Thursday 25 December 2014

To Read or Not to Read

Wishing regular readers and random visitors a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

Don’t read books!
Don’t chant poems!
When you read books your eyeballs wither away
leaving the bare sockets.
When you chant poems your heart leaks out slowly
with each word.
People say reading books is enjoyable.
People say chanting poems is fun.
But if your lips constantly make a sound
like an insect chirping in autumn,
you will only turn into a haggard old man.
And even if you don’t turn into a haggard old man,
it’s annoying for others to have to hear you. 

It’s so much better
to close your eyes, sit in your study,
lower the curtains, sweep the floor,
burn incense.
It’s beautiful to listen to the wind,
listen to the rain,
take a walk when you feel energetic,
and when you’re tired go to sleep.

From Zen Poems

I think I will continue to risk my eyeball withering, and I find that becoming haggard is inevitable. Tis time for the annual reading roundup: forty eight books reviewed this year, down a bit, but not as much as I expected, on recent years.  Both 'The Luminaries' and 'The Goldfinch' were well worth the effort they took, wonderful, demanding reading, but I have to go with 'All the Birds, Singing' by Evie Wyld as my favourite read of the year.

Wild Abandon by Joe Dunthorne
A Coward's Tale by Vanessa Debbie
It's Hard to be Hip Over Thirty by Judith Viorst
Stoner by John Williams
Monkeys with Typewriters by Scarlett Thomas
How Should a Person Be by Sheila Heti
The Language of Dying by Sarah Pinborough
Guns Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond
The Humans by Matt Haig
The Schopenhauer Cure by Irvin D Yalom
Big Brother by Lionel Shriver
Self-Help by Lorrie Moore
The Man Who Disappeared by Clare Morrall
The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton
Sweetness by Torgny Lindgren
Perfume by Patrick Suskind
The Martian by Andy Weir
The Innocents by Francesca Segal
All the Birds, Singing by Evie Wyld
Flight Behaviour by Barbara Kingsolver
Natural Flights of the Human Mind by Clare Morrall
Dirty Work by Gabriel Weston
Schroder by Amity Gaige
The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman
Astonishing Splashes of Colour by Clare Morrall
Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter
Death at Intervals by José Saramago
The First True Lie by Marina Mander
The Woman Who Went to Bed for a Year by Sue Townsend
Overheard by Jonathan Taylor
An Exact Replica of a Figment of my Imagination by Elizabeth McCracken
The Library of Unrequited Love by Sophie Divry
Where Love Lies by Julie Cohen
The Giant's House by Elizabeth McCracken
The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
Slapstick by Kurt Vonnegut
A Boy, a Bear and a Boat by Dave Shelton
The First Century After Beatrice by Amin Maalouf
The Secret of Lost Things by Sheridan Hay
Everything I Found on the Beach by Cynan Jones
The List of my Desires by Grégoire Delacourt
Notwithstanding by Louis de Bernieres
Heartburn by Nora Ephron
Grace, Tamar and Lazlo the Beautiful by Deborah Kay Davies
The Dogs of Littlefield by Suzanne Berne
First Aid by Janet Davey
The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller
The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert

Read but not reviewed, just because:
The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides
The Faraway Nearby By Rebecca Solnit
On Kissing, Tickling and Being Bored by Adam Philips
Daring Greatly by Brené Brown
The Stuff of Thought by Steven Pinker (in progress)
Collected Stories of Lydia Davies (returned unfinished)
How To Be Both by Ali Smith (unfathomable, but also in a queue so returned to the library)
In a fit of wholesome enthusiasm I started Middlemarch by George Eliot but Dorothea was so irritating it has sat unloved on the bedside table for a couple of months. 

Wednesday 24 December 2014

Thinking some more

I recently had a copy of the awesome Tim Minchin's book 'Storm' from the library, and discovered that I was several years late to the party, and here it in animated form on Youtube. You can't beat someone with wit and panache dealing it out to people who spout crap.

In other news, this photograph:
from the Guardian's 20 photos of the week (13th December), has been on my desktop.
It had this caption:
"In a photograph by Siegfried Modola, a regular contributor to 20 photographs, a man holds a girl as she tries to escape an arranged marriage in Baringo County, Kenya. As Pokot tradition dictates, the future husband arrived at the girl’s family home with the last settled dowry of livestock and a group of men to collect her. She was unaware of the marriage arrangements that her father had made as her family said she might have run away from home."

It was a combination of the desperation of the girl and the determination on the face of the man that struck me so forcefully. It summed up so much of what I have been reading over the last year, on websites and blogs and in the news, about the struggles that women continue to face in the world, particularly about rape culture and rape as a weapon of conflict, violence against women in general and street harassment, and here is a young girl who does not even own her own life, and is being carried off to be traded for livestock. The Guardian (again) mused over the idea that women had 'won' in 2014, but as this witty video by Phoebe Greenwood points out, despite all the attention that 'women's issues' received in the media, things are not all they appear to be. And I am reminded that no matter how far women think we have come, there is so far still to go. 

And this, that popped up on Upworthy and just makes you go 'wow':
How Wolves Change Rivers from Sustainable Human on Vimeo.

