Monday, August 3, 2020

Book Review: A Season on the Wind

Kenn Kaufman does something ingenious in A Season on the Wind: Inside the World of Spring Migration (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2019). He compares and contrasts the way migratory birds harness the wind to propel them northward versus the bumbling attempts of our own species to capture the wind to meet our energy needs. He and his wife, Kimberly Kaufman, live in a unique location where these powerful phenomena clash head on, quite literally. To his credit, Kaufman exercises remarkable restraint in addressing the downside of renewable wind energy, while exhorting the miracle that is spring migration at Magee Marsh in northwest Ohio, U.S.A.

The book is a brilliant and colorful chronology of the history of tracking bird migration in the Americas, and northwest Ohio specifically. While many birders recoil at the notion that anything good can come from hunting, the author reminds us that the first major strides in bird conservation came about as a result of preservation of wetlands by waterfowl hunters. The organization of hunters into a cohesive unit of persuasion and legislation is something birders should take note of and emulate to achieve more widespread measures to preserve and protect our avian fauna.

From the almost primitive practice of bird banding, to next generation radar, citizen science initiatives, and birding festivals like the Biggest Week in American Birding right there at Magee Marsh, we are constantly improving our collective and individual understanding of spring migration. Kaufman deftly walks the line between what is often seemingly dispassionate formal scientific research and the nearly anthropomorphic appreciation of birds by non-scientists. The book, like the author himself, delivers fact, humor, emotion, and honesty in its appraisal of our constantly-changing, nearly schizophrenic relationship to the natural world, with birds at the center.

It would be easy to write effusively about the spectacle of bird migration as if it exists in a vacuum, a historical constant, a changeless exercise that goes on relentlessly regardless of our own existence. Most writers would simply paint a rosy picture that serves to recruit new birders and birdwatchers, and entertain readers without ever hinting at the negative impacts our species can have on migrant fauna.

Likewise, it would be easy to write a downer of a narrative that focuses solely on the perils birds face during their aerial journey north. There is certainly enough material for one to take a full manuscript in either direction. Balancing the joys with the sorrows, anger, and frustration is no easy task, but that is clearly what Kaufman set out to do, and he executes it flawlessly. When you think you cannot recover from the devastation of the previous chapter, the next one renews your enthusiasm and optimism.

One of the most significant points illustrated in A Season on the Wind is the growth of birding as a social activity. Thanks to advances in communication, formerly isolated naturalists and leisure birders can connect with each other to any degree they wish. Some still prefer “alone time” communing with the nature, but that no longer has to be the default setting. The speed of learning about birds has increased by several orders of magnitude, and the diversity of the birding community has the potential to explode as well.

Kaufman, his wife, and their contemporaries in the ornithological community are as relentless in their pursuit of justice for birds and birders as the birds are committed to their instinctive drive to move seasonally. The birds must navigate both the constant starlit sky above and the radically shifting landscape below. Climate change is a force we are attempting to mitigate for ourselves and other species, yet it is also the driving force behind wind turbine technologies that are cutting birds out of the sky.

This conundrum forces us to confront problems of scale. Bird migration is not a stream of birds like a river in the sky. The birds are widely dispersed and the grand scale of migration guarantees that migrants will confront lethal obstacles wherever they exist. The scale of wind farms, in both height and breadth, is the problem. Bird-safe technologies exist, but offer little profit for utility companies, so they remain neglected. By now we should have reciprocal power grids, mostly localized, where individual households and businesses can feed a centralized source with surplus energy in sunny, breezy times and draw from it on cooler, calmer days.

I am already anxious for a sequel to A Season on the Wind, as the emerging discipline of aeroecology recognizes the complex web of organisms that exists overhead, and seeks to unravel those aerial interactions. Meanwhile, you will find this current book a thoughtful, stimulating, and optimistic read.

Friday, July 17, 2020

Writing Wishful Fiction

I confess that I have always looked down a little on fiction writers, perhaps because I know something about insects and how their natural history often rivals or exceeds anything our imaginations could conjure. Consequently, I never seriously entertained the idea of writing fiction myself. Then I realized that every time I write a comment on social media, or publish a blog post about how I wish the world was, instead of how it is, I am doing precisely that: writing fiction.

