The Casual Blog

Yellowstone, surviving animals, and The Last Curlew

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

Bighorn sheep

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

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

Bison in thermal area near Old Faithful geyser

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

Bison fleeing wolves

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

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

A wolf

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

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

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

Bald eagle taking off

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

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

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

Coyote near bison in smoky thermal area

Happy New Year! But there’s some bad news

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Big family news, and helping animals

Our son Gabe got married last week to his sweetheart, and now Clark is our own dear daughter-in-law.  The wedding took place at Atlantic Beach, NC, capping a big week of celebrations.  It was great to see the happy couple plight their troth, but also to get to know Clark’s family and their friends.  

We stayed near the beach, and I had a chance to get out near sunrise to see what was happening there.  I enjoyed watching the shorebirds, and taking some pictures.  In the early light, with the sea running in and out, and the little birds doing the same, it was challenging to get a good image.  

One little peep was unusually friendly, or at least curious, and trotted right up and circled around me, too close to shoot with my long lens.  Back home, I found there were quite a few bad shots, but also a few that showed things I didn’t already know of the world of these small hearty creatures.    

Another little high point of the week:  playing with our granddaughter Augusta.  At 10 weeks, she was still a wee thing, but with big curious eyes.  She seemed to like looking at patterns in fabric and being covered for an instant with her bib.  She had a fabulous smile!

A few weeks earlier, we’d finally faced the fact that we just didn’t like the yellow paint we’d got for the living room last year, and got organized to change it.  The next morning, painter George C. and his assistant showed up with paint, brushes and drop clothes, and put in a color called revere pewter.  It was such a relief!  They made the room a lot calmer and more welcoming.  I checked the edges and corners, and they did a good job.    

As usual at this time of year, I’ve got to think about Christmas presents for people who really don’t need anything of a material sort.  Diane, my mother-in-law, who died this year, decided a few years back that her gift to us would be a contribution to the charity of our choice.  We liked the idea, and tried to implement it in our family, though with only limited success.  

Margaret Renkl had a good column last week encouraging contributions to regional charities that work for environmental causes.  I wasn’t familiar with all of her groups, but they  sounded worthwhile. 

My charitable contributions especially involve animals – reducing animal cruelty and protecting endangered species and ecosystems.  In case you’re interested in those problems, I’ll mention some organizations I’m supporting:  People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, Greenpeace, Cornell Lab of Ornithology, World Wildlife Fund, Audubon Society, Ocean Conservancy, National Wildlife Federation, Environmental Defense Fund, and the Jane Goodall Institute.  

In memory of Diane, I’d also like to flag one other charity:  Compassion and Choices.  Its focus is patient rights and individual choice at the end of life, including access to medical aid in dying.  There’s a good documentary called When My Time Comes, available to stream from PBS, showing the issues that this group is helping on.

Happy Native American Heritage Day!

Happy Native American Heritage Day!  Here are a few more pictures from my recent visit to the Four Corners area.  Monument Valley (above) is a Navajo Tribal Park, and the people that live there are almost all Navajos.  One morning a Navajo guide drove us out on the red dirt to see more of the strange rocks.  He was a friendly guy, and he was happy to talk about his culture, including their food, festivals, and clan system.

As we passed by little camps of people who lived in that harsh climate without electricity or running water, I wondered how they managed.  But it occurred to me, of course, they help each other when they need help.  And our guide helped me understand, they don’t feel like they need a lot of things.  They like being there, in that land with their families.  

As a schoolchild I learned the story that Thanksgiving was a holiday that everyone liked and no one could criticize.  It is hard to take issue with conscious gratitude, or getting together with loved ones for a celebratory feast.  

But I’ve learned more recently that Native Americans have good reason to dislike the myth of the first Thanksgiving, which makes it hard to spot and understand the greed and violence of many of the Europeans who colonized North America.  I heard a good Post Reports podcast this week that included reflections from Wampanoag descendents of those who helped the Pilgrims grow food for the prototype Thanksgiving, and who ultimately became victims. 