Thursday 18 December 2014

Creep, clobber, squawk. Repeat.

This is one of many many videos circulating the interweb telling us about the mess we are making of our planet. But what I liked about this is that it points out that far beyond the loss of any particular species is the unknowable (until after the fact) underlying role that they play within not just their own specific environment, but how that impacts on the whole planetary ecosystem. Many years ago I was given a copy of the Gaia Atlas of Planet Management that was one of the first things I ever read about the idea of the interrelatedness of all species and environments on the planet. And this is beside the fact that there is something about the slaughter of whales that is unspeakable. (Did you know whales have best friends, Tish told me that when we were chatting the other night.) It's that fact that we should not be annihilating species, like the whales or the tigers or the polar bears, not because they are amazing, or beautiful or fascinating, but because doing so fundamentally disrupts the entire food chain and will have profound impacts on things we are only just beginning to understand.

My reading in the last few weeks has included 'The Sixth Extinction' by Elizabeth Kolbert, an interesting and far-reaching study into the decline in species currently happening on our planet. It added to the stuff I found myself learning about when we went to Costa Rica and also the Coursera course that I did last year on the History of Humankind. Through the book she draws on a variety of examples from very diverse environments and times to explain how the impact of human beings is leading to what is now being termed the Sixth Extinction.

She begins with the mastodon and Georges Cuvier, a naturalist from the 1800s, one of the earliest studiers of the fossil record. It was he who first proposed the idea that there had been periodic mass disappearances of species from our planet. Although much of his research and findings have since been superseded his basic conclusion was surprisingly accurate:
"In fact, the American mastodon vanished around thirteen thousand years ago. Its demise was part of a wave of disappearances that has come to be known as the megafauna extinction. This wave coincided with the spread of modern humans and, increasingly, is understood to have been a result of it. In this sense, the crisis Culvier discerned just beyond the edge of recorded history was us." (p.45)
The following chapter on the great auk tells the same story in much more detail, since this flightless bird's destruction was well documented. It was pretty much unmitigated slaughter, characterised thusly (giving rise to the title of the post), on a visit to a museum in Iceland:
"In addition to a pair of auk bones, the display featured a video recreation of an early encounter between man and bird. In the video, a shadowy figure crept along the rocky shore towards a shadowy auk. When he drew close enough, the figure pulled out a stick and clubbed the animal over the head. The auk responded with a cry somewhere between a honk and a grunt. I found the video grimly fascinating and watched it play though half a dozen times. Creep, clobber, squawk. Repeat." (p.58)

Moving on to something that I had always thought of as a thing, but that turns out to be a creature, she gives an examination of what is happening to coral. It is an example of another species that we should not be saving because it is pretty, but because it serves a fundamental purpose in the ecosystem of the oceans:
"What sets them apart from other calcifies is that instead of working solo, to produce a shell, say, or some calcitic plates, corals engage in vast communal building projects that stretch over generations. Each individual, known unflatteringly as a polyp, add to its colony's collective exoskeleton. On a reef, billions of polyps belonging to as many as a hundred different species are all devoting themselves to this same basic task. Given enough time (and the right conditions) the result is another paradox: a living structure. The Great Barrier Reef extends, discontinuously, for more than 2,600 kilometres, and in some places it is a hundred and fifty metres thick. By the scale of the reefs, the pyramids at Giza are kiddie blocks.
The way corals change the world - with huge construction projects spanning multiple generations - might be likened to the way humans do, with this crucial difference. Instead of displacing other creatures corals support them. Thousands - perhaps millions - of species have evolved to rely on coral reefs, either directly for protection or food, or indirectly, to prey on those species that come seeking protection or food. This coevolutionary venture has been underway for many geological epochs. Researchers now believe it won't last out the Anthropocene." (p130)

Even something as tiny as the ant, a creature I have both killed off vehemently and played host to when the kids were younger, can be far more significant that you might imagine:
"Army ants are famously voracious; a colony on the march can consume thirty thousand prey - mostly larvae of other insects - per day. But in their very rapacity, they support a host of other species. There's a whole class of birds known as obligate ant-followers. These are almost always found around any swarms, eating insects the ants have flushed out of the leaf litter. Other birds are opportunistic ant-followers and peck around the ants when, by chance, the encounter them. After the ant-following birds trail a variety of other creatures that are also experts at 'doing exactly what they do.' There are butterflies that feed on the birds' droppings and parasitic flies that deposit their young on startled crickets and cockroaches. Several species of mites hitch rides aboard the ants themselves; one species fastens itself to the ants' legs, another to its mandibles. A pair of American naturalists, Carl and Marian Rettenmeyer, who spent more than half a century studying Eciton burchellii, came up with a list of more than three hundred species that live in association with the ants." (p.184)

