Anxious Days

 

Editor’s note: This post has been delayed one day on account of dismally slow internet service, most likely caused by the service provider’s defective equipment. Thanks, Ajit Pai, Chairman of the FCC, for continuing to safeguard the interests of monopolistic corporations while disregarding those of ordinary citizens!

Waiting through an outbreak of severe weather can be nerve wracking if you’re one of the millions of Americans living in substandard housing. Related to withstanding severe weather events, substandard housing means no basement or a weak foundation, poorly engineered roofing, shoddy workmanship overall, bad drainage around the structure, easily shattered windows, and any number of other problems large and small generally not present in the well built housing of the upper classes. Should something bad happen to a substandard structure due to severe weather, the people living there often do not have the resources to recover from it.


Severe weather affects everyone, rich and poor, but what is usually overlooked is how the poor disproportionately suffer the adverse effects of it both coming and going. To know that should a tornado, a hurricane, a derecho, a hailstorm, ice storm, or flood deal even a glancing blow to the place you live causes many anxious days, first in watching the weather forecast and then during the day or days of the event. There’s personal safety, of course, and the possibility of unaffordable emergency medical attention, and then the possibility of damage to the structure and the unaffordability of repairs, if it is repairable. The last thing any person living in a structure without a safe, reinforced room or basement wants to hear is the freight train roar of an approaching tornado, and to have children to protect must make even imagining such a scenario unbearable.

Winslow Homer - Hurricane, Bahamas
Hurricane, Bahamas, an 1898 painting by Winslow Homer (1836-1910).

All things are relative, and while comparatively few people in the United States have to exist in notoriously unsafe conditions like those in a Brazilian favela, there are still far too many in this rich country who live a hair’s breadth away from personal and financial disaster, a ruin which can befall them in a few unfortunate moments with the caprice of bad weather. As severe weather outbreaks become more frequent and as the population continues to increase, the possibilities for deaths, injuries, and property damage will also increase, all of which burden poor people more than others (yes, even death, because of the costs to survivors).

In the 1978 BBC television production of dramatist Dennis Potter’s Pennies from Heaven, Bob Hoskins as sheet music salesman Arthur Parker encounters a busker called The Accordion Man, played by Kenneth Colley, who in return for Arthur treating him to a meal treats Arthur to a rendition of the song “Pennies from Heaven” (lip synched to a 1937 recording by Arthur Tracy).

Insurance companies’ business model currently has them paying out after disaster strikes (contesting the payout all the way, and digging in their heels where they can), while offering little incentive for builders and developers to proof structures against disaster. Eventually, as expenses incurred by natural disasters mount to insupportable levels, insurance companies will have to come around to a more preventive strategy of offering lower premiums for stronger structures, something easier for them and builders and developers to cooperate on for wealthier homeowners. Where government can step in to protect poor people is to enforce insurance policy standards for their housing, rather than continuing to allow the corruption and slapdash oversight which currently riddles the market. Meantime, as always you’re on your own out there, particularly if you’re not rich, and you have to look out for yourself to stay safe. Good luck.
— Izzy

 

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The Blue of a Robin’s Egg

 

Finding a paint color or fabric swatch that matches the blue of a robin’s egg ought to be a straightforward process because the model exists in nature. There will be some variation in shade from one nest of robins’ eggs to another, of course, but certainly not enough to justify the wide variation in commercial products and in the arts, which go from a green with a blush of blue to a pale turquoise, and all going by the name “Robin’s Egg Blue”. How can that be, when the eggs themselves exist in nature every spring for everyone to see?

 

The answer has to be that perceptions of color, like perceptions of everything else, differ from person to person. It’s all well and good to attach a number to a color, as the design company Pantone and as the federal government have done, or a combination of letters and numbers as computer programmers and as the makers of display monitors have done, but to then assign a descriptive name to that color and have everyone agree the name is apt gets into murky territory, particularly when the name is drawn from nature. Many people have seen a robin’s egg in nature, after all, but of those people not all of them will agree that display monitor color #00CCCC is the same shade of blue they have seen.

