Friday, December 23, 2011

Is All Ecology Urban Ecology? Reading Henri Lefebvre’s “The Urban Revolution”.

The overarching theme of the relevance of Urban Ecology for a more general environmental thought will be discussed in a series of posts over the coming weeks.  If you are interested use the labels to the right to locate the series.

Henri Lefebvre (1901-1991), was a French Marxist whose philosophically inclined sociological writings have had an enduring influence on geography, urban studies, and, to some extent at least, on environmental thought.  Although La Production de l’espace (The Production of Space) (1974)  is perhaps his most influential work, I have been re-reading his slimmer volume The Urban Revolution (La Révolution urbaine (1970) ) in recent weeks.  From my perspective the volume is interesting since Lefebvre’s hypothesis that society is completely urbanized is important to those of us who might claim that urban ecology is not just an upstart subdiscipline in ecology but may be in fact be a synonym for ecology. 

An urban society is by Lefebvre’s definition one that comes about, unremarkably, by the process of urbanization.  The core hypothesis, more arrestingly, is that society has been completely urbanized.  Although urban society has been used to refer to a suite of social arrangements Lefebvre confines the use of the term to a society emerging from industrialization.  Now, as he points out, this totalizing urbanization that leads to urban society is “virtual today but will be real in the future.”  Thus the term urban society refers to “tendencies, orientations, and virtualities, rather than any preordained reality.”  For all this urban society is not fictional: it is a “virtual object”, or a “possible object”.  It is a “horizon, an illuminating virtuality.”  Urban society, Lefebvre claimed is “gestating in and through the “bureaucratic society of controlled consumption.”  Urban society represents "the prodigious extension of the urban to the entire planet".

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

"Making Nature Whole" Book Launch 18th Jan 2012, 6:30

Mark Your Calendar

DePaul Institute for Nature and Culture Presents 



Making Nature Whole – A History of Environmental Restoration

By William Jordan III and George M. Lubick

WHEN: Wed 18th January 2012 at 6:30 pm

WHERE: Environmental Science and Chemistry Building (McGowan South), 1110 West Belden Avenue, Chicago, IL 60614

PROGRAM: Interdisciplinary reflections on the book by Tom Simpson (McHenry Co Conservation District), Anthony Paul Smith (DePaul University Institute for Nature and Culture), Paul Gobster, USDA (Forest Service), David Wise (UIC), Claire Butterfield (Faith in Place), and Gavin Van Horn (Center for Humans and Nature) and from the author William Jordan III.

PLEASE CIRCULATE THIS WIDELY.  For more information please contact Liam Heneghan (lhenegha at gmail)
Signed copies of the book will be available for purchase.

Restoration as a key strategy for Green Infrastructure Planning in Chicago

Liam Heneghan and Gerry Clabby (Fingal County Council, Dublin, Ireland)

The role of green infrastructure in facilitating energy flows and material exchanges that sustain human habitation in urban regions is becoming more apparent and its importance for long term urban planning is being increasingly recognized. Open space planning (i.e., parks, wildlife corridors, urban forests) has long been on the agenda of urban designers. In contrast, green infrastructure serves as a way of framing discussions about the future of the city so that green spaces in are presented alongside engineered structures (i.e., roads, bridges, sewers) in urban areas so both can be simultaneously regarded as providing vital environmental services.

Green infrastructure gives metropolitan planners and engineers a greater range of tools for mitigating urban problems. Additionally, if more extensive green space is planned and protected in metropolitan areas then this increases the opportunities for biodiversity conservation. Thus, green infrastructure combines several seemingly disparate environmental strategies such as increasing ecosystems services, enhancing biodiversity conservation, and bringing a landscape ecological perspective to the management of urban regions where open space is no longer considered as isolated fragments.

We provide a definition for green infrastructure as this is a relatively new term and is used inconsistently. However, we demonstrate the usefulness of the term “green infrastructure” as a way of integrating several aspects of an urban ecological strategy. In particular, we argue that restoration is a critical tactic in achieving functional green infrastructure in large metropolitan areas where degraded ecosystems are often assailed by multiple stressors. We illustrate progress made in the Chicago area in developing a green infrastructure vision, and suggest a number of key knowledge gaps, attention to which may increase our ability to translate this vision into a reality.

