A couple of weeks ago, a friend and I headed up to the Delmarva peninsula for a photography workshop featuring wintering ducks. We put on waders and got in the waters of the Chesapeake Bay near Cambridge, Maryland. There were hundreds of beautiful ducks and other water birds, flying in and swimming close.
From a distance, ducks on the water can look peaceful. But up close, it’s clear they swim fast and are constantly on the lookout. Their lives are not easy.
We also went to the Blackwater Wildlife Refuge to look for various other creatures, including short-eared owls. We saw various eagles, harriers, and great blue herons, a fox, and, after a lot of looking, a SE owl – my first, which was kind of a thrill. The sun was setting, but I managed to get one shot.
As much as I enjoyed seeing the uncommon birds, I also got joy from the more common ones. We see a lot of mallards in the course of a normal year, and it’s easy to forget about their amazing colors. I liked this flying shot, and also one of two mallard drakes having a squabble.
We saw a vast accumulation of snow geese grazing in a farm field. Something (maybe a fox) startled them, and they all took wing in an instant, with some of them headed directly at us. They made an amazing racket. It was so exciting I forgot to worry about the possibility of being hit by one of these good-size, fast fliers. We noticed after the big launch that a few birds were still on the ground, apparently wounded by collisions during the take off. Clearly, it’s not easy flying in a crowd.
The workshop was organized by Shoot the Light, Chas Glatzer’s outfit, and led by Joe Subolefsky. I had thought Chas would be the leader, and was disappointed at first to learn otherwise, but I was very happy working with Joe. He knew a lot about the wildlife and about making interesting images with mirrorless cameras (the kind I’m using now).
Speaking of birds, Sally and I had a special opportunity to visit the American Wildlife Refuge, a bird rescue center in Clayton, N.C. There were quite a few big birds there who’d been hit by cars or otherwise injured, including barred owls, a great horned owl, red-tailed hawks, broad-winged hawks, Cooper’s hawks, vultures, and a bald eagle. Most of these were on the road to recovery and were expected to resume their life in the wild. The barred owls were especially curious to see us, and sat together on a branch watching us intently.
We talked with the head of the organization, Steve Stone, who is a fully licensed and very experienced wildlife rehabilitator. He is effectively a full time volunteer who has devoted much of his life to helping injured birds. We were happy to be able to donate to support this work, and hope others will do so. The web site is http://awrefuge.org/
Until last week, I’d never volunteered for a medical research project, but I decided to sign up as a subject for a study of a new flu vaccine being developed by Pfizer. I met the age and vaccine criteria (over 65 and not vaccinated for flu). After a telephone interview, I went in for another interview, along with a physical exam.
It was more involved than I expected. But I got a shot of either the current flu vaccine or the experimental mRNA one. Other than the needle prick, nothing bad happened. And I got a non-de-minimis payment: $150!
Last week I drove to eastern North Carolina to check on the visiting wild birds. Some hundreds of tundra swans were there. These big white birds nest on the Arctic tundra and migrate long distances to winter at places like Pungo Lake. They really are majestic, swimming calmly or climbing the air. I watched them for quite a while, flying, landing, feeding, preening, and having minor disputes.
Shortly after sunrise I also saw thousands of snow geese in a riotous murmuration, circling around a farm field, landing, then taking off again. It was thrilling. What were they up to? They vocalize as they fly, and perhaps they’re debating how to group themselves and where to go for the day. Or perhaps that’s just their ritual, their way to greet the sunrise.
We have a lot to learn about the minds of other animals. A new book I’m reading, The Mind of a Bee, by Lars Chittka, shows that most of what I was taught about bees back in the day was ridiculously wrong. Chittka, a professor, discusses the special qualities of bee perception, communication, and behavior. He makes a convincing case that individual bees have memories and solve complex problems of navigation, flower biology, and structural engineering. It’s hard not to conclude that they have a kind of intelligence.
