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


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!

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:

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.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Where the wild things shouldn't be

I read this NY Times article a month ago, but it continues to pop up in my mind at random moments, due to the whole story being exceptionally horrific and bizarre. Basically a pet chimpanzee (and some times TV performer) was treated by its owner like a family member, which included access to steak, alcohol, and Xanax (the last two given to him on purpose or not? Not quite clear). Travis the Chimp was known around town, popular and beloved, etc. etc. Then one dark day on a drug and alcohol-fueled freak-out he TORE OFF A WOMAN'S FACE AND HANDS. The officer who responded to the owner's 911 call was accosted by the chimp, and shot him in self-defense. The woman lived, but she is now horribly disfigured and blind. The doctors made a hole in her face so she could ingest liquids through a straw. She appeared on Oprah, and you can see pictures of her online, if you want to fuel your nightmares. The officer who killed the chimp has since suffered from depression and PTSD. The article ends with the most honest and succinct estimation of the fraught reality of exotic pet ownership that I've ever heard:
 “I consider him a victim,” [Officer Frank Chiafari] said. “He should have been in the jungle where he’s supposed to be. Not in a house drinking wine and taking Xanax.”
Then of course, more recently, there was another horrific death involving a wild animal in captivity. A Sea World trainer named Dawn Brancheau was killed by an orca named Tilikum, who pulled her into the water by her ponytail and pummeled and drowned her, all witnessed by park visitors. Tilikum was captured about 30 years ago in the waters off of Iceland, since the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 prohibits the capture of Pacific Ocean orcas (although his name mean "friend" in Chinook). He's been in captivity ever since. It turns out that Tilikum, like Travis the Chimp, also has a dark side. He was one of three orcas that killed a BC trainer in a SeaWorld-type park in 1991; the whales tossed her body around their tank like a toy. In 1999 he killed a 27-year-old man who had hidden himself in SeaWorld Orlando after hours so he could sneak in to see the whales. (It doesn't say this in the article, but to me this has "drunk stunt" written all over it.) The next day they found the man's naked body laying across Tilikum, unsure if the man had fallen, jumped, or was pulled into the tank. Imagine the custodial staff walking in the next morning and seeing a 12,000 pound killer whale wearing the body of a naked man as a mantle? Epic.


It's weird that when we bring animals into our human sphere, we also bring them into our moral sphere. When an animal attacks a human, there are always calls to destroy it--not just for the future safety of others, but as punishment to the animal. Even when people try to defend an animal--like in Travis or Tilikum's case--they refer to it as "innocent," which still implies that the animal just did not know what it was doing, and had it known better, it would have done the right thing, or not, but then we could have at least appropriately judged it by our moral code. (Whenever my mother would complain about our beloved housecat killing and dismembering a squirrel, I took a perverse delight in reminding her "cats are not moral creatures.") The immoral act happened when the animal was captured and brought into the human sphere, and the immorality is perpetuated by people who support the exploitation of wild animals for entertainment.

This article gives a very frank assessment of the business of Sea World, and what the orcas mean to its branding. Short answer: lots and lots of money. Of course, in our society, the money makers are not allowed to say things like: "we won't stop capturing and exploiting killer whales, because we make a ton of money doing it, period." They have to make up reasons why what they are doing is not wrong: "We have created an extraordinary opportunity for people to get an up-close, personal experience and be inspired and connect with marine life in a way they cannot do anywhere else in the world," [SeaWorld Parks and Entertainment President Jim] Atchison said, "and for that we will make no apologies." Absolutely tremendous irony here. You mean I can't get whales in the wild to jump on command? I can't get up-close and personal? I can't ride on their backs or stroke their faces? What damn good are they to me anyways then--fuck it, I'm going to Sea World, where the whales are more like dogs.  There is nowhere else in the world where I can see a whale act like a dog.

The fact that anyone would buy this argument shows that there is a profound misunderstanding of what wildlife is, and where it belongs.


This is called "Kitten's Wedding," and it's considered the crowning achievement of the 19th-century taxidermy craze.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Deep clean the ecosystem

Today is January 27, the birth date in 1919 of Arne Naess, the Norweigen philosopher and activist who founded the Deep Ecology movement, sometimes called ecosophy. He died almost one year ago. Naess's name is not immediately familiar, even to many environmentalists, but his philosophy should be familiar to anyone who has heard reference to "mother nature" in the last 40 years. Naess argued for a union of science and metaphysics, and a deeper understanding of the interconnectedness of all things, akin to ideas in ancient mythology, Taoism, Buddhism and Hinduism. (Although these eastern philosophies are oversimplified and misunderstood in most popular writing by western authors, who, in an effort to circumnavigate the influence of Cartesian body-mind dualism, want show that the mysterious East possesses secrets of the universe that we do not. Which is not to say that there is not a LOT to say about the relationship of humans and nature in these philosophies and religions, including native spiritual beliefs, worldwide.)

