The Casual Blog

Cold first flights, and a thought experiment — forget the rule of law

 

It was cold here this week, and it took some willpower to get up while it was still dark and roll out to check on the birds.  But I did it, making it to Shelley Lake just after sunrise to listen to the geese honking and watch them take their first flights of the day.  Each bird and each group bird is a little different. As the sunlight hits the trees on the far side of the lake, the calm dark water turns orange and green.  

As always, it was calming and invigorating to spend some time beside the still water with the geese, ducks, herons, gulls, eagles, and song birds.  But there were challenges. One day my hands got so cold I couldn’t feel the shutter button on my camera.  But fortunately, I didn’t get frostbite, and I wore heavier gloves after that.   

My more serious pain issue now is from the Trump impeachment fireworks.  Last week I suggested that too much anger, hysteria, and other strong emotions are a big part of our polarization problem, and we need to calm down.  I admit, I was thinking the Trumpians might need calming more than me, but I’ll also admit, I’m finding I greatly need it.    

I was stunned and sickened when the Republican legislators repeatedly declared this week that the investigation of Trump  was a sham. They said it was a hoax, a witch hunt, and a dastardly sneak attack on America. They compared their Democratic colleagues to those who crucified Jesus!  What they did not do was acknowledge the voluminous evidence of Trump’s serious misconduct, much less attempt to rebut it.  

I keep trying to understand this world view, in which Trump is the innocent victim of the evil Democrats.  As I’ve said before, part of the explanation seems to be tribal loyalty and fear of being cast out of the tribe, but a big part of it seems to be raw anger and hatred of Democrats, fueled by the Fox-led propaganda machine and reinforced by group-think.  The Republicans seem to be projecting their hatred of Democrats onto Democrats. That is, they seem to think the real problem is Democrats’ blind hatred of Trump, rather than what Trump did.  

Perhaps in the Republican mind this justifies dismissing the evidence against Trump as a sham.  In this mind, their obstruction of the process, obfuscating, repeating diversionary lies, and promoting wingnut conspiracy views are all the lesser of evils, necessary to combat the greater of evils (that is, Democrats).

Whatever the causes, I’ve been expecting the Republican fever to break (as Michelle Goldberg put it in her column yesterday).  I’ve thought that eventually the dissonance between reality and their alt-reality would become untenable.  Surely loyalty to the nation, honesty, and honor would eventually prevail. But the hearings this week and the lack of any indication of diverging views among Senate Republicans have made me think (along with Goldberg), that I may have been mistaken.  We may be starting a new normal.

The Republicans’ unqualified support for Trump is probably more corrosive of our democracy than Trump’s own misconduct.  Let me explain.  We’ve only got two major parties, and one of them is signaling that there is nothing — no crime or constitutional violation — that a president of their party can commit that they will deem disqualifying.  If that turns out to be their final position, the president will no longer be subject to our traditional system of checks and balances. That is, the president will not be subject to the rule of law. That would be a big change in the very idea of law.  

Great blue heron

So it doesn’t seem premature to consider the possibility that without much reflection we’re about to dramatically change our system of government.  How will life be different if the legislature and the courts exert no authority over the supreme leader, and the law has force and meaning only when it suits the leader?

In fact, there are already a number of systems like that.  I’m thinking of China, Russia, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, North Korea, and the list goes on.  And more appear to be coming on line. It’s hard to say what’s going to happen to democracy in India, Hungary, Brazil, Poland, the Philippines, and that list also goes on.  

I wouldn’t volunteer to be a citizen of China or other authoritarian, but of course life in any of those places wouldn’t be all bad.  There would be many of the things we enjoy and value now, like friends and family, art and entertainment, adventures and sports, good food and wine.  There would be beautiful forests, mountains, and ocean waves. The swans would still swim in lakes and mount the air.

Hooded mergansers

But without protections for a free press or free speech, opposition to the regime would gradually fall silent.  Normal life would not include any meaningful political participation. There would be no limits on arbitrary state violence.  

Just as now, our leaders would act out of ordinary human impulses like greed and the lust for power, but unlike now, there would be nothing to check those impulses.   Just as now, our leaders could harbor racism, misogyny, xenophobia, anti-gay bias, and hatred of political opponents, but unlike now, no law would generally prevent violent action against targeted groups.  Just as now, there would be powerful propaganda and wacky conspiracy theories, but fewer and fewer rebuttals based on reality.  

