Friday, November 14, 2014

Why the Scientist Has No Home Library: Heidegger Predicts the Structure of our Contemporary University

At the height of his apparent incredulity over the transformation of the traditional scholar into “the research man”, best exemplified by the modern scientist, Heidegger notes that this person “no longer needs a library at home.”

This is not merely because the frenetic life of the research man who is “constantly on the move”, attending conferences, negotiating book deals in collaboration with publishing houses and so forth.  It is also because of the very nature of the modern scientific enterprise whose essence is research, the essence of which in turn consist of a knowing that “establishes itself in as a procedure.” Science moves ahead in institutions singularly committed to the implementation of the procedural busyness of contemporary science.  Thus the home library is dispensed with because research can find no home in a private domicile.

The university, where the researcher can find a home increasingly, will become, Heidegger predicts in his  Contributions to Philosophy (Of the Event) 1936-1938, “sheer business establishments” in which “the last vestiges of cultural decoration” (the humanities and arts, for example) are retained for “only as long as the must.”

[Martin Heidegger. The Age of the World Picture. [1938] William Lovitt (trans. & editor). The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays]

Thursday, October 2, 2014

"Biodiversity Conservation on a Largely Urban Planet: Is Anything Working?"

"Please save the date for the Autumn Quarter CSH College meeting and Dr. Liam Heneghan’s research presentation. As the recipient of the 2014 CSH Excellence in Research Award, Liam will give a talk with highlights from his significant contributions to his field.

THIS COMING Wednesday October 8 from3:15-5:15PM in McGowan South 108
Reception to follow from 5:15-6:15 in the McGowan South Atrium"

Let me know if you care to come along....

My talk has the title: "Biodiversity Conservation on a Largely Urban Planet: Is Anything Working?"

Monday, September 29, 2014

And the Liffey It Stank Like Hell

It says something about a city, I suppose, when there is heated debate over who first labeled it a dirty place. The phrase “dear dirty Dublin”, used as a badge of defiant honor in Ireland’s capital to this day, is often erroneously attributed to James Joyce. Joyce used the term in Dubliners (1914) a series of linked short stories about that city and its denizens. But the phase goes back at least to early nineteenth century and the literary circle surrounding Irish novelist Sydney Owenson (Lady Morgan) who remains best known for her novel The Wild Irish Girl (1806) which extols the virtues of wild Irish landscapes, and the wild, though naturally dignified, princess who lived there. Compared to the fresh wilderness of the Irish West, Dublin would have seemed dirty indeed.

The city into which I was born more than a century later was still a rough and tumble place. It was also heavily polluted. This was Dublin of the 1970s.

My earliest memories of the city center come from trips I took to my father’s office in Marlborough St, just north of the River Liffey which bisects the city. My father would take an eccentric route into the city, the “back ways” as he would call them, which though not getting us to the destination as promptly as he advertised, had the benefit of bringing us on a short tour of the city and its more unkempt quarters.

My father’s cars themselves were masterpieces of dereliction. Purchased when they were already in an advanced stage of decay, he would nurse them aggressively till their often fairly prompt demise. One car that he was especially proud of, a Volkswagen Type III fastback, which had its engine to the rear, developed transmission problems and its clutch failed. His repair consisted of a chord dangling over his shoulder and crossing the back seat into the engine. A tug at a precisely timed moment would shift the gears. A shoe, attached to the end of the chord and resting on my father’s shoulder, aided the convenient operation of this system. That car, like most the others in those less regulated times, was also a marvel of pollution generation, farting out clouds of blue-black exhaust which added to the billowy haze of leaded fumes issuing from the other disastrously maintained vehicles, all shuddering in and out of the city’s congested center at the beginning at end of each work day.

A route into the city that I especially liked took us west of the city center, and as we approached Christ Church Cathedral I would open the window to smell the roasting of the barley which emanated from the Guinness brewery in Liberties region of the city, down by the Liffey. Very promptly I would wind up the window again as we crossed over the bridge, since the reek of that river was legendarily bad.
The Irish playwright Brendan Behan wrote in his memoir Confessions of an Irish Rebel (1965), “Somebody once said that ‘Joyce has made of this river the Ganges of the literary world,’ but sometimes the smell of the Ganges of the literary world is not all that literary.”

Friday, August 15, 2014

Childish Things: the Impact of Children on the Environment: A note.