American Robin Eggs in Nest
American robin eggs in nest. Photo by Laslovarga.

That display monitor color hex code is not even a uniform descriptor for Robin’s Egg Blue from one manufacturer to another or from one computer program to another. Pick an industry that relies on descriptions of color in its products, and few of them can agree on which objective color code matches a subjective color descriptor. Go in the opposite direction, from subjective to objective, and the situation is equally muddled. The best people can do is to trust their own eyes and not be overly swayed by the names on cans of paint or on fabric swatches. The only true judge of the right shade of blue is the mother robin herself, who knows her own eggs and couldn’t care a whit about any fancy designer shades of blue claiming to be made for her babies.
— Vita


In the 1948 film Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House, Myrna Loy as Muriel Blandings instructs one of her contractors, played by Emory Parnell, on the various paint colors she wants him to use in the different rooms of the house.

 

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Poor Man’s Fertilizer

 

Historically, the term “poor man’s fertilizer” has referred to snow cover which upon slowly melting releases nitrates into the soil, and particularly to spring and autumn snows which make that fertilizer available to plants either just starting top growth or sending food down to their roots in preparation for winter dormancy. Expanding the definition to include the rain from summer thunderstorms makes sense because the “poor man’s fertilizer” of nitrates formed in the atmosphere comes down then in torrents, releasing far more than the trickle from melting snow, but the nitrates for greening up farmers’ fields and homeowners’ gardens is every bit as free and as welcome.

People and animals would no doubt rather do without all the drama accompanying the rains from thunderstorms. An ordinary sort of rain shower, however, does not produce the amount of nitrates for fertilizing plants that a raging thunderstorm can make in its electrical transformation of nitrogen into nitrates. Plain nitrogen, even though it is listed as such on commercial products as a fertilizer, is not the actual chemical used. Plants cannot do anything with plain nitrogen, nice as that would be since it is the most abundant constituent in the atmosphere, making up 78 percent of the air around us. To make anything of all that nitrogen, plants need it transformed into nitrates, and while rain and snow gently falling provide some, the lightning from a thunderstorm creates nitrates in abundance.


Albert Bierstadt - Buffalo Trail, The Impending Storm
Buffalo Trail: The Impending Storm, an 1869 painting by Albert Bierstadt (1830-1902).

 

Because a thunderstorm can drench an area with over an inch of rain per hour, many of the nitrates it produces run off into streams and rivers before providing any benefit to plants on land. This fertilizer runoff becomes more of a problem when it is increased by contributions from people who either added fertilizer to the land themselves, or dumped it into the atmosphere as a byproduct of their manufacturing and energy production. Sulfuric and nitrous oxide emissions from industry and vehicles produce particulate pollution that hangs in the air until it comes down in solution as acid rain, which is also heavy with nitrates. It is the countryside downwind of industry and heavily populated areas that suffers the worst effects of this excess of nitrates. For farmers and gardeners downwind, thunderstorms produce too much of a good thing.

For all the damage thunderstorms can do, from wreaking havoc on home electronics to pelting livestock and crops with hail, they also provide benefits by fertilizing the soil and cleaning the air. Native Americans were well aware of the duality in thunderstorms, and tried to take the bad in stride with the good. Part of staying safe during a storm comes from maintaining a healthy respect for its destructive potential, and then part of enjoying life comes from stepping outside after the storm has passed and taking in the fresh smells and sights of rejuvenation.
— Izzy

 

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Love of Life

 

“To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.”
— William Blake (1757-1827), Auguries of Innocence

Biophilia – love of life – is a term popularized by the American biologist and naturalist Edward O. Wilson in his research and books of the last two decades of the twentieth century. Mr. Wilson was interested in how humans appear to require some connection with nature no matter how much the modern world tends to divorce them from that connection. City dwellers in particular may be live amidst steel and concrete structures to such an extent that they never step on grass in the course of an average day, but they still will find comfort at home in tending a few houseplants and a pet or two. Mr. Wilson proposed that the need to maintain a connection with nature was so pervasive in humans that it went beyond culture to genetics, and was therefore innate and undeniable. Humans may pretend to be above nature and separate from it, but their genetics and behavior said otherwise.


