The Casual Blog

A beautiful garden, cultivating the microbiome, migrating godwits, and discovering Turgenev

Last weekend I visited for the first time a beautiful garden in south Raleigh  – the Juniper Level Botanic Garden.  It is a 28-acre site with thousands of plant species, which is open to the public only eight weekends a year.  There are many greenhouses with plants for sale, but I focused on the garden areas.  With our times so full of stress and anxiety, the place was wonderfully calming.  I took a few pictures that I liked, which are here.  

Speaking of important non-human life forms, as you may know but a lot of people don’t, gut health is a big deal.   Your gut microbiome is made up of trillions of bacteria, viruses, and fungi living their own lives and helping you by processing what you eat.  

When I first learned that there were so many foreigners living in my body, I felt a bit queasy.  But I got over that, and gradually came to realize that I couldn’t get along without them.  Their activities affect many aspects of health, including ordinary digestion, susceptibility to chronic diseases, weight, and mood.  

Last week there was a good piece in the Washington Post summarizing current gut microbiome research.  A major recommendation in it was new to me:  good gut health involves eating many different fiber-rich plant foods.  More variety is better, and a leading researcher recommends trying to eat 30 different plant foods a week.  

Even if you already eat a lot of fruits and vegetables, Spector advises increasing the variety of plant foods you eat each week. One fast way to do this is to start using more herbs and spices. You can use a variety of leafy greens rather than one type of lettuce for your salads. Adding a variety of fruits to your breakfast, adding several different vegetables to your stir fry and eating more nuts, seeds, beans and grains is good for your microbiome.

Thirty different plants per week sounds like a lot, but the Post article had various tips on how to do it.  I’ll add to those my own recipe for green smoothies, which I eat most every day:  oat milk, flaxseed oil, kale (and/or spinach or another green), vegetables on hand (like carrots, celery, tomatoes), fruits on hand (like banana, apple, blueberries) and a little ice, blended on high.  Delicious!  And good for those essential gut workers! 

Bird migrations are all remarkable, but none more so than that of the bar-tailed godwits, as I learned this week from a NY Times science story.  Thousands of these birds are currently making a journey of more than 7,000 miles nonstop from Alaska to New Zealand and Australia.  The amazing dimensions of this flight have just recently come to light using new banding and tracking technology.  

The godwit’s epic flight — the longest nonstop migration of a land bird in the world — lasts from eight to 10 days and nights through pounding rain, high winds and other perils. It is so extreme, and so far beyond what researchers knew about long-distance bird migration, that it has required new investigations.

The physiology of these godwits is highly specialized, and still not well understood.  Their life cycle reminded me of one of my favorite books, The Last of the Curlews, by Fred Bodsworth, about a similar epic migration, related from the viewpoint of a remarkable bird that’s now extinct.  It cheered me to hear that the godwits are for now just fine, and that there are people who respect and marvel at them.  

Speaking of birds, I read Ivan Turgenev’s A Sportsman’s Sketches recently, and thought it was a masterpiece.  Published in 1852 in Russian, it’s a series of short stories involving an aristocratic narrator whose favorite pastime is hunting birds for sport.  

Though I object strongly to hunting, I found the nature writing quite beautiful.  At first glance, the stories appear to be primarily character studies of rural folk, but they gradually coalesce into a dimensional portrait of an entire society in crisis.    

This week I read more about Turgenev in a piece by Keith Gessen in The New Yorker. Gessen’s main subject is the novel Fathers and Sons, but he gives a helpful biographical sketch of Turgenev and his milieu.  Though seemingly casual and breezy,  Sportsman’s Sketches conveyed the barbarity of serfdom, and apparently influenced the future Czar Alexander II to abolish the institution.  

This was a cheering reminder that art and ideas can be forces for positive social change.  Although we’re living in a dark time, which definitely could get darker, we shouldn’t give up yet.    

Wildebeests in various states, querying MAGA, doubting Artemis, and getting curious about animal communication

Wildebeests in Serengeti National Park, Tanzania

Working through the big pile of my pictures from Tanzania has been absorbing, but also exhausting.  I’ve been trying to remember how things looked, and figuring out how to interpret the images.  In the process, I’ve been learning new things about my processing software – Lightroom, Photoshop, and Topaz AI products.

One of our prime objectives in Tanzania was to see some of the large herds of wildebeests that annually cross the Mara River.  It’s challenging to convey the power and raw beauty of these crossings, but I tried.  I also am sharing some photos of large predators.  Warning: there is a picture of lions on a recently killed zebra that might not be suitable for all readers. 

Artificial intelligence is once again a buzzword, but let me just say first, the new versions of Topaz DeNoise AI and Sharpen AI are amazing.  There are clearly important advances going on in AI, which could soon surpass our ability to understand them, if they haven’t already.  It’s far from impossible that our intelligent software could go from helpful to dangerous, if it hasn’t already. 

It’s surprising that tech journalists ordinarily focus on the question of if AI can equal human intelligence.  It has already equaled or surpassed what humans can do in some domains (playing complex games, using correct grammar) and is rapidly moving into areas we’ve thought of as artistic (composing music, making paintings, writing fiction).  But people continue to believe there is some unique and valuable quality in human thinking that can never be equaled.   However that may be, we have no shortage of evidence that human thinking has some systematic glitches.

