Of Time and the River

May 2, 2013 | Uncategorized | Permalink

We tend to think of the things of man and the things of nature as separate.  The way we categorize say waterfalls, mountains, and birds as existing in a realm apart from furniture, paintings, and clothing could supply a generation’s worth of doctoral dissertations.  One place where “natural” and “cultural” come together in an institutional embrace is the National Park System (NPS).  The NPS has  intertwined duties to steward both the natural and the cultural resources in our protected areas.  Salmon are nature but have a central cultural role for indigenous peoples.  The remnants of ancient settlements were built by humans but have become features of landscape.

I was thinking about the beauty and example of this responsibility while Kim Besom, curator of the museum at Grand Canyon, gave me a tour of some of its treasures.  Grand Canyon is a gigantic empty space, no?  No.  Things have come in and out of it, people, animals, artifacts.  The museum at Grand Canyon isn’t a place of display as you might expect, but a series of rooms with oddball things in it.  Including dung from prehistoric giant sloths.  These sloths were about 8 feet tall at the shoulder.  (The remains of giant ground sloths in L.A.’s La Brea tar pits are 10-12 feet tall.)  Why save the dung?  We can see what they ate in it.  It helps us build a bit of a story around what their world looked like, how they lived.

Besom showed me some prime bones from her “Quaternary collection.” The Quaternary is a geological epoch that includes the Pleistocene from which the sloth slunk forth and the Holocene, to which we now belong — though some have called for a renaming of our era to Anthropocene, to reflect the impact Homo sapiens is currently having on even the geological cycle.  It would appear we are breaking the back of time itself.

Among Besom’s other treasures are the long-fanged top of a jaw thought to be a mountain lion until Jim Mead, from nearby Northern Arizona University, suggested it is probably from the now extinct American cheetah.  Besom showed me trays of beautiful “split twig figures” that are 3-5,000 years old.  For many years these were the earliest evidence of humans at Grand Canyon.  They look like well-made childrens’ toys, but some of them have drops of dung (again!) inside them, indicating their use in hunting rituals.  “They hardly look their age,” Besom remarked with fondness.  More recently evidence of Clovis and Folsom spear points have been added to her collection – some of these peoples evidently roamed these lands more than 10,000 years ago.  The Clovis are credited with hunting many of the giant Pleistocene animals to extinction.

“We look at this pottery like it was no big deal for early people to make it,” Besom told me, showing me gorgeous bowls (“this one is for the fancy dinner parties”).  “But it was a very big deal.  People had  to travel to get the good clay.  They had to travel sometimes 100 miles to gather wood to fire it when they had deforested the area close to their settlement.” While there is no doubt Native American peoples have had a much more salubrious relationship with the things of nature than Anglos have, there is plenty of evidence that tribes exhausted resources just like Europeans-Americans did/do.

Closer to the present day, but still tucked well behind the scrim of history, are Besom’s artifacts related to John Wesley Powell, the one-armed Civil War general who famously first mapped the Colorado Plateau.  Powell’s watch from his second trip down the Colorado River sits handsome and large on a temperature-controlled shelf.  “People have called to ask what time it is stopped on,” Besom told me.  “I have to remind them that he didn’t die the minute the watch stopped.”  She also has a piece of burnt wood that is apparently a piece of one of Powell’s boats, the only extant remnant of the arks that carried him down the Colorado River.  By the way, he strapped himself to a rocking chair on his boat.  Well, why not.  Even the oldest thing in Besom’s collection barely registers on the time-scale evidenced by Grand Canyon itself.  Powell had his moment in history – and evidently knew how to enjoy the ride.

