Tuesday, March 5, 2024

Please Don't Paint Me

The dead, but still stately, cottonwood tree in the image above is located in Leavenworth Landing Park, along the banks of the Missouri River in Leavenworth, Kansas, USA. The snag is slated to be painted blue as part of a global project related to promoting awareness of mental health issues. While this is a noble cause, the side effects of landscape art installations like this should give us pause.

The Blue Tree Project has its roots in the tragic story of Australian Jayden Whyte, whose suicide at age twenty-nine gripped headlines in 2018. During the eulogy at Whyte’s funeral, his best friend related the story of how Jayden had pranked his father by painting one of the trees on the family farm blue. That became the inspiration to paint trees elsewhere as a reminder to check on the mental wellbeing of loved ones, and foster a greater awareness of issues surrounding mental health.

There are now numerous painted trees, and other objects, throughout the world, on every continent except Antarctica. There are currently 1,138 trees registered by Blue Tree Project, mostly in Australia.

Some communities have taken to erecting facsimile trees instead of painting actual trees. One of the more innovative examples is a tree of fifteen basketball hoops. Unfortunately, the website for Blue Tree Project does not indicate where these artificial trees are located, nor how they were constructed.

While this endeavor is meant to send a specific, clearly posted message, what else is implied by turning trees into artistic and/or humanitarian vehicles? One message is that it is permissible to deface a natural object, at least if you have an important agenda. This is vandalism in any other context. We are also saying that nature is something that can only be improved upon by the hand of man. Natural landscapes, and the living things within them, must serve some kind of utilitarian value in order to justify their existence, even if that means reducing them to a “canvas” for artistic expression. This is not ok.

The Blue Trees (plural) is a landscape installation project by artist Konstantin Dimopoulos, designed in part to evoke thoughts about “ecological issues, such as the ecocide of our forests and climate change, and….raising our social consciousness referencing how individually and collectively we shape the world we inhabit.” His exhibitions involve painting the trunks of entire groves of trees a deep blue color.

The pinnacle of artistic hubris may be demonstrated by Christo and Jeanne-Claude. Their landscape-level work was temporary, and performed mostly in urban areas, wrapping buildings or monuments in fabric, usurping the profile and work of the original architects. They prided themselves on avoiding “deserted places,” focusing on “….sites already prepared and used by people, managed by human beings for human beings.” This did include vast rural expanses, though, featuring fabric fences, fabric “gates,” curtains, and other potential impediments to the normal traffic of wildlife, and obscuring scenic vistas. In Surrounded Islands, they draped a hot pink fabric skirt on the surface of the water around eleven separate islands (two were surrounded together). Who knows how marine life was affected.

Where does art cross the line into damage? Who gets the authority to decide? Do we give enough critical thought to these questions? Ideally, artistic license should not trespass on the works of the Creator, if one believes in such an entity. We should not allow historical precedent to dictate the path forward, either.

There are strong and valid arguments to support the fact that Mount Rushmore defaced a mountain held sacred by Indigenous Americans. Stone Mountain in Georgia features the carved depiction of three prominent figures of the Confederacy from the Civil War. The monument glorifies White supremacy, and overwhelms the stories of the Black people who once lived and worked there, and who still reside in local communities. It also defaces a natural landscape feature that figured prominently in Indigenous occupation of the region.

Don’t get me wrong. Art can be a powerful stimulus for positive social and cultural change. It need not be permanent nor massive in scale. I do wonder, though, what will happen when that old dead cottonwood at last falls into the river, as erosion is inevitable. Will the paint contaminate the water, or negatively affect aquatic life? Will another tree be painted to replace it?

Sources: Dimopoulos, Konstantin. 2024. “About the Blue Trees,” Kondimopoulos.
Meachim, Laura. 2019. “Blue Tree Project tackles mental health and suicide in regional Australia,” ABC News, September 30, 2019.
Powers, Benjamin. 2018. “In the Shadow of Stone Mountain,” Smithsonian Magazine.
Spellman, Rebecca. 2020. “Harrowing story behind a solitary blue tree in drought-stricken land takes a sinister turn as it’s found burned to the ground,” Daily Mail, February 17, 2020.
”Most Common Errors,”Christo and Jeanne-Claude.

Thursday, February 22, 2024

I Don't Want to Live Longer!

I know that sounds laughable, or possibly alarming, depending on what direction you tend to react in. Please rest assured, I am not contemplating suicide. I am talking about lifespan extension. We are constantly bombarded with the latest diets, medical treatments, and other offerings designed to extend our lives. I am not necessarily in agreement that this is a good thing.

