Memory Theater

I came across images of fallen logs painted with landscapes and images of the woods from which they might have come.

Fictional forest history painted on the remnants of real forests, a reminder of life on something no longer living, a singular specimen in its own cabinet of curiosity.

Trophy - Oil on fallen log (1998) Artist: Alison Moritsugu

Trophy – Oil on fallen log (1998)
Artist: Alison Moritsugu

Renaissance cabinets of curiosity, those private collections of natural objects that have been described as ‘memory theater’ and which could include anything from antiquities and religious relics to insects and animal bones, were a way of organizing the natural world into human comprehension.

They were an era’s expression of scientific interest and exploration, and for many years, a marker of wealth and education. They were kept for the perusal of the few and the privileged.

A corner of a cabinet, painted by Frans II Francken in 1636 reveals the range of connoisseurship a Baroque-era virtuoso might evince. Source: Wikipedia

A corner of a cabinet, painted by Frans II Francken in 1636 reveals the range of connoisseurship a Baroque-era virtuoso might evince.
Source/caption: Wikipedia

Wolfgang von Goethe, for example, amassed a collection of minerals, fossils, plants, insects and other animal life, that he invited fellow writers and thinkers to examine and discuss in private at his Weimar home. A catalogue of this single collection, published in 1849, spans almost 300 pages of single-spaced entries.

The first public museum for natural history was established in 1793 in Paris, during the French Revolution. Building on a royal natural and botanical collection dating back to 1635, the object of the new Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle was to conduct scientific research as well as to instruct the populace – quite a departure from the earlier, prestige-based collections.

This seems to me a logical extension of the Enlightenment’s Encyclopédie traditions from earlier in the same century, which sought to bring knowledge to a wider public rather than keep it for a select few.

Collection shelf, Berlin Museum of Natural History Source: Erik Olsen/New York Times

Collection shelf, Berlin Museum of Natural History
Source: Erik Olsen/New York Times

Today, we take for granted many of the massive collections housed by the world’s natural history museums, large and small.

I know I spent many hours in semi-fascination tempered by the dusty boredom of looking at static animals posed in naturalistic attitudes against painted landscapes, birds stuffed in mid-flight, their plumage iridescent and stale, and helmeted beetles on pins.

I felt I was being educated, but to what end? There was usually little context, even with the painted jungles and savannahs of dioramas. I had no real sense of the animals or plants as a part of life.

Now, natural history museums are turning the tables, literally and figuratively. Many are publishing the vast encyclopedia of biodiversity found on their shelves online.

Several projects are well underway to scan the collections gathered over centuries, many of them originally private, digitize their images and information, and make them available to the public – not just to educate, but to be used in open research.

Through the Woods - Oil on 31 log sections (1996) Artist: Alison Moritsugu

Through the Woods –
Oil on 31 log sections (1996)
Artist: Alison Moritsugu

At this point, many of these specimens aren’t just curiosities – they are a last line of existence for life that has become rare, or even extinct. They hold secrets that could only be conceived of in philosophical terms back when many of them were first collected – DNA, ecological webs, life habits, connections.

They can be used to trace industrial development, climate change, and human settlement.

A New York Times article quotes Katja Seltmann, a biologist at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, as saying that each type specimen is “like the Mona Lisa. If an antenna or a leg breaks, all of a sudden, a really large part of information about that organism is gone.”

Like the fallen log creations, these specimens are each windows to an entire world, the world in which they lived.

Tall Sassafras Slice I (2001) Artist: Alison Moritsugu

Tall Sassafras Slice I (2001)
Artist: Alison Moritsugu

Reclaiming The Stuff That Matters

I guess I shouldn’t be surprised to read the results of a poll by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research showing that three-quarters of Americans are not very worried about the effects of climate change. After all, a lot of money and energy has gone into sowing doubt when it comes to climate science.