Rock On

April 24, 2013 | Uncategorized | Permalink

This past weekend the National Park Service (NPS) hosted me at Grand Canyon, and I gave the keynote talk for its Earth Day celebration to a crowd that hailed from all over the world.  It wasn’t the only vertiginous aspect of the trip.  I hiked down into the canyon one day with rangers Marty Martel and Pam Edwards, and got a new appreciation for the word “steep.”  Another day I took a long stroll along the rim, transfixed by new views at every frequent turn.  The truly grand facade stares at you, timeless.  But of course time is what makes it.  As my observation telescoped and expanded to try and (unsuccessfully) comprehend,  a raptor silhouette made a long, graceful stitch in the scene.  I couldn’t tell if it was one of the California condors that have been successfully reintroduced to the park (though the population remains threatened by poisoning from lead bullets), but if it was, the prehistoric bird brought a pretty deep stretch of historical time into the present.  The California condor has a wing-span of 9-feet.  Against the scale of the canyon, size like that hardly counts.  Could have been a turkey vulture, with a 5-foot wingspan.

Tagging along with Martell, beginning with his 7:30 am roll call with about 15 other “interps,” or park ranger interpreters, I got a glimpse of a day in the life.  One ranger was off to New York City, to help Sesame Street introduce a new puppet to the show, a park ranger!  This makes me happy.  Martell told me about encountering an East Indian octogenarian in robes one day, who told him that as an 8-year old he had seen photos of Vishnu Temple Peak in National Geographic and had wanted ever since to come see it.  Martell pointed out the glorious peak, in a line of other religio-historically named formations, like Wotan’s Throne, Solomon Temple, and Tower of Ra.  The names furnish a drapery of human history on rocks that are orders of magnitude older than even our most ancient spiritual traditions.  Martell told me the seeker wept with joy upon seeing Vishnu Temple Peak, hugged him, and moved on.  As ephemeral as our naming might be, it helps evoke and contain the sense of transcendence and destiny to which the rocks otherwise silently testify.  Or so we feel/think.

Ah, the human.  When he introduced me to the gathered crowd, Martell told them about how one of the major topics of my books, trophic cascades, is impacting the park.  Indeed all of us could see it everyday – rangy elk chomping down every little bit of greenery between the signage and the stones.  Martell explained that mountain lions do range in the outer precincts of the park, but not close to the human presence; the elk know what side of the canyon their bread is buttered on.  He mentioned discussions about bringing the wolf back to Grand Canyon’s ecosystem.  That they deal with such difficult complexities in the human-wildlife balance, or lack of it, is another reason to value and respect our park rangers.

On Sunday I manned a table of books with Phil Payne, from the Grand Canyon Association, who after hearing my rap several times became better at articulating it than I am, and helped explain both the science and the entertainment value of the book.  All weekend I heard murmurings from park rangers that their boss, Superintendent Dave Uberuaga, “is awesome,” and there he was, gamely dressed in plastic bags in honor of Earth Day, chatting with little children and not even scaring them!  Grand Canyon is impressive in every way, including, in fact, the human way, and these good folks are stewarding this treasure with seriousness and love.  Now remember, it’s still National Parks week, which means entry fees are waived – so go see for yourself!


The Beauty-Death Transaction

April 14, 2013 | Uncategorized | Permalink

Crazy gorgeousness, check.  At Duxbury Reef in Bolinas early yesterday morning, a super low tide pulled back the covers not only on all those squirmers and clingers making colorful hay in the kelp, but revealed the geological formation that makes this reef the biggest rocky intertidal in the West.  Duxbury is right at the conjunction of two major plates, the Pacific and the North American.  You can visibly see where one big time-frame era is laid against another.  The reef parallels crumbling cliffs like a double hem stitching the edge of the landscape.

But my mind wasn’t blown until about midday, on my way home.  My friend Diane had alerted me that “the egrets are back” at Audubon Canyon Ranch, and I stopped by to look at two species of these prehistoric white birds building nests in trees, some of them already sitting on eggs that will hatch around Mother’s Day.  On my way up the short loop to the main observing spot, I stopped at a lookout over Bolinas Lagoon.  The low tide made it a mud flat.  The docent offered me a telescope and a look at an unusual grebe.  “But what’s that there?” I said.  It looked like two deer were mucking about at the shore, but something was not quite right.  I picked up a pair of binoculars.  A small female deer was wobbling around with a bloody haunch.  Her companion was not another deer.

