Like a Hurricane

Around here we welcomed September in with the remains of Hurricane Ida.  For the second summer in a row, far inland, we’ve sustained hurricane damage.  For storms like this it’s not so much a question of if there will be damage, but rather “how much?”  It was complicated by the paper wasps.  It’s like a 1970s natural disaster movie.  It starts at the end of August.

I was going out to put the recycling bin away (more on this later).  When I opened the garage door I was stung three times by a paper wasp (or maybe two)—twice on the face and once on a finger.  The previous day when I’d taken the bin out there hadn’t been a nest, but 24 hours later, angry waspids were protecting their territory.  I couldn’t even get the door closed.  We don’t have any bug-killing spray on hand since we believe in live and let live.  But I do need to get into the garage.  Due to my weekly schedule I couldn’t get to the hardware store before Friday.  Fine, let the Hymenoptera have the garage.

The next day—actually later that day—Ida began to arrive.  We’ve had extensive roof repairs since moving in here.  We’ve had two-thirds of it replaced entirely.  Then the rain started.  The plumber came before it got bad to replace a cast-iron radiator that we had moved so I could repair the drywall behind it.  While doing that I repaired the ceiling where water from ex-Hurricane Isaias leaked through.  The roofer had patched this part after Isaias, so we thought we were good.  By mid-afternoon there was water dripping from the ceiling again and the repairs I had made crumbled into the bucket set there to catch the water.  So it goes.  Outside the street was closed due to flooding.  I couldn’t get into the garage to check for damage because, you know, wasps guarded the only door (still open).

It used to be that weather was a neutral topic to discuss.  Of course, it’s become politicized now.  Having a climate-change denier in the White House for four years made the topic dangerous to raise.  This area used to never get hit too badly by hurricanes.  Global warming, however, has changed everything.  I got up the morning after wondering where to start.  It was still dark and a cricket had come inside to get out of the weather.  It chirped as I came down stairs.  Everything will be all right.

Our unofficial rain gauge

Starting September

The deep green of late summer has been starting to brown at the edges.  The process is a slow one, but it’s urged along by the Halloween decorations beginning to appear in the stores and the spooky offerings showing up in various media.  Our second pandemic summer is winding down.  Autumn has always been my favorite season.  I like summer’s relaxed attitude.  Even winter’s chill is something I anticipate.  But autumn is so visceral that it’s spiritual.  Autumn catches in my throat.  I sniff the air expectantly.  I know the ghosts and ghouls are on their way.  I won’t feel so strange for watching horror movies when the season demands it.  Already light is scarce before work in the morning.  In order to accommodate my daily constitutional I’ve had to shift to the streets of our town where there’s a bit of artificial light at 5:30 a.m.

September has crept up on us under the guise of several heat waves and hurricanes crossing the country.  The season of scares is about upon us.  I have to admit to feeling a thrill when seeing orange and black in stores and on front lawns.  Halloween lights have begun to appear on some front porches and the candy has begun to spill out in grocery stores for those who want to shop early.  Outside, even with the heat waves and hurricanes, early morning declares that fall is on its way.  As early as August, like a squirrel I begin to horde away my autumnal reading and viewing.  Books and movies to see me through to what seems like the home base of spring when shivers cease and light begins to grow again.  Every year I tell myself I’ll be ready this time.  Every year it stuns me in its wonder.

The transitional seasons, unfortunately, are most under threat from global warming.  The periods between the extremes of heat and cold get foreshortened, making them even more precious.  I have to believe Halloween is capitalism’s attempt to sell autumn.  It’s a season of feeling, of pure emotion.  I almost fear its coming since I know it can’t last for nearly long enough.  There’s a beauty to the decline, and my migratory instincts for the classroom kick in.  If only it could be so forever.  Summer’s heat underscores autumn’s relief.  There’s treasure hidden here, even if it’s only temporary.  September is finally here.  And with it comes hope.

Things to come

Weather rules

One of the observations that prompted me to write Weathering the Psalms concerned the disruptive nature of storms.  Power outages was pretty common in that part of southeast Wisconsin where we were living at the time.  Downed trees could block rural access—more limited than the alternate routes of cities—for hours.  There was clearly a sense of being at the mercy of nature and it was disruptive to the human schedules and lives we’ve constructed.  The tornado warning we had a couple of days ago reminded me of that aspect.  While radar saves lives by giving advanced warning, it also makes it difficult to concentrate on work when you’re told to take shelter.  As far as I’m aware HR doesn’t have a tornado policy.

