The Casual Blog

Catching local birds flying, and considering their lives and ours (including improved eating)

We’ve been happily not traveling lately, and instead I’ve been keeping an eye out for the creatures and fall colors in the Raleigh parks.  Several mornings a week I’ve been getting up early, bundling up, and hauling my photography equipment to Shelley Lake, Umstead, Durant, or another nearby green space.  The eagles at Shelley Lake are working on a new nest, and I caught one that had just caught a fish. I enjoyed watching the Canada geese and mallards flying in groups, and blue herons working on nests.

The NY Times had a good story this week about vulturine guineaflowl and their surprising abilities.  These east African birds have relatively small brains, but surprisingly complex social organizations.  It made me think there may still be a lot to learn about the lives and talents of the birds we take for granted, like our common ducks and geese.  

It seems to me self evident that their lives have value, and as a matter of basic morality we owe them respect and consideration.  So I’ve been struggling with how to think about the current crisis. Bird populations in North America have declined by almost 30 percent in the last 50 years. That’s about 3 billion dead birds.  See the Cornell Ornithology report.  There are various factors (habitat loss, pesticides, pet cats), but the root cause is us.  Our systems and lifestyles have resulted in an ongoing bird holocaust.  

The latest Audubon magazine acknowledged the tragedy, but stressed that there’s a lot we can do save a lot of wildlife.  It discusses not just political leadership and technical initiatives, but also how we can be more responsible in our own traveling, yard care, eating, and other areas.  Things are not hopeless — just desperate — and we are not powerless.  

Apropos of change for the better, Sally and I tried a new (to us) restaurant last week:  Soca at Cameron Village, and loved it! It has great, modern-but-warm look, and features various interesting small plates (tapas).  We were delighted when our friendly waiter alerted us to the vegan menu, and found several interesting dishes to try. Everything was delicious.  N.B., prices were at the special-occasion level.

We also watched on Netflix a recent documentary on eating better:  The Game Changers. It presented some world class athletes and public figures, including Arnold Schwarzenegger, who had made the switch from meat to plant food, with no regrets.  It addressed some of the misunderstandings around plant-based eating, including the myth that you can’t get enough protein, and showed that living free of animal products is consistent with high-level athletic performance.  You also get a lowered risk of cancer, diabetes, and heart disease.  

Of course, the health benefits of a plant-based diet are only one of the excellent reasons to quit eating meat.   You also reduce the torture and killing of animals and the huge amounts of greenhouse gases from factory farming. Anyhow, I recommend the film.

I also recommend Sam Harris’s latest Making Sense podcast, in which Harris interviews Richard Dawkins, the famous evolutionary biologist and religious skeptic.  It is really a bracing discussion of some cutting edge science.  

Dawkins is well-spoken and entertaining, and, it turns out, knows almost nothing about insight meditation.  Harris, who is also a meditation teacher, gave Dawkins an impromptu lesson which also taught me a few things.  Among other points, he noted that meditation helps us not by giving new ideas, but rather by letting us drop a lot of useless and distracting concepts, which allows us to see our reality with more clarity.  The podcast is here 

Fall colors in western North Carolina, our bodies, and immortality

Last week I was in western NC for a nature photography workshop, where I shot colorful forests, mountain streams, waterfalls, and elk.  The workshop was based near Brevard and led by Chas Glatzer, a superb wildlife photographer and inspiring teacher. He helped me in technical matters, like exposure calculation and white balance, and made me work harder on composition.

He also got our group out to some lovely spots for the fall colors, which were near their peak.  Trying to find some new perspectives, I sustained some minor discomfort — sprayed by waterfalls, slipping into streams, and kneeling on hard wet rocks.  I was sore when we finished, but pleased with some of the results, including those here.

But to give credit where credit is due:  the main creative work was nature’s.  Nature is a great artist — endlessly surprising.  Opening up to it can transform us.  We usually view ourselves as separate from and superior to it, but that’s a costly mistake.  We wreak a lot of havoc, and miss a lot of joy.

Elk at Cataloochee Park

On the drive out and back I listened to Bill Bryson’s new book, The Body: A Guide for Occupants.   It’s an entertaining and thought-provoking compendium of what we know so far about how human bodies work.  Bryson clearly loves science. He covers a lot of ground, dividing it by body parts (hair, skin, eyes, ears, nose, throat, and on through the brain and the more obscure organs, like the pancreas) and systems, and straightens out a lot of widely held erroneous notions along the way.  He keeps things lively with accounts of great discoveries and oddities as he updates what we learned a little about in high school biology.  