A Wampanoag woman interviewed in the podcast said she always thought America’s having a single day for giving thanks was a bit strange.  In her tradition, people were taught to be thankful every day. 

For those brought up, as I was, to view Native Americans as interesting but backward, and the taking of their lands as divine manifest destiny, it’s not easy to hear  that many colonial Europeans were merciless pillagers.  But it’s definitely worth replacing the myth with actual history, since we get connections to real people, including living Native Americans and their ancestors, rather than fantasy superheroes and supervillains.

On the history front, I started reading The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity, by David Graeber and David Wengrow.  The book is a new synthesis of current archeology, anthropology, evolutionary biology, and other research bearing on the development of humans and their institutions.  It’s long, but I’ve already encountered some exciting ideas.  

Graeber and Wengrow argue that the concepts of freedom and equality that we thought were developed by the intellectuals of the Enlightenment were actually first worked out and shared by Native Americans, who discussed them over a period of decades with the first European traders and missionaries.  Leading eighteenth-century European theorists described these ideas and practices as coming from America, but for later colonial generations, committed to extirpating Native cultures, dissonance made it impossible to entertain the notion of  those cultures as intellectual pioneers and leaders. 

If recent developments are any guide, it may be a while before these ideas make it into our childrens’ history textbooks.  I’m still trying to understand parents disrupting school board meetings around the country in protest against the teaching of what they call “critical race theory (CRT).”  I finally figured out that this crowd has redefined the term to have nothing to do with its original academic meaning.  For certain angry white parents, CRT now means “teaching history related to American slavery and its aftermath in a way that includes the physical horror and moral shame of it.”

Now Republican-dominated legislatures across the country are banning the teaching of CRT and other efforts to educate children regarding racism. This is disturbing, as are death threats against educators, but this is also educational, in a way.  We might have thought everyone understood at least the basics of the American slave system and agreed it was wrong.  We may have further thought that no one would feel threatened by a fuller understanding of how that system shaped our country.  But now we know that for some of our fellow citizens, this is definitely not the case.

Widespread ignorance about our racial history could be viewed as a failure of our educational system.  But to some extent, it has quietly been the status quo for many years.  New light is being shined on this shameful history, and for many, and probably most of us, that’s something to welcome and reflect on.  Deeper understanding may help us improve our institutions and our communities.

Ancient cliff dwellings at. Mesa Verde


At the same time, it’s definitely frightening when angry anti-CRT parents and Republican politicians start talking about burning books and attacking educators.  

This is a wake-up call.  Scholars are continuing to make new discoveries, and we’re getting new opportunities for exploration of fresh ideas.  But we also have new threats that we better treat seriously.  We cannot allow provocative ideas to be banned, books to be burned, and educators to be terrorized and silenced.  Our democracy is in trouble, and it needs us to lift our voices.

Things to be thankful for:  red rocks,  animal cultures, and leaving Afghanistan

Monument Valley sunrise

I took these pictures a couple of weeks ago in the Four Corners area, where Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah come together.  With a group of photographers led by a master photographer, Joe Brady, I explored Monument Valley, the Valley of the Gods, Goosenecks State Park, Mesa Verde, and other remarkable areas.  We didn’t see much wildlife, but there were epic rocks and scraggly plants that manage to survive in the red rocky desert.

But animals were on my mind, as I finished reading Carl Safina’s new book Becoming Wild: How Animal Cultures Raise Families, Create Beauty, and Achieve Peace.  The book has three main sections concentrating on species we may feel like we know something about:  sperm whales, scarlet macaws, and chimpanzees.  

Safina shows the beauty and intelligence of these creatures, and provides a window into their complex social lives.  “Animal culture” is not a well-settled concept, but Safina demonstrates that these species all have developed elaborate systems that they use to regulate their social lives and teach to their young.  He thinks we can learn from them.

Apropos of lessons that might be learned, I also finished reading Craig Whitlock’s new book, The Afghanistan Papers.  The book is largely based on a secret U.S. government study regarding what went wrong in our longest war.  In the study and in later interviews, various generals, civilian defense officials, diplomats, and soldiers described what they experienced, and what conclusions they drew.