There is this uneasy feeling that those who promote longer human lives are not really concerned for how that impacts our personal welfare. What do I mean by that? When someone passes, the Gross Domestic Product responds with “Damn it, we lost another consumer!” Forgive my cynicism, but I believe it is warranted. The greatest benefits to longer lives are reaped by excessively affluent and powerful people who get wealthier because we are consuming material goods they produce, for a longer period of time. The same is true of service industries, of course, some of which are dedicated solely to the aged population.

The idea that the only thing we should value in our elders is their purchasing power, should make you angry. You cannot put a price on wisdom, life experience, and familial bonds (provided your family dynamic is a positive one). The marketplace thrives on our isolation, our individualism and, sadly, our naivete. The less we relate to each other in meaningful ways, the more vulnerable we are to exploitation by bad actors in the global marketsphere.

The other aspect of living a longer life is that you are highly likely to witness the continued, if not accelerated, destruction of the natural world. This is unbearable for a great many of us. Why should I want to live longer when it appears the planet is not so inclined? Indeed, more consumerism for a longer period is only going to hasten the extinction of species, the conversion of habitat to agriculture and urbanism, and increase natural resource extraction.

I am exceedingly troubled by the fact that the majority of people do not have time to contemplate what I am talking about in this blog entry. The average life is crammed with daily commuting, appointments, meetings, errands, fast food, caffeine, meetings, and another commute. Once we are back home, we help the kids with their homework, if we do not have our own that we brought from the office. Maybe we manage to sneak in a pleasant distraction like a bath or shower, a television show, social media, a chapter in a book, an alcoholic beverage, or a dose of marijuana. Put that on repeat until the weekend.

We look forward to the day we do not have to work, or at least not have to work for someone else, but fear of financial destitution keeps us toiling away. Ironically, a global pandemic made it glaringly obvious that our psychological health has been in sick bay for a long, long time. Still, we are not managing to harness our collective power as laborers and consumers to fully revolt.

The government is not helping with its constant talk of raising the retirement age, and doing away with Social Security, Medicare, and other resources we earn during our laboring lifespan.

The question remains: Exactly what do I get out of a longer life? More years as a greeter for a big box store? More time to passively exist? More debt? More opportunities to vote for candidates that are serving those powerful and wealthy elites instead of me, and others like me? More time to forget what I know, what I’ve learned, and the people I have met? More time to watch the world burn?

Human life is not something that needs “product” or “service.” It needs community. It requires nourishment that no food or beverage can provide. It demands rest and quietude, for longer periods than anyone is willing to acknowledge.

Personally, I will have greater respect for, and trust in, the medical community when they make quality of life a higher priority than longevity. To borrow a phrase from whiny Hollywood actors, “What’s my motivation?” If all you can offer me is more medications, pseudo-comforts, and the corporate vision of “retirement,” I will pass, thank you.

Saturday, February 3, 2024

The Personal Finance Emergency Room

© saintlukeskc.org

The state of healthcare, or lack thereof, in the United States is exemplary the overall pattern of capitalist predation and oppression that causes undue financial and emotional stress. A recent experience with an emergency room visit prompts me to probe the connections once again.

While visiting family out of state for the holidays in December, my partner experienced prolonged numbness in her hand. This was not an “I slept wrong” issue that resolves itself within an hour or so of waking up. Given Heidi’s history of a mild stroke, we take symptoms like this seriously.

My sister-in-law’s family lives in a rural town, so we drove an hour to one of the few open urgent care clinics. Upon describing the issue and her medical history, the intake person declared that urgent care is not equipped to evaluate such situations, and referred us to the nearby hospital.

I will be generous and say that our time with a physician lasted fifteen minutes. The doctor asked questions, even got out of their chair to do a brief, standard protocol to rule out another stroke. They ventured that it was not a stroke, but without imaging, could not rule it out entirely. We declined additional procedures. The next half hour was devoted to the paperwork exit interview.

Fast forward to this week. The bill is over $2,400. We have health insurance. Despite this, we are left with a payment exceeding half of that amount. Yes, there is the “deductible,” and we are fortunate in being able to absorb that shock to our finances. Most people cannot, but even for those that share our circumstance, the ripple effect is profound.

Misery is simply another commodity, publicly traded under other identities.

When faced with a large, unexpected, unavoidable expenditure, be it for a medical bill, vehicle repair, needed plumbing upgrades, or some other catastrophe (all of the scenarios I listed are ones we have experienced in the last few months), my mind goes to what we must now sacrifice. There goes that vacation. Charitable donations? Off the table now. Membership in that organization? Nope. Meals out are less frequent.