By Liam Heneghan

From where I write I can hear young kids goofing around in the playground beside our house. Glancing over I see one small boy heap wood-chips into the bed of a toy truck and rumble it across the lot.  A cluster of children surround a bucket and with small shovels fill it with sand. One of their pals removes some of the sand from the bucket and reinstalls it away to the side of the dig.  No one seems to care.  At the west fence of the lot a boy and girl, both about four or so, are deep in conversation. The boys arms are folded, the girl sits on a tricycle and instructs him on some matter or another; the boy looks incredulous as if he simply can’t believe what he is hearing.  Another girl runs over to their care-giver sitting on the periphery, leans over her legs and receives an encouraging pat on the back. The little girl skips away.

This small troop of children are gentling transforming the environment of the tot-lot. Small changes to be sure. Ones that will be corrected before they leave the playground for the day.  The sand will be returned to the small mound to the south of the lot, the wood chips will all be swept back into place.  The toys will be returned to their shelter. The lot restored, the kids leave for the day.

Kids have, seemingly, a perfectly manageable impact on their immediate environment. That which is disordered can be set to rights at the end of the day. But the total environmental impact of kids may be considerably larger than it appears at first glance. This is because a total reckoning of the ecological costs associated with childhood would take into account the environmental impact of providing for the food, shelter, clothing, transportation and other material needs of children and of disposing of their waste. Measured in this way the impacts can be surprisingly large.

To evaluate the full environmental impacts of children, researchers working with a kindergarten school located on the grounds of the University of Queensland calculated the ecological footprint associated with the seventy five kids attending that school. An ecological footprint is a measure of demand on the Earth and is calculated as the amount of land required to provide for human needs. It is reported in a unit called a “global hectare”. Global hectares are a unit of area that takes into account difference in biological productivity between area. For the students at the Queensland school, 40 global hectares was needed to support their physical needs. Thus, although the physical footprint of that school, like most schools, is fairly small, the land needed to sustain the kids and absorb their environmental waste is vastly greater: it is almost 80 times the size of the school.

An appreciation of the environmental impacts of children is emerging and, as we have seen, it is not inconsiderable. The extent of children’s impact is not, for the most part, something that kids have control over.  Parents, of course, make the most consequential decisions on their kid’s behalf: where they live, what stuff they can have, how they spend their time.  Eventually, though, those carefree kids playing in the tot-lot will make their own decisions, and, invariably their impact on their surrounding world will grow.  Those childhood games in the tot-lot of moving sand, digging and filling-in holes, and all those small rearrangements of the land will be games no longer, and will be on a grander scale. The kids will put away childish things, and taking up the implements of adulthood, they will greatly expand their footprints.

Ref: Heidi McNichol, Julie Margaret Davis & Katherine R. O’Brien An ecological footprint for an early learning centre: identifying opportunities for early childhood sustainability education through interdisciplinary research. Environmental Education Research Volume 17, Issue 5, 2011

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Moral algebra and the life of children

If your moral algebra has the death of children on one side of an equation and you can come up with any terms on the other side of that equation that ease your conscience then you need to think again. This was true in Northern Ireland, true for Hamas, true for Israel, true for all time, true for all places. Fuck this thinking.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

#1000 Urban Miles: An Invitation to walk in the Praeger spirit

Photo by Emily Walsh
It’s possible that you don’t know what walking is, what walking can accomplish, until you have walked a distance across a mountainy bog in Ireland. In the rain.

Earlier this summer, accompanied by a colleague and by 14 of our students from DePaul University in Chicago, I followed in the footsteps of the great Irish naturalist and walker Robert Lloyd Praeger (1885-1953). Praeger, an amateur naturalist and one-time Head Librarian of Ireland’s National Library, traversed Ireland in the late 19th and early 20th centuries mapping the vegetation of that moist and verdant island. More than 60 years after his death he remains Ireland’s most influential botanist; an influence that derives not only the prodigiousness of his output (over 800 scientific papers and articles and 24 books) but in his advocacy for the basic methodology of the naturalist’s trade: walking. He hiked on foot across the countryside looking for hidden marvels.

Our hiking this summer along Praeger’s routes culminated in a trailless hike in the western park of Killarney National Park, a 102.9-square-kilometre reserve of wooded and boggy mountainside. Accompanied by park educator Chris Barron we took boats across the famous Lakes of Killarney and commenced our walk by leaping from the vessels as far as we could across the ooze where the bogland met the water. Only one one of the students lost footwear, and as we retrieved the boots from the slime she hopped onto only slightly more secure ground.