Central Park-from Rock Center2
Looking north at Central Park from the top of Rockefeller Center in midtown Manhattan. 2009 photo by Piotr Kruczek.

Scientific research since then has confirmed Mr. Wilson’s hypothesis, some of it confirming common sense notions such as how hospital patients with window views of trees and greenery appeared to recover faster than ones with a view of the building next door. The idea of biophilia itself appeals to common sense, but science needs to quantify things, and that’s for the best because there have after all been other notions in the past which seemed common sense, such as the Sun revolving around the Earth. Lately there has been a resurgence in belief that the Earth is flat, though it’s hard to tell just how seriously Flat Earthers expect to be taken by everyone else, or even by themselves.

Everyday proof of biophilia, however, seems so commonplace that it is hard to refute. Still, there are people who live for making their environment as sterile and devoid of nature as possible, and it seems there are more of them now than ever. Children especially seem to have withdrawn from nature both on their own and because of their parents’ protective instincts. Children now spend an inordinate amount of their time in front of screens, and much of the remainder of their time is structured education or play. They are seldom left on their own to scratch around in the dirt in their backyards and observe the ants at work, as Edward O. Wilson himself did for countless hours as a youngster and, indeed, as an adult, since his specialty as a biologist has been myrmecology, the study of ants.

Central Park west
A western part of the 843 acres of Central Park in New York City. Recent appraisals of the value of Central Park’s 1 and 1/4 square miles of prime real estate in the middle of Manhattan are well over $500 billion. May biophilia influence New Yorkers for generations to come so that they continue to prize Central Park for its connection to nature rather than its speculative value in dollars. Photo by Ad Meskens.

The steep drop in hands-on discovery of nature among the latest generation does not bode well for future conservation measures when those children grow up and start making their own decisions. Reading about a tree in a book can take a person only so far without the furtherance of education granted by resting under the shade of a tree on a hot day. Even the tactile act of reading a paper book, its pages made from trees, gives the senses a greater depth and breadth of perception than reading from an electronic screen. We are animals, with the senses of animals, and we engage the world through those senses every bit as much as we engage it with our brains, even when we are cut off from nature. But with a lack of input from our senses our decisions about the natural world are likely ill-informed, and much as we might try to help conserve animals, plants, and resources, we are not doing as much as we could because they are not part of our everyday world. How can you love the natural world which supports you if you cut yourself off from it and avoid embracing it with not only your intelligence, but with all your senses so that you can feel it as well as know it, and understand thereby you are a part of it and not separate from it?
— Izzy

 

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Three Score and Ten

 

“The days of our years are threescore years and ten; and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years, yet is their strength labour and sorrow; for it is soon cut off, and we fly away.”
― Psalm 90:10, from the King James Version of the Bible.

In any discussion of medical science’s ability to increase the human life span, people seldom question the desirability of a longer life. Certainly the doctors and scientists don’t seem to question it. The assumption always is that if people were offered the possibility of living past one hundred in reasonably good health, they would grab at it eagerly. Why?

Gillian Welch and David Rawlings perform “I’ll Fly Away” on Austin City Limits on PBS in 2011.

Increasing life span is a different ethical matter for medical science than improving health for the time we generally have been allotted. Experimenting on poor creatures who likely have no interest in prolonging the lives of their tormentors, scientists are on the brink of breakthroughs that will allow people to live the length of two ordinary life spans. What for?


Speaking of animals, will the new life lengthening wonder drugs be available for pets? More than likely they will be, at the right price, and there will be wealthy people who would like to see their pets live twenty, thirty, or forty years. But who will consult the pets to determine their wishes? Can human beings be absolutely certain they are the only creatures who understand life, and what it means to continue living, and making one’s peace with death, particularly when death might mean a rest from living and possibly a progression on to something else?