Mallards

This is depressing, I realize.  So I should also say I don’t think any of this is inevitable.  I heard a podcast recently recounting a few cases where people had fallen out of planes for thousands of feet, hit a kindly tree branch or a snowbank, and survived.  Sometimes, even when it looks like all is lost, you catch a lucky break.  

But rather than count on a long-shot miracle, we’d better start coping with the reality we’ve got — the reality that is obscured by overwhelming fear and hatred.  Unless we figure out a way to overcome that fear and hatred, we’re in big trouble. The place to start is with ourselves. In first aid training, they teach you that the first thing to do in an emergency is stop and think.  Take a moment to calm down. Take some deep breaths.

New bird views, meditating for health, and the Trumpian take on liberals

 

With the chilly and rainy weather this week, I didn’t get out for any nature photography.  I missed seeing the birds, but was glad to have some extra time to experiment with photo processing. I’ve been improving my Lightroom and Photoshop skills, and learning how to use Nik, Topaz, and Luminar software.  Along with various failures and frustrations, I’ve discovered some new possibilities.  

These images are revisions of recent shots.  When I first made them, I was excited to be able to see details that were generally invisible to the human eye.  Looking at them again reminded me of the joy of just looking at the birds and sharing their world.  Trying out new software tools to the images made me look at the animals in new ways.  

Like most everyone, I generally think of reality as fixed and solid, though I also try to keep in mind that there are other ways to think about it.  Along that line, I’m currently reading Something Deeply Hidden: Quantum Worlds and the Emergence of Spacetime, by Sean Carroll. Carroll is a research professor of theoretical physics at CalTech.  He gives a lively account of the main ideas of quantum theory, including the mind-bending oddities, such as entanglement (particles affecting the behavior of distant particles).  

For all its remarkable theoretical and practical achievements, Carroll admits that quantum physics is incomplete, lacking in a broadly accepted paradigm.  He is supportive of the Many Worlds theory, which holds that the best explanation of quantum phenomena is that our universe is only one of a great many. I’d thought that Many Worlds was some sort of game for deep science nerds, but he convinced me that it’s more than that. 

More research is required.  Anyway, along with our enormous universe, there could be many others, some with beings like us that we can never communicate with.  That seems less farfetched after experiencing the polarization of US politics, and most recently the Trump impeachment hearings.

 

Watching Republican legislators last week was, for me, surreal.  Asked to address hard evidence that Trump had acted in direct opposition to US policy on Ukraine in order to benefit himself, they tried various maneuvers, including objecting to procedures, talking about conspiracies, and babbling and shouting incoherently — seemingly anything to avoid the issue.

I couldn’t watch for long — it was just too painful.  But I saw enough to conclude that these Republicans had very strong feelings.  They were very emotional. I had been assuming that they were cynical hypocrites, with little regard for the public interest or much of anything other than their own selfish interests.  

But their anger seemed sincere.  So I decided to work with the assumption that they sincerely believed that Trump had done nothing wrong and was the victim of an evil witch hunt by liberals.  I wondered how, in spite of a mountain of evidence pointing in the opposite direction, such a belief could arise.

Part of the story is surely Trump’s attacks on the mainstream press.  By calling every report that is unfavorable to him “fake news,” Trump seems to have thought that he could create doubt and confusion about facts that were otherwise uncontested.  And, amazingly, he may have been right.

I originally assumed that no thinking person would buy the fake news idea.  After all, Trump has such a long record of compulsive lying on matters large and small that the most reasonable assumption about his latest statement is that it is false.  He also reflexively resorts to the schoolkid move of flipping any attack, as in, “You can’t say I’m a bully — you’re the bully!” As his preferred “news” organ, Fox News, beams out praise for him and attacks on his opponents without regard to reality, it makes a kind of Alice-in-Wonderland sense that he’d call all other news “fake.”  

The traditional media has struggled to survive in an online world, with newspapers closing left and right.  But other than the Trumpian claims, there’s no reason to think that our long established and respected media organs, like the New York Times, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal, have switched from their traditional business of reporting on actual events in a relatively balanced way to just making things up.  The charge of fakeness generally comes with no back up evidence or proposed corrections.  But the claim of “fake news” seems to really resonate with Republicans.

