Saturday, January 16, 2016

Weeping over Polar Bears: The Data

In the ten thousand or so tweets that I’ve examined over the past month on the topic of “polar bears,” 17 of them make a reference to crying or weeping. For example, @tayloretc tweeted: “I started crying about polar bears this morning.” @hashbrownhalsey wrote “*starts crying over polar bears in 6th period*”

Polar bears come to mind and seventeen people weep.

At times a fit of weep was induced by the cuteness of these predatory animals: @heyoitskaymo “spent the last 40 minutes crying while looking at pictures of baby polar bears.” Or, to quote another instance @emmiemmibobemmi wrote “watching a video about polar bears* "oh! It's so cute! It just makes me wanna cry!"

More often than not it was the conservation plight of the polar bears that provoked concern. @sofiagetler tweeted “i also started crying in chapel because i thought about polar bears going extinct.” @gillianmoll wrote “a guy in my cultures class talked about his friends being able to poach polar bears and they send him teeth and I started crying in class.”

Those who conjectured about the cause of these conservation concerns more often than not alluded to climate change. @lilianadiaz187 wrote “just remembered there are like... polar bears dying bc the ice caps are melting now I'm crying again help me.” Other examples include: @deedzzzzzz when u dont wanna do hw so u look up what the affects of this wild warm weather are on the polar bears and u cry bc population decline 20%.”

The consistency of tweeters weeping over polar bears, for all the reasons alluded to above, over the course of the month is impressive. A few weeps a week.

It may be that weeping over polar bears could serve as a useful, if informal metric, with which to evaluate public concern over climate change. So far I have not found tweets that mentioned weeping over soil organisms, or the condition of ecosystems more generally.

More on this topic soon. 

Sunday, December 27, 2015

A Lesson From an English Teacher

By Liam Heneghan

A Lesson From an English Teacher

A painfully memorable moment from high school was when, in response to my rather feeble answer to an interrogation about a plot detail from Jane Austin’s Persuasion, my English teacher, Mr —, walked the length of the classroom and placed his head in a waste paper basket. The symbolism of his gesture eluded me. Was it merely that my response was rubbish, or did the waste-paper basket represent, in microcosmic form, his assessment of the mediocrity of the world of second-level students at that moment in time? Or was he preforming a type of grim self-evaluation: if a student’s knowledge was that remedial surely the fault lay, somewhat at least, with the instructor? Whatever the correct interpretation was, he held his head there for a stunningly long-time, removing it only when the bell rang and he righted himself and, with great dignity, left the room. In retrospect I learned a great deal from Mr — about the power of literature, although his best lessons were admittedly outside the classroom rather than in it.

Mr — is a legendary teacher, and I see that he is named as an inspiration by at least one Dublin-born novelist. His was a deeply corrugated face, and he wore his longish gray hair in pageboy style. He possessed a remarkably sonorous voice which he used to impressive effect in the dramatic readings that formed the core of each class. He smoked Hamlet cigars—cheap Dutch smokes—and regularly sent schoolboys out to the local shop to resupply him. When in my last year of school, during a break from competitive state exams for placement in government service—a solid career, to which I then aspired—I incautiously smoked a Hamlet cigar to calm my nerves, I then spent the second half of the exam dealing with nausea in its aqueous phase. As a consequence, instead of a career in government service I went to college. Teachers take note: your influence is often both more and less than you suspect.

Mr. — admirably professed a disdain for exhaustively picking over the literature we read for deeper meanings. But an aptitude for micro-scrutiny was regarded as essential for success in the Leaving Certificate, the exam that determined a student’s post-high school career, so, therefore, with reluctance, Mr — taught us to parse with the best of them. What does the possession of conch symbolize in Golding’s Lord of the Flies? What is symbolized by the elevated platform of rock upon which those increasingly more savage boys assembled? Even weaker students—I’d count myself in their number—could mine a story for hefty meanings, few of which, perhaps, an author had ever intended. The genesis of my own small skills in literary criticism stems from arduous practice in Mr —’s class.

Cheap cigars and literary dissection are fine things in their own ways, but Mr. —’s greatest influence on me was quite oblique. Here’s how that lesson came about.

After the waste-paper incident I admittedly harbored some resentment for Mr —. No doubt he quickly forgot about it, after all such hi-jinx were routine with him: once he reclined for half a period on a student’s lap when he noticed him slip into inattention during one of his readings. Now that I thought was funny! Since ours was a relatively small community and our teachers were our neighbors I would see teachers out and about in Templeogue Village all the time. Once I ran into my Irish teacher the day after he had witheringly offered me a “gold star” for my drawing efforts after he examined the marginal sketches in my Irish dictionary. To his credit he nodded in my direction. But the whole business with the waste-paper basket had confirmed my crippling self-assessment as a dim-wit, one that I didn’t shake for several years. So, I kept a wary eye out for Mr —, avoiding him as best I could. Perhaps I did not want to have him be nonchalantly pleasant to me, and then feel obliged to forgive him.

The incident I have in mind with Mr — occurred on a Saturday afternoon. I was on a bus coming home from Dublin city center and spotted him on a seat across the way. He was reading.  I’m not sure what the title of his book was, but it was a Penguin paperback—in those days Penguins had distinctive orange dust jackets—thus it was a novel. Over the period of thirty minutes or so that I spied on him, Mr — barely moved.  He was leaning over the page, and as the bus jostled, his hair would sweep forward and form partial curtains along the edges of the book. Every few minutes with moistened finger he would turn the page. Mr — was thus a model of rapt attention. As the bus whisked by Bushy Park, which was about half a mile from Templeogue Village, I prepared to ring the bell and get off the bus.  Mr. — should also have been gathering up his shopping bags to alight the bus, for we shared a bus stop. But he was not budging, and so I left him to his book. This was not, I recall, to avoid having to approach him, nor even, in the tiniest of ways, to avenge myself on him. He may have had business further along the route. Primarily, I just sensed the importance of not disturbing him from that world he was now inhabiting; one that was more compelling, even if just for a half an hour or so, than the external world with mediocre students, bottomless stacks of essays to mark, and all of a person's quotidian tasks.

After getting off the bus and crossing the road, I paused and stared after the bus as it belched through the village. Just when it seemed like it would continue on to Rathfarnham, the next town after ours, it jolted to a halt and Mr — jumped off, newly restored to our world. It seems a tiny matter, I suppose, but as I perceived it then, and as I still do, it provided me with the perfect symbol of literature’s gravitational pull. Books can  do this, books  can really do this. It was something that I never learned in a classroom.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

A Note on Rereading John Betjeman's Poems

For my twenty-first birthday, my youngest brother Paul gave me a collected volume of John Betjeman’s poetry. Betjeman remains one of the most popular of the English poets and if every so often in the late summer I describe an acquaintance who looks especially sun kissed as “furnish’d and burnish’d” it is Betjeman’s A Subaltern’s Love Song that I am quoting.

There is undeniably a lovely specificity to Betjeman’s observations of people, and a rootedness in the distinctive English countryside. In describing Betjeman’s world and work the poet W H Auden coined the term topophilia. The word has its etymologically roots in the Greek philia meaning love and topos meaning place. We all, I suppose, find places to love, but Betjeman had a peculiarly acute visual imagination that Auden felt he had not. Auden felt himself to be too much of a “thinking type.” The value of reading Betjeman may be that his poems draw attention to something that we don’t notice missing in ourselves until we see it written down.  But a Betjeman poem does not, I think, merely alert us to our deficiency—for that would be sad—rather, it can coach us to be alert to the possibilities of place.

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.