It took a few minutes to register what I was seeing.  The doe – no antlers or antler buds on the head — was clearly injured but didn’t otherwise look discomfited.  The other animal was a few feet away, worrying something in the grass, or eating.  Ah yes, eating.  The doe took a few steps to the left.  And a fluffy coyote lifted its head and took a lunge at her – straight at her bloody wound.  The deer seemed tolerant.  I began to obsessively anthropomorphize — any way to try to grasp the situation.  The coyote was like a fussy art director, or a mother herding kids in a parking lot, or a police officer keeping a crowd in line, taking a moment here or there to keep the doe within its control but then with seeming nonchalance, stepping away to chew more thoroughly. 

The docent was soon transfixed as well.  “I’m a writer,” I told him.  “I just spent a couple of years in all these wild places in the Rockies and never once saw a big predator take down a big prey.  It’s so weird that I’m seeing this right here on the lagoon!”  In the not too far distance, a big sand bar was ringed with sunning black ellipses – seals – punctuated regularly by little black commas – their young.  The way they curved and the way the sand bar curved was just like the way the reef and the cliffs curved.   Nature has its patterns and its processes — and predation is one of the prime-movers of all that we see.

I continued on the trail to watch the egrets.  There were plenty of them, snowy egrets and great egrets, doing their plumage showing, rearranging the twigs in their nests.  Another docent said, “the males and the females spend equal time sitting on the eggs.  They share all the household duties.”  The egrets are so pure white, their feathers so soft and luminous against the dark redwood branches, it cooled my mind to watch them.  Until I remembered that when the chicks hatch, mom and dad will look on while the two biggest siblings kick the smallest hatchling out of the nest.  Family systems theory, anyone?

I swung by to check on the doe-coyote drama below.  The doe was dead, a turkey vulture having at it.  “A man got out of a car to see what was going on,” the docent told me.  “The coyote scooted away.”  The docent then went on to tell me the deer had gotten stuck out in the mud flats earlier in the day and a sheriff and humane officer had lifted her out on a canvas tarp, depositing her safely on land, so they thought.  He told me it was likely the coyote had chased her into the mud to begin with, but the officers hadn’t known about that.  He shook his head at nature red in tooth and claw and remarked that even the benign looking seals herd fish up onto the mud where they can’t get away.  All very interesting but this docent’s powers of observation soon came into question.  “There was a writer here today,” he told me. “She’s been all over the Rockies and never seen anything like this.”  “Is that so?” I said.  One last look before I got into my car and back to San Francisco – the coyote had returned to the scene. Evidently better than the docent at paying attention.



Get back, Loretta

March 23, 2013 | Uncategorized | Permalink

I shared a booth with three other writers at the Tucson Festival of Books recently – an enormous and idiosyncratic celebration each year on the campus of the University of Arizona right in the heart of town. Between the four of us, we just about represented the main issues in life. There was Mary Paganelli, author of The Food Lover’s Guide to Tucson, and Terry Sterling, a heavy-hitter journalist and author of Illegal: Life and Death in Arizona’s Immigration War Zone. Sam Lowe’s book Speaking Ill of the Dead: Jerks in Arizona History magnetized passersby who invariably picked it up, said “this should be longer,” and ended up buying Mary’s food guide. Ted Danson, tanned and smoothly coiffed, sold his book on the ocean across the fairway from us.

I hung out some with Rick Brusca, a senior emeritus type of guy, whose book, A Natural History of the Santa Catalina Mountains, was written with entymologist Wendy Moore, and sold more than 50 copies at the festival. That’s right! Probably more than Danson sold. People in Arizona love where they live. They should. It’s amazingly beautiful, serene when you get two seconds out of town, and filled with still-vibrant wildlife. Half the bird species in North America hang out in the Sky Islands, unique forested mountains separated by desert and grassland “seas.” The landscape is so dry you shrivel a little more with each breath, yet the overall visual seems aqueous. It’s the desert light and the immense expanse of otherworldly horizon.

