Trans-species Pidgins

Why ask anthropology to look beyond the human? And why look to animals to do so? Looking at animals, who look back at us, and who look with us, and who are also, ultimately, part of us, even though their lives extend well beyond us, can tell us something. It can tell us about how that which lies “beyond” the human also sustains us and makes us the beings we are and those we might become.  – Eduardo Kohn, How Forests Think: Toward an Anthropology Beyond the Human

One of the most frustrating things about Western civilization is its relentless anthropocentrism and human exceptionalism.  Most of us modern, Western, scientific humans think that we are the only truly conscious beings, the only beings that can think, feel, and communicate.  Itʻs a form of blindness or self-mutilation, in my opinion, as if we deliberately bound our feet or shut down one of our senses in order to belong to Team Civilization. Certainly such blindness makes ruthless exploitation of the natural world a lot easier on the conscience – if you consider all of it to be mindless matter then why not bring on the bulldozers?  Continue reading “Trans-species Pidgins”

Let’s put this in perspective

Despite our traits of pride and often enormous hubris sometimes the creator let’s the humans get away with most of our foolishness intact. This last hurricane – LANE – is a case in point. With all of our modern tools we tracked it all the way from the Baja, night and day with the infrared channels of the latest satellite technologies, with photographs from the International Space Station showing the giant 500 mile span of the storm, with brave men flying into the eye to measure the windspeed, and with the ominous hour by hour progress reports on all of the emergency channels, the TV, radio, and celphone alerts. It was the equivalent of a Central Pacific Region wide All Points Bulletin. We could track and measure it but in no way were we collectively able to change the course of events. Not even a little bit. And then we go about our business on the next day, knowing that some were buried in the deluge, some were burned out by the wind driven fires ahead of the rain, and to some it was just another rainy day in paradise.


The simple overwhelming fact is the Category 5 storm did not hit any of the islands at full strength. In the end, after travelling 2,500 miles, the storm dropped to Cat 3 and missed our small island by 150 miles. If it had passed closer or farther it would have been much more deadly; closer and the west coast of Hawaii island would have been raked by 130 mph winds, farther and the outer circulation would have had an open run with 75-80 mph winds without hitting the bulk of our sheltering Mauna Loa. We should be down on our knees kissing the ground and thanking our lucky stars. It let us live.

Down here at Ka Lae it was just another day at the beach, another day in paradise. No amount of engaged civic planning, no committee meetings deciding our fate, no proclamations from our leaders had the least effect. The simple fact was the the creator let us get away with it. The gods of the winds spared us.

22h BATS + HOT CHOC

We were at a campsite in Brittany this summer, in a green valley thick with oak woods.  On our second night there was an announcement on the chalkboard outside the reception hut:

22h BATS + HOT CHOC

BRING TORCH AND MUG

Who could resist?

10pm that night we turned up at the hut, and followed a trail of waggling torch beams around to the river side of the the old mill building. The group of 15 or so people, parents and kids, gathered to listen to the campsite owner,  himself a dad with young kids.

The mill was a hundred and fifty years old, and disused for half a century. A big, broken, rusty old mill wheel, like something off a paddle steamer, leaned against the rough stone wall. We could make out the black rectangles of window openings along the upper story, where the bats live. 500 of them. The second largest colony of their species in France. By this hour most of them had come out to feed, and by torchlight we could pick out two or three zipping back and forth across the surface of the dark water.

Our host directed a handheld monitor towards them and it crackled like a Geiger counter, translating inaudible squeaks into something we could process. We learned that while human hearing goes up to about 30kHz and dogs to 60kHz, these little critters operate at 120kHz.

They fly blind but see by echolocation, snapping up a midge every couple of seconds. In two or three hours of the night they’ll consume twice their own weight in midge. I guess that means coming home weighing three times what you did when you kissed the family goodbye and flew off to work.

If you’ve ever been in the Scottish highlands or similar latitudes on a summer evening and tried to swat a midge, you’ll know it can’t be done. They’re fast, and practically too tiny to see. To them, we must be as big as the Eiffel Tower, and almost as immobile. But the bats have got midges figured.

Clever little things! There are over a thousand species of bat in this world, filling niches across the land.  Much reduced in total number these days as their habitats have been occupied or eliminated, but this wooded valley, with its appealing old mill building and unpolluted, midge-rich river, is a still a niche that needs them.

Another canny feature of their lives that our host told us about: in autumn the bats congregate at a wooded spot downstream to meet and mingle with other colonies. They mate, but the females don’t fertilize until spring, once they’re sure it’s going to be a good season for foraging. They raise a single baby bat every one or two years.

