having eaten at the kill, returns home from ten miles away with a haunch of meat in his mouth. And he is besieged with as much affection as the successful Naskapi hunter is by his family. In this…we find a basis for alpha wolves—the hunters, whose prowess is encouraged for the sake of survival. Pack survival.” (90)
“…the link between hunter and hunted lies as the very foundation of every hunting society…The Animal Master is a single animal in a great mythic herd. He is both timeless and indestructible, and archetype of a species. It is he who”gives” the hunter the animal to be killed and who has the power to keep the animals away from the hunter if he is unworthy. In the foundation myths of every hunting culture there is a story of how all this came about.” (90) (a story follows along with explanations about why “hunting is holy”) (90ff)
"Here are hunting wolves doing many inexplicable things (to the human eye). They start to chase an animal and then turn and walk away. They glance at a set of moose tracks only a minute old, sniff, and go on, ignoring them. They walk on the perimeter of caribou herds seemingly giving warning of their intent to kill. And the prey signals back. The moose trot toward them and the wolves leave. The pronghorn throws up his white rump as a sign to follow. A wounded cow stands up to be seen. And the prey behave strangely. Caribou rarely use their antlers against the wolf. An ailing moose, who, as far as we know, could send wolves on their way simply by standing his ground, does what is most likely to draw an attack, what he is least capable of carrying off: he runs. I call this exchange in which the animals appear to lock eyes and make a decision the conversation of death. It is a ceremonial exchange, the flesh of the hunted in exchange for the respect for its spirit. In this way both animals, not the predator alone, choose for the encounter to end in death. There is, at least, a sacred order in this. There is nobility. And it is something that happens only between the wolf and his major prey species. It produces, for the wolf, sacred meat." (94)
"I have been the difference between captive and wild wolves, and I think that much of the difference--a difference of bearing, a dynamic tension immediately apparent in a wild wolf and lacking almost entirely in captive animals--lies in their food. The wolf in the wild subsists on his earned meat. The captive is fed on the wastes of commercial slaughterhouses and food made in factories by machines. Wolves in zoos waste way. The Naskapi [a tribal group which lives in wolf territory and also hunts caribou] to this day, believe that the destruction of their people, the rending of their spirit, has had mainly to do with their being forced to eat the meat of domestic animals." (95)
correspondence in life-styles between Nunamiut (and other groups) and wolves (98ff “A Wolf in the Heart”)
“…the while-tailed deer in Minnesota sough security from Indian hunters by moving into the border area between warring tribes, where hunters were leas likely to show up, and the fact that deer do the same with respect to wolves—seek security along the border zones between wolf territories, where wolves spend the least time hunting.” (99) more on territory 63ff
“When Indians left their own country and entered that of another tribe…they moved like wolves: in small packs; at night and during the crepuscular hours…it served them as well as it served the wolf who, in a hard winter, trespasses into neighboring packs’ territories to look for food, to make a kill, and to go home before anyone knows he’s been there.” (99-100)

“The interrelationships between one’s allegiance to self and household on the one hand and one’s duty to the larger community on the other hand cannot be overemphasized; it was a primal, efficient system of survival that held both man and wolf in a similar mesh. Consider again the Indian’s perception. Each of the animals—mosquitoes, elk, mice—belonged to a separate tribe. Each had special powers, but each was dependent on the others for certain services. When, for example, the Indian left his buffalo kill, he called out to the magpies and others to come and eat. The dead buffalo nourished the grasses; the grasses in turn fed the elk and provided the mouse with straw for a nest; the mouse, for his part, instructed the Indian in magic; and the Indian called on his magic to kill buffalo. With such a strong sense of the interdependence among all creaturs and an acute awareness of the ways in which his own life resembled the wolf’s (hunting for himself, hunting for his family, defending his tribe against enemy attack as the wolf protected the den against the grizzly) the Indian naturally turned to the wolf as a paradigm…” (104)
“If you wanted to play with wolf puppies, you were better off going to a den. The parents would usually back off and you could dig the pups out. When Cree youngsters did this, they would sometimes paint the pups red around the nose and the lower limbs before putting them back. In their childhood game the pups were wolf warriors, just like themselves.”(124)

