I’ve just received a heart-rending book of photographs. It’s by Nick Brandt who has photographed and worked tirelessly with his Big Life Foundation with the wild elephants, lions and other dramatic fauna of Africa. Inherit the Dust positions examples of his righteous animal photography in views of African locations suffering Anthropocene conditions now.
Above, we see the beloved matriarch Qumquat where she and her generations of family were slaughtered for their tusks. See what the land of Africa is becoming.
Above, the lioness and the fate of her territory.
Above, her her mate with what the land becomes.
The long necks.
Above, the close relatives of those who maul the land.
If you follow the fates of Africa’s big life and lands you will experience these contrasts in your vitals. Something precious is being lost for something that bodes ill for humankind. These scenes recall the devastation left by World War II — but combatants have changed radically and the odds are harsh.
Nick Brandt’s Inherit the Dust shows us issues we’ll soon not be able to ignore.
Tie a knot, write a list, whittle a flute, twirl spaghetti round your fork. If you have paws, hooves, wings these maneuvers aren’t in your skill set. Nor are rope, words, knives, or pasta flour. The human hand is perhaps as important in our species’ evolution as our big and highly convoluted brain.
By various measures an elephant’s IQ is quite similar to ours, but look at those flat thunking feet. Their trunk (nose) is their main manipulator. Compare that to a hand’s dexterity and understand the barriers to elephants in developing gadgets or working a chemistry lab.
That said, this blogpost is about one particular use of hands that gets scant scientific airplay: our hands are accomplished communicators. Forget sign language and lovely hula hands — human touch conveys our emotional state to others. We pet dogs and horses, we pet wild animals who’ve been habituated to humans. We make communion across species. No religion meant here, we make communion with others.
You’ve seen instances of animals rubbing necks, seemingly for the same reason. Without hands they agree on a touch that soothes, that amplifies a mammalian sense of peace and love. John and Yoko 101? Actually birds do it, maybe bees do it. Certain fish invite massages in the sea. Does this reach back through the whole vertebrate line?
Because if it does it strengthens the argument that we humans are deeply related to our nonhuman peers. Kindred at a basal level, we can convey comfort, we can share trust. We have a compelling form of Midas’ hands.
How do you relate to something that isn’t there, but was? Two people close to me have died within the last 2 months after struggling mightily for life. Five years, ten years, outliving the red demons within for as long as they could possibly do. After WT died I saw him going up an airport escalator. Recognized him the way you recognize familiar shapes. But no, he died 5 days ago. He’s gone. And CM’s voice is as clear in my ear as the dish I just set down on the tiles, a distinctive voice, opinionated, never depressed, never daunted. In an emergency you’d want her on your rescue team.
Put them in a room together and these two would likely have no use for each other. Be unfriendly, censorious. Unless each knew the other was fighting end-stage cancer. Aren’t humans odd?
I’ve long had an image of deep love between people as tree roots that knit together deep in the ground. When one dies the duo is wrenched apart. I survived a “hundred-year” snowstorm in the mountains years ago. Big branches came smashing down, a scary not-safe sound. But the sound I still remember is when the massive oak behind us on the hill toppled from the weight of snow. The sound of those knotted roots being torn out of the earth was Thor enraged.
When our cat died unexpectedly I sobbed for three days. I have a photo of a camel keening over the body of her dead calf. We know of dogs who won’t leave their masters’ graves. It’s not only humankind that entangles with each other — it’s mammalkind as well.
Gaea is a word that gathers all of us together. Across species, across time. And for those individuals who have changed our personal trajectories and then gone on, there’s an ongoing bond. And gratitude.
Elated dog in snow. via [unattributed on] buzzfeed
Every seed is awakened and so is all animal life. It is through this mysterious power that we too have our being and we therefore yield to our animal neighbors the same right as ourselves, to inhabit this land.