I took away two main points.  First, the U.S. government lied over and over about what was happening in Afghanistan.  Generals and presidents alike kept saying that the situation was improving, that we were turning the corner, and we would win.  However, from early on, the situation in most of the country was a hopeless quagmire, and those with the relevant information knew it.

Second, and even more disturbing: almost no one involved in making decisions about U.S. policy in Afghanistan knew or cared to know much about the country’s history, politics, and culture.  Those in charge reduced the situation to simple black and white — good guys and bad guys — and vaguely imagined that success consisted of removing the designated bad guys.

The long American tradition of seeing violence as an all-purpose solution, rather than a deep problem, accounts for some of the tragedy of our misadventure in Afghanistan.  Our cultural blinders contributed to our collective self-deception, and extended it over two decades.

Even now, it appears that many people know nothing about how we worsened the violence and corruption in Afghanistan, and think we should have stayed the course for additional decades.  It is ironic and disturbing that an act of true political courage by President Biden — confronting our entrenched collective delusion and stopping our part of the war — has few defenders.

With so many pressing political and social issues at hand, it’s unlikely we’ll have a quiet period of collective reexamination of lessons to be learned from our Afghanistan mistakes.  We may never get to a remorseful pledge to never again inflict so much death and chaos on another unfortunate country.  But hope springs eternal, and so I recommend Whitlock’s book, which is quite readable.  Here are some other thought-provoking recent articles with useful perspectives on the disaster:

Michael Massig in the New York Review of Books:  The Story the Media Missed in Afghanistan.  Massig points up the role that a compliant mainstream media played in creating the widespread delusion that the war was worthwhile and successful.

Fintan O’Toole in the New York Review of Books:  The Lie of Nation Building.  As part of a review of Whitlock’s book, O’Toole argues that the Afghanistan experience was a dark mirror showing deep flaws in American democracy.  The trillions of U.S. dollars spent on the war created new frontiers of kleptocracy and corruption in Afghanistan, not to mention new fortunes in the American military-industrial complex.  O’Toole doesn’t go into all this, perhaps because it’s obvious:  this wasteful disposal of mountains of taxpayer money also meant lost opportunities for addressing American inequalities and improving our healthcare, education, transportation, and other systems.

Anand Gopal in The New Yorker:  The Other Afghan Women. In this extraordinary piece, Gopal takes us into the world of some rural Afghan women, including those who found the brutality they experienced from the Taliban less abhorrent  than the brutality of the local warlords who the U.S. brought on as proxies.

New Jersey epilogue: revisiting Roth and Nabokov

Philip Roth’s childhood home in Newark (the yellow house)

While we were in Jersey City last month seeing our marvelous new granddaughter, one afternoon we drove over to Newark to pay homage to one of our greatest writers, Philip Roth (1933-2018).  We found the street where he grew up and parked across from his old house.  Back in his day, it was a working class Jewish neighborhood, and now it’s a working class Black neighborhood. His boyhood home had a plaque honoring him, but otherwise it looked like the other houses. 

We also went to the Newark Public Library to see the new Philip Roth Room.  The writer bequeathed a significant sum and his own books to the library where he spent many hours as a young reader.  We enjoyed looking through his collection and inspecting various personal items, including his manual typewriter.  The curator was a pleasant woman who knew a lot about Roth and his books.  There were no other visitors on the weekday afternoon we were there, but she was hopeful that visits would pick up after the pandemic.  

The Plot Against America, the unexpectedly timely HBO series about fascists who try to seize power in the U.S., is based on Roth’s novel.  It probably inspired some new readers to try Roth, and I hope more will do so.  His books confer the out-of-body travel pleasures of good realist fiction, along with arresting honesty, naughty humor, and a fierce passion.  The physical Newark he grew up in has changed almost beyond recognition, but the sweet, quirky, hardworking place can still be visited in his books, like The Plot Against America and American Pastoral.

