Monday, May 4, 2020

The Badgers of Montpelier Hill

When I was a child growing up in Dublin, a friend dropped her pet hamster on the kitchen floor. The animal survived but thereafter he could only walk in circles. As the hamster got older, the circles got wider but like a ship permanently anchored to shore it never got particularly far.
Like most children, I had taken a fall or two and because I was a worrier I felt concerned that like that hamster I would never travel very far. Though I did, indeed, travel and I am now thousands of miles from home, I still think of my life as occurring in a series of ever widening circles.
At first, I was confined to our back garden. We lived in the Templeogue Village an inglorious suburb on what at the time was a trailing edge of Dublin. Over the garden wall were farm fields and farther off were the Dublin Mountains.
Sure enough over the years, I explored the fields and when I got a little older, I would cycle into the foothills of those mountains.
Now there was one hill in particular that I was drawn to: officially called Montpelier Hill it is also called The Hell Fire Club. The story was that a structure built there in the early 1700s as a hunting lodge for delinquent aristocratic youth had also been used by them for somewhat darker practices. One night the devil himself showed up there at a card game. In the hubbub that followed, a candle was knocked over and the lodge burned to the ground. By the time I started to cycle there, The Hellfire Club was an innocuous forestry plantation. The burned lodge remains.
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Saturday, May 2, 2020

A place of silence

New Piece in Aeon

"Our cities are filled by the hubbub of human-made noise. Where shall we find the quietness we need to nurture our spirit?"

To walk from south to north on the peripatos, the path encircling the Acropolis of Athens – as I did one golden morning in December last year – takes you past the boisterous crowds swarming the stone seats of the Theatre of Dionysus. The path then threads just below the partially restored colonnades of the monumental Propylaea, which was thronged that morning with visitors pausing to chat and take photographs before they clambered past that monumental gateway up to the Parthenon. Proceed further along the curved trail and, like an epiphany, you will find yourself in the wilder north-facing precincts of that ancient outcrop. In the section known as the Long Rocks there are a series of alcoves of varying sizes, named ingloriously by the archaeologists as caves A, B, C and D. In its unanticipated tranquility, this stretch of rock still seems to host the older gods.

I sat below these caves that morning appreciating a respite from the tumult and, for a few minutes, I just listened. The pursuit of quietness, especially in urban areas has become a preoccupation of mine in recent years. However, the quiet I experienced below the caves of Zeus Astrapaios, of Apollo and of Pan was not precisely an encounter with silence, for it was punctuated by many sounds. A family of cats mewled; the wind gusted playfully across the limestone and the schist, and sent the leaves scuttering along the pavement. A murmur of voices rose up occasionally from the cafes of the Plaka neighbourhood; someone, somewhere, played a melancholy air on the klarino. All of these sounds were pleasant to my ears. This form of quietness, one that is not precisely silence, is characterised rather by an absence of noise or βοή (voe) in Greek, a word that might also translate as clamour, or din. I call the sort of auditory lull that, at the same time, asserts a benevolent presence, ‘avoesis’ (that is, the absence of voe or noise).

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Saturday, December 21, 2019

The Last Holy Night - A Christmas Memory

On Christmas mornings in Dublin in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s my siblings would line up along the stairs ordered by age—a serried and, over the years, elongating rank of exuberance Heneghan children—before descending to give and receive (mainly to receive) gifts.

Tinsel glistered on the banisters—my mother having stayed up late a couple of weeks before to surprise us with the decorations—I can remember each enchanting piece: the wreaths, the multi-hued tinsel, a plastic Santa face on the kitchen door, the sprigs of plastic holly, and Christmas cards from friends and family known and obscure (“who was Uncle Neddie?”), arrayed on strings stretched across the walls, each greeting attached by a little festive red clip. How the fairy lights twinkled on the tree; in more adventurous years we had flashing lights, but the steadier glow from the fairy-tale carriage lights were more evocative. A manger constructed in his by my father crafty years—drilled, if I correctly recall, into an alcove adjacent to the hall door—hosted the Holy Family, the visiting Magi, and an appropriately sized herd of domesticated animals statically venerating the infant Christ who had been installed that previous evening by the youngest and presumptively godliest of us children onto his little bed of hay.

