Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Book Review: Underbug Will Unravel Your Mind, in a Good Way

Lisa Margonelli's Underbug: An Obsessive Tale of Termites and Technology (2018 Scientific American, 303 pp) offers a much bigger picture than a mere glimpse inside a termite mound. The book has a story arc as great as the universe, and as small as a microbe found in a termite's gut. It represents a metamorphosis of history, science, and the mind of the author herself. Part memoir, part journey, and all science and experience, it works brilliantly.

The only holes in Underbug are the ones in the dust jacket, a clever nod to the affinity of termites for all things cellulose and lignin, or derived from it. The irony that this work about termites will inevitably be consumed by them reflects a bit of the humor in Margonelli's approach, as well as the futility of expectations in scientific inquiry.

It came as a shock to this reader that the book was something of an afterthought that emerged from a....recreational(?)....fascination with scientific endeavors that Margonelli was pursuing at her own expense, without monetary advances and publisher deadlines. Who does that? Maybe the proper question should be why don't we (writers) all do that? I dare say this might have been a completely different book if the author had started with the intention of writing it instead of putting a wild horse before an organized cart.

If your brain is wired to go off on tangents while reading, Underbug will have your mind reeling, spinning off into the existential time and time again. Anticipating a dry-as-weathered-wood treatise on termites? Then you have another think coming; and another, and another after that. All your assumptions about insects, science, and even history and culture are in for a shake-up. This is exactly what our society needs to recognize: that while we may have a desire to compartmentalize our human activities, social groups, and our personal motivations and emotions, they all have impacts far beyond our habitual perceptions. Interconnectedness, distant consequences, ambivalence, and empathy are the major themes of Underbug, not termites.

Margonelli is one of the "new" league of women non-fiction writers who is able to insert herself into the story to the correct degree, conveying humility and struggle rather than bravado and arrogance as many male writers tend to do. She manages the perfect mix of participation and detachment, cultivating a bond with readers that only gets stronger as the story progresses. She shares your skepticism, but has relentless curiosity and a tenacious commitment to doing whatever she needs to in order to elevate her knowledge and broaden her horizons.

Termites, it turns out, are a nexus of ridiculously disparate scientific disciplines, and a metaphor for human societies. They span a scale that ranges from their miniscule bodies to continental landscapes. Well, smaller than that since termites rely on intestinal microbes to digest cellulose and lignin into compounds useful to the termite. Meanwhile, the mounds of many species utterly transform ecosystems. One can argue that termite colonies and their architectural masterpieces are ecosystems.

How such a "simple" organism can achieve such overwhelming success is one of the conundrums addressed in Underbug. Our failure (so far) to scale-up the termite's "engine" to produce "grassoline" and other biofuels is a testament to the complexity of insects and the limits of science and the human mind. Also, where does one termite end and the colony begin? Which of those two is the "brain?" What constitutes a "mind?" You may be left wondering if termites have it better than we do. The attraction of instinct, after all, is freedom from morality, freedom from responsibility for our actions, because we would not be cognizant of them.

We are nothing if not collectively selfish, being animals ourselves, able to execute our desires to eliminate competition from other species for scarce resources, minimize mortality factors such as predators and pathogens, reproduce freely with greater success thanks to advances in medicine, and to enhance our lives through technology. However, as Margonelli writes:

"We need to call technology what it is -- an abstraction of power, politics, and economics. And then -- if we are going to take ideas from the termites into our human realm -- we should use them to become more human, not less."

I cannot recommend this book highly enough, as a microcosm of concepts in critical need of addressing by the world community, and mulled over with regularity by us as individuals, families, and local communities. Oh, and to explorers looking for signs of intelligent life in other galaxies? You might be looking for interstellar termites.

Saturday, May 4, 2019

Lessons From The City Nature Challenge

This year, Colorado Springs joined the ranks of those metropolitan areas participating in the fourth annual City Nature Challenge, which started in 2016 as a contest between Los Angeles and San Francisco to see which city could find the most species of wild organisms inside their municipal boundaries. Today it is a global event.