The hot chocolate was ladled from a big shiny vat, and was as good as any I’ve ever tasted.

Wahinenohomauna

This beautiful and rare little fern that lives in the forest above the ranch has an equally beautiful name:  wahinenohomauna, which means woman (wahine) seated on or living on (noho) the mountain (mauna).   She is no bigger than the palm of your hand and  sits among the even smaller ferns and mosses that make up a kind of green fur on  the trunk of a giant tree fern. In Hawaiian culture the high forest is wao akua or the realm of the gods.  Here is one little god living in beauty – ferns upon ferns upon ferns.

A spatter of rain

It cooled for a while this evening, then an unsatisfying spatter of rain, no more than a few specks here and there, then back to how it was.

The satellite photos above, from NASA, show England and Wales at the start of May, and a few days ago.

It’s been hot and dry for that entire period. The driest early summer since records began, but hot with it too. Hot in a way that’s not right. 

There are certain protocols to the weather in these islands, and we grow up with those protocols in our bones. We indulge the rain and leaden skies because we know they won’t last. We’re always unprepared for snow, but the snow won’t last either, so why bother organizing defences. And we’re always surprised by sunny days, the better to seize on them with  bonhomie and glee.

Heatwaves are not unknown – there is a place in the protocols for such treats.  A heatwave may last a long weekend, or longer, up to two or three weeks in one of those legendary summers we all recall and still speak of. But not like this one. This one had outstayed its welcome by late May.

Where’s the fun in gabbing about the weather – our famous national pastime – when its presiding spirit is no longer playing along?

We had a disproportionately heavy and bitterly cold dump of Siberian snow across the land one weird weekend in March, which ironically stripped the supermarkets of chilled meat and fish and dairy products for up to three weeks. (A surprising sign of how unresilient our food supply chain is.) And now this.

So, these days, my heart sinks a little every morning when I draw the curtains and see today’s sky will be the same as yesterday’s, and the day before’s. For a while I was pleading, wishing in my mind for rain. I miss it. The playing fields and roadside verges converted to baked earth and straw appear to me like something from an alien land. But rain will come eventually, the land will green again. No-one is going to die for lack of a mouthful of clean water on this island, not this year. Maybe there’ll be lasting damage to agriculture. I don’t know. What I’m really wishing for is for this climate change thing not to be happening. But the weather is telling me it’s not a bad dream. This is really happening.

In public, there’s an unspoken accord not to connect the “heatwave” with climate change. Even though this is exactly what the long-term forecasts have been saying would happen, for years now. Intensifying extremes. The arctic overheats, the jet stream gets disrupted and slowed, and air masses stagnate in place. Once-in-a-hundred-year weather events become once-in-twenty-year then once-in-five-year events. And like when steroid-pumped Roger McGwire and Barry Bonds were smashing the home-run records – what was going on was clear from the mounting tally of homers, even though no individual big hit could be pinned on the drugs.

So, that’s how it is here, this summer, on this patch of the northern hemisphere. How’s it where you are?

 

Against Complacency: the fierce voice of Patrick Noble

We don’t need more renewable energy to power how we live, but to change how we live so we don’t need that power.  –  Patrick Noble, https://convivialeconomy.com

There are some writers on the internet that get thousands of clicks and hundreds of comments every week.  Generally these writers work hard to build their online community of readers.   Their art is that of building a common language.

There are others who don’t have the knack or interest in building their readership.   I suspect they are the kind of artist that is fascinated by something on the horizon, something that is not readily visible, and even less readily conveyable.  Their art is that of illumination and discovery. Continue reading “Against Complacency: the fierce voice of Patrick Noble”

Biophilia: The Love of Life and the Living World

“Splendor awaits in minute proportions.”
― Edward O. Wilson, Biophilia

Here is Burlingame, CA,  which is the home of SFO and its attendant fleet of airport hotels, trucking companies, passenger shuttles, warehouses, security headquarters, and cargo forwarders.  Pairs of aircraft  roar over the water in five minute intervals as they approach the airport.  Cars roar by on the freeway that feeds into fabled San Francisco. Their reflections flash in the sleek black glass buildings that line the highway.

There is also, in Burlingame, an un-authorized footpath at the edge of the water – a wild space to wander  if one would escape the hotel grounds with their carefully arranged plantings.  The path follows the waterline above broken slags of concrete – remnants of a more manicured edging of the shore? – and between scraggly and indomitable tufts of wild fennel.   A man in a street sweeping vehicle is letting his pit-bull pup out to play at the edge of a parking lot and a field of orange California poppies and dry grasses.   Further on there is an abandoned development planted in rosemary and irises, concrete esplanades crumbling into the pale green water and an elaborate wrought-iron gateway to the empty space, a space in the process of being reclaimed by grasses and small trees.  Across the street is a construction site where machines are digging into the chalky soil for the foundation of another office building or hotel. 