A prime example:  MAGA Republicans, who have decided to believe and/or promote a wild and enormous lie – that Trump was not defeated in the last election, but was rather the victim of a vast fraudulent conspiracy.  There are, of course, Republicans who understand that this is nonsense and continue to support American democracy.  But most of those traditional Republicans have become very quiet, and acquiesced in the takeover of the GOP by the Trump faction.

So what is wrong with MAGA folks?  Of course, there are many individual stories, but the big drivers seem to be fear of the Others (those with different skin tones, religions, languages, genders, etc.), loss of traditional status (relative to the Others and to the wealthy), bewilderment and frustration at changing social norms, and economic anxiety.  Whatever the causes, there are clearly strong feelings causing MAGA folks to detach themselves from ordinary reality and swear allegiance to a comical-but-dangerous charlatan.

Leopard in Serengeti

One thing that struck me recently which I’m trying to keep in mind:  almost no one thinks they are a bad person, or doing things for an evil reason.  Almost everyone thinks they are a good person, or at least, no worse than average.  MAGA believers are no exception.  They view their principles as well aligned with all that is right and good.  

In this sense, MAGA people mean well.  As individuals, they may have many good qualities, and like all sentient beings, they are entitled to affection and respect.  But as aggregated political actors, they have gone off the deep end, and threaten us with disaster.        

Cheetah in Serengeti

For quite a while after the election, I expected the MAGA fever to break and our normal far-from-perfect politics to resume.  But recently it’s gotten worse.  Republican leaders and candidates vie to stake out the most extreme positions favored by the MAGA element, and some are promoting violence against political enemies and even civil war.  This is definitely not American politics as usual.  

As President Biden recently pointed out, most Americans do not share this mindset, and it’s still possible we can avoid joining the league of repressive authoritarian nations.  The question is not whether MAGA Republicans will change:  they are, at least for now, fully committed to the end of fair elections, equal rights, and other key features of our democracy.  The question is whether those who thought they could safely be ignored will wake up and passionately oppose them in the coming elections.

Lion in Serengeti

As if that weren’t enough to worry about!  But, with apologies, I’m going to give one more timely example of what looks to me like a mass delusion.  My excuse is that since it recently became a big news story, I haven’t noticed anyone else raising the issue of its essential craziness.  I’m referring to the Artemis Project, which, we’re told, is a vital effort to put people back on the moon.  As of this writing, two much-hyped launch attempts have been canceled for technical reasons.

I’m a longtime fan of science and technology, including the amazing new Webb space telescope, and was as excited as anyone at the first moon landing in 1969.  But I felt no great sorrow after we discontinued the Apollo program in 1972.  We’d been there and done that.  Even then, it wasn’t clear whether anything of lasting value had been accomplished.

As the years passed without more moon missions, I thought perhaps the lesson had quietly sunk in that the billions of dollars spent on going to the moon (around $25B) could have been used better – perhaps on climate change mitigation, preventing species’ extinction,  improving health care, education etc. (the list of underfunded serious projects is long).  Then, out of the blue (at least to me), came Artemis – which has already cost $41 billion, and is expected to eventually cost $93 billion.

This is a lot of money, even by U.S. government budget standards.  You might suppose that it involves cutting edge technology employed for some vital purpose.  But no, not really.  The rocket technology is decades old, and not even close to state of the art.  And as best I can tell, no one is even trying to argue that it is likely to achieve important scientific advances.

The accounts I’ve heard refer vaguely to the possibility that Artemis is a step towards setting up colonies on the moon, which would be a step towards colonies on Mars.  Perhaps there’s hope that a few corporations can make good money extracting valuable minerals, and a  worry that Earth will become uninhabitable.  Thanks to Artemis, a few ultrawealthy folks might try to mount rockets and flee the planet, as in the underappreciated dark comedy Don’t Look Up.  

Anyhow, the whole idea is ridiculous.  No matter how badly we spoil the Earth, it’s unlikely to ever get more desolate than the moon, or Mars.  

Is there any other possible justification for this bizarre project?  It could well be driven by corporate welfare for big military contractors and the legalized corruption of our political funding process.  And of course, there is always the combination of nationalism and chauvinism that wants to be or at least seem superior to other peoples and nations. 

Anyhow, Artemis looks to be yet another example of how our minds’ reasoning powers can fail on a mass basis – thinking we’re creating something to be proud of when we’re actually wasting precious resources, money, and time.  At this point, despite the huge costs and repeated failures to launch, junking the project is not on the table for political discussion.  

Still, this fiasco could do one positive thing: make us feel a little more conscious and humble about the flaws in our reasoning powers.  Even our smartest rocket scientists, physicists, and philosophers can lose their bearings.  As our teachers used to say, we need to double check our work.

On a more cheerful tech note, the NY Times’s Emily Anthes reports that scientists are using deep learning and other technologies to start decoding the communications of various non-human animals.    Various programs are looking at creatures like rodents, lemurs, and whales, and discovering that social groups even have different dialects.  

Some of us have long suspected that there’s a lot of communication going on among non-human animals, and wondered why more humans haven’t been more curious about those interchanges.  The received wisdom has been that only humans have language, which was one of the questionable ideas used to justify  domination and cruel exploitation of all other animals.  Maybe the latest AI will help us understand animals differently.

Impala family In Tarangire National Park

Processing Tanzania animals and travel

Baboons in Tarangire National Park, Tanzania

I’m still working my way through my photos from Tanzania, and processing impressions from the trip.  We saw a lot of animals!  In some situations, I took dozens of pictures, and it’s tough to decide which is my final favorite.  

