Monday, November 30, 2009

National Parks Profit from a Neologism

Yellowstone's Emerald Pool
This article  in the Washington Examiner online, from an AP article by Mead Gruver describes a new policy put in place that allows "bioprospecting," which is defined as "the search for organisms that promise scientific breakthroughs in medicine and chemistry," as long as the park receives part of any commercial profit reaped--an unspecified amount.

Actually, the way I phrased it is not the way the article presents it--it's unclear as to whether "bioprospecting" was legal before this policy, but this policy makes it tacitly legal.

Here's the instigating factor for this policy--people have been making profits off of discoveries already:

In the mid-1980s, scientists discovered that a bacteria species from a Yellowstone hot spring could make DNA testing much more practical. Because of that Nobel Prize-winning research, DNA testing has since become commonplace — an industry worth hundreds of millions of dollars a year.
The National Park Service hasn't directly shared in those profits even though the bacteria species, Thermus aquaticus, arguably belonged the American public.
If Ken Burns hasn't turned your mind to patriotic mush, you probably know that "public land" is not yours.  The "public ownership" of National Parks is an ideal--a good one, but you know you can't chop down a redwood tree and use it to build your own cedar cabin in Yosemite Valley.  Just like you can't borrow police cars whenever you want, even though they are "public property." So where is the money going to go? Into the National Park system, which sounds good. Maybe. Well, unsure.  This part of a larger issue: What are National Parks For?

But I'm getting sidelined from the point at hand, which is that there is already an uncomfortable relationship between science and commerce, and people are very skeptical that science--medical and pharmaceutical--has our best interest at heart, rather, it serves our best interest on the way to our wallet (if you're pessimistic).  Involving the National Park as a business partner in profit made off of scientific discovery is a bad move.  What if, further down the line, profit depends on the exploitation of a natural resource--which it so often does?  Will you give one Yellowstone thermal bacteria pool to save two Zion Canyons?  There's a reason we try to separate public agencies from commercial/corporate interests.  Even though this policy doesn't really seem like a big deal, it's a bad precedent.

The counter to this argument is that scientific research does, in fact, benefit humanity, and it should be encouraged.  Although, I'm not sure how splitting the profits this way either encourages or discourages the research.  The article quotes Yellowstone spokesperson Al Nash who says two seemingly contradictory things: that the Park Service is not looking for new revenue for "filling potholes," and that "this is about the public, which owns places like Yellowstone, getting some kind of benefit if someone has a commercial product based on research which started in the park." But the public pays for the National Parks through tax dollars and donations, which is part of what makes it "ours." And we already benefit--at least, in theory.  (In reality, the RV'd elderly seem to benefit the most, but whatever.)

In this case, the word "prospecting" is ominous, when you consider that the history of the West is the exploitation of mineral resources by large corporate ("company") interests.  And the history of conservation has often been the fight to wrest the land out of the hands of these private and commercial interests.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Book Review: The Sea

In The Sea three stories—two from memory, one in the present—move together simultaneously through the narration of an aging art historian named Max Morden. Max has recently lost his wife to cancer, and has returned to a seaside village where he spent a summer as a boy in the company of the Graces, an upper class family whose complicated relations teased out Max’s burgeoning understanding of “adult themes:” love, death, the mysterious genitals, etc. In particular, he re-examines his romantic relationship with capricious, often-cruel Chloe Grace (what a name!) and her mute twin brother Myles. His scouring examination of people is bitterly funny, and his immediate and unmitigated grief enables him to rediscover the intensity of his feelings as a young boy and trace them to his current full-grown, neurotic, somewhat self-loathing, bloviating, and lonely old man sentiments.

Max uses his arcane and precise vocabulary to reveal his story in all its terrible complexity and beauty, in the way a surgeon might use a scalpel to lay open the complicated viscera of a corpse for a room full of medical students to pick over in awe and disgust. And Max does not find there in his depiction (nor would the med students) the sum of all the parts, the whole—life, or meaning. Nature remains inscrutable. You can see him trying to count all the moments—a first kiss, a slap in the face, a misunderstood conversation—always with an eye to taking an inventory of his own personality to come to some understanding of the origins and destinations of these unknowable feelings. He is good at seeing how things work, but doesn’t always put himself into the picture. (The true-blue Unreliable Narrator, there you are.)

Even as a boy, Max knew he wanted a life as a dilettante, to escape from the scrabbling existence of his working-class mother. His marriage allowed him to secure an easy life, but the unexpected death of his wife affronts his idea of himself: someone who has been lucky enough to slip below the radar. He would have been happy to remain an art critic, examining suffering after it is composed in form and medium, not in its raw and not-at-all-ironic state, as it is in nature, when death is only death. And he looks always to nature for clues, often couching his descriptions in medical or art jargon; the eponymous ocean is on page one “that vast bowl of water bulging like a blister, lead-blue and malignantly agleam.”

Water and death have a pretty solid literary relationship, the former often posed as a means of or vehicle to the latter, and you’ll rarely read a book set on or near the ocean that doesn’t turn out some phrase like “the shore beyond,” “the cold depths,” “something lurking beneath,” and characters or abstract concepts being “swept away,” “pulled under,” “buffeted about,”etc. And The Sea uses this trope, too, but also uses less-evoked natural elements to create expressive metaphors. Chloe’s hair is “almost white but darkening when it was wet to the color of polished wheat,” cars in a parking garage are “ranked neatly there, sleek as porpoises and not making a sound.”

At one point Max chases a memory down a country lane, only to find an old house he knew inhabited now by a stranger, an ugly woman he inadvertently spills his grief to, but as he turns to go he notices the light. “The autumn sun fell slantwise into the yard, making the cobbles bluely shine, and in the porch a pot of geraniums flourished aloft their last burning blossoms of the season. Honestly, this world.” This is one of my favorite passages, as it shows how nature both seems to give expression to Max's deepest and most convoluted sorrows and fears, and to utterly mock them because they are just some geraniums, and have nothing to do with him and his dead wife. In passages like these the book is outstanding, showing that the big events of life (where and when was that first kiss? at what moment did she actually die?) tend to slip away from a meaningful description, yet our memories are punctuated with the small sights, sounds, smells, and tastes that pin these feelings into our lives, even as they escape our comprehension.