“Don’t go North though,” Brusca warned me. “That’s the dark hell hole of the universe,” confirmed Rod Mondt, a founder of the Sky Island Alliance who still works there. The SIA was hatched at about the same time as Wildlands Network with the same idea –to promote large landscape connectivity – and does a really great job of advocating for the southern portion of the Spine of the Continent, including issues around what many will say is the single most destructive act ever against wildlife, the border wall. They were referring to Phoenix, of course, home of jugular-popping gun-toters who sleep on red, white and blue pillows. 

So much of the mountainous West bears a similar contradictory signature – groovy, earnest nature-loving enlightened types living side by side with those who are not. There is still a lot of space in the West, so people don’t really have to blend or compromise. The Sky Islands themselves can be similarly described. Each big “island,” or mountain, has a different profile, their endemic flora and fauna having been isolated from others of their kind over the millenia. Nature that exists here is found nowhere else – and in aggregate, is munificent. But here they coexist peacefully, as, you guessed it, we do not. (Click on the map and you can see it bigger — fascinating confluence of biotic influences create a singular mashup of fantastic species.)


Bear with Me in Utne Reader

February 6, 2013 | Uncategorized | Permalink

The Spine of the Continent: Protecting Grizzly Bears

The Spine of the Continent is a landscape conservation initiative named for the entire Rocky Mountain expanse from the Yukon down through Mexico. Grizzly bears are a key species in this area.

By Mary Ellen Hannibal
February 2013
As climate change encroaches, animals and plants around the globe are having their habitats pulled out from under them. At the same time, human development has made islands out of even our largest nature reserves, stranding the biodiversity that lives within them. The Spine of the Continent(Lyons Press, 2012) introduces readers to the most ambitious conservation effort ever undertaken: to create linked protected areas extending from the Yukon to Mexico, the entire length of North America. Learn about the significance of grizzly bears in indigenous culture and why they must be protected in this excerpt from chapter 1, “Bear with Me.” 

I’m sticking close to Rob Watt for several reasons. For one, he’s a great storyteller, and I don’t want to miss a word. Watt has been a ranger for Parks Canada for more than three decades; he’s also an author who has an encyclopedic knowledge of the area we are traversing, which is in the Belly River Valley of Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta, Canada. It’s a chilly September morning with nature’s glories in high relief—the burbling onwardness of the river itself, a curious mink skittering around on the other side of it. Gesturing up and over to our left, Watt says, “There’s where Albany Featherstonhaugh set up Great Britain’s astronomical station,” in 1874. Featherstonhaugh was measuring latitude by the guidance of Polaris, the north star, in the days before GPS, before satellites, on behalf of the British Empire. American surveyors set up their own astronomical station nearby, and the two nations thus here divided the landscape along the forty-ninth parallel after the Napoleonic wars. Watt points out more history, but my eyes are glued to signs of the present tense.

Every several feet he punctuates his narrative with the same single word: “grizzly.” Watt points out overturned dead logs, shredded by bears in pursuit of grubs and insects, which they eat by the giant pawful. He elucidates huge indentations in the understory where bears, moose, or Volkswagens have evidently been at repose. Watt moves fast and it is a challenge to keep up with his practiced bushwhacking. He stops for a minute or so to touch blond, frizzy fibers entangled in a wired hair trap, used to get DNA samples from the bears with minimal interference in their daily doings. “Grizzly,” he says. “The kinked hair is why they’re called that.” I’m starting to feel like we’re trespassing on private property, in this case owned by Ursus arctos horribilis.

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Read more: http://www.utne.com/environment/spine-of-the-continent-grizzly-bears-ze0z1302zwar.aspx#ixzz2K8vAtYpr

Hot Flash (from Outside Magazine)

January 31, 2013 | Uncategorized | Permalink


John_Davis_CongareeNP_Susan_BaycotJohn Davis paddling in Congaree National Park. Photo: Susan Baycot

Climate change, development, ranching, and oil and gas exploration tend to get a lot of ink when it comes to threats to wildlife in the Western United States. But wildlife corridors are another vital factor, and one that relates very closely to all the aforementioned variables because they allow wildlife to adapt to changes in their environment while maintaining vital migration patterns. The movement of keystone species, such as cougars, wolves, and bears, through these corridors—or “wildways”—is vital to balancing ecosystems, as well. In fact, the study of these corridors is a fundamental aspect of conservation biology, as Mary Ellen Hannibal describes in her book The Spine of the Continent.

