Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The island adventures of man and cat

Bob Kull, student and wanderer, with degrees in biology and psychology, spent a year on a a small uninhabited island in Chile. His aim was to study the affects of nature and solitude on the human mind, using himself as a subject.  He wasn't completely alone, however,  he brought a cat with him (that he named Cat, as if it were the only one in the world).  This project was for his PhD dissertation, but he has also written a book about his experience.

Kull went on several boat trips, to a hidden lake on a neighboring stretch of land, and to a glacier. He studied the birds that migrated to his island, and after watching the way the condors play on the wind, he built a kite that he flew with his fishing pole. He conducted a few scientific studies. He writes:  "As my sense of separation from the world softened, I came to realize that science is one way the world becomes conscious of itself. It is not that I, as a scientist, am a disembodied mind studying a world out there; rather, I and the limpets are the world, and in studying them I am studying myself too."

Kull spent much of his time meditating and watching the rhythms of the world around him, even fasting and building a sweat lodge. His story is very different from the Robinson Crusoe "man alone on an island" narrative, although in Crusoe's defense, his island had cannibals.

Here is a link to his website with more information about his project, and photos.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Art Break: Cloudscapes - Albert Bierstadt

Albert Bierstadt’s painting Puget Sound on the Pacific Coast at the Seattle Art Museum is an epic swirl of cloud, coast and cliff. Jonathan Raban said the painting turned Puget Sound into “a brand name for the dreadfully picturesque.”

However, Bierstadt never visited Puget Sound or the Washington Coast before he painted it. His traveling partner became ill and their trip was aborted in Portland. Bierstadt’s Puget Sound is an imagined landscape, one that paints the area’s cloudscape grandiosely, ludicrously wrong.

Bierstadt’s clouds are cumulonimbus – great roiling carbuncles swelling into the stratosphere. Cumulonimbus are convection clouds formed when warm temperatures evaporate surface moisture. They create massive columns of cloud rising 25,000 ft, sometimes up to 60,000 ft. Judging from the peak visible in the upper right, Bierstadt painted these thunderheads at an implausibly low altitude. They soar, they threaten, they’re nice to look at. But they aren’t the accurate choice (if you care about accuracy). They are not valley clouds or Pacific Northwest coastal clouds.

The Puget Sound region is a cauldron of different cloud formations, but it is not particularly rich in cumulonimbus. Maybe if Bierstadt had visited the area he would have depicted a more boring stratus layer – though his painting would have been less impressive for it.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Literature and Antarctica

Bagpiper Gilbert Kerr, of the Scottish National Antarctic Expedition (1902), brings art to the final frontier.
The recent Antarctica news post I wrote got me wondering how many books and movies have been set in Antarctica? We all know about the bathetic "March Of the Penguins," and you might have seen Warner Herzog's philosophic reverie "Encounters At the End Of the World." But what else is out there?

How about a thriller? Author Bob Reiss set his novel "Purgatory Road" in Antarctica.  Here's the amazing blurb:
When a fellow scientist is found half-eaten by a leopard outside a US Antarctic research base, Jack Amirault is convinced that it is murder.
What gave it away Jack, the fact that there are no leopards in Antarctica?

Or for another mystery/thriller novel, check out Clive Cussler's "Shock Wave," which has something to do with a diamond king, an Australian penal colony, a deadly plague, a mine, and a beautiful woman--all culminating in a "spine-chilling confrontation." (Well YEAH, it's cold as a witch's tit down there in ANTARCTICA.)

Another thriller (seeing a pattern?) set in the polar south is "Ice Station" by Matt Reilly. All characters in the novel are in clear violation of the Antarctic Treaty, since they're all military personnel from various countries being sneaky and killing each other. The U.S. soldiers meet their rival on a snowy field of battle--the, ahem, evil French Special Forces.

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist William Dietrich uses his experience in the Antarctic to inform his derivative adventure novels starring "hero/geologist" Jed Lewis in "Dark Winter" and "pilot/consultant" Otto Kohl in "Ice Reich."  Something about murder and a meteorite, something about plague bacteria and Nazis.

If you want to raise your literary brow a little higher, there's Albert Sanchez Pinol's "Cold Skin," which looks to be something of a ghost story and something of a DSM IV diagnostic manual.

There's also "Whiteout," a graphic novel series by Greg Rucka with various illustrators. It was recently made into a movie version starring Tom Skerritt's beard.

And then there's this book, by the wife of the mayor of Houston, about children sent to Antarctica for a reality TV show in the year 2083. The real optimism is in the assumption that Antarctica is still covered in snow in 50 years.

