The Casual Blog

Tag: Carl Safina

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. 

Alaska natives, more bears, and Safina’s Becoming Wild

At Brooks Falls

These are in many ways dark and difficult times for both humans and other animals.  Humans get most of the headlines, so I’m focusing here on other animals.  I’m still processing my recent experiences with brown bears in Alaska, and still working my way through their pictures.  Some of these moments were shocking, and some were wonderfully peaceful.  

Also, when I was in Anchorage, I learned a bit about the native Alaska cultures.  I discovered that there’s no single simple story, but a lot of complex and still evolving stories.  At the Alaska Native Heritage Center, I took a tour and got an overview of the many distinct indigenous groups with their own languages, customs, and cultures.  

A disagreement near Brooks Falls

At the Center, I  got a taste of traditional music and dance, and the various kinds of houses and tools that the different groups used.  The music used drums and voices (no other instruments) along with choreographed dance to tell stories.  The music was not my preferred style (lots of close repetition), but I was glad to know that native Alaskans made and enjoyed music.

I also enjoyed the Anchorage Museum, which had exhibits of traditional crafts and documentary videos about native village life.  It turns out that there were quite a few different strategies for surviving and creating community in pre-industrial Alaska.  

In addition to coping with the harsh reality of their climate, when Europeans arrived, the indigenous people got horrific epidemics, violence, and oppression.  And native communities have many serious problems today, including poverty and substance abuse.  But the fact that these cultures weren’t entirely destroyed is strong proof of their fortitude and resilience.

I’m certain I only scratched the surface of Alaska cultures, and have a lot to learn.  But one thing I definitely got:  the term Eskimo has a lot of baggage, and is considered by many a nasty slur.  As a schoolboy, I was taught that the word referred generally to the native people of Alaska.  But like a lot of my early lessons on other cultures, this was both wrong and misleading.  Some Alaskan natives still use it to denigrate other Alaskans, but probably the best course is to avoid the term. 

Cubs get a swimming lesson at Katmai Preserve

I’ve been reading more of Carl Safina’s new book, Becoming Wild:  How Animal Cultures Raise Families, Create Beauty, and Achieve Peace.  As in his previous book, Beyond Words, Safina teaches about the abilities and accomplishments of different animal communities.  Beyond Words concerned elephants, wolves, and killer whales, while Becoming Wild focuses on humpback whales, macaws, and chimpanzees.  

For these various creatures, Safina pulls together recent scholarship as well as his own observations.  At times it drags a bit, but there are moments of great beauty and insight.  Safina shows that these non-human animals have personalities, communities, and cultures, and their lives have inherent value.  This is message is not complicated, but directly contrary to what most of us were taught, and it takes time to get it.

I hope Safina, or someone with similar commitment and talent, does a similar study of brown bears.  Even just a few days with them was enough for me to start seeing that they were individuals, with their own personalities and customs.  They seemed to have friends, and to be devoted to their children.

These animals have gotten only slightly better PR than sharks.  In the popular imagination, they are mindless killing machines, rather than mostly peaceful co-inhabitants of the planet.  Even in this sparsely populated area of Alaska with abundant food sources, the bear population has greatly declined, and the bears continue to be threatened by humans.  

I was very disturbed to learn that in Katmai Preserve, the government grants licenses to hunt them for pleasure.  Humans are twisted in many different ways, but still, it’s hard to understand how people would find such killing to be fun.  

It would not be surprising if the bears were angry at humans for taking their territory, food sources, and the lives of friends and children.  But I didn’t observe this.  Some were leery and careful to keep their distance, while others were curious.  A few times they approached us, but speaking to them in a firm voice was enough to direct them away, and they went on with their lives.

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

The growing eagle family, and the consciousness of other animals

Papa eagle at the nest

On Thursday afternoon I went up to Shelley Lake with my camera equipment to check on the nesting eagles.  The walk to the nest is close to a mile along a paved path on the east side of the lake. It was clear and mild, though breezy.  When I got there, papa eagle was perched in the pine tree beside the nest. A fellow eagle watcher said there were two chicks in the nest, and mama was off hunting.  Forty-five minutes later, she flew in with some food in her talons and disappeared in the nest. When she emerged, she spent a few minutes perched with her mate, and then flew off.  

Of course, I was excited to see the birds, but there was also something calming about being near them.  The wind sometimes blew the pine branches in front of them, or blew them aside for one second, just enough for a picture.

Speaking of animals, I’ve been reading two good books — Mama’s Last Hug, by Frans de Waal and Beyond Words, by Carl Safina.  Both books explore animal social organizations and thought processes. Dr. de Waal’s primary subjects are chimpanzees and other primates. De Waal explains that when he was a young scientist, the orthodox view in academia was that animals did not have emotions.  He’s devoted his career to testing this view, and has succeeded in thoroughly debunking it.  In exploring non-human animal emotions, he shows us more about our own minds.

Dr. Safina focuses on elephants, wolves, and killer whales, and closely observes a few of their social organizations and personalities.  The stories are moving, and raise absorbing questions about the consciousness of these animals. Some of the human behaviors, including killing elephants for their tusks and killing other creatures merely for pleasure, raise uncomfortable questions about human morality.