 

Along the way, he corrects a major misunderstanding:  that we pretty much control our own bodies.  So much of the body’s essential work is completely beyond our conscious control (e.g. the circulatory system,  the digestive system, the immune system, the endocrine system). Indeed, the conscious part of our lives is a relatively minor part of what’s happening with us.   If our staying alive depended on our consciously running our bodies, we wouldn’t survive very long.  

 

As Bryson makes clear, there’s a lot science can’t yet explain about human bodies.  But it was fun and helpful to get an overview of current knowledge. Bryson helps us see ourselves differently — not as separate from nature, but as fundamentally part of it.

I also finished reading Immortality, The  Quest to Live Forever and How it Drives Civilization, by Stephen Cave.  Cave, a philosopher, diplomat, and writer, contends that, even as we recognize the high probability we will eventually die, we are constitutionally unable to imagine our own deaths.  This paradox makes us susceptible to various bogus theories of how we can attain never-ending life.   

This is not entirely a bad thing, in Cave’s view, since it accounts for much of what we regard as civilization and progress.  But trying to imagine a life that’s eternal — being more or less the same not only for millions, or billions, or trillions of years, but more than all that  — is almost as disturbing as imagining death. It would eventually get so boring!

Cave points out that  our mortality is actually the source of value and meaning in life.  Plus, as he notes, assuming death is real (as it sure looks like it is), we won’t actually be present to experience it — we’ll be dead.  So what are we afraid of? I wasn’t entirely persuaded by his system of four different immortality templates to explain every civilization, but I did find the book stimulating and oddly cheering.

 

Flying and fishing egrets, the possible survival of nature, and two books — Falter and the Evolution of Religion

It turned cooler here last week, and the leaves were starting to glow at Shelley Lake.  One day I saw three great egrets together at the other side of the lake.  Usually, at least around here, these are solitary creatures. One looked smaller, and I wondered if they were a family. Anyhow, they were too far away to photograph well. Then one decided to fly right towards me, and the others soon followed.  They spent some time standing in the water near me and did some fishing.

For me, these images are about a moment, never to be repeated, in the lives of particular birds.  At the same time, they open a little window into a larger world of nature, where there’s always more to be discovered.   For me they speak of the beauty and fragility of the natural world.

Though I guess it’s possible to see only odd creatures.  Indeed, that may be the typical view. Our traditional attitude toward nature treats it as irrelevant, or else an antagonist to be exploited.  The concept of nature as foundational, as the ground for everything, is still far from mainstream, and needs more development and support.

Perhaps because of increasing weather emergencies, we seemed to have recently turned a corner on climate change, with some former climate change denialists finally acknowledging that our environmental situation is not good.  But the full weight of the dire reality still hasn’t sunk in.  

Bill McKibben’s recent book, Falter:  How the Human Game Has Begun to Play Itself Out, may help. It’s a well-written, well-thought-through book that somehow manages to talk about the frightening reality we face without panicking, and instead thinking constructively about our mitigation options. 

McKibben does a great job of piecing together some of the elements of the storms we currently face, including individual greed, corporate rapaciousness, and libertarian idealism.  One thing he doesn’t examine is the central assumption underlying our heedless exploitation of nature, which is that humans are ultimately more important than anything else in the world.  

The assumption that at the end of the day humans are the only species that matters is so deeply embedded that it’s hard even to get a good look at it, much less have a serious discussion about it.  (It may be even more embedded than our assumptions about race.) But that discussion needs to be part of our survival strategy.  

Our failure to appreciate the significance of other living things and our own relationship to the complex web of life accounts in significant part for our current dire predicament.  On the other hand, embracing the natural world with empathy and gratitude would point us away from fossil fuels, agribusiness, runaway consumerism, and the other drivers of global warming.

There’s a lot to be said about long-held assumptions about human psychology and culture that are now looking like they need reexamination.  For now, I’ll mention just one thought-provoking books: The Evolution of God, by Robert Wright, which I just finished reading for the second time. 

Wright takes on the ambitious task of addressing the functionality of religion for the earliest humans through to us.  He views the development of religious beliefs as a progression, starting with hunter-gatherer animism, continuing through the polytheism of early agricultural civilizations, and then on to monotheism.  

He gives a really helpful overview of the historical roots of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, and shows how their central concepts are closely related.  Along with that, he addresses the psychological and economic factors that led societies toward variations on these main ideas.  

 

In the end, Wright disclaims having a view on whether there actually is a God, while arguing that the idea of God has been good for humanity.  Like McKibben, he doesn’t consider whether benefits to humans should be considered the highest good, and doesn’t address whether religion reinforces assumptions of human superiority and entitlement that have destroyed much of the natural world.  I found his argument on moral progress to be vague and unconvincing. But I still found the book tremendously valuable in providing a framework for considering varieties of religion.

