Friday, November 18, 2016

Caring for the Rose: Environmental Literacy and Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince

by Liam Heneghan

If you happen to crash-land on a desert island with your child—let’s say, to soften this traumatic vision, that this is a beautiful and gently undulating hot-air balloon descent—I hope that your copy Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince (1943) survives the incident. Saint-Exupéry, an early aviator, was no stranger to crash-landings in deserts. Indeed, the inspiration for this beloved novella came, in part, from an airplane crash in the Libyan desert on 30th December 1935 when Saint-Exupéry’s attempted to break the speed record for a flight from Paris to Saigon. Saint-Exupéry and his mechanic, André Prévot, miraculously survived. The duo endured several increasingly hallucinatory days before being rescued by a Bedouin traveler who revived the Frenchmen. For all its gauzy fairy tale quality, The Little Prince is, nonetheless, erected upon very real sands, and if some find in it an almost unbearable inclination to fatalism, and to intimations of mortality, these too are based upon the concrete realities of Saint-Exupéry’s life. Unsurprisingly, he died relatively young (44) when on 31st July 1944, his reconnaissance airplane took off from a Corsican airbase and disappeared into thin air.

Not only is The Little Prince one of the few books that on each fresh reading resonates for adults and children alike, it has also attracted considerable academic attention. It’s not clear, to judge from Saint-Exupéry’s dismissal of the geographer occupying a little asteroid in The Little Prince as a remote pedant who “does not leave the desk,” that he would be all that impressed by his reputation among the professors. The Little Prince is undeniably a stirring tale but it is philosophically chewy besides, hence its academic reputation. As you sit beneath the palm tree (recall that you’ve survived a trauma-less balloon crash and are now on an island) and read the story to your child over and over again, not only will this reading foster tender and unforgettable moments for both of you but should it becomes necessary for your child to recreate everything important in our world once they leave the island (perhaps your misadventure portends apocalyptic times,) The Little Prince can provide the blueprints. For this novella contains in staccato a complete guide to understanding our responsibilities in caring for the world. And though Antoine de Saint-Exupéry is no ordinary environmentalist this is a book that clears a path towards comprehensive environmental literacy.

Saint-Exupéry is represented in The Little Prince as the aviator who has crashed in the “Desert of Sahara.” He is also, to some extent, the eponymous Little Prince too, though the prince is also, in part, modeled on Saint-Exupéry younger brother, François, who died of rheumatic fever at age 15. When the Little Prince passes from this world and the aviator observes “He fell gently as a tree falls. There was not even any sound”, these were words Saint-Exupéry first wrote in reference to his brother’s passing. The Little Prince whose romantic entanglements with an inordinately vain, though undeniably intriguing, rose had begun to overwhelm him, traveled from his home asteroid—B-612—and winds up on Earth, in the desert, and he appears to the stranded aviator. The aviator has no immediate prospect of rescue and works on his plane while engaging with our extraterrestrial prince.

A center-piece of the story’s charm is its dismissal of adult pretensions and of materialistic values. For all of this, it is, of course, written by an adult and the tension between the Little Prince’s impatience with “grown-up and their ways” and the fact that this message is filtered through Saint-Exupéry, a grown-up, albeit an idiosyncratic and gifted one, provides the distinctive mood of the work.  The novel is nostalgic for lost innocence: innocent ethical values to be sure, but also for unblemished landscapes, for the clarity that the desert brings, and the quiddity of all basic human needs. “It was a matter of life and death for me,” says the aviator in the story who is facing a imminent dehydration. What is it to be human? What is it to be human? Saint-Exupéry is not to first, nor will he be the last, to address the question, but this is, besides, first and foremost an ecological question.

Saturday, October 29, 2016

Doctor Foster’s Disastrous Trip to Gloucester: Antipathy to Urban Life in Nursery Rhymes

by Liam Heneghan
[Dedicated to Oisín on his 21st birthday--a man with a grudging regard for a good rhyme]

Undoubtedly, the reading of nursery rhymes, some silly, some quite profound, and all generally teetering on the brink of insanity, shapes, in their early years, the environmental sensibilities of many children. Considering the supposed importance of these rhymes what should we make of the vast silence of nursery rhymes on important questions concerning urbanization and metropolitan planning?

