Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Stuff our brain makes up

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, psychology, neuroscience, hallucination

To hallucinate is to be human…and, perhaps, to be any creature with a mind. As we read in Hallucinations by Oliver Sacks, a great many stresses and neurological disorders can lead to sensing (any of the "5 senses" may be involved) things that aren't there, but for many of us, so can a great many rather prosaic matters. For example, many people are like me: almost any time I can close my eyes and I will either see things—including persons—or hear voices that aren't there. Particularly when I am sleepy, these phantasms can be quite detailed: I'll either see entire scenes being enacted or hear entire conversations (though I can seldom understand the words), or music, and sometimes sight and sound go together. Also when I am sleepy or tired, I don't necessarily have to close my eyes to hallucinate. It is likely that these kinds of things happen at times for most of us. (I was once asked why I rarely listen to music. I replied that I have a sound track running almost all the time.)

Hallucinations could be considered both a travelogue and a catalog of hallucinatory perceptions. Dr. Sacks has migraine auras; he has experimented with sundry drugs; he has suffered griefs and stresses that led to several hallucinatory episodes. While many disease syndromes, from high fevers to Parkinsonism, lead to hallucinations, I was particularly interested in the more "normal" cases. It seems that the brain's pattern matching and recognition systems easily go into overdrive, as many of us experience when we look at clouds and see all kinds of fantasies. Static images get "over-recognized" rather easily. I have a painting of a seascape, with waves and rocks; one of the rocks one day looked just like a jaguar's head to me, and I can't see it any other way now. But we also experience things for which there is no apparent external trigger. Perhaps it is the lack of a trigger that triggers them, such as closing one's eyes.

By the way, the author mentions tinnitus, or "ringing in the ears" as a kind of hallucination caused by damage to the inner ear, and the brain hallucinates the sounds it is not receiving from the organ. This may be so in some cases, but certainly not all. I have low-level tinnitus, which gets louder if a pull my head back a certain distance. An audiologist used a tiny microphone in my ear to listen in, and said that pulling my head back changed the shape of the middle ear, which amplified the sound. The cause is the damaged hair cells vibrating in response to random noise (Brownian motion), not being damped as is normally the case. The inner ear may be a super-regenerative amplifier, which I'll discuss in a moment.

It may be that the only time most of us are free of hallucinations is when we are in a most ordinary state, not bored, not over-engaged, just "doing something" that fits well within our comfort zone, mentally and emotionally. I like the concept of the comfort zone, particularly in this context. Its boundary may be quite firm for some of us, and rather more nuanced for others. In my case, I think of the boundary as a wide zone of gradually increasing stress, and throughout most of this range any shift can release a mild hallucination of some sort. Thus the tendency to hallucinate in this "normal" way follows a sort of spectrum.

I think of a mechanical/electronic example. A kind of radio receiver, used in older CB radios, is "super-regenerative". It has three circuits in its detector portion. One is an extra-sensitive amplifier that will oscillate and almost blow itself out when any signal of the right frequency appears, including noise. It has extremely high positive feedback, but the key is that it "pops" faster the stronger the input signal. The second is a squelch circuit that allows the amplifier to "go crazy" for about 1/20,000th of a second, then very briefly cuts its power. The amount of squelch can be set by the operator. The third measures the maximum level achieved during each tiny time slice, and turns that series of measurements into an audio signal. So you can think of a hallucinating brain as a super-regenerative receiver with the squelch set too low.

A characteristic of most hallucinations is that you know it. A hallucination taken as real is a delusion. One question raised a few times in the book is whether the human tendency to religious faith is based entirely on hallucinations. Of course, to a total rationalist, all religion is delusional. But total rationalists are quite rare. According to Julian Jaynes (see The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind), half our brain informed the other half of its sensings and learnings via hallucinations that were thought to embody the voices or appearances of deities. Further evolution caused these two functions to become better integrated. Some say the tendency to generate divine apparitions and voices are a remainder of the bicameral mind, leading to every form of religious experience. I personally think that is an over-interpretation, and that there really is a God, but I'll forego theology in this review.