Never could I craft a novel about some dystopian future, I think we are already living that. I write in part to fend off depression and articulate rage, not plunge deeper into it. I want to provoke, get people to think outside the institutions that they have relied on to guide them through life. Every human institution, be it government, business, religion, or education, is deeply flawed. They all create belief systems that support aspirations of material wealth, rewarding greed, and then “educate” us on why it can be no other way.

The more I age, the greater the urgency to put out my ideas and viewpoints before I die; and most days I feel like I cannot die fast enough. The truth is that I would rather be living in a different time. One thing education has taught me is the “history” in “natural history,” and now I know what I am missing. Carolina Parakeet. American Chestnut, and on and on. All species matter to me, but how can we get there if we cannot respect all of our fellow Homo sapiens?

There is a certain degree of fear to be faced in being true to yourself, let alone publicly articulating your interpretation of the world. Most of us shut the door too quickly on unsolicited views that disagree with what we have grown-up with, and feel threatened by anything contradictory. Some respond with verbal or physical hostility to new ideas. We are seeing that now with the disgusting backlash against those who are, finally, forcefully asserting their rights as human beings and citizens fed-up with oppression in every form it has taken.

I used to feel fortunate to have been born white, male, and a citizen of the United States. I no longer find much pride in any of those circumstances. Privilege is now a burden, a shame, but it should be. I have accrued my status less by what I have achieved, than by what others have been deprived of. Higher still are those on social and economic pedestals that require reinforcement through deprivation of those beneath them. Do they not see they are eroding what is supporting them?

Our cultural evolution should be far more advanced than it is, but in America at least there are orchestrated attempts to halt it, if not return to less enlightened times. Those that long for the comfort and consistency of discrete norms and gender roles and monochromatic populations are doing a disservice to all people, including themselves.

The time for dreams and other wishful fiction must end now. Those positive products of our imagination demand to be transformed into action and tangible benefits for all. I think I am pretty good at spitting out ideas and concepts, not very good at implementing them. You? We do not each live in a vacuum. Time to make connections and complement each other’s strengths to achieve things greater than we could without cooperation.

Here is an exercise for you. Make a list of things you cannot live without. It should be pretty short unless you list family and friends individually. I hope it includes other living things, too, and clean water, healthy food, affordable shelter, healthcare, and lifelong opportunities for education. Freedom of expression. That is about where my own list ends. Now make a list of everything you are willing to sacrifice so others can have the things you can’t live without.

Demand better, please, of yourself, and of those who represent you in government, religion, and business. Connect more with those “different” from yourself and you will quickly realize you have more in common with them than the elitist class you have always been instructed to aspire to. We deserve better than the ephemeral taste of mere material success.

Friday, June 26, 2020

Statues

What is a statue if not rigid, impermeable, unmovable, defiant of the elements that would change it? Copper to cyan, stone to dust. What does a statue represent if not a memorial, nay, a celebration, of history, right or wrong? Concrete figures, concrete ideas, ideals. This is what we are being asked to sacrifice right now, and it is the most minor price to pay.

© nytimes.com

The hostile, even violent sentiments and actions directed at those who are advocating the removal of symbolic representations of racism, overt or rendered invisible by most of the historical record, is disappointing at best, and an infers personal racist tendencies at worst. Are those Black Lives (that) Matter reaching? Is this a witch hunt in which no white, political, military, or social hero with a sculptural remembrance is safe? Maybe, but more likely white people have never been exposed to the entire truth.

If you are unwilling to entertain changes to something as trivial as statues and namesakes, then how can you possibly be willing to make the necessary changes to social, political, legal, economic, business, and religious institutions that continually oppress people of color?

Personally, I associate Theodore Roosevelt with the founding of the national park system, and other conservation initiatives. I am well aware he was a hunter, and that his attitudes towards some species were, in retrospect, completely uninformed, to put it politely. I choose to acknowledge that and temper my respect for him accordingly. Now that I learn his image is a target of anti-racist activists, I need to do more research, not mindlessly object to voices calling for removal of public monuments depicting him.