Nursery rhymes are regularly preoccupied, in an often healthily irreverent way, with nature. Of the one hundred and seventeen rhymes collected and illustrated by Eric Kincaid in Nursery Rhymes (1990) all but twenty-three are set out-of-doors. Fully forty-three percent concern animals: dogs, cats, pigs and hens are especially prevalent. There is one rhyme in which a ship with a well-laden hull is captained by a duck: when the ship moved, this duck, predictably enough, said “Quack, quack.” (I Saw a Ship a-sailing). Many report on very strange human-animal encounters: Little Miss Muffet and her spider, for example, or the girl in Once I say a Little Bird whose ambivalence about the bird hopping on her sill resulted in it flying away. Other rhymes, ten or so, address encounters with inanimate objects, the weather and so forth. One Misty, Moisty, Morning remarks on the weather and, by-the-by, on an old man who is clad all in leather; Twinkle Twinkle Little Star and I see the Moon concern matters supra-mundane. At least one addresses, if you squint at it, the laudable virtue of family planning: There Was An Old Woman Who Lived in Shoe, who in the opinion of the rhymester at least had too many children: apparently, she didn’t know what to do.

Vegetation, in contrast to animals and inanimate nature, gets short shrift in the ditty canon. By my count in Kincaid’s volume there are only three rhymes specifically devoted to plants (or their fruit): I Had a Little Nut Tree, Oranges and Lemons, and The Hart he loves the High Wood. However, Kincaid’s illustrations more than compensate for the absence of greenery in the text of his collection of rhymes. Just more than half (60 in total) of the rhymes are illustrated with vegetation. Perhaps this just reflects Kincaid’s inclination towards green things. Just how much does Kincaid like his plants? On four occasions he adds a floral motif to wallpaper or on the curtains—Kincaid’s work is gratuitously botanical! It may be fair to say, though, that greenery is just a given in the universe of rhymes even if plants themselves do not consume the attention of the rhyme-crafters nor the children who listen to them. There is an interesting parallel here with the under-representation of vegetation in Paleolithic art—so total is the primeval mind’s preoccupation with animals there’s no plants there either.

As with plants, the number of explicit references to urban locations is very low. Nine rhymes out of Kincaid’s one hundred and seventeen either refer to specific towns, or more generically, to urban locales, or reference some aspect of urban life. These are As I was going to St Ives, Doctor Foster went to Gloucester, How Many Miles to Babylon, London Bridge, Oh, the Brave Old Duke of York, There was a Girl in our Town, This Little Pig Went to Market, Yankee Doodle Came to Town, and To Market, To Market. By my count there are an additional nine rhymes that are clearly set in towns of some size. Examples of such rhymes include Wee Willie Winkie, a rhyme that is, if one lingers on it, the very stuff of nightmares: the eponymous character runs about town in his night-gown yelling at children through their locked doors. Seemingly, they should be in bed.

Perhaps we should shrug off the paucity of references to metropolitan life in nursery rhymes as not necessarily a slight to urban living. But unlike what we saw to be the case for plants, this time Kincaid does not supplement what is missing from the doggerel with illustrations. Very few pieces are set in the wilderness, A Man in the Wilderness, being one, most of them are set in rural locations: in the countryside or in hamlets or small towns. Nursery rhymes record the madcap trials and tribulations of rustic life. Views of big city living just don’t make the cut.
In trying to come to terms with the absence of urban rhymes two questions come to mind. Why is this so and what are the implications? The first is quite easy to answer; the second is a matter for cerebration.

Many nursery rhymes are quite old, indeed most circulated in oral culture long before being written down. According to The Oxford Nursery Rhyme Book (1955) by Iona Archibald Opie and Peter Opie over thirty per cent of nursery rhymes predate 1600. Only 2.3 were composed after 1825. The poverty of urban reference to city life should be now be unsurprising since the proportion of the population living in cities and large towns compared to rural locations was a fraction of what it is today. That several refer to larger towns and cities might, from this perspective, actually impress us.