referring to the “war against wolves in North America in the 19th&20th centuries: “Historically, the most visible motive, and the one that best explains the excess of killing, is a type of fear: theriophobia. Fear of the beast. Fear of the beast as an irrational, violent, insatiable creature. Fear of the projected beast in oneself. The fear is composed of two parts: self-hatred; and anxiety over the human loss of inhibitions that are common to other animals who do not rape, murder, pillage. At the heart of theriophobia is the fear of one’s own nature. In its headiest manifestations theriophobia is projected onto a single animal, the animal becomes a scapegoat, and it is annihilated. That is what happened to the wolf in America…. To celebrate wilderness was to celebrate the wolf; to want to end to wilderness and all it stood for was to want the wolf’s head…. As civilized man matured and came to measure his own progress by his subjugation of the wilderness—both clearing trees for farms and clearing pagan minds for Christian ideas-the act of killing wolves became a symbolic act, a way to lash out at that enormous, inchoate obstacle: wilderness. I greatly oversimplify, but there is not much distinction in motive between the Christian missionaries who set fire to England’s woods to deprive Druids of a place to worship and the residents of Arkansas who set fire to thousands of acres of the Ouachita National Forest in 1928 to deprive wolves of hiding places. In America in the eighteenth century Cotton Mather preached against wilderness as an insult to the Lord, as a challenge to man to show the proof of his religious conviction by destroying it…. In 1756 John Adams wrote that when the colonist arrived in America, ‘the whole continent was one continued dismal wilderness, the haunt of wolves and bears and more savage men. Now the forests are removed, the land covered with fields of corn, orchards bending with fruit and the magnificent habitations of rational and civilized people.” (140-2)

“We create wolves. The methodology of science creates a wolf just as surely as does the metaphysical vision of a native American, or the enmity of a cattle baron of the nineteenth century. It is only by convention that the first is considered enlightened observation, the second fanciful anthropomorphism, and the third agricultural necessity.” (203)

“The central conflict between man’s good and evil natures is revealed in his twin images of the wolf as ravening killer and as nurturing mother. The former was the werewolf; the later the mother to children who founded nations.” (226-7)

“The wolf seen eating human carrion on a medieval battlefield was reviled because he was held to be sufficiently endowed to know that what he was doing was wrong but was base enough to do it anyway. The quintessential sinner.” (232)

“A poignant aspect of the wolf’s predicament emerges here. In a hunter societiy, like tha tof the Cheyenne, traits that were universally admired—courage, hunting skill, endurance—placed the wolf in a pantheon of respected animals; but when man turned to agriculture and husbandry, to cities, the very same wolf was hated as cowardly, stupid, and rapacious. The wolf itself remains unchanged but man now speaks of his hated ‘animal’ nature. By standing around a burning stake, jeering at and cursing an accused werewolf, a person demonstrated an allegiance to his human nature and increased his own sense of well-being. The tragedy, and I think that is the proper word is that the projection of such self-hatred was never satisfied. NO amount of carnage, no pile of wolves in the village square, no number of human beings burned as werewolves, was enough to end it. It is, I suppose, not that different from the slaughter of Jews at the hands of the Nazis, except that when it happens to animals it is easier to forget.” (233)

“When, from the prisons of our cities, we look out to wilderness, when we reach intellectually for such abstractions as the privilege of leading a life free from nonsensical conventions, or one without guilt or subterfuge—in short, a life of integrity—I think we can turn to wolves. We do sense in them courage, stamina, and a straightforwardness of living; we do sense that they are somehow correct in the universe and we are somehow still at odds with it.” (249)

“French intellectuals were debating the idea set forth by Descartes that animals were beastly machines without souls while men were a separate, mysterious creation.” (254-5)
natural history, scientific method. Hobbes: man a cog to be politically manipulated, Descartes animals are “beast machines,” predictable and lifeless universe. “The ideas of Cartesian dualism was one of th emost pervasive themse of the seventheenth century…if an animal has no soul…then our approach to forms of life other than ourselves can be irresponsible and mechanistic. It was precisely this view that came to dominate the biological sciences and to give men who were otherwise much admired, like Audubon, the ethical space to shoot fifty or a hundred birds just to make a single, accurate drawing. The mechanistic approach to wildlife, further, led biologists to a tragic and myopic conclusion: that animals can be ‘contained,’ that they can be disassembled, described, reassembnled, and put back on the shelf. This is an idea that is only now beginning to disappear in zoology.”
La Fontaine and Montaigne “In Defense of Raymond Sebond” disagreed with this (258)