Unfortunately, highways tend to fragment these corridors, as roadkill makes perfectly obvious, and other demands are continually encroaching on these passageways. Conservation biologists are continually working to protect wildways and keep them open. On January 25, wilderness advocate, writer, and adventurer John Davis will set out from Sonora, Mexico, on a 10-month journey along this spine, which is linked through a number of mountain ranges, including the Rockies, from Mexico into Canada.

The goal for this project, dubbed TrekWest, is to drum up attention and improved protections for the waterways and mountain passes along the corridor. Along the way Davis will conduct a sort of moving symposium, meeting with scientists and researchers who are studying the pressures being put on wildlife corridors through development and other demands. He plans to broadcast these interactions via Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, and the trip is being made possible through the Wildlands Network, which Davis co-founded, and a range of other conservation groups, listed on the route map.

Long slogs and extreme weather are not foreign concepts to Davis. For his TrekEast adventure in 2011, he hiked, biked, and paddled 7,600 backcountry miles from the Florida Keys to Quebec’s Gaspe Peninsula.

He says he is motivated to go on these treks both as a way of putting wildways into the national discussion but also for his own fulfillment. “I do this first and foremost because I believe in the value of nature, but also for selfish reasons,” he says. “I like to recreate in wild places and I personally lose each time an acre of wildlands are lost.”

“The conservation community alone isn’t enough [to protect these corridors], we need to get a national consensus on this. The outdoor recreation community is absolutely vital to this,” he adds. “I hope to strengthen the ties between conservation biologists and outdoor recreationalists, who should be active in trying to protect these areas. I hope that’s one thing my trek will draw attention to.”

Davis is beginning the journey in the Sierra Madre range on Friday and the plan is to wrap it up in Fernie, British Columbia, in November, after traveling roughly 5,000 meandering miles to the north. Along the way he’ll have the company of river guides and mountain bikers and various groups of researchers and biologists.

“One of the basic questions I was trying to ask for my TrekEast in 2011 was: can we still protect an Eastern wildway?” he says. “I came to the tentative conclusion that it would still be possible, but that we are running out of time.” One of the things that surprised Davis during his trek from Florida to Quebec was that while some forest lands, such as the West Virginia Highlands, looked healthy and free of corridor obstructions, they are actually under pressure from an overpopulation of deer. “Eastern deciduous forests are over-browsed and it’s because we got rid of the top predators,” he says.

In the West, he expects he’ll see similar degradation of aspen stands due to over-browsing by deer and the reduced predator population. “We as a people need to learn to live with and even welcome a wide range of animals, even those that we find hard to live with such as wolves, cougars, and grizzlies,” he says. “Habitats start to unravel when you take them away.”

In the West, however, Davis thinks the opportunities to keep wildlife corridors intact and thriving are better than they are in the East, thanks to the lower population density and larger parklands. Still, highways represent a major threat because many dissect major wildlife crossings. In Florida, wildlife underpasses on I-75 have significantly reduced the number of panthers killed by cars, and a similar approach in the West could open its corridors to saver movements. Constructing these passageways would create jobs and also reduce human fatalities resulting from these run-ins. Slower, more conscientious driving—especially at night—could help to curtail the problem immediately.

David sees TrekWest as a way to observe first-hand what his mentors and teachers, including Dave Foreman (Earth First!-er and Wildlands Network co-founder) and Michael Soulé (widely regarded as the father of conservation biology), have been talking about for decades: the importance of big, wild interconnected habitats.

