Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Art break: Sueo Serisawa

I recently attended the Seattle Print Fair at Davidson Galleries in Pioneer Square. Many of the prints were from western artists, depicting scenes of nature and wilderness.

One of my favorite prints was this piece, by Sueo Serisawa:

Idyllwild Series by Sueo Serisawa

Serisawa immigrated from Japan to Seattle when he was very young, then moved to California. He was an oil painter and a print maker, and he became an important figure in the Modernist school in Los Angeles.

Seals are disgusting

According to a new study published in Nature, we've been unfairly blaming cows and Europeans for spreading tuberculosis to the new world. The culprit was actually this guy:


It's likely that seals from South America brought the virus to North America long before European colonization, carrying a TB strain which predates the European one. It's also likely that humans passed on this earlier strain to their cattle.

Best line from the WaPo article: "But humans can still catch good old-fashioned seal TB too."

Don't do this.


Monday, June 20, 2011

Quote: Barry Lopez

This is taken from an interview the writer Barry Lopez did with Bill Moyers on April 30, 2010 (transcript here). Lopez described the unique blue color of the New York City sky. Moyers responded that it was hard for him to separate the beauty of the sky with what he saw on September 11. He asked Lopez how to reconcile the beauty with the horror, and Lopez responded:
It's a caution. That, you know, we have a way of talking about beauty as though beauty were only skin deep. But real beauty is so deep you have to move into darkness in order to understand what beauty is....And that's what you-- well, it's just what you said. You're talking to your wife [and] this blue sky goes gray. And a horror, a horror visits us. If you- try to separate these two things, you're in trouble. What you must do is build a system of civilization that is as aware of darkness as it is of beauty. I would feel on thin ice if the world were nothing but beauty.  
I got to see Lopez give a talk at Seattle Town Hall about a year ago. I can't think of any other living writer who thinks so deeply about the relationship between humans and nature, and can express abstract and complex ideas with such precision and command over the English language. You could open any of his books to any page and find something worth quoting, but I'm going to add one more here, from "Of Wolves and Men." This quote has stuck with me, because of my interest in human-predator relationships. My adviser asked me once (related to my research) why humans treat bears worse than any other wild animal. And my first thought was, no, actually humans treat wolves worse than any other wild animal.
The history of killing wolves shows far less restraint and far more perversity. A lot of people didn't just kill wolves; they tortured them. They set wolves on fire and tore their jaws out and cut their Achilles tendons and turned dogs loose on them. They poisoned them with strychnine, arsenic, and cyanide, on such a scale that millions of other animals--raccoons, black-footed ferrets, red foxes, ravens, red-tailed hawks, eagles, ground squirrels, wolverines--were killed incidentally in the process....In the twentieth century people pulled up alongside wolves in airplanes and snowmobiles and blew them apart with shotguns for sport. In Minnesota in the 1970s people choked Eastern timber wolves to death in snares to show their contempt for the animal's designation as an endangered species.
This is not predator control, and it goes beyond the casual cruelty sociologists say manifests itself among people under stress, or where there is no perception of responsibility. It is the violent expression of a terrible assumption: that men have the right to kill other creatures not for what they do but for what we fear they may do.



Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Travel: Orcas Island, art of the natural

Last Saturday I was lucky enough to take a short trip out to Orcas Island, the largest of the San Juan Islands in northeastern Washington state. My friends and I walked from the airfield into a town called Eastsound, the largest on the island with around 3,000 people. 

A lot of the island communities in Washington have an eclectic mix of residents. These areas were first inhabited by the Coast Salish--the name given to the various tribes that live(d) in the Pacific Northwestern coastal areas from Canada's Vancouver Island down to northern Oregon. In the mid-19th century settlers came from the mainland, mostly farmers and fishermen. In the last quarter of the 20th century the San Juans became a draw for artists and writers and people who own yachts and have a lot of money and time.

East Sound Bay, looking southwest
Outside the Orcas Island Historical Museum there is a large wooden sculpture of a heron with a red metal ball. I took a quick photograph, and later decided to dig up some more information about it (the museum was closed for the evening). 

The artist is an island resident named Todd Spalti.  The sculpture is an interpretation of a Tlingit story about the creation of people. (The Tlingit are a tribe that live further north, on the Alaskan and Canadian coast.)

