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  The reflections are very preliminary and have not been peer-reviewed.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.