Sunday, November 20, 2011

Japanese Maple (Acer palmatum)


The Japanese Maple is dropping its leaves
Now that the elm is spent and in its winter-nude.
Those maples leaves that linger on the branches
Are like hands outspread and chilled raw
That waited to scatter scarlet decorations
To pave the way for a sullen monarch.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Soil Microarthropod Contributions to Decomposition Dynamics turns 100

According to a recent Google scholar alert (emails I receive when others have found use in their work for my publications), a paper I wrote with a number of colleagues connected with the Institute of Ecology at University of Georgia over a decade ago has now been cited in other works more than a hundred time.  This is not a huge number of course (citation classics in ecology are cited thousands of time) but nonetheless it is gratifying.  A lot of work went into the paper, and it involved fun but sweaty times in Costa Rica, Puerto Rico, and the Southern Appalachians where I examined decomposition rates of leaf litter (there was one common substrate - Quercus prinus - across all sites).  I can measure out the cost of this paper in bot-flies in my flesh, but that's another story!

As far as I can tell when people want support from the literature to support the overwhelmingly obvious statement that decomposition rates are higher in the tropics than in the temperate zone they cite Heneghan et al 1999.  Another less obvious outcome of the work has rarely been discussed and that is the observation that in warmer and wetter parts of the world the influence of soil critters can becomes quite important in determining decomposition rates.  Small differences in the assemblage structure of soil biota at different sites can have an influence on decomposition rates and on the rate at which nutrients become available in the soil.  In the graph above the CWT site is a temperate one (Coweeta), that LUQ site is Luquillo Forest in Puerto Rico and the LAS is La Selva in Costa.  When soil microarthropods (mites, springtails, coneheads etc) were excluded there is a difference between the temperate and tropical sites in the rate of litter breakdown, but no difference between the two tropical sites (upper panel).  In the lower panel the soil critters had access to the litter and a fairly pronounced difference emerged between the two tropical sites (expressing the influence of unique soil faunal assemblages on each site).

Sunday, November 13, 2011


“They believed you could be changed into a tree from grief”
(Ulysses, James Joyce)

And now you are the tree – the corruptible
Transformed into the certainty of wood,
Your roots, more expansive than your crown
Ploughing the hectic-stable earth,
Your leaves – sun-soaking and ground-shading –
Reflecting the jig of time
In the simplicity of the fall,
And in the lentic stillness of livid branches –
Offered up to appease a lurid sky
You buffer the grief of the world.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Deep, Dark and Shameful: Morton and Jordan and Our Ecological Futures

Over the coming weeks I will be re-reading books by two authors who have been important to me in recent years: William Jordan III's The Sunflower Forest: Ecological Restoration and the NewCommunion with Nature and his new Making Nature Whole: A History of Ecological Restoration, as well as Tim Morton's Ecology without Nature: Rethinking Environmental Aesthetics and The Ecological Thought.

In particular I am interested in the relationship between two terms in these books: "shame" in Bill Jordan's work and "dark" in Tim Morton's work.  

Briefly, Bill regards the jettisoning of shame in contemporary culture (or the desire to avoid shame) as being problematic since it is through our grappling with shame that, arguably, we get to transcendent values such as beauty, meaning and community (in this he is drawing upon the work of critic Fred Turner).  Shame is differentiated in this account from guilt in as much as the former is not necessarily associated with wrongdoing.  Rather, shame is the painful awareness of limitation or shortcoming - existential shame as Bill qualifies it.  For instance, I personally feel the hot sting of shame twice each week in my French translation class, not because I have naughtily neglected my homework (when I do, I may feel guilty) but because my woeful facility with this language becomes publicly apparent.  Especially significant for Bill is that ecological restoration, unlike many other forms of ecological activity (or inactivity - i.e. environmental asceticism: see here or a shorter version here) provides an encounter with shame, or to put it as Bill does, it "implicates the restorationist in the universal scandal of creation [and] provides a context for achieving communion with creation."  To deal with shame then is to willfully tussle with the less seemly aspects of existence, rather than to ascetically disengage from the world with all it problematic aspects.