Anyhow, here are a few current favorites.  What I was looking for was more than just the beauty and strangeness of the animals.  The trip helped me appreciate better that their lives are part of complex relationships with their fellow creatures and their environments.  

But the much bigger point is Tanzania is a fascinating place.  Getting there from the U.S. is hard on a body, at least if you’re not in an ultra high-end airline seat/bed.  It took us about 36 hours from airport to airport each way.  We flew on Qatar Airways, which treated us better than our recent U.S. carriers.  It had planes with seats that didn’t seem specially engineered to torture you and flight attendants who seemed to view their job as helping passengers.    

An impala — a delicate, speedy creature that loves grass

On long flights, I’m usually not able to sleep much, but I look forward to having extra time for reading.   There comes a point, though, even for a big reader like me, when the eyes and mind get too tired for reading.  Instead, recently, on planes equipped with individual screens, I watch movies.  I try to pick ones that Sally probably wouldn’t be interested in, and ones that haven’t made my must-see list.  The point is to achieve a state of mild engagement/distraction – enough so as not think about how many more hours before I can get off the plane.  

Cape buffalo — a stolid creature that also loves grass

Part of the point of Qatar Airways seems to be to raise the profile of that little country and get international travelers into its hub airport at Doha.  We had long layovers there going and coming, and it was impressive, in a post-modern way.  Even in the middle of the night, shops, restaurants, and bars were open, and the assemblage of luxury goods stores (handbags, watches, jewelry, clothing, luggage) reminded me of Fifth Avenue, or Zermott.  We were a bit confused about the value of the local currency, and so managed to set a new high-end record for an airport meal in their Italian restaurant.

We also had a long layover in London’s Heathrow airport on the way home.  There had recently been reports about Heathrow’s poor operations in handling passengers and baggage, but we had no special problems, other than a very slow line at a coffee shop.   

One thing I confirmed coming back was that it’s definitely worthwhile on long trips to wear compression socks.  I’d worn a pair on the way over, but mine were among the items lost when our tent at Serian Serengeti North was blown away.  Regular socks just didn’t cut it.  When I got back to Raleigh, my ankles had swollen dramatically, and were very sore.  For my next trip, I got a replacement set from an outfit called Vim and Vigr.  

Leopard in Serengeti National Park

As to that storm:  we were out late in the day on the savannah close to the Kenya border watching a pair of lions, which seemed to be considering whether to take another nap or go for a hunt.  We had great close views, but the cats weren’t doing much.  As the sun started to set, huge dark clouds rolled in, and we started the long drive back to camp.

Lions waking up

A few minutes later came the first drops of a deluge.  Our guides unfolded the canvas top and plastic windows of the 4Runner and put up the windshield.  Visibility quickly dropped to near zero, while the winds picked up.  Then we began to have lightning flashes and thunder close by every few seconds.  Our driver asked if I thought it was OK to stop, and I said I saw no other choice.  It looked entirely possible that we would not be able to make it back to camp that night.

Not long after, visibility improved enough to move forward, and our driver managed to get us through some creeks that had gotten a lot deeper since the earlier crossing.  We came across a vehicle that was stuck in the mud, and tried unsuccessfully to push them out of their rut.  Finally we got back to the camp.  We were happy to be there, but everyone else was in a state of high anxiety, trying to figure out how much of the camp had been destroyed.  

Alex Walker and his dedicated team managed to feed us a satisfying hot meal in one of the two remaining dining tents, and worked through the night assessing damage and starting repairs.  Our tent had been flooded and blown away, but most of our possessions were eventually found.  The staff worked hard cleaning and drying things while we were out on our last game drive the following day.

Of course, it’s always good to get home.  We’ve been watching some documentaries this week, and I wanted to particularly recommend one:  Eating Our Way to Extinction.  It’s a powerful summary of the problems with our animal agriculture system, and especially the part it plays in climate change.  The presentation is upbeat, with narration by Kate Winslett and cameos by several celebrities.  It emphasizes that it is not too late to change the system, and we as individuals can help.  

Thompson’s gazelle — also a speedy grass lover

One last thing:  I read a good book on the trip:  The Grapes of Wrath, by John Steinbeck.  In my teens and twenties I made a point of reading quite a few officially recognized “classics,” which may or may not have been the best use of my time.  In any case, Grapes is one that I never got to, and I came to it without a lot of assumptions.

The book tells the story of a poor farm family forced from their farm in Oklahoma and hoping for a new life in California.  Their story is both specific (each character is an individual) and general (there are many thousands in their predicament).  I was pulled along by the classic story telling, but also got a better understanding of the economic and social forces that created their desperate poverty along with dramatic wealth for a few.

Cheetahs in Serengeti

I was surprised at how timely the book seemed, as climate change and political upheaval unleashes enormous migration around the globe.  Steinbeck helps us process these kinds of forces, and encourages us to show compassion and work on solutions. 

Our safari in Tanzania

Cheetah

We returned last week from a 10-day safari in Tanzania, where we visited Tarangire National Park and Serengeti National Park.  It was a long hard trip there and back, but completely worth it.  We met some interesting people, but the highlights were the non-human animals living their lives on the savannah.  

We saw many elephants, gazelles, giraffes, buffalo, zebras, baboons, monkeys, ostriches, hippopotamuses, crocodiles, and many, many wildebeests, as well as a few jackals, hyenas, lions, leopards, and cheetahs.  There were also many colorful birds, small mammals, unusual speedy antelopes, and reptiles.  