Why?  I have some ideas.  First, there’s the information bubble.  Our online world has made it easy to surround oneself entirely with information sources that fit one’s own preferences and biases, and avoid any contrary information.  Fox News has been a trailblazer in the dark art of stylish disinformation, while Facebook, Twitter, and others have enabled the creation of alternative realities.

At the same time, human thought processes are far from reliable.  Our brains are generally subject to confirmation bias, which makes us tend to believe what fits with our prior beliefs.  We avoid cognitive dissonance, or information that calls into question those beliefs.  We are prone to mistakes based on our likes and dislikes.  We’re also inclined to think whatever the tribe says we should think.  Even with the calmest, most rational among us are subject to these tendencies. 

And Trumpism does not encourage calmness and rationality.  It encourages fear and anger. Trumpism sounds the alarm as to various non-existent threats that are declared to be dire:  hordes of brown-skinned people invading across the southern border so they can rape and pillage and take over jobs, minorities that are predominantly criminals, child molesting gays, secularists destroying traditional religion, Jews, etc.  

But the most dire, most hated threat in the Trumpian universe is liberals.  This is so bizarre that it took a long time for liberals to see it.  Liberals thought they were engaged in ordinary life and politics, in which having diverse views was normal.  That is, liberals thought of themselves as normal people, and of Trumpian Republicans as basically normal people who just disagreed with them.  Liberals assumed the feeling was mutual. 

That turned out to be wrong.  In the Trumpian world view, liberals are not just ordinary political opponents.  They are a threat to the social  order and basic values. They are subhuman animals. They are evil.  

As Michelle Goldberg recently pointed out in a good op ed piece, Trump treats liberals as “the enemy” and subjects them to a constant barrage of dehumanizing propaganda.  Liberals are “scum.” Repetition and amplification by Fox News and its allies fills the Trumpians’ information bubble.  

So the Republican legislators’ recent behavior — the lies, the insults, the shouting — probably seems to them well justified.  Fearful for their careers and their tribe, they feel that they’re under violent attack and must defend themselves.  For them, facts that implicate Trump are ipso facto just “fake news.” Those who say otherwise are evil liberals. 

When we get excited or scared, it’s much harder to think reasonably and to be our best selves.  This is one of the reasons I spend some time every day doing mindfulness meditation.  It settles me down emotionally. It also helps in understanding more about how the mind works, and recognizing that it is just the mind.  For a timer, I use a free app called Insight Timer,  which also has a collection of good instructive talks.  I’ve also benefited from the guided meditations from an app called Calm.  

 

The end of fall, a photo contest, a piano event, and considering impeachment

 

The fall colors have faded here in recent days, and the trees have dropped most of their leaves.  Most mornings I stood in the cold by Shelley Lake with my camera waiting for the first light and the birds. A few minutes after sunrise, the Canada geese took off with much honking and splashing.  For a few minutes, the calm water reflected the forest colors. Every so often, a bald eagle swept over the water, probably looking for a fish, but not catching one when I was looking. The great blue herons changed fishing spots every ten or fifteen minutes, while flocks of ring billed gulls wheeled about.  I enjoyed watching the birds and got a few shots I liked, which are here.  

I’ve been looking at a lot of nature photography as part of the Carolina Nature Photographers Association annual members’ choice contest, which I entered this year.  I certainly learned something in the process of choosing and polishing a few images, and am learning more from reviewing hundreds of competing landscapes, wildlife shots, and macro subjects.  It would be gratifying to place in this competition, but I’m not counting on it, since there are quite a few excellent images that could arguably be viewed as the best.

 

I also learned some things from my first piano performance at Presto, a group of amateur pianists that regularly play for each other in members’ houses.  While playing the piano has been one of the joys of my life, I’ve had few opportunities to share the music that I’ve loved with people who feel similarly.  I’ve viewed engaging with Chopin, Liszt, Debussy, and others primarily as music therapy, bringing me happiness and sanity.  But music is inherently social, and sharing it is important.