Here's an exerpt from the story (full text here): 
Name: Tribute; Height: 14 feet 3 inches; Material: red cedar and metal

At the beginning of things there was no daylight and the world lay in blackness. Then there lived in a house at the head of Nass river a being called Raven-at-the-head-of-Nass (Nâs-cA'kî-yêl), the principal deity to whom the Tlingit formerly prayed but whom no one had seen; and in his house were all kinds of things including sun, moon, stars, and daylight. 

First of all beings Nâs-cA'kî-yêl created the Heron (LAq!) as a very tall and very wise man and after him the Raven (Yêl), who was also a very good and very wise man at that time. Raven came into being in this wise. His first mother had many children, but they all died young, and she cried over them continually. 

By and by Heron came to her and said, "What is it that you are crying about all the time?" She answered, "I am always losing my children. I can not bring them up." Then he said, "Go down on the beach when the tide is lowest, get a small, smooth stone, and put it into the fire. When it is red hot, swallow it. Do not be afraid." She said, "All right." Then she followed Heron's directions and gave birth to Raven. 

Therefore Raven's name was really ÎtcA'k!u, the name of a very hard rock, and he was hence called TA'qlîk!-îc (Hammer-father). This is why Raven was so tough and could not easily be killed. Heron and Raven both became servants to Nâs-cA'kî-yêl, but he thought more of Raven and made him head man over the world. Then Nâs-cA'kî-yêl made some people.

To the left is a photo taken from the back of the sculpture (click the photo for a link to the original article with photo) showing Raven emerging from the back of a heron with two people.

Artist: unknown; Size: 6'x8'; Material: driftwood
Later as my friends and I walked on the shore of the bay we encountered another, more impromptu sculpture made of driftwood.

I'm going to call this stream-of-consciousness engineering. Not a lot of planning went into it--so it's not crafted, exactly, like the heron. It's not a cultural expression. It's just a spontaneous delight in form, made from debris tossed off by the ocean.  

Near this structure I stopped to pick up a bone from the edge of the water. It looks to me like a vertebrae of some kind of mammal, maybe a dog. Although bits of the spiny parts are broken off, it still has a beautiful symmetry. 

Artist: epic unknown; Height: 2"; Material: calcium phosphate
It's an object that sparks curiosity, because it is a leftover part of some disappeared living thing, and also because the elaborate design of skeletal systems is not often reflected upon in daily life. A dead body with flesh on it would be repugnant, but bones themselves seem...clean. The patterns in a cross-section of a bone are finely webbed, like crystal, or like the tines of a snowflake seen under a microscope. This is the basic material that gives us our form--that builds the frame onto which our flesh is upholstered.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Consumer reparations

I recently spent about six months in western China (I have a sister-blog about environmental issues in China here), and I once again noticed the pervasiveness of specialized fixers and menders in Chinese cities. I bought a used bike for about $15, not too nice, but functioning. The bike broke about every two weeks, and when that happened I would walk it to a bicycle repair man who had a small shop right around the corner from the classroom building I was in most mornings. I never spent more than 12 kuai (a little less than two dollars), and that was for a new tube. The cost to patch up a blown tube was only 1-2 kuai.

There are repair people all over Chinese cities, for every different type of appliance, and also for clothes. On my campus there was a seamstress who sat on a street corner with a chair and a sewing machine and a pile of commissioned mending. I'm aware that here in the US there are tailors and menders that can perform these services, but they're far less numerous and accessible, plus the pervasive attitude seems to be that if it's broken, buy a new one. (Unless it's something like high-end electronics or a car or bicycle, although with electronics most people would agree that if it keeps breaking, it's probably defective and the company should replace it.) 

Friday, January 7, 2011

Blood in the tap water

There is currently an outbreak of foot and mouth disease in Korea, which has brought some--but not enough--attention to the extremely inhumane way that the Korean government deals with this problem: by dumping live animals into large holes and burying them alive.

Link to more info and photos at the Korean Animal Rights Advocates website



Apparently the vinyl lining on one of these holes got torn up when the panicked animals were struggling and dying, causing blood to leak into the groundwater. Here's an article about some residents of Paju city who have blood coming out of their taps. (Somewhere Stephen King is smiling slightly and stroking his beard, if he has one.)