Over the course of time working on this short essay I’ve asked several of my students to name a favorite rhyme. None could do so without some prompting. Humpty Dumpty, Baa Baa Black Sheep, Twinkle, Twinkle and Mary had a Little Lamb all elicited some response. None could recall more than two or three, and strangely, none recalled where they heard the rhymes. “Perhaps in
band?” one speculated. If rhymes are not sung in the nursery anymore, perhaps it’s just as well: the world of the nursery rhyme is a surreal, and occasionally violent one. Oranges and Lemons, otherwise an innocuous one about church bells, ends with these lines: “Here comes a candle to light your to bed,/Here comes a chopper to chop off your head.” Besides, such rhymes in describing agrarian life are inscrutable to most children.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

A Visit to Oz

In 1976 to celebrate the Chicago connection to the Oz stories, the city dedicated a lovely little park, Oz Park, to L. Frank Baum’s creative work. It is within half a mile of where I teach in Chicago’s Lincoln Park. In subsequent years, the city installed statues of the four immortal companions, the Tin Woodman, the Cowardly Lion, the Scarecrow, and Dorothy (and Toto, the dog), at various points throughout the park.

Oz Park is a very jolly affair. The statues are handsome, the landscaping very tasteful with open lawns interspersed among the trees and shrubs. A small area of wild flowers and grasses has been set aside for insects and birds, and to add a natural glamour to the scene. A large playground in the park ensures that in the daylight hours there is always the silver-toned susurrus of children’s jubilation throughout the park. Baum would have liked it, I think, for he was a man of sunny disposition.
On the afternoon when I visited not long ago, a summer rain was spilling down in buckets. The sky was gray, the leaves of the trees were gray and dripping, and the grasses were dark and bedraggled. A few people scurried through the park, their collars turned up. One of them held a newspaper over her head. On the blacktop basketball court, three grown men stripped to the waist tossed the ball about with an air of determined exuberance. From atop a rope in the playground, a young child yelled out to her mother for help.

Read on here 

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Awe, despair and the annihilation of nature

Although it can be hard to discern at times, every academic subject is accompanied by a particular mood; for example, patient industry in the case of history, righteous indignation in peace studies, refined querulousness in philosophy, stolid deliberativeness in chemistry, head-spinning giddiness in cosmology, and, at first glance at least, sadness in the case of contemporary environmental science. Although gloominess may be inevitable in a discipline into whose domain falls the triumvirate of anthropogenic climate change, the radical alteration of biogeochemical cycles, and the torquing up of biodiversity loss, nonetheless historically there has been another mood, albeit somewhat muted in recent times, that accompanies the environmental disciplines, and that is awe.

See the full review of The Annihilation of Nature: Human Extinction of Birds and Mammals by Gerardo Ceballos, Anne H. Ehrlich, and Paul R. Ehrlich: here.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Botany and Fantasy

This is generally a truth in fantasy literature: before extravagant quests, before dragons and gold, before rings of power, before strenuous heroism, comes botany. Hobbits farming the Shire, Harry Potter in the greenhouses with Professor Sprout, Ged on the mountains of Gont with Ogion the Silent learning the uses of fourfoil.

Friday, July 8, 2016

Islands as Keystone Locales in Children’s Stories

Liam Heneghan

Islands are a type of keystone locale, to adopt the language of the late influential experimental ecologist Robert Paine. They are disproportionately represented in children’s literature and play an undeniable role in shaping the reveries of childhood. But investigations on and of islands were also integral to formulating our contemporary understanding of how species came into being,  More recently, and more ominously, islands have shaped our understanding of how organic forms disappear. Islands are epicenters of  species extinction.

This remarkable convergence of a prevalent theme in children’s literature and in ecological and evolutionary research should not, however, be overly-interpreted.  Islands emerge as important in both literatures  for fairly distinct reasons. No children’s writer, one assumes, writes about islands because they can serve as fruitful experimental replicates for understanding the patterns of nature. Nor might an ecologist chose to study an island because it evokes feelings of comfort, security, and snugness (though she may chose  to study it because an island is beautiful—but this is altogether another matter.)

This caveat against drawing strenuous parallels aside, islands appeal to the the literary and scientific imagination alike because they are discrete, contained, manageable, exotic, quirky; islands are often wild, often subject to large natural forces, and usually navigable. An island pares things down to their essentials; islands clarify.

Ecologists and evolutionists examine islands in order to determine the forces that shape natural communities. But storytellers oftentimes inform us of how natural patterns appear to their protagonists. They describe what it is like for people to encounter islands with all their insular and uncanny strangeness. Islands contain and intensify a plot.

A significant implication of all of this is that in the hands of a skilled storyteller a island story elucidates the island environment. A child may come away from the microcosmic experience of such a book knowing a little more about her relationship with wild forces; knowing more about the world beyond the basic movement of a plot. Stories about islands are a gateway for understanding the nature of islands, the history of our interaction with them and on them. If a child loves an island, the adult she becomes may value them, and by valuing islands she may have a disproportionately beneficent impact upon the world. Islands are stepping stones to the broader world of wild nature.

