Newsletter Index for 2020

I managed to produce twelve issues of my newsletter, DH News Presents: each month a grab bag of writings about nature, conservation, science and wonder, with a good dose of humor thrown in.

Headlines for each of the twelve issues follow below, as well as the revolving DH title. The entire archive can be found here. If you’re not yet a subscriber I’d love to have you on the list (at that link or here).

1. The Drafty House: After the Forest, Deforestation Worsening, Word of the Day, Where the River Begins, Mary Oliver: 1935 – 2019, Clarification, Meme of the Day, Gleanings, Fermat’s Last Poem, Website News

2. The Dancing Hand: Calendar of Events, Did You Know, Today’s Image, The Year the Monarch Didn’t Appear, Homero Gomez Gonzalez, There’s a Word for That, Whale Migration, Whales in the News, Have You Ever, Good Fortune

3. The Dreaming Heron: Image of the Day, Upcoming Events, Walking With Trees, Rhino Poaching in South Africa, Stopping in the Woods, Quote of the Day, My Orchid, Nature’s Best Hope

4. The Dented Halo: Upcoming Events, My Orchid II, Nativeplantfinder, The 16th of September, A Strange Thing, The Bird of the Mind, Diary of a Russian Cosmonaut, Meme of the Day

5. The Dapper Herd: Upcoming Events, Called to Look Outside at the Beautiful Night Sky I Stared Up at the Crescent Moon and Venus in Silence Then Texted My Siblings to Look and They Did From So Far Away, An Update on Comet Atlas, Quote of the Day I, A Walk Around Ponkapoag Pond as an Homage to Some Long Titles Found in Ancient Chinese Poems, Long Titles, Homegrown National Park, Long Titles II, Quote of the Day II

6. The Damned Hero: Announcements, Mercury!, What Snails Talk About When They Get Together, Today’s Image, Bird Feeding: Astounding Numbers, Coronavirus Questions, The River Santa, The Greatest Day, Brief Poem of the Day

7. The Dark Hotel: Dedication, Sightings, A Brief Record of My 4-Day Stay in the Berkshires, Today’s Image, An Evening Walk in the Berkshires, A Moment of Sadness, What To Do If You Get Cornered at a Cocktail Party By a String Theorist, Meme of the Day

8. The Divine Hellos: Announcements, Sightings, Moonviewing from the White Road at Lake Champlain, My Orchid III, Possible Reasons I Like Ferns So Much, The Nights of the Comet, A Line I Wish I Wrote, Another Universe

9. The Droll Harbor: Announcements, Sightings, Kayaking the Charles River, And Then There’s This Lovely Story, Answers to Neruda’s Questions, Neruda Question Contest, From the Cutting Room Floor, Looking for Old Trees

10. The Dubious Hat: Announcements, Sightings, The Highs and Lows of Gardening, Life on Venus? Life on Mars? Do Loons Call Only at Night?, Word of the Day, Looking for Old Trees II

11. The Daily Howl:  Announcements, Sightings/Soundings, A Japanese Garden in Vermont, October Hammock, The Tree on My Block, Letter to an Old Friend, A Love Letter, Life on Venus II, Life on Zoom,  Halloween 2020’s Scariest Costumes, My Orchid IV

12. The Deluxe Hug: Announcements, Sightings, DH News 2020, My Orchid V, 2020: Making the Best of a Bad Situation, The 12 Days of COVID Christmas, New Year’s Eve, Havana, 2004

Looking for Old Trees

Here’s a segment from my essay “A Week in the Wild at Medawisla” from the Winter/Spring 2020 issue of Appalachia journal that never made it into the published version:

Sometimes the rug gets pulled out from underneath you. All week I had been looking at the forests and wondering about them. From the ponds, they were an impressive, unbroken, roiling ocean of green, but when I walked through the trees and saw their small and medium size, I was sorry they weren’t more impressive. A book I picked up in Medawisla’s lounge, “Reading the Forested Landscape: A Natural History of New England” by Tom Wessels discussed the history of logging and I was struck by the loss of the white pine. White pine, now on their second or third growth in the area, used to be the giants of the East Coast, towering 150-feet or more above the ground. A grove of white pine, let alone a single tree, would be an awe-inspiring site. I couldn’t imagine it.

And then I saw one.

Late on a humid afternoon in Boston, I decided to drive to Walden Pond for a swim. Afterwards, I was in an exploratory mood, so on my way into Concord, I decided to visit the Hapgood Wright Town Forest. I had been by it many times, but never stopped to visit. To my surprise, a map of the forest had an “x” for a site labeled “Old Growth Pine.” A brochure said it was 50 inches in diameter and would have been a good size even in Thoreau and Emerson’s time. It was only about a 15 minute walk away. I had to see it.