On the drive out east, I listened to Rachel Maddow’s new podcast, Ultra. The subject is American Nazis in WWII, including a couple of dozen members of Congress who collaborated with Hitler’s government. One group, inspired by the rabidly antisemitic Father Coughlin (the most popular radio personality of his time), stockpiled arms and planned to overthrow the U.S. government.
I enjoy learning about American history, and like to think my knowledge is above average. But the Ultra story was a chapter I’d never heard anything about. I’d had the impression that in WWII, there was hardly any disagreement among Americans on the proposition that Nazism was wrong and needed to be opposed with all our strength. But thanks to Rachel and her team, I now get that it wasn’t that simple.
The January 6 insurrection, election denialism, QAnon conspiracy thinking, and the MAGA penchant for violence and repression now make more sense. As disturbing as these ideas are, it’s clear that they aren’t random or isolated.
Fascist fears and longings have been part of our story for a long time. For some, there’s real appeal in the idea of finding unity behind an inspired dictator to beat down a supposedly grave threat. It’s easy to condemn this kind of extremism. But it’s better to understand it as part of a long-standing culture that adherents did not consciously choose. It might make us less judgmental and angry, and able to help the extremists calm down and perhaps find a measure of sanity and peace.
On a happier note, I was glad to see the Washington Post featured a good piece by Sarah Kaplan on Suzanne Simard. Simard is a pioneering plant biologist who made key discoveries relating to how trees in forests behave. (She was the model for a character in Richard Powers’ excellent 2018 eco-novel, The Overstory.) She discovered that mycorrhizal fungi connected to tree roots facilitate living forest communities.
Kaplan wrote, “Through decades of study, Simard and other ecologists have revealed how fungi and trees are linked in vast, subterranean networks through which organisms send messages and swap resources. The findings have helped revolutionize the way the world sees forests, turning static stands of trees into complex societies of interdependent species, where scenes of both fierce competition and startling cooperation play out on a grand scale.”
Simard’s current big experiment is called the Mother Tree Project. She’s designed different environments to see how trees and their associated fungi networks fare. It seems pretty clear that the logging methods generally used today are not sustainable, and she’s looking for a better way.
I’ve been getting up early to photograph the birds at local lakes in Raleigh. The Canada Geese start flying right after sunrise, and most have gone elsewhere or settled back down for breakfast within 45 minutes. It’s fun to hear their discussions and to see them gathering and taking off.
After the birds have flown, I take a run around the lake, which is about 2 miles. Later I check the photos to see if any seem to say something non-obvious about the birds, and experiment with processing to see if that unusual element can speak any clearer. Here are a few that I liked.
Last weekend, Sally and I took a short holiday trip to Winston-Salem to see old friends and have a look through Old Salem, the restored Moravian town founded in the 17th century. We enjoyed seeing the town and learning a bit about colonial life there. A brass band played traditional carols in the square.
Although the dominant narrative of Old Salem depicts a harmonious and innovative religious community, I figured there must be some dissonant notes that were worth hearing about. We had a chats with a couple of the docents about difficult subjects, including slavery and subjugation of women. They were friendly and knowledgeable, and readily acknowledged that not everything was sweetness and light in the early days.
We were fortunate to get into the Candle Tea at the Single Brothers House without a reservation. There we had a nice time singing some Christmas carols, which were a happy part of our childhood, and hearing once again the Biblical account of Jesus’ birth. I’m not a believer any more, but I like that part of the Bible, in which all agree that a new baby is a miracle.
On a different note, a couple of days later I did an adventure driving trip to Uwharrie National Forest. It’s a large (50 thousand acre), mountainous (well, small mountains), green place in piedmont North Carolina. The Forest Service maintains trails there for hiking, horseback riding, and off-road driving. I wanted to test out my new Subaru Forester Wilderness, which claimed to be able to run off road with rugged 4X4s, at least to a certain point.
I stuck to the trails marked easy or moderate, which were a lot more challenging than I expected. There were various spots where big rocks, mud, and trees had to be negotiated while moving forward, sideways, and up or down, sometimes all at once. It reminded me of skiing black diamond trails — a lot slower, but similarly demanding and absorbing.