Having lived in the Midwest for a decade and a half, I came to be aware of the difference between a tornado watch and a tornado warning.  While my phone was showing a watch, another family member’s was showing a warning.  My evening plans were replaced by standing at the window looking west.  The worst of the storm passed us but as long as the weather was threatening there was little else we could do.  Eventually all devices agreed that this was a warning and we should take shelter.  The storm eventually passed, leaving my tightly packed plans for the day in tatters, even though our actual house was fine.  That’s the nature of the weather that makes it so interesting.  As much as we like to think we’re on top of it, we’re really all potential victims.

Weather is more powerful than humans.  We have to change our plans according to its whims.  And climate change is making it more extreme.  Even with the evidence all around us deniers still try to block legislation that takes steps to preserving our planet.  Those who wish to destroy it for theological reasons don’t stop to think that doing so is about as selfish as you can get—something that the Bible really doesn’t promote at all.  One thing about the weather: although it is very different from place to place, we’re all in it together.  It can be very disruptive, yes.  It reminds us that we and our human plans are temporary.  When we’ve managed to do ourselves in, or have abandoned this planet to find a more hospitable one we can ruin, the weather will remain.  Majestic storms will come and go, whether or not there’s anyone here to see and appreciate them.


Weathering the Sleep

Weather still has a tremendous, if incremental, effect on life.  Patterns where a repeating weather cycle seems stuck in place are a good example.  While not exactly uncommon in summer around here, thunderstorms develop during the hot and humid days.  Our current pattern is that thunderstorms arrive in the middle of the night.  For days in a row.  We had a few days in our current series.  Some of us can’t sleep through thunderstorms, not least because we have to get up and close the windows, pulling fans out, so that the water doesn’t invade.  This means several nights of interrupted sleep and rather unforgiving work schedules the next day.  Companies don’t often take this fact of the weather into consideration.  I’m not the only one yawning all day.

Of course, other things interrupt sleep as well.  Any parent of a newborn has those perpetually baggy eyes that we’ve come to associate with trying to get an infant to sleep through the night.  Work doesn’t smile on that kindly either.  Both of these (and many others) are very real human concerns regarding slumber.  HR, on the other hand, looks at the clock with a frown.  This sort of work ethic is particularly bad in America where work is a kind of sacred obligation (unless you’re a minor, rich, or retired).  You owe that time, no matter how sleepy you are or sloppily you may work because of it.  In my case it’s the weather that’s been causing my drowsy days.  I guess I shouldn’t have given up caffeine a few years back.

Weather, although it’s treated as a “neutral” subject, affects everything.  There are deniers, but climate change is real.  It’s measured across centuries and millennia, however, and our point of view spans only the few decades of our own lifetimes.  We come again and again to the myth that this planet was created for us rather than the more factual realization that we grew organically out of it.  Our civilization is complex and grows more so all the time, requiring less and less time in nature.  Nature isn’t predisposed to be nice to us, or to any species.  It’s a matter of balance.  So it is with the weather.  This massive atmosphere above us seeks to balance itself out but we’re making it hotter than it should be.  Many suppose that God will sort it all out, if, indeed, forcing a crisis won’t compel divine intervention.  I just hope the “man upstairs” has been getting enough sleep.


The Future of Consciousness

Consciousness is unexplained.  We’re born and we become aware.  Raised by parents or guardians, we learn where we belong.  The decisions of one generation affect the futures of the next, often without conscious consideration.  I’ve been thinking about how, with our limited resources, we’ve pressed on, reproducing beyond what our environment can sustain and each of us is born conscious.  Some of us—many, in fact—in difficult circumstances.  Instead of working together to figure this out, we keep on, not quite sure of what we’re doing or where we’re going.  Heath Ledger’s Joker may’ve been speaking for all of humanity when he asked, “Do I look like a guy with a plan?”  Do any of us?

