Diminishment

When a friend who grew up in Central America visited the USA for the first time, she arrived in New York City in January. She encountered the airport, security, passport service, crowds, parking lot, the traffic en route to Central Park, shivering a bit as she went in and out of heated places to the cold weather and back. But when she finally found herself walking the city streets with her host, at 3 o’clock in the afternoon amid the many noises of downtown, she stopped and stood still a moment–listening intently.

“But–where are the insects?” she asked.

~ ~

“We notice the losses,” says David Wagner, an entomologist at the University of Connecticut. “It’s the diminishment that we don’t see.”

Because insects are legion, inconspicuous and hard to meaningfully track, the fear that there might be far fewer than before was more felt than documented. People noticed it by canals or in backyards or under streetlights at night — familiar places that had become unfamiliarly empty. The feeling was so common that entomologists developed a shorthand for it, named for the way many people first began to notice that they weren’t seeing as many bugs. They called it the windshield phenomenon.

Brooke Jarvis, New York Times Magazine Nov. 27, 2018

While I do not expect to hear insects in New York in the dead of winter, the “windshield phenomenon” is something I noticed here in the USA during the 1980s. I recalled long cross-country trips in the car with my parents and the constant need to clean smashed bugs from the window and front bumpers or grilles, back when I was a child. And somehow, once I was driving, that task became less necessary. I decided that pesticides such as DDT were responsible for fewer bug-splats, but I did not consider the long-term ramifications that Jarvis describes:

Insects are the vital pollinators and recyclers of ecosystems and the base of food webs everywhere… In the United States, scientists recently found the population of monarch butterflies fell by 90 percent in the last 20 years, a loss of 900 million individuals; the rusty-patched bumblebee, which once lived in 28 states, dropped by 87 percent over the same period.

~~

Right. And a loss of bees leads to a loss of any plant requiring bees for pollination. A loss of beetles and dragonflies and mayflies and even the much-maligned mosquito leads to birds that starve, not to mention amphibians, reptiles, and some omnivorous or insectivorous mammals–particularly vulnerable bat and marsupial populations. The bottom of the food chain matters more than most human beings ever stop to consider.

One part of this article mentions the important, even crucial, role of people who study nature without having gotten degrees…the so-called amateur botanists, lepidopterists, and hemiptera observers. Another reason I find this article so interesting has to do with how Jarvis employs thoughtful, reflective moments in the piece, while maintaining a journalistic stance:


We’ve begun to talk about living in the Anthropocene, a world shaped by humans. But E.O. Wilson, the naturalist and prophet of environmental degradation, has suggested another name: the Eremocine, the age of loneliness.


Wilson began his career as a taxonomic entomologist, studying ants. Insects — about as far as you can get from charismatic megafauna — are not what we’re usually imagining when we talk about biodiversity. Yet they are, in Wilson’s words, “the little things that run the natural world.” He means it literally. Insects are a case study in the invisible importance of the common.

Maybe it’s my personal inclination towards the natural observation, but I find some resonance here. It’s what I tend to do when I write poems–to celebrate the common, or at any rate to notice it. I notice, too, the diminishment.

Some readers have told me my poems feel sorrowful, and maybe that sense of diminishment hunkers behind even the more celebratory poems I write. That’s an idea worth my consideration as I revise my work. Maybe Diminishment should be the title of my next collection.

Anyway–read Jarvis’ article. You will learn much. Even if you’re one of those folks who “hates bugs.”

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Book launch & reading

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I am pleased to be among the many fine poets whose work appears in this issue of Mom Egg Review. The reading & launch takes place at an exciting venue–The Gallery at (le) Poisson Rouge in Greenwich Village, NY, NY. Tickets here.

Change

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Goldfinches in winter attire

Two kinds of chickadees (black-capped and Carolina). White-breasted nuthatches. A tufted titmouse, bluejays, goldfinches in their brown-ish phase. The winter birds have arrived; despite a strangely warm November, the birds molt into dull plumage or migrate on schedule. I try to remember that when I feel worried about climate change: some forms of life are adaptable, change is normal, anxiety accomplishes nothing, and right action is possible.

