Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Hanging up the Phone

It dawned on me the other day that I do not like talking on the telephone anymore. The reasons for this are many, from technological "advances" to deteriorating hearing (mine and others), and the exploitation of the telephone for marketing purposes.

Our household land line (yes, we still have one!) receives very few phone calls directed specifically to us from friends, business associates and clients, and family. The overwhelming majority of calls are from charities telling us "We will have a truck in your area on (insert date here) if you have items to donate," political surveys, and, worst of all, pre-recorded messages also of a political or financial nature. Our favorite recurring recording begins "Fellow seniors...." Since I have been on the other end of phone surveys, I often comply with those requests if they are polite and I can understand the person asking the questions.

I do have a cell phone, and, as my wife will tell you, I loathe it. Were it not for the situation of being stranded at airports on a routine basis, I would dispense with a mobile phone altogether. I certainly don't feel the need to be "connected" at all times with the internet, or even friends or family.

I have a flip phone now because I kept accidentally dialing people with a newer phone; and I dropped the newer phone once and after that it would randomly display a useless, pure white screen preventing me from dialing out, reading text messages, etc. Oh, and even my flip phone has buttons on the side that do God-knows-what, that I inadvertently press simply by putting the phone in my pocket. My wife claims to call me, but I don't hear or feel the blame thing ring half the time.

I do call my mother every Sunday night, but I must admit that I don't always look forward to it, if only because I have to repeat everything I say at least once. Hearing loss is a part of aging, obviously, but it really becomes tiresome and frustrating trying to correct my mother's interpretation of the name of the place we spent the weekend, or whatever. But, mom does not have the internet, so I can't e-mail. She doesn't have a cell, so I can't text (and I am about the world's slowest texter anyway).

I am truly surprised, and perhaps a little disappointed, to admit that I would rather communicate by e-mail, or even Facebook messaging, instead of by phone or written correspondence. Don't get me wrong, though, I would still choose a face-to-face conversation over any of the above. I suppose that when fewer and fewer e-mails come from friends and colleagues, and politically-motivated e-mails start dominating my in-box, I may go back to the telephone and letter carrier, or cease to communicate altogether. I'm sure some people would be overjoyed by my silence.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

The "History" in "Natural History"

Much is made of the need to conserve wildlife and preserve wildlands for the sake of future generations. I would argue that there is just as strong a need to be good stewards of the planet for the sake of past generations. We talk of “natural history” with an emphasis on “natural.” We practically ignore the “history” involved.

Here in the United States, we have a legion of icons who built the foundation for our modern environmental movement. Do we owe them nothing for their unique visions, legislative action, scientific research, and passionate protests? What about artists like Ansel Adams who brought images of wilderness to the masses who had never seen Yosemite? Aldo Leopold gave us a “land ethic.” Rachel Carson cautioned against the indiscriminate use of DDT. We would not be where we are today were it not for the likes of these heroes and heroines.

We can erect monuments to such people, honor their work in film documentaries and written biographies, but what better way to leave a legacy than to insure their efforts were not in vain? Yes, more wilderness has been preserved, more parks created, and more species discovered, but then there are challenges like the reintroduction of predators into parts of their historic geographical ranges.

The debate over wolf introductions is incredibly volatile, but I have heard no one speak of how doing so would bring history back to life. The national park system, at the very least, should be dedicated to preserving a historical spectrum of habitats and ecosystems. There is Colonial Williamsburg, there are civil war re-enactments, and countless other examples of “living history” in the human context of the term. What about the history of wildness?

Recreating in a museum diorama that which used to be is not enough. Resurrecting the mammoth, or even the Passenger Pigeon, may be a bit too much, as we also need reminders of our extreme human mistakes. Still, I feel impoverished that I have been deprived of even the opportunity to see a Carolina Parakeet, a Great Auk, or a Sea Mink. The California Condor once flew over the Columbia River, according to Lewis and Clark. We should consider restoring its presence there.

Once my own mentors pass away, you better believe I will remain dedicated to making sure their voices carry on, that their fights go on. I owe it to them. Another natural landscape destroyed by needless development, a dam, or pollution? Not on my watch. Allow another species to go extinct due to human greed or neglect? No way. I’ve got your back, John Muir, Theodore Roosevelt, Bob Marshall, Dian Fossey. Your missions didn’t die with you.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Birding While Black

©, Cupid Alexander (model)

The other day I found myself inside a Barnes & Noble, and picked up the latest issue of Orion, the quarterly nature magazine. One of the first articles that caught my attention was a one-page piece by J. Drew Lanham entitled “9 Rules for the Black Birdwatcher.” At first I thought it might be a comedic or satirical treatment, but it became very clear very quickly it was a rage against the status quo when it comes to “minorities” in a traditionally White recreational and citizen science pursuit.

I hope I am forgiven for laughing quietly to myself over a couple of the rules: “Don’t bird in a hoodie. Ever.” And “Nocturnal birding is a no-no.” They would be hysterical suggestions were they not a reflection of our tragic and obscene stereotypes of African American culture. And of course we are all too familiar with the horrific outcomes those assumptions can lead to: Shooting teenagers who can’t possibly be up to any good if they are in the “wrong” attire in the “wrong” neighborhood at the wrong time.

Dr. Lanham, who is a professor at Clemson University, goes on to express rightful indignation over the reluctance of the birding community at large to embrace diversity, and how the “they all look alike” bias of Caucasians toward Blacks spills over into a hobby that likes to consider itself more refined and sophisticated than average street folk. The Focus on Diversity pre-conference at the Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival is a landmark start, and Lanham has been actively involved in the event for its three years of existence.

We also need diversity in leadership positions. This also applies to the female gender. A recent blog post by Brooke McDonald, entitled “The Field Glass Ceiling,” revealed a mostly unspoken uneasiness felt by many women in the birding community. I am being polite, actually. Unspoken disgust is more like it. The dismissive attitude of some male birders is appalling. There are many accomplished female birders and ornithologists who could be outstanding ambassadors for the birdwatching community.

I must admit that, for the longest time, I myself stereotyped birders as mostly overly-affluent snobs who looked down their noses at anybody else recreating in the great outdoors. My attitude has been adjusted in the last decade or so, and not forcibly so. Kenn Kaufman gently nudged me to look beyond “bugs” again; and Jeffrey Gordon brings a welcoming persona to his role as president of the American Birding Association. The “new” generation of birders has a sense of humor, a sense of responsibility to bird conservation, and increasingly reaches out to young people. They even look at insects every once in awhile!

Back to Birding While Black. I do think that there is genuine concern over the lack of minorities in one of the most popular of all outdoor activities; and that sympathy extends beyond mere "tolerance" and politeness. The challenge lies in how we communicate better, and not sound patronizing or stereotypical. That applies to all parties involved. We need to get out of our comfort zones to accomplish real integration, but the rewards will be well worth the effort.

Note: A Google image search for "African American bird watching" turned up few results. The above image came from a "African American binoculars" search.