It is no wonder that the average American’s bank account is always in the emergency room. It may not be a government conspiracy responsible for that condition, but certain business models literally profit from it. You did not get yourself into this mess.

We need an ‘unsubscribe’ button, and do not have to name an alternative to reject the current system.

The American oligarchy existed long before any of us were born, but its influence has intensified, and become vastly more complicated in its ways of appeasing the masses without truly solving any of the problems that exist because of….oligarchy. Government is complicit, at least at the level rendered by the ability of the oligarchy to appease politicians it helps get elected. Even supposedly well-meaning crusades like the “war on drugs” are waged not because of sympathy for addicts, but because cartels are making money that the oligarchy covets.

In the world of capitalism, everything must be privatized, and for profit. Only the consumer has value. Labor is an overhead cost, to be outsourced, or automated, at every opportunity. How to foster consumerism, then? Credit, and other forms of lending, which the oligarchy profits from by charging interest. Debt is not figured in the calculation of poverty levels, so the illusion of a middle class persists.

Our economic system has even turned our collective stress and anxiety into for-profit enterprise, from pharmaceuticals to sports betting. Misery is simply another commodity, publicly traded under other identities. We are in an abusive relationship with corporate-level business, on both the production side and the consumer end. We need an “unsubscribe” button, and do not have to name an alternative to reject the current system.

Instead of capitulating to the script that says Blacks and other minorities are threats to our safety and security, that immigrants are taking our jobs, and welfare is being exploited by the poor, we can seek ways of disconnecting our lives from global capitalism. We can expose the culture wars for what they are: distractions from the oligarchy that is taking power and control away from us.

We do not have to quit capitalism cold turkey. Do it incrementally. Engage in positive distractions, like arts and crafts. Go out into nature, like I do, and observe other organisms as examples of a basic, but vivid and satisfying existence. Participate in community commerce. Make friends with local farmers, and school teachers. Help them prosper. You will feel better daily.

Monday, December 4, 2023

What's in a (Bird) Name?

It has been one month since the American Ornithological Society released a statement of its intent to change the English common names of bird species named for people, starting with those birds found in the United States and Canada, then moving to Latin America. Reactions to this initiative have been predictably mixed, often polarized. It is demoralizing to me personally to see friends and respected colleagues opposed to it, an absence of nuanced perspectives, and lack of creativity in solutions.

Say goodbye to Bullock's Oriole

Here are some basics so we can all be on the same page. Common, English names of species that include the moniker of a historical figure are termed “eponymous” names. This practice of naming species after people dates to at least the 1800s, and has been revealed to be wildly inconsistent, if not random, in its application. A little excavation work by author Kenn Kaufman shows that some “honorees” in eponymous bird names had little if anything to do with ornithology, let alone advance the science.

More troubling still, eponymous names have come to be associated with racism, misogyny, other forms of bigotry, and colonialism. Rather than painstakingly evaluate the baggage of each eponymous bird name, the AOS has decided to do away with all of them. This has led to accusations of “wokeism” and political correctness by some birders, and many people who have no interest at all in our feathered friends. No one seems to be asking what is to be gained by retaining such names, aside from convenience and tradition.

Do we really want a tradition of exclusion? Birding is already viewed by many as an elitist recreational pursuit, with globetrotting retirees chasing rarities for their life lists. Birding will benefit greatly from expanded human diversity within its ranks. It follows that birds themselves will benefit from increased attention to their plight.

Some with less visceral reactions have questioned whether this effort at name-changing will draw valuable financial and human resources away from bird conservation and research. My intuition tells me that expenditures will be relatively minor, and the people doing the work will not be the same people already engaged in protection of species. This is an endeavor that complements conservation, if not enhances it by making the discipline of ornithology more attractive to Indigenous scientists, and others who have viewed the science as exclusionary.

There are those who do not believe that mere name changes go far enough towards the goal of decolonizing science, politics, economics, and improving other aspects of life. This may have merit if we do not address how we can take down barriers to birding such as the affordability of optics and other equipment, increase accommodations for disabled and neurodivergent birders, prioritize the safety and respect of women and children in the birding community, and take economic initiatives beyond bird-friendly coffee.

Should you question whether I have nothing to lose in siding with those endorsing a move away from eponymous names, allow me to mention that I am a direct descendent of the “OC” (Original Colonists). My forefathers were literally on the Mayflower. In no way do I feel threatened by extending rights, freedom, and prosperity to people who identify other than White, cis, male, straight, neurotypical, able-bodied, and otherwise advantaged.