Hallucinations of all kinds are a class of experience that stands alongside dreams and imagination. They resemble dreams but can be much more detailed. Some dreams can be directed; this is called lucid dreaming. Hallucinations can't be directed, and usually play out as though the hallucinator is a spectator in someone else's theater. Imagination is nearly always directed but typically lacks the apparent veracity of a hallucination. We imagine something and may even speak of "seeing it in the mind's eye", but it doesn't appear to project into the world outside the way a hallucination does. Hallucination is also related to synesthesia, and perhaps this is its closest cousin. A synesthete might see colors attached to musical notes or printed numbers or letters; or to be able to taste the sound of certain words or songs.

But hallucination is more than mixed perception. It is perception without a perceived object, a result that is quite different from the stimulus that might produce it. For example, in a healthy person, grief can trigger the sight and/or sound of the lost loved one. This kind of hallucination is most directly related to a perceived object, or the memory of one. But the "sleepy-time" hallucinations I have aren't based on any proximal object, nor memory, except, I suppose, my general fund of memories about prior events. Thus, they might be waking dreams, though they differ from dreams during sleep, which are usually accompanied by a feeling of purpose. Hallucinations are typically purposeless.

I had a great time reading an earlier book by Oliver Sacks (reviewed in May). Hallucinations was a bit harder to read through. The writing is often more analytical, written at a higher level, and perhaps a bit more detailed at times than I had tolerance for. However, I don't want to commit the error of the king who told Mozart, "There are too many notes." Mozart rightly replied (so it is reported), "Majesty, which notes should have been left out?" This book can be read with profit by anyone, and will provide particular comfort to those who may be seeing or hearing "things", and fear they are crazy. No, you aren't crazy if you know your hallucination from what is really "out there". Or, if you are crazy, then so are we all.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Walk on the wild side - on Main Street

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, wildlife, cities

Do children still sing "Skip to my Lou"? One verse repeats, "Pigs in the parlor/What'll I do?". Other verses mention flies in the buttermilk, a cat in the cream jar, and a couple of birds. If you want to get creative, verses could be added about coyotes or deer in the back yard, cottontails in the corncrib, and if you were in Cape Town, baboons in the kitchen.

Most people in the cities tend to think of the city as a pretty sterile place, inhabited only by humans and their pets, maybe with pigeons and sparrows around, and a few pests such as flies thrown in. Tristan Donovan is here to tell us there is more to cities than we might imagine, in Feral Cities: Adventures with Animals in the Urban Jungle.

Much of the book contains stories about animals, not just in suburban areas and city fringes, but right in the middle of our cities around the world: Boars in Berlin, Coyotes in Chicago, the resident Cougar in Griffith Park in Los Angeles, a flock of Parrots in Brooklyn, Baboons breaking into homes in Cape Town, and the finding by researchers in Raleigh that every home is host to at least 100 species of insects and spiders.

Why should there be animals in our cities? By making cities comfortable for humans, we have made them comfortable for a multitude of opportunistic animals. In the U.S., northern cities are warmer, sometimes as much as 10°F and even more. Further south, many spaces are air conditioned, so an overheated jaybird in Tucson might make its way into the local WalMart to cool off. Cities in dry places are wetter, and homes in wet places are drier, than their surroundings. Snakes have been found with half their bodies hanging into a hot tub on a cool night, occasionally diverting a human romantic encounter from its intended course. And there is food everywhere, everywhere! Raccoons raiding garbage cans. Crows and gulls picking at road kill. Rats in the storm sewers, eating our refuse and being hunted by snakes and coyotes and wildcats. To a bobcat a rat's intended purpose is turning our crap into his lunch.

Biologists have compared animals in cities with their rural counterparts, and have found that many species are more abundant, better fed and live longer in a city than in the countryside. Why wouldn't there be animals in our cities?

