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.   

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.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Grimm Garden: Rapunzel

Liam Heneghan

In a familiar Brothers Grimm story a husband steals rampion, a species of bellflower, the leaves of which were once eaten like spinach, from the walled garden of a fairy. He fetches it for his pregnant wife who refused to eat anything else.  But his wife is not sated by the first stolen harvest and so the husband, fearing for his wife, returns to the garden for more. The fairy angrily confronts the thief and on hearing that the wife cannot be denied the rampion, permits him to take all he wants in return for their unborn child.

The forfeited child is called Rapunzel, which is another name for rampion, for this is a girl nurtured in the womb by that plant.  Plant-like young Rapunzel “grew into the most beautiful child beneath the sun.”

The remainder of the action of the story, including the girl’s confinement in tower by the fairy, the astonishing means of entering the tower by climbing Rapunzel’s long hair, the prince who comes learns this secret, his visits and his blinded by thorns, the final reuniting of the lovers, and the restoration of his sight, all take place beyond the limits of the garden where the story’s seeds had been sown.

Yet a garden theme remains woven throughout the story. Rapunzel herself becomes a flower within a walled garden, confined as she is within the walls of her tower.  She is rooted in one spot like the plant after which she was named. And at the risk of inflicting small injuries to the story by stretching its meaning so thin, does not Rapunzel’s hair descend root-like from her tower to the earth below, and does not our prince climb the stalk-like tower to pollinate the loveliest flower that ever grew beneath the sun, and is not his love tested by injuries inflicted by thorns before they are restored by the gentle rain of her tears?

Friday, July 24, 2015

Bagpipes in Hell: Hieronymus Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights

More ink has been spilled interpreting Hieronymus Bosch’s masterpiece, The Garden of Earthly Delights, than the oil applied to the panels on which it is painted. The triptych with dates to the early 1500s now hangs in the Prado, Madrid.

The left panels depicts a youthful God, presumably Christ, presenting Eve to a dazed Adam. Around the first couple cavort an assortment of animals, some recognizable, and some surreal. The panel to the right depicts Hell. A man is eaten by a seated bird-headed creature. His head is in the beast’s mouth, birds fly out of his posterior.  Around him are grimly fascinating scenes of torture and vicious cruelty.  A rabbit, as innocent looking as Potter's Peter Rabbit, carries an impaled and bloodied man. At the center of the canvas a hallowed out man is supported by rotting tree-trunk. Balanced on this head is a disk bearing a set of bagpipes.  Yes, there will be bagpipes in hell.

Sandwiched between Paradise and Hell is the scene which gives the painting its modern name, the Garden of Earthly Delights. The panel depicts hundreds of carnally engaged couples, enormous birds, flying fish, and an abundance of strange vegetation. A theme of excess dominates: excessive sex, excessive pleasure, and excess fructification. In the center of this panel, which is therefore at the very center of the entire work, a blue orb emerges from the middle of a lake.  Through a window in the globe a man can be seen cupping his partner’s genitals. A rotund bottom shares the scene. Is this an earthy paradise, is it the world as it should be, or, rather, does it depict a way-station in our decline from paradise to hell.  Perhaps, in the end, we shall all be consumed by the bird-demon, with birds flying out our asses.    

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Gardens and Control

Gardens are curious affairs. We speak of growing vegetables, but, in fact, vegetables grow themselves. Indeed, it is the vegetables that grow us. Gardens are, to write philosophically, a strange amalgam of control and spontaneity.  A wild garden, maintained for aesthetic reasons, requires limited control.  Spontaneity there is tolerated.  A productive food garden, in contrast, requires a surfeit of control. The task of the vegetable grower is to foster the conditions under which the edibles will grow.  And this, as often as not, requires the killing of creatures.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Got Compost?

I’m interested in the decomposition dynamics of compost piles. In the coming weeks I’d like to do some preliminary studies on decay rates and nutrient processes of compost piles. Especially of interest to me are those compost heaps where their keepers have reasonable knowledge of inputs (even a reasonable description will qualify).  Vermi-composting is especially welcome.  Chicago region is preferred but we can work out something if you are farther afield.  Contact me at lhenegha [at] gmail.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

The Pastoral, literary and environmental, defined.

The pastoral as a literary form and a strand in environmental thought is so polymorphic, that it can seem to capture everything. But something that is everything can seem to be nothing at all.  This is not a problem unique to the term “pastoral”.  The term “environment”, for example, which can be extended to include everything surrounding an organism, and at a pinch can also refer to an “internal environment”, runs the same risk unless it is quite precisely operationalized. To do so scientists identify those ecological factors most relevant in determining the functioning of an individual organism.