Blue Jay spotted during City Nature Challenge

Why The Nature Challenge Matters

Professional scientists cannot be everywhere at once, so "citizen scientists" are needed to help understand if animal and plant populations are healthy or declining. Unless an organism has an economic impact, positive or negative, chances are we know very little about it. We do not even know all the geographic areas certain species are found in. Your observations are critical and valuable.


Logistics of the City Nature Challenge

The City Nature Challenge is recorded on iNaturalist, an online platform that also has a smart phone app. Participants register on iNaturalist for free, look for their town's City Nature Challenge project, and subscribe to it. Observations of wild organisms (no people, pets, livestock, or cultivated plants, please) taken with phone or camera are then uploaded to the project. Observations are made in a four-day window, Friday through Monday. After that, you can still upload any observations made during that period, but most of that following week is devoted to identifying the animals, plants, fungi, and other living things already uploaded. City "winners" at the end of the project include most participants, most observations, and most species seen.

Black Swallowtail female

Limits and Pitfalls

At one point, the home page for iNaturalist gave the following disclaimer:

"iNaturalist had record levels of activity this week due to the City Nature Challenge, so notifications of activity such as identifications and comments are delayed. You may receive notifications out of sequence as we work through the backlog as quickly as possible. We apologize for the inconvenience and thank you for your patience."

That the website did not crash completely is a testament to its server capacity. This aspect of the City Nature Challenge seems to be in good order. Other problems remain, however.

  1. Participation. Recruiting people willing to make more than a casual effort, if that, appears to be the greatest shortcoming of the City Nature Challenge. Here in Colorado Springs, we maybe had one brief announcement on a television newscast. We had a total of 142 participants, many of them "accidental," in a city of roughly 800,000 people.
  2. Automatic suggestions for identification. iNaturalist has image recognition software that will "suggest" a species, family, order, or other level of taxonomy for the image you post. These suggestions are often wildly inaccurate and lead people to identify a North American insect as something from Africa, for example. Users should ignore this feature and instead assign the most obvious level of recognition, such as "grasshopper."
  3. Little or no crossover with other apps. One thing my wife and I noticed was a lack of birders making observations for City Nature Challenge. The avian-inclined prefer the app e-Bird. There is no excuse for not having e-Bird observations during the City Nature Challenge export automatically to iNaturalist. The technology is surely there. Likewise, other apps should be compatible with iNaturalist, at least for bioblitzes and the City Nature Challenge.
Many-lined Skink

Have a Plan of Attack

One thing I personally learned was that it would help to have a plan of attack, or at least a "plan B" if the weather is uncooperative. What can you count on for observations? Bird nests? Insect galls? Mealybugs on the houseplants? You would be surprised by the biodiversity indoors, in your basement, garage, or tool shed. Make a list to remind yourself of those places you can look, or species you know can be found reliably at a given location.

Yellow-rumped Warbler

Beyond The City Nature Challenge

If this is the first you have heard of City Nature Challenge, no worries. See if your city participated this year. No? Contact your parks department, local museum, or nature center and ask that they initiate an effort for next year. Meanwhile, you might want to make a habit of participating in other citizen science projects through iNaturalist and similar portals like Project Noah. You will make friends, learn much, and contribute positively to our understanding of planet Earth in the process. The idea that nature-watching can be a social activity is slowly catching on, and that common, widespread interest is what will ultimately protect and restore wild places.

Gilled fungi on a tree

Sunday, April 14, 2019

How Jason Ward is Making Birding "Cool"

If your stereotypical image of a birdwatcher ("birder" in today's language) is that of a solitary, stodgy old man, then you haven't met Jason Ward. Mr. Ward is almost single-handedly revolutionizing the world of birding through mini-documentaries on YouTube. In fact, his series Birds of North America With Jason Ward is less about the birds than the people who pursue them. That is exactly what wildlife conservation in general needs desperately.

© Audubon.org

Ward recognizes some fundamental realities that the generation raised on David Attenborough, Jacques Cousteau, and George Page (am I dating myself yet?) have largely ignored in current media production models. Number one, we have shorter attention spans now than we did back then. Most episodes of Birds of North America With Jason Ward are seven minutes or less. It takes a few episodes to get accustomed to the sometimes abrupt endings, but it also leaves you anxious for the next installment.