I really like the turn taken in the last couple of chapters. We ought to be making our cities more friendly to species we like. For most people, a little time spent watching rabbits or otters is calming. My wife was quite delighted one day to report seeing a deer "pronking" down our street outside our hedge. A few endangered species are actually doing better in cities than in their "native" habitat. The Peregrine Falcons nesting on window ledges in skyscrapers come to mind (Bookmark the DuPont FalconCam and take a look beginning next March; just now I see only feathers in the nest).

Many doctrinaire environmentalists might shudder at the thought of making our cities into better habitat for beneficial or endangered animals. To them, cities are Evil and part of the probem; there's no way they can be part of the solution. But face it, cities are here to stay. They presently encumber only 2% of the land area, but that is growing, and their impact is greater than you might think. A certain parrot species is found in greater numbers in certain southwestern U.S. cities than in its entire home range in Mexico. They go where the living is better!

And suppose we were to succeed in creating cities in which nothing could live except humans and a short list of "approved" human pets. Then what? Should inner city kids—and their parents—be deprived of the sight of a blue jay, cardinal or indigo bunting? Should they be doomed never to see a living rabbit or raccoon? Should the endangered parrots of the U.S. southwest be "repatriated" to a "native" habitat that is getting too degraded to support them?

I don't like flies in my home, so I welcome the spiders that live here. There are at least 10 species that I've found. Only when a spider gets too big and is found crawling on the bed do I evict her. Our yard hosts rabbits and squirrels, so I do have to put small-mesh fencing around the garden, and we hope for the occasional visit by a fox to keep their numbers in check (she comes through every couple of years). We see deer droppings under the apple tree in the fall. As long as I don't corner a deer and get clipped by those front hooves, I'm happy to have one bed down there occasionally. We're planting a greater variety of flowers to draw butterflies, but avoiding the "butterfly bush" which is too concentrated and becomes a praying mantis colony beneath which one finds piles of butterfly wings! When I find a robin nest in the hedge, that section goes an extra month without being clipped until the chicks fledge. We let wasps nest in the louvers of the attic vents, but not in areas where children might play. Wasps are great predators of the insects I don't want to encounter. We encourage dragonflies, which keep the mosquito population down. A local hawk "tends to" the various little mammals such as mice and voles.

I appreciate the biologists who agree with Mr. Donovan, and are working to make our cities better for human-animal coexistence. Of course we don't want rats everywhere, but the best exterminators are Maine Coon cats, not poison baits that kill so many other animals as a byproduct, and make rat bodies poisonous to house cats and wild cats. With proper education we can even learn to live with coyotes in our midst...and we aren't going to see those exterminated anytime soon, anyway! Nearby New Jersey residents need to learn to think like bears so they don't attract them where they don't want them, but do attract them where they do want them. We need to face it, humans are part of nature. Let's open up to seeing "who else" shares our cities.

A very education and refreshing book.

Friday, June 19, 2015

The Grand-daddy of ancient master myths

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, investigations, Atlantis

Ah, the Good Old Days. Like many "golden agers" I tend to dote on the past. I rather obsessively gather old family photos, the older the better, and scan them or re-photograph whole album and scrapbook pages. But I'm not totally in thrall to allure of a past seen through rose-colored spectacles. There are some periods, including a near-decade, that I'd rather not have gone through, thank you very much. I still think of one period as "the lost years."

I think myself more level-headed than most folks, and I know I am less deluded about supposed glories of past times than a great many. For some, supposed historical greatness has become a religion. In the Watchman Index of Cults and Religions, more than 1,400 groups are described, usually very briefly. Among these, in particular, 393 (more than a quarter) are "New Age", relying on an eclectic mix of ancient "Eastern Wisdom" beliefs and whatever is new about alternative healing whether of body or mind. There are also a couple dozen that focus more specifically on "Ancient Master" beliefs. Those that don't trace these Masters to Tibet, mostly trace them to Atlantis.