New construction in our neighborhood, a presidential tipping point, and great piano music in Chapel Hill

Looking north from our parking deck toward the new Publix grocery building at a parking deck under construction. This view disappeared forever later that day when a new section of wall went up.

The start of fall brought a harsh heat wave in central North Carolina, but in the past few days it’s cooled off.  The huge construction project in the two blocks north of our building is moving right along. We’re going to have a new grocery store and other businesses, as well as a lot of new apartments. 

Construction sites are noisy and dusty, and great fun to watch.  I love the big machines, like cranes, bulldozers, and dump trucks, and the heaps of building materials, and the clay at the bottom.  And I love to watch the workers, with gratitude for their tough work through the heat and other hazards.  

Change is in the air in politics, too.  With criminal investigations closing in on the President, he seems more and more desperate and crazy.  He’s intimidated ordinary, sensible Republican leaders, and it’s far from clear whether they’ll ultimately find the gumption to defend the Constitution and stop him. 

It’s possible we’ll end up with a thugocracy along the lines of Russia, China, or Turkey, but dumber. But I’m guardedly optimistic that our democratic traditions will survive, and we may soon be seeing the last of the hair-raising Trump presidency.  

Either way, life will go on, at least for some of us, for a while, and we’ll have some exciting new construction and other projects.  One of mine was finishing the book that Kyle DePew, my new son-in-law, gave me last Christmas: Alan Walker’s lengthy new biography of Frederic Chopin (1810-1849).  Chopin’s piano music has been given me great joy for substantially longer than he lived, but I knew little about his life.  

Chopin was quite sick with tuberculosis for most of his life, and even as he was hailed as a brilliant pianist and composer, struggled to make a living,  He lived in the midst of wars and revolutions, and his domestic situation was often turbulent. The body of music he bequeathed us is a testimony to his strength and courage, as well as his brilliance.  Walker’s biography is excellent, but long.  With its many musical examples, it will deepen the appreciation of musicians and probably be challenging for those without a musical background. 

The building which will have the new Publix grocery store looks like it may actually turn out handsome.

A couple of nights ago, Sally and I got to hear one of the truly great pianists of our time, Marc-Andre Hamelin.  Hamelin performed in the Chapel Hill home of Ken Gorfkle on Gorfkle’s top-of-the-line Bosendorfer concert grand before an audience of about 100. His program included works by Scriabin, Prokovfiev, and Samuil Feinberg, and Schubert’s transcendent final sonata in B flat, D. 960.  

Hamelin is a multi-faceted artist of the highest rank.  He takes on works of legendary difficulty, and finds the emotional truth within the technical fury.  He discovers and champions more or less unknown works, like Feinberg’s third sonata, and as we learned from one of his encores, is a gifted composer in his own right. 

I was overwhelmed by the poetic luminosity and magnitude of his Schubert interpretation. As I mentioned to him as we were leaving, his presentation of the Feinberg earlier in the concert helped me hear the Schubert with new ears.  After his performance, he took questions from the audience, and turned out to be very personable and articulate.  He credited his father as a major early musical influence, with his amateur piano playing and collection of 78 RPMs of great classical pianists.

Ken Gorfkle’s Bosendorfer was an extraordinary instrument, both in its delicacy and its power. The entire experience was really exhilarating.  Kudos to Gorfkle for inviting Hamelin and us into his home and curating this wonderful evening. I’m looking forward to the next concert in his series.

Looking south on Harrington Street toward Casa Tiller, which is on the far side of the building.

Beautiful birds

Great blue heron at Shelley Lake

It took me a long time, but I finally faced a tough fact:  if you really want to see wildlife around here, you have to get up when it’s still dark.  I adjusted my routine recently, and instead of starting the day with a gym work out, I’ve been grabbing my camera bag and tripod and pushing up to one of Raleigh’s parks.  

Canada geese coming in low

Shelley Lake has been my primary target these last couple of weeks.  I’ve been watching squadrons of Canada geese and mallards practicing their flying, while I try to figure out how to catch them in the early light.  From time to time, a great blue heron or great egret scoots by. I heard a report of a bald eagle there last week, but haven’t yet seen it.

Great egret

There are a lot of smaller birds, which I know mostly from listening rather than seeing, since they are masters at concealing themselves in the leaves.  A few years back I put some effort into learning some birds’ songs, and with the fall migration coming soon, I’ve been refreshing on that skill.  There are several apps I’ve found helpful, including ones from Audubon, Cornell, and Merlin.  

