Sunday, September 14, 2008

Creationism in a New Key

Richard Keynes—the British physiologist and a direct descendant of Charles Darwin—has recently noted that it was actually mockingbirds rather than the finches that led to Darwin’s earliest intuitions about the mutability of species. Darwin's ornithological notes first point out that Spanish sailors can tell you the precise island that any tortoise comes from based entirely on the shape and size of its saddle-shaped carapace ("galápago" in Spanish). Darwin then adds, of his own recently collected specimens of mockingbird, that each "kin" (species, type) is found "exclusively" on only one island. If each of these islands has a different tortoise, and each a different mockingbird, then these different species must have gotten here somehow. Since they could not have all traveled here via water, some creatures must have been "created" here. They must have taken shape here. They must have evolved. In the next sentence, Darwin drops the scientific bombshell that will send shock waves shuddering through the next two centuries. The facts that Darwin has recorded, he says, a few simple observations about tortoises and mockingbirds, might—here he almost pauses in his own syntax—"undermine the stability of Species." God did not make every type of creature in a fixed and unalterable way in seven days, or seven eons. The laws of nature have generated creatures since the beginning of life on earth, and those laws continue to make new creatures today. Creation is happening right now.

All plants and animals on the Galápagos Islands are aboriginal, native and indigenous. Even today many are still found nowhere else on earth. All of these creatures, however, "show a marked relationship" (Darwin's diction) with their distant relatives on the mainland. Darwin could not say "their genetic relatives" because genetics would have to wait half a century for Gregor Mendel to start breeding and cross-breeding his peapods in clay pots. But Charles Darwin soon understood, as his grandfather Erasmus’s poetic description of evolution had implied, that all the giant tortoises on Albemarle Island (later called Isabella) had a kinship with their much smaller relatives back in Guayaquil on the South American mainland. These might all be aboriginal creatures, but they were all also linked to similar species on each of these islands and, even more remarkably, to their mainland relatives. Darwin called the Galápagos archipelago "a little world within itself." The idea behind his metaphor suggests that our entire planet might also be small enough to be covered with creatures that are all, in complex ways, related. He was right, of course, and the truth about that set of relationships is precisely the truth that his "Origin of Species" would confirm in 1859, more than two decades after the Beagle voyage ended.

The Galápagos Islands on which Darwin landed in 1835 were not the desirable destination of today’s eco-tourists. Herman Melville, writing two decades after Darwin’s visit, called them "heaps of cinder" in an isolated expanse of ocean, more desolate than any spot on the planet. Darwin himself called them beautiful, but he was referring only to the symmetry of their volcanic craters, a geologist’s paradise. A page later he says that no landscape could be less inviting than one’s first sight of the Galápagos island then called Chatam, now called San Cristobal. We can draw directly on Darwin’s own diction to give the full effect of this first sight. The lava looks like waves, he says, broken by great cracks and fissures, the whole scene covered with sunburned and stunted scrub-wood. There are almost no signs of life. The surface is parched and dry. The atmosphere is sultry and close. You feel as though you are standing next to a burning stove. The bushes literally stink. Even this greatest of all specimen collectors found it hard to collect here. On that famous first day ashore he had collected only a few wretched little weeds that seemed as though they should have come from an arctic landscape, not from the sunny equator. The shrubs looked as leafless as in winter, but in fact their tiny leaves were fully out, and even their flowers were in bloom. He had to get magnifier-close before he could see this indistinct detail of natural history. The tiny flowerets and leaves were almost invisible, a good lesson for any nature watcher. Only after a season of heavy rain were these islands even partially green. The same is true today. Not a very likely tourist destination, perhaps, but then it is Darwin’s own writing that has changed all of that a century and a half later. Luxury ecotouristic yacht trip, anyone?    (A.N.)