Freelance investigator Mark Adams caught the Atlantis bug several years ago, and did his best to track down the most credible (! of a mostly incredible group) leading figures among fans of Atlantis. Right away we can set aside flying saucers, stories of aircars and Star Trek-level technology existing on an enormous, mysterious island some 10,000 years ago. He has done an excellent job of gathering the evidence most likely to be level-headed, and written of his journey/pilgrimage in Meet Me in Atlantis: My Obsessive Quest to Find the Sunken City.

The book has 29 chapters and a Preface, and focuses first on finding the "best" witnesses, then on visiting a handful of candidate locations that might have either been Atlantis, or given rise to the story Plato wrote 2,400 years ago. As Plato wrote, using another's voice, his ancestor Solon visited Egypt about 600 BCE and was told of an ancient and powerful city/continent that was destroyed in a day by a great cataclysm, 9,000 years earlier. The most important facts we can glean are:

  • Atlantis was "beyond the Pillars of Hercules", probably referring to the Strait of Gibraltar, and thus most likely in the Atlantic Ocean rather than the Mediterranean Sea, though some argue strongly that the Pillars were further east.
  • Atlantis warred with ancient Athens and other Mediterranean city-states until its destruction 9,600 years ago. Nobody has shown that Athens was anything close to a city at that time.
  • The catastrophe was both an earthquake and great flood, followed by the land mostly sinking under the sea. This is often interpreted as an earthquake and tsumani, but others think of a comet or asteroid impact somewhat less devastating than the one that eliminated the dinosaurs.

The most reasoned voice in the whole matter is that of Tony O'Connell, of atlantipedia.ie (in Ireland). Adams mentions several others, most of whom he visited and interviewed. There are several candidate sites for a genuinely sunken city or civilization, without resorting to an Australia-sized continent a few hundred miles west of Spain. Cadiz, Spain is one of two located on the Spanish coast, places that clearly suffered a tsunami or something similar, that washed lots of land into the sea, which is one way to interpret "sunken". Another is in Morocco, though it lies a bit too far uphill. The most likely to me is Thera/Santorini, some 85 miles (140 km) north of Crete, which exploded in about 1600BCE. What is left is less than half the original island, a crescent surrounding a drowned crater with a little volcanic cone near its center, now called Santorini.

It is helpful at this point to consider the "other ring of fire", the Mediterranean area. First focus attention on the Triple Junction at Afar, where the Red Sea, the East African Rift, and the Gulf of Aden intersect. This is a tectonic spreading center. The colors on the map indicate spreading in RED, transform faulting in GREEN, and convergence in BLUE. The MAUVE color represents ambiguity in the direction of motion. The little numbers show plate movement, in mm/yr, relative to Africa, which has probably been relatively motionless and is used as a reference. The image is from this article by Catherine Ross. The greatest relative motion is the convergence that is shrinking the Mediterranean Sea by 3.7 cm/year, or about a meter each 27 years (That Sea is some 2.4 m narrower than when I was born, around 8 feet). This is quite similar to the convergence off/under Japan that led to the Fukushima earthquake and tsunami.

The Mediterranean Sea is thus a hotbed of tectonic activity, making earthquakes and floods frequent enough to have spawned numerous disaster legends, without the help of comets. Some may recall the great earthquake in Anchorage, Alaska in 1964. There, a large chunk of land was pushed up about 20 feet (over 6 m) and another section sank an equal amount. You can have an earthquake of similar size along the blue trace above, about every three centuries. That is lots of time for multiple disasters to enter the collective consciousness and be conflated into a story that Plato could recount, with little or no embellishment, as a cautionary tale to attach to his Republic. There have been several comparable disasters since the time of Plato, including Thera.

Did Plato believe the Atlantis tale was true? It is hard to psychologize a great thinker face-to-face, much less so at a 2,400-year remove. Whether he believed it or not, he must have hoped his audience would believe enough of it to amend their ways. Instead, things may have improved in a technological way, but have, if anything, gotten worse in the realm of politics and political wisdom. Those who now take the Atlantis story seriously tend to go much too far, over-interpreting Plato's morality tale into an over-hyped depiction of a golden age even better, perhaps, than Eden.

