Second brood

This morning, I noticed catbirds engaged in nest building activities. Then I saw mourning doves mating near the garden–must be time for the second brood.

I do not know a great deal about bird behavior; but many of the smaller birds in my region raise two broods, one in spring and one in early summer. My not-very-scientific observation tells me that the second brood is often less successful–that fewer eggs are laid (or hatch). I could be wrong about that generality, but it seems to have held true in my yard for the past ten or 12 years. A little research would inform me, I suppose. For now, though, I am happy to rely on observation.

Sometimes I am eager to track down information (such as facts on songbird reproduction cycles). This week, though, I prefer to spend my time on looking about and writing. I’m working on a kind of “second brood” of new poems, and that is exciting.

I have also taken walks on two urban above-street-level parks, one in New York City (the Highline) and one in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, the Hoover-Mason Trestle Park at Steel Stacks. The former park is pretty well-known; the latter just opened to the public and ought to be better known than it is.

Here’s some information on the site itself from the Landezine website that highlights the work of SWA group on the Sands Casino/Bethlehem City project and some of the challenges:

One of the most prominent examples of redirecting the environmental legacy of a post-industrial landscape can be traced to the south banks of the Lehigh Canal, in the city of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Comprising 1,800 acres (20 of which belong to this project) and 20 percent of Bethlehem’s total land mass is the former headquarters of Bethlehem Steel Corporation (BSC). Founded in 1904, the company continued to operate until 1998, when US manufacturing divestment, foreign competition, and short-term profit goals finally led to its demise. After almost a century of operation, the effects of Bethlehem Steel’s [1995] closure on the city were heartbreaking, as thousands of jobs disappeared instantly, along with 20 percent of the city’s total tax base. All that remained was an impending bankruptcy claim and the largest brownfield site in the country.

You read that correctly–the largest brownfield site in the USA. The EPA defines a brownfield as “real property, the expansion, redevelopment, or reuse of which may be complicated by the presence or potential presence of a hazardous substance, pollutant, or contaminant.” Acres and acres of said brownfield were left by Bethlehem Steel, and about 20 acres are being redeveloped at present. The park around the steel mill, which follows the elevated trestle around the enormous works, offers a fascinating view at what remains of the United States’ industrial heyday and highlights how significant these mills were. Nice bit of history, nice walk.

I’m not sure these urban parks really move us toward sustainability, but they are at least creative “repurposing” that may help make people more aware of the things that have brought us to where we are today (for good or ill). Perhaps another form of second brood?

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Diversity. Not.

I must admit, it is challenging to read Elizabeth Kolbert‘s book The Sixth Extinction without feeling a bit of dread.

Nonetheless, the book is informative and fascinating–even funny at times–and well worth reading if you are the type who can get beyond your anthropocentric leanings and attempt to view the long-range picture from a scientific, if not exactly neutral, viewpoint. Her main argument is that we are, indeed, in the midst of a 6th mass extinction era and that human beings are “the weed” that most likely is the cause of these numerous extinctions–and not just since the industrial revolution, but eons before that. Humans travel more effectively than almost any life form, and that leads gradually to a loss of diversity. Read the book to find out how that works.

I find interesting parallels with socio-cultural trends in the ecological struggle for and against diversity. Niche-dwelling creatures or societies adapt to some challenging environment and develop or evolve ways to deal with adversity–cold temperatures, constant rain, saline soils, whatever. Nomadism, for example, is a way to adapt to seasonal weather challenges.

When an ‘alien’ enters a niche area, it usually dies off; but if it can adapt, there is hybridism or conquering. Tolerance, it turns out–living peacefully in tandem using the same resources–is not a common evolutionary strategy, though there are examples of symbiotic ecological relationships and, of course, parasitism of the sort that does not quickly kill off the host. Conquering generally means lost diversity.

When a niche organism ventures, accidentally or otherwise (forcibly, sometimes) into a new region as ‘alien,’ the special characteristics of the creature cause it to die or, in some cases, to have to adapt to a different set of circumstances…and diversity gets lost pretty quickly that way.

Does this sound like emigration? War? Forced removal of peoples? Indigenous populations killed off by measles or smallpox? Young people leaving remote areas to try to find work in cities? I see a metaphor here!

While human beings may try to celebrate diversity (which is better than using diversity to identify and exclude or punish “the other”), we probably cannot keep ourselves from becoming, over the centuries, less and less various. A homogeneous world seems, to me, to be a place impoverished through lack of niches and creative adaptation–but that’s what happens when mass extinctions take place: a depletion of kinds in the fossil record.