The more I listen, the more I realize:  the birds are communicating. That is, they aren’t mechanically repeating a programmed sequence; they’re sending out messages.  Ornithologists have ideas about some of the messages, like alarm calls, but we’ve still got a lot to learn about their systems.  

Being a bird cannot be easy.  There’s always competition from other birds, and killer predators, like hawks and cats, can come out of nowhere.  And then there’s the problem of human activity.

 

Killdeer

I was saddened, but not really surprised, at the report last month that bird populations had dropped precipitously in the last 50 years.    In North America, there are 29 percent fewer birds, or almost 3 billion less than there were.  That’s a lot of dead birds! The reasons are complex, but ultimately they have to do with us — our destruction of habitats, our use of pesticides, and of course, the environmental changes related to our irresponsible use of fossil fuels.  All this bird destruction is terrible for the birds, obviously, but also for us and other creatures. Birds are important parts of ecosystems, spreading seeds, controlling pests, and pollinating plants. And of course, they’re beautiful. So, another wake up call to change course. 

Young deer

Jocelyn got married to Kyle! With some street photography

The Vessel at Hudson Yards. 

Our daughter Jocelyn got married in New York City last weekend.  I have a new son-in-law! That’s Kyle DePew, and he’s a good one!  It was a truly happy day, including a superfun party, though also a little drama.

Even for former New Yorkers like us, NYC is a tough town — hard to take in and hard to get around.   It’s really big and loud, and it can make you feel small. Some of it seems expressly designed to intimidate, like the new Hudson Yards high rise area on the West Side (pictured above), which I visited for the first time, and felt like the merest ant.  There are always unexpected flashes of beauty in the city, but even the intimate views tend to have some grit on them. 

Flower stand

On Friday morning I went to the Whitney Biennial, and took in some very new art.  Almost by definition, bold new art is hard to like, and there was a lot of work there that was not cheery.  There were several artists working on themes relating to racism and discrimination, and also some work relating to climate change — themes that regular readers know to be of interest to The Casual Blog.  

At the Whitney, Joe Minter’s sculpture involving racism and southern yard art

In the afternoon I walked down to Battery Park for  the NYC edition of the worldwide student strike for climate action, with tens of thousands of students and others.  I normally find large noisy crowds unsettling, but I was glad this one was large and noisy, and hoped it would be unsettling to the politicians that are still failing to mobilize to address our crisis.  The signs and chants expressed a lot of anger about the mess adults had made of the environment, but there was also hope for change.

Student protest at Battery Park

That evening, Kyle’s mom, Debbie, hosted the wedding  rehearsal dinner at San Marino Ristorante, a lovely Italian restaurant in the West Village.  The food was really good, and we enjoyed talking to some old friends, and meeting family and friends of the happy couple.

A sunny day for the protesters

The wedding was at sunset on Saturday at Sunset Terrace, at the end of Pier 61 on the Hudson.   A string quartet was playing as the 130 or so guests got seated. The groomsmen and I wore black tuxedos, and the bridesmaids had champagne colored long dresses.  Jocelyn was radiant in white! She gave Sally and I just one warning before we walked her to the front of the room for the ceremony: be sure not to step on the trailing veil, which was attached to her hair.  We walked slowly up the aisle with no accidents.  

Then, as Jocelyn turned to Kyle and we turned to find a seat, a shoe went the wrong way, and out came the veil.  In a fraction of a second, I wondered: can we get it back on, and if not, is Jocelyn going to freak out?  It took only another couple of seconds for all this to be clarified: she smiled and said, forget about it, just keep going.  I rolled up the veil and put it under my seat. I watched carefully for any signs of bridal distress, but there were none.  She seemed completely happy. I was so proud of her!

A fruit stand

The officiant was Dylan Goldberg,  a good friend of the couple’s.  His remarks were a sweet and highly personal appreciation of Jocelyn and Kyle and their love.   As he noted, the ceremony was an important symbol of the partnership they had built and the promises of their complete commitment.  It was really touching; I got pretty misty. They had a really good kiss at the end.

Then we had drinks, dinner, and an epic dance party!  Jocelyn and I managed our solo dance (to Stevie Wonder’s You Are the Sunshine of My Life) with more grace than expected, and I got some laughs in my toast to the couple.  As I meant to say (though I’m not sure I quite got out), I was grateful to our guests for serving as witnesses and helping to consecrate the new marriage. I thought about talking a bit about Martin Hagglund’s theory that love is precious not because it is eternal and unchanging, but rather because it is grounded in time, finite and fragile, and its existence depends on continuing devoted care.  But it didn’t quite fit with the vibe, so I figured we could talk about it another time.