The inundation of daily data, from gossip to war to financial news to games and local weather that we call the Information Age also makes it easy to miss the links between various developments unless those links are helpfully made in the media, but then, often with round-the-clock media, the links take on an alarmist character. And unless it affects them directly, people can only stay in a state of panic for a short time before they get dulled to the noise.

FlowerHouse, a project in Detroit to try and reclaim a ruined home with fresh flowers. All images: FlowerHouse

FlowerHouse, a project in Detroit to transform a ruined home with fresh flowers.
All images: FlowerHouse

After all, how many people really care that climate change is responsible for the sudden death, in the space of a single month, of half the remaining population of the curiously snouted and endangered saiga antelope? Tens of thousands of wild antelope just dropped dead. But does that really affect anyone’s day-to-day life? Maybe if it were half the dogs in the country. Or half the cattle. The saiga antelope are strange, unique and far away. But we need to talk about these weird animals as if they matter. Because they do.

The lack of climate worry would be a problem if the United States itself didn’t weigh so heavily on the global climate change balance, both in terms of cause and effect.

In 2012, the top 10 GHG emitters accounted for more than two thirds of the global emissions total. Find the newest data on global greenhouse gas emissions on the CAIT Climate Data Explorer, click here for an interactive version of this graph. Source: World Resources Institute.

In 2012, the top 10 GHG emitters accounted for more than two thirds of the global emissions total. Find the newest data on global greenhouse gas emissions on the CAIT Climate Data Explorer, click here for an interactive version of this graph.
Source: World Resources Institute.

It’s not just the production of greenhouse gases, or the consumption of energy and goods, either. Wars – and the U.S. has a lot of influence when it comes to wars, both actively and in weapons manufacture – have a major environmental impact. And wars are already being fought over the effects of climate change, too – water wars, oil wars. We need to be aware of the International Day for Preventing the Exploitation of the Environment in War and Armed Conflict as if it matters to us personally, because it does.

I hear from many people, and I read, that great hope is placed in major technological breakthroughs, big fixes for big problems, solutions that will absolve individuals and industries and countries from having to reconsider what the desire to stick to business as usual really means.

FlowerHouse promotes sustainability and responsibility to American-grown flower farms.

FlowerHouse promotes sustainability and responsibility to American-grown flower farms.

The fact that three-quarters of the population in one of the world’s major contributors to climate change isn’t worried at all about climate change is probably one of the main reasons that real solutions aren’t being implemented on a wider scale. Sure, renewables are making progress, but fossil fuel production and consumption have expanded dramatically in the U.S. over the past few years.

A recent study says that worriers tend to be creative problem solvers. So, by extension, a nation of non-worriers isn’t going to engage overmuch in problem solving because they don’t see the necessity.

I’m not advocating round-the-clock worrying, which doesn’t do anyone much good.

Some people try to ignore climate change as just another turn of the global screw, too big for humans to fix.

Some groups, mainly in the U.S., try to divert attention from imminent climate change impact on crops, lifestyles, water supplies and shorelines. Apparently, 300 million people have something else to think about, and I know that plenty of those people have real, pressing issues that are as important to them as future notions of rising waters and wild temperatures.

Still: Talk about the upcoming UN Climate Change Conference in Paris as if it matters. Because it does.

Change is coming, it’s coming soon, and sugar-coating that reality will just make adjusting to the changes harder when they are no longer something that can be ignored.

The FlowerHouse is a collective effort to reclaim what's been abandoned, condemned and neglected.

The FlowerHouse is a collective effort to reclaim what’s been abandoned, condemned and neglected.

Just Passing Through

A flock of homing pigeons has taken up residence on our roof. How do we know they’re homing pigeons? They’re all banded, they’re very sleek and well-fed, and they seem a bit lost.

They stand on our skylights and look down at us with beaky expectation, as if we know what to do better than they. I think what they’d like to do is move on, but they’re not quite sure to where.