I used my Subaru’s special off-road gearing system, called X Drive, and made it back to the paved road with no substantial damage. I was proud of my Wilderness! The Uwharrie trails were closed for the winter on December 15, but we’re looking forward to more adventures in the spring.
It was good to see the NY Times prominently featuring a piece on biodiversity. As you may know, but many don’t, human civilization has caused enormous damage to other species. Per the Times, “a million species are threatened with extinction, many within decades.” Biodiversity is declining at the fastest rate in human history.
The Times piece made the case that humans should be concerned about the loss of other species, because it is likely to harm humans, including affecting food and water supplies. While that’s true, there’s more to it than that. Ruthlessly exploiting and destroying the non-human world is horrific and wrong under any definition of morality.
The threats to many species are caused by loss of habitat. This problem is separate from, but in places connected to, climate change. Humans have been gradually taking over huge areas where animals and plants once lived. One of the big problems is destruction of forests to create more areas of agriculture, with much of that agriculture related to feeding farm animals that are then slaughtered for food.
The Times piece noted that 200 nations have been holding a large meeting in Montreal with a view to addressing the biodiversity crisis. Just this past weekend, the gathering (uncharmingly nicknamed COP15) came to an agreement on the 30 by 30 solution: saving 30 percent of the planet’s land and oceans by 2030. This sounds like progress, certainly, though it doesn’t seem quite fair that one species (us) among millions would consider itself entitled to 70 percent of the planet.
Almost all of us have been taught that humans are a unique species that is superior to all others, and that we’re entitled to dominate and exploit other species in whatever way we like. This idea is so deeply embedded that it seems like part of nature, rather than just an idea. But some are starting to see that it’s a poisonous idea, almost impossible to defend in terms of reason or ethics.
Alternative conceptions of human life are possible. Life can be approached in terms of ecological systems, with the multitude of life forms having many interconnections with their environments and each other. Our human lives are connected in many ways to the lives of other species, and those connections are key to survival and happiness both for us and others.
For example, humans and other animals could not survive without plants that capture energy from the sun, and many plants could not survive without the insects and other creatures that pollinate them. The principle is simple, though the details are endless. The starting point is becoming aware of the diversity of life and the need for that diversity. That should make us less heedless. As we realize that our human wants and needs are not the only thing that matters, we become less miserable, and cause less misery.
Our current political problems, including extreme polarization, are closely related to our hierarchical view of the natural world. We put humans at the top of the pecking order, and rank animals and plants at the bottom. Most of us are taught that non-human life forms are worth thinking about only if they can be exploited or pose a danger to us. Thus we don’t know very much about the rest of nature, or even see the point of knowing more. This ignorance is part of the source of our biodiversity crisis.
This kind of hierarchical thinking also separates human groups, with the same result. That is, in our culture, we normally rank males over females, white over non-white, native over non-native, and so on, in an unwritten but intricate caste system, with privileges accruing in the top-most ranks and getting scarce in the bottom ones. The more privileged castes are taught to keep separate from those less privileged, and they come to fear those considered lower. The fear is understandable, as extreme inequality can make the less privileged angry and resentful.
Adopting an ecological approach to animals and plants could help us begin to overcome the worst of our human hierarchies. Under an ecological approach, we’d notice more of our interconnections, and the value of considering differing customs and viewpoints. Our polarized politics would be less polarized, because we wouldn’t be so fearful of our differences in appearance and culture. We’d likely find that, just as with the different ethnic foods we enjoy, our physical and cultural differences can be something to relish.
Looking back through the photographs I made on my Antarctic trip, I’m still reflecting on how challenging the voyage was. But I’m starting to think about how much I want to go back. It was uniquely beautiful, and thought provoking.
I came away with an enriched conception of non-human animals, and how humans can relate to them. It reinforced my view that there’s no inherent right for us to use them without considering them as communities and individuals. Even though it’s generally accepted, there’s something deeply misguided in our conception that non-human animals are inferior to humans such that they may be exploited as we see fit.