Ironically, the one downside of eliminating eponymous names, as I see it, is that we cannot name birds after any people of color, who truly have furthered ornithology and birding. (J. Drew) Lanham’s Sparrow has a nice ring to it.

Sunday, October 22, 2023

Sympathy and Neutrality

This is for all my fellow (U.S.) Americans who feel pressured to “stand with Israel” in this latest incarnation of warfare with Islamic extremists. Your discomfort with absolutes is valid, and you have a right to your personal commitment, or lack thereof. No one has the right to coerce you, or question your ethics. Here is why.

© EuropeanTimes.news

First, there is no shame in withholding allegiance if you do not fully comprehend the history of the Middle East and its associated religions. Grant yourself permission to abstain, but make an effort to learn about such matters. Yes, it is treacherous territory, a minefield of misinformation from sources that have an agenda, be it clear or obfuscated. Hamas and Hezbollah are not the same organization, though both are backed by Iran.

Recognize that you are not an Anti-Semite if you do not declare unconditional support for Israel. Should anyone accuse you of such, that reveals more about their character than yours. Most of us have friends who are Jewish, who we cherish and advocate for. We are not holocaust deniers, and in fact stand up against anti-Semitism. By the same measure, we are intolerant of genocide directed at Islam. Extremist groups tend to ruin thing for everyone, ending innocent lives in pursuit of unattainable supremacy.

Here at home, I am fearful of Christian White Nationalists intent on imposing extreme religious constraints on all of our citizens. Banning books today could mean something far worse down the road. Racism and other forms of intolerance, bigotry and oppression go hand-in-hand with this agenda.

Back to the international topic at hand. Personally, when confronted with centuries-long conflicts, my impulse is to punish both sides. Were it in my power, I would throw everyone out of the disputed territories and declare them an International Peace Park, under the administration of the United Nations, where both sides could interpret their positions and histories for visitors, and where wildlife could flourish in what was once a hostile environment to all species. A Palestinian state might look something like Vatican City in Rome, ensconced withing Jerusalem itself. Where, in any event, is the creativity in conflict resolution?

What encourages me are people who speak up for innocent Muslims, which constitute most of the victims of Israeli military retaliation. They question the imbalance between U.S. foreign aid for Israel versus the paltry sum going toward humanitarian aid for the victims of those very bombs and weapons we have helped pay for. How is this helpful?

I am likewise heartened by coalitions of Jews and Muslims, who are peacefully protesting the extremism of both religions. Let us raise their voices and profiles as an example of true bravery and empathy.

I like to hold onto the possibility of God, and It is the entity for which I feel the most sympathy, by whatever name It goes by, should It exist at all. Religion, after all, is a decidedly human institution, and as such is vulnerable to the corruption we see in business, government, and all other human enterprises. The difference is that religion is the one thing we can choose to participate in, or refrain from joining. It has its social benefits, until it does not, until it starts violating someone else’s right to a different belief system. Choose carefully. Maintain an ethic that transcends that of your chosen allegiance. Stay sane, stay safe, keep loving your fellow humans.

Monday, October 2, 2023

Not How I Expect to Get Life Birds

Better birding through climate change? Is that where we are at now? A few weeks ago, when it became clear that hurricane Idalia had flung Caribbean Flamingos (aka American Flamingos) far from their regular haunts, I generated one of those Facebook “marked himself safe from” memes for the wayward birds. It was a joke at the time, because it still seemed unlikely that one would show up anywhere near us here in Kansas, USA. I was wrong. My experience yesterday causes me to reflect today on what my expectations and responsibilities should be when it comes to the welfare of other species.

My partner, Heidi, is an avid birder, and keeps a close eye on rare bird alerts, and what is being seen in general within reasonable proximity to our home in Leavenworth, Kansas. Earlier in the week she learned of a Caribbean Flamingo being observed at Chase State Fishing Lake near Cottonwood Falls, in the Flint Hills of Chase County, Kansas. This information came in Thursday. Since Heidi works at an elementary school, we would not be able to travel the two-and-a-half hours until Saturday. The bird had been spotted closer to us on Wednesday, at Smithville Lake in Missouri, so we expected it to keep traveling.

Stiff and persistent winds from the south over the next two days may have deterred the flamingo from flying, and sure enough we received confirmation it was still at Chase State Fishing Lake on Saturday morning. Near record high temperatures may have helped to make it feel somewhat at home, too. It had been observed feeding in the shallows, treating what we would imagine as an otherworldly experience with a surprisingly casual attitude.

The irony of “chasing” the bird in Chase County did not escape us. Once we arrived, I found myself asking the few other birders which of them had come the farthest, themselves or the flamingo. At least one individual had driven seven hours from Illinois. Others were from Manhattan, Kansas, Wichita, or from Missouri.

