Thursday, August 22, 2013

The One Thousand Urban Miles Challenge

Between 1896 and 1900 the Irish naturalist Robert Lloyd Praeger (1865 – 1953) walked a total of 5000 miles (approximately 20 miles a day for 50 days of field work each year) in the production of his monograph Irish Topographical Botany (1901).  In the coming year I am proposing to walk a thousand mile in the same meditative, attuned, way that Praeger did, but instead of tramping around the spongy ground of Irish bogs and mountainsides, I am proposing to do so in Chicago.  Certainly some of this walking will be in "natural" areas around Chicago (including several of our 100 sites areas) but for the most part these excursions will be to several Chicago neighborhoods that interest me.

A number of colleagues at DePaul and friends have expressed an interest in doing the same. Some will do so in Chicago, some in other cities. If this intrigues you enough to give it a go, let me know. It might be an interesting collective project.  I'm starting a blog to keep track of our progress.  You are free to share progress reports on this site.  More on this soon.

A cost of ecology becoming more experimental?

Ecology as a scientific discipline has become more experimental, more quantitative, and more concerned with investigating phenomena in the highly controlled environments of laboratory microcosms, the greenhouses, and under closely regulated field conditions. There are excellent reasons for this: having accumulated a tremendous amount of information about the distribution and abundance of organisms on Earth, it is useful to evaluate hypotheses about the processes regulating populations and ecological communities, and the ecosystems processes that connect them.  But what are the costs associated with this approach, especially since it superseded the more traditional approaches of natural history? 

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

A hero in the matter of walking

Robert Lloyd Praeger, the celebrated Irish naturalist, had a hero in the matter of walking. This was the naturalist and literary scholar Henry Chichester Hart (1847–1908). From May 1875 till October 1876 Hart served as naturalist on HMS Discovery on an expedition to the North Pole, though they returned without having made it to the North Pole. At home in Ireland Hart was know for his vigorous walking.  In 1889 on a wager of £50 from Richard Manliffe Barrington (1849–1915), he walked about seventy-five miles from Dublin to the summit of Lugnaquilla, the highest mountain in Co. Wicklow, and back again in a single 24 hour period. Praeger recorded another episode, one that remains celebrated in Irish naturalists’ circles. Hart met one day with Barrington, for a day’s botanizing near the Powerscourt Waterfall in Wicklow.  The day was wet, of course, and both naturalists were soon soaked to the skin, and yet both men walked in silence. Hart took to walking through the briars and long grasses to discourage Barrington.  In response Barrington walked into the river, sat down, and commenced to eat his lunch.  Wordlessly, Hart did the same and both sat until they were drenched.   Barrington is usually described as having being delicate, at least as a child.  I heard this story first from David Bellamy, the botanist, when he visited Dublin in the 1980s.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Ten Meditations on sitting

1. On 16 June 1904 before leaving his home at 78 Eccles Street, Dublin, Leopold Bloom sat and took one of most momentous and leisurely shits in literature. Joyce reported: “Asquat on the cuckstool he folded out his paper.” Bloom browsed a while, then “midway, his last resistance, yielding he allowed his bowels to ease themselves quietly, as he read.” A significant portion of those people from whom I recently solicited information on their favorite sitting places side with Bloom on this one. They confide this seated pleasure as if it was their secret alone. My father, in contrast, claims his favorite place to sit was beside the Minister for Education in the Irish Dail (parliament) during question time. My mother’s sitting drinking coffee in front of The Colosseum. Mine is on the Old Kenmare Road, near Killarney, my back against a rock, facing the mountains, bog cotton fidgeting,a stream murmuring in the middle distance.
8. In a 2004 study six aesthetic plastic surgeons impartially examined 1320 photographs of nude women in “different postures and actions” and examined the buttocks of 132 female patients to assess for “signs” of buttock beauty. They reported four independent characteristics in the gluteal region that indicated excellently attractive buttocks: a lateral depression, infragluteal fold, supragluteal fossettes, and a V-shaped crease. The results, reported in the journal Aesthetic Plastic Surgery (28:340-347), were published with a helpful photograph illustrating the consistent features of the perfect ass. The role of the buttocks in sitting is neglected in this otherwise comprehensive work, but helpfully surgeons are recommended to mark where the buttocks rest while sitting to avoid injury to vessels and nerves.