I suppose I could also have titled this post "Nostalgia on Steroids".

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Does Nature care that we want to save it?

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, nature, biodiversity, invasive species

I lived on Lake Erie through most of the 1960's. During my high school years I worked at Cedar Point in the summertime. When we moved to Ohio I recall being told that the "sewage treatment system" for Cleveland was a series of pipes five miles long that took raw sewage out into Lake Erie. We took a boat tour on the Cuyahoga River to see all the bridges and buildings and how cargo vessels had to negotiate turn after turn to get to the docks. It seems they were continually spilling bilge and oil as they did so. The oil and sludge on top of the river was about four inches thick. We learned after we moved away that the river caught fire in 1969.

Lake Erie was effectively dead in those years. Oh, there were a few kinds of fish that could tolerate the pollution, mostly carp and other kinds that weren't worth catching to eat. We were warned not to swim when there was a north wind: sewage would blow ashore. The water was gray, and if you put your hand more than half a foot down you couldn't see it. One of my teachers liked to SCUBA dive in a "deeper" part of the western lake: the western quarter of Lake Erie is usually only six feet deep (less than 2m), but in a few areas it gets 20-30 feet deep, yet there are "reefs", or shallow spots that come near the surface, but they aren't visible in the murky water. In class one day he told us of being "down there" and hearing a loud crunch. He ascended and found that a yacht had run aground on a reef. He helped the old fellow get loose. The next day's newspaper had a little notice that the president of the Rocky River Yacht Club had been helped by a local teacher after "his yacht struck a submerged object." He laughed and told us, "That submerged object was the bottom of the lake!"

Fast forward twenty years. In 1988 a few specimens of a little freshwater clam from Russia called a Zebra Mussel were found in Lake Erie. Soon they were everywhere, covering the bottom, clogging drains and other equipment, and basically wreaking havoc. The little ZM's were also accused of driving the native species of lake shellfish and algae and some finfish nearly to extinction. Actually, looking back, it is clear that those declining natives were on the way out and would have succumbed before the mid-1990's, but something happened to the lake first. Zebra Mussels, as all mussels and clams, are filter feeders. ZM's happen to tolerate pollution better than almost any other freshwater bivalve. In their quest for plankton (tiny water creatures like amoebas and diatoms), each animal filters a quart of water daily. It takes out not only the plankton but many organic pollution particles also (like raw sewage - yum!). Multiply by a few tens of billions: the whole lake was getting filtered through the ZM's every week or two.

In a few years the water was noticeably clearer. The last time I saw the lake, you could see to the bottom in six feet of water, and I was told visibility is 20 feet or more in most of the lake. Cleaner water meant the native clams and mussels got healthier and staged a comeback, including those thought to be extinct. More algae now grow there because light penetrates farther. The nearly extinct lake sturgeon is rebounding. Sturgeons eat mussels, and seem to relish the ZM's. So do a few other kinds of fish such as smallmouth bass. Lake Erie is alive again. All due to a "dangerous invasive alien" that had the entire environmental movement in a tizzy for decades.

The new book by journalist Fred Pearce, The New Wild: Why Invasive Species Will Be Nature's Salvation, is full of such stories. I cribbed a few of the details above from his account, which is based on the published record. He also writes of the Guanacaste trees, the national tree of Costa Rica, which was on the verge of extinction. Its seeds need to pass through the gut of a large mammal and be partially digested to germinate, but all large mammals had been extirpated—by humans—and the trees only existed because humans had been planting the seeds. Some would grow if their shell rotted enough after planting. Seeds left lying on the ground just piled up like so many rocks. An ecologist puzzling over what to do suggested introducing horses to the area, and it worked. That fellow saved a beloved tree from extinction, but paradoxically earned himself the hatred of multitudes of doctrinaire "environmentalists.