Even entomology, my other chosen field of endeavor, has not been immune to serious confrontations. The Entomological Society of America, at its regional and national conferences, features a quiz event called the Linnean Games, after Carolus “Carl” Linnaeus, an eighteenth-century figure known as the “Father of Taxonomy,” the classification of organisms. Many insect species bear his name as author but, apparently, he also attempted to classify our own species, Homo sapiens, into different categories, some of which reflect horribly upon Linneaus’s character. There is now a furious uproar between those who want to rename the Linnean Games and those defending the status quo.

The energy devoted to defending individuals of dubious ethical quality should disturb us all. The obvious but unspoken question is: If you are unwilling to entertain changes to something as trivial as statues and namesakes, then how can you possibly be willing to make the necessary changes to social, political, legal, economic, business, and religious institutions that continually oppress people of color? Your voice speaks loud and clear that you are more interested in protecting the past and the present than you are committing to a new, brighter, better future.

Your comfort is overrated, especially compared to the daily fear that black people have for their very lives. Too many white people who protest they are “not racist!” still accept blacks only under certain conditions. Black servants and entertainers (and I lump professional athletes in this category) are acceptable. Even then, we decry that they are overpaid, and probably thugs off the court or off the field. Blacks in other professions? They only advanced in their careers through the reverse discrimination of affirmative action. They got through college via scholarships for blacks only.

Far more inflexible and resistant to change than statues are our own minds. That is the tragedy in all of this. Even air pollution, bird guano, rain, and wind erode the stone- and metalworks. Why is nothing nibbling at our psyche? We are blessed by our Creator, or through evolution, or both, with an infinite capacity to adapt to changes, be they physical, social, economic, or emotional/psychological. Too often we conveniently ignore that and persist in beliefs and institutions that protect our self-interests at the expense of others. That is not even what other animal societies do. It could be argued that elephants, cetaceans, and Bonobos are light years ahead of us.

Lastly, resisting what Black Lives Matter and others have started is not only futile, it goes against your own self-interest as a middle- or lower-class Caucasian. I promise, no, guarantee, that if you embrace the values inherent in this movement it will elevate your life to unimaginable heights. If you cannot fathom what true equality looks like, simply imagine a more empathetic, compassionate, prosperous version of yourself. Now, act like you are already there.

Sunday, May 31, 2020

The Riot Within*

Violent protests in response to violent actions are understandable, especially when the violent actions occur repeatedly, and are directed disproportionately towards human beings who are already marginalized in every other regard. What white privileged people need to do is shake up their own hearts and minds, violently so if necessary. Here are some things to consider.

The following is not a riddle, but a starting point to operate from: What is not black, white, yellow, red, brown, or any other color? What is not male, female, or any other sexual or gender identity? What is not gay, straight, queer, or any sexual orientation at all? What is not young or old? The answer is: Your soul. Think about that. The very fabric of your being has absolutely nothing to do with demographics nor outward appearances. Most of those are accidents of genetics and time.

We must begin to live our lives first and foremost from that perspective, as soul first, and everything else second. Not even second. Trivial, if not totally meaningless. Some rare individuals have achieved this, but most of us have not. It is not something you can teach, and not an overnight transformation. It takes conscious effort, and it may even fly in the face of your biological nature. The thing about our species is that we were gifted the ability to understand and, when necessary, overcome our instincts when they do not serve us well.

Caucasian people cannot possibly comprehend what the experience of a black person is like. We can, maybe, understand from our own experiences those circumstances of exclusion, repeated denial of our worth, and poverty. Thankfully, fewer still know the fear for their life every day, from others, even law enforcement. We do not know what it is to be subjected daily to suspicion, stereotypes, and injustice, with zero justification. If we can at least empathize, then we know we cannot demand that those tortured souls “behave” themselves in the face of continued mistreatment.

We should indeed feel shame for participating in institutional racism, even unwittingly, and fully recognize the sins of our fathers from previous generations. It can end with us if we want it to. We should want it to, because in limiting anyone else, we limit ourselves. Back to the soul again, the part of you that is colorblind. You cannot elevate your own being by denigrating anyone else. That is the strategy of the bully, and if you measure your life purely by economic and social status, then you are missing the vast ocean for the beach.