During a discussion the other day the topic of the severe western drought came up.  There have been general drought conditions in the western half of the country (the northwestern coast has been spared) for well over half-a-century.  I wonder why the cities in such regions continue to expand and then I realize that each generation is a kind of reboot.  We tend to think we belong where we’re born.  My thoughts turn toward the ancestors of the first nations and how they knew that moving was necessary for life.  When the ice sheets start descending you really don’t have many options.  Perhaps our sense of place is an evolved trait, brought on by the changed circumstances of invaders’ senses of ownership.  Capitalism certainly doesn’t help.  Those born in drought-ravaged areas soon come to think of it as normal.  We can adjust to just about anything.

Settled existence is necessary for a life that defines meaning by ownership.  For me, I have a difficult time imagining my life without my books.  What we read tends to define us.  What would I do if the ice sheets began descending again?  Such change takes time, of course, but our complex society doesn’t seem to be very good at advanced planning.  My consciousness tells me where I belong geographically, psychologically, and even religiously.  I was taught such things as a child and even if I unlearn lessons that were wrong, I will always still feel that they were right.  If I flee the coming ice sheet I simply have to accept that my reality has changed.  Until that ice sheet’s at my back door, however, I can continue to deny it’s a problem.  Consciousness is a funny thing.


Good Will

Social media can seem overwhelming.  There are so many sites and there’s so much to keep track of.  And that’s in addition to all these “super storms” we have dumping inordinate amounts of snow and rain on a house neglected by previous owners.  Given the circumstance, I joined Next Door.  I don’t have time to follow it, but each day I get notices of new posts.  On Christmas morning one from the previous day caught my eye.  A local mother could neither afford to decorate her tree nor buy her teenage sons presents.  She turned to Next Door and the comments and offers of help posted shortly thereafter revived my faith in the inherent goodness of people.  Holidays bring out the best in us, I believe.  We want others to be cared for.  It’s just too bad we have trouble enacting it in any political setting.

Next Door is about grassroots connections.  We are fairly new to our town.  Although it’s distinctly purple, the people are friendly to one another.  It saddens me that we’ve allowed the politics of hate to define us for four years.  Those unable to see through Trump’s self-serving tenure think it’s been business as usual as one man has torn the country apart to make himself feel good.  Out here among hoi polloi, people are reaching out to strangers, offering Christmas ornaments, gifts, and food.  I think that must be rain on my face.  Why else would my cheeks be damp?  Left to their own devices most people would behave well toward others.  Fear makes us act in destructive ways.  What if we all reached out helping hands when anyone was in need, and accepted handouts without shame when we needed them?

Christmas was rainy around here.  Just a week after receiving an early snow dump of over a foot, the rain gauge is overflowing.  Caring for our environment, it seems, would be the most obvious way of ensuring the greatest good for the greatest number.  I know that sounds utilitarian, but it certainly feels more moral than personal enrichment at the expense of others.  Too much water here while the west suffers drought and wildfires.  We know our actions contribute to the instability in our atmosphere.  No actual scientist denies it.  As these twelve days of Christmas play out, I see no sign of compassion from the swamp, yet there is a light shining through the gloom.  It’s a sign of human kindness.  And it is as close as next door.


Mother of Life

Homeostasis is, if I recall correctly, the state of equilibrium that entities and systems seek.  When we’re too warm we seek someplace cooler and when we’re hungry we look for something to eat.  It’s a great process of evening things out because we live in a world of extremes.  Well, relative extremes for a planet that suited to life.  Autumn came in with a chill this year, at least around here.  We had a couple of nights with frost before apple-picking season even began.  Over in Denver they went from a heat wave to inches of snow overnight.  I often wonder, if our species manages to survive long enough, what life will be like once everything evens out.  Until then, because of human climate degradation, we’ll be facing more extremes.  That’s the way the GOP likes it.

Meanwhile, there may be evidence that life exists on Venus.  Or at least in the atmosphere of the hottest planet in the solar system.  Up through my college years I toyed with the idea of being an astronomer.  I’d learned in high school (for we were a Sputnik-era school in rural Pennsylvania that had a working planetarium) that it was mostly about math.  I’m afraid I have no head for such things.  Still, I remain fascinated by other planets and their potential.  I’m in the market, you might say.  Venus had captured my young imagination not only because Ray Bradbury and C. S. Lewis wrote stories about living there, but because of the images from the Russian Venera (blush, giggle) probe program.  I knew in high school (planetarium, remember?) that Russia had landed probes on the rocky surface of Venus that had only functioned for a couple of hours at most before breaking down in the extreme conditions.  Extremes, again.