Read em all here

Monday, August 19, 2013

Reading List for Human Impacts Class (sophomore majors)

Masters of the Planet: The Search for Our Human Origins Ian Tattersall ISBN-10: 1137278307

Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England William Cronon ISBN: 978-0809016341

The Tree Where Man Was Born Peter Matthiessen Publisher: Penguin Classics; Revised edition (August 31, 2010) ISBN-10: 0143106244

Resilience Thinking: Sustaining Ecosystems and People in a Changing World By Brian Walker PhD and David Salt ISBN: 978-1597260930

Reading list for Introduction to Environmental Studies (Mars flavoured)

This is an introductory level Environmental Studies course. The idea is to use discussion of the colonization and terraforming of Mars as a lens through which to think about the environment of our solar systems and to sharpen our discussions of environmental ethics and of technological solutions to our problems on the home planet.  I am agnostic on the value of a manned mission to Mars.

Let's see how this one goes!

Red Mars (Mars Trilogy) Kim Stanley Robinson

The Origin of Species: Charles Darwin

Wilderness and the American Mind Roderick Frazier Nash

The Case for Mars: The Plan to Settle the Red Planet and Why We Must Robert Zubrin

Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life: A Philosophical Inquiry Albert Borgmann

The Sunflower Forest: Ecological Restoration and the New Communion with Nature William R. Jordan

We Yevgeny Zamyatin

Beasts at bedtime

My latest essay in Aeon magazine:

There are times when I’m Skyping with my father that, for a moment or so, I confuse his image on the screen with mine. We are both grey-haired and bearded now, and though his facial wrinkles are more deltaic than mine, the resemblance between us is close enough to fool me briefly. After all, in my first memories of him, he was fully eight times my age. Now that gap has shrunk, and he is less than twice as old as me. But for the saving graces of some sort of Zeno’s paradox of ageing, I might catch up with him soon.

My first memories of my father are of him reading to me. Or rather, they are of him reading to all of us, his children, seven pages each, in turn. In the earliest memories, there were three of us, later six. We would be in my sisters’ room, tucked in, with me at the tail end of my sister Anne’s bed. Clare, the eldest, was first, then Anne, and then me, each of us indifferent to the stories read to the others. Clare pulled on his earlobe, sucked her thumb, and listened. By the time my turn came, he was often sleepy but, if he nodded off, we prodded him back to his duties. I can still recall some of those early reads. There was Ben Ross Berenberg’s The Churkendoose (1946), an unfortunate creature, ambiguously part chicken, turkey, duck, and goose. There was Noel Barr’s Ned the Lonely Donkey (1952), the farmyard beast that does his best to make friends. There were also rhyming stories, bird books, and evocative tales of prehistoric giants.

Some years later, my teacher, Mr O’Leary, would read J R R Tolkien’s The Hobbit (1937) in school as a reward for good behaviour. I was enchanted by the story, so my father bought me a copy, and it became the first to give me that distinctive pride that comes from possessing a special book. From my reading of The Hobbit I date my love of woodlands, a love that has shaped much of my life. Two decades later, I read to my eldest child from that same special copy.

Those bedtime stories, read in the crevices of the day’s end, were meant to prepare us for a night of that twitching repose that passes for childhood sleep. But looking back on them now, the nightly stories also irrigated our imaginations, preparing us for the day that followed. They steadied us for the small tribulations of school, and primed us for expeditions to the outdoors of garden and neighbourhood and, during the weekends at least, our visits to the beaches of Dublin.

Read on at Aeon

Beyond Science Fiction: Nature in the City and Our Ethical Future

Discussions of the twenty-first century remain primarily about the future. If dystopian science fiction serves as our guide, then it is clear that the future is already here. In Yevgeny Zamyatin’s classic Russian science fiction novel We, published in 1921, the novel that inspired George Orwell’s 1984, our narrator, the engineer D-503, describes a futuristic world, One State, that hums with mathematical precision. It is one where, supposedly at least, people have nothing to conceal from one another. They live surrounded by transparent walls through which the “Guardians” can observe them. They compliantly surveil each other. This is a domain without privacy, without freedom, and also, not coincidentally, without nature.

For all of that, the earth as D-503 describes it is a beautiful shining thing. This beautiful shining earth is, however, largely confined beyond yet another translucent wall, the Great Wall, that separates One State from the world of nature beyond. Perhaps it is just as well: the atavisms of nature no longer appeal in this future. D-503 reports that he is “unable to find anything beautiful in flowers, or in anything else that belongs to the lower kingdom which now exists only beyond the Great Wall. Only rational and useful things are beautiful: machines, boots, formulae, food etc.” D-503 even regrets the hairiness of his hands! That being said, D-503, when we meet him, is troubled by unbidden thought. Irrational numbers haunt him. He is roused, though only slightly, from his conformist slumbers by the unruly behavior of the women in his life, and becomes aware of a plot to tear down the Great Wall reintegrating the life outside the wall with the moribund one within. Though ultimately, and involuntarily, he betrayed that revolution, parts of the wall come down as the story ends. Birds fly into One State.

Read on at the Center for Humans and Nature site