In rough Antarctic waters, the cooks and wait staff of the Ushuaia did a surprisingly good job of feeding us three meals a day, including providing something for the vegetarians on board. Both lunch and dinner included dessert, which I and my shipmates ate, sometimes because it tasted so good, and sometimes just to pass the time.
Anyhow, this all added up to a lot of desserts. The result was that now, weeks after the end of the trip, I still have no interest in anything sweet. My life-long sweet tooth has changed, which is probably a good thing.
Eating involves a lot of choices. I continue to think that a plant-based diet, involving little or no killing or exploiting animals, is best. It seems self-evident to me that needlessly and cruelly killing other creatures is wrong – fatal to them, and also demeaning to us.
The health benefits of a plant-based diet are also well documented. These include looking and feeling better, and lower risk of the common major diseases associated with eating animals, including heart disease, colon cancer, and Type 2 diabetes. If decency and health weren’t reasons enough, it’s becoming more widely understood that animal agriculture is a major contributor to global warming and all the destruction that comes with climate change.
These facts seem vitally pertinent to me, but most people manage to ignore them. It’s strange, but then again, it’s extremely common for people to carry around beliefs that have no relation to reality, and to tolerate risks that seem to me very worrisome. Fortunately, most of the time, an individual’s ideas don’t do much harm to the individual or to others.
However, I think our ideas about eating animals are more consequential, which is why I think they’re worth discussing. At the same time, I don’t want to pointlessly add to the general angst and feelings of hopelessness. Fortunately, the situation with animals is far from hopeless. In fact, moving away from eating animals and eating a healthier plant-based diet is not that hard. Lots of people are doing it.
Apropos of animals and food, this week I heard a new podcast with a focus on the lives of farm animals and industrialized farming. Leah Garces, president of Mercy for Animals, speaks with Ezra Klein about how the low cost of meat is not really such a good thing. The system is extremely profitable for a few producers, subsidized by taxpayers and protected by law, miserable for most of the farmers involved, and of course, horrific for the animals.
This food system seems fully entrenched, long supported by political and economic power. But, as with our changing climate, the chickens are coming home to roost: industrial animal agriculture is causing more deadly pollution, increased antibiotic resistance, animal-based pandemics, exhaustion of arable land, loss of rainforests, and of course, the psychological trauma of complicity in massive animal suffering. Again, the word is getting around.
On a different note, I’m continuing my project of reading “classic” novels that I encountered as a youth, and just finished one that intersects with issues of animals and food: The Jungle, by Upton Sinclair.
This is a book some of us were forced to read in high school as one of the “great books.” I finished it last week, and didn’t think it was exactly great. The writing was sometimes clunky, and the shape ungainly. But it was undeniably powerful and brave in its account of industrialized animal slaughter in early 20th century, and the brutal exploitation of the immigrants who did most of the dirty work.
Is The Jungle still relevant? Well, the meat industry has gotten a number of states to pass “ag-gag” laws, which make it a crime to document what goes on in the slaughter houses that supply our grocery stores and restaurants. It makes you wonder what they don’t want anyone to see. I’d bet that they think, rightly, that a close up view of modern industrial slaughter operations would be very bad for business.
Of course, I very much doubt our modern slaughter houses are anywhere close to as filthy and disease-ridden as what Sinclair described, but, as Leah Garces explains in the recent podcast, they are still full of misery. Garces’s organization is working to help animal farmers transition to growing other products. She thinks (and I agree) that if we don’t like the system, criticizing it is not enough: it’s important to find and support better alternatives.
When I got home from Antarctica, I felt like I’d aged about 30 years. I was very tired and weak for more than a week. But I’m happy to say, I’m feeling back to normal, and maybe even better. In fact, I’m starting to think about another trip there to see these beautiful creatures and their unique habitat. Anyhow, I wanted to share a few more pictures I made of penguins, an elephant seal, fur seals, and a leopard seal. I was trying to capture aspects of their personalities, customs, and environments.