It’s migration season all over the world, creatures on the move. And whether out of habit, necessity or instinct, migration is always a dicey venture.

Billions of birds migrate every year, and every year it gets a little harder for them. Ornithologists at the Max-Planck Institute estimate that up to 10 billion migratory song birds don’t make it from their point of departure to their destination, and statistics are pointing to a 50 percent overall loss of the world’s songbird population in just the past 40 years.

Five of a flock of seven homing pigeons trying to figure out their next steps. Photos: PK Read

Four of a flock of seven homing pigeons trying to figure out their next steps.
Photos: PK Read

What’s happening?

There are the old culprits of hunting, with some cultures clinging to archaic trapping methods of capturing tiny birds that make barely a mouthful.
I think of these habits, which are worldwide and involve different birds in each region, and when they must have begun.
Was it out of a sense of longing, that the eating something so delicate and that sang so sweetly would somehow impart some of that fleeting beauty to clumsy, earthbound humans? Was it out of basic hunger and the seasonal availability? Was it out of a sense of plenty, just so many of damn things that putting a few dozen in a pie would make no difference?
These days, it seems like people do it just because they can. And old habits die hard.

Migratory bird routes mapped and animated by Movebank, a project of Max Planck Institute of Ornithology, which collects and communicates migration research for a wide variety of migratory animals. Source: Movebank

Migratory bird routes mapped and animated by Movebank, a project of Max Planck Institute of Ornithology, which collects and communicates migration research for a wide variety of migratory animals. Click here for a beautiful film of routes across Eurasia.
Source: Movebank

But beyond hunting, there are the bugaboos of climate change and, probably most relevant, habitat loss. Not just the habitats where the birds overwinter or breed, but the flyover areas. The navigational abilities of the migrating flocks are considerable, but can’t necessarily account for all the new human settlements in areas that used to be resting zones, or dark areas now illuminated by city lights, or absent wetlands, or all those windows that look like sky.

The good news is that there are a number of technological innovations and legislative solutions underway to try and stop some of the songbirds from ending up against a window instead of their summer home, or being confused by light smog.

What will our visiting pigeons do to find their way home? I wish I knew where they needed to go – they certainly keep looking in at me as if I do.

Hopefully, they’ll just be circling, as they do right now, and the right flight path will suddenly occur to them.IMG_1857

 

Furrows of Unseen New

The cold weather is settling in these days, and no matter how long or hot the summer was, it looks like we will still get a real winter as its counterbalance.

The lush leaves of summer are falling on empty fields and it’s that season of bleak acceptance that it will be a while before it gets truly warm again.

It’ll get darker before it gets lighter again.

There was the news this week that follows on something I’ve written about before, the epic sea chase of one of the sea’s most notorious illegal fishing boats, the Nigerian-registered Thunder, by the environmental activist vessel, the Sea Shepherd.

Fallen leaves on bare furrows. All photos: PKR

Fallen leaves on bare furrows.
All photos: PKR

The world’s longest recorded pursuit on the high seas ended in July, after 110 days and 10,000 nautical miles, with the captain of the Thunder deliberately sinking his own ship and the entire cargo to prevent any evidence that could incriminate them.

Who rescued the crew? Why, the Sea Shepherd, of course – but not before boarding the sinking ship and retrieving some of the frozen, and pirated, Patagonian toothfish (aka Chilean sea bass) at the heart of the whole chase.

The story of the Thunder makes for grim reading – besides the industrial-scale poaching, the flouting of international laws and including a side story of alleged human trafficking victims that made up the Indonesian deck crew – there is a silver lining.

Because this week, a court in São Tomé and Príncipe, the island nation off the west coast of Africa where the Thunder crew was taken after rescue, convicted the captain and two senior crew of multiple charges linked to illegal fishing, including forgery, pollution, and damage to the environment. photo 2-3

Lacking jurisdiction to prosecute illegal fishing in the Antarctic, the courts nonetheless found charges they could make stick – the Nigerian flag under which the Thunder had been operating had been rescinded by the Nigerian government because the company that allegedly owned the Thunder didn’t exist; the Chilean government had stripped the Chilean-born captain, Luis Alfonso Rubio Cataldo, of his fishing license in 2014.