Green Infrastructure Defined
We define green infrastructure as the ecological features of a human settlement that may be considered alongside traditional engineered infrastructure to enhance ecological values and functions. Usually green infrastructure is deployed for the benefit of the resident human populations although in the cases of natural areas conservation the supposed benefit for people may be an indirect one. This broad definition captures the range of uses to which the term has been applied, from those structures and processes that augment urban storm flow systems (Anon. 2008) to interconnected natural areas that contribute to human welfare (Benedict and McMahon 2006). Green infrastructure builds on previous work on ecosystems services, urban natural capital evaluation, and open space protection by integrating these insights explicitly into landuse planning in partnership with others involved in urban planning.

Since much open space in urban areas is currently either low diversity turf grass or degraded semi-natural land, restoration may be a key ingredient in increasing the ecological functioning of this land where the potential of this land to serve as green infrastructure is recognized and thus has been incorporated into urban planning. In order to provide a city with services required to augment, and in some cases replace, elements of gray infrastructure, the rehabilitation or restoration of open space will often be required. Green Infrastructure Planning in Chicago

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

In The Kingdom of Decay: How a Motley Team of Subterranean Dwellers Ransacks the Dead and Liberates Nutrients for the Living

The recently dead rot much like money accumulates in banks (until recently, at least), only, of course, in reverse.  A sage great-great-ancestor who had, for instance, set aside a few shillings for a distant descendant would, through the plausible alchemy of compound interest, have made that great-great-offspring a wealthy person indeed.  In contrast, after death a body-heft of matter accumulated over the course of a lifetime is hustled away, rapidly at first, but leaving increasingly minute scraps of the carcass to linger on nature’s banquet table.  It is as if Zeno had not shot an arrow but instead had ghoulishly slobbered down upon the departed, progressively diminishing the cadavers but never quite finishing his noisome meal.  The soils of the world contain in tiny form, scraps of formerly living things going back many thousands of years.  Perhaps these are the ghosts we sense when we are alone in the woods.

Before you rake away the final leaves of the autumn season, hold one up to the early winter light.  Those patches where you see sky rather than leaf are the parts that had been consumed live, nibbled away by insects or occasionally browsed by mammals.  But you may have to pick up several leaves to see any consumption at all!  The eating of live plant material is rarer than one might suspect.  It is almost as if most creatures, unlike us of course, have the decency to wait for other beings to die before they consume them.  Ecologists have wondered why this is the case, asking in one formulation of the problem “why is the world green?”  At the peak of the summer season the world is mysteriously like a large bowl of uneaten salad.  The world it turns out is green for many reasons but a compelling one is that plants generally defend themselves quite resourcefully.  The thorn upon the rose provides more than a pretty metaphor – this shrub knows exactly what to do with its aggressive pricks.  And if one can neither run nor hide nor protrude a thorn, you might manufacture chemical weapons.  Crush a cherry laurel leaf in your hand, wait a moment or so, and then inhale that aroma like toasted almond.  It’s hydrogen cyanide, of course.  “Don’t fuck with me” is one of the shrubbery’s less lovely messages.

Read on at 3quarksdaily

Monday, December 12, 2011

Four Conjectures on Soil Microarthropods and Ecological Restoration

In what follows I conjecture about soil organisms in the context of restoration projects.  This are listed below as C1-C4.  I concentrate here on soil microarthropods (primarily free-living soil mites and springtails), since these are the groups that my lab are most interested in.  I also have Midwestern systems in mind, but the remarks can probably be generalized.  These are for the most part empirically-based conjectures (a "empirijecture, if you will!)": there is not enough work done to be emphatic, but there is data emerging that supports each contention.

C1.       Soil microarthropods are hyperdiverse at most restoration sites.  This may be true even those that are considered to be in poor ecological health.  The number of described mite species globally is 45,000 or so and this may represent less than 10% of the total diversity.  To put this is perspective: if mite diversity got proportionate attention there would be over 100 consecutive "Mite Weeks" on Discovery for every one 'Shark Week”.  In the coming years we will get some real numbers at a variety of sites.  Expect no fewer than 200 species per hectare.

C2.       Factors that negatively affect plant diversity will also have adverse affects on soil organismal diversity.  Invasive species, fragmentation, nitrogen deposition, altered hydrology, climate change and so forth have implications for the soil environment.  In particular, factors that elevate decomposition rates may have devastating implications for soil animals.  This is because the decomposing litter, hosts the greatest diversity of soil arthropods.  I conjecture that in habitats where the litter layer has been reduced diversity is greatly diminished.  This may represent a vast unnoticed local extinction crisis.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Should We Care about the Conservation and Restoration of Decomposer Assemblages?

