Smorgasblog

Favorite posts from other blogs.

At KCET.org, Chris Clarke goes for a winter walk in the Mojave desert.

I spend so much time staring into a computer screen. It’s an odd problem to have. I earn my living writing about the natural world, trying to convey the things about it that make it different from the conceptual one we increasingly inhabit online. Few things online hold the surprising complexity of an oak leaf, a beetle’s wing. Online, we create the world in our own image, and we filter out the nuance in our image when we do it.

That’s not unique to the online world, of course. Simplifying things is what we do when we tell stories. First we discard the irrelevant details. Then we leave out details that make the narrative too complicated. Then, fatally, we get rid of any of the details that muddle the moral we’re trying to convey.

What is the online world but a global storytelling session? And I contribute to it. I sit at my desk, trying not to be distracted by the natural tumult outside the window, and I omit one beautiful detail after another.

What a pallid, thin soup of boiled-down life this writing becomes.

What should I omit in telling you about the walk I took as the engine in my new old truck cooled, rattling? The stone in the shoe? The awkward conversation with the bicyclists at the trailhead? The way I shivered after water slopped out of the Nalgene onto my shirtfront?

Let’s try this: Once upon a time a man walked out into the desert alone. No one knew where he was. He had some water and some food. He had a map, which he did not consult. He had the Joshua trees and the junipers for company. It felt sufficient.

He had more company than the trees, but he wouldn’t find that out just yet.

It’s a beautiful essay. Go read the rest.

At the Lantern Review blog, poet Henry W. Leung has posted a glowing and insightful review of Luisa’s latest book, The Saints of Streets.

“Hokusai believed in the slow / perfectibility of forms” (3), begins Luisa A. Igloria’s newest book of poems, The Saints of Streets. She has been writing a poem a day since 2010, a project archived online and from which this collection was born. Given how prolific she is, I could not help but find in these opening lines a reassurance that the poems collected here are not merely practice but are a practice. For perfectibility, the poem goes on to say, is “the way, // after seventy-five years or more, the eye / might finally begin to understand / the quality of a singular filament—” Indeed, this is a book of single filaments, and in these poems are so much delight and wisdom, often beginning in the mundane but nearly always spiraling inward to the sacred.

Read the rest (and consider ordering the book).

I guess I’m behind the times, but I didn’t realize until this morning that the long-time nature blogger known as Bug Girl — who I even follow on Twitter, though obviously not closely enough — has come out from behind the pseudonymn (she’s Dr. Gwen Pearson), started a pretty cool-sounding consulting business aimed at helping nature centers and researchers get online, and best of all, has a blog at Wired called “Charismatic Minifauna.” The latest post is especially link-worthy:

The ability of a dragonfly nymph to successfully snatch and grab food is directly related to its anus. The mouth-grabber (labium) is hydraulically activated. The dragonfly draws water in through the anus, clenches, then compresses its abdominal and thoracic muscles against the water-filled rectal chamber. This raises the internal body cavity pressure, and pushes the labium out –in a strike that takes 10 to 30 milliseconds.

The amount of internal pressure generated is about 6000 Pa, or 6 kPa; equivalent to 0.87 psi (pounds per square inch). That doesn’t seem like a lot, until you consider that big nymphs only weigh 100mg (0.0002 lbs), so generating almost a pound of pressure WITH THEIR BUTT is pretty impressive. A Camaro turbocharger produces 7 psi, so you could say this little insect has 1/7th of a Camaro in its ass.

The other amazing function of a dragonfly nymph rectum is jet-propulsion. By un-clenching their rectum, water in the rectal chamber can be jetted out at high pressure, pushing the nymph forward through the water. The forward thrust generated is 1.5 g in 0.1 second; nymphs’ top speed is 10cm/second. They can throttle their rectum back to produce varying amounts of thrust through the water.

And there’s more. (Click through also for the link-references within the passage I quoted.)

We posted an extra essay on my mom’s website this month. Since she originally wrote it for the June issue of the Pennsylvania Game News, it’s filled with summertime stories. Her subject: the about-face in scientific thinking about how non-human animals think and feel.

For almost half my life, treating wild creatures as thinking beings was scorned as anthropomorphizing them. Most scientists considered them to be little more than thoughtless robots. They neglected the study of animal minds because they didn’t believe that they could tell the difference between automatic, unthinking responses on the part of animals from possible behavior that showed an ability to make choices in what they do.