Surrender is the answer, of course. Surrender power to those we have marginalized and betrayed. Exercise your faith that equality for others does not translate to reverse inequality. Reverse discrimination is a myth fed to us by those who wield economic and social power over others of all non-affluent demographics. Stop defining the rules so that you can maintain all the benefits you receive from them. Stop insisting that you know what is best for others when they can damn well speak for themselves. Take their cuffs off and embrace the possibilities.

Most of all, surrender your personal attitudes and assumptions, and expose yourself as much as possible to as many other souls as possible, ignoring the externalities. “Free your mind” is not just a wonderful quote from The Matrix, it should be what we strive for every minute of every day. Accept nothing less of yourself than a total commitment to living from your soul first, and accepting others at the level of their soul.

Limitless. That is the essence of our souls, and we are all in bondage when we define ourselves and each other by mere physicality, philosophy, and fiscal parameters. Murder, mass incarceration, discrimination, and racism are overt acts of hostility that threaten to unravel us as a society and as individuals. They are the antithesis of who we are at our core, in our souls. We owe it to ourselves to be better than that, to transcend our bodies and minds, and lead with our hearts.

* This title came to mind without my knowledge that it is also the title of a book by Rodney King.

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Charity Fatigue

There is no shortage of organizations to choose from in spending your donation dollars during our international pandemic emergency, assuming you have some disposable income and are not yourself in need of assistance. It can be overwhelming to contemplate charitable giving for a variety of reasons beyond the infinite diversity of causes. How do we act responsibly? That is a very personal decision only you can make.

Remember the adage “charity begins at home?” Ok, sounds great, but how come you do not qualify for a tax deduction unless the family member you are providing financial aid to lives physically in your household as a “dependent?” Countless citizens in the U.S. are caregivers to their parents in one sense or another, often helping maintain the independence of their mother or father, as they should if at all possible. Apparently, our government does not respect that effort. It certainly does not reward it.

A friend who reviews government grant applications as part of her job responsibilities recently described how she was receiving applications from individuals desperate for financial aid, but who had no experience in the proper field, nor any explicit outline or plan germane to the grant itself. At least one individual was seeking funds for healthcare. Grant applications are not easily prepared, nor without strict protocol, so going to such lengths knowing the odds are stacked heavily against you is a tragically remarkable effort.

My friend’s empathetic sharing of her travail exposes the most excruciating notion to contemplate: There are clearly many needs that should already be met by governments, the private sector, or both. Increasingly, federal, state, and local jurisdictions are abdicating their responsibilities to the poor, women, and marginalized citizens we have historically referred to as minorities. This willful neglect is too often at the behest of large corporations seeking tax breaks, outright bailouts, and other subsidies to permit continued profiteering.

The situation is further aggravated by those same corporations who refuse to pay living wages to their employees, provide affordable healthcare options, family leave, and other “benefits” that amount to necessities in order to maintain a physically, mentally, and financially healthy, productive workforce.

The concentration of wealth in the hands of a few also results in a small number of charitable foundations receiving a disproportionately large amount of donor revenue. Bill Gates wants to end malaria. Noble cause, but how many other causes go wanting? Every celebrity guest appearing on Jimmy Fallon’s at-home episodes of The Tonight Show has their pet charity that they advocate. Not every organization is blessed with such high-profile endorsements; and when does your donation become social currency for your own popularity?

Social media fundraisers run the gamut, too, and it is likely that many of your friends will select a favorite organization for which to solicit donations. This is a wonderful opportunity, but I find myself donating randomly, by gut instinct rather than proper research for how the organization is run, what percentage of your donation reaches its target versus what goes to administrative costs, and other factors that would better inform my decision.

Beyond the motivation for generosity generated by other individuals, and the media, there exist far more reasons for “charity choice paralysis.” The more empathetic the individual, the more difficult it is to choose, the easier it is to cling to your money lest you face a personal crisis yourself. Often, those who want to help are the least likely to ask for help themselves when they truly need it. Tornado and hurricane seasons are approaching, maybe we should wait until one of those other natural disasters hits us. Wow, when did charitable giving begin to resemble gambling?