I do not mean that we ought to ignore changes, especially those for which we have been responsible. When human beings get concerned enough to act, there’s a great deal of harm we can undo.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, people in the USA became anxious about pollution. I am old enough to recall when New York City’s famous skyline was obscured by a yellowish-gray haze almost every day. Days we could see the Empire State Building shining in sunlight without smog were rare.The problems Chinese cities today are having with polluted air were happening for the citizens of Los Angeles and New York fifty years ago, but we took action–surprisingly enough–and eventually state and federal regulations required that technology be implemented to ease the problems technology had created.

This process was not speedy or easy, but it worked. I visit New York fairly frequently, and the sky is almost always smog-free. My now-grown children have never seen the skyline hidden under layers of air pollution.

Things changed.

Can humans undo the damages we have wrought to our oceans, air, rain forests, mountains, deserts, rivers, planet and its climate? Probably not–not all of it, certainly–and I doubt there is much we can do to stave off the “sixth extinction.” We have to accept we are part of the change, for good or ill, and to find ways to do less harm in whatever time remains to us–to activate compassion.

~

Meanwhile, I await the juncos. They usually arrive around the first week of December.

 

What I see

When I trek to New York City these days, I generally go for non-tourist reasons; my sister lives in Manhattan. It’s a day trip, and I don’t always avail myself of visits to big-city attractions–instead, I “hang out” with my sister and her family, which tends to mean home-cooked dinners in her apartment and walks around her neighborhood, greeting neighbors in the coffee shop or on the sidewalk. Often, that’s interesting enough, as she lives near Ft. Tryon Park and The Cloisters. On my most recent visit, however, we decided to take the A train south to tour the new Whitney Museum of American Art. It’s located at the base of the Highline Park, with views southward to the new World Trade Center and westward over the Hudson (making our evening visit gloriously pink-hued during summer sunset).

We spent a little over two hours at the museum, and our initial assessment was that both of us prefer the building itself as an architectural experience over the old Whitney building designed by Marcel Breuer. It isn’t all that much “prettier” from the outside; but the interior gallery set-up is more pleasant, light-filled, and navigable by patrons.

The opening show’s titled “America Is Hard to See,” a line culled from a slightly ironic Robert Frost poem (see an excerpt below). And the top floor gallery included a famous painting by e. e. cummings, so my poetry hopes were raised. The 8th floor of the museum was stunningly curated; I had high expectations for the rest of the galleries though, in the end, my reaction was decidedly mixed.

Thanks to Lederman copyright 2015. see whitney.org

Thanks to Lederman copyright 2015. See whitney.org

Levels 7 through 5 follow a chronological order, roughly, in terms of historical and cultural developments from the early 20th century to the present. This is a bit arbitrary, as artists alter their styles, and even their genres, over time–and some artists’ work spans decades, gaining and losing cultural momentum as fashions and criticism also change. As a result, there are clusters of pieces that cover similar themes but do not necessarily speak aesthetically to one another on the gallery walls. This was most obvious in the Viet Nam era gallery, which struck me as garish. The purpose in terms of education and theme was fine, but the aesthetics of the room as a display of art just did not convey, to me, what it might have in another perhaps less chronological arrangement.

Nonetheless, as far as getting visitors acquainted with American contemporary art, the new Whitney may be overall more successful than its predecessor. The former building’s galleries were arranged by donor collections and often had too much of the same, or else too little cohesion, and relied on the visitor’s being already reasonably familiar with contemporary art and art criticism. The exterior platforms of “outdoor galleries” (sculptural pieces) are impressive, though you may want to avoid the exterior stairways if you have a fear of heights.

I am happy to note that Calder’s Circus remains on display, along with the old and, by contemporary standards, poorly-produced video of Calder playing with these creations. I loved this piece as a kid and my own children also loved it.

~

Excerpt from “America Is Hard to See,” by Robert Frost

Had but Columbus known enough
He might have boldly made the bluff
That better than Da Gama’s gold
He had been given to behold
The race’s future trial place,
A fresh start for the human race.
He might have fooled them in Madrid.
I was deceived bywhat he did.
If I had had my way when young
I should have had Columbus sung
As a god who had given us
A more than Moses’ exodus.
But all he did was spread the room
Of our enacting out the doom
Of being in each other’s way,
And so put off the weary day
When we would have to put our mind
On how to crowd and still be kind.