Saturday, July 2, 2016

Ephemeral Islands

Liam Heneghan

There is a little tuft of land a few feet oceanwards of Letterkesh beach in Connemara on Ireland’s Atlantic West Coast. You can walk out to it and take a perch on its distant shore; sitting there you can stare out across thousands of miles of open ocean. Exercise a little caution though, for the tide races in quickly here, and during the course of a brief marine reverie the land that was once safely contiguous with the shore becomes an island.

Several of my students who have visited that beach with me over the years have found themselves marooned on this freshly minted islet. And where moments before the surging of the sea calmed the tumult of their mental tides, it’s then they realize that, lost as it is in a private conversation with the moon, the ocean cares not a whit for them. Fortunately, a short paddle in knee-deep waters gets you back to shore and cools any castaway anxiety.

Tim Robinson, that great chronicler of island life along Ireland’s western shores describes his visits to some of these “intermittent-islands,” although the ones he described were of a more substantial variety and at two of them were inhabited. He wrote in Walking out to Islands (1997): “Sometimes one has to wait for the parting of the waters as for the curtain-up of a play, which wakes high expectations.” After this, the timer is set; the duration of your visit is set by the tides.
The shore to which you return from Letterkesh Island is itself, of course, on an island.  This island, Ireland, has itself been separated by an anciently rising post-glacial tide from the neighboring island of Great Britain. There would have been moments when a dithering animal having found itself on Irish soil could have scampered back across the sea to Great Britain and then on, if it cared to, to the continental mainland. Now the ancient land bridges are beneath the waves and the shallow waters are gone. The island of Ireland, in this sense, has been free for an epoch.

Now, if we can continue to stretch out the term ephemeral to encompass a span of more than ten thousand years—a stretch that will give no offense to geologists I suspect, but may offend common sense—then Great Britain is an ephemeral island also having been connected to the continent with land bridges of its own. All of this is from a geo-chronological recent news, since both the land that constitutes Ireland and Great Britain were, at a distant point in the past, undefined regions of a great landmass. The land mass snapped apart to the west as the Mid-Atlantic Ridge opened up the Atlantic. North America and Ireland still drift apart at the rate at which fingernails grow as my old geology professor, Padraig Kennan, once informed a class of us.

One day these nails will be trimmed, and to gravely injury the metaphor, those hands across the ocean will be brought together again.  Ireland, and Great Britain will be reunited. Borderless, indistinguishable from each other, and recognizable only to those with geological-scales memory; that is to say, not recognizable at all.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Awe, Despair, and the Annihilation of Nature

Liam Heneghan

Published in TREE June 25, 2016

Although it can be hard to discern at times, every academic subject is accompanied by a particular mood; for example, patient industry in the case of history, righteous indignation in peace studies, refined querulousness in philosophy, stolid deliberativeness in chemistry, head-spinning giddiness in cosmology, and, at first glance at least, sadness in the case of contemporary environmental science. Although gloominess may be inevitable in a discipline into whose domain falls the triumvirate of anthropogenic climate change, the radical alteration of biogeochemical cycles, and the torquing up of biodiversity loss, nonetheless historically there has been another mood, albeit somewhat muted in recent times, that accompanies the environmental disciplines, and that is awe.

See the article here. If you don't have access, let me know and I'm sure I can rustle you up a copy.

Did the Famous Five come from Cork?

Liam Heneghan
[Irish Times, Mon, Jun 13, 2016, 06:00]
Bandon-born children’s writer LT Meade’s ‘Four on an Island’ shares similarities with Enid Blyton’s ‘Five on a Treasure Island’, published 50 years later