You might want to read Robert Sullivan’s New York Magazine article for even more recent scientific evidence if you’re not up to reading a whole book, though Kolbert is an engaging writer and I found her book to be a quick read. And below, some graphic illustrations from LiveScience. Fascinating stuff.

Here in the USA, alas, we seem to be helping the extinction of our own kind along by viewing diversity among people as dangerous. Compound this with a society that permits the ownership, hoarding, and use of deadly weapons on others and which cultivates a cultural tone of fear, anxiety, and entitlement, and there is strong evidence that the human weed will continue the slow but decided progress of the Holocene extinction.

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Chart of extinction events that wiped out most life on Earth.

Source:LiveScience

What does a woman want?

In the medieval poem “The Marriage of Sir Gawain,” the knight gallantly agrees to marry a hag-like witch who has helped King Arthur by giving him the answer to his enemy’s riddle, which is “What does a woman want?” One of several ballad-like story poems of the Arthurian legend, this one appears in Eleven Romances of Sir Gawain (an online scholarly edition is here).

For contemporary intellectual types, however, the person who famously posed that question is Sigmund Freud. He spent many years refining the theory we now refer to as “penis envy” and arguing the displacement theory was at work subconsciously. Far too many casual references to Freud have simplified this idea as suggesting that women want to be anatomically arranged like men.

Um, not exactly…nope.

But back to Sir Gawain, agreeing to marry the hag in order to free his king from the evil baron’s grip. According to the poem, Arthur gives Gawain the secret he has learned from the witch herself. Depending upon the version or translation, the answer is: what a woman wants is her way (or her will, or to have her own way). She wants to be free to decide things that affect her and to make her own choices. Because Gawain is not only gallant and loyal and noble but also no dummy, he remembers Arthur’s secret. When the witch reveals herself as a gorgeous woman and asks him whether he’d prefer to see her lovely by day (when others can see her) or lovely by night (when her husband is abed with her), he defers to her. He says she should choose.

Delighted, she chooses to be lovely all the time (she now knows he will never forget that she has a will of her own).

So, if the medieval hag is correct, Freud was right, at least symbolically. Freud dwelt in a culture where men had authority, power, and self-agency, probably also true of medieval European culture, though I’d argue the Victorians were even more constrained. Anyway, women want those things, too–if possessing a penis as part of one’s anatomy could get you those things, one can understand envying the man, if not the organ itself. Indeed, Freud uses a bunch of lengthy theorizing to offer intellectual ballast to what he initially mentioned was an issue of power. Penis=power, in a male-dominated culture. It is almost too simple an idea, and almost too obvious, so he probably felt he had to pack it with a lot of other ideas. Transference and displacement theory have proven useful in other ways, but penis envy just suggests that females too often lack power to make personal choices within a social milieu.

As a feminist who yearns for balance and equality among human beings, I think it is crucial to point out that, despite the stories with which I’ve framed this post, wanting one’s way is not just what women want. It is also what men want.

People, no matter the gender, want to be able to say “No” and to be listened to and heeded. People want to direct their own lives, make their own decisions–and their own mistakes. I work with college students who are 17-22 years old, and I can assure you that they desperately want to make their own choices. Though they often also desperately want to blame someone else for the unfortunate consequences of certain ill-considered choices, they mature once they realize that sort of behavior limits them to the role of the naughty child–a dependent–not a responsible, independent person. If you want to be respected as an adult, I tell my students, you have to be willing to own up to your own poor decisions. And that’s just for starters.

Each young person I teach, tutor, or counsel wants some control over his or her life. Some try to get it by seeking to control other people, others by trying to control their environment, others by endeavoring to control the social situation they find themselves in…the list goes on. Human beings cannot really control as much as we think we can. But we can exert our will and speak up for our way. We can offer respect and seek respect. We ought to be able to make our own decisions as long as we are mature enough to deal with the results for good or ill. That goes for people of any sex.

Yet when a woman asserts that she wants her way, our society tends to judge her as a whiner or a bitch, a ball-breaker or a manipulator. Even now, many years into politically-correct language and Title IX and women as Supreme Court justices, I hear this sort of language bandied about, often “in jest.” Sure, it can be jesting; but it’s also pretty close to jousting–with words. Be a little more careful, my friends. Or as the terminology goes these days, more mindful. Perhaps, given the freedom to exercise our will, more of us will choose to be lovely all the time.