The walk wound up along a valley adjacent to the peak of the Eagle’s Nest Mountain. No eagles existed there for over one hundred years until white-tailed eagles were re-introduced to the park in 2007. This day we were greeted by a peregrine falcon who bolted out from the peak and into a stone-gray sky. We walked on through the lovely, though rarely visited, Eamonn’s Woods. Here oaks hunker down like resting giants surveying lonely terrain. We broke for lunch in a small landscape called Glaisín na Marbh, a name that translates, somewhat terrifyingly, as "little stream of the dead." It is so called because the few families that lived at the base of the stream died off during the Great Famine (1845-49). There is an unmarked famine grave in the vicinity, which may now be covered in a pavement of scree that tumbled down when the stream was in winter riot the year before. It says something about the remoteness of the region that the ground was not consecrated until more recent times when a priest made the hike into this part of the National Park.

Read on here 

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Super Awkward Music Time (Playlist for my Study Abroad in Ireland)

Links are to Youtube clips of music (with an occasional poem)

Martin Hayes (and Dennis Cahill).  Martin Hayes (born 13 November 1961) is a fiddler, born in Maghera (between Feakle and Tulla) in East County Clare, Ireland, and now living in West Hartford, Connecticut. He has been the All Ireland Fiddle Champion six times... (Wikipedia)

Mary Bergin was born in Shankill, County Dublin, Ireland. Her parents Joe and Máire were melodeon and fiddle players, respectively. Mary started learning to play the tin whistle at the age of nine. Bergin won the All Ireland tin whistle championship in 1970. (Wikipedia)

Caitlín Maude (1941 – 1982) was an Irish poet, teacher, actress and traditional singer.

Padraic Colum (8 December 1881 – 11 January 1972) an Irish poet, novelist, and dramatist and folklorist. He was one of the leading figures of the Irish Literary Revival.

Horselips  are an Irish Celtic rock band that compose, arrange and perform songs based on traditional Irish jigs and reels. The group are regarded as 'founding fathers of Celtic rock. (Wikipedia)

Luke Kelly (singing Raglan Road). Luke Kelly (Irish: Lúc Ó Ceallaigh; 17 November 1940 – 30 January 1984) was an Irish singer and folk musician from Dublin, Ireland, notable as a founding member of the band The Dubliners. He is often considered Ireland's greatest folk singer of the 20th century. (Wikipedia)

Táim Sínte ar do Thuama  (version in Irish); I Am Stretched on Your Grave (by Scullion)

Seamus Heaney (here and here)

Planxty  Planxty is an Irish folk music band formed in January 1972,[1]:99–100 consisting initially of Christy Moore (vocals, acoustic guitar, bodhrán), Andy Irvine (vocals, mandolin, mandola, bouzouki, hurdy-gurdy, harmonica), Dónal Lunny (bouzouki, guitars), and Liam O'Flynn (uilleann pipes, tin whistle). They quickly revolutionized and popularized Irish folk music, touring and recording to great acclaim. (Wikipedia)

Seosamh Ó hÉanaí ( AKA Joe Éinniú; English, Joe Heaney) (15 October 1919 – 1 May 1984) was an Irish traditional (sean nós) singer from County Galway, Ireland. He spent most of his adult life abroad, living in England, Scotland and New York city, in the course of which he recorded hundreds of songs. (Wikipedia)

This is a partial list

Monday, June 2, 2014

A short reverie of urban greenspace reduced aggressive feeling, enhanced playfulness and peacefulness.

This is, of course, a study done on a modest scale.  The fuller, more comprehensive study is under-way. But results, such as the one above reports on, that I have conducted in classes at DePaul over the years have been unwavering in their direction: a reverie of a place with a profusion of vegetation always alters self-reported feelings of energy, aggression, playfulness, peacefulness, and general satisfaction with life.  Perhaps most surprisingly students dreaming of green score better on a numerical riddle!

Added: Since some of my colleagues in the environmental social sciences are emphatically pointing out the limitations of this "study" I'd like to emphatically concur that this is indeed a limited study (I'd never have made greater claims on its behalf!).  There is a small number of subjects, the students are in an urban ecology class etc.  That being said (and this is not to undercut an acknowledgment of the studies limitations) these observations were made, and these are the results.  The observations underscore the sorts of results that others have made on the implications of green space for human well-being (meant here in a very general way).  It should be used, perhaps, as a point of departure for examining these other more comprehensive studies.

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Let us not rise from the earth too soon...

Let us not rise from the earth too soon.
Let us stretch upon the ground.
Let is bear witness to the soil.
Soil that dark, infernal, moldering, bewildering, aquatically capacious,
partially aerated, partially living, stubbornly inorganic, endlessly textured,
complexly aggregating, fractally creviced, indigestible, host to the dead,
cradle to decomposing things, suffocatrix of life and yet, for all of this, ultimately sustainer of life.