LT Meade’s novel Four on an Island: A Story of Adventure (1892), now quite rare and seldom read, is sitting in front of me on a cushion in Dublin City Library’s Pearse Street archive. After deliberation about its location in the stacks – the catalogue information was incomplete – the librarian had brought it to me on the cushion, and speculated about my need for gloves while handling the fragile volume (she deemed them unnecessary).
Is this the book that influenced Enid Blyton’s Five on a Treasure Island (1942)?
A few days earlier, arriving back in Dublin from Chicago, where I live, I had picked up Blyton’s novel as part of my research for a book, Beasts at Bedtime, about environmental themes in children’s books.
Although Blyton wrote enthusiastically about nature – her early books include The Bird Book (1926), The Animal Book (1927) and Nature Lessons (1929) – my recollection of Five on a Treasure Island was as a sturdy adventure story rather than a bucolic meditation on kids’ survival on a wild island. It’s a romp where four cousins and their dog gallivant about an island off the Dorset coast, searching for “ingots of gold” and drinking lots of ginger beer.
Island stories are intriguing, as children away from parents’ gaze not only get up to high jinks but are often at the mercy of the wilder forces of nature – their own and environmental.
Blyton’s novel has some pleasant observations on the natural history of Kirrin Island: its rocky inaccessibility, the tameness of its rabbits, the fishing skills of cormorants. I suspect my career choice (a scientist of sorts) derives from a captivation with Uncle Quentin, the irascible scientist, father to Georgina and uncle to her cousins Julian, Dick and Anne, in Blyton’s Famous Five books.

Read on here

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Environmental Science and Studies at DePaul Turns 30 this year: let's party!

ENV at DePaul is turning 30 this year. We are hosting a reunion dinner with Guest of Honor: Dr Tom Murphy, Director Emeritus on 3rd June 2016 from 5-7 pm!

We've made a real effort to contact alums from the past 30 years, but there is still time to respond. If you are an alum and want to join us email me at lhenegha[at]

The dinner will coincide with our annual student symposium on June 3rd from 3-5 pm. All event are in McGowan South, 1110 W Belden, Chicago!

We will be making a quilt to commemorate our 30th anniversary.  Leaves for the quilt will be available on the night!

I would love to see you all at this event!  If you are still in contact with your old ENV pals, please make sure they know about this event.  It will be a blast.”

Friday, May 13, 2016

The Traditional Nexus Hypothesis (Teanga, Ceol agus Tírdhreach) - Irish landscape, language and music

For a couple of years in the 1980s I worked in several of the Irish National Parks collecting insects. Month after month I tramped around these landscapes—they are humanized areas, and yet remain relatively undeveloped and wild.  This work inspired my first research paper, Additions to the Inventory of Irish Chironomidae (Diptera) with Declan A. Murray. By the by, the insects of these parks also inspired my first tattoo, though this was quite a while later.

At that time I regarded the Irish language with mild disdain. My father at one point when we were still quite young proposed that we speak as Gaeilge at home. With him we did not agree (an dtuigeann tú?) Besides I was a middling scholar in my youth and never got the hang of the language. I had more interest in Irish music, but my tastes inclined more towards artists like Christy Moore, Scullion, Paul Brady and so on. I knew very little about traditional music.

In recent years I have developed a feverish interest in Irish music—my spare time is devoted to the tin whistle. I also have a taste for the language although admittedly I have little time to devote to it.

All this is a preamble to saying that recently I’ve  been preoccupied by these three interests: the traditional landscape, traditional language, and traditional music. Here’s the thing: the overlap in these three arenas appears not only to be a mental phenomenon, there is also a geographic overlap: these days where you find one you find the others. The music, language and landscapes flourish together. The map here shows national parks and Gealtacht areas (regions in Ireland where the language is still spoken in daily life). I don’t have a convenient map of the areas for excellence in traditional music; indeed music is the most mobile and diffusely spread-out of the three, but several areas of Co Clare, Connemara in Co Galway, Co Donegal, Co Kerry, Co Cork that are adjacent to the parks or at least to wilder landscapes are epicenters for traditional music.

I’ve been turning over this concordance in my mind in recent weeks speculating about this (literal) co-incidence. More than just a spatial concordance though, I’m hypothesizing that these are mutually reinforcing aspects of the land and culture. The land influences the language (no surprises here but Irish is very rich in terms for aspects of nature), and perhaps the music. In turn the language and music, can influence that way in which people regard the landscapes in which they live and work.  I’ll formulate this a little more precisely in the coming weeks. I call this the Traditional Nexus Hypothesis -  (TradNex for short!)  All this is, perhaps a commonplace conjecture. I recall similar themes emerge in Barry Lopez’ work. The part that interests me most, though, and something that I’ve not heard much on it how the sounds of the landscape influence language and music especially. Last year I started doing some recordings of the landscape and of traditional music to probe the links.  Stay tuned as they say.  Or, fanacht tiúnta, as they say.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Dublin, ecologically, no longer fits into Ireland!