The Dog and the Wolf from Aesop (254) from an 1818 edition by Thomas Bewic:
Discouraged after an unsuccessful day of hunting, a hungry Wolf came on a well-fed Mastiff. He could see that the Dog was having a better time of it than he was and he inquired what the dog had to do to stay so well fed. “Very little,” said the dog. “Just drive away beggars, guard the house, show fondness to the master, be submissive to the rest of the family and you are well fed and warmly lodged.” The wolf thought this over carefully. He risked his own life almost daily, had to stay out in the worst of weather, and was never assured of his meals. He thought he would try another way of living. As they were going along together the Wolf saw a place around the Dog’s neck where the hair had worn thin. He asked what this was and the Dog said it was nothing, “ just the place where my collar and chain rub.” The Wolf stopped short. “Chain? He asked. “You mean that you are not free to go where you choose?” “No,” said the Dog, “but what does that mean?” “Much,” answered the Wolf as he trotted off. “Much.”

“If there were not something in us that likes the big bad wolf [in the Little Red Riding Hood story], he would have no power over us. Therefore, it is important to understand his nature, but even more important to learn what makes him attractive to us.” (266)

“Were we to perceive such a synthesis [of the benevolent and malcontented wolves of various fables], it would signal a radical change in man. For it would mean that he had finally quit his preoccupation with himself and begun to contemplate a universe in which he was not central. The terror inherent in such a prospect is, of course, greater than that in any wolf he has ever written about. But equally vast is the possibility for heroism, humility, tragedy, and the other virtues of literature.” (270)

“We have begun to see again, as our primitive ancestors did, that animals are neither imperfect imitations of men nor machines that can be described entirely in terms of endocrine secretions and neural impulses. Like us, they are genetically variable, and both the species and the individual are capable of unprecedented behavior…. Nor do I think it possible that science can by itself produce the animal entire. The range of the human mind, the scale and depth of the metaphors the mind is capable of manufacturing as it grapples with the universe, stand in stunning contrast to the belief that there is only one reality, which is man’s, or worse, that only one culture among the many on earth possess the truth. To allow mystery, which is to say to yourself, ‘there could be more, there could be things we don’t understand,’ is not to damn knowledge. It is to take a wider view. It is to permit yourself an extraordinary freedom: someone else does not have to be wrong in order that you may be right…. this tolerance of mystery invigorates the imagination;’ and it is the imagination that gives shape to the universe…. The appreciation of the separate realities enjoyed by other organism is not only no threat to our own reality, but th root of a fundamental joy. I learned from River [a wolf he adopted] that I was a human being and that he was a wolf and that we were different. I valued him as a creature, but he did not have to be what I imagined he was. It is with this freedom from dogma, I think, that the meaning of the words ‘the celebration of life’ becomes clear.” (284-5)

Against the Grain by Richard Manning

Against the Grain by Richard Manning

This is book is a wealth of facts, synthesis, anecdotes, science. He plays fast and loose with some ideas, but his story/argument flows.

“We have seen that agriculture in fact arose from abundance. More important, wealth, as distinct from abundance, is one of these dichotomous ideas only understood in the presence of its opposite, poverty. If we are to seek ways in which humans differ from all other species, this dichotomy would head the list. This Is not to say that hunter-gatherers did not experience need, hard times, even starvation, just as all other animals do. We would be hard-pressed, however, to find communities of any social animal except modern humans in which an individual in the community has access to fifty, a hundred, a thousand times, or even twice as many resources as another. Yet such communities are the rule among post agricultural humans” (33)

“Sickle-cell anemia confers resistance to malaria, which is to say, if one lives in an area infested with malaria, it is an advantage, not a disease…the gene variant common in Africa arose roughly eight thousand years ago, and some four thousand years ago in the case of a second version of the gene common among people of the Mediterranean, India, and North Africa….Its origins coincide nicely with those of agriculture, which scientists say is no accident. The disturbance—clearing tropical forests first in Africa, and later in those other regions—created precisely the sort of conditions in which mosquitoes thrive. Thus, malaria is an agricultural disease….there are similar and simpler arguments to be made about lactose intolerance, an inherited condition mostly present among ethnic groups without a long agricultural history. People who had no cows, goats, or horses had no milk in their adult diet. Our bodies had to evolve to produce the enzymes to digest it, a trick passed on in genes. Lactose is a sugar and leads to a range of diet-related intolerances. The same sort of argument emerges with obesity and sugar diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and even alcoholism.”(40) co-evolution