Friday, August 29, 2008

The Crucified Cardinal

A juvenile red-tail hawk, in the wood lot behind our house, roosts regularly in one tall honey-locust tree. On a cool morning recently, he has slaughtered a large male cardinal, leaving him splayed in a crucified pose on the path that cuts back toward the corner of the nearby field. The cardinal's wings are angled into the level-straight clean horizontal. His head is gone, his once rounded midsection now flat and wide open--all of its organs gone--leaving a blood red mass in the middle of the body cavity that matches the color of his feather almost perfectly. One small curl of grey intestine hangs down over his reptilian legs, trailing out onto the hot, dry ground. His tail is fanned out perfectly, as though it has been arranged in this feathery fashion by some unseen and homicidal hand. 

The next morning the crucified cardinal is gone. He has disappeared. No remnant of his raptor feast remains, nothing at all on the dusty dirt path save one tiny fluff of blood-red cardinal feather-down. On that same midday the juvenile red-tail is still perched above his cozy killing field. Later that afternoon he is joined by a second hawk. The two hunters stand mere inches apart, their heads twirling from side to side silently, their eyes surveying the wide fields beyond the trees, out off toward the northern mountain ridge and the sunset western distance.  
--A. N.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Hypertext and Nostalgia

Recent critiques of ecocriticism have worried about the element of nostalgia in all ecocritical thinking. That may or may not be a problem. Here is an etymology for the root of "nostalgia":

Indo-European root: nes-1
DEFINITION: To return safely home. 1. harness, from Old French harneis, harness, possibly from a Germanic source akin to Old English, Old High German (in composition), and Old Norse nest, food for a journey, from Germanic *nes-tam. 2. Suffixed o-grade form *nos-to-. nostalgia, from Greek nostos, a return home. (Pokorny nes- 766.) [American Heritage]

Food for a journey that leads us home; I’ve got no problem. If oikos from eco-logy is a form of “home,” then eco [home]-criticism is a critique of home, nostalgia by definition. But critiques of home can lead us forward as well as back. Oikos widens out from house to household, family, and finally to home. We all came from one home: the family into which we were born or by which we were raised, but also the nonhuman world in which we found ourselves as we came to consciousness (an apartment building, a farmhouse, a townhouse, a skyscraper, the edge of the Sahara desert, an Alpine village, the African rain forest).

But we are all headed to a new home as well: our life as adults, the family we make, the places we choose to live, the environments in which we work, or play, and through which we travel of necessity: the Upper West Side, Patagonia, Cleveland, the Grand Canyon. Each of the neutral locations can also become part of a meaningful home. So let thoughts of home continue as always already part of our rigorous critique of the homes–human and otherwise–out of which we came and to which we will return . . . or maybe not? Using your construction of the problem, I would argue that we do not work outside of nostalgia; rather, we work our way out of nostalgia into a world that of necessity houses us: roosting, perching, rousting, resting.

More significant over the long term--and to a wider world--may be the fact that hypertext and hyperspace are themselves tools for nostalgia. Hypertext is based on the principle that units of information, bits and bites or sentences and webpages, are always saved, kept even when they are "deleted," and often archived or preserved in various stages of development or revision. So twenty versions of my homepage may exist in various locations on the web, because my page was created over chronological time, was saved with different extensions and URLs, was housed on different hard drives and servers, was copied or printed by various users for various reasons. Even my emails have potentially been copied or saved at every junction server through which they have passed.

The nostalgia of hyperspace is a bit more complex, in part because hyperspace is not yet a clearly understood or fully theorized concept, but also because hyperspace is a nonmaterial entity--it is space; it does not exist anywhere that can be fully circumscribed (except perhaps the planet earth)--and yet it is also a material entity, since it exists in the atoms of computer chips, silicon surfaces, and motherboards, and if all the computers in the world suddenly ceased to exist, hyperspace would also cease to exist. So it is space rendered real by the material objects that bring it into being, but it also exists only as energy, as the tiny quanta, or charges, that travel through wires--but also through wireless space.