Soil organisms are phylogenetically diverse, trophically heterogeneous, highly variable in size, dissimilar in longevity, variegated in morphology, behaviorally divergent, adapted to different soil horizons, disparately pigmented, but united in their reliance on death.

By this, I mean to imply that an adequate study of soil ecology calls for interdisciplinarity on a scale that we are not especially good at.  That being said, the fact that dead things provide a foundation for these complex foodwebs has been enough for them to be functionally lumped together despite their multifarious attributes.  For the purpose of examining the fate of detritus this makes good sense.  Collectively the action of detrital-based foodwebs results in the breakdown of dead organic matter and the mineralization of organic compounds making them key nutrient available to the living. 

Restorationists need to pay attention to soil organisms both because they are a very large component of the diversity of most sites, and because the regulation of nutrient availability exerts a large influence on the diversity of plants and other components of the biotic community.  We all live in the shadow of the kingdom of decay.  Concern for the conservation of soil communities is made all the more urgent because soils are vastly affected by global change.  A warmer earth implies generally more rapid decomposition rates (when other factors such as moisture content of the soil remain constant).  Invasive species can also have dramatic implications for soils, either directly when soil animals (earthworms and isopods, for instance) are moved around, or indirectly when plants invade.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Don Quixote - Patron Saint of The Ecologically Naïve

In an especially marvelous episode in Don Quixote, the mad knight errant attacks Master Peter’s puppet show. He takes his sword to the puppets and the fittings and destroys the show. Confronted with the extent of the damage Don Quixote is unmoved, claiming that an enchanter had transformed the scene he had witnessed – in which Sir Gaiferos frees his wife Melisendra from the Moors – into the puppet show which he was then, naturally, compelled to reduce to wooden carnage. Don Quixote, the Knight of the Sad Countenance, might be a fitting patron of the ecologically naïve, failing as he does to perceive the realities of important connections, confusing what he sees with what fits the vision of his madness. The explicit role of ecology is to excavate these connections and to make transparent realities that might otherwise, to our cost, elude us.

In recent years ecological exploration has attended to the role of soil organisms and to the ecosystem processes occurring primarily belowground. This skein of research has resulted in a mild revolution (ecological revolutions tend to be bloodless and polite, but revolutions none the less) in our thinking. This reorientation in thinking is referred to as plant-soil feedback theory, the central claims of which are that the structure and functioning of ecosystems cannot be fully understood without appreciating the influence of the aboveground component of ecosystems on the soil and reciprocally of the influence of the soil on the communities above the soil surface. In effect the strings that run the Master Peter's ecological puppet show run not only from above, but emerge from the opaque but teeming world of the soil.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Snowed Under in Chicago: i.e. Unrealistic reading and writing plans before the end of the year

 A Heneghan Youth attacking during one of last year's snow events
When one’s ambition outstrips the confines of calendrical time one prioritizes I suppose.  As usual I had kicked too many assignments towards the touchline that is this December break and now I have some decisions to make - I can't do 'em all.  Minimally I have to get the following writing assignments finished:

1.      Finish the draft of our mulching experiment with Lauren Umek.  This is more than 50% done, but there is at least two more days of statistical analysis and a full re-write to go.  We’ll submit this to Biological Invasions by the end of the month.
2.      Microarthropods (free living soil mites and sprintails) in restoration projects.  A short piece on this for Restoration News Midwest
3.      A cheerful 3quarks daily piece on Death and Decay.
4.      A series of short pieces on Henri Lefebvre, Albert Borgmann, Aldo Leopold and Jack Kerouac etc for this blog (and ultimately my book)
5.      Some work on a couple of new proposals (actually a pressing priority). This includes some work on a proposal linking some philosophical work on biodiversity conservation with the scientific perspectives on this topic..

Of course to get these written I need to get a lot of reading done (mainly rereading, fortunately).   

Additionally I want to read a few things before the quarter begins in January.
  • Nicomachean Ethics for the seminar I will take in winter with SeanKirkland
  • Bill Jordan’s newer book (Making Nature Whole – some of which I read in draft).  I need to have this ready for the book launch event we at INC are hosting in January (look out for a note on this).
  • I will also be rereading Bill’s Sunflower Forest (though I have this almost memorized since I have taught it so frequently) and a reread of Tim Morton’s Ecology without Nature and The Ecological Thought for an informal seminar we’ll host next year on Friday mornings (more info on this soon – let me know if you can to join) on “Deep, Dark and Shameful (see here).
Also I need apply myself to French translation so I can technically complete my MA in philosophy.

