The Casual Blog

Tag: tundra swans

Snow geese and tundra swans, Roman history, and another wall problem

Tundra swans at Pungo Lake

Each winter thousands of migrating tundra swans and snow geese stop in eastern North Carolina for a while to collect themselves and eat what’s left in the farm fields.  For a human, all that bird life is a thrilling sight.

In addition to the thrill, I was hoping to capture some images of the birds in flight.  In preparation, I did some research on optimal settings and customized some of my camera buttons.  This process was involved and confusing, and I thought it possible I would end up with a hard-to-repair mess.  I also decided to try wielding my Sigma 150-500mm, a beastly large lens, free hand (no tripod).

Pungo Lake, where I saw most of snow geese and most of the tundra swans, is about 2.5 hours east of Raleigh.  For part of the time I traveled with other members of the Carolina Nature Photographers’ Association, including some friendly and very well-traveled shutterbugs.  I got to hear some of their stories and picked up some helpful tips.

I saw thousands of big white birds, as well as several species of ducks, waders, and one black bear.  We had good weather until Saturday afternoon, when the rain came in and the temperature started to drop.  I was happy with some of the shots I got before then.

On an ordinary day, I check the digital news headlines frequently, which  rarely puts me in a more relaxed, pleasurable state of mind. So it was good to unplug for the weekend and concentrate on the beauty of the natural world.  

I also spent some of the driving time learning about the classical world.  I finished listening to a series of lectures titled The Rise of Rome, by Gregory Aldrete, from the Great Courses series.  It traces the rise of Rome from a settlement to the Western world’s first superpower.

Aldrete is a good teacher and a good story teller, and mixes broad themes with interesting anecdotes.  The Romans were certainly great engineers and organizers, as well as fearsome warriors. In the late Roman Republic, the levels of corruption, extreme inequality, and political dysfunction were even worse than our own, which I found somewhat comforting.  Leaving aside the lives and civilizations destroyed by Rome, life went on.

Snow geese coming in for a landing near Pungo Lake

I’ve been trying to avoid spending too much time obsessing over the latest Trump conflagration, since it does little or no good.  But I have been keeping a sharp eye on the presidential approval poll numbers, hoping to see a change in the national mood, and possibly our direction.  Even though Trump has been generally unpopular almost since day 1, his Republican base has been mostly steadfast.

I know some sane, well-informed, thoughtful, kind and generous Republicans, and have found it hard to understand how people like them could support a President with none of those virtues.  Trump, it seemed, might have been right when he said that no matter how crazy or heinous his acts, his base would never abandon him. But in the latest polling, after his reckless government shut down and non-stop nonsense about the Wall, the polls indicate some of his loyalists may be rethinking their position.

Although Trump has a gift for bringing out the worst in people, at times he inadvertently brings out better things.  For example, his racist language encourages the no-holds-barred racists, but it also makes others think more and talk more about the hard-to-see realities of our longstanding, everyday privileging of whiteness.  His climate change denialism is getting harder for the base to swallow as they face more frequent droughts, floods, fires, hurricanes, and other storms.

Even the Wall discussion seems to have crossed a threshold.  For many, it seems to have gone from being primarily a fun slogan to yell at a Trump rally to looking like a nutty and wasteful boondoggle.  There’s an aspect of the Wall idea that hasn’t gotten much attention, which I was glad to see noted in the  news  recently: the harmful effects on non-human life. The 650 miles of wall already in existence is very bad for the hundreds of species of animals and plants that live in the vicinity. Many of these need to travel north and south for food, water, and mating.  We need to take their needs into account.

Wild swans in eastern North Carolina and posthumanism

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This past weekend I drove to eastern North Carolina to see wintering tundra swans and other brilliant creatures.  The swans were there — hundreds of them!  These are majestic birds, with long necks and seven-foot wingspans.  They look quiet and elegant as they swim, but they’re very vocal, barking and squawking, sounding from a distance like a huge crowd of little kids at an exciting  sporting event.  

For part of the time I was travelling with members of the Carolinas Nature Photographers Association.  We stayed in the Holiday Inn Express in Plymouth, which was fine.  The CNPA folks were friendly and knowledgeable, and I enjoyed talking with them about such things as camera lenses, post-processing, and wildlife.  I took these pictures with my Nikon D7100 and a Sigma 150-500 lens (a beastly large piece of glass) on a Vanguard tripod.

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To get to the birdy places, we had to drive a good ways down muddy dirt roads.  I unwisely brought my sports car, and was more than a little anxious at points that we’d get stuck in the mud, with uncertain prospects of getting unstuck.  We never quite got caught, though we did get muddy.  We explored Pocosin Lakes (mostly at Pungo Lake) and Lake Mattamuskeet.