—Mary Catherine O’Connor

Natural Inheritance

January 20, 2013 | Uncategorized | Permalink

Robert Paine is a super-famous ecologist, the first person to really nail down the process known as a “trophic cascade,” by which top predators have a forcing effect that deeply impacts the entire food web.   Many years ago Paine did an experiment off the North Pacific coast, removing sea stars (formerly known as starfish, but they are not fish) from control plots.  Despite their frequent appearance on childrens’ wallpaper, sea stars are gangster predators.  A few weeks ago I came across one the length of my forearm at Pillar Point – with an 8-inch crab sticking out of its belly.  The sea star everts its stomach directly over its prey and begins digesting – wow – so I was actually witnessing the sea star consuming the crab.  What a way to go.  Sea stars also eat mussels, and when Paine removed them from his control plots the mussels there flourished – and pretty soon the mussels ate up all the kelp in the area.  Kelp is like the forest of the water, providing food and habitat for myriads, and when the kelp was gone, so too went many of the aquatic denizens who depend on it.  Without the slurping stomach keeping things in check, the tide pools became “depauperate.”  This is not good.  Paine’s chain of causality starting with the top predator has been identified in virtually every sort of ecosystem we’ve got, and the trophic cascade is one of the most important concepts in ecology today.


In a wonderful piece in Nature last week, “Bob Paine fathered an idea – and an academic family – that changed ecology,” Ed Yong describes a parallel chain of causality in which Paine plays a major role, and that is in mentoring the scientific generations coming after him.  Since I hang around scientists a lot and interview a lot of them, I know first-hand that Paine’s willingness to support graduate students and to encourage their research is pretty rare.  Scientists are nice people individually, but they can be vicious to one another.  My good friend Roy Eisenhardt, an attorney who was the Executive Director of the Calfornia Academy of Sciences back in the day (and he was also president of the Oakland A’s!) remarked to me once that in any other field, the kind of dissing scientists do to one another would wind them up in court.  Why are they so mean? I asked Roy.  Because they have to be “right,” said Roy.  And that means everybody else has to be “wrong.”  In addition to making for very uncomfortable working conditions, this impulse to be king of the castle and keep the peons at bay may help the career of the individual scientist, but it does not help scientific knowledge in general.


I have my own two degrees of separation from Paine by way of Jim Estes, who is also famous, and also extremely generous with himself in the service of knowledge transfer.  Estes established that the trophic cascade goes on in the deep waters as well as in the shallows, and he was instigated in his research by Bob Paine himself.  Jim Estes was not only consistently amenable to being interviewed by me for The Spine of the Continent, he likewise gave time and guidance to Cristina Eisenberg as she was writing her book about trophic cascades, The Wolf’s Tooth, and also to William Stolzenburg, whose book on the same subject is Where the Wild Things Were.  Since Eisenberg, Stoltzenberg and myself are disseminating science to the wider public, perhaps and hopefully inspiring youngsters to take to the cause of nature, Estes deserves his own major branch on the tree of Paine.  The world of books can of course be just as rife with rivalry and small-mindedness as that of science, and it is just as counter-productive in this ecosystem.

Nature’s Tipping Point, Part I

January 16, 2013 | Uncategorized | Permalink

Over the next several weeks I’m going to intersperse my usual kinds of blogs with a series featuring Michael Soule.  Michael is widely considered the “father” of conservation biology, a field he helped establish in order to bring scientific rigor to conservation practices. I profile him in depth in my book, The Spine of the Continent.  

In today’s blog, Michael confronts the paradox of human success. As a species we have proliferated partly due to what he dubs “pro-life” impulses including humanitarianism; animalism; and conservationism. Our deeper rooted impulses – the emotional brain, which really controls our behavior – always misleads us and has resulted in monumentally destructive consequences.

Please join Michael in dialog about these vital questions. Comment on his blogs, post your own, and disseminate widely across various social networks! Part of the solution is creating a wider discussion around the issues that assail us, so we can make better decisions together.

Note: This and some subsequent blogs are excerpted from “Perverse Compassion: The Faith-based, Trickle-down Model of Conservation,” by Michael Soule, the full text of which is available on his website: http://www.michaelsoule.com/

Nowadays, the pace of environmental degradation is staggering. Planetary change is happening perhaps 100 times as fast as a century ago. Everything is affected by the speedup – digital communications,, stock trades, how fast we walk, and the rate of species extinction. Assuming that commerce and growth carry on as usual, virtually all wild rivers will soon be dammed, most tropical forests replaced by commercial plantations, marine fish stocks will continue to be depleted, oceans increasingly acidified, deserts “improved” with desalinated water, wind farms, and solar collectors.