The three convicted Thunder crew have each been sentenced to almost three years in prison and collectively fined $17 million – which I’m assuming their yet-to-be identified employers (some Spanish fishing companies are under investigation) won’t pay, so unless these guys actually kept bank accounts somewhere for all those fishing profits, it’s a symbolic fine to indicate the magnitude of the crime.photo 1-3Pulling back to focus on the larger picture, this latest and very rare conviction is a step forward, perhaps one that provides more of a template than more direct approach of Palau to fighting illegal fishing – the Pacific island nation has started seizing boats suspected of illegal fishing and burning them to the water line.

Here in France, there’s seed out in the garden birdfeeders for migrating birds on their way south, and for the hardy little souls that remain here over the winter, so that they can find spring again and reproduce.

The bulbs are going into the chilling earth to get the shiver they require to germinate next year. The winter wheat is being seeded out under circles of falling hedgerow leaves.

In seasons and in the fight against illegal fishing, some endings beget other beginnings, even if we can’t quite see them yet.

Glacial Flight

My visit to Alaska last week, to attend a memorial for a young friend, was marked by both tears and laughter.

Small glacial pools glint in the Knik Glacier, Alaska. All photos: PKR

Small glacial pools glint in the Knik Glacier, Alaska.
All photos: PKR

Tears because of his tragic and early death, laughter in memory of his brilliant and raucously funny spirit.

The black line where two glaciers meet.

The black line where two glaciers meet.

In the midst of this, I was offered a chance to take a flight over the glaciers of the Chugach Mountains.

A waterfall of glacial ice.

A waterfall of glacial ice.

Here are so many textures of harsh beauty. It was hard to take in the vast and wild views – whether viewed from above or below, the landscape defies easy comprehension.

There are 25,000 glaciers across the territory defined as Alaska – all but five of those glaciers are in retreat. The ones that end in water are famous for their spectacular loss of ice in calving events. But the glaciers we flew over were mostly mountain glaciers, most of which end in land – and which are also retreating very rapidly.

Estimated mass balance (1994-2013) for surveyed and unsurveyed glaciers in the most densely glacierized subregion of Alaska. The inset shows the entire region. Black lines indicate survey flight lines. Caption/Credit: Chris Larsen

Estimated mass balance (1994-2013) for surveyed and unsurveyed glaciers in the most densely glacierized subregion of Alaska. The inset shows the entire region. Black lines indicate survey flight lines.
Caption/Credit: Chris Larsen

According to a recent release published by the American Geophysical Union, “Mountain glaciers hold less than 1 percent of the Earth’s glacial ice volume. The rest is held in ice sheets on Antarctica and Greenland.

“However, the rapid shrinking of mountain glaciers causes nearly one-third of current sea level rise.”IMG_1772

Meanwhile, as I wrote in a recent post, retreating ice offers a multitude of possibilities in terms of transportation and resource exploitation.

As a New York Times article put it, whether Alaska becomes “an ecological preserve or an economic engine, an area of international cooperation or confrontation — is now the question at the center of the unfolding geopolitical competition.”

With glaciers as far as the eye can see, it’s hard to believe that formations so old and so large, and that took so long to develop, could disappear in a few short decades. IMG_1770I wasn’t in Alaska as a tourist. I went to remember and celebrate someone who departed far too young, and whose absence has left us all in shock.

So my state of mind on this visit was one of treasuring what we have in life, and mourning the treasures we lose too early.

This unexpected, awe-inspiring and melancholy flight over the rugged, ancient glaciers of southern Alaska – which was paid with a bottle of whisky when the pilot wouldn’t accept any fuel money – was well in keeping with the rest of my short journey there.

