Franzen, Watching Out For Birds

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Freedom … Jonathan Franzen (left), birdwatching with Guardian writer Oliver Milman (right) at Natural Bridges Farm, Santa Cruz, California. Photograph: Talia Herman for the Guardian

Thanks to Oliver Milman writing for the Guardian from Santa Cruz, California with someone whose concerns about the intersection of books and technology, combined with his interest in birds and the art of watching, have led to us featuring him more frequently in these pages than most other people:

Jonathan Franzen: ‘Climate change isn’t the only danger to birds’

‘The two things I love most are novels and birds, and they’re both in trouble,’ says The Corrections author, one of the world’s most famous birdwatchers

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Illustration: Sarah Mazzetti

Birdwatching was once an activity that elicited a sense of mild shame in Jonathan Franzen. The author stalked New York parks with binoculars in hand, rather than on a strap, carefully hiding from view the word “birds” on his field guide. Debonair friends in London recoiled in horror when told of his pastime. Franzen was furtive, almost embarrassed. Now, he is one of the most famous birdwatchers in the world.

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 Author and birdwatcher Jonathan Franzen, at Natural Bridges Farm where he goes to birdwatch in Santa Cruz, California, September 30th, 2018. Photograph: Talia Herman for the Guardian

“I totally let my freak flag fly now,” Franzen says as he scans for birds at a community garden near his home in Santa Cruz, California. His phone has an app that deciphers bird sounds. He travels the world to see recondite species. He has written about birds in essays, op-eds and novels.

“I was so socially unsuccessful in my youth and such a pariah in junior high that I really didn’t want to look like a dork,” says Franzen, the 59-year-old author whose best known works include The Corrections and Freedom. “I got over that. The success started to make me think: ‘Hey, it’s not me who’s got the problem.’” Continue reading

When Alarmism Is Required

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An illegal logging in the Alto Turiacu indigenous territory in Brazil’s Maranhão State in 2015. FÁBIO NASCIMENTO / GREENPEACE

Trust, a kind of social glue, keeps us from having to think nonstop about worst case scenarios. We trust that those with authority, whether intellectual or political, will use it responsibly. Thinking about this recently, I have been adjusting where I have least and greatest trust that responsible environmental actions are taken. Today I have made an adjustment on the former. The USA’s political leadership has been at the forefront of my thought when it comes to least responsible, least trustworthy actions. Philip Fearnside, an ecologist at the National Institute for Research in Amazonia (INPA) in Brazil, studies the consequences of deforestation in the world’s largest tropical forest, so his word carries scientific weight for me. He has put in perspective why I should turn my attention to Brazil:

Why Brazil’s New President Poses an Unprecedented Threat to the Amazon

Newly elected Jair Bolsonaro, an authoritarian nationalist sometimes called the “tropical Trump,” has staked out an environmental agenda that would open the Amazon to widespread development, putting at risk a region that plays a vital role in stabilizing the global climate.

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An indigenous woman protests against then-candidate Jair Bolsonaro, who has promised to ban the creation of new protected areas or indigenous territories, in Sao Paulo in October. NELSON ALMEIDA/AFP/GETTY IMAGES

For people concerned about the environment and climate change, U.S. President Donald Trump has proven to be as bad, or worse, than feared. He is in the process of pulling the United States out of the Paris Agreement, continues to flatly dismiss the science of human-caused global warming, and has worked ceaselessly to undo environmental regulations and weaken environmental agencies.

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Brazil’s president-elect, Jair Bolsonaro, has pledged to dismantle the country’s environmental regulations. MIGUEL SCHINCARIOL/AFP/GETTY IMAGES

Now, however, a new leader has emerged on the world stage who is poised to do even more global environmental damage than Trump. He is Jair Bolsonaro, the recently elected president of Brazil, and his extreme views on the environment, coupled with his control of nearly all the country’s levers of power, means that he is now in a position to do unprecedented harm to the Amazon and the international battle to slow climate change.

Not for nothing is Bolsonaro known as the “tropical Trump.” The parallels are many, including their embrace of the far right and their inflammatory rhetoric. And among their similarities is the way that a constant barrage of outrageous comments diverts discussion from the environmental damage that their policies portend. Continue reading

The Great Lakes And Unexpected Consequences Of Human Interventions

9780393355550_300.jpegI was not aware of this book until listening today to its author spend an hour talking about it. And that happened because of a radio program that I listened to during graduate school, which like most radio shows is now available as a podcast. The discussion was all about unintended ecological consequences of what seemed like smart decisions at the time, going back centuries and up to the present day.