The nostalgia implicit here should now be clearly evident. We long to return to places we have been before in hyperspace, and we long for the texts that we have seen, or created, or revised. We bookmark pages and sites. Indeed, the bookmark may be the undeniable proof of the nostalgia-laden web. We also print out our favorites and create our own home out of our homepage, the homepages of others, and the places we have been in the universe of hyperspace (the "hyperverse") to which we long to return. Desire is the central principle and all true nostalgia: desire for an earlier time, desire for another place than the one in which we find ourselves. No realities in twenty-first century life are more laden with desire than the World Wide Web and the Internet. Whether and when these new spaces and places will become elements of our own homes remains to be seen.

Ecomorphism and Ecoromanticism

     Ecomorphism is the antithesis of anthropomorphism. Instead of seeing myself at the center of my world, I can now see my human activity—and yours—in terms of our connectedness to nonhuman life. For centuries the poets have said, “that mourning dove is singing a song as sad as I am sad” or “that cloud looks as happy the way I am happy as it skitters across the sky.” Now we need to reconsider both the tenor and the vehicle of such anthropomorphic metaphors. The vehicle is the subject—humans—from which the characteristic (sadness or happiness) is taken. The tenor is the natural subject (bird or cloud) to which the human characteristic is given. Poets and other imaginative creators should now consider reversing this metaphoric order in the interest of ecocentrism. No longer should we just imagine ants as resembling humans. We now need to point out that humans often act like ants, or birds, or even clouds. A bird does not build a house the way I build a house, but I can roost just the way a bird roosts: ecomorphism.
     This difference between anthropomorphism and ecomorphism is subtle but significant. Science has revealed to us that ant-colonies are like human communities, but equally important is the idea that human colonies are like ant colonies. Both are adaptive responses to specific social conditions. Likewise, butterflies do not use mimicry and thereby make themselves disguised the way humans use disguises. Humans use forms mimicry, derived from mimicry in butterflies and other “lower” creatures, to accomplish similar goals. Humans gather and store food the way squirrels do, not vice versa. Humans seek mates like the rest of sexually-selecting nature does. We are more like them than they are like us.
     If it ever made sense to describe the nonhuman world as human, it no longer makes sense to talk about the “melancholy mourning dove” or the “anxious anteater”. It now makes much more practical and poetic sense to describe ourselves in relation to the rest of nature than it does to humanize the nonhuman. If we want to keep thinking of ourselves as special—as superior to ants, and wasps, and birds—that is fine, but we should also recognize that we derive directly from, and are thus always linked to, the rest of wild nature. They came first. We arose out of them in the first place. We were not self-generated. Our humanity is deeply intertwined with and invested in all of the creatures that predate us on the evolutionary scale. Our own special status—when it exists—derives directly from our self-interest, nothing more, nothing less, but so does a chimpanzee’s special status.
     Ecomorphism sees human activity as dependent upon—and interdependent with—all ecological interactions on earth. At the same time, human activity plays an increasingly important role in all ecological systems. Human fires pump countless tons of airborne waste products into an ecosystem that has always produced its own “destructive” elements: volcanoes, tsunamis, earthquakes. Now, however, the three-pound blob of our human brain is always the self-conscious definer of the problem. Destruction only makes sense from a human point of view. No dinosaur worried about rapid climate change on the planet. No trilobite was troubled by alterations in ocean temperature. Even from our human perspective, the flood that brings death and destruction to the Nile or the Mississippi deltas also brings moisture, and nutrients, and life.   
-- A.N. 
[ . . . for more of this post, please see]

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Thoreau and the "Natural"