Venus could, it was thought, never have supported life.  The new evidence, however, stands to show us just how little we understand life.  It exists in the most inhospitable environments on our planet.  When life was found near black smokers on the ocean floor it was considered a fluke.  Maybe life is the norm instead of the rarity our exaggerated sense of self-importance suggests.  Venus, after the sun and moon, is the brightest natural object regularly visible in our skies.  Both the morning and evening star, it beckons to us.  Although not definitive, we’ve found evidence of life on both Venus and Mars.  And yet many of us prefer science deniers to lead our nation.  So I think of homeostasis as I look at Venus out my early morning window.


Slimy Veggies

This wasn’t the work of ghosts, but it sure looked like it.  I snapped on the kitchen lights at 3:00 a.m. to find one of the counters dripping with slime.  It looked like the basement of the New York Public Library.  As I grabbed a damp rag and a roll of paper towels, I thought about Ghostbusters and fresh produce.  The slime, you see, came from a burst freezer pack.  During the pandemic we’ve been using Misfits, a service that delivers fresh fruits and vegetables to your door.  Early on, back in March and April, it looked like various shortages, apart from toilet paper, were here to stay.   Every couple of weeks we’d get a Misfits box, so we’d at least have that.

Since fruits and vegetables are perishable, and since there is a time lag involved, they are packed with freezer bags.  These cold-pack bags are reusable and we began sticking them in our ice-box.  We have no free-standing freezer, so the unit atop our fridge was getting full.  The last week’s pack had begun to leak in transit, and, being too busy, I’d set it aside until I could figure out how to dispose of it in the most environmentally friendly way.  We don’t generate a huge amount of trash.  We compost our food scraps, and being vegan we don’t have smelly animal byproducts to toss.  And we recycle all that we can.  I guess just “throwing it out” has become a kind of last resort.  In the dark, the freezer bag made the decision for me and so I found myself mopping in the middle of the night.

It’s a small price to pay, really, to try to help save the environment.  The past four years have contributed unconscionably to global warming.  We tend not to care because those who’ll bear the brunt of it in the short-term are the poor.  Industrialists can afford vacation homes in the mountains.  Our lifestyles have an impact everywhere.  We need to learn to think differently about things.  Of course, that leaky freezer pack did cause quite a mess.  The gooey slime was everywhere, but it was everywhere with a conscience.  I have to wonder what happens to the world when leaders lack conscience.  Unfortunately I don’t have to wonder long since I have the headlines to read.  No, this wasn’t the work of ghosts, but unless we change our ways it could well be.  And when those treating you like enemies are your leaders, who you gonna call?


Weather Gods

It’s funny how old fascinations have the power to reemerge with the slightest provocation.  I guess writing a book will do that to you.  I just finished Peter J. Thuesen’s Tornado God: American Religion and Violent Weather.  There’s a certain kinship among those of us enamored of this relationship.  Thuesen finds himself in Indiana, and I was in Wisconsin during my research and writing of Weathering the Psalms.  I still haven’t reconciled myself with tornadoes, which were far too likely during my years in the Midwest.  As Thuesen explains, there’s just something about them.  Neither scientist nor theologian can fully explain them and the feeling of awe spans both disciplines.  The book covers a wide range that includes early Protestant settlers and their ideas of providence as well as modern understandings of atmospheric dynamics.  Still, the tornadoes…

Randomness also lies behind both tornadoes and science.  The eerie function of quantum mechanics makes it seem if there’s a kind of willfulness to even particle physics.  Too quick to join in are those among the evangelical camp that want to raise the flag of intelligent design.  Thuesen interrogates their theology as he asks questions about both theodicy and global warming.  Tornadoes are notorious for killing one person and leaving another right next door completely unscathed.  Literally tearing families apart.  Some of those we meet in these pages have turned to black-and-white religion for answers.  Others tend to see things more in shades of gray.  Does God send storms or merely allow them?  Are victims singled out or simply unfortunate to be in the wrong place at the right time?  America’s armchair theologians have their ready answers, but the weather remains unpredictable.