The trail went around a small pond and alongside a swamp, where it narrowed and a few planks assisted with the muddy sections. I first glimpsed the trunk from about thirty feet away – so much thicker than any of its neighbors. When I arrived, I looked around in disbelief – there was nothing even close to this one in size. This was it alright. It had its own audience of ferns. I walked up to the tree and felt its coarse bark. And when I looked up the trunk, I nearly wept at the beauty. Branches splayed out in the crown and through them I could barely see the light fading from the sky. Even fifty feet up, the trunk, now split in two, remained elephantine. It was a universe unto itself. Had I waited a little longer, stars would have hung and shone in its branches.

I circled around it, looked up and down. And when it came time to leave, I couldn’t. And when I left, I came back to stand again in its presence. But the mosquitoes were hungry and darkness began to fall so I tore myself away. Not before vowing to return in the daytime, and fall and winter and every time I was nearby. Just to visit this wise old master of the Earth.

I thought of how long it took to grow an old forest; and I hoped that a century or two in the future, a paddler on one of the secluded Roach Ponds, would find a grove of old white pines and walk among and around them, and be impressed with a people who thought it important to conserve large tracts of forest for now and the future.

The Tree on My Block

For many years, a beautiful maple tree lived on my block. And like maples anywhere, fall was its time to shine. For about six weeks, it put on a show with its leaves turning red at the top, and then that red would cascade down. Then the leaves at the top would turn yellow, and the yellow would cascade down. Finally, it would lose its leaves at the top and then lose them branch by branch until it was bare.

The maple tree on my block, a few weeks into its turning, with a hickory tree in front

A few years ago I tried to capture the event in photos. Though I got a number of good pictures, I realized when I tried to put them into a sequence that I wasn’t consistent enough in how I took them – they were taken at random times from a few different places. I resolved to be more rigorous the next year and take the photos from the same place, at the same time of day.

But I never got the chance.

One day in September I turned the corner onto my block and saw all the leaves of the tree had turned yellow. The next day the leaves were on the ground. It was a sudden death if ever there was one. It was like fall itself was cancelled and there would be no colors coming to my block. I didn’t know at the time that the tree had been poisoned, and after lamenting the loss of color on my block, I waited anxiously through the winter for the tree to bud again.

I walked by the tree every day in the winter and wondered about it. And I cast those thoughts into words, and then combined them with the images I had to make a series of films. Each film is two to four minutes long and captures a different aspect of my vigil. To be honest, they are among the creations I’m most proud of – I watch them from time to time and I’m still moved by them. They remind me of how much I loved that tree.

The films are all on my Vimeo page, which for some reason has become difficult to navigate. You can find them all in one place here, or I’ve put the titles with links below in the sequence that I made the films:

Visiting the Ediacaran Fossils at Mistaken Point

It’s not everyday you get to visit 565 million year old fossils.

But on the edge of the Newfoundland’s Avalon Peninsula, which feels like the edge of the known world, you can visit some of Earth’s oldest fossils of complex life. They’re old enough to predate the Cambrian period, and now belong to their own geological period: the Ediacaran.

But what are they? Are they connected to the animals of the Cambrian period and the rest of the Tree of Life? Or were they an experiment that flourished for millions of years before fading away?

Those questions were on my mind as I visited Mistaken Point, now a UNESCO World Heritage site, and you can read about my adventures in the fall issue of Hidden Compass.

Below are a few photos of my visit.

The fossil bed in the foreground, on the craggy coastline
The bizarre Ediacaran fossils
The fossils were once covered in volcanic ash
One of the hundreds of “rangeomorphs” that are visible
Like a kid in a candy shop…

Read my essay, The Medusa of Time, at Hidden Compass.

Los Cedros and the Rights of Nature

From my article in The Revelator:

Should nature have rights? That question is being put to the test right now in Ecuador.

The critically endangered brown-headed spider monkey, a resident of Los Cedros

In 2008 the South American country made history when its new constitution declared that nature had “the right to integral respect for its existence and for the maintenance and regeneration of its life cycles, structure, functions and evolutionary processes.” It was an unprecedented commitment, the first of its kind, to preserving biodiversity for future generations of Ecuadorians.

The constitutional change did not automatically protect nature, but it gave citizens  what the Global Alliance for the Rights of Nature describes as “the legal authority to enforce these rights on behalf of ecosystems. The ecosystem itself can be named as the defendant.”

The country could soon make history again when its Constitutional Court hears a case that seeks to apply these rights of nature to a protected forest, known as Bosque Protector Reserva Los Cedros, against large-scale copper and gold mining.

The threat stems from a 2017 change in government policy that allowed mining concessions on 6 million acres of lands, including at least 68% of Los Cedros — part of a hasty attempt to boost the mining sector and compensate for declining oil revenues. Experts say that policy appears to be unconstitutional, which has led to the present showdown.

“Mining in protected forests is a violation of Articles 57, 71 and 398 of the constitution: the collective rights of Indigenous peoples, the Rights of Nature, and the right of communities to prior consultation before environmental changes, respectively,” says ecologist Bitty Roy of the University of Oregon, who has conducted research at Los Cedros since 2008.

A Vital Reserve

Los Cedros is a remote, pristine, 17,000-acre cloud forest in northwest Ecuador and one of the most biodiverse places on the planet.