More to the point, there is the question of our respective carbon footprints in reaching the bird. Are we not contributing to the very problem that spawns megastorms, or at least increases their frequency? Where do we draw the line on what is an acceptable distance for such a (fools?) errand? It is surely a matter of individual choice, but what informs our decisions?

An article in USA Today gave some interesting historical background into the residency and distribution of the Caribbean Flamingo, and it turns out that records of “stray” birds date back decades earlier. Ornithologists believe that all the birds being sighted now, far from Florida, originated from the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico. This speaks to the remarkable durability of these seemingly delicate animals.

One can view these events in one of two ways. They can be symptomatic of cataclysmic changes to global climate, or emblematic of the ability of organisms to adapt to those changes. Thanks to improving technologies, and an increasing public awareness and appreciation of birds and other animals, we are rapidly gaining insights into shifting behavioral patterns in response to climate change and habitat fragmentation. That is a good thing.

What I find myself asking today is whether I can be content to stay out of the fray, to be satisfied viewing the images of others on social media. Can I simply live vicariously through observations on iNaturalist? Those people certainly have better photography skills and equipment. As it stands, I will likely resist airline travel, knowing what I know now.

What are your thoughts on all of this? There are no right or wrong answers, and I am not asserting personal “holier-than-thou” principles. I enjoy meeting others who are passionate about the natural world and advocate for its protection. Rare instances like this can generate renewed hope, broaden one’s circle of friends, and otherwise be exceptionally positive experiences. Heidi welcomed the opportunity to share views through her spotting scope with others, especially children, yesterday. Let us rejoice in another’s wild encounters, learn from them, and look forward to crossing trails with each other.

Tuesday, September 19, 2023

I Want My Old Friends Back

Happier times, on a visit to Tucson

It dawned on me the other night, right before falling asleep, that what I want is to have my friends back. My partner will read this, and believe it is her fault. My in-laws may think they are to blame. No one is guilty except, perhaps, myself, for not anticipating the loneliness I would feel after moving to a new town. Two-and-a-half years in, and I am still grieving. I truly am misplaced here.

My partner and I agreed to come to Leavenworth, Kansas, to spend quality time with her parents, while they are still healthy, and relatively young. We have dinner out with them, at local restaurants, almost every Saturday night. I’m happy to do that, though the conversations typically cover the funeral(s) of the week, and news of people Heidi may know from her childhood, but no one I have any connection to. I’m used to talking about broader topics, society at large. I rarely do that now because of differences in ideology.

Let me emphasize that I like my in-laws, and most of the extended family of my partner. The problem is that this is my entire universe now. We get back to Colorado once per year. I think it has been close to a decade since we last visited Cincinnati. We both have friends strung out around the globe, some of whom we only know through social media, but are anxious to meet IRL (in real life).

Funny, as an only child many friends in my youth were adults. Now that I am an adult, or at least pretending to be one, I find the need to be surrounded by young people, to keep up my energy and enthusiasm for life. Colorado was a perfect mix of both youth and age. Everyone is physically fit, highly engaged in community affairs and in national and international issues.

Leavenworth, by comparison, appears at least on the surface to skew heavily geriatric. Many people are overweight or otherwise unhealthy, and you seldom see smiles. There are children and teens, of course, but I rarely encounter them. The twenty-somethings I see are wait staff at the restaurants. Fort Leavenworth fairs better, and despite the military affiliation, I have met some nice families there thanks to a couple of events I’ve participated in. You need passes to get on post as a civilian, though, and it is not a daily or even weekly proposition.

All this is to say that I am not incentivized to cultivate new friends here. I am simply not interested. It would take energy I do not have because I am deflated by where I find myself. It is a perfect circular storm of sadness feeding itself.

I want my old friends back. They gave my life purpose that I am lacking now, and I fed off the energy they have. I learned things from them. I helped teach them in return. We shared both optimism and pessimism for the collective future. We made each other laugh.

Practically the only thing holding myself together is an obsession and compulsion to document all the animal species I can find on our modest little property. It is enough of a healthy distraction to keep me away from potentially self-destructive impulses.

In the cold months I struggle constantly. I have lost nearly all my creative energy, and seldom write. It is not that I have nothing to write about, but I am unmotivated to do the exercise of pressing the buttons on the keyboard. Translating thoughts to actions is too daunting.

I believe advice is unhelpful. My situation is something I will have to solve myself. Maybe I’ll need to spend a year somewhere else, on my own. Who knows? I only hope that I recognize the solution once it presents itself.