The Presto group in Raleigh includes some nice people who enjoy classical music and play at various levels, including some who are highly accomplished.  I felt some trepidation as I took on a fairly demanding piece, Chopin’s Nocturne in D flat, Op. 27, No. 2. But preparing helped me see some new aspects of it.  The actual performance was not entirely fun. At one point I felt like the hands attached to my arms were not my own, and they were not playing my best. But it wasn’t a disaster, and I appreciated several kind words.    

 

Meanwhile, I’ve been following the Trump impeachment proceedings with a particular question in mind:  what is the deal with Republican leaders? For my friends who are occupied with matters more important than American politics, here’s the nutshell from the new House impeachment report:

The impeachment inquiry has found that President Trump, personally and acting through agents within and outside of the U.S. government, solicited the interference of a foreign government, Ukraine, to benefit his reelection.  In furtherance of this scheme, President Trump conditioned official acts on a public announcement by the new Ukrainian President, Volodymyr Zelensky, of politically-motivated investigations, including one into President Trump’s domestic political opponent.  In pressuring President Zelensky to carry out his demand, President Trump withheld a White House meeting desperately sought by the Ukrainian President, and critical U.S. military assistance to fight Russian aggression in eastern Ukraine. 

As my friend, Michael Gerhardt of UNC Law School, said (roughly), if Trump’s conduct is not impeachable, nothing is.   His written statement is here.   Key comments from the other testifying law professors are here.    On Friday a group of more than 500 law professors issued an open letter supporting impeachment. 

 

And the key facts really aren’t in dispute.  But Republican legislators are, at least publicly, united in support of doing nothing.  Trying to fathom what may be in their heads, I’ve considered various motives, but the most persuasive to me is fear.  Cory Booker mentioned this in a podcast interview with David Remnick a few weeks back.  Asked to explain why his Senate colleagues didn’t speak out, he said they were afraid.

I think what Booker meant was that they feared that their careers would be destroyed by Trump forces if they departed from Trumpism.  But there may be a related and deeper fear:  being separated from the tribe.  

For social animals, including humans, the need to be part of the tribe, herd, or flock is fundamental.  The individual cannot survive except as part of the group. Members of the tribe will tolerate bad leadership, as long as it’s not as bad as the highly risky alternative of isolation.

Of course, people do sometimes leave their tribes, and tribes splinter and re-form.  The really interesting question is how bad does it have to get?  In particular, what would the Trumpians have to do to exceed ordinary Republicans’ boundaries of tolerance?   I would have thought that subverting U.S. foreign policy for personal gain would qualify. But then again, I used to think that obvious fraud (like Trump University and the Trump charity), encouraging racist violence, bragging about sexual assault, and separating immigrant children from parents each would each be more than enough.  And that’s before we get to the attacks on the free press, undermining our traditional alliances like NATO, supporting recognized enemies like Russia, and threatening nuclear annihilation.  The list goes on.  

So it’s really hard to say.  But I’m trying to keep in mind that, even if we go over the constitutional cliff, it’s not because the Trumpian legislators are evil.  They’re just humans. And they might be persuaded to change course. That means it’s worth continuing the conversation.  

Some flying birds, and some Thanksgiving myth-busting

 

This Thanksgiving week I’ve been trying hard to get to Shellie Lake at sunrise.  The birds usually start flying shortly after that in the warm fall colors. As I went to the same place every day, it seemed like the birds seemed to be getting used to me.  One group of geese swam to the shore close to me and started out of the water. Just then a jogger came along the path, and they retreated.  I didn’t necessarily think they liked me better, but most likely they  preferred the familiar to the unfamiliar — just like us.  

We had a happy Thanksgiving dinner with family, and of course thought about some of the many things we had to be grateful for.  One of those things was new this year: I was grateful that there were several pieces of mainstream journalism on the truth behind the traditional Thanksgiving story—  in the NY Times (here and here), the Washington Post (here), and elsewhere.   They pointed out that the story most of us were taught significantly distorts the history of early English colonialists and their relation to North America’s indigenous peoples.  

This is a chapter of American history that still gets little attention in our basic history courses, and it’s uncomfortable. It’s hard to feel good about the colonists’ attacking and in some cases destroying civilizations.   But pretending it was otherwise is even more problematic. 