Conservation biologist Mika Peck, of the University of Sussex, describes Los Cedros as “a biodiversity hotspot within a hotspot — and of global importance in terms of conserving our natural history.”

He adds, “the reserve and all it maintains is priceless.”

The case is to be heard next week, October 19.

See the rest of my article at The Revelator

The Highs and Lows of Gardening

My deck gets twenty-five hours of sunlight a day in the summer so because covid cancelled my spring trips, I decided to make use of a bunch of long planting containers that my neighbor put out on the street for trash and start a garden.

Gardening is easy. All you have to do is buy the seedlings, get the mulch, replant the seedlings in the mulch, water the newly planted seedlings, expose them to the sun, move them into the shade when they wilt, or water them again, or move them back into the sun, or feed them nitrogen, check on them an hour later to see if they have stopped wilting, shoo the squirrels away, put your finger up to test the wind, water them again, turn around three times, check on them again, and hope for the best. It’s a bit like having a pet that eats sunlight and drinks all day but doesn’t need to go out to pee or poop.

Apparently there’s some mysterious operation related to not letting things go to seed too.

I planted a bunch of herbs: mint, basil, cilantro and tarragon. The cilantro was a non-starter and the tarragon was a disappointment, but I now have abundant mint and basil, which I’ve been putting to good if not abundant use in rum and cokes and stir fries.

I put in two kinds of lettuce: butter and romaine, and because of the mystery about not letting things go to seed, they both grew tall stalks, rather than spreading out in the container like I thought they might. I have harvested a few leaves for a few sandwiches, but not so many as to compel me to do handsprings down the street. Given how tall they’ve grown, I hoped for more.

And I put in zucchini, as well as two kinds of squash: Butter Baby and Cupcake, which have both been growing big leaves and sprouting flowers all summer. For some reason, the Cupcake floundered at the beginning of September, perhaps while I was away being inattentive for the long weekend.

But then, a miracle: on September 9 at noon, I checked under the leaves of the Butter Baby plant and there before my eyes was a beautiful, plump, not-yet-ripe phenomenon of nature: a three-inch long baby squash.

The Pride of My Garden

Oh pride, oh joy, oh happiness. I grew a vegetable!

I paced around my deck the way I did when I got a piece of writing accepted. What a thing to happen! An actual vegetable, from the actual ground (or, in my case, ground-like conditions). I took a photo and The Boston Globe ran it with the headline: “Area Man Grows First Vegetable.” Local news rang me for interviews. My mother called me a farmer.

It was stupefying in its wonder.

And all too short-lived.

Two days later, with the phone still ringing off the hook for media interviews, I went out to marvel at my vegetable, but, alas, it was gone.

Gone.

My one and only vegetable. The pride of my garden. The joy of my deck. Disappeared. Vanished. Gone.

No Butter Baby flambé. No Butter Baby fried with butter and fresh basil. No squash a la mode.

I suspect a squirrel – I have seen one digging in the mulch and he has practically admitted his misdeed when his eyes told me “I’ll be back” – and only wish I could have seen the little thief carrying away my prize.

No, maybe I didn’t actually want to see that. What I wanted was to admire my squash, to water it, fuss over it, watch it ripen. And finally to cook and eat it. With butter and fresh basil.

I’m not mad. Really. A lesson in nature being nature. I get it. But if anyone has any squirrel recipes I’ll soon need one. With basil.

Homegrown National Park

In “Nature’s Best Hope,” entomologist and author, Doug Tallamy brings one of conservation’s best new ideas alive: to connect isolated land reserves via biological or wildlife corridors. And it’s something we can all practice in our front and back yards.

Through much of the 20th century, the dominant idea in conservation was to protect land for its inherent beauty as well as for animals. Despite that, animal populations have continued to dwindle because the protected land is too small and too isolated. The reserves need to be connected so that animals can roam freely, particularly because one of the effects of climate change is to force animals to move from their preferred habitat.

This is the idea behind the Yellowstone to Yukon Initiative, or Y2Y, a protective corridor that will ensure animals can travel freely over its length of 3200 kilometers (2000 miles). In the early 1990’s radio-collar data showed that over two years a wolf roamed over an area ten times the size of Yellowstone and fifteen times the size of Banff National Park. Other animals like lynx, cougars and golden eagles were also found to travel distances as great as 1600 kilometers (1000 miles). Much of that roaming would be outside protected areas.

While most of us will not be safeguarding habitat for wolves and cougars in our yards, we can provide habitat for insects, birds and other small animals. All we have to do is plant native plants.

Plants are the foundation of all food webs, but as Tallamy points out, our gardens tend to emphasize ornamental plants that originated in other ecosystems and are often ignored by local bees, butterflies and birds. So while they look pretty, they are ecologically sterile and don’t contribute to local food webs.

The reason they don’t contribute to local food webs is because plants generate toxins to avoid being eaten. But over millions of years, insects like caterpillars – primary food for birds – have developed ways to circumvent plant defenses and make a meal. Because each plant has its own defenses, each insect restricts its diet to one or just a few lineages.