Some of the oldest known human fossils come from east Africa, and our species spent a lot of its pathbreaking years there.  It’s a big but underappreciated part of our story.  Looking out over vast grasslands, I found myself thinking of the tall grass differently:  vital food for many creatures, and hiding places and ambush spots for some. 

The Serengeti was the setting for the Lion King, which I thought was a sweet and touching movie, though I had assumed it had a large dose of romantic fantasy in depicting the animals and landscape.  It seemed unlikely that different species of animals would live close together cooperatively and mostly peacefully.  

Wildebeests crossing the Mara River

But in fact, we saw a lot of different species sharing territories, some warily but others relaxed.  In most if not all herds, there were animals of different ages, including young ones.  The young animals played while their mothers kept a watchful eye.

We saw large groups of animals organize themselves quite efficiently for travel, rest, and eating, though how they do it is still largely unknown.  One of the most amazing spectacles was the wildebeests crossing the Mara River as part of their annual migration.  We saw nine or ten of these crossings in which thousands of the creatures plunged down steep embankment, swam the river, and climbed the bank on the other side near us.  Most were successful, though we saw crocodiles get a few. 

A leopard in the Serengeti near sunset

According to Seni, our guide, who knew a lot about animal biology and behavior, wildebeests aren’t particularly smart or athletic by Serengeti standards, and some people consider them ugly.  Apart from their dramatic migration, their lives seem to be mostly about eating grass, avoiding predators, and reproducing.  We know little about how they communicate and organize to get things done.  But their huge numbers show that they do so, and their strategy appears to be successful.

The animals of Tanzania have some of the same problems we do, like rising temperatures, droughts, storms, and fires caused by global warming.  They get diseases or get caught by powerful predators, not to mention human poachers.  But I was struck and moved by how well so many of these creatures do when we just leave them alone.  In Tanzania’s huge national parks, they have territories and healthy habitats, and seem to be living mostly peacefully and doing as they like.  

When I was a schoolboy, we were taught that animals operate mostly on raw instinct, and don’t have anything similar to our mental processes for memory and planning, or even feeling.  There’s more and more evidence that this is far from true, and that many animals have strong memories, the ability to plan ahead, and emotions.  

The Washington Post had a fascinating piece this week by Lars Chittka on the consciousness of bees.  Chittka’s researchers found that individual bees could remember human faces, count, and use tools, and that they experienced positive and negative emotions.  It makes one wonder, how much more is there yet to learn about animals’ abilities and consciousness?    

We’ve been thoroughly socialized to avoid thinking about animals as agents having coherent lives worthy of respect.  Most of our education on animals just ignores the complexity and successes of their social systems (their families, herds, alliances), political systems (territories, cooperatives, group decision making, conflict resolution), and creative achievements (communication, nourishment, transportation, sports, shelter).  

We’ve long assumed that humans and their systems are separate from and superior to all non-humans and their systems.  This is, of course, self-serving, and also less and less persuasive in light of modern research.  The massive destruction wrought by humans on the rest of the earth over the last few centuries calls such thinking into question:  our species has been the main driver of our grave crises.  Yet even in the face of the human onslaught, many animals carry on with their cultures.  We can learn from them, and should.       

Lion mom and cub

For the trip, I brought along my new Nikon mirrorless camera and three lenses, one of which (the long one, 150-600 mm) malfunctioned on the first day.  Still, I took a lot of pictures, and I’m still not finished with the first pass through them.  But I wanted to go ahead and share a few that I thought reflected some of the beauty of Tanzanian animals’ lives.  I’m hoping to write more next week on the experience and share more images.    

Sunflowers, galaxies, and Liszt

The sunflower field at Dix Park looked fantastic this week!  I visited there several times to bask in their sweetness, and also to test out my new camera.  I tried to look at them in different ways, and thought a few of the images were worth sharing.

Speaking of pictures, it was cheering to see the new shots  from the Webb Space Telescope showing the early universe.  It is truly mind boggling to think of the size and age of the universe (more than two trillion galaxies, each with hundreds of billions of stars, stretching back about 13.8 billion years), and to think we have the technology to look back in time almost that far.  There is a lot to regret about humans, but this is one thing I really like about them – at times they are full of unselfish curiosity and wonder.

I’ll admit I’ve been feeling a bit low lately from discouraging news on multiple fronts – environmental, legal, social, economic, military, meteorological, medical, ethical, etc.  It’s tempting to vent about some of these, but I’m thinking that’s unlikely to be helpful just now for me or  others. 

Instead I’m trying to take special note of positive events, big and small, and cultivating compassion.  

Granddaughter Gus, almost 10 months old, just started crawling, and is getting really good at it.  She can pull herself up on the window sill and have a look out at the back yard.  She’s usually cheerful, and eager to see what each new thing she can grab tastes like.

I played Liszt’s Liebestraum No. 3 for my piano club friends last week.  This is a famous piece of music, for good reason, with gorgeous melodies and dramatic modulations.  There are some exciting virtuosic flourishes, which are at the edge of or just beyond my ability level, depending on the day.  I made a few mistakes, but I felt it was musical.   Playing the piano for me is primarily about therapy (self care), but I’m glad when I can share with others some of the beauty and joy.

Liszt had a long (1811-1886) and interesting life.  I’ve been reading Alan Walker’s very fine biography of him, and am now in the second of the three volumes.  He was a towering musical figure in his time, but recent generations have tended to underappreciate his achievements.  I’ve been struck not only with his brilliance, but also his remarkable generosity.  