Pinus longaeva in snow Great Basin NP 2
A Great Basin bristlecone pine, Pinus longaeva, in snow in the Great Basin National Park, Nevada. These pine trees can live thousands of years. Photo by the National Park Service.

The quest for extending life at whatever cost seems similar to the obsession with staying young at whatever cost. Growing old means more aches and pains, certainly, but at the same time there is relief from some of the urges of youth that overpower reason. Sticking around an extra long time makes sense only if the quality of that longer life is not only bearable, but enjoyable, and if population growth is near zero. There might be fewer grandchildren, but more great grandchildren, and great great grandchildren, and so on. Still, eventually it could get difficult to shake the feeling of staying too long at the party, a guest who doesn’t comprehend the kindness of bowing out gracefully.
― Izzy

Chief Dan George as Old Lodge Skins, accompanied by Dustin Hoffman as Jack Crabb, attempts to bow out gracefully in this scene from Little Big Man.

 

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The Pigeon and the Chestnut

 

Scientists are attempting to bring the Passenger Pigeon, Ectopistes migratorius, back to life from preserved genetic material. The Passenger Pigeon once numbered up to 3 billion in North America, but by 1914 the last one had died at the Cincinnati Zoo. Scientists are also working on reviving the nearly extinct American Chestnut, Castanea dentata, which had once totaled over 3 billion trees in North America before a bark fungus accidentally imported from Asia with some Chinese Chestnuts, Castanea mollissima, destroyed almost all of the trees in the first half of the twentieth century.
Male Passenger Pigeon
Male Passenger Pigeon; digital painting by Tim Hough.
PSM V84 D563 American chestnut central maryland
American Chestnut tree in central Maryland in 1914; photo by United States Forest Service.
The loss or near loss of both these species greatly changed the ecosystem of eastern North America to the point that a visitor time traveling from the nineteenth century would be hard pressed to recognize it as the same place, never mind all the modern infrastructure of concrete, steel, and asphalt. Both species were casualties of the first stages of globalization. The Passenger Pigeons had co-existed with Native Americans for millennia, but it was the mass immigration of Europeans which eventually drove them to extinction through habitat loss and hunting on a massive scale. The American Chestnuts had no immunity to the fungus which arrived with the shipment of Chinese Chestnuts, which had developed some immunity due to having evolved with the fungus in their native habitat.

 

Now scientists are attempting to restore these two species once so numerous that they helped define the environment of eastern North America. Both restorations will require the expertise of geneticists, along with help from ornithologists and botanists, as appropriate. Ultimately the success of both projects will depend on the cooperation of the public by giving both species space and peace, two things that humans struggle to allow for the other beings sharing this planet. People were responsible for the demise of both the Passenger Pigeon and the American Chestnut, and with the ingenuity people are known for perhaps they can restore both species. Successful restoration will also require two things people have not often enough been known for, which are a generosity of spirit towards life and restraint of their violently destructive impulses.
― Vita

 

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Seeing is Believing

 

“God does not play dice with the universe.”* ― Albert Einstein (1879-1955)

 

There are patterns throughout nature, from the rhythm of waves striking the shore, to the sand dune crests farther up the beach, to the leaves and flowers on plants and trees inland. Many of those patterns arise because of physical constraints operating through a medium, for instance the waves rise and fall regularly due to tidal influences from the Moon above and gravity from the Earth below, while sand grains in the dunes react to wind and water, and leaves and flowers allocate space for themselves in tune with the Sun and their plant neighbors.

 

Beauty of Coconut
The beauty of Coconut (Cocos nucifera) with its radiating pattern of fronds; photo by Krajaras.