The run-up to the big day had been a frenzy of yuletide delights: we had taken out and read, and reread Christmassy storybooks, we had visited the illuminated shop-fronts on Grafton Street, we had compiled our lists—I once requested and received a tin of baked beans (thanks Santa Claus, I suppose)—and like flocks of festive but discordant sparrows, neighborhood children flitted from house to house singing carols for some charity or another. We were in the mood for Christmas. Even that year, when caroling with the St Pius X school choir near St Stephen’s Green and I had vomiting so splashingly on the frozen footpath, and my fellow tiny choristers circled around my racked body to shield the festive crowd from the tiny outrage, I now count among the legendary Christmases.

It was Midnight Mass—which in our parish was held at 9:30 pm on Christmas Eve (“and we all know why,” as Father Lee once declared with a sigh, though we did not, in fact, really know why; perhaps mass was early to avoid last call at The Morgue in the village, and the subsequent grand disgorging of revelers who might stagger into church for a Christmas benediction and a nice snooze)—it was Midnight Mass that was the acme of the excitement, at least in those years that I remained faithful. We listened to the nativity story, sometimes both Saint Matthew and Saint Luke’s being read aloud by Father Lee, and then we children would compete to make my mother laugh during the service—(how many children, I wonder, have fancied themselves comedians because they once upon a time made their mother laugh?)

And then Christmas would truly arrive when Billy Lang, the local tenor, mounted the stair to the balcony at St Pius X Basilica and sang O Holy Night to the hushed congregation. Oh how secure we felt, how sheltered from the elements, how sacred it all was.

The year that Billy Lang lay dying of cancer, he had been cautioned against it, and yet he still came to mass, and we all waited—several congregants sobbing—as he was helped up the stairs to give his last rendition of that glorious hymn. When I reflect upon it now (the years are becoming harder to separate) I might no longer have been a child when Billy sang one final time, but that night, in retrospect, was to be the last of my childhood Christmases, if not, in fact, the very last night of childhood.

Monday, July 29, 2019

Alternative Field Trips To The Art Institute Of Chicago: Broken Art

The Art Institute of Chicago is unremarkable in this one respect: like every world class art museum its galleries teem with works representing indefatigable artistic industry besieged by the entropic desolation that all the works of humankind are heir to.
Our lot is to amass and assemble; the universe responds, dispassionately, with decay and dispersion. Millennia of creative effort crumble away. Walk through any decent sized art museum and behold the craquelure of old oils, the loss of patina in the watercolors, the splintering of carved wood, dents in metalwork, and the extremities snapped off old stonework. Can there be a pleasure in art that is completely unhinged from the intimations of loss ? The sense of loss that decay evokes may intensify pleasure if you incline to morbidity.
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Saturday, September 8, 2018

There will be no Hunter-Gatherers on Mars

Two headlines in summer 2018 caught the attention of space aficionados. Together they renew optimism on the part of some people that humans will become the first known multi-planetary species.

The first headline “A Large Body of Water on Mars Is Detected, Raising the Potential for Alien Life” appeared in the New York Times (July 25, 2018) and was based upon a paper published shortly thereafter in the journal Science (3 August 2018) providing radar evidence for subglacial liquid water on Mars.

The second headline “Beyond the Shadow of a Doubt, Water Ice Exists on the Moon” appeared in Scientific American (August 21, 2018). In that article the author, Leonard David, wrote that the water was “deposited in perpetually dark craters around the poles” and suggested that “the ice could be a boon for future crewed lunar outposts.”

These two headlines remind us that though we have yet to confirm the existence of life elsewhere in the universe—and perhaps that confirmation will never come—that living things require resources upon which to subsist. Thus, a search for the primary resources upon which life depends (or alternatively for the distinctive wastes generated by living entities)—both searches, we should mention, assume that we know what “life” is, exactly, which we don’t—often surrogate for the direct detection of alien organisms. Attempts to search for aliens organisms will follow any promising leads from the search for resources and waste.

Water being sovereign among the resource needs of life (most organisms will die of thirst long before dying of starvation), the discovery of extraterrestrial water thus points to putative indigenous life on those planets (and satellites) where it is detected. Whatever about the conjectured needs of alien life, without doubt humans are a thirsty species, and the existence of extra-terrestrial water encourages aspirations to support human life off this particular planet upon which you and I are discussing these issues.