Bright blue pools of melted glacier water along a line where two glaciers flow side-by-side.

Bright blue pools of melted glacier water along a line where two glaciers flow side-by-side.

Deficit Day

According to the Global Footprint Network (GFN), today marks the point at which “humanity’s demand for ecological resources and services in a given year exceeds what Earth can regenerate in that year.” They call it Overshoot Day.

Most of the analogies I see in the press use financial lingo and banking talk to describe this very new phenomenon.

After all, we only starting using more timber, fish stocks and arable land than could be replaced by natural processes in the 1970s. The same is true for the levels of human-generated carbon emissions in relation to how much the planet can naturally process over the course of a year.

Botanische Wandtafeln – Leopold Kny [1874-1911] From The art of knowledge: educational botanical wall charts 1870 - 1960. Source: Stichting Academisch Erfgoed via Dataisnature

Botanische Wandtafeln – Leopold Kny [1874-1911]
From The art of knowledge: educational botanical wall charts 1870 – 1960.
Source: Stichting Academisch Erfgoed via Dataisnature

It used to be that this ‘deficit spending’ of resources only began late in the year. For 2015, it already arrives six days earlier than one year ago.

But financial descriptions don’t really persuade me, especially in these days of banking institutions that seem to teeter on the edge of financial volcanoes without ever actually falling in.

After all, deficit spending is what we humans, as individuals and communities and nations, do all the time. We live on credit and debt is a shadow dancer for most adults.

Botanische Wandtafeln – Leopold Kny [1874-1911] From The art of knowledge: educational botanical wall charts 1870 - 1960. Source: Stichting Academisch Erfgoed via Dataisnature

Botanische Wandtafeln – Leopold Kny [1874-1911]
From The art of knowledge: educational botanical wall charts 1870 – 1960.
Source: Stichting Academisch Erfgoed via Dataisnature

There was a time in human history when we lived like most other species on the planet. If we ate all our stocks and there was nothing left to hunt or gather, we either moved on or we perished.

Animals and plants with an overpopulation in their habitat, faced with a lack of food or resources and made vulnerable to hunger and disease, see their populations shrink in the most unpicturesque manner.

We humans have mostly managed to get around these fundamental restrictions with ingenuity, intelligence, an overwhelming desire for more and sometimes, just dumb luck.

It’s estimated that we now ‘consume’ resources equivalent to 1.6 of Earth’s capacity, i.e. we use what it would take almost two Earth’s to produce and process, every year.

Botanische Wandtafeln – Leopold Kny [1874-1911] From The art of knowledge: educational botanical wall charts 1870 - 1960. Source: Stichting Academisch Erfgoed via Dataisnature

Botanische Wandtafeln – Leopold Kny [1874-1911]
From The art of knowledge: educational botanical wall charts 1870 – 1960.
Source: Stichting Academisch Erfgoed via Dataisnature

Regardless of how we describe this process of overuse – as a deficit, as improvidence, as thoughtless or as greedy – what is profoundly different between the banking world and the natural world is that, at some point, no bailout tactics will be available.

Banking analogies? We should be so lucky.

No matter what humans might think of ourselves and our vast creativity, we are not too big to fail.

Acorus calamus. From The art of knowledge: educational botanical wall charts 1870 - 1960. Source: Stichting Academisch Erfgoed

Acorus calamus.
From The art of knowledge: educational botanical wall charts 1870 – 1960.
Source: Stichting Academisch Erfgoed

 

Finding Patterns

It’s a fact in the Western world that we have, for a very long time, operated on the assumption that we humans have consciousness cornered.

Whether we adhere to a religion or no, we have mostly acted as Genesis 1:28 commands: “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.”