I got two of the volumes used, sold by college libraries, where it appeared they’d been checked out either once or never.  It pained me a little that they couldn’t find readers, but at least they found me!

Liszt and his great contemporaries, including Chopin, Schumann, and Brahms, continue to inspire me.  In addition to absorbing their musical messages, I’m making more use of their discoveries in my jazz playing.  Some of their harmonic ideas have already been thoroughly incorporated into the jazz standards that I’ve made my own, but there are always new possibilities.  

Our holiday weekend — wildlife and books

Wild horses at Corolla, NC

We had a happy July 4 family gathering at the Outer Banks.  There are a lot of stress inducers in the news these days, and it was good to unload some stress.  It helped to spend some time walking on the beach and some time reading. 

I also brought along my new camera, the Nikon Z9, and started getting comfortable with it.  There is definitely a learning curve, but I was pleased with some of the results, a few of which are here.  It was fun seeing the wild horses at Corolla, which mostly seemed in good health.  We also stopped at Alligator River wildlife refuge on the way and saw a few bears, owls, and (a first for us!) alligators.  

Alligator at Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge

Speaking of animals, I highly recommend a lively short essay by Ed Yong titled How Animals See Themselves.  Yong highlights some of the amazing sensory capabilities of non-human animals, including not just extraordinary sight, smell, and hearing, but also abilities like echolocation which we can barely conceive of.  Appreciating the umwelt (a term he promotes) of these animals makes our own lives richer, and potentially more compassionate.  I’ve downloaded Yong’s new book on this subject, An Immense World.

On a related subject, NPR had a great little piece this week on octopuses and how they operate.  I hadn’t realized that the receptors in the suckers of an octopus are vastly more numerous than the nerves in our fingers, and each sucker has not only a sense of touch, but also of taste and smell.  Instead of processing information in a centralized brain, most of their neurons are associated with their suckers.  Scientists are starting to figure out how all their mini-brains work together so that, for example, they can unscrew jars from the inside and perform astonishing feats of camouflage.  I’ve seen a a few of these creatures on diving trips in the Caribbean, and they are truly amazing.   

    

Meanwhile, while recovering from covid, I finished a big book: Anna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy.  It had been some forty years since I last read this famous work, but I still remembered some of it.  Besides being long, it is notable for its scope, which is both narrow (a few months in the lives of a handful of Russian aristocrats) and broad (Russian society in the process of major changes).  Having learned some history over the last few decades, I was better positioned to appreciate Tolstoy’s insights and also his blind spots.  

Some of the book, which was written in the mid-1870s was visionary, or at least a magnificent struggle for a vision.  There is insight into the emotional lives of the characters, including their most creative and destructive emotions.  At times Tolstoy’s consciousness seems to merge with the lives of animals and plants, and evokes the grandeur of nature.  But at other times he seems to regard peasants as useful but inferior, like horses, and other animals as merely good targets for shooting.

Part of Anna Karenina deals with the severe depression suffered by its title character, and also by Levin, who most represents Tolstoy himself.  Tolstoy doesn’t use anything like the modern vocabulary for describing psychological problems, but he evokes them with power.  It is not comfortable to enter into these experiences, but they are definitely timely.

Some new flowers, and a plea that we reconsider our nuclear stance

I’ve resisted the urge to post my various recent musings in an effort not to increase planetary anxiety, or my own.  I’ve also had to work my way through some health issues that took up a lot of bandwidth.  Sorry about that, and about this.  

Spring has been arriving in Raleigh in fits and starts, but the early blooms are out now.  I was happy to see the new tulips at Fletcher Park and daffodils at Raulston, and wanted to share a few pictures.  May they give a little peace.

I also wanted to share a few thoughts on the possibility of nuclear war starting in Ukraine.  As dreadful as that prospect is, there could be a silver lining:  it may help us understand the nuclear peril we face and inspire us to work for a peaceful solution.  

This week there was an op ed piece in the NY Times by Steven Simon and Jonathan Stephenson (S&S) titled Why Putin Went Straight for the Nuclear Threat.  I ended up responding to the piece with a comment in the Times’ electronic edition.  Afterwards, when I then started skimming the hundreds of other comments on the piece, I assumed my views were shared by plenty of others.  

But no.  It’s nice, in a way, to get some proof that your thinking is not entirely conventional.  It was deeply disturbing, though, to find that there were a great many Times commenters who accepted and even welcomed the prospect of nuclear war with Russia. I decided it might be worthwhile to explain a little more what I was trying to say.

S&S’s premise is that nuclear weapons are generally a good thing, in that they provide a “delicate balance of deterrence.”  That is, S&S posit an underlying rationality to the existing nuclear power arrangement in which a small group of leaders may at any time for any reason launch nuclear weapons powerful enough to end civilization.  

In the recent Times piece, S&S are concerned that this “delicate balance” may be disturbed by the U.S. announcing that it does not intend to enter into a nuclear war.  They appear to believe that Putin is bluffing with his nuclear cards, and that we should call the bluff.

Nuclear war, however, is different from poker.  In poker, an erroneous guess about a bluff may, depending on the stakes, cost a lot of money.  In nuclear war, it may mean the end of millions or billions of human lives, if not outright extinction, as well as the end of most other life on Earth.  