Now, interesting though these developments may be, we might ask why an environmental scientist—an urban ecologist in particular—should be more than casually distracted by them? For two reasons, I think. Though it didn’t have to be so, the prospect of space colonization has often seemingly been motivated by concerns about resource shortages on Earth. Certain elements, such as deuterium used in nuclear reactors, are hyper-available on Mars and could be profitably returned to the ‘home planet’. Additionally, rare metals like platinum, gold, and silver, can be mined on Mars for use back on Earth.

Beyond these immediate implications, the two articles illuminate the following issues: the difficulty of defining (and detecting) life, the reaffirmation not only our sense of aloneness in the solar system, but also the herculean (and expensive) efforts that are expended in attempting to meet the neighbors, so as to speak, and finally the papers hint at the machinations that will be required to colonize another planet—maintaining life in xeno-environments.

Making space more tangibly part of the resource shadow of Earthlings is one thing but the prospect of space colonization as providing a alternative home in the event of planetary despoliation is quite another. Yet, there is in the literature of space colonization and terraforming a notion that off-planet colonies provide a “Plan B” in the event of a catastrophe on this planet.

Gerard K O’Neill (1927–1992) the Princeton physicist and space exploration enthusiast, framed his advocacy for space colonies explicitly in the context of concern over environmental pollution and the ‘evils” consequent from the Industrial Revolution. In The High Frontier: Human Colonies in Space (1976) O’Neill wrote “the evils of environmental damage (pollution and so forth) are minor compared to others that have appeared: sharp limits on food, energy and materials confront us at a time when most of the human race is still poor, and when much of it is on the edge of starvation.” The solution, as O’Neill saw it, was not to “retreat to a pastoral, machine-free society…” No, the future rather is in space colonies that should be free-floating in space and thus open to constant solar radiation supplying us with unlimited energy. Such space colonies, O’Neill wrote, will follow on as “an inevitable result of the large-scale development of space resources.” Space will ultimately become a “new Earthlike environmental range for humanity, bathed in continuous free energy…” — humans’ newest habitat.

I should note that in January 1976, O’Neill appeared before the Senate Subcommittee on Aerospace Technology and National Needs laying out a case for an Apollo-style program for building power plants in space. Ultimately, these plans were regarded as “nutty” and funding space colonization research was cut from NASA’s budget.


Space conquest has had a curious green tinge for decades. Colonizing space potentially extends the human project into its newest phase. For all its novelty, for all the ways in which space colonies capitalize upon emerging technologies, they nonetheless are an extension of the territorial expansionist impulse that has long been part of our species’ repertoire. Space colonies are besides—and this is really the main purpose of this short essay— the next increment in an explicitly urban project that began several thousands of years ago.

Although the term “colony” is used in the literature on expansion into space, many advocates preferring more neutral terms like “settlements” and “outposts.” Carl Sagan (1934 –1996), who remain the most famous space advocate referred to space “cities” rather than “colonies” to avoid the negative connotation associated with colonization. Sagan is being diplomatic— after all colonization has lost the luster of its heydays—but in calling them “cities” he is, at the same time, being terminologically accurate. 

In imagining the earliest cities, we can ask how their small populations were sustained. How did they transform their hinterlands? There is a significant literature that reports on such investigations. The sustenance of space cities and the degree to which they will transform other planets should interest us. Since this is to be our remote future and not our remote past, the future of the humanity may depend upon it

Conceiving of these space cities (or town, hamlets and so on) and embarking on space-urban-planning is a useful thought-experiment. It not only draws out a definition of what a city is—a question that has a long, contentious, and unresolved history— but also tasks us with creating a list of what we would need to bring along with us in order to sustain life off planet. For example, an astronaut tripping across the lunar surface did not need to bring gravity with them. However, strapped to their back and pumped into the lungs is a tank containing a rough approximation of the Earth’s atmosphere. That astronaut will also have access to other physiological and psychological necessities to endure the trip. What, on a grander scale, will an entire colonizing community need to pack with them to replicate, even minimally, the accoutrements of civilization?   


All colonized planets, and asteroids, and even space stations, will be urban in character.