In school, students learned that it was unscientific to ask what an animal thinks or feels. If they were so bold as to ask, they were “actively discouraged, ridiculed, and treated with open hostility” as Donald R. Griffin wrote in his ground-breaking book Animal Thinking back in 1984. A renowned bat biologist, his previous book, in 1981, The Question of Animal Awareness, had been the subject of widespread derision. Still, he was able to give many examples of seemingly thoughtful wild creatures who, when they were confronted with new problems, acted creatively to solve them.

The writings of Griffin and other scientists, interested in what Griffin called cognitive ethology, have encouraged some scientists to study learning in vertebrate and invertebrate animals. They have been bolstered by the work of neurobiologists, who study the brains of animals and have made some amazing discoveries, most notably the fact that an animal that has loops between its thalamus and its forebrain is a conscious thinker. Birds and mammals, including humans, have these loops. So too do reptiles, although their loops are minimal.

Read the rest.

As an aside, I reprocessed an old porcupine photo for the article. It’s taken me many years to learn the simple truth that being slightly out-of-focus isn’t always a bad thing for a photo:

porcupine-close-up

Not to mention the importance of proper light levels, color balance, etc. Here’s what I did with the same photo back in 2007:

porcupine

A new post at Idle Words is always an event. Maciej Cegłowski is the king of humorous, long-form travel blogging; my only complaint is that he rarely posts more than two or three times a year. But when he does, it’s worth the wait. This time, he’s exploring the Atherton Tableland region of Queensland, on the trail of one of Australia’s oddest, yet still quite common, species: the platypus.

The platypus inhabits Tasmania, most of the east coast of Australia, and the nightmares of the little worms and crustaceans that are its primary food. One of the many things distinguishing it from other mammals is a soft electrosensory bill, which can sense delectable muscle contractions in prey animals as they try to escape. To a platypus, fear is an appetizer. The creature’s brain integrates these minute electrical currents with its equally acute sense of touch, giving it a vivid and unimaginably alien mental picture of the stream bottom. It dives with its eyes closed.

To try to spot a platypus, I’ve ventured into the Atherton Tableland, an upland plateau stretching from Innisfail to Port Douglas in the northern part of the animal’s range. While the Northern Queensland coast is unabashedly tropical, with lush rain forest that runs directly onto postcard beaches, the Atherton Tableland looks more like Iowa, albeit an Iowa with a thriving banana industry. If the air conditioning is working, there’s little to remind you how close you are to the Equator. The tableland is a sleepy and bucolic region of farms and old mining towns, one of which, Yungaburra, boasts a platypus viewing area.

On the map, Yungaburra looks like it should be easy drive from Townsville. This is a joke my map loves to play. Like the American West coast, the area is so thinly settled that you are constantly embarking on thirteen-hour drives to places you thought you’d visit for lunch. I’m dismayed but not particularly surprised to find myself still in the car at nightfall, climbing a series of switchbacks to the relatively high elevation of the tableland. Once on top, I pass through a series of one-horse towns that are boarded up for the night even though it’s only eight o’clock. Between the towns, the darkness is Stygian.

Read the rest.

Nancy Marie Brown’s blog God of Wednesday is essential reading for any fan of Old Norse literature and all things Icelandic. Her most recent post is all about turf houses:

Whenever I see an Icelandic turf house, especially from the back, I think of the opening of Tolkien’s The Hobbit:

“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.”

When I first went to Iceland, I wondered why it seemed so familiar. Then I learned that Tolkien had read William Morris’s journal of his travels to Iceland in 1873 and used them as the basis for much of the hobbit Bilbo Baggins’s quest.

Morris’s view of an Icelandic turf house, though, was that of a guest. “We are soon all housed in a little room about twelve feet by eight,” he writes, “two beds in an alcove on one side of the room and three chests on the other, and a little table under the window: the walls are panelled and the floor boarded; the window looks through four little panes of glass, and a turf wall five feet thick (by measurement) on to a wild enough landscape of the black valley, with the green slopes we have come down, and beyond the snow-striped black cliffs and white dome of Geitland’s Jokul.”

Quaint and pretty, it seems–with a little imagination, it could be a hobbit hole.

But what was it really like to live in a turf house?

Read the rest.

Is there anything that hasn’t already been said about the man whom mainstream media organizations now routinely refer to as “Toronto’s crack-smoking mayor”? Of course there is! On his excellent serif of nottingblog, the surrealist Canadian poet Gary Barwin recently posted “Dear Mayor.” It begins:

I imagine skinning you
and you romp around the city
guts only

we won’t save taxes
think of the costs
protecting your insides

dear Mayor we stretch your skin
a blanket around us
keeps us warm for winter

The Pennsylvania poet and teacher Ann E. Michael writes a consistently interesting blog, full of nature and philosophy. In her latest post, she reacts to Robert Archambeau’s collection of essays The Poet Resigns, pondering whether she too should resign from writing poetry to focus more of her creative energy on teaching and tutoring, which seems to have a more positive effect on people’s lives. Quoting from her conclusion:

So perhaps my creative energy is better served in the direction of others through tutoring than through poetry; perhaps the former leans more toward the Good. Perhaps I am a better tutor than poet; this is indeed likely, although I have been poet-ing longer than I have been teaching. Then again, not to knock the art of teaching, but writing poetry is much more difficult than the teaching I do. And I get paid to enlighten people through my tutoring.