“We have no clear examples of colonized hunter-gatherers who willingly, peacefully converted to farming. Most went as slaves; most were dragged kicking and screaming, or jus plain died.” (41)

horses: 61-2
stepped into an “empty” niche
-Spaniards left some horses in 1500s in Argentina, when they returned in 1580s, horses were abundant (traveler: “in such numbers that they cover the face of the earth and when they cross the road, it is necessary for travelers and let them pass, for a whole day or more, so as not to let them carry the tame stock with them.” Jesuit reported herds of feral horses so numberous tha tit would take three hours fo rthem to pass by ‘at full speed’.
-feral horses were “a nuisance” in the NE coast of NA

“The practice of seeding to promote conquest began with conquest itself. Long before Columbus made his discovery, Spain began practicing for colonization with the conquest of the Canary Islands, which were immediately “seeded” with sheep and swine. Throughout the period of exploration, mariners typically carried these animals aboard and dropped them on strategic islands along the way, along with handfuls of grasses and other plants they thought might take root and provide sustenance so that sailors would have a food supply when they returned years later.” (64) “Julius von Haast, a geologist who arrived in New Zealand in 1858, wrote Darwin that there was a proverb among the Maori that “as the white man’s fly drives away our own, and the clover kills our fern, so will the Maoris disappear before the white man himself.”” (66)

“Modern famine is the result of bad government, but so was ancient famine. Bad government is a part of the syndrome, a chicken-and-egg problem. Population explosion generates the need to grow more food, but agriculture is the cause of that population explosion, and agriculture creates government. The hierarchical, specialized societies that agriculture builds are wholly dependent on the smooth operation of their infrastructure, on stability, on transportation. Dams must be built, canals must flow, roads must be maintained, and government must be established to order those tasks. Government leaders emerge from the social hierarchy that agriculture’s wealth makes possible. Failures occur as frequently as humans fail. To hold agriculture blameless and government responsible for famine is like holding a lion blameless for a child’s death on grounds that it was the lion’s teeth that did the biting. Poverty, government, and famine are coevolved species, every bit as integral to catastrophic agriculture as whe3at, bluegrass, smallpox, and brown rats.” (73)

“It was the practice at many factories to hand the mass of workers a lump sum on payday; it was up to them to make change and divide it amongst themselves, and public houses arose for this purpose. In the process of making change, the public house would hold on to a bit in exchange for a pint or two. These same workers—and the family members who came to drag them from the pubs—could immediately trade some of the case for street food, fried potatoes and sometimes fried fish. The combination is a marriage of convenience that survived as fish-and-chips…” (80)

Sugar domesticated in SE Asia. then Arab agricultural revolution and Moors and slavery and the rise of Islam and sugar all coincide. p 81ff

in terms of feeding a population of laborers… “the efficiency of sugar fit nicely with the ascendant dehumanization that was British industrialism.” (82)

“Sugar gave the homeland cheap food, supported by slave labor in the Caribbean and South American. Its production rested on industrialized plantations that were markets for England’s factories. The plantations in turn created wealth that became the capital that financed the industrialization of Britain. It was a system that had nothing to do with the well-being of most of the humans involved and everything to do with raising wealth. Writes the anthropologist Sidney Mintz, ‘Slave and proletarian together powered the imperial economic system that kept one supplied with manacles and the other with sugar and rum.’” (82-3)

“The British custom of taking tea as an afternoon break has more to do with sugar than with tea. During the nineteenth century, when the custom arose, it was something like the coffee break in modern workplaces, but no so leisurely: a chance to gulp a quick cup of tea, which was invariably laced with sugar. In this way were the human machines of the factory ‘nourished’—fueled—without even needing to leave their machines” (83)

1960 population hit half of today’s population: (that’s why the Green Rev happened)
Green Revolution: “The shift from increasing acreage to increasing yield” (87)
--Hybridization, consolidation of farms, chemical fertilizers, pesticides. (91-2)
“the resulting hybrid may be sterile, incapable of nurturing future generations, but what it lacks in sustainability it makes up in vigor and tenacity.” (92)

US corn yields in 1900 were 20 bushels per acre
US corn yields in 2000 were 130 bushels per acre (93)