Liam Heneghan

By my quick calculation the population of Dublin city and its surrounding county, cannot be ecologically accommodated by the entire land mass of Ireland. Dublin spills over the borders of the country in which it is located.

Henrietta St. Dublin, 2015
This is how I arrived at this conclusion. The population of Dublin city and county combined is 1.273 million (1). According to the average ecological footprint of an Irish person is 5.61 global hectares (22nd highest in the world) (2). An ecological footprint is a measure of the amount of land people live on and that is required to both furnish the resources needed for consumption and to absorb waste. The units used in footprint analysis (global hectares) is a measure of biologically productive hectare required to sustain people.  Thus the total footprint of Dublin is 7.24 million hectares (population x average footprint). Since the total land mass of Ireland is only 7.03 hectares there is an overshoot of the population of Dublin beyond the borders on the country to which it belongs. The overshoot is at present about three percent. Dublin, it seems, needs to slim down a bit, perhaps quite a bit.

Of course, Ireland is not resourced exclusively by Irish lands, nor are all 7 million hectare of Ireland biologically productive. Nor is its waste, including carbon dioxide, absorbed in Ireland.  Dublin is part of both the global resource and its effluent economy. Thus the environmental shadow that each Dubliner casts is found in myriad places. A few beans of coffee from Nicaragua for a morning cuppa, a handful of wheat from the Ukraine for a lunchtime sandwich, as as well as a few ounces of mutton that once grazed rough pasture in the Irish midlands and so on. And so on day after day. Dublin’s vast footprint is part of the oddest colonization project the world has ever conceived. In other words, Dublin is no longer "in" Ireland anymore from an environmental perspective. Nor, for that matter, is any major city merely in the regions they occupy.

Would it be reasonable for Dublin to be ecologically contained within its own physical footprint? No, I don’t suppose so! This is, in part, because the very definition of the city includes the notion that a city organizes and is physically connected to a diffuse hinterland surrounding it. And there are inarguable benefits to this arrangement. Densely populated, relatively small, cities benefit from scale efficiencies.  It’s just economically and ecologically cheaper to provide for people in such circumstances.

But have no doubt about it, Dublin’s footprint is not sustainable—meaning that the situation cannot continue without grievous implications.

That Dublin’s footprint is larger than the land mass of all of Ireland is baleful and the consequences may be grievous because there are only two ways in which an overshoots on this scale is possible, at least in the short term.

Firstly, the overshoot relies on the fact that other countries consume considerably fewer resources that we do. Some developed economies are undeniably making progress towards sustainability. Such reductions in footprint can be gobbled up by those who are making less progress. Most countries, however, that have low footprints also have low GDP. These are the countries of the developing world, for example Burundi, Eritrea, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. For Dublin to go about business as usual, we must cross our fingers and pray that global inequalities persist. This is what I mean when I say that a ballooning of footprint is a colonial project: taking over the world one coffee bean, one grain of wheat at a time.

And no amount of charitable giving should salve our consciences on this matter.

Secondly, a city, region, country, or indeed the entire globe, can overshoot its ecological limits by drawing down global bio-capacity and capital. Thus we can maintain an overshoot for a while by exhausting soils, drawing down resource reserves, radically alter global biogeochemical cycles and relentlessly pump carbon into the atmosphere.

On a bright note: by my calculation Cork and Limerick combined fit into Ireland.  You could even add in Belfast city.  Ah sure, we’ll be fine!



Dublin City Public Library Archives, Pearse Street Dublin, April 2016

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

When to Restore a Nose? Can managing artworks informs the management of nature?

Should the nose of “Portrait of a Man, Perhaps a Philosopher” be restored to this 3rd Century AD marble bust? How about that of the Sphinx? Was the restoration of the ceiling of the Sistine chapel a travesty or an aesthetic necessity? In this presentation ecologist Liam Heneghan examines how questions concerning the restoration of artworks can illuminate question about the management of nature – arguably the largest artwork of all. In the process of discussing such questions we shall ultimately be reflecting on a matter that Friedrich Nietzsche took up in his extraordinary 1874 essay "On the Use and Abuse of History for Life."

We shall meet at Portrait of a Man, Perhaps a Philosopher, towards the back of the Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Art galleries at 5:30 pm, May 26th.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

My Dad turns 89

The Da clocking up some impressive birthday numbers today. An eccentric, entertaining, and very mildly irrasible man. Indefatigable too.