All images here are the result of the Google image recognition neural network - which looks for patterns in pictures. A hallucinatory filter over a red tree.  Photograph: Google via Guardian

All images here are the result of the Google image recognition neural network – an artificial neural network (ANN) inspired by biological networks – a tool used to search for patterns in pictures. A hallucinatory filter over a red tree.
Photograph: Google via Guardian

Even before I watched documentaries of primatologist Jane Goodall’s research on chimpanzees in the 1960s, I found it hard to believe the long-held axiom of human superiority that of all creatures on the earth, only humans had emotions, social structure, intelligence, or some kind of consciousness.

That all creatures but humans operated solely on instinct.

Long-term studies are now bearing out the idea that we aren’t as special as we like to think. Descartes had it all wrong when he manage to persuade himself and countless others that animals are little more than meat machines.

I’m not talking here about cute animals stories, or reasons to become a vegetarian, or anything like that.

An ANN result of a picture of a knight after an search for animal images.

An ANN result of a picture of a knight after a search for animal images.

From the realization that many other animals use tools, to a study showing that other primates smile just like humans (and why should this come as a surprise?), to the complex social relationships of whales, to the self-restrained leadership techniques shown by alpha wolves, it’s pretty safe to say that we are not alone in the universe – and it’s not because we’ve found aliens, it’s because we’ve started seeing fellow Earth-dwellers in a different light.

They were there all along, we just didn’t know how to see them. Or we didn’t want to.

When will we get far enough in this journey of discovery to find out how they see us? What will we learn about ourselves?

A featureless image after being scanned for building images.

A featureless image after being scanned for building images.

A Little Goose Chase

We visited the county of Derbyshire, UK, a few weeks ago, travelling through an area that I suppose in the United States would be considered a fly-over zone. That is, most people from the more popular regions would fly over this region rather than pick it as a destination.

We were there with friends, one of whom had studied at the University of Sheffield. And not only were we lucky when it came to walking between raindrops, but these knowledgeable friends had booked us into the disarmingly attractive Devonshire Arms hotel in Beeley.

The mystery bronze. Photo: PK Read

The mystery bronze.
Photo: PK Read

It was in the pub of this 18th century inn that I found the bronze object above, perched on a stone ledge. The manager told me it had been given to the inn some decades earlier by Chatsworth House, and had been on the stone ledge since anyone could remember.

For me, it was clear what it was intended to represent, and also, what it actually represented.

Not far from Beeley is the Chatsworth House estate of the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire. If you’ve ever seen the 2008 movie The Duchess, you’ve seen some of this incredible place. A vast collection of artwork, magnificent gardens, and a telephone recording that features the current Duke politely requesting your patience until the next operator is available.

The crest of the Cavendish family, that is to say of the Duke of Devonshire, is a snake. And this motif can be seen throughout Chatsworth House. The same crest is a recurring image at the Devonshire Arms.

The Cavendish family serpent crest. Source: Britain Express

The Cavendish family serpent crest.
Source: Britain Express

So it follows that the entwined, scaled bronze from the pub was taken to be a snake.

But I don’t think that’s what it is.

So I called the Collection department at Chatsworth House, described the bronze and its location, and a very friendly person told me that the object was listed as a “Bronze of the British Modern school, 20th century, snake.” But the Chatsworth collection files had no image of the bronze itself. Nor did they have listings whatsoever of any pangolins in their collection, which they checked once I explained what a pangolin is.

I told her that I didn’t think the bronze was of a snake. I am pretty sure the object is meant to be a curled pangolin.

The thick tail, the triangular scales, the large body in relation to the tail, all looks very pangolin-ish. Unfortunately, the sculpture is lacking an identifying head or any feet – turned on its back, there is a second tail curled to the middle. So, really, the bronze is of the tail ends of two pangolins.