This catastrophic risk has been with us in varying degrees since the enormous build up of nuclear forces in the 1960s.  There have been periodic discussions of the risks of nuclear accidents,  unintentional nuclear escalations, or planned attacks.  At times, thinkers have noted the peril of keeping nuclear weapons on hair trigger alert, with one head of state entitled at any moment and with no explanation to unleash their devastating power.  

But these short spells of sanity are mostly quickly forgotten, as other policy matters seem more pressing.  The conventional narrative of “nuclear deterrence” is seldom called on to explain and defend itself.  But it should be.  In spite of its shadowy but powerful supporters – the arms manufacturers, politicians, generals, think tank scholars, and multiple layers of  bureaucracy – there is no reason to think it is at all rational.  In fact, it is both irrational and deeply immoral.       

Part of the foundational idea for nuclear forces is that they deter other nuclear powers from attacking with their nuclear weapons.  This is, of course, circular reasoning, in that it relies on the premise that nuclear weapons must exist and cannot be eliminated.  If we reduce and eventually eliminate all nuclear weapons through verifiable treaties, there would be no need for this sort of deterrence. 

Moreover, there’s no reason to think that this deterrence notion is what really accounts for the lack, so far (except for the U.S. atomic bombing of Japan), of nuclear aggression.  It seems at least as likely that nuclear nations avoid nuclear attacks from a combination of various feelings and ideas, such as compassion, horror at the prospect of mass slaughter, and fear that any nuclear attack will escalate and cause a nuclear winter that will kill almost everything.  

Here, as in most human problems, it’s impossible to know exactly why people do what they do, or what they may eventually decide to do.  Rationality seldom guides our behavior.  This lack of predictability is another reason to work diligently to find a way to back off the nuclear precipice.

The other foundational idea at the heart of nuclear strategy is that having the most powerful weapons will deter non-nuclear fighting.  This deterrence idea has been repeatedly debunked by history.  

The US superiority in nuclear weapons did not deter Soviet aggression in eastern Europe or prevent national liberation movements in former colonial lands.  It did not deter Korea or Vietnam.  It did not deter Iraq or Afghanistan, or ISIS.  These and other movements won their gamble that the US  was unwilling to conduct wholesale nuclear slaughter even when fiercely opposed.

The same, of course, was true for the Soviet Union as its empire fell to pieces:  its nuclear arsenal, purchased at great cost, was useless.  Now we are seeing that this is true of Ukraine.  As the Ukrainians attack seemingly mighty Russian armored columns with small drones and shoulder-fired antitank weapons, they are betting that Putin will not respond with a devastating nuclear attack.

It may be that Putin believes he could intimidate Ukraine and its supporters with a small nuclear weapon that does only limited damage.  He may believe that such a smaller weapon would not be viewed as a nuclear attack requiring a response, and therefore be less likely to trigger a nuclear escalation that ends all civilization.  

Of course, to the extent Putin thinks rationally, he would recognize that he cannot positively know what either Ukrainians or the nuclear-armed western powers would do, just as they cannot know what he would do.  Heck, none of these players know what they themselves would do!  

All the actors in the nuclear drama are humans, prone to confusion, fear, and panic.  Faced with a nuclear onslaught, it is most likely they would act irrationally.  A head of state with a nuclear button could easily be as irrational as the rest of us.  Meanwhile, in a crisis, a field commander with a tactical nuclear weapon is all too likely to fire it, starting the final conflagration.  

Assuming we avoid nuclear catastrophe over Ukraine, this crisis may help us understand the urgency of resolving our perilous situation.  Policies that reduce the risk of accidental nuclear war and arms control treaties that over time eliminate nuclear weapons should be back at the top of our domestic and international agenda.  

I learned this week of Back from the Brink, a group that  advocates for these and related measures, and made a donation to support their work.  Their website is preventnuclearwar.org. 

More Yellowstone animals, the Webb telescope, Jeremy Lent, and comprehending the Big Lie

Moose in Yellowstone

For Valentine’s Day, I’m sharing a few more of the pictures I took last month at Yellowstone National Park.  As I worked my way through the mass of images, I found that a lot of the ones I liked showed animals in pairs, families, and herds, finding food and friendship and otherwise getting through the harsh winter.  

With a new covid variant still at large, many species endangered, democracy in peril, and so many other huge problems, it’s a big challenge to stay optimistic and hopeful.  So I’m giving special emphasis in my daily reading to good news, when I can find it.

Bighorn sheep

Ordinary journalism privileges disasters and conflict over successes and collaboration.  This has come to seem natural in our works of history and literature.  Drama is fundamentally conceived of as conflict.   

We’re deeply habituated to assuming the worst, and viewing the world through a dark lens.  To some extent, we’re addicted to alarming stories that get us agitated.  This may well be bad for our health, and it also limits our imaginations.  But we don’t have ready terminology for an alternative approach. 

Bison

 Anyhow, I’ve been enjoying the unfolding non-drama of NASA’s James Webb telescope, which launched on December 25, 2021, and now is fully deployed and in orbit around the sun about a million miles from us.  The 18 mirrors are currently being calibrated, but so far, amazingly, everything seems to be working as designed.

Wolves

The Webb project took 25 years to design and build.  Its basic mission is at first glance obscure –  improving our understanding of the state of the universe billions of years before the earth came into existence.  But it shows  one of the truly charming, quirky aspects of human nature – irrepressible curiosity.  Despite the old neo-liberal assumption that big endeavors can only be justified in dollars and cents, the Webb can’t be explained in terms of a profit motive.   Cutting edge science like astrophysics is at base about this kind of curiosity:  the inherent satisfaction of just understanding things better.  The Webb website, which has a lot of good news so far, is here.

