Monday, November 9, 2015

Better than Grafton Street

When I was a teen most creative types were hawking their wares in Dublin city Centre. Im not just talking about U2, The Frames etc., but all sorts of poets, artists, and hucksters. When I ended up getting paid - actual money - to do a PhD in the 80s, I could not believe my good fortune. The two, then three, then four of us lived in genteel poverty for several years before I got full time work in the 90s. And though I now realize that retirement is somewhat of a dream - I started working too late for that - nonetheless, the glorious good fortune of getting to talk and write for a living is flabbergasting to me. Better, perhaps, then selling poems on Grafton St.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Is There Need for “The New Wild”?: The New Ecological Quarrels

Invasive species are, generally speaking, those species that humans transport to a new region, where they reproduce, spread, and do ecological harm. That many species have become globetrotters is not in doubt. The issue is this: Could it be that, contrary to prevailing assumptions, invasive species are helping rather than hindering nature? Might it be the case that “invasive species will be nature’s salvation,” as Fred Pearce opines in The New Wild (2015)?

The eradication of invasives is often preparatory to restoring ecological systems to “health,” defined in various ways. Ecological restoration typically involves the reintroduction of native species — you can’t have a tallgrass prairie, a geographically restricted habitat, without native prairie plants. But if, as Pearce claims, the notion of restoration is predicated on an outmoded model of how ecosystems work, then is restoration doomed to fail? Might the act of returning an ecological system to some former state be an assault rather than a boon?

Pearce raises these difficult and timely questions. Invasion ecology is, relatively speaking, in its disciplinary infancy, although it has already provided scaffolding for conservation-oriented land management strategies. An ecological restorationist in your neighborhood is right now chopping down an invasive shrub, poisoning an invasive herb, or perhaps setting a trap for a non-native mammal. And by chop, poison, and trap, I mean kill; this endeavor is not for the faint of heart. Besides, it is an expensive business. The subsequent restoration of the ecological community is likewise costly and fraught with practical difficulties. Problematic invasives regenerate as often as not, or scurry back to a trapped-out system, especially those with underlying problems resulting from historically poor human management.

These challenges might encourage scientists to be cautious in dispensing advice, and encourage practitioners to wait for more complete information. But the Holocene extinction, or Sixth Mass Extinction as some call it, creates a sense of urgency. Supposedly, the rate of species loss under the influence of human disruption rivals past cataclysmic extinction events, like the one that eliminated dinosaurs at the end of the Cretaceous. This time, we humans are the comet, we are the inundating sea. Many ecologists claim that losses due to ecological damage from invasive species are among the top five factors driving contemporary extinctions. Putting this all together: the emerging science of invasion ecology is being wed to an unperfected practice of ecological restoration under the blood-red sky of a global catastrophe.

Pearce takes aim at the edifice that has coalesced around conservation efforts in the face of invasion. He does not simply remove the dodgy bricks, nor does he merely replace the edifice with a new edifice. Rather, he inverts the edifice, standing the whole darned thing on its head. Setting out to upend the conservation worldview, he writes that “when invaded by foreign species, ecosystems do not collapse. Often they prosper better than before. The success of aliens becomes a sign of nature’s dynamism, not its enfeeblement.” Elsewhere, using a medical metaphor of his own, he writes: “Alien species […] are often exactly the shot in the arm that real nature needs.” Thus, the burly nature of the New Wild — the worldview that embraces invasive species as our new saviors — is “usually richer than what went before.” This is bold and exciting. Is it correct? For the most part, I think not.

Read full review here

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Can a sensible person could believe in fairies?

It’s hard to exaggerate the hold that fairies have exercised upon the Irish imagination. Though he wrote about them extensively, W.B. Yeats was somewhat agnostic on the question of whether they were real.  In his still wonderful to read collection The Celtic Twilight (1902) he asked if a sensible person could believe in fairies? This is what he wrote in response: “Even when I was a boy I could never walk in a wood without feeling that at any moment I might find before me somebody or something I had looked for without knowing what I looked for. And now I will at times explore every little nook of some poor coppice with almost anxious footsteps, so deep a hold has this imagination upon me.”

For my own part, I have never seen a fairy, though I have visited places where I know the feeling that Yeats described, where a mood comes over you, a sense that there is something there with you grander than the trees, and more secretive than the birds that huddle noiselessly in the branches. Reenadina Woods in Co Kerry is one such place, where stands one of Europe’s last great yew woodlands; Glenveagh Valley in Co Donegal also, where as one descends the wild mountainside, with the sun setting to your left, the mountain dark to your right and behind you, and where invisible streams chortle beneath the gorse: aye, there may be fairies there alright.   

Friday, July 31, 2015

Nature Heals

Nature heals. That two word sentence, combining as it does one of the English language’s most complex words with one of its most soothing, unites an antique intuition and an emerging science, draws upon a body of thought distilled by the Romantics and which remains compelling to contemporary environmental thinkers, is nowhere better explicated than in two classic children’s stories: Heidi by Johanna Spyri (1827 - 1901), and The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett (1849 –1924). Is it coincidental that they are both female writers? I suspect not.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

A Montrose Morning: birds and the planes overhead

If you rise early on spring morning and join the hushed throng of birders at Montrose Harbor you will hear a loud chorusing of migratory and native birds.  It is greatest free event Chicago has to offer. The birds are mostly invisible within the shrubby shelter of the Magic Hedge whose sole magic is the unexpectedly high density of birds who stop off there after long voyages.

Close your eyes; soak it all in. The birds call each to each, and the wind rustles the leaves of the Magic Hedge and out across the grasses of the sanctuary’s minuscule savanna.  If it rains, listen to drops as they fall on thousands of leafy umbrellas and softly percuss upon the soil.  As your ears attune, and the orbit of your attention radiates, you hear wave after wave roll in and softly break upon the adjacent lake shore.  Do they not lend to your reverie a mesmerizing rhythm? Can you believe that you are in the city? The world is all birdsong, and you are all ears.  Is this why not you were given ears: to immerse yourself for these seconds in the company of birds and hedge and grass and waves and raindrops?

A murmur swells, and now there is a slight shuffling of feet, pencils scratch on paper, and then a riot of clicks and camera whirs. “Did you see it, did you see it?”, they whisper. The birders have spotted a rarity. Is it a Kirtland's Warbler? A dozen fingers gesture, but for the life of you, you still can’t see the feathery cause of their excitement.

You close your eyes again, but the spell has been broken. Now instead of the gentle beat of waves on the shore, you hear the hum of traffic on Lake Shore Drive, a pretty but noisy expressway that runs parallel to the lake, no more than half a mile away. Above you an aircraft growls in low over the water preparing to land in O’Hare to the west. And then yet another comes in. Now that’s your attention has been drawn to it the morning chorusing of aircraft is no less busy, though certainly less beautiful, than that of the birds. Your pastoral dream has been broken; yes, yes, you are in the city.