 

An Italian mathematician of the 13th century named Leonardo Fibonacci, more commonly known just as Fibonacci, described natural patterns mathematically and he has since become well known for the Fibonacci sequence of numbers that add to each other infinitely, and for the Golden Ratio of 1.618, denoted in equations by the Greek letter Phi, which when employed in the Fibonacci sequence eventually yields Fibonacci spirals on a large scale. Less well known is that Fibonacci advocated the change from Roman numerals to Hindu-Arabic numerals in his 1202 book Liber Abaci, a book on calculations.

 

The shell of the nautilus is often cited incorrectly as a Fibonacci spiral. It is actually a logarithmic spiral. For whatever reason, the idea of Fibonacci spirals has taken hold popularly on the internet, to the point that some people appear eager to impose Fibonacci spirals on nature where patterns either hardly exist, or where they could be more accurately described with some other mathematical model. Perhaps the appeal lies in being able to ascribe patterns to a model proposed by one man, and saying “Fibonacci” has a more poetic feel than “logarithmic”. At any rate, there are many more patterns evident in nature than can be put down to chance, and that after all is the definition of a pattern.
Cottonwood one
Looking up along the deeply fissured bark of Cottonwoods (Populus deltoides) into the sunlit canopy of leaves; photo by Atiwis.

Baraka is a 1992 non-narrative film directed by Ron Fricke, with music by Michael Stearns. Fricke has described his film as a “guided meditation”. Baraka means “blessing” in a multitude of languages.

We seem to prefer patterns over chance, and order over chaos, and therefore we sometimes struggle to impose a pattern where perhaps none exists. It comforts us. It can even be a matter of belief. Some of us, maybe most of us, find it unsettling to contemplate a natural world and a universe where things happen randomly with no rhyme or reason. How can you set a schedule for yourself and your family in such a universe when you are unsure what might happen from one moment to the next? How can you plan your life, if you are so inclined? Depending on your belief in the reliability and predictability of the patterns you see in nature, you may be able to conduct your daily life with some confidence everything will go mostly as planned. With that in mind as you go about your everyday affairs, you may take time to notice how the patterns in the natural world around you guide your beliefs, whether or not you believe there is, in turn, someone or other guiding those patterns.
― Izzy

 

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Where Have All the Bees Gone?

Imagine going to the grocery store as usual and discovering after ingesting some of the food you brought home that it made you ill, weakened the immune system of some of your family, and killed others. You had no way of knowing what was about to happen, and if you want to eat you have no choice but to return to the same grocery store next week, taking your chances. There is no alternative. This is the situation for bees and other pollinators, whose grocery store consists of the flowers they have visited for thousands or millions of years. Massive die-offs of bees and butterflies have been in the news for many years now, and recently the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service placed the yellow-faced bees of Hawaii on the Endangered Species List, the first bees to be included.

Bombus veteranus - Trifolium pratense - Keila
Sand bumblebee on red clover. Photo by Ivar Leidus.

Pollination Bee Dandelion
Pollination of dandelion by a bee. Photo by Guérin Nicolas.

Use of broad spectrum pesticides in agriculture is partly responsible for the decline in bee populations, but an often overlooked contributing factor is the part homeowners play when they distribute similar pesticides on their lawns and gardens. Unlike the use of pesticides in agriculture which is done in the name of food production, homeowner use of pesticides is solely in the interest of aesthetics. Individuals can change this behavior more readily than they can the practices of large agricultural concerns.

Change starts in our own yards, and it starts with a change in perspective about what is acceptable and beautiful. Instead of insisting on a monoculture of grass in the lawn, change the definition of the lawn to include some flowering plants. Look on dandelions and clover as beneficial for the bees, rather than as weedy pests to be exterminated at whatever cost in time, money, energy, and collateral damage. An important aspect of Integrated Pest Management is tolerance of a certain amount of pest damage, however “pest” is defined, and the realization that perfection is neither attainable nor even desirable. Nature is messy. The bees prefer it that way, and will thank you for your part in letting it be. The hard part will be in convincing your neighbors of it while fluff from your dandelions drifts into their yards.

– Izzy


Dandelion fluff
Dandelion fluff. Photo by Djordjer.

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