Ummmmmm, this is really a clusterfuck of food safety, water quality and animal welfare issues, all rolled into something that I should try not to compare to wartime atrocities. We (animal welfare promoters) need some kind of metric for animal cruelty that doesn't hysterically invoke Nazis and Stalin, but damn if I know what it is. It's just dumping live animals in the ground and letting them suffocate, I guess. If that doesn't disturb someone on its own, then PETA rhetoric probably won't help.

Culling is not unusual in Korea (video)
Lots of photos (website in Korean)
Protests in Seoul against the culling

Sunday, January 2, 2011

A new way to experience art and nature

I just read this:
Geerat Vermeij, a biologist at the University of California-Davis who has been blind since the age of 3, has identified many new species of mollusks based on tiny variations in the contours of their shells. He uses a sort of spatial or tactile giftedness that is beyond what any sighted person is likely to have. (link to article)
This raises several interesting ideas for me. First off, how do people blind from birth decide what to do with their lives in not-blind culture and society? If everyone were blind then blind-culture would simply be culture. But instead they have to adapt to our culture—and blindness in not-blind culture is considered a limitation.* But clearly blind people should be out on the beach stroking mollusks with their super-fingers, or whatever other occupation that can stand in as a metaphor for.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Some thoughts about mollusk poaching

Last summer, somewhere in Montana, I was on a roadtrip with Heidi. Heidi used to work for the Washington State Park Service (is that what it’s called?). She told me that she had encountered some fucked up things during her employment, one of which was this: Another park employee saw a woman carrying a pail. He asked her what was in the pail. “Moon snails,” the woman said. “What are you going to do with those moon snails?” he asked. “I’m going to take them home and pour bleach on them," she said. "Then I’m going to clean out the shells and make them into jewelry.”

Guess what his reaction to that was. 

So for someone like me, or Heidi, this is a true WTF. To us, those moon snails are already adorning the natural world, in their fully autonomous and living state. But for the shell collector, they must be “cultivated” i.e. bleached to death, before they can be of value, both monetarily and aesthetically. This woman is not alone. People buy this kind of stuff all the time—like the souvenirs of butterflies I saw recently at E’mei Shan. Or Fashion’s ongoing love of fur and leather clothing. Also I just looked down and realized I’m wearing a pearl necklace. I wouldn’t go out to Puget Sound and start prying open clams to look for prizes, but I didn’t think about that when I bought the necklace. I just thought it was beautiful. I would however, collect clams in order to eat them. Is it OK to kill a mollusk for food, but not for jewelry? Why does one seem normal to me and one seems ridiculous? Does scarcity of the “resource” make a difference?

Also, has anyone else noticed that abalones look a lot like vaginas??

Kind of a love letter

Here’s something I love: depictions of 19th-century men (and sometimes women) who are amateur naturalists.

Richard Flockton: It’s such a fine day here in Cornwallshire! I will venture to the beach to pick up some specimans. Lady Aster? Would you care to accompany me?

L. Aster: Oh, you and your specimens. I am content to sit here in the parlor and watch the sun on the rug. And perhaps later I will embroider a pillow with depictions of single celled eukaryotes.

Richard: I’m very attracted to your rational mind.

L. Aster: Perhaps after dinner we can go for a walk, and nail taxonomic placards to the trees.

Richard: I genuinely believe that we are close to a complete understanding of the natural world.

L. Aster: I genuinely agree with you.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Music for bears

Cellist Armen Ksajikian, playing Berlioz at a bear sanctuary in Sitka, Alaska.  Ksajikian is a member of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, and is known for his experimental and exuberant approach to live performance.  He participated in a 16-day orchestral whitewater trip on the Colorado river, that stopped to play concerts on Mendenhall Glacier and at the bottom of the Grand Canyon.

Also, he looks like a bear.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Quote

From NY Times foreign correspondent John F. Burns, about a stray cat that showed up on his Dehli doorstep, in a monsoon.
It is not in the nature of cats, at least in the case of the platoon of strays we have adopted in our travels around the world, to freight themselves with speculations about their fortune in finding human refuge. From the get-go, Scuzzi behaved as if he knew how blessed we — as much as he — were by his turn towards our verandah when all other hope for him was gone.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Hey Armadillo!