So how may the pastoral be operationalized?

The pastoral flags an occupation: shepherds and tenders of flocking animals and other peaceful creatures, a place: primarily rural or gently humanized landscapes, at times gardens and other oases of green; a mood: nostalgic, a sense of belonging, of being at home, a tone: harmony and balance, a spirituality: that oceanic feeling of connection with nature, a technological orientation: modest and appropriate, and offers these human gifts: well-being, redemption, forgiveness and recovery.    

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Happily Ever After

At the secret core of many stories lies the promise of a happy ending.  And they all lived happily ever after.  I call this the pastoral promise — it’s a promise of a world set beyond the action that gripped us as we read.  Once these words are written those tensions that have maintained the story, the ones that propelled us along, have dissipated. A curtain descends and we are to learn nothing more of our heroes.  The prince and the princess have wed, the wolf is dead, the evil witch perishes, the children are restored to their parents, and all is well with the world. In perpetuity.  Never-ending happiness, impossible in our everyday lives, though we may crave it, exists as a private world beyond the limits of the page, even in the best of stories. Can we ever be happy?

Monday, June 8, 2015

And They All Didn't Live Happily Every After: The Prodigal Returns:

THE PRODIGAL RETURNS: The week after his return the Prodigal Son remembers why it was he left.  His friends, those coarse bumpkins who so recently munched upon the sizzling flesh of a fatted calf, tell their same old jokes. They are as hopelessly myopic – as uncosmopolitan – as they were before.  They nudge and wink in a way that irritates him who has now seen more of the world. What use have they for tales of his hardship in places they have barely heard of?  They want to hear about the girls he's been with, for is it not for such exotic dalliances, such debaucheries that once he claimed he was leaving.  But that is not what he wants to talk of now – he is different in a way he cannot seem to state.  The father, all bearhugs and solicitude but days ago, is once again a sullen autocrat.  He cannot resist reminding the Prodigal that an inheritance was squandered. He queries him on his skill with swine.  And his brother, who has taken the week to cool off, now sees his own glory-days on the rise.  The Prodigal Son, whose prodigious heart-swell and homesickness had him walking home, will soon leave again.  Perhaps it is best that he does for the world has transformed and he has transformed, and he had no home to come back to.  His father and his brother have a home, but it is a different one than he used to share with them.  The Prodigal is homeless for walking away is the act of violence that annihilates the home. 

Monday, May 4, 2015

Celebrating 100 Years of Beauty in the Forest Preserves: Centennial Symposium and Sagawau Canyon Tour 28-29th May

Please consider attending this two day event to celebrate the 100 year anniversary of the Forest Preserves

Thursday, May 28, 2015
CONFERENCE at DePaul University
9 am – 5 pm

DePaul University Student Center
Lincoln Park Campus
2250 N. Sheffield Ave., Room 314, Chicago, IL 60014

Panelists include historians, philosophers (including Elizabeth Millan) and scientists (inc moi!), planners and educators.
Topics Include:
• Historical Roots and Aesthetic Implications of the Forest • Conservation and Social Perspectives • Wildlife, Ecosystems and the Next 100 Years

Friday, May 29, 2015

Canyon Tour: 10:15 am
Picnic: Noon

Sagawau Environmental Learning Center
12545 W. 111th St., Lemont, IL 60439

Canyon tours will be led by experts from the Forest Preserves of Cook County. Shuttle buses will be available to and from the event site starting at Ogilvie Station.

To register please visit

Monday, April 27, 2015

The Whistler

Liam Heneghan

I learned to whistle in primary school during early afternoon quiet-time. Whistling had become a preoccupation of mine since hearing a whistler perform at the school some weeks before. Traveling shows, such as the one in which he appeared, provided a welcome break from the intense drabness of Irish educational life in the early 1970s. On such occasions we would troop into the gymnasium to be mildly regaled by knife throwers, saucer spinners, card tricksters, jugglers, clowns and sundry entertainers. I developed a special fondness for the magician whose skill was so feeble that I blush for him more than forty years later. But the whistler was special; here was an artist of an altogether greater caliber.