There will be no hunter-gatherer phase on Mars, nor will humans need to reinvent agriculture there; we will load upon our space vessels our literacy, social hierarchies, capitalism, and all of the urban delights, excesses and disasters and take them along for the ride.

When or if cities are established on other planets the sequence of urban development will thus extend from Ancient/Classical cities (to around 1250), Mercantile/Colonial cities (to 175), Industrial/Imperial (to 1970), Post Industrial/Post-Colonial (to present), to Non-terrestrial/space cities. Since most of us live in post-industrial cities, we do not have direct access to other forms of urban development. Of course, there are remnants of previous stages accessible as either living fossils distributed across the landscapes of contemporary cities, or as ruins that we can visit or read about, but the more remote historical stages are obscure.

Image from Wikipedia

Saturday, July 21, 2018

Reading Matters: Storytime With Children

Liam Heneghan

Once upon a time, in a beautiful but endangered forest far far away a prince and princess met, fell in love and married. They were blessed with a hundred children. “I wonder,” said the princess, somewhat exhausted from her exertions, “how best to raise our dear ones to care for each other and their beautiful forest home?” “I have heard,” replied her husband “that reading to children matters.”
Being of a scientific inclination, the royal couple assigned twenty children to each of five experimental groups. They prevented these children for mingling—for keeping the groups apart was deemed good experimental practice—and assessed if reading matters asking following questions. Should one read aloud to children, or narrate stories of a parent’s own devising, or read and discuss plot points at length as one proceeds through storytime, or should one perhaps, as early as possible, cultivate the youth to read on their own and abandon them to their own devices? One group of children—“our little controls” as the happy couple called them—were raised without the benefit of any stories at all.
The results of this longitudinal study were alas inconclusive. The prince haughtily accused his wife of surreptitiously reading to the control group; the princess icily retorted that her husband’s monotonic voice had lulled everyone asleep thus undermining the study. “I’d sooner stab myself in the ears than listen to another word from you.” Their scientific paper was rejected for publication; the couple lost their funding. They all lived happily ever after.


An experiment, such as the one in my fairy tale, evaluating the importance of storytime, may strike us as rather unseemly. There is indeed an ample scientific literature on the efficacy of reading to the young, though it has developed using less drastic research protocols. Since storytime is a cherished practice and therefore omnipresent in schools, libraries, and homes it has been the subject of many rigorously designed “natural” experiments (where scholars simply evaluate ongoing practices without deliberately manipulating them in the lab). This research evaluating outcomes in different settings affirms that reading aloud to children enriches a child’s vocabulary, enhances general literacy, entices the child to persist in reading for pleasure, and can, besides, increase empathy, tolerance, reflection and a range of virtues. Besides, time spent reading is time not spent watching television, the baleful implications of which are routinely mentioned by researchers in this field. Reading can, under the right circumstances, also help children become more attuned to the natural world. Less attention has been paid to this environmental desideratum of reading and storytelling than to other aspects of reading. Because of this gap, I have devoted a considerable part of my research time in the past few years to thinking about how bedtime can cultivate the environmental sensibilities of the child.


It is a rare parent, of course, that gears up for the arrival of their infant with a preparatory review of the academic literature. Yet even without the benefit of this prefatory labour and even without having the benefit of a hundred children with whom to experiment most new parents and guardians quite intuitively surmise the virtues of storytelling. A bedtime story is as much a part of the institution of the family as birthday parties and early morning snuggles. The benefits seem self-apparent, and the methods, are adaptively applied. Parents simply go with what works and will improvise a strategy that best suits them
Storytime can settle a child down, and prepare them for crossing that often fraught threshold between daytime and nighttime. Those of us in our middle years often employ the expression “sleeping like a baby” to indicate our nostalgia for those magnificent slumbers of earlier life phases. However, to do so is to forget that enticing the child to relinquish the day, and submit to sleep is an enduring domestic battle. A story can help that process along and can, besides, provide comforting fodder for their reveries as the child nods off to sleep.
One might hesitate before intruding upon the soft but potent comforts of the bedtime story ritual by adding, say, the burden of vocabulary lessons, or ethical training, or even the tutoring of environmentally salutary behaviour. There may indeed be those guardians who can with didactic resolve turn the nighttime routine into a lesson of sorts. However, one imagines that this approach can be soporific. Thus, instituting pedagogic programs at bedtime may end up satisfying another less exalted ambition and the child will be gently snoring before the second bullet point of the crepuscular lesson plan.
More realistically, parents and teachers, aware of what reading aloud, or storytelling more generally, can achieve can make laudable choices in the books they read to children—and let the books do the work. Many books, ABC books most conspicuously, have this design in mind. In addition, a parent can fortify this oblique lesson by incorporating commendable themes into bedtime chats with their child. No need for PowerPoint slides!


