Archive for the ‘Environment’ Category

Why they fight

Sunday, May 9th, 2010


In Jean de Brunhoff’s 1931 children’s book, The Story of Babar, a young African elephant sees his mother shot by a hunter; he runs off, not deeper into the jungle, but (somehow) to Paris. There, he is taken in by a kindly and rich old woman, and learns the pleasures and virtues of urban civilization before eventually becoming homesick and returning to Africa, where he becomes King of the Elephants and helps his subjects adopt an improved lifestyle based largely on human ways. It is a delightful and amusingly surreal story that can be read to children as often as they like. They will learn the horrible truth soon enough.


A dank and claustrophobic universe

Sunday, February 21st, 2010
Detail from James Ensor's "The Tower of Lissewege" (1890)

Detail from James Ensor's "The Tower of Lissewege" (1890)

It is by now old news that blogging has forever changed the nature of how information is generated and consumed, but the full ramifications of this change continue to play themselves out all around us today — and will go on doing so for some time yet. The latest area to be transformed is the global war for public opinion over the issue of climate change. As my friend Jeet Heer argues in a fascinating piece in this weekend’s Globe and Mail (”Climategate’s guerrilla warriors: pesky foes or careful watchdogs?“), climate change skeptics have found their greatest influence to lie not in peer reviewed journals or congressional hearings but in blogs written by passionate amateurs — sometimes highly intelligent ones — who are determined to subject even the smallest component of the international climate change assessment process to scrutiny and, once in a while, disproof.


Upcoming: Charles Wohlforth’s The Fate of Nature

Tuesday, February 16th, 2010

A fast heads-up that Alaska-based writer Charles Wohlforth has a new book coming out on June 8 called The Fate of Nature: Rediscovering our Ability to Rescue the Earth (you can read an excerpt here), which focuses on the relationship between the possibilities and limits of human nature, and the scale of the environmental crisis we now face. Wohlforth is a man worth following; his last book, The Whale and the Supercomputer, remains one of the best books I’ve ever read on the environment. I reviewed it for the San Francisco Chronicle back in 2004, using words that seem even more relevant amid today’s artificial tempest over the IPCC’s methodologies:

In [computer-based climate] models, the number of possible variables is near infinite, while our understanding of the natural processes underlying each variable is in its infancy at best. Meanwhile, the unrelenting logic of chaotic systems, which declares that one can’t possibly predict the future state of such a system without being impossibly accurate about its initial starting conditions, leaves science at a loss. [...]

This uncertainty, of course, has spawned endless scientific and political debate about the existence and nature of climate change. But Wohlforth wisely points out that though we can’t create models that eliminate (or even reduce) the number of uncertainties, we can at least choose to “rank important certainties above trivial unknowns.” After all, we do understand the dynamics of the mechanism that causes global warming, and we do understand the importance of greenhouse gases as a determinant of our planet’s temperature, an importance second only to the sun. The global climate is like a massive machine with banks of labeled dials. We can’t know for sure what the machine will produce when all the dials are turned in different directions, but we do know that we’re deliberately cranking the second-biggest dial — the one labeled “atmospheric CO2 content” — far beyond any previous setting. And in doing so, we’re performing an irreversible experiment with the only planet we’ve got.

The Fate of Nature can of course be pre-ordered on Amazon. If I end up reviewing it for one of the tree-based papers, I’ll be sure to let you know.

Capsule: Kevin Cooley

Thursday, February 11th, 2010

There is something about the far north that photography finds deeply compatible — something, perhaps, in its minimalism, its starkness of contrasts between sea and ice, its naked ruggedness. Canadian photographer David Burdeny (I briefly wrote about him here) captures its spirit very effectively in majestic tones of grey and blue, but Kevin Cooley of Brooklyn, New York, has managed to uncover a surprising and beautiful vein of light and colour in the lands between ourselves and the pole. A “photo and video artist” who works with a range of major magazines and book publishers, Cooley’s fine art often focuses on lonely images of people or, more enigmatically, of arcs of light in the midst of forbiddingly indifferent landscapes (see his 2008 collection “light’s edge“). But I’m personally even more attracted to his 2006 “svalbard” series, which capture the unique and subtle interplay of colours seen in the first light of morning — after four months of darkness — in Norway’s Longyearbyen, the northernmost town in the world.