Readers will find interesting connections throughout.  The celestial orientation of religion is pretty obvious as well.  Even though modern believers don’t accept a heaven directly overhead, the orientation is still there.  Their maddening obtuseness when it comes to global warming is more than just a little naive.  Either that or they’re secretly gunning for armageddon.  Whichever it is, Thuesen treats all comers with respect.  Storms are awe-inspiring events.  I recall standing on the edge of a farm field in Illinois and staring up at a lightning display in clouds towering thousands of feet above me.  Looking out the south window one night as a cloud continuously lit by lightning made its slow way from west to east just south of where I stood.  It was a religious experience.  How could it not be?  If any of this resonates with you, this is a book you ought to read.


Ahab’s Garden

One of my motivations, I have to admit, for re-reading Moby Dick this year was my wife’s gift of Ahab’s Rolling Sea: A Natural History of Moby-Dick, by Richard J. King.  I wanted to read the latter, and I’d been toying with the idea of reading the former.  So I did both.  King’s book explores the oceanic world introduced by Herman Melville’s classic.  The various creatures and natural phenomena mentioned by Melville are examined in the light of what we now know today and a few key finding emerge.  We continue to know little about our oceans, even as we deplete them.  The book is about whales, but not only about whales.  Anyone who’s read Moby Dick knows the novel encompasses about a year at sea and describes the many sights experienced by a crew that sets out with few port calls and many long hours on the open ocean.

King does a fine job here.  It’s particularly refreshing that he doesn’t hide from what he calls Melville’s natural theology.  Many science writers fear to go to such places.  Clearly Melville looked at the world through such lenses, however.  The novel is one of the American philosophical masterpieces.  Not only philosophical, but also theological.  We can only guess what Melville’s true beliefs were, but he described the book to Nathaniel Hawthorne as wicked, and he knew that he was butting heads with orthodoxy throughout.  Natural theology was, of course, an early form of science.  Today scientists tend to be embarrassed by their heritage, but King shows that in the hands of a genius like Melville the results can be extraordinary.

This is also a disturbing book.  Any volume dealing with the natural world these days likely is.  The over-exploitation of the ocean, our use of it as a dumping ground, and global warming have combined to make the recovery of whales, as well as many other species, slow if not impossible.  While commercial hunting of whales has largely ceased, the leviathans haven’t made much of a comeback, and several species are well on their way toward extinction.  Sea birds are less common than they were when Melville was writing.  We’ve influenced our world in such a bad way that we’ve likely set the clock ticking on the extinction of our own species.  In a sense then, natural theology is facing its own apocalypse.  Ahab’s Rolling Sea is not a dour book—it is a celebration of the world as it was once known, even if that world was less than just two hundred years ago.


Future Warming

It’s a good thing global warming is a myth, but somebody forgot to tell the hyacinths and lilies in my backyard.  February in Pennsylvania is not when you expect to see spring flowers.  Now I’m fully aware that unseasonal warm snaps and cold spells aren’t an indication of the global climate; they’re far too localized.  One thing I’ve learned in my several decades of life is that heat takes time to transfer.  If you’ve ever had to wait for a pan of water to boil when you’re hungry, you know that to be true.  On cold morning’s my coffee’s ice coffee before I finish the mug, but it does take time for that transition to happen as the cup empties.  With something so inconceivably large as the atmosphere, it takes time.  As our hemispheres take turns pointing at the sun and warming up, the air tries to reach equilibrium and so the weather goes.

Scientists are now talking about, once we get the deniers out of the White House, what long-term remediation plans we have to make.  We’ve already set in motion extreme weather events.  We’ve had decades of warning, but those who control the money just can’t bear to let any of it go.  It’s a safer bet to wreck the planet.  You can just cash in your insurance money and buy a new one.  That’s the way it works, isn’t it?  So I’m standing outside in my shirtsleeves in February staring at April flowers who think winter’s over already.  I don’t know what to say to them.

You can’t drive a car without a license, nor can you practice law or medicine.  To be a world leader you don’t even have to be literate.  I often imagine what the future survivors will say.  They’ll likely be there, since people have a way of getting by.  They may wonder if we knew this was coming.  Of course, the internet won’t be up and running then, and who knows what’ll happen to electronic information when there’s no power left to keep the servers going.  In any case, my perhaps futile answer to their imagined question is yes.  We did see this coming.  Some of tried every legitimate tool in the box called “democracy” (you’ll need a dictionary for that one) to introduce sanity into the discussion, but bluster wins over hard thinking every time.  I cup my hands around the tender, if resilient leaves.  They’re only doing as nature directs.  If only our species could pay such attention to what the planet is saying.