I plugged the photo of the bronze which I had taken into Google Image search. Here are a few of my results:

Illustration of the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER), under construction in southern France. Source: Technology Update/YouTube

Illustration of the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER), under construction in southern France.
Source: Technology Update/YouTube

Monster, a pet desert tortoise rescued from abandonment. Source: San Diego Zoo Desert Tortoise Conservation Center

Monster, a pet desert tortoise rescued from abandonment.
Source: San Diego Zoo Desert Tortoise Conservation Center

Ariens snowblower tires and rims. Source: Ebay

Ariens snowblower tires and rims.
Source: Ebay

There are many interesting and rather random images, but neither pangolin nor snake appeared. I can’t be entirely sure, at this point, whether the pub bronze is a snake or a pangolin.

Here’s a more modern bronze of a pangolin.

Bronze pangolin sculpture. Artist: Nick Mackman

Bronze pangolin sculpture.
Artist: Nick Mackman

And here’s an actual pangolin curled into defensive position.

Tree pangolin (Manis tricuspis) Photo: PALF Project for the Application of Law for Fauna Republic of Congo

Tree pangolin (Manis tricuspis)
Photo: PALF Project for the Application of Law for Fauna Republic of Congo

Why do I care?

Simple: I’m intrigued by these odd, rapidly disappearing mammals, and when I see what looks like a representation of one in an unexpected location, it piques my curiosity.

Like the various photos that came up when I searched for the bronze, we can see any number of things when we look at a certain image, depending on our perspective.

Be that as it may: Pangolins are one of the strangest mammals on the planet, they are the only scaled mammals, and they are being poached into extinction before most people will have ever heard of them.

Perhaps as important, I deeply enjoy the occasional wild goose chase. Or in this case, pangolin chase.

Pangolin Source: Our Beautiful World

Pangolin
Source: Our Beautiful World

 

 

Telling the Bees

Many cultures have customs relating to bees, animals that have long been highly valued, if little understood. After all, bees work hard all year, they pollinate many of our favorite foods and enable agriculture, they provide honey, and they don’t ask for much except to be left to toil in peace.

I found out today that bees are considered bearers of good fortune and should treated as members of the family. ‘Telling the bees’ means to inform them of any major family news.

Some say one should speak to bees gently, and not harshly, so as not to incur their anger, or worse, their departure.

Until this morning I didn’t have much notion of bee lore. Coming to bees late in life, as I have, what I know of the creatures and their habits is mostly either biological, or from the perspective of a honey enthusiast.

It could be said that while I don’t know bees all that well, I am a fan of their work.

A Hum of Bees, from a wonderful illustrated book of collective nouns.  Source: Woop Studios

A Hum of Bees, from a wonderful illustrated book of collective nouns.
Source: Woop Studios

I’ve written before that we have a long-standing bee colony in a high roof corner of this old house. The colony was there when we bought the house, I assume it’s been there for a very long time. There are two reasons we’ve never had it removed: The corner is high and inaccessible, and the colony doesn’t bother us.

A third reason is that by not disturbing the bees, we provide a home to an established wild colony – and bees are as threatened here in France as they are around the world. I like the hum of bees around the house and in the garden.

Our living room is located in what was once space for an attic and grain storage, and the bee colony is a few feet outside one large window of this room. We were sitting down yesterday evening, the warm glow of the sunset still flooding across the floor, when I noticed a large scattering of small bodies.

Upon closer examination, I found that they were bees. Many were alive, some weren’t. A few were wobbling around, several staggered along the windowsill. The hive outside was still buzzing with activity while the group inside the house stumbled, disoriented, too weak to flee.

I gathered them up and gently put them all – the quick and the still – outside on the window ledge, hoping they’d revive and rejoin the hive. By the time I’d put them all out, however, the sun had set and the air was cool. But I hoped some of them would make it through the night.

And see, this morning, the sun poured down on them, and a few dozen on the window ledge twitched, flexed, and took flight. The rest were too far gone.

There were also a couple dozen freshly arrived bees dozily walking around on the floor again. I put them out, they flew off.