May 2014

Monday, April 28, 2014

#1000UrbanMiles—Where Have We Gone, What Have We Seen?

A little over a year ago, in March 2013, I sat day after day in the library of the Royal Irish Academy in Dublin and sifted through the archival records of Robert Lloyd Praeger (1865–1953), the most prominent Irish naturalist of his generation. Examining Praeger’s reprints, his hand-written manuscripts, letters to his wife Hedwig (“Meine Hedie”), his correspondence with botanical colleagues, his Zenith watch, notices from his landlord, newspaper clippings, numerous draft illustrations for his books, and so on, I learned three significant things about “Ireland’s Linnaeus.” First was the extent of Praeger’s walking in the Irish countryside; second, his interest in the urban environment (atypical for a naturalist of his times); and third, the sheer magnitude of the written reflection prompted by his fieldwork.

Over the months following my visit to Dublin, I read—or in many cases re-read—Praeger’s work and gained a fresh appreciation of the extent of Praeger’s travel around Ireland. Lengthy field days traveled largely on foot. The magnitude of these peregrinations becomes clear when one considers the footwork undertaken in order to write Irish Topographical Botany (1901), Praeger’s comprehensive account of Irish plant distribution. In each of the summers in the last half decade of the 1890s, Praeger walked one thousand miles throughout the Irish countryside, his vasculum in hand, plucking and storing plants as he went, sorting his collections only at the end of arduous days. With this renewed appreciation of both what Praeger achieved and how he achieved it (on foot, and with patience), I resolved to walk one thousand miles of my own in the year ahead.

Read on here

Monday, April 7, 2014

Good Day DePaul coverage on St. Patrick Biocidal Lunatic or Ecologist?

Terraforming Mars: Let's dream awesome and terrifying things together.

A small working group of us of us plan on reading the literature on terraforming Mars.  If you care to join us our first meeting is tomorrow at 9 am in McGowan S 204, and we will meet regularly during the quarter.  By terraforming is meant the deliberate manipulation of planetary systems so that the planet becomes inhabitable by humans.  We do not assume that this is necessarily an ethical thing to do, nor, however, do we dismiss it out of hand.

If our little group is successful we envision doing some research on the topic in the months (and years ahead).

This is not science fiction folks.... it is however still a task for the imagination.  Let's dream awesome and terrifying things together.

My suspicion is that in 10 years times many dozens of people will claim that they were at our inaugural meeting. Make sure that you don't have to tell a planet sized lie.

Hit me up at if you are coming along

Leopold's Shack 5 April 2013; Baraboo, WI

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Was St Patrick a Biocidal Lunatic? Some Sober Reflections on Ireland's Patron Saint and Snakes

Like a Noah in reverse St Patrick kicked snakes off the rain-drenched ark of Ireland. So complete was his mystical sterilization of the land that seven hundred years later in his Topographia Hibernica (1187) Gerald of Wales could write: “There are neither snakes nor adders, toads nor scorpions nor dragons… It does appear wonderful that, when anything venomous is brought there from foreign lands, it never could exist in Ireland.” Indeed, even as late as the 1950s the Irish naturalist Robert Lloyd Praeger wrote, “The belief that “venomous” animals – which term included toad, frogs, lizards, slow worms and harmless as well as poisonous snakes – did not and could not flourish in Ireland, owing to St Patrick’s ban, long held sway, and possibly is not yet extinct.” (Natural History of Ireland (1950))

Snakes, however, are not the only species that can be found in Britain or continental Europe while being entirely absent from Ireland. Moles, several species of bats, many bird species, including the Tawny Owl, several titmouse species, and woodpeckers, innumerable insects species, many plants, and so on, might be added to the roster of St Patrick bio-vandalism. Of course, biogeographers have long known that the impoverished nature of the Irish biota is attributable to a number of factors unrelated to St Patrick.

Firstly, Ireland is a relatively small island with an area of 84,421 km² compared to Great Britain which is almost three times the size (229,848 km²). The European land area is considerable larger still being over one hundred times that of Ireland’s (at 10.18 million km²). Now, one of ecology’s more robust laws posits a relationship between area and species diversity. The more land, the more species. A consideration of the relatively restricted latitudinal range of Ireland in comparison to Europe intuitively suggests why Ireland must have fewer species. For example, since Ireland does not have a considerable southern stretch it has no Mediterranean zone, though it does have an enigmatic “Lusitanian flora” found disjunctly in Ireland and in North Spain and Portugal. This includes a saxifrage commonly known as St Patrick's Cabbage, but, the component to Irish vegetation is rare indeed. Nor does Ireland have tundra habit, though, of course, it can be get chilly there at times.