The whistler whistled a sweet accompaniment to songs that had no doubt been popular in previous decades. He wore a suit, I recall, and the cuffs of his white shirt flared out like tiny wings as he raised his hands, the main tools of his trade, to his mouth. Delightful to me were his bird calls. When he hooted through cupped hands, unseen pigeons and owls seemed to manifest themselves in that hall. With a flurry of fingers, some stuffed into his mouth, others flitting above his mouthed hand, he chirped, chipped and he trilled. He was commendably specific about the species he was emulating. “A chaffinch”, he’d say and his fingers and breath would produce that bird’s distinctive call, ending in “Tol a lol a lol ginger beer.” “A robin”, he’d call out; “a blackbird”, “a curlew”, and so on. Perhaps it was the strange equipment in that room, its dangling ropes, its dilapidated athletic horses stacked in the corner, and its high ceilings that lent a special heft to the acoustics. The whistler’s birds warbled, and in full throated song flitted about the room that day.

I was, at that point in my young life, a reasonably diligent birder. I had learned the call of many birds, and though I could recognize them, I could not reproduce those lovely sounds. The whistler both strengthened my resolve, but also magnified my inabilities. In the exasperating weeks that followed I coaxed my lips and tongue and fingers to comply but they failed to reproduce anything but farting noises and wet sputtering. But then that day arrived, when supposedly we were immersed in quiet reading, and the skill came to me all at once. My fingers were in my mouth, and my tongue curled beneath them. I could feel my breath readying itself for a song. But I didn’t blow, fortunately. In those days of school corporal punishment, a warbler calling in the classroom would not have been welcomed. I’d been beaten before for lesser mischief. Soundlessly, without immediate opportunity for implementation, I had learned to whistle like a bird. I simply knew by some marvelous intuition that I was could whistle. A few minutes later, I rushed into the school yard and issued that first long confirmatory whistle.

A gap had opened up between knowing and doing, and in that gap I realized, in retrospect at least, that between a call to song and a whistling response, something intervenes. It may, of course, simply be reflection. But it seems likely that to learn to chirp with the birds, one must locate a mechanism, already old, within oneself.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

First Flight Into Chicago: The City's Wilderness

When I first flew into Chicago, almost twenty years ago, I was an adult in my early thirties.  I knew about the city, of course; Chicago’s reputation precedes it. This was the city of broad shoulders, tumultuous politics, mercantile strength, and very brisk winters. Besides, I had read Upton Sinclair's novel, The Jungle (1906)! As an ecologist I knew also of the honorable role Chicago played in the history of my discipline. Many of the foundational theories in ecology, for example vegetation succession, early models of population growth and competition, and the earliest application of ecological ideas to urban settings, are associated with University of Chicago.  And yet I braced myself as I approached the city.  Surely, Chicago was now just another conglomerate post-industrial city, sprawling and gray and barren.

As I approached O’Hare Airport I glanced down to assess the immense, and unexpected, circle of vegetation the surrounds the city. From the air it looks like a halo of green. A landscape of trees interspersed with grasslands and by the gray-slate of the city itself.  This distribution of trees and grassland was, to use a technical term, a savanna, albeit a highly unusual and contrived one. These were the trees of Chicago’s urban forest, planted in parks and parkways and the grasses of immense lawns and playing fields.  But what I have learned over the years since moving into this landscape is that in addition to the domesticated trees and grasslands, this savanna contains within it savannas of a very difference, and arguably wilder and more authentic kind.

Savannas, and prairies, wetlands, woodlands, scrublands, and the myriad vegetated landscapes that constitute a wilderness within this city.  And these habits, impoverished and stricken as they are, choked with invasive species, subtended by degraded soils, impoverished by the lost of some key historical species, impaired by radically altered hydrology nonetheless rank among some of the rarest, and from a conservation perspective, some of the more critically imperiled habitats on Earth.  

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

A Late Night Paragraph on Urban Ecology

Ecology as a scientific discipline was developed in the 19th Century by investigators with urban affiliations who often inclined towards the wilder places of nature. Indeed, despite the pronounced urban institutional setting for the development of ecology in the 20th Century there was a surprising paucity of reference to towns or cities in the literature of the discipline until the final decades of last century.

Since that time, however, the growth of urban ecology as an vibrant sub-discipline has been quite remarkable. Urban ecology developed both by the adaptation of classical ecological ideas to urban locations but also by the cultivation of novel ecological ideas specially proposed to understand urban patterns. Some of this novel theorizing admittedly drew inspiration from social theory elaborated in the early 20th Century.

As recently as the last few years, some of urban ecology’s indigenous theorizing, is being applied to understand phenomena in arenas remote from cities. This perhaps marks a significant maturation of urban ecology.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Talk: Echoes from the Little Stream of Death Wednesday, (in Chicago April 15 7:00-8:30 p.m.)