As you may know, but many people don’t, Antarctica is in big trouble from climate change. Higher temperatures there are changing the habitats of the animals that live on and around the continent, and the collapse of giant ice shelves and melting glaciers are lifting sea levels. The situation is dire, and has global implications.
But I’ve really been trying to stay positive, and given so many sources of fear and anxiety, would like to avoid making your and my fear and anxiety still worse. Getting depressed is not going to help. But it’s tough to keep learning more about what is happening to our planet and not be tempted to throw in the towel.
And so I almost skipped a couple of podcasts on climate change last week that I’m glad I didn’t. I recommend both as antidotes for hopelessness put out by respected and trustworthy journalists.
David Wallace-Wells wrote what may well be the most detailed and gory account of what’s in store if we don’t change course in burning fossil fuels, The Uninhabitable Earth, in 2017, But in an interview on Fresh Air last week, he explained that technology and market forces have made the worst-case scenarios he described back then much less likely. We still stand a chance of putting in place the green energy infrastructures that would greatly mitigate disaster. He made these same points in a recent NY Times magazine piece.
Likewise, Bill McKibben has been a path-breaking writer on climate change, authoring among other things The End of Nature. (Long ago, I worked with McKibben when he was a young reporter and I was a fact checker at the New Yorker.) In an interview with Ezra Klein, McKibben said the long history of humans surviving by burning things will, one way or another, come to a conclusion, and it may be not be as terrible as we were recently expecting.
McKibben explained that the lower cost of solar panels and storage technologies is changing the energy equation, as the persistence of climate activists has finally gotten through to more people. The cost of renewables has fallen hugely, and is now lower than fossil fuels. Now it doesn’t make economic sense not to switch to green technology. L
Unfortunately, the fossil fuel companies aren’t admitting this and they’re not giving up, so there’s still a lot of work to be done. McKibben continues to encourage activism, including in a new initiative called Third Act especially for those over 60. He thinks we should continue to press for fossil fuel divestment by their biggest bankers, which unfortunately, are all banks I do or have done business with: Bank of America, Citi, JP Morgan Chase, and Wells Fargo. He also articulated these points in a New Yorker piece
Before my Antarctic journey, I started rereading Bleak House, the epic novel by Charles Dickens. The hard back edition I had was a brick, at more than a thousand pages. To save weight while traveling, I tried switching to a free e-book version. This edition was full of bizarre errors, which I assume arose from relying on non-human editorial bots.
Anyhow, I resumed making my way through my paper copy when I got home. This year I’ve discovered, or rediscovered, that rereading can be extremely rewarding. In many cases, I took on heavy duty literature when I was young that I was ill-equipped to understand. The ordinary experiences of growing up — learning things, making a living, having friends and family, and everything else were transformative for me (as they are for everyone). I’m now 67 (almost the age when my father died), and a different person in many ways than I was at 15, or 25, or 35. Or 55, for that matter.
Certainly I’m much better equipped for the adventure of reading a masterpiece like Bleak House. On this, my fourth reading, I got much more from it, even as I better understood some of its shortcomings. I easily grasped Dickens’s great love for humanity, his humor, and his anger at injustice.
Now, after having had a career in the American legal system and experience with the British, French, Indian, Argentinian, and other legal systems, I can better appreciate Dickens’s bitter critique of the English courts of equity of his time. I now know a lot more about the history of colonialism and imperialism, and have a better frame of reference for the military and commercial struggles that happen offstage in his story.
Dickens was knowledgeable and critical of the ravages of early capitalism and industrialization, including extreme inequalities of wealth. He had a wonderful flair for sniffing out and satirizing hypocrisy and moral posing, including poorly thought out philanthropy.
Yet he was oblivious to problems with various other hierarchies, like race, gender, and species. The book has some of his most gorgeous writing, and also passages that feel like they were recycled on a tight deadline. Some of his characters are memorable and touching (I still adore Esther Summerson) or comic (Old Turveydrop), though others, like John Jarndyce, are more generous than any known human.