For example, monarch butterflies have restricted their diet to just a single plant: milkweed. When milkweed declined thanks to the ramped up use of the weedkiller, Roundup, or glyphosate, monarch populations plummeted.

So by restricting our gardens to a handful of exotic ornamentals that local insects have no relationship with, insect populations will continue to decline. Yet insects are how plant energy is transmitted elsewhere in food webs, so this is a decline we can and must reverse.

Further, in the US, turfgrass has replaced native plant communities in more than forty million acres, which is larger than the ten largest national parks combined. By converting half of that turfgrass back to native plants, we could have a new national park – homegrown – that is literally everywhere.

We visit national parks to satisfy our curiosity about places we’ve long heard about, and to experience wonder and awe. Homegrown National Park will be on a totally different scale – right in front of our eyes – and will appeal to our sense of self-discovery. We’ll be able to tune into natural cycles and experience the excitement of seeing living things thrive under our care, in addition to helping local food webs. It will allow us to create an affinity for all kinds of creatures that visit our yards, provide natural stress relief and help us pass our stewardship on to our children. Truly, it’s an idea whose time has come.

The North American Native Plant Society has tips to start gardening with native plants (start small – even with one plant!) here: http://nanps.org/how-to-start-gardening-with-native-plants/

In the US, you can find guides for what to plant in your area at https://www.audubon.org/plantsforbirds
and https://www.nwf.org/nativeplantfinder/

In the Time of Coronavirus: an International Poetry Circle

A cool thing has been going on on Twitter for the last month. On March 15, poet Tara Skurtu (@TaraSkurtu) tweeted:

“This unprecedented time of social distancing is a very lonely one. We need each other. People often turn to poetry in tough times, so I’m starting Poetry Circle—a growing thread of people reading their poems and their favorite poems.”

And with that she published her first video poem with the hashtag #InternationalPoetryCircle.

Happily, the idea has caught on and her initial video has now been seen 124,000 times. And, in just over a month, more than 1000 video poems have been contributed.

I have contributed a few videos so far of other poems I’ve enjoyed.

The first one I read was a favorite by Mary Oliver, “Wild Geese” with the lines:

“Whoever you are, no matter how lonely
The world offers itself to your imagination”

Someone replied to my tweet with “I don’t know how you read this without sobbing” and I replied, “I got that out of the way ahead of time.” (insert smiley 🙂

Here’s the link.

I’ve long been a fan of the Tang Dynasty poets Li Bai, Tu Fu and Wang Wei, among others, and so I read four translations of Li Bai’s “Taking Leave of a Friend” (in two parts)

Part 1

Part 2

My latest contribution is the poem “Water” by the Polish Nobel Laureate Wislawa Szymborska. I had to do two takes of the poem because the line, “How gently the world touches me,” caught me on the first take.

Here’s a the video of the poem.

Hope you enjoy them. And I hope you stay isolated, healthy and sane.

The Work That Reconnects

On Saturday I went down to Rhode Island to participate in a 4-hour workshop on “The Work that Reconnects,” inspired by the work of Joanna Macy. It was described as “a perspective-changing, life-affirming workshop designed to help us face and feel our deepest, most healing responses to the world’s crises within a supportive group context.” Ultimately, the goal was to help us take part in what Joanna Macy  calls, The Great Turning – away from an industrial growth society into a life-affirming society. The workshop was led by Karina Lutz and Jim Tull, and was attended by about one hundred participants, which shows how hungry people are for this kind of work.

In a series of meditations and activities, we explored the spiral of the work: gratitude, honoring our pain, seeing with new eyes and going forth, described in the book, “Coming Back to Life,” by Joanna Macy and Molly Brown. The work begins with gratitude to calm us and stimulate our empathy; we all have much to be thankful for and sharing that helps us connect to one another. In honoring our pain, we explore our own compassion for ourselves and others as we acknowledge feelings that accumulate with the drumbeat of bad environmental news; here we begin to see the immensity of our hearts and minds. Seeing with new eyes stems from understanding our relationship to the past and future and helps us shift our perspective from individual events and actions to understanding how systems work – we taste our power to change and to effect change. Finally, we go forth with passion, clarity and compassion, and the spiral begins again.

It’s hard to convey the power of the workshop and I just have a brief summary of a few of the activities that resonated with me.

One of the first meditations was simply to breathe deeply, something that I’ve been practicing to ground myself in the past two months or so. But here, we were reminded that the air we breathe is the same air that the trees breathe and all living things near and far breathe. Of course we’re aware of that in theory, but in practice, honestly, I think of the air I breathe as very much right in front of my nose, so this was a useful reminder!

One exercise that was useful for such a large group followed soon after and that was to mill about the room first of all, as if in a hurry, caught up in our own self-importance, and then to slow down and become aware of others around us. Even in that shift, you could feel the mood in the room immediately warm up. People smiled and acknowledged one another. Then, upon signals for a sequence of encounters, we were to stop and find a partner, take their hand, and recognize the many things they could have done that day but chose instead to be there. In another encounter, we were to recognize what the other person knew about what was happening in the world, and yet they kept their eyes open to it. In other encounters, we were to recognize the chance that the other person might die from toxins in the environment or the important role they might play in bringing about a life-sustaining civilization.