It was interesting enough to search for more information about the book. In the process I found a book club that in turn led me to the book review that is just what I was looking for to complement the author interview:

In the oceanic depths of the Great Lakes, life and death swirl like coffee and cream. Growing up on the western shores of Lake Michigan, I knew this instinctively. The lake provided our drinking water and a place to cool off in the summer, but it also occasionally coughed up millions of small dead fish called alewives, which littered the shoreline, giving off an aquarial reek.

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Great Lakes vampires: Lampreys latch on to a brown trout.
 Credit James L. Amos/National Geographic, via Getty Images

As long as the town deemed the water’s bacteria count low enough, we kids would go swimming or fishing (though we weren’t allowed to eat what we caught). Our moms would sit on towels on the pebbled beach, misted with sweat, paging through magazines. “Do you go in?” they would ask one another, with widened eyes and a half-ironic cringe. Oh no, it was much too cold, or too polluted, they inevitably replied. Nevertheless, the lake served as the axis mundi of our little universe; when people gave directions, they were often oriented “toward the lake” or “away from the lake.” The name of our town had “lake” in it; the town next door did too. Both lay within Lake County. We were lake people. Continue reading

Get Your Biome On

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The Sill sells ceramic planters, watering cans, misters with arch sayings on them, fertilizer and soil mixes, totes and T-shirts. It also hosts movie nights, “sip and shop” cocktail parties and workshops (in store and online). Credit Nathan Bajar for The New York Times

Thanks to Penelope Green for brightening up our Sunday:

Meet the Plantfluencers

In a world of climate change, creating a biome of one’s own.

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Eliza Blank has conceived The Sill as a plant lifestyle company, or a global plant brand — a Glossier of plants. Credit Nathan Bajar for The New York Times

Horticulture and red wine were served up the other night at the Sill, a boutique on Hester Street, as Christopher Satch, a botanist wearing a T-shirt that read, “Plants Make People Happy,” the company motto, led a workshop on carnivorous plants.

It was plant stand-up — slightly blue patter with quick takes on Linnaeus and Darwin; binomial nomenclature (note the shape of the Venus fly trap for cues to how it got its name); detailed care instructions (carnivorous plants evolved in acidic bogs, which means they need distilled water, not tap, and lots of it); and a show-and-tell of Mr. Satch’s collection of butterworts and sundews.

Plant2Among the rapt attendees were Madison Steinberg and Lindsay Reisman, both 23 and working in public relations, and Brayan Poma, also 23, who works in construction; afterward they each took home an attractive tropical pitcher plant. “I like plants, but I kill so many of them,” said Mr. Poma, who wore a green hoodie and a goatee. “Maybe that’s why I find them so alluring.”

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The Sill began when Ms. Blank was trying to brighten up her sunless, sixth-floor walk-up with a plant or two, and was turned off by the wares at Home Depot, one of the few sources for plants and containers in the city. Credit Nathan Bajar for The New York Times

Mr. Poma is not the only millennial to feel that allure. Buoyed by Instagram, his generation’s obsession with houseplants is growing faster and more tenaciously than English ivy. Plant influencers, the horticultural stars of that medium, now have book deals, sponsors and hundreds of thousands of followers.Their apartment living rooms are the new urban jungles, spilling over with philodendrons, pilea (this year’s “It” plant) and bird’s nest ferns. Plant parents, as they call themselves, fuss over their plant babies with the attention once given to kimchi or coffee connoisseurship. (Such anthropomorphism — ironic though it may be — recalls the 1970s, when “The Secret Life of Plants” proposed plant sentience based on dubious science and convinced New Agers to chat up their spider ferns.)

Unlike George Orwell, these houseplant lovers see the lowly aspidistra as an aspirational totem, not a bourgeois cliché, and post money shots of their monsteras on #monsteramonday. That hashtag was propagated in 2016 by Morgan Doane, a director of analytics for an art company in Florida. Continue reading

Trust & Responsibility

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Sir David Attenborough on location for the new series. Photograph: Nick Lyons/BBC NHU

There are few people featured as frequently in our pages since 2011. His documentation of the wonders of nature surely qualifies as a major contribution to humanity. He has a new series and as always we link out to it here. But with it, some questions arise based on an interview he recently gave to Jonathan Watts, the Guardian’s Global Environment Editor, to promote the series:

David Attenborough: too much alarmism on environment a turn-off

Veteran broadcaster says Dynasties, his new BBC wildlife series, will be gripping, truthful and entertaining but not overtly campaigning