Apropos of climate change, Bleak House is also about what industrialization means for the environment, such as horrific and deadly pollution. His description of London fog and iron factory emissions are fascinating and disturbing. He also can be brutally honest in describing the struggles of enslaved animals, such as horses who fall while trying to pull a coach through the snow and mud.
Apropos of non-human animals and efforts to better understand their lives, I wanted to pass along a link to a thought-provoking story about pigs, which humans generally greatly underestimate and devalue as a species. Research reported by Leo Sands in the Washington Post indicated that pigs’ social lives have surprising dimensions. For example, when two pigs have a serious fight, a third pig will sometimes help resolve the dispute by nuzzling or similar touching. That is, some pigs are concerned about the unhappiness of other pigs, and know how to calm anger and increase happiness. Of course, humans also sometimes try to defuse tensions and resolve disputes, though we could do a lot better. Perhaps the pigs’ nuzzling approach would help.
Last weekend I got back from an epic trip down to the southern tip of South America and from there to the Falklands, South Georgia, and the Antarctic Peninsula. I’m still sorting through the pictures I took, but here are some of them.
The expedition was led by Muench Workshops, with a view to wildlife and landscape photography. Our ship was the Ushuaia, a 278-foot-long vessel built in 1970 either as a research vessel or a spy ship, depending on which story you believed. I understood it was outfitted for the challenges of rough icy seas, and it did in fact get us down and back.
We were at sea for 21 days, and it was a rough ride a times. Winds were more than 50 knots, and waves more than 15 meters. Dishes slid off the dinner table a couple of times, and books came out of the book cases. Our expedition leader said the winds were the highest she’d seen in 26 years.
Walking from one place to another on ship was challenging. From early on I used a medication called Scopolamine to counteract seasickness, which did a good job, though it made my mouth dry. There was a Covid outbreak soon after the start of our voyage, and several people had to quarantine for a few days in their cabins. Happily, I was not infected, but we had to wear masks on board after that, which didn’t help socializing.
My primary objective for the trip was to have some time with the unique animals, and especially various species of penguins. They had convened in South Georgia by the thousands, along with elephant seals, fur seals, leopard seals, albatrosses, and other amazing creatures. We went ashore at several points using inflatable vessels called Zodiacs.
I’d known very little about South Georgia before the trip, except that polar explorer Ernest Shackleton had reached it as part of his epic survival story of 1914-17. Among other stops there, we visited Grytviken, a former whaling station where Shackleton was buried.
We had a toast at his grave, and afterwards, as I made my way along the beach to one of the Zodiacs, I got charged by a massive bull elephant seal. I quickly retreated by some yards, and he, dignity satisfied, left off.
As much as I was delighted by the penguins, I was disturbed by the whaling industry remnants. The equipment, red with rust, used for processing whale oil and other whale products was on a much bigger scale than I imagined.
Grytviken had a small museum that valorized the courage and endurance of the whale workers, which, of course, was real. But there didn’t seem to be any recognition or apology there for the whale holocaust in the 19th and 20th centuries, when millions of our fellow mammals were hunted to the verge of extinction.
I read several good books on the trip, including Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, an it-could-happen-here depiction of resistance in a misogynist theocracy.
I also liked Melanie Challenger’s recent How to Be Animal. Challenger’s book takes on the big question of how humans fit into the world. She focuses on the strange reality that modern humans still generally decline to recognize that they themselves are animals – a delusion which can blind them to the rich connectedness of life. She proposes that all animals be treated as inherently worthy of respect.
I also finished An Immense World, a new book by Ed Yong. It’s about the different ways that different animals perceive the world, and how their senses are integral to what Yong terms their umwelt, or their way of experiencing the world.
Yong goes through some exceptional non-human versions of the senses we know (like smelling, seeing, and hearing) and some that are foreign to us (like echolocation and magnetic and electrical sensing). The book was a good reminder that the human senses, marvelous as they are, are far from the most powerful, and that the non-human animal world is dense with fascinating other ways of being.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.