If I can get anything else written and read that will be gravy!

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

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Dude, your evolutionary theory just ate my philosophy – Leopold and the evolutionary possibility of a Land Ethic

Part of a series on Aldo Leopold’s “Land Ethic”

Somebody somewhere at this moment is writing a reverential essay about Aldo Leopold’s Land Ethic.  I feel a little ungenerous, I admit, to write in less than enthusiastic tones.  It seems to me though that if the land ethic, Leopold’s extension of the ethical sequence to encompass the land community (including other creatures) and thereby forming the basis for new conservation values, was going to work out we’d have stronger hints of this already.  After all, this classic essay in conservation ethics was published in 1949 and has been the subject of lively interest in the intervening year.  I am familiar with a lot of the literature surrounding the essay; certainly I know where to find those pieces I have overlooked in the past.  Its influence on the history of conservation biology cannot be overstated.  To illustrate, in A Companion to Environmental Philosophy (I choose this because it’s here beside me on the desk), the index records entries for “Land Ethic: biotic community” extending over 7 lines, with 18 separate entries (some of which bracket several pages of the text).   I am interested, however, in reading the essay afresh; a reading unencumbered by the scholarly paraphernalia available for this work.  I know therefore that the mild critique I offer here and in future posts have probably been fended off; ably deflected by the academic phalanx the surrounds Leopold’s work, nevertheless, in the spirit of inquiring if the land ethic can be rejuvenated I pose some challenges again.  It may be that we must risk deposing this king of ecology.  In other words, I ask if the land ethic must be rescued from Leopold’s treatment of it? It’s time to read Leopold as if he’s being read for the first time.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Reflections on Experimental Soil Manipulations to Reduce European Buckthorn Invasion, (with observations on soil lead mobilization)

What follows are some reflections on the results of our MOLA restoration experiment.  Please note that I post these to provoke conversation and get your thoughts on soils and restoration.  The reflections are very preliminary and have not been peer-reviewed.  For ease of read (or quick skim) I have not included literature references or a bibliography.  In the coming weeks we will be sending a manuscript in for publication on the topic.  Lauren Umek is the project manager and is a senior scientist on the project. 

For more background on the project see here and here.

The analysis of soil nitrogen availability is a focus of many studies examining the efficacy of incorporating material of low carbon quality (e.g. wood mulch) into soils as a potential restoration tool.  This is because these treatments are hypothesized to reduce nitrogen, elevated in soil as a consequence of anthropogenic atmospheric input or as a legacy of fertilizer use in agricultural land.  Nitrogen elevation is known to be a factor in some invasions and in a concomitant loss of native species.  Defertilization (N reduction) in circumstances where land is managed for the protection of biodiversity may lead to a reduction in invasion and an increased prevalence of species of conservation significance.  Our treatments were designed to reduce the availability of soil nutrients, especially nitrogen, and thereby modify the structure of the plant community in revegetating plots in this manipulative field experiment.  We anticipated that the soil environment modified in this way would support a lower density of Rhamnus cathartica (hereafter “buckthorn”) a dominant shrubby invaded of Midwestern Woodlands. 

We found that for some of the nutrients measured in our study, including nitrogen, availability was indeed reduced.  However, these effects were not consistent over the two years that we measured them with the important exception of phosphorus availability which increased in plots that had received a mulching treatment.  Consistent with our expectations buckthorn seedlings and saplings density was significant reduced in all plots compared with our controls (where buckthorn was not cut).  Additionally, those plots that had received wood mulch, either of buckthorn or commercial mulch, had lower buckthorn seedling or sapling density than all other treatments.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

And Jack Came Tumbling After – Han Shan, Jack Kerouac and Desolation Peak

Part I of a couple of posts (who knows, maybe 3) on Kerouac in the Wilderness.

In Dharma Bums, Kerouac describes visiting Japhy Ryder (i.e. Gary Snyder) in his shack near Berkeley and Japhy talks to him about the difficulty of translating Han Shan’s poem Cold Mountain from the original Chinese.  Jack is impressed with the similarities between Han Shan and Ryder.  “That’s like you too, Japhy, studying with eyes full of tears.”  Han Shan, Ryder said, was “a mountain man, a Buddhist dedicated to the principle of meditation on the essence of all things… he was a man of solitude who could take off by himself and live purely and true to himself.”   Ray Smith (i.e. Kerouac) responded, “That sounds like you too.”  “And like you too, Ray”, Ryder generously replied. 

