The Casual Blog

Tag: Ed Yong

Our holiday weekend — wildlife and books

Wild horses at Corolla, NC

We had a happy July 4 family gathering at the Outer Banks.  There are a lot of stress inducers in the news these days, and it was good to unload some stress.  It helped to spend some time walking on the beach and some time reading. 

I also brought along my new camera, the Nikon Z9, and started getting comfortable with it.  There is definitely a learning curve, but I was pleased with some of the results, a few of which are here.  It was fun seeing the wild horses at Corolla, which mostly seemed in good health.  We also stopped at Alligator River wildlife refuge on the way and saw a few bears, owls, and (a first for us!) alligators.  

Alligator at Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge

Speaking of animals, I highly recommend a lively short essay by Ed Yong titled How Animals See Themselves.  Yong highlights some of the amazing sensory capabilities of non-human animals, including not just extraordinary sight, smell, and hearing, but also abilities like echolocation which we can barely conceive of.  Appreciating the umwelt (a term he promotes) of these animals makes our own lives richer, and potentially more compassionate.  I’ve downloaded Yong’s new book on this subject, An Immense World.

On a related subject, NPR had a great little piece this week on octopuses and how they operate.  I hadn’t realized that the receptors in the suckers of an octopus are vastly more numerous than the nerves in our fingers, and each sucker has not only a sense of touch, but also of taste and smell.  Instead of processing information in a centralized brain, most of their neurons are associated with their suckers.  Scientists are starting to figure out how all their mini-brains work together so that, for example, they can unscrew jars from the inside and perform astonishing feats of camouflage.  I’ve seen a a few of these creatures on diving trips in the Caribbean, and they are truly amazing.   

    

Meanwhile, while recovering from covid, I finished a big book: Anna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy.  It had been some forty years since I last read this famous work, but I still remembered some of it.  Besides being long, it is notable for its scope, which is both narrow (a few months in the lives of a handful of Russian aristocrats) and broad (Russian society in the process of major changes).  Having learned some history over the last few decades, I was better positioned to appreciate Tolstoy’s insights and also his blind spots.  

Some of the book, which was written in the mid-1870s was visionary, or at least a magnificent struggle for a vision.  There is insight into the emotional lives of the characters, including their most creative and destructive emotions.  At times Tolstoy’s consciousness seems to merge with the lives of animals and plants, and evokes the grandeur of nature.  But at other times he seems to regard peasants as useful but inferior, like horses, and other animals as merely good targets for shooting.

Part of Anna Karenina deals with the severe depression suffered by its title character, and also by Levin, who most represents Tolstoy himself.  Tolstoy doesn’t use anything like the modern vocabulary for describing psychological problems, but he evokes them with power.  It is not comfortable to enter into these experiences, but they are definitely timely.

Charities, Allegiance, history, microbes, walks, and flying my new quadcopter

Demolition on Harrington Street

Demolition on Harrington Street

This week I wrote my annual checks to my favorite charities. Giving seemed more than usually important this year, since some of my favored causes are directly threatened by the recently elected executive — the environment, human rights, civil liberties, animal rights, family planning, and those less fortunate. I felt really lucky to be able to help, even if only a little, by giving to effective organizations.

I was especially mindful of the dire plight of refugees from the Middle East, Africa, Central America, and elsewhere, and so want to mention for your consideration the work of the International Rescue Committee and Doctors Without Borders. I’ll also note that in these tumultuous times we need more than ever the wisdom and beauty of the arts, and hope others will join me in supporting the wonderful North Carolina Ballet and North Carolina Opera.
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On Tuesday, Sally and I saw Allegiance, a movie of a show recently on Broadway about the experience of Japanese-Americans in WWII. It was inspired by experiences of George Takei (Star Trek), whose family, along with many others, was held in a grim internment camp. At one level, it was a normal Broadway show, with pretty songs and kinetic dances, which were enjoyable if not especially original. But it was ambitious in taking on a big and tragic subject and expressing some of its complexity. While the so-called alt right has found new methods for inspiring fear and hatred of minorities, Allegiance does the opposite — it inspires caring.
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The movie of Allegiance was a one-time-only, nationwide event that I learned about from the Stuff You Missed in History Class podcast, which I’ve been listening to at the gym. Stuff You Missed often take on subjects that our American history textbooks played down or left out, because they don’t fit comfortably into a triumphalist national narrative. For example, recent ones I’ve liked have treated the Dakota War of 1862, George Wallace, the Reynolds pamphlet of Alexander Hamilton, the first transatlantic cable, and the Palmer raids. They segments are lively and have a nice balance between serious academic history and the personal, emotional implications of some dire events. The hosts, Tracey V. Wilson and Holly Frey are starting to feel like friends — really smart, curious, and hardworking, with a sense of humor. You can check it out here.
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THe spirit of curiosity and engagement with new things has been upon me, and so I finished reading, and started re-reading, I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life, by Ed Yong. It’s a lively and convincing view of the bacteria that live in us, on us, and all around us. This is a really exciting area of science, and developing fast. I like that Yong’s title used a line from Walt Whitmans’ Leaves of Grass, which also can change how we see ourselves.

When I was a child, I was taught that “germs” were bad, and the best thing to do was avoid them or eliminate them. As Yong makes clear, this was both silly and dangerous. Our bodies contain more bacterial cells than human cells, which calls into question who really owns those bodies. There are some 39 trillion bacterial cells in and on us, and thousands of species, though the particular kinds in each of us varies greatly, and the varieties are constantly changing. They are vital to our well-being. Without them, we could not grow or thrive. Each one of us is an ecosystems — microbiomes, as they now say. Without those multitudes, we could not grow, and could not continue to live. They are vital, for example, for digesting food, producing vitamins, breaking down toxins, and killing more dangerous microbes. DCIM100MEDIADJI_0017.JPG

I also finished reading On Looking: Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes, by Alexandra Horowitz. Horowitz, who teaches psychology and animal behavior at Barnard, writes well about who she sees, hears, smells, and touches in walking around New York. After an initial walk by herself considering how much there was to see in a city walk, she also realized how little she normally perceives. She does the other 9 walks with experts in some aspect of the urban environment, like a geologist, a paleontologist, an architect, a wild animal expert, a sound designer, and her dog (an expert in smells). She gives short by credible accounts of the relevant science, and makes us consider the urban environment as full of non-human life and history.

The demolition photographs here are from just down the block on Harrington Street, where they just knocked down a former furniture store that sat next to the old Board of Elections Building. They didn’t fence off the site, so I was able to take a good look around on Saturday. I look forward to more new construction in the neighborhood, including (can’t wait for this one) a grocery store.
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Finally, this weekend I added a new line to the c.v.: quadcopter pilot! I took my first flight with my new DJI Phantom 4 quadcopter, a/k/a drone (a term I don’t really like, at least as applied to my aircraft) at Fletcher Park, where it was cold and gray. It was awesome! There is a learning curve, and I’m climbing it. I’m very excited about exploring aerial photography. These ones are my beginnings.
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