I am susceptible to those questions, especially after reading Guardian columnist (another frequent subject in our pages) George Monbiot’s editorial below. Just because David Attenborough is a hero does not mean he is always right. These two items are both worth a read and further consideration about the responsibility that comes with trust, well-earned, but whose value perhaps should be employed for campaigning considering what is at stake. I find myself surprised to reflexively lean in to this editorial argument, because the mission of our platform here is to emphasize creative, entrepreneurial approaches to conservation. While we chose at the outset to not focus exclusively on feel-good stories, we also do not serve up excessive doom and gloom because there is plenty of reporting on that for anyone paying attention. Maybe my surprise is more that a hero of nature-lovers reveals himself to explicitly avoid campaigning when he knows better than most from decades of close observation what the planet has been losing during his lifetime.

David Attenborough has betrayed the living world he loves

By downplaying our environmental crisis, the presenter’s BBC films have generated complacency, confusion and ignorance

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David Attenborough filming the BBC series Africa in the Suguta Valley, northern Kenya. Photograph: David Chancellor/BBC

Knowingly creating a false impression of the world: this is a serious matter. It is more serious still when the BBC does it, and yet worse when the presenter is “the most trusted man in Britain”. But, as his latest interview with the Observer reveals, David Attenborough sticks to his line that fully representing environmental issues is a “turn-off”.

His new series, Dynasties, will mention the pressures affecting wildlife, but Attenborough makes it clear that it will play them down. To do otherwise, he suggests, would be “proselytising” and “alarmist”. His series will be “a great relief from the political landscape which otherwise dominates our thoughts”. In light of the astonishing rate of collapse of the animal populations he features, alongside most of the rest of the world’s living systems – and when broadcasting as a whole has disgracefully failed to represent such truths – I don’t think such escapism is appropriate or justifiable. Continue reading

On A Lighter Patrimonial Note

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“Cabinet of Curiosities” by Frans Francken the Younger, circa 1620-25. Credit Mustafah Abdulaziz for The New York Times

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Exhibition view of “Spitzmaus Mummy in a Coffin and other Treasures.” © KHM-Museumsverband.

Yesterday’s post about pre-history sleuthing coincided with my reading about this new exhibition. In our home we have a cabinet of curiosities. I also tend to like Wes Anderson films. So I had to learn more.

What is a spitzmaus, how might one have gotten mummified, and who put it in a coffin? More to the point, when and where might I see such a thing? Will it be worth the journey?

The review of this exhibition has more of a fashion review feel to it, especially with the headline photo (below, at the start of the review) and mention of celebrities in the early paragraphs. It almost made me bypass the story. But credit to Cody Delistraty for letting Mustafah Abdulaziz’s excellent photos from the exhibition speak prominently throughout the rest of his review. There are a couple of one minute videos that make clear the answers to the latter two questions:

 

The one above has a fleeting sense of Wes Anderson to it, whereas the one below is straightforward curator-speak:

 

 

But still, what is a spitzmaus?

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Wes Anderson with his partner, the author and designer Juman Malouf, at the opening of the exhibition they curated. Credit Mustafah Abdulaziz for The New York Times

Wes Anderson, Curator? The Filmmaker Gives It a Try

Mr. Anderson and his partner, Juman Malouf, were given free rein in Austria’s largest museum. But you can’t make an exhibition as you would a movie, our critic writes.

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The exhibition “Spitzmaus Mummy in a Coffin and Other Treasures” was put together from objects in the collection of the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Austria’s largest. Credit Mustafah Abdulaziz for The New York Times

VIENNA — Wes Anderson looked tired. The filmmaker was wearing a red blazer and a striped tie, standing beneath the elaborate 19th-century cupola of the Kunsthistorisches Museum. His partner, the author and designer Juman Malouf, was by his side.

Dozens of friends — the actors Tilda Swinton and Jason Schwartzman; the filmmaker Jake Paltrow; and a pair of lesser-known Coppolas among them — stood around him. Photographers jostled for angles.

It wasn’t a movie premiere, but the exhibition opening for “Spitzmaus Mummy in a Coffin and Other Treasures,” which Mr. Anderson and Ms. Malouf curated, certainly had the air of one.