Pearce writes of the forests of Puerto Rico, restoring themselves on land that was abandoned after plantations of sugar (and other crops) went bust. But they are not restoring themselves with the tree species that grew there before; those cannot tolerate soil changed by a few centuries of plantation cultivation. No, "alien"tree species that had been introduced or otherwise appeared in Puerto Rico over the generations, and were growing here and there, spread quickly over the disturbed land and created a new kind of forest. Later some native species were able to return also. To an untrained eye, it looks the same as the fragments of "original" forest elsewhere on the island.

To be fair, Pearce also tells of places that have suffered after certain alien species arrived. Seafarers that arrive anywhere seem always to have rats along. Some rats grasp the opportunity to go ashore. On occasion, havoc results, and they eat everything in sight, including the eggs and young of many native species. There have indeed been extinctions of endemic species on some islands and other restricted areas. Colonial America is a prime example, and one species that was nearly extincted in Virginia was the colonists, after the rats they had inadvertently allowed ashore ate through their grain stores!

Whether carried by humans or not, species have a way of getting around. As described by Alan de Queiroz in The Monkey's Journey (reviewed here), long-distance dispersal by all kinds of unlikely species happens over and over again. Of course, things that fly or float travel better than more sedentary critters, but one need look no farther than Hawaii for an example: the archipelago has many endemic species of both plant and animal, species that evolved there, and it has never been in contact with a continent, nor even closer than a couple of thousand miles. All the endemics of Hawaii are descended from animals and plants that traveled, or were taken, long distances.

Think about this: Every time a new species arrived in Hawaii and began to reproduce there, it was an "invasive alien" species. By the time the Polynesians, now Hawaiians, had been there a few dozen generations, and the first Europeans arrived, what looked like primeval forest to the Europeans was about half consisting of species the Polynesians brought with them. Since then, more and more aliens have arrived. Some, such as the giant African tree snail, are doing damage. Most have just found a way to fit into the existing ecology, have done little or no harm, and have actually enriched Hawaiian biodiversity.

This introduces a major theme of The New Wild. "Alien" does not mean "Evil". It all depends. Even seemingly evil aliens, such as the Zebra Mussel, can do good in the end. ZM's are now part of the ecology of the Great Lakes whether we like it or not. To eradicate them now would cost a great deal more than it would have cost us, by purely technological means, to clean up Lake Erie, and we couldn't even afford that! The "evil invaders" cleaned it up, but not quite for free: industries do have the cost of cleaning mussel shells off their water intake pipes and other submerged equipment.

There's a nature center we visit from time to time. On a guided tour the ranger moaned about their problems with Multiflora Roses. I guess they were originally transplanted there to start briar patches where there had been none. As it happens, Multiflora can tolerate the pollution and drought associated with the way the land had been left before the nature center was set up. Native roses from the area cannot. But now, Multiflora is considered an "invasive alien" and they are trying to root out all the rose bushes. They can't do it. It is a Hydra problem (harking to the Hydra of Hercules). If you dig out a rose bush, you leave disturbed soil behind, and Multiflora just love disturbed soil. Rose hips or fragments of root left behind typically engender several new bushes where there had been only one. One step forward, four steps back!

So what is the New Wild? It is best understood by contrast to the Old Wild, a world of wild places untouched by humans. Old-growth forests. Pristine landscapes. Primeval territories that actually have not existed for tens of thousands of years. The Old Wild exists only in our imaginations. The New Wild is a new understanding of how nature works on lands that vary from little-managed to extensively-managed to wholly cultivated, in all of which nature does what nature always does.

"Nature" is a mythical embodiment of the myriad environments and their living denizens. We think of the "forest primeval", such as the deep woods of Maine referred to by Longfellow in Evangeline, as a virgin product of nature. Humans have been in Maine, as they have been throughout the Americas, for at least 13,000 years. The Maine forests in the 1400's may have been less heavily managed than the maize-farming areas along the Delaware River, but managed they were, for the rather modest timber needs of the Penobscot people. Without people, what would the forest have been like? There is no way to know.