Beyond acknowledging our easily-distracted nature in the digital age, Ward understands our need to belong, to engage socially in healthy ways, interacting in person instead of relying on social media to feel a sense of connectedness. Jason is never alone in a single video. He reveals the shared passion of birders by talking to other birders, to ornithologists, to family and friends. The natural flow of each video is the direct result of this conversational approach to birding. Birders have been stereotyped, wrongly, as those people who admonish others to be quiet as if the outdoors is a library. Sure, you hear more if you are quiet, but you should have the freedom to celebrate your discoveries, even with a "lifer dance" after seeing a species new to you.

It is a difficult line to walk between reverence and exuberance, but Jason Ward nails it. He is young enough to have a contagious influence on millennials, but old enough to have respect for his elder mentors and colleagues. He recognizes the recreational aspect of birding while asserting its importance to science, personal physical health, wildlife conservation, and environmental health. Always, there is the social component to birding. The festivals. The regular group walks in Central Park. The ritual is all important. The commitment is the thing.

Any person or organization wishing to increase public participation in natural history recreation and citizen science would do well to emulate the style of Jason Ward in recruiting new blood to entomology, botany, mycology, herpetology....basically all the "ologies."

Back in my day, you engaged in "nature stuff" at risk of ridicule. A childhood friend, now deceased, played hockey and was otherwise considered a rugged and appropriately masculine young man. He swore me to secrecy before showing me his butterfly collection. Today, there is no more need to do your thing on the down-low. You can be proud of your interests and know there are others out there like you. This is a powerful new facet to nature study.

I have studiously avoided stating the obvious, that Jason Ward is a "person of color," but it would also be disrespectful to not say so. Human diversity is still sadly lacking in birding and other science-based activities, and that condition must be improved dramatically if birding is to continue to expand its ranks, and bird conservation is to truly excel in achieving its goals and fulfilling its missions. There is no place for exclusion in an endeavor built on the principal that all organisms on the planet deserve dignity, respect, celebration, and protection.

Please avail yourself of any and all opportunities to view Birds of North America With Jason Ward, online, or through your television streaming service. I guarantee your life will be enriched, your mood enhanced, and your passion for nature ignited or re-ignited in every episode. This is inspiring work with a unique and creative style perfect for meeting the challenges of wildlife conservation today.

Friday, April 5, 2019

Firing Blanks, Comic Relief, and Other News

Writers sometimes get into a funk where they churn out bad product. That has been the case for me, recently, and I have aborted or discarded my most recent attempts. Meanwhile, I am still thinking, creating, and dealing with personal matters.

© Skyword.com

When the world is full of bad news and emotional stress, I find that I become annoyed more by the little things, and take out my frustrations on matters of little importance, like television commercials. Conversely, I can be too eager to put in my two cents on something like the Mueller report, for which I have little information to be making any assertions. So there you have two posts that you will not be seeing any time soon.

The "thought cud" I am chewing on now relates to how the structure of economies mirrors that of ecosystems, and those aspects that differ between the two. Also on my mind is the notion that there is no such thing as a naturally occurring pest. That has book potential, would help inch me out of typecasting as a "bug writer," and stimulate some serious conversations about how we treat other species and each other.

On a lighter note, I have registered for another stand-up comedy workshop, this one in Colorado Springs, this summer. It has been almost twenty years since I last tried this, in Tucson. The results can be seen on YouTube:

I now have enough new material that I can pick and choose what works and what does not, and now it will come down to arranging and polishing. Comedy demands excellence in writing, so it is a great exercise for me as a writer, too. I would rather not perform it, but it is worth remembering that if you do not perform your own material, then you are not finishing the job, and it might never see the light of day otherwise. Write for someone else, and you risk that something gets lost in translation.

Income tax preparation is still staring me in the face, too, complicated by the transfer of my late father's estate into my name, the many changes for the worse in the tax code, and a relatively dismal year in earnings. Filing extensions might be my best friend this year.