Mr. Anderson and Ms. Malouf were asked to put the show together from objects in the collection of the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Austria’s largest. When Mr. Anderson stepped up to the microphone on Monday to address the guests, it was with the weariness of someone who had gone to battle and come back changed. Continue reading

Natural History, Artists & Detectives

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This Tyrannosaurus bataar dinosaur was at the center of a lawsuit demanding its return to Mongolia. Credit U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York

97803163825331.jpgMammoth-hunting is the closest anyone in our immediate circle has gotten to the kind of story that is on my mind today. Searching the word dinosaur on our platform I see that the story told in the book to the left has had a long trail that I have been following for years. If like me you had youthful dreams of becoming a hunter for pre-history’s wonders you might have thrown around phrases such as “whatever it takes.”

This cautionary tale by Paige Williams might be the antidote for any kid whose instincts are for this kind of sleuthing adventure, which requires rules just like any good game. Speaking of which, longform tale-telling is as much an interest of mine as natural history, and the way this book came to my attention was through an interview with its author.

The Bizarre Tale of the ‘Dinosaur Artist’ Who Trafficked in Stolen Fossils

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John Marshall Mantel for The New York Times

As far as case law goes, there are more consequential decisions than The United States of America v. One Tyrannosaurus Bataar SkeletonFew, however, feature a more charismatic defendant.

In 2013, the United States literally arrested the skeleton of a giant apex predator dinosaur slumbering in a warehouse in Queens. But understanding how this came to be first requires a panoptic survey of everything from the world of the Late Cretaceous period to the 1990s rise of right-wing politics in Mongolia. This is the dizzying task that Paige Williams, a staff writer for The New Yorker, has set for herself in “The Dinosaur Artist: Obsession, Betrayal and the Quest for Earth’s Ultimate Trophy.”

What began for her as the tale of an unusual court case involving a rogue fossil hunter unspools in this book into a wide-ranging examination of the ways that commercialism, ambition, politics and science collide. (Just a glance at some of the index’s entries reveals the scope: Genghis Khan, Newt Gingrich, St. Augustine, Stegosaurus and Preet Bharara.) Continue reading

A Forager’s Guide To Making Natural Ink

Ink1Since 2011, foraging has been a favored topic here. We have occasionally featured stories with reference to natural colorants, mainly about their various possible uses, and even an exhibition where you could learn more; but not until now have we seen a book like this. It looks like it will be a perfect addition to any of our numerous coffee tables, suited to brighten up even the rainiest afternoon. Click on any image to go to the website for the book. Thanks to Jason Logan for its authorship, and to Amy Goldwasser for bringing it to our attention in the New Yorker:

Ink Foraging in Central Park

The founder of the Toronto Ink Company leads a group of pigment enthusiasts on a hunt for acorns, berries, beer caps, and other ingredients.

Ink2.jpgOn a recent drizzly Tuesday morning, a small group of ink enthusiasts—already rain-slicked, under umbrellas and ponchos—stood on Gapstow Bridge, in Central Park, admiring a brilliant-pink pokeweed bush. The Park was the first stop on a five-hour foraging trip that would take them up to Hudson Heights, to collect foliage and trash, which they would cook, to make ink. Their guide, Jason Logan, the founder of the Toronto Ink Company, was in town for the launch of his book, “Make Ink: A Forager’s Guide to Natural Inkmaking.” At a reading in the West Village, he had asked the audience if anyone wanted to go foraging. The city offers some attractive ingredients: acorns, wild grapevines, beer caps, feathers, subway soot.

Ink3.jpgLogan, who is forty-six, became interested in ink about twenty years ago, when he was living in New York, working as an illustrator for newspapers and magazines. He’d burned through a bottle of black-walnut ink, which he’d bought at Pearl Paint, on Canal Street. When he returned for more, the ink was gone. “Then I found black walnuts on my way to work one morning and realized it was easy to make my own deep, rich, delicious ink,” he said.

On the bridge, Logan addressed the foragers, four women of varying ages. He has curly gray hair and was wearing a windbreaker in almost the same hue. “I’m kind of in love with gray,” he said. “It’s interesting for me, too, in terms of ink. Gray is ashes suspended in water.” Logan speaks like a laid-back chemist, using words like “petrichor,” the earthy scent produced when rain falls on dry soil. He carried a backpack filled with ink pots and collection bags.

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“That is so bright!” Julia Norton, an artist who teaches a pigment class, said, examining the pokeweed’s fuchsia stems.