Flowers and ice

But I must say, I don’t think I’ve ever seen so much radiating love!  It seemed to be coming not just from Jocelyn and Kyle, but from everyone!  I hadn’t danced to pop music since ancient times, and had almost forgotten how much fun it can be.  It was a blast. DJ Blak did a terrific job with the music, which was curated by Kyle, and managed to get just about everyone moving.  A lot of the guests boogied right up until the last song at midnight.   

While I wasn’t really surprised at how excited and happy Jocelyn and Kyle were, I was surprised at the intensity of my own happiness.  Our little girl! With Kyle now part of our family! Lives full of promise! And on the horizon — grand babies!

Crossing against the light

Elk families and photo pros, and getting Greta

Elk bull at Cataloochee, NC

I got to spend some time last week with the elk at Cataloochee, NC.  There were at least four different family groups, each with a bull who ruled over several cows and calves.  Late in the day, the bulls called to their families to gather them together, and their trumpeting was powerful, with harmonic overtones.  The elk seemed to understand each other from sounds and gestures as they slowly got organized to go from the pasture into the woods.   

At one point a younger bull came close to an older, larger one, probably to test the hierarchy.  After a stare down, the elder turned away, and the two put off the fight till another day.  

The young buck

One day, we waited until after sunset to leave, which turned out to be a mistake.  The drive up the mountain out of Cataloochee was on a winding narrow gravel road through the woods.  It quickly got very dark. At a few hairpin turns, it was impossible to see any road to be turned into, and missing the edge of the road could mean falling a long way.  It was difficult.

I stayed in Black Mountain, NC, and went to the Smoky Mountain Foto Fest, a four-day workshop at Montreat.  The hilly wooded campus at Montreat was pretty. There were several accomplished pro photographers who gave presentations at the workshop, and I got some helpful tips and concepts.

I especially appreciated the talks by Bill Lea on wildlife and landscape photography. Lea showed some gorgeous shots  of black bear mothers and cubs.  He’d found that each bear had its own personality, with some mothers being strict but loving, and others easygoing and neglectful.  He said it was a good idea to talk calmly to the bears if they seemed unhappy with you. On the last day, I won a door prize: a calendar  with his nature photography, including some of those bears.  

I also got some new ideas from Marc Adamus, whose speciality seemed to be exotic landscape photography.  Adamus showed some fairly extreme processing techniques using Adobe Photoshop and other tools. His approach took nature to places she likely would never otherwise visit.  I found some of his images overly dramatized, but I liked his adventurous and experimental spirit.  

Red tailed hawk

There was an animal rescue specialist there with three tethered raptors.  These birds had been injured and were unable to fly and survive in the wild.  I got shots of the turkey vulture, the red tailed hawk, and the barred owl.

Barred owl

Before heading home, my friend Barry Wheeler and I went up to the Blue Ridge for sunrise.  There were wispy low clouds in the valley. Once the sun was well up, we packed up the photo gear and stopped at the Pisgah Inn for breakfast.  The mountain views and vegetarian sausage were excellent!

Back in Raleigh after the workshop, Sally and I had our customary end-of-week round up viewing of the late night comics’ highlights.  We especially like Seth Meyers and Trevor Noah. Ordinarily there’s plenty to laugh at regarding Trump’s most recent buffoonery and head-shaking craziness, and this week was no exception.

But Trevor Noah’s interview with Greta Thunberg struck a note that was more serious and moving.    Thunberg is a 16-year-old Swedish climate activist, and she just crossed the Atlantic under sail to bring attention to climate issues.  She explained in simple but ringing terms that people her age are facing dire consequences of global warming, and pressed for political change.  She reminded me of King and Gandhi — a moral prodigy.

Birds at Shelley Lake

A great egret at Shelley Lake

As occasionally happens, earlier this week I had my doubts about whether I’d be able to come up with any new images or words to post on The Casual Blog.  It felt like maybe the well had finally run dry.  

The cure turned out to be simple:  just spending more time with nature.  I drove up to Shelley Lake early on several mornings.  I did some walking, but mostly I just stood looking out over the water.  It was quiet, except for animal sounds. Of course, there was also a bit of traffic noise, but it wasn’t bad.  

Canada geese

The Canada geese were the noisiest creatures at the lake, and did plenty of honking.  They used to be rare around here, but now are common, and considered by most an unwelcome nuisance.  But I think they’re handsome.  