The greatest recent stress should be a great joy, but it gives me angst instead. We bought a house....in Leavenworth, Kansas. Not the "big house," but I still worry that it will seem like incarceration once we move there, probably in a year or two. My wife's parents live in Leavenworth, and we want to be closer to be able to see them happily into their golden years. This I am fine with. My in-laws are wonderful people. The other factor in our decision is that housing prices in Colorado Springs are increasing exponentially. There is no way that we could afford an upgrade out of our current townhouse in the....neglected, shall we say, part of town.

© Zillow.com
Our new and future house

Leavenworth is church, prisons, and fort, pretty much in that order. Churches form the social foundation of this small town. Prisons are responsible for whatever constitutes their tourist economy. Fort Leavenworth furnishes much of the population and drives the business sector. These are three aspects of life I do not like. Religion is a human institution fraught with the same problems as business and government. Prisons symbolize the mass incarceration of minorities. While I support our troops, I rarely agree with the missions they are deployed to, and almost never with military policy and the wasteful Department of Defense budget.

© Wikipedia.org
Downtown Leavenworth, Kansas

Talk about a sense of misplaced, I fear I would feel completely alone. My wife has spearheaded the house hunt and put in the majority of work in the whole transaction process. I admire and appreciate her resourcefulness and resolve. She is not dragging me kicking and screaming through this, but more like heaving a limp body, heavy with resignation that this is going to be his destiny, like it or not. Ideally, I would rather live in southern California, or maybe one of the Mid-Atlantic states. It isn't the beaches, it is the vibrancy of people, the off-the-scale creative communities that draw my dreams there. It is the progressive nature of politics, the vastly greater appreciation of the natural world.

Now? I just finished sorting insect specimens from Miami for the Yard Futures project. Next up is....Los Angeles. Ah, what might have been.

Thursday, March 21, 2019

Economies Are Warped Reflections of Ecosystems

If ecosystems are what the planet is made of, then economies are the funhouse mirrors that wildly distort the principles the two have in common. A diversity of species fill all the niches in a natural ecosystem. Humans fill most of those roles in urban ecosystems. Humans fill all of those roles in economies.

It is said that nature abhors a vacuum. The elimination of apex predators, parasites, and competing species do not leave voids. Those niches are filled by human equivalents. This becomes abundantly clear in urban ecosystems, but we do not think of it that way. We prefer to think we are civilized, that we can somehow rise above the laws of nature, that in fact we do not even need natural systems to flourish. Should we regress to the village living in fear of lions, to an era before medications rendered disease merely a chapter in history books? No, of course not, but the marvels of our modern age have conveniently allowed us to imagine we are now immune to ecology.

We have further complicated matters by overlaying economics on top of nature, failing to acknowledge that economies are themselves a type of ecosystem, in which all the niches are filled by people. The currency of nature is energy. That energy is parceled out into three basic categories: organismal growth (metabolic), movement (kinetic), and rest (potential). The currency of economies is money. It, too, has several functions, including growth (interest and investment), movement (the marketplace), and rest (savings, retirement). The ideal form of economics would operate much like a natural ecosystem in terms of energy flow, but this is not what is happening. The predatory lenders, the parasitic scam artists, the diseases of poverty and addiction, among many other villains, derail economies time and time again. Capitalism and socialism alike are prone to rampant corruption, resulting in the hoarding of wealth (financial currency) that starves the system.

The energy of nature is requisite, finite, and circulates freely. The currency of man is arbitrary in the value it assigns to objects and resources, and it does not flow as freely as it should. "Precious metals" and "precious stones" are only so because we say they are. Nature assigns equal value to all of its components. Our human economies now look at everything from land to certain categories of humans in terms of whether they can produce financial profit. This is in direct conflict with natural laws and so we see deforestation, desertification, poverty, climate change, endangered species, pollution, invasive species, mass incarceration, and racism and genocide. These are just the intolerable conditions that come immediately and randomly to mind. You can probably add to the list.