Not so through poetry. Indeed, Mr. Archambeau—you have gotten me seriously to think about tendering my resignation as a poet, though not without considerably more reflection on the possibility. Writing about the idea has helped me to understand where the Good fits into all of this, and what the middle way might be.

Read the rest. As for me, I am as opposed to Socratic/Platonic ideas of the Good as one can get, having self-administered a heavy dose of Zhuangzi in my youth. In fact, I’m not sure if I’d like poetry nearly as much if it weren’t so ignored and considered so useless. When I see the sorts of things that the vast majority of people value, what they consider useful and worth sacrificing their own lives and the health of the planet for, I can only shake my head. I think it’s fair to say that we live in a state of mutual incomprehension.

I just finished an essay called “Dark Ecology” in Orion Magazine. This guy Paul Kingsnorth thinks pretty much the way I think. And the essay is particularly worth mentioning since I’ve just been blogging about the Neolithic, which, as Kingsnorth reminds us, was something of a wrong turn:

Hunter-gatherers living during the Paleolithic period, between 30,000 and 9,000 BCE, were on average taller—and thus, by implication, healthier—than any people since, including people living in late twentieth-century America. Their median life span was higher than at any period for the next six thousand years, and their health, as estimated by measuring the pelvic inlet depth of their skeletons, appears to have been better, again, than at any period since—including the present day. This collapse in individual well-being was likely due to the fact that settled agricultural life is physically harder and more disease-ridden than the life of a shifting hunter-gatherer community.

So much for progress. But why in this case, [Spencer] Wells asks, would any community move from hunting and gathering to agriculture? The answer seems to be: not because they wanted to, but because they had to. They had spelled the end of their hunting and gathering lifestyle by getting too good at it. They had killed off most of their prey and expanded their numbers beyond the point at which they could all survive. They had fallen into a progress trap.

Do read the rest. I especially agree with his five suggestions for how one might cope, what one might do. He sets it up this way:

If you don’t like any of this, but you know you can’t stop it, where does it leave you? The answer is that it leaves you with an obligation to be honest about where you are in history’s great cycle, and what you have the power to do and what you don’t. If you think you can magic us out of the progress trap with new ideas or new technologies, you are wasting your time. If you think that the usual “campaigning” behavior is going to work today where it didn’t work yesterday, you will be wasting your time. If you think the machine can be reformed, tamed, or defanged, you will be wasting your time. If you draw up a great big plan for a better world based on science and rational argument, you will be wasting your time. If you try to live in the past, you will be wasting your time. If you romanticize hunting and gathering or send bombs to computer store owners, you will be wasting your time.

And so I ask myself: what, at this moment in history, would not be a waste of my time?

From The Independent, a good article on the “The rise of Twitter poetry” in the U.S. and U.K., though as so often with online articles from newspapers, it is strangely lacking in links to any of the people it mentions, making it less useful than it could’ve been. And I question their decision to illustrate it with a photo of Benjamin Zephaniah, who follows all of four people despite being followed by more than 10,000, instead of George Szirtes, Alison Brackenbury or Ian Duhig, who are much better and more generous netizens. Anyway, here’s a quote:

Ian Duhig – twice-winner of the National Poetry Competition – wrote a tweet poem about the Bramhope Tunnel disaster: “They wove the black worm/ a shroud of white stone/ and thought it was nothing/ But the worm turned.” Would he ever publish his Twitter poems? “I’d have no problem using Twitter poems in a book and may well do in the next one,” says Duhig, whose Twitter poem “Yew”, is more romantic: “Each root of church yew/ reaches a skull:/ mistletoe/ for kissing above.”

The director of the Poetry Society, Judith Palmer, says: “There’s a renewed interest in the form of British poetry at the moment and the constraints of the 140-character limit play to that, in the same way as the 14 lines of the sonnet or the 17 syllables of the haiku. Twitter poems tend to be playful and are often collaborative, but they’re also good for ‘Imagist’-style observation, or philosophical musing. They can reach a wide audience in moments but they’re also ephemeral, evaporating pretty as the Twitter-feeds roll relentlessly on.”

Read the rest.