Thinking that it would be a good thing for Kerouac to have some solitary time in the mountains, Snyder encouraged Kerouac to apply to work a summer as a fire lookout in the Northern Cascades in Washington.  The first part of Kerouac’s novel Desolation Angels, based upon his notebooks from the summer of 1956, recorded Jack’s summer of anguish and paranoia in his mountain retreat.  Though Kerouac may not be everyman – at times he’s jubilant, at times morose, verbose, braggardly, brilliant, invariably drunk, incessantly dissecting, sullen, always writing, experimenting, vagabonding, observing minutely, oedipally strange, holy, obnoxious – nonetheless Jack’s ordinary failure in the wilderness is perhaps a more successful account of the meaning of wilderness for us everyfolk than all the successful accounts written by the hard men of the great American Wilderness tradition. 

Impossible Obama: a note biblical, literary, and philosophical to the new president on the topic of the impossible with special illustrative emphasis on woodworm and fishes

I came across this today when I was tracking down another piece.  I had forgotten this, and perhaps with reason.  I can't call it an unpublishable poem since it is neither a poem and was in fact published in a collection of inaugural poems. On the positive side, it has the longest title of any poem in the collection.

Julian Barnes writes a story called “The Stowaway” in which a woodworm makes unseemly accusations about Noah and his family (did they make of the ark a private larder?).  For that matter, no mention in Genesis 7 of fishes.  Jacques Derrida says true hospitality cannot be compelled, cannot respond to a “one must.”  Noah in obeying an edict of God, in the calculative performance of his hospitality reveals the impossibility of true hospitality – he makes decisions about what to include, what to exclude.  So this is the test for the new president: Wake up in the morning with the impossible on your mind.

From A Writer's Congress: Chicago Poets on Barack Obama's Inauguration. Editor Chris Green, The DePaul Poetry Institute, 2009.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Deep Map Assignment

Since I am getting some very strong writing from an undergraduate liberal studies class in response to this exercise I thought I would share it.

The assignment is introduced during a lecture/discussion on the works of Baudelaire, Joyce, deCerteau, William Least Heat-Moon, and Tim Robinson, writers unified by their emphasis on walking, dwelling, eclectic attention, genre-blending and so forth.

Deep Map

In this short essay assignment choose a neighborhood or even a small part of a neighborhood and develop a Deep Map of this area. The objective is to examine this urban location in a highly interdisciplinary way.  It is very important that as you develop your essay that you physically visit the place: the essay to a large extent should draw upon the processes of becoming familiar with the chose location.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Climbing Down the Mountain and Into the Ruckus – A Newer Environmentalism

This is the first, introductory posting from our new DePaul Institute for Nature and Culture group blog.... click at the end of the page to visit.

Like many environmental researchers I started my career looking for nature in its purest, rawest form.  I thought I had found that in the 1980s in the Irish National Parks: in Killarney, Glenveagh, Wicklow and Connemara.  From the vantage point on these remote, lonely and, yes, very rainy parts of Ireland, all other Irish landscapes looked to be pretty thin ecological broth.  These other places – cities, towns, suburbs, farmland – were not the places in which nature, as I understood that word back then, could thrive; they was certainly not the places where a youngster looking for a experience of the wild should waste his time.

What I found in these National Parks was not, of course, wilderness in an unblemished sense.  Though terms like “pristine wilderness” pepper the promotional literature of the Parks, nevertheless, these are cultural landscapes in which people had lived, lands that previous generations had worked – timber was selectively removed from the forests, there is evidence of small scale mining strewn about the woods in Killarney, livestock was (and in some cases still is) still grazed on the mountainsides.  A walk along the deserted Old Kenmare Road in Killarney National Park is made lonelier and more poignant still by the presence of so-called lazy beds, where potato had been grown before the Irish Great Famine in the 1840s.  This is a park where the ghosts have just recently set aside their implements and they are no less interesting, it seems to me, because of their spectral qualities.

Read on here We plan for this to be an interactive as possible... don't hesitate to comment and join the conversation.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Abandoned Fields

We are bound across the quaking bog
By the mauve purgatory of heathers
And the dry stone-wall weathering
Of stonechats grinding out of fog.