Our final failure lies in a stunning denial of the fact that no matter what we do, we answer to the whims of planet Earth. We started to see the effects of our economic practices on nature shortly after the Industrial Revolution, but now that we are in the digital age, we believe that technology can save us. Computers and cell phones still rely on the extraction of natural resources, which leads not only to pollution with the disposal of the outmoded generation of products, but to ruthless competition to harvest materials for the components, among other complications we conveniently turn our heads away from.

Ultimately, the future of nature comes down to the willingness of Homo sapiens to exercise restraint, in our sheer numbers, and in our economic impact. Every species dreams of being in our shoes, able to eliminate mortality factors, eliminate competitors, reproduce astronomically, and thoroughly dominate the landscape. It is an impossible "success" story, however, when you erode the foundation of your castle. We will adapt and truly evolve only if we recognize value beyond financial profit. The marketplace is artificial. The Earth is not.

Saturday, March 2, 2019

Big, Urgent Things

© nytimes.com

The Green New Deal proposed by Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and her fellow Democrats is an ambitious plan for a revolution in energy, agriculture, but it might benefit from a complementary "retrolution" that brings citizens together through more localized economies. We still need technology to keep advancing, but it should be focused more specifically on areas of critical concern.

Necessary Social Change

What we need most desperately are social changes. We need to rebuild trust in each other. Distrust, to the point where we now assume the worst about anyone we have not met personally, drives the divide in this nation, fuels the proliferation of firearms, and erodes the fabric of historically beneficial institutions like churches and children's organizations.

We also need to question the accepted meanings of words used by politicians to galvanize or provoke us. Prosperity and wealth, for example, are currently viewed strictly through economic and financial lenses. The result is that we see everything, and everyone, as potential for making money for corporations. Land, if it cannot be "developed," is deemed worthless. Species which cannot feed us or otherwise work for us, are considered disposable. This has to stop. Even as human life is labeled "priceless," our soldiers are expendable products of the military-industrial complex.

Ok, so what about the other issues we face, like climate change, the future of energy, and our growing population?

Develop Alternative Fuels For Transportation

So far, our technology and innovation is lagging here. Electric cars may be the goal in the immediate future, but if the original energy source is still a coal-fired power plants, then are we really making progress? Solar and wind need to feed our car batteries as well as our homes and businesses. Why should this be such a grave concern, beyond the obvious carbon emissions? Look at how much our economy depends on delivery today. Not only are we transporting ourselves, we are transporting others as Uber and Lyft drivers, transporting food from restaurants, and transporting durable goods, all to individual households. The proliferation of delivery services is using a great deal of fuel.

Scale Down Almost Everything

Think about it. Scaling down everything from agriculture and banking to our own living spaces and appetites would do wonders for the world. There are signs of hope beyond the "tiny house" movement. Community gardens are sprouting in many cities. Many neighborhoods have a farmer's market where one can buy direct from local farmers. Some restaurants are serving more modest portions to cut down on food waste, an epidemic problem in the U.S. Credit unions are becoming an attractive alternative to big banks. Young people are demanding walkable neighborhoods where they can live, work, shop, and recreate without a long commute. The village is the new city, or will be soon.

Create a Reciprocal Power Grid

We should have this already. Surely the technology exists, but as long as utility companies value profit above all else, any progress on a reciprocal grid is unlikely. The good news is that there are rural electrical cooperatives where this could be tried experimentally. Again, the smaller the scale, the better it is likely to work. Every business and home that wants one could purchase solar panels or a modest wind turbine (even a bird-friendly design). Any excess power would be diverted to a substation. At times when producing energy is not feasible, or personal demand is greater, the energy would flow from substation back to the business or home. Seems plausible from my armchair, anyway.

Begin a Dialogue on Human Population Growth

Start the conversation, that is all that we can ask. Ok, maybe stop insisting that it is a woman's purpose or "duty" to bear children. The social pressure on women to produce babies is overwhelming, disrespectful, stressful, and no one's business but the woman's. We are fed with political- and media-generated hype that the economy will die if we do not feed the labor force. Baloney. What the business world fears is not a lack of producers, but a dearth of consumers. More jobs are being automated, while others are outsourced overseas. That is not likely to change. Here again is another reason to return to mom-and-pop enterprise, local, small-scale businesses that can be held accountable, that will reward you for loyalty, and that are an integral part of the community. Corporations may want more and more people, but we passed the carrying capacity of the planet some time ago.