I often write about the Pacific Northwest, because that's where I live.  Also, it's the most beautiful place on earth, and the Douglas fir to human ration is 1000:1, which is a statistic I just made up, but it feels right.

In any case, I'd like to dedicate some blog space to my southern roots.  I was born and raised in Central Arkansas.  (Yes, there are bears in Arkansas, but not many, and like many Ozark-dwellers, they keep to themselves.)  It came to my attention lately that there is a very special, very distinctive animal that I have been taking for granted.  The humble, charming armadillo.  I thought every American child grew up with armadillos in their bushes (not double entendre).  Not so.  These tragically slow-moving animals live south of the Mason-Dixon line, from South Carolina to Texas.  Many species proliferate in Latin America, but only one species, the nine-banded armadillo, lives in the U.S.  

Wikipedia says that nine-banded armadillos are marching north into Yankee territory, because they have "no natural predators."  Well Wikipedia, I beg to differ.  Anyone who has driven east of New Mexico on an Interstate numbered 1-40 has preyed on armadillos.  Sure, maybe that's stretching the word "natural," but road fatalities are a significant factor in armadillo population statistics.  They look like little medieval armored vehicles, but they are no match for a car.

Here are some facts about armadillos, which I have generously borrowed from the San Diego Zoo website

1) They are mammals.

2) The largest armadillo ever weighed 132 pounds.  The longest an armadillo can live is 30 years.  So if you are petite, and you get into an armadillo battle, the best way to win is to outlive it.

3) The giant armadillo is the biggest.

High-school graduation photos are so cheesy! Amiright?
4) The smallest armadillo in the world is the pink fairy armadillo. Also the sissiest.  When threatened it digs a hole and hides.

Image Source
5) The armadillo with the best name is the screaming hairy armadillo.

Image Source

Image Source
Here's what it sounds like:


6) The armadillo with the funniest defense mechanism is the three banded armadillo.  It can turn itself into a croquet ball.

Image Source
Image Source
7) Are armadillos good at competitive racing?  Only people in Texas would seek the answer to that question.


8) Armadillos spread leprosy.  That's right, scourge-of-the-dark-ages leprosy.  The interesting thing is that European settlers gave armadillos leprosy 400-500 years ago, and now armadillos give it back to humans, around 50-80 cases a year.  This is because people in the south eat them. 

That's about it for armadillos.  The greatest piece of art inspired by armadillos is the song "Hey Armadillo" by Elton John.  Hey armadillo I can't tell which way you're facing/Maybe that's good thinking, maybe you don't even know/No one's gonna bother you if they can't find your front end/Then again I guess you find your love life rather slow


Friday, March 26, 2010

Rappin' with Rabbi Rosenbaum

I've been meaning to post this for a while--it's from a sermon given at Mercer Island's Herzl-Ner Tamid ("where something Jewish is always happening!") that mentions Urban Phantom. 

HEY, that's me! Sometimes I forget that I'm a bear.
Two stories dominated the news in Seattle this week...the first story that occupied our attention was the wanderings of a black bear that was spotted in Magnolia on Saturday night and made its way to the streets of Ballard and to Shoreline before finally disappearing from the scene, hopefully, back home into the woods.

The second story was that of a banker in Spokane who rescued 8 ducklings from a ledge outside of his second story window. On the national news, we watched these little ducklings nervously pacing back and forth on the ledge not knowing how they were going to get down to their mother down below. And, one by one each one jumped and this banker amazingly caught every single one of them and gently put them on the ground. He had to climb up and retrieve the last duckling himself. And, then traffic in Spokane stopped as a crowd of people led the ducks across the street and finally into the water.

Both the bear and the ducks had gotten lost in a world not their own. They had made a wrong turn into a dangerous neighborhood, namely ours. They had crossed over from the wild into human civilization. And, even though in the bear’s case there was some danger, we were cheering for them. We were delighted to have them as guests in our world, if only for a short time. Something about the presence of these wild animals in our midst thrilled us and delighted us to the core. For a moment, we were reminded of how much we love Nature for its own sake. Quite aside from the dangers of global warming and the practical consequences of climate disruption, we would lose something precious if the wild were to disappear.
Yeah! Then it goes on to say this:
Great civilizations strive to master nature and to keep nature at bay. We have heating in the winter and air conditioning in the summer. We fortify ourselves against floods and earth quakes, as we should. But, when we overdevelop our controlling and mastering side, we run the risk of turning it against each other. So the Egyptians, master builders that they were, squeezed the life out of their slaves in the name of progress.