Bound across all knowable time
By the fidgeting of rushes
Bearding the gaping sphagnum pool, the luscious
Fruit of the neglected crime.

I too fear the land
And its unyielding womb,
Dread it like the accursed tomb
Of a god that abandoned.

I think I primarily had in mind the Ceide Fields when I wrote this (a short piece of mine on this extraordinary archeological site here).  This is one from my unpublishable poem series which includes Elm Leaves, Tritych, Compassion, and I like the Way a Hand

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Vacancies in Environmental Science & Studies

Two tenure-track Assistant Professor openings in the Department of Environmental Science and Studies at DePaul University in Chicago, starting September 2012.

Plant Community Ecologist or Taxonomist familiar with Midwest flora to teach Plant Identification, Field Research Methods, general education courses in Environmental Science and upper level courses in his/her specialty. A research focus on biodiversity, applied studies and/or an urban emphasis and experience with multivariate statistics would be a plus.

Sustainability Scientist to teach Introduction to Sustainability, Ecological Economics, general education courses in Environmental Studies and upper level courses in his/her specialty. A candidate with a research emphasis in one or more of the following will be preferable: sustainable agriculture, green design, conservation psychology, or environmental health. An urban focus would be a plus.

Review of applications begins November 15. For more information go to

As an Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) employer, DePaul University provides job opportunities to qualified individuals without regard to race, color, ethnicity, religion, sex, sexual orientation, national origin, age, marital status, physical or mental disability, parental status, housing status, source of income or military status, in accordance with applicable federal, state and local EEO laws.

A Note on Nietzsche as a Wilderness Thinker

Nietzsche, retreated from the city (Basel) in 1879, retired from the habitual, and nurses upon wild things.  In this leave-taking and this suckling on the wild, Nietzsche can be identified as a writer of a particular tradition.   Alongside Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, Aldo Leopold, Edward Abbey (a truncated roster of influential writers on wilderness (and in some cases the Wild)), Nietzsche is an environmental writer in general, and a wilderness writer in particular. 

The tradition has some recognizable characteristics: a celebration of nature as special place and governed by special processes, a suspicion that these places and these processes intensively prevail elsewhere, a usefulness to seeking these out, a normative role for these places and processes.  The city is held in contempt. The wilderness writer needs solitude.  A deeper excavation reveals that this thinking as part of a declensionist tradition (things are NOT better now!).  This leads, not inevitably but invariably to negative suspicions about the human animal.  If remedies exist they exist in a return to a prior place, a prior time.  The wilderness writer can lead the way – the environmental writer has a priestly vocation; he (typically, he) can initiate us into natures’ secrets, and can (if we act right now) lead us to the altar to confess, (re)consecrate and (re)commune.

Monday, October 17, 2011

My latest 3quarks column: “Mental-Rental”™ – a Device to Destabilize Capitalism

I hastily submitted this patent last week to provide an effective tool to further our revolutionary aims. This simple invention provides a novel mechanism to assist the Occupy Wall Street movement in bringing the system to its knees.  Those who cannot march in the streets with Occupy Wall Street and yet who also inarguably  Hate the Man™ and want to Destabilize the Status Quo™ can foment radical change from the comfort of home by deploying Mental-Rental™. 

Read on here

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Does Ecology Need Philosophy?

I was very pleased to hear that my talk on 10 Things Wrong With Environmental Thinking (10TWWET) provoked some good classroom discussion at UIC earlier today.  I was not, of course, there to hear it and respond to comments, nor do I know specifically what issues were raised.  A pity!  Generally though, I can anticipate the sorts of questions the arguments I have been reviewing for this project provoke.

Before remarking on some of comments I have received on this work a word or two about the overall themes of the work.  Central premises of 10TWWET, and pretty incontrovertible ones I think, are that environmental thought has suffered from confusions about definitions of nature, confusion about the dynamics of nature, confusion about our place in nature, some suspicious hankerings after purity, after perfect origins, and it revels in drastic and usually self-defeating predictions about end times.  Environmental thought so disdains the conceptual and phenomenological messiness of human interactions with its world that it has become befuddled by its own special sauce of ontological, epistemological and metaphysical confusion.  It so disdains the mess of the world, that it mystifyingly has overlooked certain things in the world until fairly recently.  Ecologists, for instance, have been tripping over and through, and around some obvious objects in nature in an effort to get into the supposed “real” nature, that they have not noticed the things right in front of them.  Cities are just one example.  Nor do we have a very substantial ecology of use.  We are awfully good at shrinking from the world, as if this was the only response available to us.  This is why I claim that environmental solutions tend to make ascetics of all of us.  Only the dead have perfect ecological footprints.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

The Butterfly of Doom: Everything connected?