Noesis

noesis~

  1. Cognition; perception.
    2. The exercise of reason.

Interesting that definition number two is dependent upon definition number one. Lately I have been thinking about the difference between consciousness and conscience; the latter seems to me to be specifically human, I guess, because isn’t conscience a sort of cultural or judgmental entity based upon rules? Yes, I am talking about morality, a term I tend not to use much when I consider cognition, consciousness, narrative, being.

I recently perused Patricia Churchland’s Braintrust and found myself intrigued about where and in what ways morality and consciousness or sentience mesh. Churchland is a moral philosopher, but this book relies largely on arguments premised on neurology, biology, evolution, and animal studies. Her critics pose interesting rebuttals, too. I found her book readable and often convincing–and it’s the kind of book that leads me to other writers and scientists; I love that in a book!

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The phenomenology of consciousness–the carbon body brain-based “real world” idea of the word–involves intentionality, sentience, qualia, and first-person perspective. We can identify qualities based upon our first-person consciousness and respond to them. This process has led Western thinkers toward the concept of reason or rational thinking. The exercise of reason derives from perception.

This does not mean that phenomenology is the sole form of consciousness or even that it is necessarily human-only, but it seems to me to be the easiest one for human beings to wrap their minds around. Yet the earlier philosophers were not phenomenologists. Their speculations about what consciousness originated in and what morality inhered in were quite abstract.

For a good sum-up of how contemporary scholars define and discuss consciousness, go to Stanford’s site here.

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Being cognizant or conscious does not necessarily lead to moral behavior or reason…or does it? Here we have an idea that has been debated for centuries. In her book, Churchland often returns to Hume, who wrote about morality from what, eventually, became known as the utilitarian stance (though I would argue Hume is not really utilitarian). Stanford offers an overview of morality as defined by philosophers over the years; The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy says this of Hume:

In epistemology, he questioned common notions of personal identity, and argued that there is no permanent “self” that continues over time. He dismissed standard accounts of causality and argued that our conceptions of cause-effect relations are grounded in habits of thinking, rather than in the perception of causal forces in the external world itself. He defended the skeptical position that human reason is inherently contradictory, and it is only through naturally-instilled beliefs that we can navigate our way through common life.

These concepts should feel modern to most of us thanks to cultural anthropology, sociology, and psychology, among other disciplines. Hume’s position conflicts with much religious dogma, but his ideas were not out of line with many of his fellow Enlightenment-Era thinkers. During the Enlightenment, intellectuals were enamored of the exercise of reason (noesis).

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So: consciousness and conscience. First we have the one–however it arises within us*–and the other develops (or evolves?) thanks to the need for social beings to navigate common life. And thanks, perhaps, to brain evolution adapting to social common life (see Churchland for more on this).

Much to mull over during my brief summer break.

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Jiminy Cricket copyright Walt Disney Co.

Jiminy Cricket copyright Walt Disney Co.

*See my numerous previous posts on consciousness!

⇐ “And always let your conscience be your guide!”

 

Between failures

“If forced to choose between failures, poetry is probably the better one.” —Charles D’Ambrosio

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I recently read a blog post from poet Barrett Warner that made me laugh in a rueful way…poets not taking themselves too seriously is always a good thing. The post is titled “Failure Fridays” and begins:

June is my big rejection month. I can usually count on a little rejection all the time but by the end of the semester editors and judges seem to want to wrap things up. There’s a boat to catch, or a Yankees home stand, not to mention all the summery commitments.

Yes…that often does seem to be the case with literary magazine editors, though I’m sure it’s not true of all of them. But many literature journals are supported through universities and don’t even read submissions in the summertime, which makes sense. Nobody’s home then. [For those of you who are poets,  however, the ambitious and well-organized Diane Lockward, who is also very generous, publishes a list of journals that read in summer on her site Blogalicious.]

Warner promises to make public his rejections each week in June, because, he notes, “I mean, failure isn’t so bad.” Mistakes are how we learn, often enough; but rejection from a journal is not a mistake (unless the writer has randomly sent a free verse piece to a sonnets-only publication). I often suspect rejection is not a failure, either. Maybe the poem isn’t ready for prime-time; maybe it’s too sentimental or too vague; maybe the writer left in a few clichés. Or not. Maybe the editors already had enough material or just don’t care for poems that feature chickadees or Toyotas. Maybe the editors were just not feeling the words when they read that poem. Maybe the editors have different taste from the writer.