One of the most powerful encounters was when we closed our eyes and explored our partner’s hand as if we were an alien. Such an interesting evolutionary product is a hand! And capable of so much: gathering and preparing food, playing with a ball, comforting and giving pleasure to another person. Here was an intimate way to connect with a stranger.

The whole activity had lots of hand-holding and staring into strangers’ eyes, which pushed me out of my comfort zone, but when I thought about how to recognize them, the strangeness evaporated and they became familiar. We would then chat about what brought us there or simply smile at one another in gratitude.

One of the last exercises was to share in a small group a time when we made a difference. One person in my group related how he gave a poor acquaintance a guitar, and then watched him flourish as a musician. I shared my reasons for writing my book about extinct animals and that many people thanked me for the book. We were then asked to share the qualities that we had heard in the stories. Suddenly, the room was full of “love,” “excitement,” “generosity,” “tenderness,” “selflessness,” “courage,” “independence of thought,” “honesty,” “openness,” “humor,” and much more. So the power within us is what resonated as we made pledges to one another, wrapped up and made to go forth.

Though there are none listed at the moment, I hope there will be more such events in New England soon.

Links: The Work That Reconnects, Work That Reconnects Greater Boston

Coming Soon: Little Books and Solos

I found a terrific little template that allows a short story to be printed onto a single page and then folded up into an eight-page book. The first prototypes look great! Soon I’ll be taking orders so that you can have your own pocket book for whenever you want a quick story fix.

I also have several published longer-form essays that will be also be available as solos so stay tuned for those.

Lost Species Day Nature Walk and Reading

Here’s the notice from Anne-Marie Lambert, who leads poetry-themed nature walks in Belmont, MA

She writes:

I invite you to join me for a guided walk through Rock Meadow in Belmont on Saturday November 30, 2019, 10:00-noon, with special guest  Daniel Hudon, who will read stories from his book of stories,  Brief Eulogies for Lost Animals: An Extinction Reader.  It’s a great way to give thanks over the holiday weekend for the birds and animals and habitat who visit or reside in the beautiful habitat at Rock Meadow.

This Saturday’s walk is a special event for “Remembrance Day for Lost Species,” an annual day (November 30) started a few years ago by artists in London “to explore the stories of extinct and critically endangered species, cultures, lifeways and ecological communities.” This year’s theme is “Original Names”. Participants are invited to share thoughts, poems and stories of local indigenous peoples and of non-humans past or present.

So, come reconnect with the land and water in our town as creatures who are still with us scurry or migrate to prepare for colder weather. Hear lyrical stories about species who used to live in or migrate through New England, including the Carolina Parakeet, Passenger Pigeon, Heath Hen and Urania Sloanus, as well as the Eskimow Curlew and Labrador Duck.

This walk is sponsored by the Belmont Citizens Forum, whose mission includes promoting interest in the preservation and protection of environmental resources and educating the public and community leaders about the environmental importance of open space.

Lost Species Nature Walk at Rock Meadow

What: Learn about Rock Meadow and pay tribute to Lost Species as we visit Beaver Brook and stop along a one-mile nature trail.

When: 10:00-12:00 Saturday November 30, 2019

Where: Meet at the small Rock Meadow parking lot on Mill Street. Bike racks are available. Address: Rock Meadow Conservation Area, Belmont, MA

Parking: There is a second parking lot across the street at Lone Tree Hill conservation area. Please carpool if you can.

Who: Anne-Marie Lambert has been leading local nature walks and writing Newsletter articles about Belmont history and stormwater for the Belmont Citizens Forum.  

Originally from Canada, Daniel Hudon is a Boston resident and part-time lecturer in astronomy, math and physics. He writes prose and poetry about science, travel and nature and his recent book about the extinction crisis, “Brief Eulogies for Lost Animals: An Extinction Reader” was named a Must Read in this year’s Mass Book Awards.

Bring/Wear: closed shoes, weather-appropriate clothing, and, optionally, a walking stick for uneven terrain.

Rain: Only thunderstorms will cancel.

Trail Map: Rock Meadow Map (park by the Mill Street Information Kiosk)

RSVP:  an email reply if you are likely to come would be appreciated but is not required

More information:

Lost Species Day: https://www.lostspeciesday.org/

Daniel Hudon: danielhudon.com.

Rock Meadow:

– Rock Meadow Conservation Master Plan, including steps to encourage inviting habitat for certain types of birds.

