After the Election: Some Thoughts on Nature by Brandon Keim

As someone who spends a lot of time writing about and thinking about nature, I've found myself considering what place this has in society right now. Does anyone really want to hear about migrating warblers? And even if they do, does it matter?

To this I offer the reflections of George Orwell in his essay "Some Thoughts on the Common Toad." "The atom bombs are piling up in the factories, the police are prowling through the cities, the lies are streaming from the loudspeakers," wrote Orwell — yet still he delighted in blackbird songs and flights of kestrels, blooming primroses and a toad's chrysoberyl eyes. Amidst the wreckage of postwar England, nature was an affirmation of life.

One might argue: isn't that just escapism? Sure, birds and flowers and rabbits are nice, but aren't there much more important things to think about now?

I feel some of that, too. Tweeting a picture of a bluebird does feel frivolous. And yet — the rest of the living world doesn't cease to be important or beautiful or deserving simply because of our own turmoil. And if political duty demanded we stop noticing lives other than our own, that would be a sad and destructive thing. We'd be much the poorer for it.

Whatever one's political persuasion or life's circumstances, our days are far richer for treasuring that bluebird. Perhaps we might even find in a late-blooming patch of asters some common ground. I've my own politics, at odds with a great many other people; but nature, I hope, transcends all that. It might even help see us through. 

A Good-Bye to Late Fall by Brandon Keim

A Snail's Tale by Brandon

Earlier this week I visited Pelham Bay in the Bronx. On the low tide-strewn beach I gathered several empty snail shells — Neverita duplicata, also known as the shark-eye or Atlantic moon snail — only to learn yesterday, while arranging them in a terrarium, that one was still very much inhabited.

He* had retreated into his shell, stopping up the opening with his foot, and though he'd spent several days in my backpack, out of water and in indoor heat, I hoped he might yet be alive. After all, an intertidal life is already one of extremes. Googling "how long can a snail survive out of water?" also returned at least a couple stories of aquarium snail-owners who'd accidentally dropped their animals on the floor, found them months later, returned them to water and watched them come back to life.

Those were not the same species, or probably even the same genus or family, as my snail. And it's the internet. But still: a flicker of hope. At least I owed him the possibility. So today I set off for my nearest salt water, the East River, which enters the Atlantic not far from my apartment.

I caught a bus on the B44 line, which the city's transit authority split last year into two services: the standard bus, which covers about half the route, and the select bus, which completes it. Supposedly this makes the journey faster and more efficient. In practice, it often means taking the standard bus part-way, then waiting twenty minutes and a half-dozen more standard bus arrivals before the select service arrives.

Which is annoying on a chilly day, but also a reason to strike up a conversation — "... and all this for a snail!" — and so I ended up talking with two fellow passengers. Somewhat unexpectedly, they didn't seem to think my errand crazy. "That's awesome!" said one, a young woman, who advised me to open my snail's Ziploc bag. "He needs to breathe," she said.

The other, an older woman with a distinct Jamaican accent and kindly, I-saved-you-some-dinner demeanor, complimented me on not killing. "I never kill," she said. After all, other animals are simply trying to live their lives, just like her. And it was only fair: how would she like it if the animals she met wanted to kill her?

True, she might step on an ant sometimes, it can hardly be avoided, but she wouldn't swat flies. In summer, she opens her window and lets them out. In winter, she lets them be. "My husband chases them around," she explained, "but I say, 'Just wrap up the food!' The fly just wants to be warm." When waiting for a subway train and seeing a rat on the tracks, she revealed with a slightly conspiratorial air, she would even toss them food. "I can't stand seeing a hungry animal," she said.

The bus reached its final stop. We said our good-byes. I walked several blocks to the river. In that neighborhood it's kept off-limits behind fences and warehouse walls, but in a parking lot beneath the Williamsburg Bridge I snuck past a security guard and down to a section of fence just above the water line.

Concrete and stone transmuted the the rumble of far-above traffic into something like the sound of wind. A family of brants fed in the shallows, bobbing on a ferry's wake. I threw the snail over the fence and into the river, where he landed with a splash.

* Or maybe she, or even — given the marvelous sexual variety of gastropods — s/he.