Ultimately, no one can persuade you to part with your money for any reason, nor should they try. You have freedom of choice, one of those being to refrain from making donations. As for myself, I am torn these days between giving up on humanity entirely, and donating strictly to organizations devoted to the salvation of other species; or just scrolling through GoFundMe to find worthy individuals. Maybe I will seize upon an opportunity provided by a friend brave enough to disclose their dire circumstances on Facebook.

Monday, March 30, 2020

We Have to Stop Perpetuating Pain

© m.dailyhunt.in

In the United States there is only one thing we do better than taking care of each other. That would be screwing each other. I know because I have been a perpetrator in the past, still guilty on occasion even now, and firmly believe I will always possess the tendency to want to punish others for times I perceive to have been wronged. We cannot continue this “kick the dog” mentality or we will never have a society worth living in. Why is this an overwhelmingly male condition? How do we start to heal and redeem ourselves?

I understand how difficult it is to suppress the urge to smite someone or something that screwed you. The other day, in talking with someone about what legal recourse I have to recover thousands of dollars in repair costs due to what I believe was an undisclosed issue with a house we purchased last year, I was reminded by the person that ethics does not figure into the situation. It is all about what you can prove. She told me she has never heard of a real estate dispute that resolved in favor of the plaintiff. I left the conversation more pissed-off than when I started. The money is the least of it, of course. The real blow is the shame. I am convinced I was made a fool of, that the prior owner of the home is laughing at me, that my father is scolding me, even from the grave. Perception is reality.

Men do not do well with intangibles. Our desire is to make tangible our feelings, and it never ends well. We smash the dish as a symbol of a broken heart. Worse yet we physically beat someone so they can feel externally what we feel internally. There! You feel that?! No, they don’t. They don’t make the connection because it is not even an apples to oranges comparison. You cannot control your own emotions by controlling someone else.

Boys learn early on that social rank is important. It goes beyond popularity. It is imperative to be an alpha if you want to receive tangible benefits like sex, money, fame, and respect. The irony is that sex, money, and fame are either fleeting, of minor importance, or come with a whole new set of drawbacks, or all of the above. Meanwhile, respect has nothing to do with sex, money, or fame. Money should be earned, but in gross amounts it seldom is. True respect hinges on how you deal with….intangibles. How do you handle rejection? How do you deal with disappointment or failure? How do you react when someone wrongs you? Does your perception of reality match actual reality?

You can’t let people walk all over you, you say. You have to fight back, your father tells you when you are the victim of a bully. You gonna let her do that to you, bro? your friends say when your girlfriend breaks up with you. Toxic logic, that is what we are constantly bombarded with. We are taught that we are already perfect, and anyone who challenges that notion is our enemy, and they need to be taught a lesson. No, it is we who need to see our setbacks as lessons. Step back, take stock, adjust, and move on.

Most women understand this. They may have the opposite problem of failing to be assertive, believing that they are not worthy alone, without a relationship. They are taught a different kind of toxic logic, that they are to be subordinate to males. This was probably never true even when we roamed the African plains in our early evolution as pre-tribal groups. Our lineage would have ended long ago if either sex failed to provide for the other.

Fast forward to modern times, to today when we face a global pandemic and our overriding reaction here in the U.S.A. is selfishness. Hoard the tangibles. Hit the beaches, physical distancing be damned. Get myself tested whether I have symptoms or not. Figure out how I can exploit this disaster for my own financial benefit, be it selling stocks via insider trading, or crafting a predatory scam. “Eff You!” has replaced “E Pluribus Unum” as our national motto.

We are consistently pitted against one another. Employers overwork and under pay during the best of times. Now they fire the workforce to appease shareholders who see their stocks plummeting. The cascading effects of a capitalist economy can now be seen clearly, yet we cling to more toxic logic: If we just work harder, we’ll eventually achieve the riches we aspire to. The American Dream itself is toxic. Material wealth is no measure of respect and self-worth because you cannot measure intangibles. We desperately strive to make it so, but it never will be.