In US in 2000, 85% of cropland is 4 crops: corn (mostly for feed), soybeans (mostly for feed), wheat, and hay (mostly for feed) (98)

Dead zone in Gulf of Mexico (20,000 square k) from nitrogen runoff (99-101)
Aral Sea has shrunk in half because of irrigation since 1960, salinization increased and killed all the fish by 1980 (101)

China sends tankers to SE Alaska to load up with river water for drinking (102)

3 lbs of protein to raise a pound of farmed salmon (117)

“I have come to think of agriculture not as farming, but as a dangerous and con summing beast of a social system.” (119)

Progressives like Hnery Wallace and Norman Borlaug went to work to help poor people. Wallace’s hybrid corn did indeed do that for a time, making life better for a generation of farm folks. But in the end, it only enlarged the pile of surplus grain, which the system evolved to digest for its own purposes. The patrones of the world, the men made increasingly wealthy as the lot of small farmers has deteriorated, are a testimony to the power of that system to sap progressive energy. Sixty years after it started, the foundations are still in the business of promoting agriculture as a cure for poverty.” (119-120)

ADM ingredients: citric acid, lactic acid, high fructose corn syrup, sorbitol, lecithin, xanthan gum, wheat gluten, soy protein, and Vitamin C, (124)

FARM BOOM 1972-1981 (American ag. Exports went from $8b to $44b) (126-8)
-USDA granted USSR $700m in export credits in 1972
-US govt is “hooked on using corn and wheat to balance trade and structures subsidies to encourage those two commodities at the expense of almost all other crops” (127)
-richest 2% of farmers account for 35% of total farm sales and receive 27% of federal farm subsidies

“ADM doesn’t deal in food it deals in commodities; thus it is wholly dependent on the system of federal subsidies that has converted American agriculture to one big commodity factory.” (129)
“In 1950, farmers grossed forty-one cents of every consumer’s food dollar; that figure fell to twenty-one cents by 1994, simply because we eat more processed commodities…. Even today, a farmer gets fifty-eight cents of a consumer’s dollar spent on eggs, because an egg is food. A chicken makes it; a farmer puts it in a carton and sells it. When a corn farmer sells his crop to ADM, he gets four cents of the consumer dollar spent on corn syrup.” (129) ADM makes most of its corn into syrup. Nationally 42% of corn goes to syrup (138) every dollar of profit ADM makes on ethanol costs American taxpayers $11 (140)
Cargill, ConAgra, General Food, Borden, Continental Food, CPC, Ajinomoto, Ameriican Maize, A.E. Staley (147)

“Kirschenmann believes humans fell from grace ten thousand years ago, the fall a sin of pride that came from domesticating plants. Since then, all of agriculture has been an attempt to enforce distance from nature.” (131)

“US grain, free or otherwise, puts Third World farmers out of business, sacking local agriculture and local markets. Case studies going back to the 1950s demonstrate this in India, Peru, Egypt, Somalia, Senegal, and Haiti. This is one way in which we pay to hide the surplus that we have paid our farmers to produce.” (134)

in 1993 flood, nitrogen from Mississippi Valley created algal bloom in Gulf of Mexico which floated up the East Coast spreading disease that killed dolphins, beluga whales, Atlantic harbor seals, and porpoises (138)

“I insist on sensuality. I guard my smoked pheasants, old guitars, and quiet as jealously as any miser guards gold. They can do far more to protect me from what we humans have become: insensate, insensitive, inhuman. For the millions of years of evolution that made us, the ability to fully sense food and sex was the foundation of our humanity and the core determinant of survival. For ten thousand years, those same pleasures have been reserved for a few of us. Complete indulgence of sensuality is rare, and, as a rule, the purview of the rich. For ten thousand years, Homo sapiens has been unable to take its humanity for granted. Those who would resist dehumanization do so by daily staking a claim to it, by self-consciously adopting and aestheticism our hunter-gatherer forebears [sic] practiced by simply living. With the advent of agriculture, those qualities that united us—in fact, quality itself-came to divide us. Civilization did indeed modify the human genome, but only slightly, only around the edges. We remain at our genetic core largely what our hunter-gatherer history made us, which is to say, sensual beings. All of humanity at some level still requires the aesthetic. What was invented with civilization was the ability of some to deny sensuality to others.” (150)

on the influence of American hybrids of corn entering Mexico in the mid 1990s
“NAFTA is part of a long series of devices, ranging from the padded horse collar through smallpox and the musket to the multinational corporation, for spreading the dominant culture. The treaty is helping put small Mexican farmers out of business, condemning with them their forty varieties of corn. This variety is replaced in Mexican tortilla factories with the bland American corn bred primarily for feeding livestock, and now Mexicans.” (161)