Kevin Cooley, "Longyearbyen Overview" (2006)

Solastalgia and the tree shepherds

Sunday, February 7th, 2010

There is a kind of long-term shock that comes with the realization that the landscape around one’s own home is being altered beyond recovery. Psychologically, after all, a landscape is a permanent thing — hills and forests and paths are unchanging things to a child, and even when one moves away in adulthood they are assumed to remain protected, inviolate. Increasingly, of course, this assumption is wrong: the relentless spread of housing developments, roads, and shopping centres means that many people in the industrialized world face a high probability of losing the landscapes they remember as children. To some extent the shock lies in the simple unexpectedness of the change.


Capsule: John Wolseley

Monday, August 10th, 2009

Those of you who read Sans Everything as well as Archipelagoes will know that every couple of weeks I try to present a capsule profile of an interesting artist or photographer, showcasing his or her work in the banner image at the top of the site. Archipelagoes doesn’t have a banner image, but that seems like little reason to refrain from presenting the same works and talents here. I hope you enjoy them.

"A History of Parrots, Drifting Maps and Warming Seas", by John Wolseley (2005)

"A History of Parrots, Drifting Maps and Warming Seas", by John Wolseley (2005)

Born in England just before World War II, John Wolseley didn’t move to Australia until he was 38. But over the subsequent three decades, the immigrant has made the continent his own, travelling extensively through its length and breadth, and making art that captures its essence as a natural system playing out over the ages of deep history. Incorporating (at different times and in different proportions) painting, drawing, and natural processes and media — including buried paper and charcoaled trees — his work has depicted such phenomena as continental drift, the stages of a brush fire, and the denizens of the Wallace Line, which demarcates the flora and fauna of Asia from that of Australia.

The surface water has invented its own complex geographies alternating times of flow, times of rest – as it dances with the aquifers and deeper water tables. There is an ancient relationship between the waterways , creeks, billabongs and their flood plains. I have been marvelling at the lines of energy radiating from swamps and water holes, and seasonal creeks full of bird, animal and plant life.

More than ever before I found that this process of making a watercolour seemed to be analagous to the action and process by which water moves and forms the landscape itself. I’ve been laying these huge sheets of paper on to softly descending banks of sand hills, and start in a rather wild and physical way by pouring, brushing, sploshing quantities of watercolour which I have previously mixed up in large bowls. All these watery landscape elements around me are then recreated on the paper.

– John Wolseley, “Journal Notes

The most apropos news photograph never taken

Thursday, June 4th, 2009

June 3/09 (Reuters): “Dead whale found on bow of Exxon tanker in Alaska”

Oh, how the entire PR unit of ExxonMobil must have gone to bed on Monday night praising God that no photographer happened to be hanging around the terminal the day that tanker came in. But while this particular image-as-metaphor will apparently have to be provided by and preserved in our own imaginations, the report itself does contain one passage of almost poetic sadness:

Neither crew members on the Kodiak nor those aboard the tugs that escorted the tanker during the final approach to Valdez noticed anything out of the ordinary during the transit, said Ray Botto, external affairs manager for SeaRiver Maritime.

“There was nothing that suggested any deviation from standard operating practice,” he said, adding the poor condition of the whale, which had a noticeable stench, suggests it had been dead for a while.

Sums up the whole progress of civilization, somehow, doesn’t it?