– Developing a Conservation Master Plan for Rock Meadow by Jeffrey North (Sept/Oct 2018)

– Rock Meadow: Past and Future  by Margaret Velie (May/June 2001)

– Belmont Highlights Natural, Historic Treasures by Mary Bradley (Sep/Oct 2019), including Anne-Marie’s October 2019 walk at Rock Meadow

– Belmont Journal video interview about the master plan: bit.ly/BJour-RockMeadow

Belmont Citizens Forum: www.belmontcitizensforum.org

The Mass Book Awards

Some recent good news is that my book, “Brief Eulogies for Lost Animals: An Extinction Reader” was named as a “Must Read” in this year’s Mass Book Awards (pub date 2017). A nice celebration was held in mid-September for all the honored books, with short readings and speeches about the long history of literacy and the literary craft in Massachusetts. It was great to be a part of it and you can see the full list at the Mass Book Awards site: https://www.massbook.org/mass-book-awards

The Pianist Plays for the Melting Glacier

I loved the video that Greenpeace produced a couple of years ago to bring attention to climate change in the arctic. Pianist Ludovico Einaudi plays his own composition, Elegy for the Arctic, on a barge while around him the glacier ice melts. I wrote a poem about the video and published it in the Amsterdam Quarterly. Now, with the permission of Greenpeace, I have put the poem together with the video and some minor video editing — you can see the result here.

Climbing Brandon

Have you been on any good hikes lately? Last year, I stumbled on Mount Brandon, on Ireland’s Dingle peninsula, an area rich with Celtic and early Christian ruins. The Smart Set just published an essay I wrote about my experiences:

It begins:

I wound up hiking Mt. Brandon by accident. But it is an accident in the same way a traveler stumbles on ruins he didn’t know he was looking for. On Ireland’s Dingle Peninsula, they say you don’t get lost, you discover. And wherever you go, someone has been there before, walking.

So it was with me. While meandering along Slea Head Drive, stopping to take in the coastal views and ruins, I passed the sign for Mt. Brandon. It was late afternoon, still lots of daylight left. No need to return to Dingle just yet. So I turned around and followed the sign to the foot of the mountain.

All day I saw it looming over the peninsula, snow on its flanks, peak in the clouds, a presence. At the trailhead, the gentle slope looked enticing. I could start walking up the trail right now, I thought, the way people have done for hundreds of years.

I came to Dingle because of a book I read many years ago. Honey from Stone: A Naturalist’s Search for God, by Chet Raymo. In eight essays, named for the canonical hours, the author tries to reconcile the many evidences of historical faith on the peninsula with the findings of modern science. He looks deep into geological time on the Dingle coastline, ponders early Christian and pre-Christian ruins, tells the tales of the land, and goes stargazing. Through it all, he walks and walks, and these meditative hikes stayed with me.

I knew about Raymo’s writing from his previous book, The Soul of the Night: An Astronomical Pilgrimage, a heady mix of creation myths, poetry, and cosmology. I discovered it during my undergraduate studies in physics and astronomy, and it provided a lyrical antidote to my equation-filled courses. It was here I first learned that I wanted to read more from Rilke and Roethke, here that comets, star clusters, and quasars came alive among the constellations, and here that I got a taste of the big questions in cosmology: How did the universe begin? What is it made of? How will it end? The book was a quest for our place in the universe, and my young mind took to it like a sponge.

Read the rest at The Smart Set

An Extinction Cabaret

What good is sitting alone in your room?
Come hear the music play
Life is a cabaret, old chum
Come to the cabaret

So sings Liza Manelli’s character in the film version of the 1966 Broadway hit, Cabaret, an homage to Weimar Berlin where the artform flourished before being shut down by the Nazis in the early 1930’s. From its origins at Le Chat Noir in Paris in 1881, the cabaret was entertaining musical theater, with singing and dancing as regular fare, together with an intellectual punch provided by social and political satire. Given its varied nature, the cabaret is the perfect artform for taking on challenging topics like the biodiversity crisis.

On a recent Friday I had a chance to see, Mirabilis: Stories of Wonder and Loss – An Extinction Cabaret, a new theater piece co-directed by Kyna Hamill and Wanda Strukus of Two Roads  based on my book, Brief Eulogies for Lost Animals: An Extinction Reader. Though described as a work in progress, the segments that were performed were highly polished and engaging.

The Two Roads Ensemble for the Mirabilis Cabaret
The Two Roads Ensemble, from Left to Right: Robert Kilburn, Wanda Strukus, Melissa Bergstrom, Nicole Howard, and Kyna Hamill, and me on the far right

My motivations for writing the book were to restore some of these lost animals to our cultural memory. Animals are among our first memories, not just for our stuffed toys, but for our own culture. Our ancestors didn’t paint mountains and trees in the caves of Europe, they painted animals. Both wild and tame, they are our companions here on Earth.

To our folly, we’ve not recognized animals as companions and we’ve lost so many species: through carelessness (the introduction of invasive species), through shortsightedness (habitat loss) and through ignorance (over-exploitation – “Surely, this can’t be the last of them?”). But the animals had a right to their place on the tree of life just like we do.