A Brutal Dance - Topic of my 3Quarks Column Monday

If I can get it finished to my satisfaction I will post a piece on Monday from my memoir written using the framework of momentous or embarrassing dancing incidents, of which I have had very many.  A snippet here: I will link it up to 3qd on Monday morning

From my autobiography in progress “My Life in Dance – a Motional History of my Body”

I wish to set out here my own experiences with dance as honestly as good taste will permit.  I have a body, one that is a little succulent and that moistly disinclines when bidden to perform arts of great strenuousness.  It is not a body apt to move all that prettily.  For all of that, I have tried to bend it to my will, commanding it often enough to skitter across the floor in a rhythmic and frolicsome fashion and I have witnessed its failure with displeasure.  Though I can leap and skip and jump and hop, the sum of these gyrations don’t seem to add up to dance.  However, in perverse inverse to my skill, dancing has been a component of several of my more arresting developmental moments.  I relate one here.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Robinson Jeffers' Inhumanism: The Ecological Thought or The Misanthropic Rebuke?

I have been rereading poems by Pittsburgh born Robinson Jeffers (1887 – 1962) with my seminar class recently.  Jeffers has had a perennial appeal for environmentally-inclined readers, with his wilderness inflected meditations on his adopted home on the California coast.  The poems that I know (I am a Jeffers amateur) are sturdy rather than pretty, and charged with solid thought rather than airy abstractions.  Though there has been some discussion among the critics about his influences (was Schopenhauer as important to him as Nietzsche?) what strikes me are the thematic resonances with on the one hand American environmental writers both before and after him and, on the other, with themes from the Upanishads (which I am reading with another class).

The influence of the Upanishads, philosophical texts in the Hindu tradition, on Emerson and Thoreau is pretty well known.  The Upanishads were also famously a source for Schopenhauer (and Schopenhauer, of course, exerted a substantial influence on Nietzsche). Finally, these texts also influenced W B Yeats, whom Jeffers admired (see this post).  The Upanishads rest at the intersection therefore of many of Jeffers’ more important inspirations.  From this influence Jeffers can create striking things.  In The Answer (1935), for example, he writes:
“A severed hand/ is an ugly thing, and a man dissevered from the earth and the stars and his history…for contemplation or in fact… /Often appears atrociously ugly.  Integrity is wholeness, the greatest beauty is/ Organic wholeness, the wholeness of life and things, the divine beauty of the universe.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Home is born in motion

(I wrote this a while ago, but was getting nostalgic for reproducing it here)

Leaving home is a violent act, because walking is a violent act. Walking violates a stationary calm and announces, "this place does not satisfy my needs anymore", or, "having served its purpose once, this place now bores me". Walking derives, anciently – phylogenetically – from motile carnivory. It is rooted in impatience – the primordial impatience with waiting for morsels to waft on by. Motility is the ancestral condition. Life was born on the move. Flagellated, ciliated – gliding, and lashing – permanently unsatisfied and desirous. Motility is the characteristic act of animality. In their evolutionary procession, animals squirmed, wriggled, pulsated, swam, slithered, and later, lurched, crawled, leapt, hopped, flapped, flew, swarmed, brachiated, knuckle-shuffled and then most recently arose and walked away. Not the chosen option: repose is abandoned. A singular spot is forsaken. Beasts leave home to prowl and stalk, to kill and dine. Pursuing other options, bathed in the sunlight, were animals enduring cousins in the kingdom of plants. Left behind also: sessile brothers, animals hedging their bets by fiercely equipping with lures and tackle and macerating jaws.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

First regular post on our new DePaul Institute for Nature and Culture blog today

This is how Randall Honold kicks us off in a piece called Living with Objects
My first blog post, my first public confession: For some time now I’ve been living with objects. They kind of snuck up on me, insinuated themselves into my life, and now they won’t go away. Not that I’m complaining. Not that I feel guilty about taking a break from my former relationships. For the longest time, you see, I thought I was in relationships – living with objects, sure, but getting to know them meant understanding all we did for each other. These relationships seduced me into thinking they were pretty much all that, that I’d never get anything more out of the arrangement, that there’s no sense in wanting something more from objects because I can’t have it anyway. Now that I see I’ve been with objects all the while and relationships have been coming between us, I’m starting to see why all the fuss about objects.
Read on here