I noticed that, along with their big honks, they make some barely audible sounds, which clearly have meaning to them.  As I watched, they made sounds and gestures as they swam slowly and organized themselves into small groups. The groups took flight for short intervals.  I’m guessing they’re practicing for the fall migration.  

A foggy morning for flying

I also saw a number of other good looking birds — great blue herons, great egrets, kingfishers, and mallards.  These are all pretty common here, but still fun to watch, and the fast-flying kingfishers and mallards are challenging to photograph. I also saw a Cooper’s hawk (at least I think it was a Cooper’s) and one bald eagle — the first one at Shelley Lake for a while. 

A kingfisher fishing

Just standing still is not something that I’ve done a lot of.  It seemed at first like I might be wasting time, which I hate to do.  But I found it soothing and nourishing to be near the water with the animals.  I had my camera with my big lens mounted and ready to go, and my senses were on high alert for possible photographic opportunities.  But for extended periods, not much happened, at least at the human scale. And that was ok.  

Mallards

This week I listened to a good podcast about animal intelligence, including communication systems and emotions, on the Ted Radio Hour.    This podcast summarizes several Ted Talks, which are already highly boiled down versions of bigger ideas, which I guess is for those with short attention spans.

In any case, simplified ideas are better than none, and of course, you can always go back to the longer versions.  I was particularly interested in hearing the voices of Carl Safina and Frans de Waal, whose recent books on animal emotions I thought were worthwhile.  As one of the speakers said (in effect), in understanding non-human animals better, we understand ourselves better.  

A Cooper’s hawk (I think)

I also pushed forward in Martin Hagglund’s new book. This Life: Secular Faith and Spiritual Freedom.  Hagglund’s conception of secular faith is profound, and somewhat involved. He argues that all religious conceptions of value place their primary emphasis on achieving an unchanging, eternal state, which is involves an inherent contradiction.  

As the Talking Heads once waggishly observed, “heaven is a place where nothing ever happens.”  Not such an interesting place, much less an ideal. For there to be meaning and value in our lives, life must be finite — fragile and subject to loss.  Hagglund thinks the real source of hope and meaning in our lives is misidentified by conventional religions, and is inseparable from time and our finite existence.

Hagglund’s ideas are truly iconoclastic, and worth engaging.  They aren’t easy to engage in his book, which at times seems lacking in forward motion.  I suspect that their most natural format would be not a whole book but rather something like one of Plato’s dialogues.  Fortunately, Hagglund sums up some of his key ideas in a recent interview in Jacobin

Spirit bears, dental hygiene, and why our eating matters

A rare spirit bear, also known as a Kermode bear, near Klemtu, British Columbia

During my recent trip to the wilds of British Columbia, I didn’t have room for all my new photo files on my hard drive, so this past week I bought a massive (14 TB) new one.   Once I got the new device running, I edited more of my wildlife photos. Those included shots of the very rare spirit bear, an osprey that had caught a salmon, and a humpback whale, some of which are here.  It was a moving experience to share space for a little while with these creatures.  

This week it was time for my six-month dental check up. I’m a big believer in good tooth care, since we each get only one set of teeth, and it’s much more difficult to eat without them.  So I put some effort into rinsing, brushing, and flossing, since if I don’t, who will? Well, actually, it kind of takes a village. I’ve got a whole team giving advice, encouragement, and occasional repairs at Dr. Williams’s general dentistry practice.  

Of course, my tooth health depends on a lot of others.  I’m thinking of all the hardworking folks who make the dental floss, toothbrushes, and tooth paste, who wire the building and and keep the electric grid working, who put in the plumbing, who operate the water system, and trusted teachers from my childhood, especially my Mom.  

An osprey and its prey. Moments later, the fish got loose, and was caught mid-air by a bald eagle.

But of those closest to my mouth now, I want to thank  D, my latest dental hygienist, who pushed me hard to add a Waterpik to my routine, which I did a few months back.  I used to think Waterpiks were silly and useless gadgets, but I’m now a believer. D says my Waterpiking has been very good for my gums.  

I like that D is truly passionate about tooth care, and I always learn some interesting tooth facts in our cleaning sessions.  She pointed out that TV and movie people all whiten their teeth nowadays, whereas in older movies teeth are grayer. She told me that drugstore whitening products use the same chemical as custom work (that is, peroxide) and generally work fine, but they likely won’t go on as evenly. 

In moments of existential dread, I’ve sometimes wondered what’s the use of worrying about teeth, or any bodily maintenance issues.  With all the enormous risks on our horizon, including nuclear weapons, asteroid strikes, antibiotic-resistant superbugs, runaway superintelligent artificial intelligence, and of course the dire effects of global warming, it’s difficult to factor in individual bodily worries.  The vastly different scale of the two sorts of problems prevents comparisons.