In the keep of the tree

Tuesday, March 10th, 2009
The "iron-eating" sycamore of Brig o' Turk

The "iron-eating" sycamore of Brig o' Turk

Plants, it is well known, have a remarkable ability — born, perhaps, of their immense patience and gradualism — to physically merge themselves with elements in their environment. Ivy will bind fast to brick, beans will curl around poles, and trees… well, consider the iron-eating sycamore of Brig o’ Turk, a village in central Scotland near Loch Lomond. The tree, well over a century old, stands next to a disused smithy and over long years has subsumed numerous metal items that had been discarded against its trunk or hung on its boughs: items including a bridle, a ship’s anchor and chain, and a bicycle, the handlebars of which are the only part still visible.

Not only is this ability a tribute to the adaptability of plants, but it also provides a particularly moving example of nature’s role as a keeper of time. In the same inevitable way that grass pushes through the cracks of unmaintained asphalt, or a lover’s heart carved into an oak will deepen and slowly scar over, the sycamore in Brig o’ Turk reminds us of the transience of our material possessions, and, of course, ourselves.

All of which provides me with a credible excuse to introduce some beautiful verses on that very theme, written by 25-year-old poet-to-watch Robert Selby (who, as you’ll see from some of the poems on his site, particularly “The Leaving of the Institutions”, has a fine sense of man’s relationship to nature — or should I say, of nature’s relationship to man).

The Sycamore

Up the narrow road beside the tea-room
and you pass an iron-eating tree… (Gazetteer for Scotland)


The black-faced smithy’s boy of Brig o’ Turk
propped his bicycle against the sycamore
before his final shift at the clanging hearth,
soon to head off for war to escape the bore
of pouring coal into the firepot’s girth.
Proud of his young apprentice, the old mentor
drove the new recruit homeward on his dray,
so the bicycle remained in the keep of the tree.

As the smithy’s boy made corporal and set sail,
the sycamore began a cruelly slow advance.
As bugles called from shires their lonely scale,
the bicycle was raised on a timber lance.
When the smithy’s boy died at Passchendaele
and the village darkened in remembrance,
the sycamore drew about the bicycle,
clutching to its bark the spokes and saddle.

Long since the blacksmith sold off the yard,
since war ended, resprouted, withered again,
and the Trossachs became a National Park,
the bicycle protrudes still, a man-made limb
mimicking new growth, the ribbed handlebars
waiting for the smithy’s boy to reclasp them,
to pull free the frame and tour off, roadworthy,
the cast-iron memorial in the skyward lee.

- Robert Selby (Times Literary Supplement, April 18, 2008)

Ghosts unmentioned

Wednesday, December 12th, 2007
Henk Hofstra’s “urban river”
Water is Leven, by Henk Hofstra (2007)

The ongoing interplay between man and nature occasionally throws up an oddity. In the usual course of things, cities and farmlands spread inexorably, fundamentally distorting (where not destroying outright) the ecosystems they encounter. Far less frequently, it is mankind who retreats – leaving concrete bunkers behind after a war, for example, which soon enough become overgrown and inhabited by wild cats and bats (see my post on Germany’s Westwall here).

What man hardly ever does, however, is memorialize the nature he has displaced. This is one of the objectives of Dutch artist Henk Hofstra’s “blue road” in Drachten (thanks to Torontoist for featuring the project and several pictures of it), which runs for 1000 metres exactly and sports eight-metre-high letters that say (in Dutch) “WATER IS LIFE”:  the city road that Hofstra painted vivid blue runs along the course of a former waterway.

The idea of building memorials to vanquished nature is an appealing one. Imagine our cities with multi-block areas painted deep green to symbolize the woods that were cut down to make way for buildings, or yellowy-brown to represent the fields bulldozed under. Perhaps we could even paint shadow animals — like the silhouettes we sometimes paint to represent the real or potential human victims of nuclear bombs — here a moose, there a porcupine, that scattering of shapes on the next block representing a flock of passenger pigeons we netted for meat and stuffed into boxcars.