And, so what was the very first sign of resistance to tyranny? Ki chayot hena. It was the wild within us: some elementary, primal life force within us that we share with the rest of Nature – the natural birth process that resisted mastery and regulation. It just erupted, it overflowed the boundaries of civilized control.

Much later in Jewish history, closer to our own time, another great leader who aimed to revolutionize Jewish life entered the wild. His name was the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of the Hasidic Movement. We are told that the Baal Shem Tov was a poor student. He hated to sit in class. He preferred to be out in Nature.

One day he simply left and went to live out in the woods. He slept in mossy hollows, eating wild berries. He learned the language of the birds and beasts and became the friend of all living things. After many years he returned to civilization as a young adult and he became a children’s teacher. But, instead of making the kids sit in class all day, he would take them into the woods and teach them all about the beauties of Nature. The parents were not happy, but they let it go.
But on one of these journeys, the Baal Shem and the children encountered a werewolf and the children were terrified and ran away. The Baal Shem wasn’t afraid. But, now, the parents were up in arms, and they refused to have their children have anything to do the Baal Shem Tov after that. And, the children grew up to be like their parents, serious, with their eyes turned towards work.
This is a fascinating story and it reminds me very much of the story of the Pied Piper of Hamlin. In that story, the adults hire the piper to entice the rats out of the city. And, everyone was happy. But then he comes back and he entices all of the children out of the city with his sweet music. And, there is great mourning.

The dynamic going on in both of these stories is very similar. If we rid ourselves of the wild, we may find out that we have in the process rid ourselves of our children, too. Not our children in the literal sense – but the child in us. When Nature is endangered, there is something in our own nature that is also endangered. We risk losing touch with something essential inside of ourselves. It’s the part of us that gets excited about a bear in Ballard or ducks in Spokane, even though these creatures are of no immediate practical value to us.
...We think of mastering our impulsive nature and directing our primal energy into something constructive. And, that is all true. But it is not the whole story. Religion at its best is a road map to human growth. And, for us to grow to our fullest height, we need curiosity, imagination and courage. And, these are qualities that are cultivated by our contact with the wild.

Monday, March 22, 2010

You call it back-breaking labor, I call it Art

Harvey Fite spent 37 years of his life turning a former bluestone quarry beside his home in the Catskills into a 6.5-acre stone sculpture. Fite used all natural materials--considering himself in tune with the "land art" movement of the 60s-70s--and Egyptian engineering methods to move the huge pieces of stone. I realize this was the life's work that he chose for himself, but it's hard not to think of Sisyphus pushing that stupid stone up the mountain forever and ever.

He named the piece Opus 40, since he estimated it would take him 40 years to complete it. In 1976 he was working on part of the sculpture and fell to his death. His stepson inherited the property with the sculpture, running it as a curiosity and an event venue--weddings from $750--but he's now looking to sell. He hopes to find a buyer that will maintain the site and keep it open to the public.

The intriguing thing about the sculpture is really the sustained effort that Fite invested in it, not the manipulation of natural forms to reveal something invisible or unconsidered about the natural landscape. I mean, come on, there's a 15-foot monolith at the center of the piece that's lit at night by a floodlight. I wouldn't think of Opus 40 as land art any more than the pyramids at Giza, which is not to say that it is not cool. Also the $3.5 million asking price doesn't really seem to flout the commercial excesses of the art world, the way the land art movement purported to do.

I think real land art is something that doesn't refurbish a natural space to express mastery of nature or a human ideal (like say, Mt. Rushmore), but rather it is uses materials already in play to reveal something about nature to the viewer (like say, a Zen garden).

The most famous piece of land art is called "Spiral Jetty" by Robert Smithson, and it's located in Utah's Great Salt Lake. I think this piece draws the viewer into thinking about the interplay of wind, rock and water along the coastline. The "sculpture" changes over time with the rising and falling of the water level and the erosive effects of the forces acting on it. Here are two different views of it:

Happy World Water Day!

Here's a cool photo gallery from National Geographic highlighting some of the world's water issues.