Thoughts from a First Nations American about Trophy Hunting
As a Native American I want to say something, and this is my observation. My people hunt, and when we do so we do it for food only. We take no pleasure in taking life, we respect the animal. So I don’t hate hunting. I hate it when Westerners hunt. Because every photograph I see on this [trophy hunting] page does not show respect for the animal. It shows a typical American posing and grinning over the dead. That is not respect. Respect is not photographing a corpse, or taking pleasure from death… Mez Kitsu statement via Facebook
Woman displaying an African lion she is pleased to have killed. Name unknown, inner state as clear as day.
Bloodsport or blood sport …. the Cambridge Online Dictionary defines blood sport as “any sport that involves animals being killed or hurt to make the people watching or taking part feel excitement.” via Wikipedia Blood Sport
A canned hunt is a trophy hunt in which an animal is kept in a confined area, such as in a fenced-in area, increasing the likelihood of the hunter obtaining a kill. According to one dictionary, a canned hunt is a “hunt for animals that have been raised on game ranches until they are mature enough to be killed for trophy collections.” via Wikipedia Canned Hunt
In May 2007 a much-reported hunting trip involved the killing of a 1,051 pound pet pig in an alleged canned hunt. The pig was named “Monster Pig” by the media and it was believed that the pig was a feral hog. It was soon discovered that the pig, previously named “Fred,” had been someone’s pet and was then sold to a hunting facility only a brief time before he was killed. On May 3, paying customers Mike Stone and his 11-year-old son, Jamison, hunted him in a 150 acres (0.61 km2) fenced enclosure. Jamison shot Fred a total of eight times over a period of three hours. via WikipediaMonster Pig
After fending for itself in the wild for four days the pig that loving children recently fed canned yams to suffered over three hours from gunshot wounds and terror as he was pursued and slowly bled to death.
Comments by skeptical hunters included these on Cavechat.org:
And ten shots with a .500 S&W??? Anyone here own one of these handguns? I own one!! And I’ll be the first to tell you that if you need 10 shots from a .500S&W to put down a 1000lb hog, you have no business hunting. One shot would be ideal, two would probably be needed on something this large, and a third shot only in a rare instance. …. 100% Unimpressive. Adam Craig
[Folks] don’t like to be killed by enraged hogs…and though most [hogs] top out far below 1,000 lbs, even 600 lbs of angry chitlins isn’t anything to mess with. Teresa
Great Spirit, Give us hearts to understand Never to take from creation’s beauty more than we give, Never to destroy only for the furtherance of greed, Never to deny to give our hands for the building of earth’s beauty, Never to take from her what we cannot use.
valor: great courage in the face of danger, especially in battle. Example: “the medals are awarded for acts of valor”
A picador …is one of the pair of horsemen in a Spanish bullfight that jab the bull with a lance. They perform in the tercio de varas which is the first of the three stages in a Spanish bullfight. The picador has three main functions:
To pierce the muscle on the back of the bull’s neck in order to straighten the bull’s charge.
To fatigue the bull’s neck muscles and general stamina as it tries to lift the horse with its head.
To lower the bull’s head in preparation for the next stage.
If the public feels that a picador is overenthusiastic in his lancing they will whistle, boo or jeer as they see fit. This is because they do not want the bull to lose all its strength and energy as this can lead to a dull bullfight.
Years ago I attended a wedding whose vows included this Navajo prayer. The bride is now an active international advocate against human torture. Trophy hunters, measure up.
As I Walk with Beauty
As I walk, as I walk
The universe is walking with me
In beauty it walks before me
In beauty it walks behind me
In beauty it walks below me
In beauty it walks above me
Beauty is on every side
As I walk, I walk with Beauty.
Cecil the lion was lured to his death by an unscrupulous man who expected it would thereby guarantee him a prize. This man had been convicted of doing the same for a bear some years earlier. Hunters who kill in order to put food on the table aren’t hanging taxidermy on the wall. I used to believe that all hunting was wrong, but with what we now know about animals abused by agribusiness I think it’s better that the wild animals at least get a normal life.
Trophy hunting is the hobby of a wealthy enclave that assures itself that their deeds are not inglorious. That hiring a skilled hunter who hunts the animal embowers the ultimate shooter with glory. They believe they can buy valor. They can’t.