High Fructose Corn Syrup first commercialized in 1967
“the commercialization of corn syrup completed the commodification of corn. Each kernel was now a raw material to be disassembled and fed to separate output streams. The yellow skin and other parts make vitamin supplements (necessary now because our food is processed), but especially animal feeds. The kernel gets separated from the germ (the actual seed) and is processed to cornstarch or sugar. The germ is squeezed for its oil. Oil, starch, and sugar became the triumvirate of the Corn Products Refining Company, the brainchild of a marketer who would use these three to rewrite the design of American cuisine, first by branding it. The company gave us Mazola Oil, Karo Syrup, and Kingsford’s Cornstarch. The company flacks wrote cookbooks based on these products and sold cooks on the advantages of products ‘untouched by human hands’ in the new antiseptic factories. The starch, syrup, and oil became the basis for Bisquick, Aunt Jemima Pancake Mix, and a slew of other ‘convenience’ products.” (169)

Jell-O (reconstituted cows hooves) as status dish in Midwest?
“to make Jell-O, one needed a refrigerator, something not at all common [earlier in the 20th century]. Taking Jell-O to the church social was a way of publicly announcing that your family could afford a refrigerator.” (170)

“The food processors were not offering nutrition; they were offering the illusion of wealth, stability, and order, and consumers became willing accomplices in the plot.” (170)

beginning before WWII, “the USDA issued a series of pronouncements, continuing to this day, prescribing proper intake levels of carbohydrates, protein, and fat (in ratios weighted, then and now, toward whatever happens to be in surplus).” (173)
Uncle Sam seal of healthy approval during WWII:
“The Doughnut corporation of America was denied use of the logo if it used the term Enriched Donuts” but allowed to use the logo when it called its product ‘Enriched Flour Donuts.’” (173)

“A thirty-two-ounce soda and a tank of gas is America distilled to its seminal fluids.” (182)

Coke, Pepsi needed to expand so they marketed to children. Mostly by TV, then in schools. One fifth of nations 1&2 year olds drink soda routinely, sometimes from baby bottles. (183)

“The notion of progress is a creation of agriculture. I can’t prove it, because the idea of progress is too deeply burned into us to be extracted and examined. It’s our secular religion.” (185)

“There is a distinction to be made between what I have called agriculture and simply growing food. Call the latter farming, a distinction that still has its problems, though it will serve for a first cut. The difference is that the goal of agriculture is not feeding people; it is the accumulation of wealth. What agriculture grows is not food but commodities, grain not to eat but to store, trade, and process. Consider the range of plants humans consume, the hundreds of species. That’s food. Consider that two-thirds of our calories come from wheat, rice, commodities. It is an oversimplification, but a useful one, to assert that these commodities have a fundamental and key distinction from the rest of food: they are storable and interchangeable and close to currency in their liquidity; in fact, they are traded in markets just as currency is. They for the basis for the accumulation of wealth, and have done so for ten thousand years.” (188)

“We grow whgeat, corn, rice, and sugar not because that is what people want or need, but because that’s what we k,now how to grow well. We know how to grow these few crops well because commodities built the culture of agriculture, a spinoff of which is investments in research and development. Worldwide, the money spend on agricultural research has been spent almost exclusively on these crops.” (189)

industrial ag. input/output/waste
organic ag. Closes lops to resemble self-sustaining natural processes. (200

“However, if all of humanity began overnight to shop exclusively at organic farmer’ markets, though, our troubles would not be over. Organic agriculture is still agriculture, in that it relies on a relatively small range of plants that are evolved to follow catastrophe and thus require disturbance and are primarily annuals. Organic agricluture is a necessary step, but it is not sufficient, at least as it stands; a fundamental redesign is required. This redesign will require something approaching permaculture….not back to the garden, back to the wild.” (200-01)

sensual, food, sex “somewhere along the line we became so focused and competent in this hunt that we rigged the outcome. To hunt is to be insecure about the immediate future, to experience the nagging fear of want that has driven us to our worst excesses and our finest creations. Agriculture rigged this game by allowing storage and wealth, ensuring future food (and sex). Agriculture dehumanized us by satisfying the most dangerous of human impulses—the drive to ensure the security of the future. In this way we were tamed. Yet the hunter and gatherer survives in each of us. When a woman ambles through the Union Square market and the deep purple glint of a plum catches her eye, she is replicating a primal process, awakening pathways of primal signals. The process itself is satisfying, human. When she speaks with the farmer who grew the plum, she connects herself to a bit of her community, her link to the rest of humanity. We subvert agriculture every time we reestablish that link. Our weapon in this is sensuality.” (202)