The strange thing is, from what I could tell, none of the bees flew up to the colony. They buzzed off in wildly different directions, looping like drunk pilots. Are they succumbing to local pesticide use? Just tired from trying to find their way back home? Trying to strike out on their own and failing?

I even found a few of them clustered a floor below, under the chair at my office desk. They, too, took flight once I put them out.

Perhaps I should be telling the bees some news, but nothing comes to mind.

So what I’m wondering is what the bees might be telling me. And whether I’ll understand whatever it is they’re trying to say.

Anyone who knows bees – I’d welcome any thoughts on my disoriented visitors.

 

 

 

Arctic Oil Hubris

Black treasure (2014) blown glass Artist: Antoine Brodin

Black treasure (2014) blown glass
Artist: Antoine Brodin

The U.S. government has approved plans by Royal Dutch Shell to begin drilling for oil off the Alaskan coast this summer. This comes after years of industry lobbying to explore what some estimate to be major oil deposits in the Chukchi Sea. Some estimates run up to 15 billion barrels.

On the one hand, the U.S. administration has followed a course of promoting environmental responsibility.

On the other, this administration has pursued a policy of domestic production and self-reliance. Unfortunately, that self-reliance has been pegged to oil and gas production, including fracking. Despite the inevitable oil spills (and no matter what the companies say, they are inevitable) and the damage done by drilling and fracking, fossil fuel exploitation continues unabated.

Meduse.X (2014), ink on paper Artist: Antoine Brodin

Meduse.X (2014), ink on paper
Artist: Antoine Brodin

Despite common knowledge that carbon-based fuels are leading to rapid and irreversible changes in the Earth’s atmosphere (and no matter what a few voices say, the knowledge is common and the scientific consensus is resounding), the U.S. government and others continue to subsidize, promote, and approve fossil fuel development.

The word that comes to mind is ‘hubris’. In modern usage, hubris means exaggerated confidence or pride.

Shell is one of the most powerful companies in the world, as well as one of the richest. It also has a long track record of overestimating oil reserves, of regular oil spills on a large scale, of inconsistent safety for workers, inhabitants and environment alike. Shell oversaw oil spills in Nigeria that were the size of the catastrophic Exxon Valdez spill – not just once, but annually over the course of years.

Hubris implies arrogance so great that suffering or humiliation will follow.

Usually, though, the humiliation or suffering is experienced by the party demonstrating hubris.

Birdy (2014), blown glass, sandblasted Photo: Antoine Brodin

Birdy (2014), blown glass, sandblasted
Photo: Antoine Brodin

In the case of Shell, the humiliation is never experienced by the company. Not by the individual decision-makers, not by the company as a whole.

The humiliation and suffering is experienced by anything affected by the inevitable oil spills and the damage done by exploitation and drilling. People can argue in favor of jobs or for energy independence, but in the end, it is the company that makes the money by using the resources, land and environment that should belong to everyone.

While these lands and waters are being exploited, they belong to the company exploiting them – at least until the inevitable spill.

When it comes to the damage and clean-up, suddenly the soiled lands and seas belong to all of us again.

Corolla (2014) blown glass Photo: Antoine Brodin

Corolla (2014) blown glass
Photo: Antoine Brodin

It’s like a gambler who only gambles with someone else’s money, keeps any winnings, and assigns any losses to the foolish lender.

In ancient Greek, the word ‘hubris’ implied an shameful act perpetrated for personal gratification that brought shame upon both the victim and the perpetrator. Its contemporary equivalents might be closer to what we think of as ‘contempt’ or ‘insolence’.

And considering this decision to drill in the Arctic, a region under severe environmental pressure already due to carbon emissions, perhaps the ancient Greek version of hubris is more suitable. This plan shows genuine contempt for the Arctic, for the environment, and for anything that doesn’t turn a profit.

If only a company could feel shame.

Hubris (2014) Hot glass sculpted Artist: Antoine Brodin

Hubris (2014) Hot glass sculpted
Artist: Antoine Brodin