If sassy chicklit is your bag, check out "Adventures Of an Ice Princess" which is kind of "Eat, Pray, Love" meets "South: The Endurance Expedition." Because it's not like it's hard to go to ANTARCTICA. I mean, what's a girl to do when she gets dumped? Buying a villa in Italy is so late-90s.

There are a lot of documentary and nature films about Antarctica, but not so many feature films.  I've mentioned "Whiteout" and "Alien vs. Predator."

"Mr. Forbush and the Penguins," is a movie starring John Hurt, about how scientific dedication can cure womanizing.

And "Eight Below" is a Disney film that stars Paul Walker, about a hot scientist who misappropriates grant money to rescue stranded dogs. It's based on a true story, except in real life all but two of the dogs died. (It is majorly HARSH in Antarctica, Disney.)

Penguins threatened by their own charisma

The Canadian cruiseship "Explorer" sunk in 2007, prompting concerns over regulating tourist vessels in Antarctica. All of the people on board were rescued, but oil continues to leak from the submerged vessel. Fuerza Aerea de Chile via European Pressphoto Agency, via the New York Times. 

Like the sea levels, tourism to Antarctica is on the rise. Via the Bellingham Herald (emphasis mine throughout): 
In the past, most shipping in Antarctica has been limited to scientific vessels bringing researchers or supplies. But traffic has burgeoned in recent years as tourists flock to see the world's last great wilderness.
Annual tourist numbers have grown from about 10,000 a decade ago to 45,000 last year. Tourists can pay between $3,000 and $24,000 for a two-week trip, in style ranging from basic hotel to all-out luxury.
The Antarctic Treaty nations--43 countries ranging from the obvious, including Australia, New Zealand, Chile and South Africa; to the not-at-all obvious, like Turkey, Cuba and Belgium--are meeting this week to create regulations for ships operating in the area.  The hope is to prevent deadly wrecks caused by inadequate technical outfitting, and to protect the environment from oil spills.  Some of the problems with increased tourism are outlined in this section of coolantarctica.com:
While tourists may only only spend a relatively small time on landings, it is by its nature relatively "high-impact" time - compared to a scientist or electrician say who probably spend most of their time on a permanent or semi-permanent base. Tourists also, by their nature will want to visit the most picturesque and wildlife rich areas of Antarctica, and they tend to do so in numbers far greater than the entire compliment [sic] of many Antarctic bases.
There is also the fact that those national programmes that are supplied by ship (as the majority are) have relatively few visits of those ships, whereas in the season, the great majority of all shipping activity in Antarctica is of tour ships. There have been accidents with ships being grounded on uncharted rocks and there have been oil-spills.
Statistics from this site report that about 36% of tourists to Antarctica are Americans, followed by Brits at 16%, Germans at 11% and Aussies at 7.2%. Most of the tourists go for a cruise, or make a brief landing by boat-probably just to say they've stood on Antarctica. Around 10% of people either kayak, walk or scuba dive, and only 0.02% of people go snowboarding, despite all the very tasty powder. (Maybe the sudden extreme changes in weather, or the complete absence of snow bunnies deters them.)

The Antarctic Treaty took effect on June 1961, and sets out guidelines for the use of the southernmost continent. The articles stipulate that Antarctica should be used for peaceful purposes only (although tell that to the Predators, who are using Bouvetøya Island as a game reserve), freedom for scientific investigations by all nations, and a ban on nuclear testing and radioactive waste disposal.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Book Review: The Year of the Flood, Oryx and Crake

I once had an English teacher describe science-fiction author Octavia Butler as a "woman with a hard mind." I've taken that to mean that Butler was a writer who was not afraid to push hard on the ideas--to take a complicated idea, like say, the psychology of slavery, or the cruelty of Darwinian-style evolution, and see how it really works in human society.  She didn't let any of her characters off the hook.  Canadian writer Margaret Atwood is also a woman with a hard mind (do we expect it less, because she's a woman?) Her novels Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood are, together, the telling of a viral destruction of most of the human population. She calls her writing "speculative fiction," (not wanting to sully her work with genre associations, I guess, although science fiction is speculative fiction) and she pushes hard on the ideas.

These books are set in the near future (my guess would be 50-100 years, though it doesn't really matter), in what can be called a dystopian world, although a lot of what she describes is...now, depending on where you stand.  Think of the quote from William Gibson that goes:  "The future has already arrived, it's just not evenly distributed yet."  No one is spared the implications of corporatism, climate change, over-population, and widespread genetic manipulation--not the characters, not the reader.  Jimmy, the narrator of O&C,  is horrified when he first sees the bizarrely-modified headless lab chickens with tube-like appendages that grow "ChickieNobs," which are nugget-like chicken chunks.  Later when ChickieNobs are a commonly-available fast food item (sold by the bucket!) he munches on them without a thought, clearly over the shock of their origin.  Plus, they're delicious. Jimmy: implicated.