Every part of this soil is sacred in the estimation of my people. Every hillside, every valley, every plain and grove, has been hallowed by some sad or happy event in days long vanished. Even the rocks, which seem to be dumb and dead as they swelter in the sun along the silent shore, thrill with memories of stirring events connected with the lives of my people, and the very dust upon which you now stand responds more lovingly to their footsteps than yours, because it is rich with the blood of our ancestors, and our bare feet are conscious of the sympathetic touch. Chief Seattle of the Squamish
Though if my readers would enjoy blood ‘sportsmen’ skewered with words I suggest a novel and a very comic song.
• Carl Hiaasen‘s novel Sick Puppy begins and ends with canned hunts of imported African rhinos, which are a favorite activity of the book’s antagonist, corrupt lobbyist Palmer Stoat. I’ve rarely read a Hiaasen novel that didn’t get a guffaw out of me.
• Tom Lehrer’s wholehearted bullfighting song In Old Mexico may put you in a better mood. He’s a prime skewerer.
This infographic in Scientific American gnawed at me until I went back to study it. I ask you to look too. It’s divided into four equal parts in which a circle is centered and an oval superimposed on that. Why four parts instead of three? The information is separated into Not Territorial, Coastal Resources, Terrestrial African Environments. Why select a quartered circle to plot these against?
If a scientist used “ain’t” in a report it would leap off the page at you. But ill-conceived graphics? We don’t have enough fluency with them yet. Maybe infographic artists don’t either.
Giotto painted angels who looked like humans with halos and wings. Were they real? They’re real enough for Giotto’s purpose and for his audience lining the pews.
An infographic accompanies scientific data. It is ethically obliged to present that data clearly. Representing three categories as four obfuscates reality.
Giotto di Bondone – Scenes from the Life of Christ, Presentation at the Temple (detail). via Wikipedia
For simplicity: a sphere. No angles to count or measure degrees of, no corners to snag a hem on, just center-point, radii, surface, volume. Subtract one dimension and you have a circle — center, radius, circumference. Both forms roll. Polygons will roll erratically then come to rest on one side. A true sphere could roll on an infinite plane for an eternity.
Fortunately we’ve evolved to live in a finite world filled with lumps and imperfections. Approximately spherical is usually good enough for us and it’s Mother Nature’s way. The following are examples of groups of spheres because it was the natural groupings that first caught my eye.
Fields of Rounds is the Pinterest board that I swept the groupings into. You’ll see that I’ve added human images but that’s for another day. Spheres and Circularity may interest you too.
A rare and beautiful type of algae called marimo grows in some lakes in Japan’s northern island of Hokkaido. Marimo forms soft green globes that sit in clusters on the lake bottom. via Slate
The Moeraki Boulders are unusually large and spherical boulders lying along a stretch of Koekohe Beach in New Zealand. via Moeraki boulders
Cave Pearls in Backwater Aven. Photo: Shaun Puckering. 11th August 2011. via Cave pearls
Runs with Scissors. Special thanks to ISHERB for releasing the caveman art into the public domain, and thanks to Inductiveload for doing same with the scissors.
Let’s define our terms — scissors refers to a common cutting device that the ancient Egyptians purportedly used. Runs with scissors is a modern expression meaning impetuous, rash. (Build walking talking robots? Sure. Artificial life? We’re working on it. Clone a sheep? Resurrect a mammoth? Frack Oklahoma? Colonize Mars?) The Human Tide is that great splash of settlement and migration that has reached most points on the globe. There are still chinks but we’re not done.
We inherited stone tools and fire from our hominid ancestors so humans walked into the world going at a fair clip already. We added art, advanced language, music, ornament, bread, cloth, shoes. We domesticated other animals, we farmed, built cities, developed ceramics, metallurgy, folklore, laws, priests, commerce. Most metaphors of human advances have us climbing uphill, toiling up mountains, questing, winning. Heroes.
Switch that metaphor to human figures walking downhill — and gaining momentum. The momentum’s the thing. Our nature is to think and try and invent and build and to keep on going — because what else are we going to do? We’re human.