Anyways, let the man speak for himself:
Self-realization cannot develop far without sharing joys and sorrows with others, or more fundamentally, without the development of the narrow ego of the small child into the comprehensive structure of a Self that comprises all human beings. The deep ecology movement takes this a step further and asks for a development such that there is a deep identification of individuals with all life.
… the Self in question is a symbol of identification with an absolutely maximum range of beings.
The ecosophical outlook is developed through an identification so deep that one’s own self is no longer adequately delimited by the personal ego or the organism. One experiences oneself to be a genuine part of all life.
We are not outside the rest of nature and therefore cannot do with it as we please without changing ourselves … we are a part of the ecosphere just as intimately as we are a part of our own society … Paleontology reveals that the development of life on earth is an integrated process, despite the steadily increasing diversity and complexity. “Life is fundamentally one.”
Here's a link to the Foundation for Deep Ecology. It's interesting that they cite David Brower's Sierra Club books as their model for publishing large, glossy coffee table books covering various environmental issues. Brower was very adept at bringing issues like mining and dam-building directly to the 1960s-70s American public by taking out hyperbolic ads in newspapers and magazines, and publishing the popular photographic book series. But perhaps in an internet-linked global culture like our own, we need different tactics. Do people still have coffee tables?

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Somewhere, beneath the Palouse...

The Palouse is an agricultural area in southeast Washington state that looks markedly different from central and western Washington.  It is home to a legendary white worm, called the Giant Palouse Earthworm.  It's rumored to grow to up to 3 and a half feet in length, and have a sickly sweet smell, like funeral lilies.  SCIENCE has not really confirmed these ideas.

Update, March 27, 2010: Some U of Idaho scientists have found a couple of the worms.  They are long, but not that long.  And they smell like normal worms.  Thanks for killing my buzz, science.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Meet the beetles

Effects of Mountain Pine Beetle infestation.

This article from The Atlantic describes the ongoing effort to protect western US forests from beetles. Richard Hofstetter, a researcher in Northern Arizona University's School of Forestry, uses the beetle's own recorded calls to disrupt their destructive behavior. He enlisted help from a composer named David Dunn, who specializes in nature and animal sounds, to record and recreate the beetle calls, which he then blasts at his lab subjects.  It's unclear if just driving the beetles crazy will take care of the problem (in one instance, the sound-harangued beetle eats its mate, in another, it bores through a plexi-glass panel--unsettling bordering on Greek tragedy, no?) But the idea is that a wall of sound could be created to keep beetles out of the unaffected parts of the forest.  There's no mention of the possible affects it would have on other species, but I don't really expect that in a popular journal--leave the nitty-gritty to the long, slow, boring process of scientific research.

Part of the beetle problem in the West is mild winters--cold weather has been the best beetle deterrent.  The current strategies for controlling the problem focus on selective thinning and harvesting, pheromones, and pesticides. The major culprit of destruction is the Mountain Pine Beetle, who carries a blue fungus along with it's infestation that helps destroy the tree, and leaves behind a blue stain on the wood that is now being used to make craft items and marketed as "denim pine."

The Asian Longhorn Beetle, although quite elegant, destroys healthy trees too.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Crows in Tokyo

Tokyo has a crow problem, according to a story today on NPR.

The crows fly into the city from the suburbs to feast on garbage. They build nests in telephone poles, sometimes stealing bits of fiber optic cable to construct them.

The city has tried eliminating open garbage and trapping and gassing the crows - an option too cruel for some.

Now a privately funded project is using a new tactic: natural predators.

An office block in Tokyo's Ginza shopping district hung hives holding 300,000 bees on its roof. The bees act aggressively toward the crows, perceiving them as a threat.

Plan Bee worked for that city block, but expanding the project seems impractical - unless Tokyo envisions itself the world's largest apiary.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Manufactured landscapes

What do you see in this photograph? Is it the Alps? Maybe the west slopes of the Sierra Nevada? Some unknown Shangri-La in Borneo?

Now look again. The photo seems both familiar and new. The granite crags in the background, the clouds forming in the upper left, the luminous greenery – we know the parts of this landscape, but once assembled, they seem, well…assembled.

This is a manufactured landscape, composed and photographed in a 200-gallon fish tank by New York artist Kim Keever. The result is a picture reminiscent of the great 19th century landscape artists Bierstadt, Church and Moran who painted the western United States with epic strokes. But Keever’s process does not take him to remote vantage points or open ranges. He builds his trees from twigs and his clouds from cotton balls. Alpenglow comes from an ink bottle and mountains from plaster.

Here’s what Keever said about his work in a 2007 interview with New York Arts Magazine:
“When I look at a beautiful landscape I go into a daydream. This is a daydream of escaping briefly into another world. Having lived in New York City for so long, it seems like another world. If there are no elements of humanity in the view I can't help imagining how this could have been a landscape from a million years ago or a million years hence. I hope the viewer sees the timeless qualities that I try to portray in my work through the absence of people and various signs of humanity.”

Like Hudson River School painters from northeastern cities and Sierra Club founders from West Coast cities, Keever is a city-dweller trying to preserve an idea of “the wild.”

Nostalgia, beauty and pavement – these are powerful forces.

(Image shown is titled West 91)