Seaing 2020

It’s funny what sticks in your head.  As a ten-year-old 2020 seemed impossibly far in the future.  And it was very wet.  Not because of global warming, but because of a Saturday-morning cartoon called Sealab 2020.  Suffering from thalassophobia, the idea of living under the ocean was both intriguing and terrifying to me.  I recall that these underwater scientists had “aqua-gum” that they could chew so they’d be able to breathe and talk when not in the giant domes of the lab itself.  While checking out the series online, I was surprised to learn it only had 13 episodes and lasted but three months.  I’ve been thinking about it for over 40 years now, silently waiting to see if we would have such places as the deadline drew near.

This image is protected under copyright by the owner. It is reproduced here under the fair use doctrine, in low resolution. From Wikimedia Commons.

Instead in 2020 we have a record low of scientific projects being supported by a science-denying government.  Ironically the sea levels are rising because of global warming.  We haven’t done our homework and we’re pouting that things aren’t turning out the way we wanted them to.  Ours is no longer an evidence-based reality, but one where a tweet of “fake news” is all we need to make the truth a lie.  And as the water laps our ankles my thalassophobia starts to kick in.  The thing about Sealab is that they had kids there too.  Kid scientists.  Even more ironically, Richard Nixon was president.  His downfall was Watergate—coincidental?—and now we have a president caught red-handed (very Red-handed, even) in crimes while in office and Nixon’s beginning to look like a saint.  When did the water get up to my knees?

They wore wetsuits and swim fins quite a lot in the show.  Moving under water looked so natural—unlike my flailing when I attempted to swim.  It was all about not being able to breathe, in my case.  They showed us all kinds of strange animals under the water in Sealab 2020.  Animals that we could drive to extinction, it seems, if they got in the way of unbridled greed.  I have to admit that I’m a bit disappointed that Sealab misled me.  We were heading for an optimistic future back then, even with Nixon justifying the Vietnam War and spying on his political opponents.  People were still able to look forward four decades ago, in hopes of a better future.  For all these years I’ve been awaiting 2020 only to find the world back behind where it was in 1972.


Veg Out

It came to me vividly when I heard a speaker self-deferentially say he was crazy.  This was, I suspect, a way of defusing the fact that when vegans speak others often think they’re being judgmental or preachy.  I’m pretty sure this speaker wasn’t, and I try my best not to be.  It can be difficult when you’re passionate about something.  At the event, which included several people in age brackets more advanced than even mine, the question of “why” was predictably raised.  Apart from the rampant cruelty of industrial farming—some states even have laws preventing people from knowing what actually goes on in such places—there are other considerations.  One of them involves Greta Thunberg, Time magazine’s person of the year.

Global warming is no joke, no matter how much the Republican Church laughs it off.  Greta Thunberg has become the face of a generation with a conscience, but one fact few wish to know is that industrial farming is by far the largest environmental threat to our planet.  The amount of pollution it causes is staggering.  The rain forests are being cleared for grazing land because people will buy beef.  The largest methane emissions come from farms, not factories.  Our lifestyle of eating animals on an industrial scale is one of the many hidden costs to the modern way of living.  Or of dying.   There are doubters, to be sure.  It’s pretty clear, however, that the agriculture business is massive and it is just as powerful as the other great offender—the petroleum industry.

Making facts known isn’t being judgmental.  People’s eating choices are up to them.  I’ve only been a vegan for about two years now and I sometimes can’t comply with my own ethical standards when I go out to eat.  Or when other people give food.  Many places have no concept of dining without animal products.  I’m not trying to make everyone else accept my standards; I have beliefs about animals that are based both on personal experience and lots of reading about faunal consciousness.  I fully accept that many others don’t agree.  What I do hope, however, is that people like the speaker I recently heard will not have to jokingly call themselves crazy because they’re vegan.  The narrative must change.  We must be willing to look at the way we live on this planet, and accept the fact that just because major polluting industries hide behind large, brown cow eyes doesn’t mean we shouldn’t question what they feed us.  We need to look at our plates and count the cost.