DePaul Students visit Glaisín Na Marbh in 2013
Glaisín Na Marbh (Little Stream of Death, in translation) is a now deserted town-land in a remote corner of Killarney National Park, Ireland.  Several families died there during the Great Famine of the 1840s. 

The surrounding landscape is beautiful: bog stretches away from the lazy beds where once the potatoes were grown; the oak woodlands encroach from the other sides. I recently proposed establishing a long-term recording station to monitor this wild landscape. However, an email exchange with an old friend halted the project.  In this presentation I reflect on why my friend’s arguments, on the ethics of sound recording, were so convincing.  

The only recording of Glaisín Na Marbh  that we can agree upon is in the form of a song, Cold is the Night, that I wrote with two noted Chicago-based Irish musicians, Kathleen Keane and James Conway. Kathleen and James will perform the piece.

I will present on DePaul Humanities Center: Wednesday, April 15, 2015 at an event called The Sound and the Sample

An evening of three radically different live performances and analysis of what it means to take a sound from its original context and repurpose it, giving it new meaning elsewhere.

Wednesday, April 15
7:00-8:30 p.m.
Cortelyou Commons
2324 N. Fremont St.
Chicago, IL 60614

Kathleen Keane and James Conway perform an original piece of music for which I wrote the lyric Cold The Night. 

The venue is awesome - the acoustic should be grand.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Lost For a Moment in Popo Agie Wilderness Area

Liam Heneghan

Almost a decade ago I made a small blunder along the trail through the Popo Agie Wilderness that almost cost me my life. That Wyoming wilderness area encompasses over one hundred thousand acres of granite peaks, narrow canyons, glorious alpine valleys, and icy lakes and streams. Twenty of its peaks exceed 12,000 feet, including the Wind River Peak which rises to 13,255, and though it is frequently visited by climbers, for the most part we walked alone through the vast landscape.

I hiked in there for a few days with a veteran of those trails. His son-in-law was the third of our little party.  It was late summer and there was already a slight bite in the air suggesting the oncoming of autumn.

Even now, these several years later, at times I glance at a map of the region reminding myself of where I lost the trail and struck out towards oblivion. It was late on the first evening of our hike and we were hoping to make good progress into the back country before we made camp. Although I was a seasoned camper, having slept under canvas close by Irish National Parks for part of each summer during my college years, I had never been in such formidable wilderness, nor had I ever been on so arduous a hike. But I was poorly prepared for the trip, having, in retrospect, a false confidence in my own charmed life and an assumption, that I now regard as almost fatally flawed, about the fundamentally benign nature of the world.  No map, no compass, no food in my pack, no survival gear, no clue.

We had incautiously spread out along a mile or so of trail.  I was to the rear, having deliberately slowed my progress so as to enjoy solitude. My wilderness reverie had been punctured a little by a small party who were packing out of the area. We nodded our hellos and on I walked, slightly vexed that our group was not, in fact, alone.  They were the only people we saw that day.  It was fortuitous that they were there it turned out.

The day wore on, the sun was low, and the sparkling gray of the granite was replaced by the slate gray of the early evening sky. On and on I trudged.  Enough light remaining to illuminate a descent into the pretty valley where we were to camp, but not enough for me to clearly discern my companions who, for all I knew, were now setting up their tents.  Perhaps dinner would await me!

The sound of evening in Popo Agie Wilderness is a rare delight. Crystal clear alpine streams gurgle, birds fidget in the scrubs, and the wind mutters through the grasses.  As I walked along I became aware of a muttering in quite a different key.  Eventually, I turned and scanning the horizon I saw the hikers I passed on the trail waving down the valley at me.  They were, in fact, yelling at me, though the wind muted them.  I waved back begrudgingly, not at all impressed to have my evening so disturbed.  I turned back to the trail but the yelling continued.  The Popo Agie Wilderness gets an occasional grizzly but it seemed unlikely that this was what they wished to warn me of. Perhaps I had missed some wonderful sight — the geology of the region is quite spectacular — I looked around that spot. Moments went by and though I could not make out what they were saying, nor could I discern the meaning of their gesticulations, all of a sudden, it dawned on me that I was going in the wrong direction, heading away from rather than towards my companions. Thus, thanking them, with a acknowledging wave, I retraced my steps and eventually rejoined my friends.