     Thoreau, remember, walked into Concord every few days for dinner with his mother or conversation with Emerson. The town is only a mile-and-a-half from the pond. Indeed, Thoreau was arrested and spent one night in jail during his natural time at Walden. This is why "wildness" more than "wilderness" was the key sought by our greatest "nature" writer. His goal was psychological as much as it was ecological. Seen in this light, the activity of the human mind always has powerful consequences for our treatment of the nonhuman world. 
     "I have a great deal of company in my house; especially in the morning when nobody calls," Thoreau says in the chapter appropriately called "Solitude." My own house this morning was a perfect example. A fly buzzed almost noiselessly in the window pane. I could only hear him when I put my ear next to the half-closed wooden shutter. Two sparrows hopped from spot to spot on the lawn. Their apparently aimless activity revealed its directed focus when they both stopped simultaneously and began pecking at a pile of seeds that was invisible to me from my seat on the porch. Then a groundhog waddled out from his hiding place in the trees. He made his way slowly to the long grass of the meadow and then turned and ran  suddenly, back into the trees. What startled him remained unknown to me. Perhaps it was the sound of my own  breathing or my scent? Who knew?
     "You only need to sit long enough in some attractive spot in the woods that all its inhabitants may exhibit themselves to you by turns," Thoreau added in his chapter called "Brute Neighbors." I took his advice yesterday and sat stock still at the edge of the woods for almost an hour. Dappled light shifted and fluttered against tree bark and lichen-covered rocks. A late summer moth flapped and then landed, folding its wings into perfect triangles of dusky brown and grey, holding them horizontally like a patterned carpet of pale color that suddenly flashed bright yellow at its base.  A chipmunk appeared from a distant pile of leaves, coming straight toward me until he realized my startling human presence. Then he ran, full tilt, almost bouncing off of sticks, logs, and rocks until he finally looked back over what passed for his chipmunk shoulder and disappeared down a hole at the base of a towering locust tree.
     Thoreau's life in nature, like mine, was entirely a function of the actions and reactions of his mind. What he chose to describe had more to do with his own thinking than with any given state of affairs in the external world. The humanatural, like the urbanatural, is one of those categories of our own creation in which we live and move, and have our being.    --A.N. 

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Beyon Walden, Beyond Google

The goal of the next generation of web activity will clearly be two-fold: content and editorial. Much of what makes its way onto Web 2.0 will be equivalent to most telephone conversations: practical, occasional, and ultimately unsaveable. The goal of the first generation of web use was the birth of a library-of-all-libraries that was also a landfill of sorts, an achive of all knowledge deemed to be useful by someone but also a repository for all sorts of dumptruck loads full of digitized waste that piled up for no purpose, except that someone deemed each bit and bite worth saving. There certainly will continue to be diamonds amid this ever expanding rough, but there will also be ever more "private" sites that are useful only to a coterie of two or three. The public face of the 2010 web, however, will be determined by a series of self-appointed or publically-appointed editors, guardians of urls and domain names whose function will be the sorting, selection, and revision of existing digital materials to produce sites that have social utility and web-spaces that have personal or public functions. We can then imagine a cluster of websites and web-work: my personal web (private, archival, personal, password protected), my family web (correspondence, photos, intimate, partially passworded), my collegial web (inside jokes, shared assumptions, clubby, collaborative), my professional web (evaluative, fully public, reputational, promotional), and the World Wide Web (journalistic, editorial, passive, receptional). From a solitary Google-site at Walden Pond to a collaborative Google-search of the Boston Public Library, we are now moving from one Web to many webs, from a 'Net like a fishnet--primarily designed to capture--to Webs like spider webs, not just our feeding ground but also our home.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Technology Thoreau Might Like

Day Two of the Willoughby Fellowship and already I have some strong opinions. My fear is that the time spent getting up to speed on technology will be time taken away--for students and for me--from the time we will need to read and write and think and learn about the academic topics under discussion. So here I sit spending hours learning about Blackboard and Tweeting and control panels and optimal settings when I should be thinking about HDT in the Maine Woods, or Emerson reflecting on the rights of nonwhite humans, or the nineteenth-century sources of our twenty-first century ideas about our environment, ecology, and the fate of a planet that existed long before we were here and will exist long after we are gone. The anthropocentrism of our species is the key to most of our problems. Replacing anthropocentrism with ecocentrism will be the goal of this blog, of the course that emerges from this blog, and of the texts and discussions that will be the lasting result of our efforts. Thoreau said, "In wildness is the preservation of the world." Not wilderness, WILDNESS, and that difference makes all the difference. Wildly yours---A.N.