A good naturalist in his day - very fine knowledge of the Mollusca. And, by the way, a commendable writer. Also a dab-hand with the ole paint brush back in the last century. Pretty good story-teller, I should mention. A compassionate fellow, by the by. A person of solid and inspiring faith now that I'm at it. Not afraid to call out bullshit, for that matter, which got him denounced by the old Monsignor from the pulpit. Did I mention that he laughs till he cries at certain things?

Supportive fellow to his kids. I once woke him up in the middle of the night because a friend who was descending into madness needed to be chauffeured home. Not a fecking bother on him.

Loves the mother, Goddamn but that man loves that woman. I
n his own way, I suppose, though I once saw him slip his arm around her waist in the kitchen when he thought that we, their truckload of kids, weren't watching. Kissed her softly. Has a great fondness for apples, and highly critical of contemporary developments in apple husbandry. Anyway, it's that fellow's birthday.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

The Quiet Companionship of Beasts

Image from Play With Me, by Marie Hall Ets (1955)
Play with Me (1955)
Story and pictures by Marie Hall Ets

Liam Heneghan

A poorly drawn girl strides arms akimbo into the meadow. The girl has yellow hair gathered back by white bobbles. Before her is a tree, roughly drawn with a series of charcoal  strokes. About the tree grows scattered vegetation, also roughly drawn. A grasshopper, represented obscurely by a black squiggle, has settled on a lolly-pop shaped leaf. The sun smiles a leisurely smile; the background is colored buff and there is dew upon the grass.

The little girl interrogates the grasshopper. Will the grasshopper play with her? His answer is mute though emphatic: he leaps away. Behind him the lolly-pop shaped leaf retains chomp marks, for the grasshopper had been at meal. A nearby frog, cautiously stares at her. He too contemplates food; he is waiting to catch a mosquito. The frog resists the child’s efforts to engage it in play.  In answer to her efforts to catch him, he too leaps away with a marvelous abandon: his legs splay wide, his arms splay wide. A turtle resting on log also resists this girl’s mania for play and plops back into the pond. A chipmunk runs up a tree, a blue jay scolds her and flies from the girl’s pleading and outstretched arms, a rabbit runs for his life, and a snake slinks into his hole.

Deserted by the creatures the child settles into a desultory mood. She blows milkweed seeds from their kernel, and slipping into a milder register still she noiselessly sits down by the pond. She gazes at an insect navigating the surface waters. In her silent watchfulness the animals now return. Not exactly for play at first, but for that sterner form of communion, namely silent companionship. The grasshopper sits near her, as does the frog. The turtle returns to his log. One by one, chipmunk, blue jay, rabbit and snake return. With these animals delicately comes a fawn who approaches the child and licks her cheek, kissing her as if in reward for what the girl learned that afternoon. In their own way, can not each in this merry little community be said to be at play? It is not perhaps the more violent play that the yellow-haired girl had envisioned. There is no romping, there is no cavorting. Rather this is play with the gravitas that attends respectful beings when they convene. No doubt moments later the grasshopper will return his attention to the loppy-pop leaves, and the frog will take up his station hunting mosquitoes. But right now none of this company are making demands upon the others, each animal, a solitary emblem of their kind, is paused in a quite chain of being. The sun smiles a leisurely smile; the background is colored buff and there is dew upon the grass.

The yellow-haired girl learned in that afternoon what we have been unlearned since the time of the Greeks, though the naturalist did not forget it: beings emerge from their literal and ontological un-concealment when we patiently abide by them. 

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Conceptual Issues Framing an Assessment of Human Impacts of Earth Systems

Preamble: An existential crisis occurs when an impact is so great that it is transgenerational in scope and terminal in intensity.
Qs Are human impacts on Earth systems existential risks, or are they globally endurable? What other disciplines assess global risk?

A. In conformity with the “uniformitarian” guiding principle (Lyell et al), we should regard ourselves as products of the same ecological and evolutionary forces that produced all other species.
Qs If nature produced us, are we natural? Is “catastrophism” compatible with uniformitarian principles?

B. Just as amoebae acquired pseudopodia and the aardvarks their long protruding tongues as a way in which it survives, we humans benefit from certain evolutionary legacies: for example bipedalism, cognitive complex, technical know-how and a capacity for culture. These sufficed to keep humans in the evolutionary game during the tough times, but appear to have “overproduced in times of plenty.”
Qs Is cultural change part of our evolutionary toolkit, or is it distinct from all other evolutionary products? What is it to be human from an environmental perspective?