Now, I realize that this may seem like the smallest of matters.  After all, had I really been in all that much danger? I had been on the wrong trail for no more than thirty minutes, and a little light remained in the sky. Though in winter the temperatures in the Popo Agie, even in the valleys, can plunge to minus forty below, in late summer the nights were merely cool.  Indeed, my misstep seemed so inconsequential that when I caught up with my party I decided not mention it.  Perhaps, though, it was shame.

In quiet moments ever since I have speculated about the journey’s end if those hikers had not intervened and had I simply marched on.  When would I have realized I was not catching up? Was that trail leading to some temperate valley where I could have bedded down for the night, albeit hungrily, or down inhospitable scree and into a freezing lake.  And having discovered myself alone and map-less would I have subsequently hiked back successfully to Landers, the nearest town, or gotten lost in the 1400 square mile Wind River wilderness complex of which Popo Agie is just a tiny part.

What I learned, though not on that day it’s true, but rather in slightly panicked later re-enactments as I looked at those maps, is that what the wilderness means is that to be unprepared is to flirt with perishing.

Friday, March 6, 2015

The Existential Princess: A Fairy Tale

by Liam Heneghan

Once upon a time there was a princess who lived on a small blue-green world that orbited a medium sized but feisty sun. Now this particular princess came from a long line of primates that had evolved slowly on the equatorial band of her world.  She was fang-less and claw-less and relatively hairless, and alas several very formidable cats had discovered that her kind was remarkably tasty.

But the princess possessed a remarkable gift: she could imagine the future. After consulting with her scientists — who also shared this gift, for this was their unique possession — she learned that one day she must die just as the scientists too must surely die. Moreover, she learned that everything that lives must perish. She learned too that the feisty sun that shone so gaily in sky would steadily increase in luminosity and one day would engulf the small blue-green planet.

The princess placed her forehead — behind which was stored the peculiarly ample brain that characterized her people — in her hands and she wept. After a while her weeping turned to a quiet sobbing and the sobbing became a mild shuddering and eventually the shuddering came to an end. The princess looked up at last and saw a child pass by where she sat.  And knowing that this child too would die she spoke unto the child saying: “Once upon a time….”

Once upon a time there was a ferocious cat…
Once upon a time there were were three bears…
Once upon a time there was a woodcutter with a beautiful daughter…
Once upon a time there was a ogre who loved flowers
Once upon a time there was a princess….
Once upon a time…

Upcoming Talk: Beasts at Bedtime: Revealing the Embedded Environmental Curriculum in Classic Children’s Literature

From the National Science Teachers Association Website

"Featured Presentation: Beasts at Bedtime: Revealing the Embedded Environmental Curriculum in Classic Children’s Literature

Friday, March 13 11:00 AM - 12:00 PM
McCormick Place, W185 b/c
Join Liam for an extensive content analysis of classic children’s literature as he shows how collectively these stories contain a sophisticated and yet accessible short course on environmental themes. He will share examples from several favorite works and illustrate how teachers can use these books to promote environmental education, while deepening understandings of the ideal components of environmental literacy.
Presenter(s): Liam Heneghan (DePaul University: Chicago, IL)
Bio: Speaker PictureLiam Heneghan is an ecosystem ecologist working at DePaul University, where he is a professor and chair of Environmental Science and co-director of DePaul University’s Institute for Nature and Culture. His research has included studies on the impact of acid rain on soil foodwebs in Europe, and inter-biome comparisons of decomposition and nutrient dynamics in forested ecosystems in North America and the tropics. 

Over the past decade, Liam and his students have been working on restoration issues in Midwestern ecosystems. He is co-chair of the Chicago Wilderness Science Team. Liam is also a graduate student in philosophy (MA 2013) and an occasional poet pondering Hopkins' "nature is never spent."
FORMAT: Featured Speaker
SUBJECT: Earth and Space Science
CONFERENCE STRAND: Natural Resources, Natural Partnerships"

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Cold the night (a lyric)

Cold the night and cold the path
That once was green and bright,
Cold the ground you walked upon
With footfall gay and light.

Birds are trembling in the hedge
The otter crouches low
A hawk hunts in the darkened sky
A hare screams out below.

Cold the night and cold the path
That once was green and bright,
Cold the ground you walked upon
With footfall gay and light.

Last night I dreamed that you returned,
I held my breath to view
You walk upon the verdant path
My heavy heart renewed.

But cold the night and cold my love
That once was fair and bright,
Cold the ground you're buried in
Your footfall's gone from sight.

Liam Heneghan 2015 (lyric for an Irish Tune)