Secondly, the present day biota of Ireland was assembled largely after the the glaciers of the Last Ice Age retreated. Although there may be some relicts of those formerly icy time, for example the Irish Arctic char, an apparently delicious trout-like fish, which is found in some Irish upland lakes, most Irish wildlife migrated there over the past several thousands of years.

Read on at 3quarksdaily 

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Who’s Afraid of Walter Mitty?

IN THOSE DAYS, over 30 years past, when it was not unusual in Dublin bookshops for patrons to discuss books with each other, a youth not very much older than I was at the time told me that James Thurber's writing was “total shite.” I glowered, bought My World and Welcome to It (1942), and shuffled out onto Nassau Street with the book stuffed into a paper bag. I was mainly interested in the pictures anyway.

By that time I was already fairly progressed in my reading of Thurber, who was a favorite of my father’s and consequently whose books, some of them at least, were strewn about the house. My mother claimed that Thurber was the only writer that made had her laugh out loud on a Dublin bus. Thurber’s best known story The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, which had first appeared in The New Yorker in 1939, was assigned reading for Ireland’s intermediate certificate English course (the “intercourse” as we called it), the national curriculum for students aged 12 to 15 years old. The story was therefore known to most Irish youth.

I have been rereading Thurber in recent months, more than 35 years after I first encountered him, partly in anticipation of the release of Ben Stiller’s film version of the Walter Mitty story, and partly because I had picked up a copy of the excellent compilation of Thurber’s Writings and Drawings (1996) in the Library of America series. In the intervening years since my early reading of Thurber I lived for a long time in the United States, first in New York, then a brief stint in Georgia, and now in Chicago where it snows a lot. Having more familiarity with locations and situations that once seemed exotic and urbane to me, at least when viewed from Dublin in the 1970s, I can now assess Thurber’s work with more culturally attuned eyes and significantly older ones.

Read on at the LA Review of Books (here)

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Thoreau's Body of Knowledge

Walking is a foundational practice, amounting in natural history to methodology. Charles Darwin in his Journal and remarks 1832–1836 more commonly known as The Voyage of the Beagle (1839) used the verb “walk”, or variants thereof, almost twice as frequently as the verb “sail” (walk, 94; sail 50). Darwin’s was more a journey on foot than a voyage by ocean. In fact “walking” is more prevalent in Darwin’s Voyages than it is in Walden, written by Thoreau that most legendary walker. Thoreau, however, has more to say about walking qua walking than Darwin. In his essay Walking (1862) Thoreau proclaimed that “I cannot preserve health and spirits, unless I spend four hours a day — and it is commonly more than that — sauntering through the woods and over the hills and fields, absolutely free from all worldly engagements.”

Thoreau’s walking is not, of course, mere exercise, nor is the essay Walking an instructional treatise though it does tell us something of the where (”the West”) and the how (“...shake off the village...”) of walking. The chiefest value of walking is that it carries the walker “to as strange a country as [he] ever expected to see.” Walking surprises us! Though half our walking time is taken up with the return to “the old hearth-side from which we set out”, nonetheless, the true spirit of walking consists of “the spirit of undying adventure”, from which we might never return.

For all of his talk of permanent leave-taking there is Thoreau claimed, a “harmony discoverable between the capabilities of the landscape and a circle of ten miles radius, or the limits of an afternoon walk, and the threescore years and ten of human life.” Thus there exists for Thoreau a non-trivial relationship between walking, our personal finitude, and finding our place in this world.

Read on here

Monday, January 13, 2014

A Most Apocalyptic Century

It's not just environmentalist that are given to gloomy thoughts.  Or perhaps environmentalists have a bigger impact on the culture than that are given credit for!

Here I have graphed the number of apocalyptic movies per year since the 1950s.  This decade is just building up a head of stream.  I'll be asking my students to discuss this today.... what does it all mean.

The data is here: List of Apocalyptic Movies.  It'd be useful to express the data as a proportion of the number of movies made each year (using the databases upon which the wikipedia list draws). 

Friday, January 10, 2014

Cemetery Poem

For Kathleen Keane

In the sleet I could not play tin whistle to the dead,
This dusk it was the dead who accompanied me instead.
/10 January 2014