The traditional Thanksgiving story is tricky, because the superficial lesson is a sweet one of racial harmony.  But the more subtle message is about the racial superiority of the colonists and the inferiority of the “savages.”  That second message — that the white race is superior — continues to infect our society. Some of its victims (surviving Native Americans) are still with us.  We owe Native Americans a lot, as the traditional story acknowledges. We can cultivate respect for them, and work towards realizing the racial harmony of that story.  

President Trump has issued a call to arms against those who supposedly want to declare a “War on Thanksgiving.”  The point seems to be sort of like the supposed “War on Christmas” — that is, generating fear and outrage in the Republican base at any challenges to traditional practices, be they religious, consumerist, or just old habits.

 

It took me a long time to realize that there are real people who are genuinely triggered by this bogus fearmongering.  They are highly susceptible to false claims that their values and way of life are under attack by liberals. When they watch Fox News, they hear such claims all the time, and they get angry and afraid.  They are encouraged to believe that the true cause of their anger and fear is liberals. So they really hate liberals!

This is the best explanation I can come up with for a good portion of Republicans continuing to support Trump.  No matter how clear the evidence of his high crimes and misdemeanors, they see him as a lesser evil than the evil liberals.  

There’s no clear path out of this level of polarization, which calls to mind the dehumanization of wartime enemies (remember “Krauts” and “Japs”?).  But I’m still hopeful that the fever will eventually break. After all, we’re now pretty good friends with the Germans and Japanese.

Anyhow, just so we’re clear, I’m not suggesting a war on Thanksgiving.  And I’d like to throw out a few last notes of respect and gratitude for people who are risking much struggling for human dignity and the planet, including students fighting for democracy in Hong Kong, Europeans protesting consumerism and environmental irresponsibility, South Americans protesting corruption and inequality, and many others.  Let us all give thanks for those brave souls, and perhaps find in ourselves something of their courage.

At the zoo, speaking up for insects, handling climate emotions, and Derren Brown’s Miracle

 

Sally and I went to the NC Zoo in Asheboro last Monday. The weather was mild, and the trees were getting ready to drop their golden leaves.  It was a school holiday, and there were lots of families with kids there, some well behaved and others not.   

Both of us have reservations about zoos, with the main one being that it seems wrong to take animals from their habitats and lock them up.  But zoos can raise people’s consciousness and help protect animals, too. The NC Zoo has some large and comfortable fields for its big animals, and provides some basic information about their lives.

We enjoyed spending some time with the giraffes, rhinos, elephants, and other animals in the Africa area and with the exotic birds in the aviary. Lately I’ve been returning to Walt Whitman’s strange and beautiful poetry, and agree with him:  “I think I could turn and live awhile with the animals.”  

There was an important report this week about the peril of much less glamorous, but more numerous animals:  insects.  In Insect Declines and Why They Matter, Professor Dave Goulson explains that insect populations are undergoing a catastrophic collapse, with many species threatened with extinction.  

We know relatively little about insect biology, but we know that some of them are critical to their ecosystems, as well as to human activities like agriculture.  For example, three-fourths of our crops depend on insect pollination. Goulson points out that there is a lot humans can do to mitigate this crisis, including reducing reliance on pesticides, preserving habitats, and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.  The report is succinct and attractively produced, and is available here.

 

Admittedly, there is so much bad news about the planet’s environmental problems that it’s hard to process much of it.  Despair is understandable, but it isn’t helpful. What to do? Cara Buckley dealt with this issue in a fine little op ed piece in the NY Times  She acknowledges that our climate peril arouses feelings of helplessness and hopelessness, but ultimately comes down in favor of gratitude, compassion, and hope.  She recognizes that none of us alone can reverse the crisis, but the things we can do as individuals, like eating less destructively (info is here), can help reframe cultural norms.    

On a lighter note, we finally discovered Derren Brown, the relatively famous British mentalist-entertainer.  He has a show now on Broadway, and there was an interesting profile of him last month by Adam Green in The New Yorker  Our first direct exposure was this week on Netflix, in a performance film titled Derren Brown: Miracle.  Among other amazing feats, Brown conducted a mass faith healing like an old-time revivalist.  And people were actually healed!   In showing how suggestible people are, Brown was both unsettling and funny.

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