Mirabilis takes on all of this and is jammed full of highlights – the stories of the lost animals sing out. I was struck by the innocence of the Falklands Islands wolf. Two Roads depicts it as exuberant and playful – and rather adorable – and yet it wound up being hunted to extinction for its pelt. The plight of the Mascarene tortoises hits home too when we see them as voyagers who cast themselves into the sea not knowing where they would wind up. Able to live for more than two hundred years, they are described as the “wise old masters of the Earth.” Incredibly, when they gathered on Mauritius, they were in herds that numbered in the thousands. In another piece, the actors read out individual characteristics of a handful of lost species so that we glimpse them all too briefly before they are gone.

Like any good cabaret, Mirabilis has strong satirical elements and we humans get knocked for our obsession with selfies (in this case, the actors jostle over who can get their selfie taken with the last living bee) and one of the most upbeat songs, called We Ate Them All, is a gleeful lampooning of humans for eating the dodo, passenger pigeon, Labrador Duck and Steller’s Sea Cow to extinction. Other pieces rightfully poke fun at us for being too scared to take action and for getting used to bad environmental news, as if it’s all going to get better on its own.

There are many ways to grieve. When we lose a loved family member or friend, we gather and celebrate them, we wonder at their lives and how they’ve touched us. The segments of wonder in Mirabilis each stand out. In one piece, two actresses are speaking to different parts of the audience and for the one facing me, she was talking about being on the beach in California and wondering if someone was in Japan, also with her feet in the ocean, wondering about connecting with someone an ocean away.

Another piece, called “The Whales,” sees the entire troupe floating about on the stage, coming up occasionally for air, as a recording of the song of the humpback whales plays in the background. It’s a quiet piece, with slow, meditative movements made all the more powerful by the whalesong in the background. In fact, the recording is from the original 1970’s record that was included in a special issue of National Geographic, with narration by Dr. Roger Payne. It was Dr. Payne’s work on whalesong that helped bring about the “Save the Whales” movement that is one of the 20th century’s great environmental success stories. As Dr. Payne reminds us on the recording, whalesong is featured on the Voyager spacecraft’s Golden Record, now jetting its way out of the solar system, bringing their wondrous sounds to the rest of the galaxy. To me, the songs and the movement were a reminder that something very special is happening here on Earth. I wanted to linger in that feeling.

To wonder at nature and at the world is to love it. Mirabilis is a cabaret of wonders and I look forward to the next iteration of this entertaining and provocative work in progress.

A Visit to the Great Auk

What do extinct species have to tell us?

A short hike along the coast out of Joe Batt’s Arm on Fogo Island, Newfoundland, stands a five-foot tall bronze sculpture of the Great Auk. The sculpture was created by artist Todd McGrain for his Lost Bird Project in which larger-than-life sculptures for extinct North American birds were placed where they last thrived. On my visit to Fogo Island this past August, I knew I had to visit the sculpture.

The story of the demise of the Great Auk is among the more tragic of the recent animal extinctions. They were flightless birds but strong swimmers that occupied rocky, isolated islands in the North Atlantic for thousands of years for mating and breeding. The largest colony was at Funk Island, about 50 kilometers northeast of Fogo Island. When European fishing vessels came to Newfoundland for the abundant cod stocks in the early 16th century, they seized on the Great Auk as a source for fresh meat as well as oil for lamps. Their feathers were used for pillows and mattresses and their eggs were collected for food.  Eyewitnesses reported seeing the tame, penguin-like birds being guided up gangplanks onto boats. Evidently, it was a wholesale slaughter. As their numbers plummeted through the 1700’s, extinction warnings went unheeded. And when auks replaced eider as the down of choice, their fate was sealed. The last pair of great auks was strangled off Iceland in 1844 while incubating an egg.

At the head of the path out of Joe Batt’s Arm, a handmade sign showed the way for the Great Auk sculpture. It was only an hour’s walk along a grassy trail with a view of the once-molten coastal rocks, the harbor, and the ritzy Shorefast Inn across the small bay.

I was with a friend and soon we climbed a large granite outcropping and made our way to the sculpture.

Waves lapped at the rocks below and a steady but mild breeze blew. A few terns cried as they swooped over the waves. The sculpture stood about five feet tall and faced the direction of another Great Auk sculpture in Iceland. With its smooth lines and elegant curves, I couldn’t help but run my hand over it.

Todd McGrain's Great Auk sculpture
The Great Auk, by Todd McGrain

It was well placed, so solitary among the elements. Perhaps it was too solitary. They were social birds and their colonies like Funk Island must have been incredible gatherings, full of squawking mates protecting their eggs, taking turns splashing and into and out of the water to fish. It would have been great for the sculpture to have companions. I wished I could populate the site with a group of Great Auks, like Errol Fuller’s painting. And I thought about how different the hike would have been completely different if Great Auks were still wandering and swimming about. (See Brandon Ballangee’s “Framework of Absence.”)

Errol Fuller's "A Last Stand"
Errol Fuller’s “A Last Stand”

We took photos then sheltered in the crevice of some boulders and sat with the sculpture for awhile. It felt special to be alone with it, while thinking about why the sculpture was there in the first place.