Some time before the events of the books take place there has been a corporate takeover of civil and military defense, with all security now being administered by the CorpSeCorps (not to be confused with the Corpse Corps, an undead biker gang that takes over small towns), who are allied with various large corporations.  The corporations have their own compounds--think suburb+golf course+shopping mall--where their employees live and work inside the safety of walls.  Outside the walls of the compounds are the pleeblands, filled with the unprivileged working class, vice industries, organized crime, cut-rate genetic manipulation, street gangs and chaos.


From The Year of the Flood, by Margaret Atwood

"Do we deserve this Love by which God maintains our Cosmos? Do we deserve it as a Species? We have taken the World given to us and carelessly destroyed its fabric and its Creatures. Other religions have taught that this World is to be rolled up like a scroll and burnt to nothingness, and that a new heaven and a new Earth will then appear. But why would God give us another Earth when we have mistreated this one so badly?"

Heaven is a place on earth: The Bible goes green

Harper Collins has published a green edition of the New Revised Standard Version of the bible, which is clearly aimed to appeal to a hipper and more liberal audience--the site for the book has pitches from young, pierced, funky-haired people, in addition to some mom and dad types.

The Green Bible comes with "passages that speak to God's care for creation highlighted in green." It's printed on recycled paper, with soy-based ink and a cotton/linen cover (wha?), more a concession to aesthetics than a service to the environment.  I mean, aren't there already enough bibles out there?  The Gideons alone could be financing their own small timber mill and distribution plant.

Still, it's neat, right?  This indicates a general public engagement with these issues, and shows that there is some real conflict in people's minds about what kind of relationship they want to have with the land and with all of the plants and animals in it.  The relationship of humans to their environment has a complicated ethical and spiritual dimension.  Aldo Leopold wrote about this in his beautifully eloquent essay "The Land Ethic" (quoted in green, in the spirit of things):
All ethics so far evolved rest upon a single premise: that the individual is a member of a community of interdependent parts. His instincts prompt him to compete for his place in that community, but his ethics prompt him also to co-operate (perhaps in order that there may be a place to compete for).
The land ethic simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively: the land.
In any case, everyone in Washington knows that Paradise is here on earth.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Environmental News Round-up, Pacific Northwest

I'm adding a weekly feature to this site where I collect links to Pacific Northwestern environmental news items of note.

Eco-terrorist responsible for UW lab fire turns up in China, sentenced to prison for drug possession, via The Daily News Online.

Green jobs in the Pacific Northwest get $3.1 million in stimulus funds, via Skagit County's News and Information Source.

Gill nets pile up in Puget Sound, kill lots of wildlife, cost a lot of money to remove, via  Skagit County's News and Information Source.

Dogs give seals Giardia, via PNW Local News.

Washington and Oregon Christmas tree permits

 Did you know you can get a $5 from the Forest Service to go into the National Forest and cut down your own Christmas tree?  Here's a list of Washington State Forest Service offices offering these permits, click on the link for more information: 
Gifford Pinchot
Mt Baker-Snoqualmie

And in Oregon:
Deschutes and Ochoco
Mt. Hood
Rogue River-Siskiyou

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Dubious world record, Nepal

This article in The Guardian describes the "world's biggest animal sacrifice," that just happened in Nepal.  250,000 animals were sacrificed to Gadhimai, a Hindu goddess of power. In return she grants wishes or something.
As dawn broke, the fair officially opened with the sacrifice of two rats, two pigeons, a pig, a lamb and a rooster in the main temple, to cheers of "Long live Gadhimai" from spectators pushing against each other for a better view.
In the main event, 250 appointed residents with traditional kukri knives began their task of decapitating more than 10,000 buffalo in a dusty enclosure guarded by high walls and armed police.
Frightened calves galloped around in vain as the men, wearing red bandanas and armbands, pursued them and chopped off their heads. Banned from entering the animal pen, hundreds of visitors scrambled up the three-metre walls to catch a glimpse of the carnage.
The writer, Olivia Lang,  is definitely telling two stories--underneath the facts of the story being related, there is a clear feeling of disgust at blood sacrifice as a spectator sport. And this photo speaks for itself, although the word "stricken" really hits the viewer in the gut.

I would like to have seen more in the article about the Nepalese and Indian protesters, and less about Brigitte Bardot.

PS. 50 decapitated animal heads later, I've decided to call off the search for an appropriate photo to accompany this article.