We do know that the forests of the northern 2/3 of North America, even those that have been little used by Euro-Americans since 1492, are substantially different now than before, because of a much-beloved (by most) group of alien species: earthworms. The silent-treading natives of legend and lore had something going for them that is seldom found now, a thick layer of moldering leaves on the forest floor. Wherever there is water enough for fallen leaves to remain a bit moist, they are soon consumed by earthworms. But this was not so from about 15,000 years ago until the 1600's when Europeans brought European earthworms ashore. This was usually not deliberate; worms came in the soil around the roots of plants brought by the colonists. Native North American earthworm species are found only in the southern half of the U.S. and further south; the northern half of the country was scraped clean of its entire biosphere by glaciers, and the native worms travel too slowly to have re-colonized the north in only 10,000 years. Earthworms are one of the most successful groups of invasive alien species. We are better off for them.

A second theme of the book is that current environmental dogma, that it is best to root out and exterminate all alien invaders, is usually wrong-headed. He gives numerous examples that show how "invasions" usually increase overall biodiversity of the invaded landscape; how the supposed extinctions the aliens are accused of causing were usually already accomplished by the time of the invasion; and how the ZM is but one example of a much-feared alien species that turned out to be a blessing in disguise and actually contributed to the overall health of the environment.

There is one metaphor that Charles Darwin used, which we must do away with: Nature as 10,000 tightly-hammered wedges. He wrote of inter-species competition as the removal of one wedge so a different one could fit in. This is not so. Take careful note: THIS IS NOT SO. Rather than many wedges tightly filling all space, think of Nature as a field with many plants growing, yet not all the ground is covered (even in a well-fertilized lawn you can see dirt between the blades). Perhaps there are 100 species of plants in this field. Cast in some seeds of another 100 species and wait a year. Then count the species growing there. Not all of the new seeds will have done well, and you may find only 75 of the 100 new species has taken root. And the original 100? You may not find every one of the original 100 species, but chances are, they are all there if you examine all the field carefully.

I recall taking a young man from Beijing on a field trip in 1984. It was only in 1980 that Chinese students were first permitted to study in American universities, so he was one of the early ones. He was a real city boy. We drove from Rapid City, SD to Billings, MT, the northern way, along US 212 through Custer National Forest (it ought to be named for Crazy Horse, IMHO) and two Indian Reservations. He saw cattle for the first time (beeves are also a hugely successful invasive species in America). Later he saw pronghorn antelopes among the cattle. I told him what they were, and he asked, "Don't they fight?" I replied that there was grass enough for both, plus the pronghorn would eat cacti and many kinds of wildflowers that beef cattle prefer not to eat. So although a state like Wyoming or Montana might have more beeves than humans, the native ungulates have not been driven to extinction. Had we passed through the national forest at dusk, we'd probably have also seen deer.

A few of the examples in the book have numbers, and they show how the usual result of multiple invasions is for species diversity to increase by 50% to 100%, both of plants and animals. An "ecology" is not a finely-tuned instrument, nor a finite collection of tightly-packed wedges, but a more fluid situation. Adding dozens or even hundreds of new species is unlikely (except on a few very small islands) to result in the extinction of any endemic species, and the new species fit in, forming a new assemblage that works as well, or often better, than before. Nature is not static. Left entirely alone, things change continually, and new species arrive while existing ones die away, from any particular patch of ground. Change is the only constant!

I've rattled on long enough. The New Wild is not quite a call to arms on behalf of a new understanding of the environment, but it is intended to open eyes to a new way of seeing nature. It is unlikely to change the minds of the old guard with their idée fixe of exterminating all alien species. It represents a growing understanding, which I hope will prevail quickly (and more quickly as that old guard retires and passes on). People tend to jump to conclusions. Influential people jump just as quickly as everyone else, which makes them dangerous. Remember the adage, "Haste makes waste." I add to it, "A sense of urgency is the Devil's tool." Y'gotta think things through. Fred Pearce has given us a book full of reasons for thinking through our environmental premises.