Our species achieved its near-absolute dominance over nature linked to a series of cognitive and cultural breakthroughs between 100,000 and 200,000 years ago, beginning with artisinal innovation, the refinement of language, and cooperation within and between clans. For good and harm, there is little question that humans are without peer in many cognitive and behavioral realms. Compassion is one of these realms, and so is the moral impulse to care about the well-being of others – at least some others. Humanitarianism, the promotion of human welfare, has greatly improved the human condition overall.

But humans are not angels, and the ideal of a universal, loving humanity is still beyond our reach. Intergroup aversion and hostility are ubiquitous, and human groups are often rivals. Racism, patriotism, and religious fundamentalism constrict and distort our humanitarianism. We all have biases, dissonant beliefs, stuff we hate, ideologies to which we cling and those that we despise.

Our clannish nature contributes to an “us-against-them” estrangement between human beings and other life forms, particularly those creatures, such as wolves and prairie dogs that might unconsciously challenge our hegemony. A related bias is “resourcism,” the exceptionalist notion that nature has little value except as a human resource and that non-resource creatures have no value or “purpose.” Our impulse to dominate nature reflects this resource/non-resource dualism and is one of the darker hairs on the underbelly of humanitarianism.

Questions: Many scientists call for us to rename the current geological epoch the “anthropocene,” to reflect the fact that human behavior is impacting Earth processes on a par with great geological forces. Is renaming a sober confrontation with reality, or is it throwing-in-the-towel? What do you think of the evident preference humanity has for its own kind above that of other species? And what of “resourcism”? Is nature here purely for our own use, or does it have an inherent right to exist?

Next week’s blog discusses what some are calling “the new environmentalism,” which says that current trends are nothing to worry about, and in fact create opportunities to help improve the standard of living for more people. This view expressly places nature in the position of servant to human master.



January 5, 2013 | Uncategorized | Permalink

The other night an old friend from LA was in town and came to dinner.  He’d just finished adapting a nonfiction memoir for the screen – that’s what he does for a living.  He said he was pretty satisfied with his work, and had “followed the Joseph Campbell hero stuff” carefully, so he feels the screenplay is structurally sound.

Coincidentally, I happened to be reading A Fire in the Mind, a biography of Campbell.  Campbell performed a vast cultural service in putting his arms around all world mythology and telling us that myths are the source of our self-realization — the observing ego needs a mirror by which to assess its progress, and myths provide it. He advocated deliberately seeing yourself as a main player in mythic time, and emphasized the utility of getting off the beaten path.  Myths give us the blueprint for the “hero’s journey” each of us must take, and in short surmise, this is how it goes:  the hero leaves home, undergoes an initiation, and returns.  Suffering and loss are involved and then insight and direction are gained.  The hero myth is a traditionally male thing and if you are biologically minded as I am, in it you can see the life history of many mammals simply being reenacted by homo sapiens.  The male wolf, for example, lights out for the territory (yes,  Huckleberry Finn follows the hero’s trajectory long before Campbell named it), finds new ground and a mate, and sets up shop, sometimes starting a new pack, and sometimes joining another one.

Probably one of the main big draws of Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love is that it’s a gal’s hero journey and the very first thing the narrator departs from is a marriage, which is usually where women end up at the end of traditional stories.  Very appealing to the modern American sensibility.  I just finished Where Did You Go, Bernadette?, which is a fun read, and it too is a gal’s hero journey; as of course is Wild, the subtitle of which:  “From Lost to Found on the Pacific Coast Trail,” says it all. Women do seem to need to have a nervous breakdown to initiate their heroic journeys – what is up with that?

