Ways of looking at fishing birds, The End of Nature, Fellow Creatures, and the appeal of slavery denialism
by Rob Tiller
Again this week I spent some time at Jordan Lake looking at the water, trees, and birds. The birds weren’t as numerous this week, but I saw ospreys and great blue herons catch a number of fish. Even watching the inherent violence of animals eating other animals, there is something peaceful. They’re doing what nature designed them to do, as they’ve always done.
I got my first relatively high end photo printer this week. Hunt’s photo supply offered a big discount on a Canon Pixma Pro 10, and with the pandemic lock down still in force, I decided to experiment with some home printing. It was not a smooth take off. After putting some parts together, I ran into software problems, and ended up spending the better part of an hour on the phone with the Canon customer support guy. There is definitely a learning curve to making good prints, but after watching a few instructional videos, I managed to make a couple that I thought were promising.
As I worked on my prints, it occurred to me that there are a lot of levels of nature photography, and different ways of looking at the pictures. A photograph can pull us closer to a moment of reality, but it can also do the opposite. When I see a picture of a bird catching a fish, I might just think, that’s a picture of a bird catching a fish, and not think much else. That is, I might mistakenly think the photo fully contains the event, and for that reason not even bother to look carefully at what can be seen of the event. I could be thinking, I could always look at it later, and never do it.
On the other hand, I might decide to look harder, and consider the species of bird, the species of fish, their ages, the location, the weather conditions, and other particulars of the moment. At the same time, I might get some sense of the existential terror of a particular fish and the ecstasy of a particular bird. I sometimes notice how certain birds can look beautiful and repulsive at the same time, the last remaining dinosaurs.
Speaking of extinction events, I’ve been reading The End of Nature, by Bill McKibben. The book was published in 1989, as the possibility of massive environmental destruction from manmade climate change was coming into focus, so it is dated. But the basic science hasn’t changed, and a lot of his account is dead on target. As with his recent book, Falter, he has a gift for putting these difficult issues in perspective, which makes it possible to think productively about them.
I’ve also been re-reading Fellow Creatures, Our Obligation to Other Animals, by Kristine Korsgaard. Korsgaard, a professor of philosophy at Harvard, makes the case that we are not justified in treating non-human animals as objects to be exploited, and that they are entitled to respect.
Her argument is built on her extension of the philosophy of Immanuel Kant, which I find difficult. I suspect that if I fully understood Kant, I would not be a Kantian, though it’s doubtful I’ll ever know for sure. Still, struggling with his theory of morality seems like good exercise — brain calisthenics. And Korsgaard is surely doing something worthwhile in investigating our relationship to non-human animals and whether any system of morality can exclude them.
I was happy to see that Nikole Hannah-Jones won a Pulitzer Prize for her remarkable work on the 1619 Project. Her original introductory article is here. As I’ve noted previously, the series published in the New York Times along with a podcast proposed new ways of thinking about the role of slavery and white supremacy in forming America.
It was surprising that George Will used his column to attack and distort the message of the 1619 Project. Will is a very intelligent person, and his column is a reminder of how being intelligent does not at all inoculate people against such mental tendencies as denial and bias.
That is, one can be both smart and prone to denial and delusion, including denial that slavery was an essential, formative element in American democracy. Will’s attack on the 1619 Project does not, of course, mean he is himself a racist. But it is a reminder of how deeply white supremacy is woven into our culture, and how uncomfortable it is to look straight at the racism of our past and present. Will’s anger at the challenge to some of our founding myths is understandable, but his obfuscation is a regrettable service to white supremacy.