Monday, June 08, 2015

Anatomy without all the dissection

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, nature, illustrations

I sometimes wish I'd have kept up the drawing I did as a child. A lack of eye-hand coordination meant quick drawings weren't accurate, and to draw a good likeness of anything was much too time-consuming. I sometimes marvel at the drawing skills of naturalists, pre-eminently Roger Tory Peterson, whose Field Guide series sets a very high standard for nature illustrating. Nature Anatomy: The Curious Parts & Pieces of the Natural World, written and illustrated by Julia Rothman is not quite a field guide, so much as an enthusiast's collection of nature arcana, illustrated in a more cartoonish style.

The "anatomy" is primarily external, no dissecting knife needed. This illustration of the parts of a flower from page 62, and a cutaway of Earth on pages 14-15, are about as "deep" as it gets.

Many more pages are devoted to catalogs of interesting specimens from every natural realm, at least for critters and plants larger than an inch or so. There is a good illustration of the various kinds of feathers on a bird, and one of the external anatomy of a typical insect, using an ant. This page of butterflies of interest to the author is typical.

A book such as this is not intended to convey lots of knowledge. Indeed, if you add up the words, they amount to a small chapter. Rather, it introduces the reader/viewer to all the breadth of living things. Quite an enjoyable book.

Saturday, June 06, 2015

Foremost Zoologist writes about Botany

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, botany, love of plants, exhortation

Jane Goodall is one of my favorite people. Her discoveries about chimpanzees turned primatology and anthropology on its head, not just once but several times. Even more, her tireless quest to drive world leaders and citizens to a better balance with nature continues to touch a chord in me and in many.

One might ask, what is a Zoologist doing writing about plants? For every animal you study, you must study its relationships, not only within its species but with other animal species such as prey or predators, and nearly always with the plants in its environment. Even a pure carnivore such as a big cat uses plants for concealment, for bedding and so forth. And now that biology has turned more and more to the study of trophic cascades (If you have never seen this video about Yellowstone, stop and watch it now!), every life is seen to depend on plants, and every life, particularly of keystone species, affects the life cycles of plants in its environment.

Dr. Goodall is a writer of rare skill, and for this and a few other recent books she has teamed up with Gail Hudson to produce a volume that matches the best 19th Century writing, Seeds of Hope: Wisdom and Wonder From the World of Plants. The book is one part her historical and lyrical paean to the plants and their landscapes that she has loved in her long life, one part historical and social survey, and one part (or two!) hortatory essays that exhort us all to take better care of a biosphere the human race is rapidly driving to ruin. Her voice is lyrical without being maudlin, high and clear without being shrill.

Anyone who has lived more than 25-30 years, and has not seen substantial changes in nearly every landscape with which they are familiar, must have lived a cloistered prisoner all those years. I visited Suguaro National Park nearly 50 years ago, when it looked a lot like the image on the left in this montage:

On the right, in 1910, the difference is shocking. Look particularly in the background, where the mountain foothills are being covered with creeping suburbs near Tucson, Arizona (Photo montage from this article by Betty Mason in Wired).

Her message boils down to something simple: "Hey, World, please, please slow down and think more long-term. You billionaires don't need another billion or ten billion quite that fast, and people's needs can be taken care of without destroying everything around them until ultimately they and you will also suffer destruction."

I don't think there is anything I could add to that. Rather, I'll take a side note, and answer some who might know me well, how conservative I am, and say, "Huh?" Did you know that the root of "Conservative" is the word "Conserve"? Did you know that the national park system was begun by Conservatives? Strangely, Theodore Roosevelt is being called a Progressive in recent biographies and documentaries, but he sure wasn't thought of as a "progressive" a century ago or so! He's just being called that because today's neo-progressives can't imagine that someone with conservative values would do the things he did. A true conservative is not a short-term thinker, but a strategic thinker. Trouble is, there just are too darn few of them left to be found in national and international politics. A conservative who is not an environmentalist (a true environmentalist, not a fuzzy-headed tree-hugger), cannot honestly claim the title Conservative.

'Nuff said. Read the book.