On our trip I also finished re-reading Lolita, by Vladimir Nabakov.  I hesitated to re-engage with this famous book, which makes an uncomfortable proposition: that we sympathize with an unrepentant child molester.  There’s moral risk, to say the least.  It casts a hypnotic spell that feels exhilarating as it drowns our sensibilities.  The monstrousness of the narrator is almost obscured by the beautiful and hilarious language.  Nabokov’s close observations of our consumer culture and hypocrisies  cut to the heart.  The book is hard not to love, and also hard to feel entirely good about.

Sally tries to read the plaque. The Roths lived on the second floor.

Having not read Lolita for forty years, I was surprised at how much I remembered, but still, I’d forgotten a lot.  Plus there was a lot I just hadn’t processed initially.  For example, without belaboring the matter, Nabokov makes clear that Humbert H, in addition to being a scholar and old world aesthete, has a history of mental illness, alcoholism, and obsession with violence. 

Side note:  It’s curious how we systematically and unconsciously overestimate the capabilities of language.  Those most accomplished in language may be the most prone to overlooking the vast realm of experience where language is irrelevant, and even counterproductive.  Likewise, intellectuals with strong verbal skills often view  abstractions as superior to the simple and concrete, and easily mistake them for reality.  Thus our leaders zealously pursue reasonable-sounding but impossible goals, such as defeating “terrorism” or “drugs,” at horrific cost.  

But the great works of Roth and Nabokov are a reminder that language can also expand our conceptual world.  Great writers make us question our preconceptions and see new possibilities.  

Visiting Lady Liberty, welcomer of immigrants

The Statue of Liberty, dedicated 1866

We’ve established a temporary base in Jersey City in an Airbnb near our new granddaughter, and are starting to feel less like aliens.  Traffic is more intense than we’re used to, and people beep their horns a lot more, but it has its good points.  One of those is Liberty Park, which is about a mile from us, and has a great view across the harbor of lower Manhattan and  the back of the Statue of Liberty.

Lower Manhattan from Ellis Island

Despite years of living in and visiting New York City, we’d never taken the ferry out to visit Lady Liberty or Ellis Island.  We picked a clear, mild day last week, bought tickets, waited on line, cleared security (very like an airport), and set sail.  There was a sweet breeze, and fluffy clouds.

Immigration to the U.S. peaked in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and Ellis Island was the primary intake spot.  Millions of immigrants from Europe and elsewhere went through its procedures and began new lives in the states.  The large complex of buildings has been partially restored to serve as the National Museum of Immigration.  

Ellis Island

It was moving to be where so many brave and hopeful people had landed with their dreams.  We also learned a lot from the exhibits about the various national groups who eventually became the people of the United States.

Most of the exhibits required some reading, but it was worth it.  The curators had made a real effort to give the context of some of the sad realities of our past, including slavery, war with native peoples, and exploitation of workers.  We also learned about some of the desperate conditions that led millions of Europeans and others to take their chances in America, including crop failures, discrimination, and overpopulation.

At the same time, there were great success stories, as many immigrants prospered and built a foundation for our prosperity.  We were surprised to learn that the largest single group of immigrants prior to 1900 was Germans, followed by Irish. The people known as Pennsylvania Dutch were not Dutch, but rather Deutsch (German).  The melting pot apparently melted some letters.

Part of the story of American immigration, in addition to the acceptance and assimilation of millions of immigrants, was constant hostility to immigration.  In the 19th and 20th centuries, large political movements organized around the idea that immigrants were threatening to destroy existing American culture.  

Panic over a takeover by people with different complexions, languages, and customs, is of course very much with us today.  That sort of fear seems to be partly responsible for the Trumpist movement.  It was reassuring, in a way, to find that this mass delusion has been around in some form for the last couple of centuries.  We got through it then, so perhaps we can do so now.

My main impression of the Statue of Liberty was:  she’s big!  From base to the tip of her torch, 305  feet.  I also learned why she’s green:  her copper layer reacted with oxygen and other chemicals in the air, and the resulting oxidation forms a green patina.  