Though one surely never retires as a parent, but since both my children are now adults, the heavy lifting seems to be done. Our children are unleashed upon the world; we did the best we could. Though it has been some years since I read to them nightly, it is only quite recently that we’ve moved their libraries from their bedrooms to the basement. The process has been a slow one, because as I moved them I was drawn again to these books and started to reread. What I noticed almost immediately was that many of the titles they loved were nature-themed. A hefty percentage were about animals.
As an ecologist, I had, of course, purchased books that I thought would provide especially valuable lessons about the environing world. Some of these books appealed to them—Paul Geraghty’s The Great Green Forest (1992), for example, is a delight—others were duds. More often than not the books my children were attracted to were the standard fare of enduring classics (The Hobbit (1937), Heidi (1881), The Secret Garden (1911), Winnie-the-Pooh (1926), and so on) as well as more recent books (The Harry Potter series, The Hunger Games series, etc.). It became apparent to me that even stories that were less obviously environmental contained profound lessons about nature.
After some fitful progress on this reading project—for the first time I was reading Harry Potter books on my morning train commute—I gave myself a couple of years to systematically excavate the environmental themes in children’s books. The results are reported in a book called Beasts at Bedtime: Revealing the Environmental Wisdom in Children’s Literature (2018). What I found is that arrayed across classic children’s literature is a hidden environmental curriculum. This really should not surprise us, since many writers for children’s were quite explicit in their green sensibilities. JRR Tolkien—whose enduring fondness of trees is well known, and Beatrix Potter—an animal enthusiast and amateur mycologist—are merely the most obvious among these.


In one of his more peculiar essays, Creative Writers and Day-Dreaming (1908), Sigmund Freud drew parallels between the creative processes of the mature artist and the play of children. Both involve the spinning of phantasms. In that essay, Freud proposed that daydreams, like sleeping dreams, are wish fulfilling. Daydreams have the following structure: they link in the mind a recollection of the past with some impression from the present moment, and impels us towards some future ambition, the fulfillment of the wish.
A mature artist will have a reservoir of experiences to draw upon, whereas the child is mainly futurally inclined. The reason that stories are so compelling and important for children—and this, I should say, is my theory not Freud’s—is that they enlarge the repository of experiences that the young mind can draw upon. Children in their day-to-day world are already attuned to nature—loving their pets, splashing in puddles, collecting random scraps found in nature (pebble, branches, spiders in matchboxes), and so on. Thus, the stories read or told to them by an environmentally adroit parent can combine a compelling fictional experience, with the child’s immediate interests, and can prepare the child for the future.
Just as it is necessary for a parent to be conventionally literate themselves in order to ensure their children growing literacy, a parent must be environmentally literate in order to ensure their young charges get the most from their books. A parent turns to the written page for conventional literacy, but to inculcate environmental literacy they need to incline towards the out-of-doors. A well-prepared parent must read not just stories alone, but must be prepared to read the book of nature.


Once upon a time in numerous forests both near and far, dozens of princes and princess, met each other, fell in love, and had many, many children. Now, these royals lived at a time when vast swirling forces imperiled their forested dwelling, and the parents worried for their children’s futures. So the parents read to the children. Some of those children loved hungry caterpillars, some loved a simple but very thoughtful bear, some loved hobbits, some loved a rambunctious boy with a companionable tiger, and others loved a little girl living in the Alps with her grandfather….  And when those children grew up, lo and behold they found they were equipped to protect their forests from injurious activities. They all lived happily ever after.

Liam Heneghan is professor of environmental science and studies at DePaul University. He is a Dubliner, and a father of two grown children to whom he read every night of their early years. His book Beastsat Bedtime: Revealing the Environmental Wisdom in Children’s Literature in now available.