The people on the streets and in the subways and in the neighborhoods were uniformly kind on this warm summer evening. Even when we got in one another’s way. That’s what I saw.

~

Ink art

Last weekend, I went to New York with friends to see the Ink Art exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The art, all of which is contemporary (the oldest artist represented was born in 1953), has been installed in the museum’s extensive Asian galleries alongside ceramic, sculptural, religious, and paper works going back centuries.

The rationale behind this juxtaposition, says the museum’s site, is to point up “how China’s ancient pattern of seeking cultural renewal through the reinterpretation of past models remains a viable creative path. Although all of the artists have transformed their sources through new modes of expression, visitors will recognize thematic, aesthetic, or technical attributes in their creations that have meaningful links to China’s artistic past.” That certainly proved true for me; and I cannot decide which was more intriguing, the similarities or the differences.

The young artists in Ink Art employ age-old cultural tropes: the triptych, the scroll, woodblock printing, calligraphy, moody landscapes, ideograms, ink, and repetition. The resonance with Chinese heritage is palpably authentic and is often employed in the service of criticism, mostly criticism aimed at the destruction of cultural icons and of the environment (some of the represented artists are exiles). Mounting the exhibition in the Asian galleries meant that the visitor confronts the historical and the contemporary simultaneously.

In Yang Yongliang’s “View of Tide,” the artist uses digital photography collaging to replicate the mood of an ancient Chinese landscape scroll which, on closer inspection, reveals that the austere and mystical imagery of sea and mountains has been composed of smokestacks, highways, powerlines, and the like. I found this work powerful as commentary and shocking in the best possible way.

Being a word person as well as a visual art appreciator, I was especially drawn to the section of the exhibit called “The Written Word.” The highlight of this section is Xu Bing’s installation “Book from the Sky”. My friends and I–avid readers all–entered this room and felt shivers of recognition and joy at the concept of a room-sized, descending, ascending, wall-to-wall book. (I urge my readers to click on the link for a peek.) The information plaque notes “while the work is inspired by the form and typography of traditional Chinese woodblock publications, faithfully replicating every stylistic detail of traditional Chinese printing, not a single one of its roughly 1,200 characters—each printed with type hand-carved by the artist—is intelligible. Each of these imaginary characters conveys the appearance of legibility but remains defiantly undecipherable.” The paradox and the beauty of the concept are amazing; in addition, I find it oddly thrilling to think of the imagination and the craft and simple hard work Xu Bing put into creating meaningless calligraphic pictograms, cutting them into woodblocks, and repetitively setting up the careful lines in rows on long scrolls.

What emerges when the scrolls are installed on ceiling, walls, and floor manages to be indecipherable but not meaningless. There is in fact much opportunity for meaning in “Book from the Sky,” and for discussion and interpretation and playfulness.

One example: after reading about “Book from the Sky” and taking in the environment for awhile, my friend Mark commented, “Imagine if you were a beginner learning Chinese script, and you encountered this room. You might just spend hours in here trying to figure out whether you could read any of it…I mean, if  you hadn’t read that it was indecipherable. Or even if you had that knowledge, maybe you’d spend a long time here thinking that at least something in all this text meant something you could translate. Wouldn’t that be awfully frustrating?”

Or maybe that’s the point?

Carved type for “Book from the Sky” by Xu Bing

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Conceptual metaphor. Art. Thinking. Decipherability; communication. These are large ideas, and crucial ones in the scope of human community. Without art–how can we encounter such metaphors? How would we share them?

Here’s something lovely

…from Maria Popova at the Brainpickings site: book loving and writing and art and literacy and library connect to produce this event/display at the New York Public Library. I was in the city just last week–rats, I missed this. (But I did see Ken Price at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and spent part of a lovely afternoon at Untermyer Park again).

~ Please click on the links! (I know they’re kind of hard to see on this theme)~

MEANWHILE…

I’m on blogging hiatus again while I get accustomed to my work week and while we prepare for the Goschenhoppen Folk Festival (or on Facebook here) this coming Friday and Saturday. Not a time to get much writing done, nor much reading.

A festival participant prepares apples for drying

A festival participant (19th c) prepares apples for drying

Young apprentices (18th c) at work

Young apprentices (18th c) at work