C. One of our evolutionary peculiarities, humans relative flexibility in life history strategies, which flexibility allows for cultural influences on our birth and death rate regimes, facilitated our transition from a rare tropical species to one that is now ubiquitous and with a population size of almost 7.2 billion.
Qs Are there other species that once were rare and now very common?  Why was the transition to agriculture so consequential from a human life history perspective?

D. By many metrics including carrying capacity, ecological footprint, and the human appropriation of net primary productivity (HANPP) — each with some inherent limitations and uncertainties — we are imposing unsustainable impacts upon the natural world and its ability to furnish us with the goods and services we need.
Qs Is there a limit to human numbers, or are humans their own limitless “ultimate resource?” 

E. Fortunately, not all aspects of nature are inherently fragile: many systems have incorporated a degree of “resilience” in the response to impacts (either from human or non-human sources). Admittedly, we have not been historically adept at distinguishing resilient from friable ones.
Qs Distinguish engineering from ecological resilience? If disturbance is incorporated as an inevitable component of “adaptive cycles” is it possible to categorically distinguish human-inflicted disturbance from disturbance emanating from the rest of nature? [Ecology's "God is Dead" moment!]

F. Recent conceptual advances in our ecological understanding invite us to jettison notions of balance, climax community, steady-state systems, and linear change. Replacing the “old ecology” are notions that multi-state systems, integral disturbance, critical transitions, ecological resilience.
Qs Does resilience thinking not merely smuggle the language of balance back into ecology? [Extra points: use your understanding of panarchy to foment world revolution.]

G Tasks for the future include being able to assess impact with reference to the resilience of systems, and, for those with an engineering or management orientation, and building resilience into systems that are likely to catastrophically flip to less desirable states.
Qs What are the essential features of a resilience complex adaptive system such as a human-dominate landscape? Is there a role for ethics - also, presumably, and evolved human characteristics - in determining our relationship with the rest of nature?

Friday, March 4, 2016

Wilson's Half World

If global problems were written by professors merely to perplex students, the intersecting problems of global human inequality and global biodiversity decline would merit tenure and promotion (assuming, that is, a fictional world where professorial teaching is admired and rewarded). Stripped of their immediate ethical and practical importance — admittedly this is the primary reasons we are paying heed in the first place — the problems are fascinating because solutions to them seem, at first glance, to be in competition. World global biodiversity peaks in those geographical areas where economies are relatively undeveloped, where population growth rates are high, and where poverty is at times extreme. To solve one is to exacerbate the other.
In the oldest paradigm for biological conservation – the one that informs Wilson’s work – the task of conservation is achieved by setting aside large reserves. The larger the better: “single large”, to use the coinage of applied ecology, rather than “several small” reserves. And if one sets aside land that radiates out from the so-called biodiversity hot-spots, this, according to the old paradigm means that biodiversity conservation is achieved with some loss, or at least modification, of human economic ambition. So, unless one can find ways of growing economies in a manner that simultaneously reduces their resource footprint and lowers population size and per capita impact then people and nature will be at loggerheads to some extent at least.
The newer paradigm for conservation that optimistically embraces novelty, welcomes non-native species, endorses conservation strategies in anthopogenic landscapes, holds out the prospect of doing conservation — preserving ecological function at least — without large preserves. As an urban ecologist, involved in restoration work in Chicago, I find myself optimistic about some aspects of such scenarios. But one shouldn’t kid oneself: such strategies will work for adaptive species, those that are already disposed to getting along with the humans. Very often the optimists found their optimism on thin science (see, for example, my review of optimist Fred Pearce’s The New Wild here:…/is-there-need-for-the-new-wil….)
Thus, my fear at least is that global biodiversity will drain down the massive sinkhole opened up by our optimism.
In an ideal world the lion of human economic acquisitiveness would be able to settle down with all the vulnerable lambs, insects, microbes and so forth that collectively constitute global biodiversity. It may be the Wilson’s solution is unworkable, and we may not, justifiably have the stomach for the choices we face. But as we dither, we lose. I certainly agree with the authors of this opinion that “addressing biodiversity loss and other environmental problems must proceed by confronting the world’s obscene inequality” but I have yet to hear a solution to the conundrum of balancing justice for vulnerable populations and conservation of the rest of nature.
If God is a professor, She will get tenure for this case study.

This was my response to

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.