But could we live with such images pointing their accusing wings and paws at us while we shop for designer clothing and eat in fine restaurants? No, which is why we do not mention these ghosts, nor build memorials to them. Far better to forget.


Saturday, October 13th, 2007

European wildcat

One of the things I like most about nature is its patient opportunism. Although the presence of human beings invariably pushes animals into the peripheral spaces of our own world — excepting, of course, the impossible-to-intimidate raccoons that have made the Greater Toronto Area their haute-garbage dining lounge, and who consider us no more than trash-bag-carrying busboys – the departure of humans, conversely, leads almost immediately to a squatters’ takeover. Coral conquers our scuttled battleships; rats and bats occupy our abandoned houses; grass grows in the engine nooks of our broken down cars.

So it’s nice to read that the Siegfried Line, the 18,000-bunker network Hitler built to defend Germany’s western border, has now become home to a wide range of wildlife, including foxes, badgers, European wildcats (pictured above) and ten species of bat. Regional authorities have been keen to tear down the ruined bunkers to make way for farmland and development, but wildlife group BUND has been campaigning for an extension to a 2004 federal moratorium on dismantling the bunkers. The politics have been tricky, as BUND wildlife expert Sebastian Schöne told Spiegel Online:

“It’s been hard for us to deal with this issue because in Germany you’re immediately labeled as some kind of neo-Nazi if you say anything positive about the bunkers. We’re accused of trivializing history by calling it ‘Green Wall in the West’. But we’re not saying the Westwall is great. We’re just being pragmatic.”

The thought of industrial-scale Nazi fortifications covered in moss and turned into homes for small mammals brings to mind Briton Riviere’s Persepolis (1878, engraving (below) by Frederick Stacpoole), which shows the ruined and deserted capital of the Achaemenid Empire now visited only by two curious and wary lions. The picture is on display at the British Museum as part of a very interesting exhibition on the ancient Persian empire. At its original Royal Academy showing in 1878, the catalogue included two lines from the following portion of Omar Khayyam’s The Rubaiyat (1120, trans. Edward Fitzgerald from the Farsi, 1859):

The Worldly Hope men set their Hearts upon
Turns Ashes — or it prospers; and anon,
Like Snow upon the Desert’s dusty Face,
Lighting a little hour or two — is gone.

Think, in this batter’d Caravanserai
Whose Portals are alternate Night and Day,
How Sultan after Sultan with his Pomp
Abode his destined Hour, and went his way.

They say the Lion and the Lizard keep
The Courts where Jamshyd gloried and drank deep:
And Bahram, that great Hunter — the Wild Ass
Stamps o’er his Head, but cannot break his sleep.


The spiral speeds

Saturday, September 22nd, 2007

The ice cap on the North Pole is vanishing. According to the National Snow and Ice Data Center, the minimum extent of Arctic sea ice during this past summer season was 4.13 million square kilometers. The previous record low, in 2005, was 5.32 million sq km.

Chorus: Alarmist! Unproven! How do you know the ice wasn’t moved to Syria?!!

Losing a million square kilometers of ice may sound like a lot, but to me the proportional loss is even more striking: the Arctic has suffered a 22% loss of sea ice in only two years. Which means there’s that much more dark sea water absorbing solar radiation during the summer, and that much more heat trapped in the system, melting next year’s ice.

I just thought I’d point this out to you, as world leaders ask their staffs to ponder how to tweak greenhouse gas emissions downward over the next forty years without significantly harming economic growth. Because the polar ice cap doesn’t seem to be waiting around for our prudent proposals to be implemented, nor, ungratefully, is it giving us any grace time for having good intentions.

Note: a fascinating and easy book to read about the impact of global warming on the Arctic ecosystem and its peoples, as well as scientific efforts to understand climate change, is Alaskan writer Charles Wohlforth’s The Whale and the Supercomputer (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2004), which I had the pleasure of reviewing for the San Francisco Chronicle (here).