It is a banality of the ecological sciences to state that everything is connected. That ebullient Scot, and eventual stalwart of the American wilderness movement, John Muir, claimed, "When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe." And if such statements are employed to sponsor a notion that individual organisms cannot be regarded in isolation from those that they consume, and those that can consume them, or furthermore, that as a consequence of the deep intersections of the living and the never-alive, that there can been unforeseen consequences flowing from species additions or removals from ecosystems, then few may argue with this. However, just as the ripples of a stone dropped in a still pond propagate successfully only to its edges (though they may entrain delightful patterns in the finest of its marginal sands), not every ecological event has intolerably large costs to exact. True, if the dominoes line-up and the circumstances are just so, a butterfly’s wing beat over the Pacific may hurl a typhoon against its shores, but more often than not such lepidopterous catastrophes do not come to pass. Ecosystems, energized so that matter cycles and conjoins the living with the dead, have their lines of demarcation, borders defined by their internal interactions being more powerful than their external ones.  They are therefore buffered against many potentially contagious disasters.  This, of course, is the essence of resilience - the capacity of a system to absorb disturbance without disruption to habitual structure and function.  Ecology is as much the science investigating the limits of connections as it is the thought that everything is connected.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

The Environmental Monk In All of Us

I posted some of this before, but I am reading part of it at my UIC talk today so I thought I'd share if again.

If asceticism was simply a matter of self-mortification then we could claim that we have never lived in more ascetic times.  We diet to shed those dozens and dozens of unsightly pounds; some voluntarily submit to a surgical ablating of the flesh for the purposes of fabricating the perfect nose; our star athletes allegedly undergo a period of sexual continence before the big game; some of you may even gallop on scorching days for distances in excess of twenty-six miles, for no better reason than to replicate the achievement of the first person to die from that feat.  And in general terms the definition of the ascetic as a person who practices “rigorous self-discipline, severe abstinence, austerity”, might tempt us to smuggle the more excessive of these modern deprivations under the definitional bar.  However, the OED qualifies the definition by pointing out that asceticism aims are achieved “by seclusion or by abstinence from creature comforts”.  Furthermore, the term derives etymologically from the Greek asketikos, meaning monk or hermit and more generally the root term is ascesis – the practice of self discipline, or exercise.  If, in the final analysis, the contemporary mortifications listed above seem to fall short of being ascetic, why might we, in contrast, regard environmentalism as fundamentally so?

To use the life of Simeon Stylites as a point of comparison with environmental thought and practice may be a challenging place to start to make a case that environmentalism is foundationally ascetic.  Certainly there are more temperate ascetics, ones who like St Antony of Egypt (231-356 AD) traveled to the wilds there to meditatively dally, but after decades alone returned to society, at least in the sense of taking many disciples under his care.  In other words, there are ascetics whose practice might be more appropriately compared to Thoreau’s sojourn at Walden Pond.  Perhaps one might compare tree-stylites like John Muir perched in a storm-tossed Douglas Spruce or Julia Butterfly Hill residing in her California Redwood to the ascetic sadhus of India, who, practicing what is called urdhamukhi, dangle out of trees.  In the case of Hill, she lasted two years; as for the Muir and the sadhus, the latter who dangle upside-down, their tree dwelling lasted a matter of hours.  And so on; one might look for a milder ascetic counterpart for Robinson Jeffers dyspepsia concerning his fellows, preferring you’ll recall, to “sooner, except the penalties, kill a man than a hawk”; one for Ed Abbey’s hilarious but curmudgeonly defense of  inaccessibility for Arches National Monument in Desert Solitaire; one for Paul Ehrlich’s discomfort in an ancient Indian taxi (“People visiting, arguing and screaming…. defecating and urinating”) prompting his writing of The Population Bomb; counterparts even for the simple-living needed for ecological footprint reduction, for the belt-tightening required by sustainability, and for the meat-eschewing dicta of environmental vegetarianism.  In all of these examples there is a whiff of asceticism but none requires the foot ulcerating commitment of standing on a pillar for decades.