“It’s so beautiful it’s hard to believe it just grows like this,” Logan said. “Pokeberry ink was most famously used by Civil War soldiers to write love notes.” Continue reading

Every Tributary To Amazon Matters, Just As Every Tributary Matters To Amazon

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The Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association’s book fair in 2013 in London. It said it was dropping AbeBooks as a sponsor of its 2019 book fair. Credit Oli Scarff/Getty Images

Above is the lead photo in an intriguing story of an act of protest, reported by by David Streitfeld. Reading it, no surprise that he won a Pulitzer Prize for Explanatory Reporting five years ago in a series of stories about Apple. Now his attention is placed on another company that has come to have an outsized role in the world, and needs explanation, and as I see it, deep concern. It is a company that I have only rarely, and only when I had no acceptable alternative, paid money to. When I have bought from them I have regretted it each time, even though the price I paid was the lowest available and the service was remarkable. Why do I resist doing business with that company and why do I wish others would do the same? That is a puzzle worth solving, and I hope that journalists are up to the task. Today, the headline proclaims:

Amazon Plans to Split Its Second Headquarters in 2 Locations

  • The company is said to be nearing deals to move to Long Island City in Queens and Arlington, Va., though a final decision has not been announced.
  • The surprise change would allow the tech giant to tap into the talent pools of two different regions.
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Bezos during his appearance at Economic Club of Washington, in September. Photograph by Andrew Harrer / Bloomberg / Getty

Exciting stuff for the politicians who want to claim credit for Amazon’s choice. But there’s a very big story behind all that. The company is powerful, and what is said about power leading to corruption is too simple for this story, and for the man leading this powerful enterprise.

I can find no reason to dislike Jeff Bezos personally. Any entrepreneur can find reasons to admire his intelligence, his determination and his contrarian approach. Every time I see him in recorded interview video I find his enthusiasm and laughter contagious. But I have had growing concern in the last decade about the company he founded, because of all the ways the lives of everyone around me seem to feed into Amazon’s market power. If you have time to read only one article on this topic today, it should probably be this one about Amazon’s location choice for HQ2:

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Jeff Bezos in Seattle, which will lose its status as the sole headquarters of Amazon. Photograph by Kyle Johnson / NYT / Redux

On October 21, 2016, an entity called the Cherry Revocable Trust purchased two adjacent buildings in the Kalorama neighborhood of Washington, D.C., for twenty-three million dollars. The buildings, which previously had housed the Textile Museum, were to be converted into a private residence—at twenty-seven thousand square feet, the largest in the city. In January, it was revealed that the anonymous purchaser represented by the Cherry Revocable Trust was Jeff Bezos, the founder and C.E.O. of Amazon. The finished property will have eleven bedrooms, twenty-five bathrooms, five staircases, and a large ballroom suitable for gatherings of Washington’s notables. It will be, in the words of the journalist Ben Wofford, “a veritable Death Star of Washington entertaining.”

In July, Jeff Bezos became the richest man in modern history, when his net worth topped a hundred and fifty billion dollars. In September, Amazon became the second company, after Apple, to achieve a trillion-dollar valuation. These two milestones in the history of this country and capitalism passed with little fanfare outside the business world, preoccupied as we are by the antics of the pretend mogul who resides in the White House. But Bezos, an actual mogul, has also been making moves in Washington, none more high-profile than his purchase of the Washington Post, in 2013. More quietly, Amazon is investing heavily in the area. Continue reading

Books In Need, People To The Rescue

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Hundreds of volunteers formed a human chain to help move October Books to its new location in Southampton, England. Credit October Books

It is probably not accurate to say books are in need. People are in need of books. And people who have been enlightened, educated, even saved by books are the kind of people we might expect to believe that the repositories of books, libraries and bookstores for example, need all the help we can give them. In the spirit of yesterday’s post, another today related to books and volunteers and the generosity of bookish people:

A Store Had to Move Thousands of Books. So a Human Chain Was Formed.

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“We wanted something that was accessible for the whole family, for children and people who were older who wouldn’t necessarily be able to paint or move heavy pieces, to help out,” a member of the October Books collective said.

LONDON — The plea went out a few weeks ago from the bookstore in a port city in southern England: “Care to lend a hand?”

Volunteers were needed for “heavy manual work” in shifts. It was “essential” that they be able to lift and carry boxes and office supplies.

Among the supplies: thousands upon thousands of books.

The appeal from October Books, a nonprofit that began 40 years ago as a “radical” bookshop, came after a rent increase forced it from its old home in Southampton, Jess Haynes, a member of the collective and one of the few paid employees, said on Wednesday.

The shop was looking to move lock, stock and barrel about 150 meters (just under 500 feet) to a three-story building that used to house a bank. Would anybody respond to the call for help? Continue reading