 

Why not try Veg Out, Bethlehem’s new vegan restaurant, if you’re in the Valley?


Fly Away

Humans can be quite likable, but we have some nasty traits.  One is that we tend to think of ourselves as the only intelligent beings on the planet.  The funny thing about evolution is that it gave us both big brains and opposable thumbs—a winning combination to destroy the planet.  (Just look at Washington, DC and try to disagree.)  Jennifer Ackerman’s The Genius of Birds is poignant in this context.  Page after page of nearly unbelievable displays of intelligence among birds demonstrates that we are hardly alone on the smarts scale.  Birds make and use tools, have better memories than most of us do, and can solve problems that I even have trouble following.  We tend to take birds for granted because they seem to flit everywhere, but the book ends soberly by noting how global warming is driving many species to extinction.

Homo sapiens (I’ll leave out the questionable and redundant second sapiens) like to think we’ve got it all figured out.  We tend to forget that we too evolved for our environment—we adapt well, which has allowed us to change our environment and adapt to it (again, opposable thumbs).  Many scientists therefore conclude that we are the most intelligent beings in existence.  Ironically they make such assertions when it’s clear that other species can perceive things we can’t.  Ackerman’s chapter on migration states what we well know—migrating birds can sense the earth’s magnetic field, something beyond the ability of humans.  We lack the correct organ or bulb or lobe to pick up that signal.  And yet we think we can rule out other forms of intelligence when we don’t even know all the forms of possible sensory input.  We could learn a lot from looking at birds, including a little humility.

The Genius of Birds explores several different kinds of intelligence.  What becomes clear is that birds, like people, have minds.  Like human beings they come on a scale of intellectual ability that doesn’t suggest only one kind is necessary.  For our large brains we can’t seem to get it through our thick skulls that we need biodiversity.  We need other species to fill other niches and our own remarkable ability to thrive has only been because we are part of a tremendous, interconnected net encompassing all of life.  Other species have contributed to our evolution as we clearly do to theirs.  When we end up thinking that we alone are smart and our own prosperity alone matters we are sawing away at the branch on which we sit.  Further up the birds look at us and wonder if we really know what we’re doing.


Not from Nazareth

The world just doesn’t feel safe any more.  I’d better give a little context as to why.  You see, I just learned that what I thought was the work of carpenter ants is actually that of carpenter bees.  I never knew such things existed!  This still might not give you the thrills you were hoping for, so here goes a true story: when I was maybe six or seven my mother took my older and younger brother and me to a place in the woods where we could run around and holler and not bother anybody.  We had our dog there too, as well as our grandmother.  After a while my brothers started a game—throwing a stick to see who could get to it first, me or our dog.  I was running along, stepped on a stump, closely followed by the dog, when a swarm of angry yellowjackets flew out.  I was wearing shorts at the time and received multiple stings on my bare legs.  We didn’t think our dog would survive; he was completely covered.  So I have a thing about bees.

My phobia isn’t as bad as it used to be.  I’ve been stung many times since, and it always feels like an insult as well as a bad memory.  (I still don’t wear shorts, except on very rare occasions, when the bee quotient is zero.)  Believing in turning the other cheek, I’ve even captured and released bees from the house rather than killing them.  Still, to this day, when I get a haircut if the woman pulls out a set of clippers you have to pry my fingers from the naugahyde when she’s done.  Anything that sounds like buzzing near my ears sends me into spasms of terror.  Please pardon the graphic fear.  It’s heartfelt.

I used to have nightmares about killer bees.  I still worry about them a lot, and wonder that if, instead of a wall, we might put up a massive, small-weave net this side of Texas.  I don’t know how high they fly, but we should try to do something, don’t you agree?  Now I’ve learned that bees can eat you out of house and home, literally.  The carpenter bee, to the untrained eye, looks like a bumblebee.  They’re big, heavy-bodied insects that can crawl through three-eighth-inch holes, perfectly round the insect guy tells me.  They’ll eat and mate, and release their larva, ready to grow stingers, into the world of my back porch.  They appear to enjoy the global warming, judging by their numbers.  Maybe it’s a good thing we settled not far from Nazareth because a friendly carpenter might soon come in handy.