When we continued the hike further down the coastal trail and stopped to have our sandwiches, a strange feeling gnawed at me. Something was missing from my visit with the Great Auk. I felt like I needed something to signify our visit, some sort of ritual. I said to my friend that I wanted to stop again at the Great Auk on the way back and we set off again to the sculpture.

I remembered the scene in the documentary film, The Lost Bird Project, when after the sculpture is installed, McGrain anoints it with water. Back at the sculpture, I poured some water from my water bottle into my cupped hand and let it drip onto its head. In that moment, the ritual caught me and suddenly felt significant. It was a moment of honoring the memory of the Great Auk and grieving its loss. Thinking about it afterwards, perhaps it wasn’t me blessing the sculpture, but it was the Great Auk blessing me?

As we learn the stories of recently extinct animals, I wonder what they will teach us. It was strange for me to form a sort of bond with a bird that has been extinct for a century and a half. Every animal has its own tale, and as Todd McGrain told me when I interviewed him, it’s up to us to pay attention.

Remembrance Day for Lost Species 2017

The reasons we need Remembrance Day for Lost Species are the same reasons I wrote my book, “Brief Eulogies for Lost Animals: An Extinction Reader.” The introduction to the book follows below. (You can also find audio and video versions.)

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“Forgetting is another kind of extinction,” artist Todd McGrain said to me when I interviewed him in 2012. For ten years he had been creating larger-than-life sculptures of birds formerly common in North America, such as the passenger pigeon, to memorialize them. “These birds are not commonly known,” he has written elsewhere, “and they ought to be… It’s such a thorough erasing.”

Since the year 1500, nine hundred species have become extinct, yet their stories are not being told. This loss is a crisis in human values, as our relatives on the tree of life are disappearing under our watch and because of our actions. Aside from a few high profile extinctions, like the passenger pigeon and the dodo, most lost species are unknown to the general public, and the danger of forgetting part of our biological heritage is great. There are no historical parallels here. Aldo Leopold said, “For one species to mourn another is a new thing under the sun.”

brief eulogies, lost animalsThe recent animal extinctions include twenty-eight reptiles, thirty-four amphibians, sixty-three fish, sixty-three insects, ninety-two mammals, one hundred and sixty-six birds and more than three hundred mollusks. Who are these animals? Where did they live? What do we know of their biology and natural history? Each animal had its own evolutionary history, ecological niche and characteristics that made it a unique form of life. But they have disappeared from the Earth due to our actions and without proper recognizance. The beginning of wisdom, the Chinese say, is to call things by their rightful names. In many cases, the names are known by scientists and what little is known of the animal’s habits is hidden away in scientific papers. These details need to be brought to light to make the species come alive, at least in our imagination, to help bring the enormity of what has and is happening within our grasp.

Evidence abounds that the present species extinction rate is more than one thousand times the historical rate measured in the fossil record — an indication that we are in a mass extinction. Life on Earth has seen five mass extinctions, the most recent being sixty-five million years ago when the dinosaurs were wiped out. This sixth extinction is human-caused with habitat alteration, over-exploitation, introduction of invasive species and pollution the major factors.

Naturalist William Beebe wrote in 1906 that, “when the last individual of a race of living beings breathes no more, another heaven and another earth must pass before such a one can be again.” Our heaven exists now and by memorializing and celebrating what is now gone, we can perhaps keep what we still have.

 

Three short films about extinct animals

Urania Sloanus
Urania Sloanus — described as the most beautiful moth in the world

How to raise awareness about recently extinct animals? We need to know and see what we’ve lost, both to remember and celebrate them even as we mourn them.

There’s something about an image – a photograph or even a film clip – something that recreates the likeness, that helps to bring the subject alive.

Here are three short films from my book, “Brief Eulogies for Lost Animals: An Extinction Reader” (available at the Pen and Anvil website).

  1. The Song of the O’o. The Kauai O’o was known as one of the finest singers in all of the Hawaiian Islands.
  2. The Laysan Rail. This rail, from the island of Laysan, in the NW Hawaiian Islands, is one of the few extinct birds for which film footage exists.
  3. Urania Sloanus at Sunrise. Urania Sloanus lived in Jamaica and was often described as the most beautiful moth in the world. This film, based on eyewitness reports, hints at why.

More about my book can be found here.

More films to come soon!

Reviews of “Brief Eulogies for Lost Animals”

Two reviews have been published of my book, “Brief Eulogies for Lost Animals: An Extinction Reader,” with more to come.

Over at Neon Books, writer and publisher Krishan Coupland lauds the “sheer poetry” of the writing and “the power of these vignettes… to render these animals real.”

Read the whole review at neonbooks.org.uk, and while you’re there, check out the other cool things that Krishan is up to at Neon Books.

A second review was written by biologist and writer, Mike Shanahan, who asks, “Can eulogies for lost species help prevent future extinctions?” Read Shanahan’s thoughtful response at his e-home Under the Banyan.

Other reviews are forthcoming. Get in touch if you would also like to review my book.