Ravens

Speaking of webs and understanding more about the universe, I finished reading Jeremy Lent’s recent book, the Web of Meaning.  It’s an ambitious work that proposes to integrate recent science with earlier thought systems.  I was drawn to it for its helpful introduction of Taoist, Buddhist, and neo-Confucian ideas, as well as systems drawn from pre-colonial indigenous cultures.  

Lent makes a useful distinction between reductionist science, which purports to be comprehensive but isn’t, and more open scientific processes.  He calls out the long history of dualist thinking in science, but points up affinities between ancient non-Western systems of thinking and modern scientific discoveries. 

Bison in thermal vents

In Lent’s view, one of the keys to a deeper understanding of ourselves and the universe is the interconnectedness of everything.  He recognizes the extreme peril facing our planet and everything in and on it, but posits that we can develop a new mindset and new sustainable systems.  He could be wrong.  But I found his summary of big ideas in science and philosophy readable and stimulating, and his optimism was encouraging.    

Geese in thermal vents

Still looking on the bright side, I came across an interesting essay by Matthew Rosza in Salon with some psychological explanations for why a substantial number of people believe the Big Lie that Trump won the last presidential election.  It is, of course, depressing that lots of people unite behind notions that are plainly absurd and potentially dangerous, but this real life social experiment can give us new insights into human cognition and its glitches.  It might make us a little more humble, and a little more open.

Trumpeter swans taking off

Anyhow, the Rosza essay points up how even nutty ideas can start to sound normal if repeated constantly and in different contexts by someone with apparent authority.  Their salience depends partly on how they feed the biases and needs of the fans, and the fans’ various desires to fit into their groups and find emotional satisfaction.  For example, people who are fearful of opponents and angry at losing an election are more willing to accept a crazy narrative that makes them feel better.

In the Salon piece, Dr. Matt Blanchard had this interesting perspective: 

Everything we know about the human brain suggests it is composed of numerous systems that interact, overlap, excite, inhibit, and often contradict each other, and may even hide information from consciousness. . . .  So it comes as no surprise that the act of ‘believing’ is not just one thing that humans do. Instead, this one word represents a wide range of relationships that humans have with information. We don’t truly ‘believe’ things, so much as provisionally accept information we find useful.

Dr. Blanchard also noted that the strength and tenacity of beliefs varies.  Some beliefs, like trust in a loved one, are high stakes, with big consequences for believing wrongly, and those are likely to be more thoroughly tested against reality.  Others have little day-to- day effect on our lives, like presidential races or religious observances.  Those low stakes beliefs may be more readily tried out without much reflection, just for fun. 

It makes sense that the Big Lie and other bizarre beliefs have little to do with reasoning, but serve emotional needs, like providing solace and building group ties.  This suggests that such beliefs can change when adherents find other solutions to their fear, anger, and other emotional problems.  Maybe that’s what we should try – less fighting, and more compassion. 

Yellowstone, surviving animals, and The Last Curlew

Week before last I got to visit snowy Yellowstone National Park, most of which is in Wyoming.  My hope was to find and photograph some of the big animals that live there, like bison, wolves, elk, coyote, fox, deer, bighorn sheep, eagles, pronghorns, swans, and bobcats.  I got pictures of all of these, except the bobcat, and also saw a river otter and a pine martin that had just killed a snowshoe hare.

Bighorn sheep

The trip was led by master photographer Charles Glatzer, and the four other photographers had lots of wildlife experience.  We traveled in vehicles especially equipped for the snow and ice, with tires that came up to my chest.  Our two driver-guides were cheerful and accommodating, and one, Christi, was impressively knowledgeable about wildlife and the park.    

It was very cold at times – down to 5 below zero.  Even with gloves and warmers, a few times my fingers were too numb to feel the camera shutter button.  I was conscious of the risk of frostbite, and stayed just clear of it.  

Bison in thermal area near Old Faithful geyser

Yellowstone is big and varied, and it resists easy summaries. There are mountains, canyons, rivers, and valleys.  It is unique in its volcanic activity, with geysers, hot springs, and thermal vents spewing smoke.  It has the largest concentration of non-human mammals in the lower 48. Sometimes the animals are plentiful and easy to see, and sometimes not.  

Bison fleeing wolves

Bison, almost extinct at the beginning of the 20th century, are a signature species that in recent years has been successful in the park.  I got to see many of them.  The most exciting moment was when a pack of wolves (I saw 5) attacked a herd of about 20 or so bison. 

As the wolves tried to take down a smaller, slower bison, all were running for their lives.  I thought they were going to cross the road 50 yards ahead, but then they turned and charged straight toward us, and passed right beside our vehicle.  The wolves were unsuccessful, but they stayed around for a few minutes to catch their breath.

A wolf

 I was sorry to hear that hunters are legally permitted to “harvest” bison who wander into public lands outside the park boundaries.  The wolves of Yellowstone, with an estimated population of fewer than 100, are also being killed by hunters when they venture outside the park.   

It really is a strange, sad thing that some humans find it fun to inflict suffering and death on these creatures, and are allowed to do it.  Children generally start life with curiosity about and affection for  animals, and view them as living beings like us, with their own feelings.  Our culture then socializes us in the opposite direction.  Regarding non-human animals as of no moral consequence, and fit objects for murderous sport, is presently considered normal.  