Her island had some nice trees and pleasant sidewalks, but otherwise she looked as expected.  Even though she’s been a bit over exposed, it was good to see her, and to keep hoping we can hold on to the values of freedom and compassion that she symbolizes. 

Augusta, our new granddaughter (a first!)

Hail Augusta!  Our first grandchild, Augusta Quinn Tiller-DePew, was born this week, amid great excitement.    

People say that all newborns look the same, and I’ve even said such things myself.  But I’ve changed my view.  Little Augusta is especially beautiful, and also talented.  She already knows how to eat, sleep, and wiggle.  Her heart, lungs, colon, kidneys, and other systems and subsystems clearly know what they need to do, and they’re all hard at work.  And she knows how to let everyone know when there’s something she doesn’t like — she cries!   

Sally and I drove up to Jersey City to greet the new arrival and try to be helpful.  Holding her for the first time was wonderful.  I felt hopeful for the future.  It also made me think a bit about our responsibility to possible future generations.    

When I was in Alaska recently, I talked with a nice woman whose grown children had vowed not to have children, because of concerns that the world was already too awful a place for a new child, and more people would just make it worse.  I can understand and even respect this stern view.  But I would argue for another position.

The world has no shortage of horrors, but it’s still possible to find a lot of beauty and joy.  It all may end badly, with horrific climate change,  nuclear apocalypse, or a giant asteroid, but not necessarily.  Human activity accounts for a lot of our dire situation, but that also means there’s a possibility that humans will work out rescue plans.  At any rate, we’d better give it a shot.

I was cheered this week to learn that a number of megarich people are joining Jeff Bezos to dedicate a very large sum ($5 billion) to an effort to save 30 percent of the earth’s natural areas and prevent the extinction of a large number of species.  As the latest IPCC report reminded us again a few weeks back, our climate crisis requires immediate action, and this message is starting to resonate.

This could be the beginning!  We may be on the verge of new ways of understanding ourselves, our relationships, and our environment.  Some of the problems that have seemed intractable have to do with the way we were educated, and specifically with the way we were trained to think about our relations to each other and nature.  Just seeing some new perspectives could make our hard problems easier to solve.  

One example, which I mentioned in my post last week, is how we’ve been trained to think about animals as, if not dangerous, always inferior and morally insignificant.  Maybe we’ll try understanding them better, dialing down the fear and cultivating respect for them and their communities.  It would surely change us for the better.

Similarly, we’ve long been schooled in questionable assumptions about human nature, which make it difficult for us to question social relations based on greed and violence.  We even doubt our own eyes when we happen to notice successful communities based on empathy, peaceful cooperation and loving support.  With a bit of effort, we may find more such relationships, and learn to cultivate still more.

Changing our thinking at this level may sound impossible, but it’s not.  Some people are definitely there already, and their numbers seem to be growing.

What animals say

I wasn’t planning on sharing any more of my Alaska brown bear pictures, but changed my mind.  Processing the pictures took me to a happy place.  I really enjoyed being with these animals (at a respectful distance, of course), and learning a little about their lives.

This has been a particularly sad week in animal news.  There was a huge bloody slaughter of dolphins in the Faroe Islands.  The U.S. government has authorized hunters selected by lottery to kill some of the few remaining bison at the Grand Canyon.  And as usual, with no headlines, hundreds of millions of farm animals were killed to provide human food. 

The way we think about non-human animals obviously affects the degree of brutality we’re prepared to inflict on them, but it has less obvious effects on how we think about ourselves.  We generally see them as distant and inferior, with no concerns as important as our own, and lacking in our intelligence and cultural achievements.  We attach great significance to their lack of human language.   

But animals teach us something about human language without needing that language.  First, they get along without it just fine.  That is, in the wild they manage to do the same things that are our highest priorities — get food, shelter, reproduction, friendship, community — without human language.  Indeed, it is likely that homo sapiens got along well enough for many tens of thousands of years without the language abilities that we now think of as setting us apart.