Once I got over the initial goosebumps of seeing the crowds of swans, I started looking for snow geese, but without success.  I  did see various pretty ducks, including northern pintails and northern shovelers, as well as great egrets, great blue herons, and black crowned night herons.  I also saw three black bears, including a youngster.

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It was wonderfully absorbing and calming to be beside the water, removed from civilization, relatively (my phone had 0 bars ).  Given the fraughtness of our current political drift, it was a particularly good time to be outdoors and close to all that non-human life.  Earlier in the week, I’d read an intriguing column about posthumanism, which resonated with me strongly.

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More and more, I’ve found myself unsatisfied with the common assumption that people are by definition superior to other animals, and disturbed by the dark implications of that assumption.  It turns out that these are issues addressed by posthumanist thinkers.  The column, an interview by Natasha Leonard of Cary Wolfe, is worth reading in its entirety, but here’s a sample.

Humanism provides an important cultural inheritance and legacy, no doubt, but hardly the kind of vocabulary that can describe the complex ways that human beings are intertwined with and shaped by the nonhuman world in which they live, and that brings together what the humanist philosophical tradition considered ontologically separate and discrete domains like “human” and “animal,” or “biological” and “mechanical.”

. . .

So on the other hand, what one wants to do is to find a way of valuing nonhuman life not because it is some diminished or second-class form of the human, but because the diversity and abundance of life is to be valued for what it is in its own right, in its difference and uniqueness. An elephant or a dolphin or a chimpanzee isn’t worthy of respect because it embodies some normative form of the “human” plus or minus a handful of relevant moral characteristics. It’s worthy of respect for reasons that call upon us to come up with another moral vocabulary, a vocabulary that starts by acknowledging that whatever it is we value ethically and morally in various forms of life, it has nothing to do with the biological designation of “human” or “animal.”

. . .

My position has always been that all of these racist and sexist hierarchies have always been tacitly grounded in the deepest — and often most invisible – hierarchy of all: the ontological divide between human and animal life, which in turn grounds a pernicious ethical hierarchy. As long as you take it for granted that it’s O.K. to commit violence against animals simply because of their biological designation, then that same logic will be available to you to commit violence against any other being, of whatever species, human or not, that you can characterize as a “lower” or more “primitive” form of life. This is obvious in the history of slavery, imperialism and violence against indigenous peoples. And that’s exactly what racism and misogyny do: use a racial or sexual taxonomy to countenance a violence that doesn’t count as violence because it’s practiced on people who are assumed to be lower or lesser, and who in that sense somehow “deserve it.”

That’s why the discourse of animalization is so powerful, because it uses a biological or racial taxonomy to institute an ethical divide between who is “killable but not murderable,” those who are “properly” human and those who aren’t. So the first imperative of posthumanism is to insist that when we are talking about who can and can’t be treated in a particular way, the first thing we have to do is throw out the distinction between “human” and “animal” — and indeed throw out the desire to think that we can index our treatment of various beings, human or not, to some biological, taxonomic designation. Does this mean that all forms of life are somehow “the same”? No, it means exactly the opposite: that the question of “human” versus “animal” is a woefully inadequate philosophical tool to make sense of the amazing diversity of different forms of life on the planet, how they experience the world, and how they should be treated.

I was enough intrigued by this to download Wolfe’s latest book, but soon found it tough sledding.  Based on Wolfe’s many references to Jacques Derrida, it sounded like I might need to go back and get a deeper understanding of Derrida’s work.  I downloaded Derrida:  A Very Short Introduction, by Simon Glendinning, which at any rate hasn’t yet been hopelessly confusing.  This might be fun and illuminating (though it might not).  

Anyhow, the swans made me think of  The Wild Swans at Coole by W.B. Yeats, just as Yeats had helped draw me towards the swans.  I once memorized these stark and poignant lines and enjoyed rereading them, and hope you will as well.  It’s an amazing feat to combine with seeming simplicity such wonderful sensuality and the steady-eyed confrontation of  death, that most difficult of subjects.

 

The trees are in their autumn beauty,

The woodland paths are dry,

Under the October twilight the water

Mirrors a still sky;

Upon the brimming water among the stones

Are nine-and-fifty swans.

 

The nineteenth autumn has come upon me

Since I first made my count;

I saw, before I had well finished,

All suddenly mount

And scatter wheeling in great broken rings

Upon their clamorous wings.

 

I have looked upon those brilliant creatures,

And now my heart is sore.

All’s changed since I, hearing at twilight,

The first time on this shore,

The bell-beat of their wings above my head,

Trod with a lighter tread.

 

Unwearied still, lover by lover,

They paddle in the cold

Companionable streams or climb the air;

Their hearts have not grown old;

Passion or conquest, wander where they will,

Attend upon them still.

 

But now they drift on the still water,

Mysterious, beautiful;

Among what rushes will they build,

By what lake’s edge or pool

Delight men’s eyes when I awake some day

To find they have flown away?