But we can’t help but feel that we as individuals have some significance, and our lives are worth taking some trouble over.  Along this line, I’m reading This Life: Secular Faith and Spiritual Freedom, by Martin Haaglund, a Swedish philosopher at Yale.  Haaglund suggests that each individual carries various identities, such as parent, child, professional, church goer, and customer, which may be added to or fluctuate over time.  Part of the essential work of living a life is choosing how to realize the goals associated with those identities and prioritizing when the identities conflict. Haaglund’s theory is thought-provoking, and I expect to have more to say about it in a future post.  

But for now, I’m comfortable that having serviceable teeth is not inconsistent with trying to stop environmental degradation or prevent nuclear accidents.  Our identity as caretakers of our bodies is entirely reconcilable with our identity as citizens trying to avoid catastrophe.  

Grizzly bear cub

 In fact, the issues of personal health, societal well being,  and the environment are interconnected.  One of the great ironies of modern first world life is how, with all our wealth and knowledge, and with the miracles of modern dentistry, we eat so poorly.  Most of our deadliest health risks, including type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, certain types of cancer, and obesity, are closely related to our typical food choices.  

In my nature photography travels over the last few weeks, I’ve shared meals with a lot of prosperous, well-educated, and gifted people, who have traveled widely and made some beautiful photographs.  Much as I enjoyed our talks, I was really saddened to see how poorly a lot of them nourished themselves. Offered a choice between French fries and fruit, most always took the fries.

Grizzly mom getting a plant food snack

 I’d have to be nuts to think of taking away anybody’s French fries (and I admit, I enjoy them from time to time), but I’m just saying, fruit is generally the better choice.  Given how important eating is to our health, it’s remarkable how little most of us think about it, and how many of us do it unwisely. How well or poorly we nourish ourselves is a major determinant of the length and quality of our lives.  It’s a really big deal.  

So I was glad to see this was the subject of a recent op ed  piece in the NY Times entitled Our Food Is Killing Too Many of Us  The authors explained that our typical diet accounts for elevated death rates, and noted that this is a political issue that is not being discussed by politicians.   They proposed thinking of how we eat as a medical issue, and encouraging healthy eating as a fundamental part of a healthy life. They had several practical ideas for new policies, including getting doctors to put an emphasis on nutrition and discouraging junk food with taxes.  They suggest that improvements to our eating would simplify the problem of how we provide health care, since we wouldn’t have to provide so much of it.   

All this seems sensible, but somehow our nutrition system is harder to talk about than our healthcare system (which is also hard).  The food industry has done an amazingly effective job at conditioning us to think of food as primarily about fun, rather than survival.  Even suggesting that we should eat more plant foods and less processed junk sounds kind of grumpy and unfun. At parties, insisting on talking about healthy eating is a good way to get some alone time.

But this mindset may be slowly changing.  There was a report this week that the meat industry is fighting the growing popularity of plant-based meat-like products, like the Impossible Burger and Beyond Meat.    The industry is pushing for new state laws to outlaw using the word meat to describe these products.  My first reaction to this was outrage, but then I realized, it’s kind of good news: leaders of possibly the cruelest business on the planet are worried about their continued profitability.  They must view plant food as serious competition.

And there’s increasing awareness  (though still not enough) that better diets are good not just for individual human bodies, but for the planet.  For example, industrialized meat production is a significant contributor to global warming. As the Times noted this week, even reducing our meat consumption by 25% would significantly lower our collective carbon footprint.    

But while I was organizing these thoughts, the Washington Post reported that in connection with  the next version of the federal dietary guidelines, the Trump administration has prohibited the use of scientific studies likely to support eating less meat, dairy, sugar, and processed food.    There is, of course, a lot of science that points in that direction, and it’s beyond irresponsible not to at least take a close look at it.  If your objective were to destroy more of the natural world and maximize people’s likelihood of an early death, one way to get there is exactly this:  suppress the science.

Near where we saw the spirit bear

Canadian forests and bears, and where we got our racism

Last week I went out to the west coast of Canada to photograph bears.  I stayed in Klemtu, B.C., a small community in Great Bear Rainforest, which is the largest temperate rainforest on the planet.  It was vast and beautiful there, with evergreens covering mountainous islands surrounded by intricate waterways. The area is home to the Kitasoo/Xai’Xais Nation, members of which served our group as guides.