But we’d already picked up those scissors. Steam engines, electricity, mass communications. Maybe the atomic bomb was our first running stride with scissors, but we’ve already got momentum, how can we stop?
That’s where we are now. We accelerate at bullet speeds in every shard of science — how can we slow down? It’s too interesting to slam on the brakes and stop. Stop? Brakes?
And there are lots of good arguments about commerce and greed and corruption too. They’re secondary. We really can’t stop because we can’t stop.
Atomic energy has been the exception. We saw it in action in Japan, we discovered radiation in the food chain, we talked. Talks lead to treaties. It’s a start.
Our traditional categories of humans, beasts and plants have begun sprouting branches. Robots, sentient robots, cyborgs (meat and mech), artificial life. Humans with bionic enhancements will become as normal as heart patients with pacemakers. The disabled will walk away from their wheelchairs in exoskeletons and you won’t think twice about it. Jobs will be lost to mechanisms, as Big Brother flexes his muscles around the globe and Stephen Hawking thinks smart robots will grind us under their steel-mesh heels.
Do you discuss these things at dinner parties? Have you thought about a plan of action? Science has started messing with the human genome, playing chess with patches of DNA — it’s already been done in China. They have excuses. So it doesn’t really count, right?
A small but hopeful sign is that public opinion has convinced even Ringling Bros. Circus to free their elephants from a drudgery of performing tricks. Public opinion. You and me sitting down and asking new questions. Reasoning. Or our herd consensus could shift to, “Let’s not stampede. Let’s munch.” So humans, let’s start talking. We’re all we’ve got.
Here’s a partial list of conversation starters, none of which is overused. Try one with your friends, the guy next to you on the subway or if you win dinner with the President.
• Are cyborgs (part meat part machine) human? What if they started out human? What if they’re made in a lab but now have emotions, attachments?
• How would you rank the rights of cyborgs v. rights of robots with AI v. rights of old-fashioned humans?
• Can sentient robots be owned? But you paid to have it made!
• Can robots inherit property? Vote? Be arrested?
• What bionic enhancement would you take a risk to acquire? Night vision – a diva’s singing voice – bone-crushing arms?
• Will those people who can’t stop hating be adding these new kinds of beings to their blacklists? (This is such a no-brainer that we can’t even give you points for it.)
• Should Science alter human embryos? If you’d really really all your life wanted a blue-eyed child? If tinkering could save a baby from a crippling disease?
Lastly, for the sake of frivolity, ponder the future of wearables. “Ladies and gentlemen will you please turn off your phones and luminous garments.” / “Table for two? Blinking or non-blinking?”
I grew up in an educated household that did not believe in space aliens. Period. What were we, idiots? Yet now you and I live in a time of serious and costly scientific searches for beings somewhere else in the universe. Of course we are, how anthropocentric we were back then! Vanity. Law of averages. Great big infinite universe. Bound to be other intelligences. Right?
So I was shaken by this recent science headline: 100,000 Galaxies, and No Obvious Signs of Life. Silly, but I feel bereft. Like a vacuum has sucked fellow-feeling from the universe and we’re back to being the Only Ones.
Reminds me how often contemporary life requires paradigm shifts. Deep down, the bedrock of what is keeps shifting. Remember when our bodies were us? Now our personal cells are outnumbered ten to one by bacterial cells. A Scientific American article can say, we are practically walking petri dishes. Funny, you don’t look like a petri dish.
And now I don’t only have a brain in my cranium I have another brain in my gut. The ENS [enteric nervous system] was serving animals as a “brain” long before vertebrates swam along with their spinal chords and crania. The ENS remains active in us today.
The Eden of biotic diversity of my youth has given way to a Great Extinction. Polar bears, tigers, elephants — pillars of animal majesty — are on the rout. Pluto was a planet, now it’s just a rock. Crouching under school desks is no way to escape an atomic bomb. People with darker-than-white skins are inferior (unless they surf). A human outer ear can come out of a 3D printer. And here comes Augmented Reality. A future insult may be Who’s writing your augmentation?