“To See the Wizard” chapter is about ADM
“Hog Heaven” chapter is about “nutrition” in US history

Monday, July 19, 2004

Out of Gas

Out of Gas by David Goodstein: the end of the age of oil is simpler alternative to The Party's Over.  Clear explanations of the physical rules, a simpler read, and written by a CalTech guy.

Friday, July 02, 2004

The Party's Over by Richard Heinberg

a few notes from the book

“At first ecologists studied food chains—big fish eat little fish. Quickly however, they realized that since big fish die and are subsequently eaten by scavengers and microbes that are then eaten by still other organizsms, it is more appropriate to speak of the food cycles or webs. Further analysis yielded the insight that all of nature is continually engaged in the cycling and recycling of matter and energy. There are carbon cycles, nitrogen cycles, phosphorus cycles, sulfur cycles, and water cycles. Of fundamental importance, however are energy flows—which tend to drive matter cycles and which…begin in nearly all cases with sunlight.” (15)

Process of collapse in level of complexity (Tainter) is comparable to population overshoot and die-off within a colonized ecosystem (Rome’s population was over 1 million in 100 CE and about 40,000 in 1100 CE) (35)

“Western civilization from the Middle Ages to the present…rather than growing and declining in a simple curve, Western Civilization has recovered and undergone at least two even greater growth surges due to its ability to find and exploit new energy subsidies at critical moments. The takeover of the Americas, Africa, India, and the Pacific Islands offered subsidies ranging from slave labor to new sources of metal ores and timber. The expansion of the Euro-American cultural and political influence that these new resources enabled, while impressive, probably could not have been sustained throught the 20th century in the face of rising costs (e.g., for the maintenance of colonial administrations) and declining returns, had it not been for the discovery of fossil fuels, the greatest energy subsidy ever known. This discovery, as we have already seen, enabled the transformation of civilization itself into a form never before seen: industrialism.” (36)

“That the ancient Europeans revered the forest is evidenced by their traditions concerning the sacredness of certain groves, by their customs of making sacrifices and offerings to trees, and by their extensive lore regarding tree-spirits. But, with the coming of Christianity, these early pagan attitudes (the Latin paganus means “peasant”) were gradually replaced by the idea that the wilderness is inherently fallen and corrupt, to be reclaimed only by pious human work. Far from fearing the overcutting of forests, later medieval Europeans saw the clearing of land as their Christian duty. Cutting the forest meant pushing back chaos, taming Nature, and making space for civilization.” (45) (dovetails with Barry Lopez wolves)

pp 34-80 is story of Western Civ told from perspective of energy usage. (trees, coal, petroleum)

“More than any other product, the automobile led to the dramatic expansion during the 1920s, of both the advertising industry and consumer debt. Car companies nearly tripled their advertising budgets during the decade; they also went into the financing business, making car loans ever easier to obtain. By 1927, three-quarters of all car purchases were made on credit and there was one car for every 5.3 US residents.” (65)

Energy Information Agency “these adjustments to the USGS and MMS estimates are based on non-technical considerations that support domestic supply growth to the levels necessary to meet projected demand levels.”(115) Economists only see growth, don’t see limits.

EROEI (Net energy): it takes energy to acquire or develop energy resources

“Rich industrialized nations have used loans, bribes, and military force to persuade nations with indigenous populations on small-scale, traditional subsistence cultivation to remove peasants from the land and grow monocrops for export” (176)

East 16, Africa 3, M.East 4, China 5, FSU 4, Europe 13, L.america 6, US 22
Millions of barrels per day

“It is realistic to hope for humankind to move collectively from being a colonizing species to becoming a cooperative member of climax ecosystems.” (241)

colonizers of an ecosystem (energy subsidy): bloom, overshoot, dieoff (rats, fruitflys, bacteria)
climax ecosystem

when should we have stopped?