Like almost everyone, I was taught that humans are superior to animals, and that animals exist merely for the pleasure of humans.  Eventually I arrived at a different view, which is this:  humans are animals with certain unique attributes, but no special right to exploit and mistreat other animals.  Every animal has its own talents and its own inherent worth.  Each is entitled to respect.

Bald eagle taking off

With that understanding, it becomes a lot easier to think about non-humans’ lives, customs, and cultures.  They survive in harsh environments, and know how to live simply in the present.  They could teach us a few things.  

On my trip, I reread The Last of the Curlews, by Fred Bodsworth.  It’s a short, beautiful novel about an Eskimo curlew, a shorebird species that was once abundant and is now extinct.  The book describes the last of these birds as it migrates between the Arctic to South America, struggling with the elements and searching for a mate.  Bodsworth helps us better understand our planet through the lens of a single bird. 

I haven’t had a chance to go through all my Yellowstone pictures yet, but I got a start, and found several I liked.  I’m hoping to make it through the rest in the next week or two, and to share a few more.

Coyote near bison in smoky thermal area

Happy New Year! But there’s some bad news

Here are a few more shorebird pictures from our wonderful wedding celebration at Atlantic Beach, NC. Clark, our new daughter-in-law, exceeded all expectations!  I also enjoyed spending time on the beach with the birds, and interpreting these images. As noted below, I, and probably you, can definitely use more of the beauty and peace of nature.

As we start a brand new year, it’s hard not to feel overwhelmed with dire problems:  the resurgent pandemic, mass shootings, fires, tornadoes, droughts, melting ice caps, and the list goes on.  There’s a lot to deal with.  As part of my meditation practice, I try to make some time every day for conscious gratitude and compassion, including self-compassion.

Given all our other problems, it’s obviously not a great time to discuss the possible end of American democracy. We’re already exhausted.  But we need to buck up and find our second wind.  Our system has been much weakened and may fail entirely.  If we want to save it, we have to act soon.  

Besides worry overload, another reason I hesitate to raise the subject is that there is so much wrong with American-style democracy.  Its most valuable ideals – free elections, equality before the law, free speech and other civil liberties – have never been fully realized. Meanwhile, this system has given us extreme inequality, embedded racism, misogyny, homophobia, and xenophobia.  

We have the world’s largest rate of incarceration, and an endless war on drugs that keeps prisons full and sustains worldwide criminal organizations.  Our military brings death and chaos to remote areas of the globe, while maintaining hair-trigger readiness to end civilization in a nuclear war.  For many, there is not adequate food, housing, transportation, or medical care.  For non-human beings, it’s even worse.  In short, our political processes have not produced what we would reasonably expect of a wealthy, enlightened nation, and they’ve done a lot that we cannot be proud of.  

But for all our shortcomings and failures, American democracy still provides one thing that is extremely valuable:  the possibility of change.  We have a tradition of fair elections and peaceful transitions of power.  Our votes almost always get counted and determine the winner.  Exceptions are vanishingly rare.

If the governing party loses, it peacefully concedes and allows the business of government to continue.  The new government might improve things, and at any rate, it is generally agreed that it is entitled to take a shot.  This has been true for a long time, and it’s hard to conceive that it could be otherwise.  But it easily could.  

Now, more than a year after the last presidential election, a substantial majority of Republicans have been persuaded that the election was stolen, and that Joe Biden is not the legitimate president.  They reject the overwhelming weight of the authorities – court decisions, officials, scholars, and news media – that contradict that view.   

Republican leaders at the national and state level, with very few exceptions, continue to support the big lie that the true winner in 2020 was Donald Trump, and to refuse to support or cooperate with investigations into the illegal attempts to nullify the victory of President Biden.

Republican legislators in some 19 states have already passed laws to make future Democratic victories less likely by making it more difficult for some groups to vote.  Several Republican-dominated states are getting rid of their non-partisan election officials who refused to assist in overturning the last presidential election and installing supporters of the big lie.   

In other words, many states are putting in place a system to stack the deck against Democrats and then, if that doesn’t work, nullify election results. In addition, dozens of states have enacted new laws criminalizing various acts of protests, including ones that would likely occur after a stolen election. Meanwhile, the courts have been stacked with Republican judges.  

While all this is happening, repeating the big lie prepares the psychological ground.  If enough people are convinced, wrongly, that election fraud is common, they may also be convinced that their own cheating isn’t so bad.  Cynicism, apathy, and fear could be paralyzing, or at least keep many people from protesting.  

These forces could in short order leave us with an authoritarian, neo-fascist system.  That is, a system with all of our current problems, minus the machinery to allow for political change to address those problems, and minus long-standing institutional restraints on repressive violence and corruption.

I know this is no fun to think about, but fortunately, it’s not hard to understand intellectually.  The challenge is to fix it.  As to Republicans who understand the big lie and disapprove of it, they need to show some backbone, and tell the truth.   Democrats who understand it need to get to work educating others on what’s happening.  And they need to get involved, volunteering, making phone calls, watching the polls, and so forth – all the no-fun jobs that are part of free and fair elections.  

Although I think saving our democracy will be tough, our ancestors have won long-odds fights for rights before.  In the last century, women fought hard to win the right to vote, and African Americans won the right to be treated as full citizens.  The forces that have brought us to this point – fear, hatred, ignorance, greed – are nothing new, and we already have the tools to counter them:  kindness, compassion, and love.  But hope alone won’t get the job done.  We need to get to work.