So…I’m getting old but frankly I’m finding this narrative redundant.  Okay it’s all fine and good but to me it doesn’t go far enough.  Personal satisfaction at the end of a hike up a mountain or around the world or a journey to Antarctica – well, so what? We have seven billion people and counting on this Earth and so what if each one of us finds our “bliss”?  (Campbell got it that people would misinterpret his directive to “follow your bliss” and later said you should “follow your blisters.”) Are all these books Campbell’s fault, I wondered? Shouldn’t story-telling push us farther than our own individual “potential”? Can we only tell stories this way because writer’s workshops and how-to guides like The Writer’s Journey:  Mythic Structure for Writers have rubber-stamped what it is to have an identity and only those stories that fit this mold will be published or produced as movies?  Hasn’t this all become a contradiction in terms?

Aha!  Campbell got better and better at synthesizing and communicating his message and a great place to get a big dose of it is in The Power of Myth, which is a book-length conversation with Bill Moyers.  Campbell explains that in fact, we need new myths that reflect modern life, but he said things are changing so fast now it will take more time for those new myths to emerge. Campbell’s whole thing is that virtually all religion (another person’s religion is a myth to you and vice versa) tells the same intrinsic story (see hero, above) thus indicating a deep unity at the base of all humanity no matter what race or tradition.  The tribal thing gets in the way, he said.  When you condemn another tribe’s myth/religion you create trouble (and yes we see that everywhere in the world).  He said the next iteration of myth needs to incorporate the planet. Everybody into the pool:  it’s all one big story we are all in it together.  And maybe citizen science will give us a new format for telling stories about our Earth – saving nature together, reuniting the riven disciplines of art and science – citizen science puts its arms around the world like Campbell did, and goes even deeper than mythic time.  Citizen science is about evolutionary time.  Now there’s a story.

The End of Love

December 28, 2012 | Uncategorized | Permalink

Marilyn Yalom proposes How the French Invented Love, giving us “Nine Hundred Years of Passion and Romance,” and then she brings us up to the present day, in which the French have seemingly lost the recipe.  Yalom is the prolific elucidator of many feminine-oriented fields of inquiry, including A History of the Wife and A History of the Breast.  Her book on love is an historic tour of the subject through a mostly literary lens, until it isn’t.  She starts with Abelard and Heloise and moves on through the centuries, covering La Princesse de Cleves, (her affection for which is very appealing), and on through such heavyweights as Moliere, Rousseau, Madame Roland, Stendhal, Balzac…of course Flaubert, Gide, Proust, Colette, de Beauvoir and Sartre, and pretty much finally, Duras.  This book is uniformly well-written and presents a useful time-line of mostly French literature.

Passion dies after Yalom’s appreciation of The Lover, the incandescent and elliptical novel in which Marguerite Duras exposes her autobiographical, quivering everything.  It runs into Michel Houllebecq, for one major amatory roadblock, though Yalom’s complete dismissal of his depressive reductions misses the poignancy to be found, for example, in The Map and the Territory.   Very oddly Yalom finishes up her book with a hard left turn into the ripped-from-the-headlines story of Dominque Strauss-Kahn.  Why conclude a book about literature with a real-life story of rape?  Certainly his is not the first story of a man in power exerting a savage indifference to others, and neither is his state-sanctioned violence against women original.  And what’s love got to do with it?

This sudden pothole in Yalom’s narrative got me thinking.  Apparently there’s no love left in France, or in the French imagination:  why not?  Though certainly not confined to the recombining of chromosomes and the whelping of resultant generations, love does have perhaps the most practical of all purposes, and that is procreation.  The French, of course, have been famously declining in numbers for some time, the population of the country bolstered with immigrants.  So…are there big love stories coming from burgeoning races elsewhere?  Not that I have heard of or know about, though of course I’m provincial and limited.  Is there a love literature alive anywhere?  It would seem not.

Does our 7 billion-plus Earthly population have anything to do with it?  We don’t need romantic love anymore.  We have more than enough people and our civilization runneth over.  Eros has done its job too well.  The French may have invented “romance,” but who will now invent or reinvent agape, which arguably includes reverent and protective impulses, and philia, which extends love outward to just about everybody?  Who invented compassion, or is the concept still on the drawing board?