These are big changes for a psyche to absorb. The givens get taken away. Although no animal we know of processes reality in abstractions, other beasts have a sense of continuity, of what feels normal. What would it do to a chimp if you kept changing its habitat — a cage with a stainless steel feeding bowl, then spacious open lands, then housed next to a noisy train terminal with its shrill pace. My guess is the chimp would go a little mad. Be disturbed. So I wonder what happens inside humans who adapt and adapt and adapt as what’s true keeps morphing out from under them.
I ask myself and I hear the supposed Chinese curse May your children live in interesting times.
Le Cannet, Madame Lebasque Reading in the Garden, painted by Henri Lebasque. via Wikipedia Commons.
Say you’re in a garden, a palette of greenery, petal colors, everything seems tamed and peaceful. Yet right next to you a vine pushes upward in loose spirals while a tree limb edges away from the shadow of a neighboring tree. A basil patch detects hungry ants and sets internal defenses off as rootlets of the fruit tree grope their way around an underground rock. Humans don’t perceive at this time scale but everything alive is busy. A dandelion rockets seed out into trajectories predetermined by the sphere it has become. If it had stayed the plate-shape of its yellow flowering then its seeds would have less reach.
Cave paintings ignored the plant world at first but a few trees bloomed before the rock-art age was done. That end appears closely tied with the onset of agriculture and settled living — being rooted in a place. Domesticated animals perhaps made hunters obsolete. Danger, blood and guts — that’s so yesterday.
What hunters didn’t note ensuing generations have made up for. An eden of botanical species depicted in a splendor of styles and materials. Art made today remains in vigorous bloom.
Temple of the Cool Beauty, Yucca by Michael-Sherrill. Silica bronze, Moretti glass, porcelain with abraded glaze. via American Craft Council.
Naturaleza muerta con cactu -y naranjas,David-Ligare. Painting. via Trasdos.
El sueño de DAlembert by Carlos Forns Bada. Paint. via espaitactel.
Laura Letinsky, Untitled #35. Photography. via artsblog.
These artists hint at the vigor of plantlife in the modern imagination. Go enjoy an armload today.
Michael Sherrill. A range of forms and techniques. Some very wonderful creations.
Zadok Ben-David. His Blackfield (shown above) is a space-specific floor installation containing up to 20.000 steel etched flowers deriving from 19th Century Victorian encyclopaedias. Black on one side, colored on the other.
David Ligare. He calls himself a Post-Modern, Neo-Classical American artist. Paints still-lifes and figures in gorgeous light.
Carlos Forns Bada. A wild imagination where flora and fauna uneasily converge. Note at the bottom of his work above — a line of mechanisms has joined the cast of characters.
Laura Letinsky. Among other things she’s a still life photographer with a brain. It’s fun watching as her styles evolve.
Trees in my yard are still piled round with snow from the year’s record snowfalls. A fruit tree first had snow piled well above where branches spread out from the trunk. Snow-line above my head. Then days of wan sun, days of tepid melting, and life force becomes part of the act. Celestial sun melts snow from the flanks of the pile — but sap rising in the tree also melts snow packed against the trunk. A snowbank with a doughnut hole.
Life, which we still so little understand, generates warmth. Generates. Because trees trap celestial sun and knit it into living cells that busy themselves in organic processes. When you rub your hands together you get warmth. A living tree harbors a million simultaneous activities, chemical, mechanical, electric — and those traveling cells, dividing cells, porous then impermeable cells, fending-off-intruder cells act as a billion pairs of rubbing hands. Heat that melts the snow.
Life emerged into a universe that had done fine without it for billions of years. Matter up to then had been acted upon but had never been an actor. Yet life acts. Creates. Pushes onward. The urgent spread of living forms — pansies, turtles, grasshoppers, kelp — suggests that life force isn’t ultimately focused on the shape of a donkey’s ears but on keeping life force itself from ever being stopped. To self-replicate self-replicate self-replicate and never get snuffed out.
We don’t have scientific language for this yet but life force seems to bestow willfulness unto aggregates of atoms. Life seems to include the imperative, keep living, that mere elements such as boron do not show.