The travel involved some bumpy boat trips, hiking, and sitting for hours, often in the rain, watching hopefully for bears.  I found the waiting challenging, especially when the rain got heavy, but also learned some things. Sitting in the woods or on the boat watching and listening very closely for long periods became a type of meditation.  Getting really externally focused helped in making a good shot.  

We had good close views of  black bears, grizzlies, and a rare spirit bear, a white relative of the black bear which is found only there.  We also watched humpback whales and orcas diving and occasionally breaching. There were lots of bald eagles and ospreys.  One day we saw an osprey that had caught a fish drop it, and then an eagle caught the unfortunate fish in mid-air.

The trip was organized by Muench Workshops and led by Kevin Pepper, who gave me friendly encouragement and guidance.  The six other amateur photographers in the group were very well traveled and experienced. We were all surprised to find that every one of us, including Kevin, had the same camera:  the excellent Nikon D850.  My equipment worked well, except that I maxed out my hard drive halfway through the trip.  I ordered a new one, and should have a few more wildlife photos to share next week.  

It was a long trip home, starting from Klemtu by boat, then a cab to the Bella Bella airport, and a prop plane to Vancouver, and the next morning a flight to Seattle, and nearly missing the connection to Raleigh.  

 

One thing I like about long travel days is the chance to get immersed in books.   On the trip home, I finished Bill McKibben’s recent book, Falter:  Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out? The book is about the existential risks that we’re now facing, especially climate change.  McKibben strongly lays out the imminent threats of rising temperatures, storms, fires, droughts, ocean acidification, and others. His account of how the fossil fuel industry consciously misled the public and prevented remedial action is clear and infuriating.  Some of the factual information was familiar, but I still found McKibben’s framing readable and worthwhile, and appreciated his note of hope. 

It was good to get back to North Carolina.  On Friday, I stopped by Jersey Mike’s for lunch.  I like their veggie sandwich (the number 14), which I get dressed “Mike’s way.”  They know me there, and I usually get a smile when I order. But this time I noticed a young black man behind me did not get such a friendly reception when he ordered.  The woman at the counter, who’d been friendly and warm to me, turned sour and cold to him.  

Did it have to do with his color?  I’m pretty sure that it did. Of course, there’s nothing unusual about this:  in our racial caste system, a lot of people treat others less well based on skin color.  Sometimes it’s subtle, and for those of us in the privileged caste, it’s easy not to see.

Grizzly cub

As I noted here recently, I’ve been thinking about some of the non-obvious effects of American racism, including its polarizing impact on our politics.  I learned more about those issues this week from the 1619 Project, an excellent series of essays in the NY Times on American slavery and racism.  The series makes a strong case for viewing slavery not as a momentary aberration in the American experience, but a central element of our foundation that continues to affect us today.   

The 1619 Project notes how the heritage of slavery explains many of the problems in our housing, schools, employment, health care, and criminal justice systems.  The essay by Matthew Desmond  was particularly intriguing.  Desmond points out that the version of capitalism that Americans think of as normal is actually quite different from capitalism in most countries in that it largely ignores concerns for workers’ welfare.  He argues that this is the result of attitudes and practices worked out in the extremely profitable cotton plantations of the early 19th century. Plantation owners pioneered many modern business and financial systems, and also developed a mindset that tolerated extreme inequality with wealth and privilege only for a lucky few.  Their success depended on the brutal exploitation of kidnapped Africans.  

The brutality of that system was justified by the pseudo-science of racism, with otherwise respectable scientific minds purporting to show that Africans and their American descendants were inherently inferior.  Ian Frazier has a very fine piece in this week’s New Yorker on that subject, including the early 20th century work of Madison Grant and his popularizer, Lothrop Stoddard. 

Reading this history is helpful in showing that our racism is not natural.  It was a human invention. It’s turned out to be surprisingly durable, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be undone.  Since we had the power to set it up, we clearly have the power to undo it. But plainly, fixing it will take hard work.  For most of my life, I thought that the system was gradually disappearing on its own, but recent events have shown how wrong I was.  

Grizzley mom

If we take on the hard work of breaking down our caste system and its underlying psychology, it’s bound to make us better, at least a little.  Less hatred and fear equal more happiness. Our current system requires that we accept as normal unfairness, injustice, and brutality. It desensitizes us and leaves us morally numb.  As we overcome that system, we’ll be better able to connect with people different from ourselves, and even with ourselves.  

The moral numbness of our racist system may also account for part of our problems connecting with other living things in the natural world.  As we clear away racist ways of thinking, we may find ourselves seeing more of the beauty and wonder of nature, and how fragile it is. It might motivate us to get to work on mitigating the existential threats facing our planet.