Along the footpath there are  bunches of lavender wild-flowers.  Small wonders of the world, these throw-away riches of California!

 

 

 

Mo’olelo (stories) about the volcano

Pele, they say in the legends, was a traveler from the ancestral homelands of Kahiki who came to this island with her clan of brothers and sisters and settled in the area named Keauhou.  There was a war between the early settlers and Pele and her clan took refuge in a great cave.  The volcano erupted and the cave collapsed, sealing  the clan inside.  This is how she became identified with the volcano Kilauea.

In the old days those who came as visitors to the hostile, numinous lands of Pele had themselves tattoo-ed using a blue dye made from a kind of iris that grows only near the volcano.  Others brought the umbilical cords of their children, or of themselves, to place at the doorstep of the volcano.

Piko is the word for the belly button where the umbilical cord was attached.  It is also the word for a spiritual place of origin and power – a center of the universe. That earth is fire, that we are connected from birth to the molten core of our earth, and live always under peril but centered in the knowledge of that connection – this is what might be expressed in the tradition of presenting the umbilical cord to Pele.

It is treacherous to cross over the volcano these days, when Pele is awake and the road cracks and buckles.  It is not treacherous in the way it was for Chief Keoua’s army, that perished in a sudden rain of volcanic debris and molten glass two centuries ago, leaving their footprints behind in the hardened ash deposits. 

How many times have I passed over the volcano? As a child, bumping along on the narrow old road through the lava fields in the back seat of the family car, dreamily seeing fairy realms in the forested slopes above; as a teen venturing through with my cousins, telling ourselves ghost stories as the darkness closed around the beams of the headlights; as a young mother hurrying home through the lava desert with my baby, singing to keep her quiet.

The more likely danger even now is falling asleep at the wheel on the curving road over the volcano and running into the unforgiving basalt fields on either side. That is how people lose their lives now.  It is a long drive in the dark; do they begin to dream of ghostly shapes – of a white dog, of an old woman, of a young woman with fiery eyes?  These are the forms that Pele is said to take when she appears to travelers.

Big questions

Dad, what’s the purpose of life?

It was asked with the same kind of uncomplicated curiosity as when he says to me: what’s the fastest anyone’s ever been on a skateboard? or (this morning on the way to school, out of the blue): Dad, can a town square be a circle?

He and his tribe of nine-year-olds devote their days to exuberance, with breaks for food and drink, preferably sugared. In their waking hours they seem to have a ten-to-one ratio between good times and  bad. The bad times are felt intensely, but pass like an ocean squall.

So I responded in the spirit of the enquirer: the purpose of life is to have fun…and (thinking for a moment) to be good to others. That last bit spoken from the pulpit of the responsible parent. Blind hedonism’s no good if it hurts others, or yourself. And anyway goodness is its own reward.

But it did get me thinking, this question, and I realised how hard it is to answer without resort to values that are themselves in question. After all, how much of what I’ve been conditioned to accept, and to believe is right, can I trust? How much of it should be viewed as suspect, to the degree that it enables our kind’s shameful hegemony over the natural world? Any “purpose” to life that furthers that hegemony, surely isn’t worthy of the claim.

The starting point has to be that all of it is suspect until proved otherwise.

Being good citizens, accumulating wealth, supporting charity, pursuing happiness, acquiring wisdom, keeping our families safe, providing them with food and shelter, procreating (the purpose of life is to, er, create more life), solving world problems, extending the boundaries of knowledge, loving and being loved, giving ourselves to God and country,  striving for Heaven or the next life (the purpose of life is to not be alive?), saving lives, taking lives…. all suspect. All compromised by association with the course we’re on.

How then to pick out values we can trust not to drive us further down the trail of self-destruction?

Well, we could do worse than start by looking at the nine-year-olds, a friendly tribe not yet wholly inducted into the ways of civilization.

The gift for joy they retain from when they were even younger.  Their endless curiosity. Their ready appreciation of what is and isn’t fair. Their love of kindness in others and desire to be kind in return. Their ability to conjure a game from thin air, the more barmy and hilarious the better. Their willingness to do almost anything in return for an ice cream. And the way they still infuse much of the world around them, animate or inanimate, with a spirit and life-force that is as buoyant and bright as their own.

A few days after that question about the purpose of life I realised that I’d missed the opportunity to ask him back, so I did.

He looked out the window of the train for a few seconds and pondered, then said: maybe there isn’t a purpose – life is just something that happens.