Another quote from the same chapter, that discusses 'the Biological Dynamics of Forest Fragments Project' gets to the root of why the fragmentation of nature is so damaging. (The project itself is using the fragments of forest to learn about biodiversity and ecology, not as a solution to forest destruction). It does not work to just save little pockets of forest, or to create safe reserves for a species, because you are not dealing with the needs of all the other species that go along with them:
"The statary phase can last for up to three weeks, which helps explain one of the more puzzling discoveries to come out of the BDFFP: even forest fragments large enough to support colonies of army ants end up losing their antbirds. Obligate ant-followers need foraging ants to follow, and apparently in the fragments there just aren't enough colonies to ensure that one will always be active. Here again, Cohn-Haft told me, was a demonstration of the rainforest's logic. The antbirds are so good at doing 'exactly what they do' that they're extremely sensitive to any changes that make their particular form of doing more difficult.
'When you find one thing that depends on something else that, in turn, depends on something else, the whole series of interactions depends on constancy,' he said. I thought about this as we trudged back to camp. If Cohn-Haft was right, then in its crazy, circus-like complexity the ant-bird-butterfly parade was actually a figure for the Amazon's stability. Only in a place where the rules of the game remain fixed is there time for the butterflies to evolve to feed on the shit of birds that evolved to follow ants. Yes, I was disappointed that we hadn't found the ants. But I figured I had nothing on the birds." (p.191-2)

Some change has happened deliberately, like the hacking down of the rainforests, others simply from carelessness, like the introduction of invasive species from one continent to another, from the ubiquitous rats to the weird fungus currently killing off America's bat population. What we can no longer deny (ok, I know some people manage to) is the massive and seemingly irreversible damage that we are inflicting on the world. Yes, over the millions of years of the planet's existence there has been a constant loss of species, a steady replacement of creatures with other creatures, the environment of the planet has been in a state of constant change, but change mostly happened so slowly that creatures could adapt themselves over time. The change that is happening now, man-made change, is so abrupt that there is just no time to change, no room for adaptation. I was left feeling both informed but also completely impotent. The problems are so massive and it seems like even when people try and fix them they often end up making things worse. The structure of our economic culture just does not allow for the changes that need to happen.

"The one feature these disparate events have in common is the change, and to be more specific, rate of change. When the world changes faster than species can adapt, many fall out. This is the case whether the agent drops from the sky as a fiery streak or drives to work in a Honda. To argue that the current extinction event could be averted if people just cared more and were willing to make more sacrifices is not wrong, exactly; still, it misses the point. It doesn't matter whether people care or don't care. What matters is that people change the world.
This capacity predates modernity, though, of course, modernity is its fullest expression. Indeed, this capacity of probably indistinguishable from the qualities that made us human to begin with: our restlessness, our creativity, our ability to cooperate to solve problems and complete complicated tasks. As soon as humans started using signs and symbols to represent the natural world, they pushed the limits of that world. 'In many ways human language is like the genetic code,' the British palaeontologist Michael Benton has written. 'Information is stored and transmitted, with modifications, down the generations. Communication holds societies together and allows humans to escape evolution.' Were people simply heedless or selfish or violent, there wouldn't be an Institute for Conservation Research, and there wouldn't need to be one. If you want to think about why humans are so dangerous to other species, you can picture a poacher in Africa carrying an AK-47 or a logger in the amazon gripping an ax, or, better still, you can picture yourself, holding a book on your lap." (p.266)

I think idea that we have escaped evolution, that in a way we have taken over control of what happens on the planet, is quite profound. Humans are no longer evolving based on our genes and our ancestry, but we are adapting based on the combined knowledge and experience of our whole species. 
The book is by turns depressing and inspirational, tales of destruction and loss coupled with individual efforts to tackle the problems. You can't help but profoundly admire these people who see a problem and decide that is the one they are going to try and solve, most of us just feel overwhelmed by the enormity of the crisis. I feel a whole lot better informed about all sorts of stuff, and inspired by her extensive bibliography to read some more. Also this article by the wonderful George Monbiot summarises much of what the book discusses much better than I have managed to. 

Tuesday 16 December 2014

Christmas posting reposting

I have been at work rather a lot recently, so much so that my thermal gloves have taken a bit of a battering. I spent a peaceful hour after dinner today darning the finger holes with colourful yarn, a kind of decorative mending. 
Anyway it is that time of year again, in fact a little late I confess, to remind you all about the do's and don'ts for Christmas posting. I am reposting an abbreviated version of my post from two years ago with advice for anyone putting cards into the postal system at this particularly busy time of year.
  • Know the correct address of your friends and family  - use the postcode and always write their full name, not just 'Grandma' or 'Steve, Patricia and Family', don't assume the postie will know who your auntie is and where she lives.
  • Write neatly and please do not use silver coloured pens on red envelopes.
  • Put a return address on the back (this applies to everything you put in the postal system, not just Christmas cards.)
  • Pay the correct postage, larger or thicker cards need a large letter stamp, or your f&f will be surcharged!
  • Please Please Please seal the envelopes on your cards, do not just tuck the flap inside. On the sorting frame in our office we have a nice display of cards that will never arrive at their intended recipient because an unsealed envelope has come open and the card has become separated from it (although we did manage to reunite one card with its envelope this morning.)
  • Last posting dates are 18th December for second class and 20th December for first class.
(Not official Royal Mail advice.)
(Normal posting service on this blog will resume shortly.)