Maybe it’s the editor who made the mistake.

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And remember, there is a gap between these so-called failures during which one might–for example–tend to composing new work or revising older work instead of drowning in one’s sorrows. That’s what I shall be endeavoring to do this month. Wish me luck.

Drought

I hate droughts. I’m a gardener who lives in a temperate region that, on average, receives about 1,150 mm of precipitation annually (45″). Here we are, in the middle of springtime, blooms on the dogwoods and azaleas, peonies beginning to bust out; and I haven’t heard the welcome noise of rain on the roof for over 5 weeks. Generally, May brings this region 2-4 inches of rain. I miss it, and so do the birds and the deer and the insects and the salamanders and toads…and the few remaining farmers.

I water my vegetable garden daily, but I cannot water the whole lawn, the perennial beds, the hedgerows where the larger trees grow. So the grass becomes crisp. And I worry that a strong wind, or a sudden downpour (please?!), might topple a weak-wooded tree that’s been gasping for nourishment.

Drought is also so metaphorical. It signifies lack. A lack of ideas, a creative drying-up, a kind of writer’s block where words harden into obstacles–those things are droughts of a kind that stop thinkers into stasis. If you don’t move, you end up mired.

Not too distant a stretch from the concrete phenomenon of drought to the existential phenomenon of an artistic or emotional “dry period.”

There are several ways to contend with droughts; some require large-scale changes in industry, agriculture, population centers. On the smaller scale, I practice a version of xeriscaping; after years of experimentation, I have learned which plants hold up best under extremes of dry periods or deer depredation. I am alert as to which seedlings are hardiest, which plants can contain themselves in a sort of dormancy until the rain comes. That means I have to let go of my desire to grow certain species and cultivars no matter how envious I am of the way they flourish in someone else’s garden.

And it’s the same with a droughty period in my creativity. Certain things I let go of; I work instead with what struggles along in the mud cracks, what creeps under the brickwork or waits for the next real rainfall. There’s often surprising beauty in those hardy emotions and ideas that stay around when the going gets tough, the things that manage to find shade or that–like cacti–prefer a drier clime.

Being adaptable is important if one wants to make art, to write poems, to compose. Because life isn’t always going to offer ideal circumstances for the creative or aesthetic effort.

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I hate droughts not only because they hurt my plantings but because they signal a potential disaster in terms of global climate change, and because thousands of people die for lack of that essential element–water. I recognize, though, that suffering sometimes motivates human beings to make changes, to create new approaches…even to make art.

Life is complicated. We evolve through change.

Meanwhile–let it rain!

Complexity & simplicity

I revel in complexity. Yet I seek simplicity.

Are the two incompatible?

I think not, if one is comfortable with paradox and ambiguity and remains willing to view experiences from various perspectives.

Anyway, if a person is not willing to encounter complexity, that person is essentially trying (hopelessly) to escape life. Exhibit A, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s delicious entry on “Life,” by Bruce Weber:

Living entities metabolize, grow, die, reproduce, respond, move, have complex organized functional structures, heritable variability, and have lineages which can evolve over generational time, producing new and emergent functional structures that provide increased adaptive fitness in changing environments. Reproduction involves not only the replication of the nucleic acids that carry the genetic information but the epigenetic building of the organism through a sequence of developmental steps. Such reproduction through development occurs within a larger life-cycle of the organism, which includes its senescence and death. Something that is alive has organized, complex structures that carry out these functions as well as sensing and responding to interior states and to the external environment and engaging in movement within that environment.

Interior, exterior, replication, variability…a look at computational complexity models shows us that the possibilities are indeed endless.

No matter how complicated the specifics become, however, there are these simple phenomena: birth, death; with (usually) some sort of transformation/transition or action occurring in the gaps. While I do not think that most of the questions human beings ask are “simple”–indeed, even the process of asking “do you want cake?” is more complicated at the physiological and cognitive levels than most of us would care to explore–it may be possible to quiet the mind and heart a bit to a level closer to simplicity.

The moment of awe offers, to my way of thinking, a kind of simplicity we can access on even the most ordinary days, even as we relish the amazing complexity of the phenomena of the physical world with its fractal tree branchings, its crystalline-structured cloud formations, and the elements in the atmosphere that, through the processing of light (about 4400 angstroms) through the rods and cones of human eyes, make up the quality we call sky blue.

Simply beautiful. Breathe in. Breathe out.

May Moon Ann E. Michael