How do we find some measure of hope when venomous economics, poisonous relationships, and now a lethal pandemic are what we face? We have to begin, individually, to perpetuate peace and kindness instead of anger and pain and resentment. It takes mindfulness, willfulness, and persistence. It is proactive instead of reactive. In essence, we have to create our own hope. The good news is, that as long as we are alive, and our brains are functioning, we can do that.

Saturday, March 21, 2020

The Coronavirus Reveals That Our "Normal" is Itself a Disaster

© Mayoclinic.org

Since I am not even remotely literate in epidemiology, it would be irresponsible to comment on the medical aspects of covid-19. However, the fallout from it in terms of social, economic, and cultural reactions is fair game. What, if anything, will we learn from this collective experience? What will change permanently? Is resumption of “normal” an appropriate outcome? Serious questions abound if we want a better future.

Mandates and directives are changing daily, if not hourly, as governments at every level make new policy decisions based on the latest information available from the scientific community. We hope that is the process, anyway, but consumer confidence is often conspicuously absent. Politically-motivated courses of action are also at play, and it is left to media pundits and the citizenry to conclude which are in the best interest of the public versus being to the benefit of corporations and the (considerably) more wealthy.

This episode is a bizarre hybrid of a natural disaster and a manmade, or at least human-induced, catastrophe. Our behavior reflects it. While we are at our best, as Americans, anyway, in the face of hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, and floods, we are at our apprehensively worst when confronting a Y2K situation, or, obviously, a potentially cataclysmic disease pandemic. Consequently, the coronavirus has left us torn between a hoarding, every-man-for-himself mentality and a longing for closeness that violates the imperative of social distancing. Mentally and physically we are stressed to the max, and that only makes our immune systems more vulnerable to the pathogen we are trying desperately to avoid contracting.

My social media feed is full of humor, thank goodness, but also angst and uncertainty. There is little comfort to be had, and if there is anything we in the U.S. are addicted to, it is comfort….and convenience….and dependable sources of entertainment, food, and beverage….and ideally all at the same place and time. Right now, if the internet goes down, we are collectively screwed. Food delivery goes away? We are doomed.

Those in cities and suburbs, at least, are feeling helpless. Rural populations are likely laughing at us. They put a premium on self-reliance, and whatever we are in for as a result of our dependence on others in the big city, well, we deserve it. All our learnin’ and liberalism ain’t gonna get us nowhere. Forgive that last remark, or better yet take it to heart because there is some truth in it. Farmers, ranchers, and others who labor in small, far-flung communities deserve respect. Their skill sets are broader out of necessity. We could learn a good deal from them in how to prepare for emergencies.

As our lives boil down to basics, as our economic systems are forced to reevaluate their most basic tenets, and as we gain a new appreciation of what really matters, will we remember it all when life returns to our expectations? Should that be what we aim for? This pandemic is both a crisis and a valuable opportunity for make fundamental changes in our global culture, as well as addressing shortcomings here in the U.S.

Personally, maybe we make different choices in the marketplace, supporting local businesses over chain retail and dining. We’ve learned we can live without unhealthy foods we’d come to crave. We continue positive habits we evolved to cope with the stress of self-quarantine and social distancing.

Collectively, ideally, we embrace science again, start advocating for better pay and benefits for teachers, and press even harder for healthcare reform and a living wage so we can better weather future emergencies. We recall which of our civic leaders were on the side of working people, the elderly, and our youth, and who was trying to maximize their own gains or minimize their own losses at the expense of the rest of us. We remember that in the next election cycle, and push initiatives that would affect the removal of corrupt officials from office faster than recall elections.

Let us also recognize the need to repair the barriers between humanity and the wilderness that are necessary for the protection of our global population from novel pathogens. Not every organism is an appropriate resource. Probably not a resource in any way, shape or form, actually. Periodically we are reminded that our existence is tenuous, dependent on an infinite number of factors beyond our personal control. This is one of those times. Let us heed the warning, and work unselfishly toward sustainability.