The Retrolution is Possible
Nostalgia is not what should lead us to a plan for a better future, but we can take lessons from bygone eras while our elders are still around to teach us what worked and what did not. Meanwhile, let us stop aspiring to gratuitous material wealth. The combined effect of individuals living more frugally would have great impact on every major problem associated with our currently overindulgent consumer culture. A meaningful life stems more from personal relationships, involvement in community, travel, adventures in nature, physical activity, and spiritual reflection, than from financial excess....or is that just me?

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Book Review: Never Home Alone Embraces the Wild Indoors

The New York Times review of Rob Dunn's new book Never Home Alone: From Microbes to Millipedes, Camel Crickets, and Honey Bees, the Natrual History of Where We Live (2018, New York: Basic Books, 307 pp.), calls it "a book that will make you terrified of your own house." To the contrary, it is a celebration of the biodiversity of the indoors. Presented here are solid scientific arguments for re-thinking how we approach our daily lives.

Dunn is among the most prolific science writer of our time, but the rigor and research he applies to each book is beyond reproach. He is also captivating in his delivery, a master at never talking down to the reader, but instead elevating the reader into a participant role in the storytelling. Indeed, my reaction to some passages was "why didn't I get invited to help with that study?" or "how do I get to help in the next research project?" Dunn's enthusiasm and sense of wonder are far more contagious than any of the pathogenic microbes he discusses in Never Home Alone.

About those bacteria, yeasts, molds, fungi, and viruses. Turns out that there is untold diversity among them, and the overwhelming majority are beneficial to us rather than malignant. In the course of surveying homes around the world, from his own neighborhood in Raleigh, North Carolina to Russia, and even the international space station, Dunn and his minions discovered new species of microbes. Probably new genera and families, too. How is it that we still have so much to learn about the places we spend ninety percent of our lives? He has a theory, but you will find no spoilers here.

Dunn puts the "history" in "natural history" in all of his books, and it is often a history we do not learn of in school, certainly not to the depths that various historical figures and episodes deserve. Here, that history demonstrates where science has been confronted with choices, and how civilization has progressed, or potentially strayed, as a result of the paths we have taken.

The overall message of Never Home Alone is a positive and encouraging one. It is always the disasters and exceptions that make the headlines. How black mold turns homes into lethal chambers for the human residents. The latest epidemic of Staphylococcus bacteria in the local hospital. Not publicized are the numerous microbes, insects, fungi, and other organisms found in the average home or workplace that are essential to our human lives. We are overzealous in our efforts to rid our homes of harmful creatures, eradicating the helpful and inert species with far greater success, albeit inadvertently. The dangerous critters prosper through evolved resistance to chemical treatment, and the absence of the good creatures that would outcompete them if we did little or nothing to intervene.

Dunn stops short of stating the ultimately obvious: "Product" and "service" are rarely the answer to any problem, especially an ailing household. Something is already out of balance, and applying chemical treatments is only going to exacerbate the situation rather than solve it. Your home, workplace, and even your body are ecosystems, mostly at a microscopic scale, and failure to treat them as such, to cultivate the beneficial species, is asking for trouble.

Never Home Alone concludes with a chapter about bread, specifically sourdough, which results from fermentation processes conducted by yeasts in concert with other microbes. Bread is a living thing, or more properly a collection of living things, like an orchestra, bread being the musical product. It is an apt metaphor for how we should approach every aspect of our lives. We should be striving to be a complement to other species, fostering diversity at every level. When we seek to understand, ask questions first, and hesitate before reaching for the cleansing fluid, we begin to truly flourish. Our potential as stewards of the planet begins, literally, at home. Stop with the apologies, the "excuse the mess" greeting you give your guests. You are not a messy housekeeper, you are promoting biodiversity. Read this book and free yourself.