So animals demonstrate that language is not really as fundamental to our lives as we tend to think.  Of course, at times language is very useful, and also fun to play with. But while it helps us solve problems, it also creates them.  One example is how easily it creates the illusion of a vast divide between humans and other animals, and how easily it justifies human domination of other groups and forms of life.   

We often forget that words are only symbols, with no fully reliable connection to objects or actions.  No matter how beautifully and elaborately they are grouped together, they can never completely and fully reflect reality.  At their very best they are heuristics, practical shortcuts for thinking and getting things done.  

A merganser family

This shortcutting utility also accounts for a lot of problems.  Our word choices direct focus our attention in one direction, so that we have trouble seeing in another.  Once we’ve got firmly in mind the definition of humans as superior creatures, it’s difficult for us to think about the significance of, say, bears to other bears, or chickens to other chickens.  

A similar problem occurs with racial categories.  Once we’ve concocted a definition of racial characteristics and decided which ones are desirable, we have a hard time not favoring the ones we initially desired.  Language around race is part of how we built our racial caste system, and it also makes it very hard to dismantle it.

This is a problem inherent in the way we usually think.  But it helps, I think, to recognize that language is flexible, not fixed, and our intuitions can help us modify or work around linguistic limitations.  Some part of us already knows, despite the limits of our received language, that our cruelty to animals is wrong, and we have the capacity of finding new ways of communicating and acting on that.  

Bears and a whale, and where bad ideas come from

I finally finished going through the pictures I took at Katmai National Park and the Alaska coast, and I wanted to share a few more that I liked.  Katmai has one of the densest concentrations of brown bears in the world, but there aren’t really very many there — about 2,200.  Each one is unique.

Along with bears, I am particularly interested in whales.  I’ve had the privilege of seeing them in the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian Oceans, and I’ve been learning more about them in recent books by Carl Safina and Rebecca Giggs.  Humans have just started understanding the intelligence, social structures, and cultures of whales, but for centuries, we’ve been mindlessly killing them.

So during my Alaska trip, I had mixed feelings about seeing a fin whale that had died from unknown causes and washed up on the beach.  The poor creature had been there for a few days, decomposing, and had become food for other animals, including a lot of brown bears.  Despite feeling sad for the whale, I was glad it could provide calories for the bears and other  creatures.  

David Brooks is a NY Times columnist I generally respect without getting particularly excited.  He’s a sensible conservative who loathes Trump — a nice but usually predictable guy.  However, last week in his column on contemporary currents in neuroscience, he briefly pulled together some powerful ideas that I’ve been mulling over but hadn’t imagined he’d ever entertain.   

According to Brooks (and various scholars), we’ve all learned to think of seeing and imagining as entirely separate things.  But they aren’t.  Neuroscientists are finding that the brain structures and processes involved are much the same for both.  That is, from the perspective of the internal physical operation, we can’t reliably distinguish between seeing and imagining.  Seeing may be believing, but believing may also be seeing.   

Similarly, the distinctions that we draw between brain and body, between memory and experience, and between reason and emotion are nowhere near as clear and clean as most of us have assumed.  Indeed, it may not be possible to box off any half of these pairs as independent.  Like yin and yang, they are starting to look interdependent.

Even starting to think about these ideas may be disorienting, since we’ve long understood these distinctions to be rock solid.  But they may explain some widespread-but-wrong notions.  With this new perspective, we can start to understand how some people can truly believe that covid vaccines are dangerous, a newly fertilized egg is fully human, scientists are lying about climate change, and a liberal cabal is trying to take away personal firearms and legalize child abuse.

It’s probable that we all have sincere beliefs that have no basis in reality, though some of us seem to have a bigger collection.  When we’re part of communities with extreme views and bombarded with media that confirms our biases, we can dig into some sad and dangerous positions.  

There’s no simple solution here, I’m afraid.  But I find it helpful to remember that we’ve all got imperfect brains, and even the kookiest of us is not entirely personally responsible for his or her terrible ideas.  Also, people do sometimes change, and might one day be grateful for our helping them to change.