Barrow's Goldeneyes by Brandon

Common on the West coast but rare in the East, there are just 250 Barrow's goldeneyes in Maine. They spend their winters here, feeding in open waters near the coast, and summer in Arctic breeding grounds. Goldeneyes are monogamous, forming pair bonds that last for life; they also demonstrate what biologists call site fidelity, returning to the same place in winter and summer.

This group — six altogether, three male and three female — live for at least part of the year on a stretch of stream in eastern Maine. It makes me happy to think that, when temperatures drop below freezing, a deep sparkling cold, these beings are in their element. They hold steady in the current, diving and surfacing as a group, calling to one another and bobbing on waters resplendent with winter's reflected colors: blue sky, white snow, evergreen boughs and the glorious low golden sun.

Bumblebees in Autumn by Brandon

Early in autumn and late in the afternoon, when grasses and flowers gone to seed glow under a strong low sun, bumblebees gather on goldenrods and aster. They sip nectar from these, the season's last blooms; pollen dots their coats. At dusk they remain, sometimes sharing a flowerhead. Their hive spans over, this time is their last, but also their own.

Resting on petals, faces buried in pistils — how glorious it must be, olfactories sensitive to single molecules of a blossom's scent, to lie on a bed of pollen! Falling asleep with the satisfaction of a job well done, a stomach full of sunshine. In the morning they're gone: off to enjoy another day, or resurrected in a sparrow's song.

The Value of Dystopia by Brandon

In response to Michael Solana's "Stop Writing Dystopian Sci-Fi—It’s Making Us All Fear Technology," which had inspired "We Need Dystopias Now More Than Ever."

Solana's essential message is, "Technology is our salvation, so why do those pesky Luddites keep trying to challenge progress and scare us?" Science fiction, like life, has always contained both utopian and dystopian themes, optimism and pessimism. If dystopias are suddenly overrepresented — which I think is untrue — it's probably worth asking why they're so popular, and maybe even trying to learn from them.

Perhaps they'resymptomatic of something important: frustrations with roots in very real social grievances, as with the co-existence of extreme poverty and technological near-omnipotence in Elysium; or concern with how tech's extraordinary possibilities are often subverted for cheap and exploitative purposes, like in Andri Snaer Magnason's Love/Star and M.T. Anderson's Feed; or, per Paolo Bacigalupi's fiction, the day-after-tomorrow imminence of resource scarcities and ecological catastrophe; or misgivings about the interconnected, seemingly fragile nature of globalization's networks, which are exposed by so many zombie/outbreak movie plots.

From a certain perspective, The Hunger Games is a parable for a moment when teenagers and young adults struggle to find jobs in a hypercompetitive marketplace. It's also an obvious parable of unconstrained big-government power. Solana's take is, "So what the hell are we supposed to make of the Hunger Games?"

An interesting historical aside is how much dystopian sci-fi — here I use the term "dystopian" loosely, as does Solana, who seems to think any story with conflict, such as Battlestar Galactica, is anti-technology — was written by cyberpunks of the 1980s and early 1990s. Most of those authors, such as William Gibson and Charles Platt and Bruce Sterling, were also early adopters and techno-proselytizers. They had a front-row seat from which to appreciate science fiction's great, lasting lesson: that technology is inseparable from human nature, culture, economics and history.

Antibiotics and washing machines and packet-transfer protocols and high-yield crop varieties are all tech. So are AK-47s and online identity theft and flash-crashes and multiple pesticide-resistant corn. The Google campus is a marvel of technology's possibilities; so was the East German surveillance state. The world is a messy place, as is progress. Sci-fi, and its dystopias, reflect and reflect upon that tension. They nourish critical thought. Rather than embracing tech on faith, as an article of secular theology, we'reencouraged to understand that technology isn't a magic-wand principle that absolves people from the hard work of progress.

Instead Solana sees technology as "perhaps the only thing" that can solve society's most pressing problems. He calls for a Panglossian science fiction, its highest purpose to "prepare people to accept the future without pain," an antidote for those Luddites who "have challenged progress at every crux point in human history."

It's telling how he refers so flippantly to that social movement. (And, the copy editor in me can't help but mention, so nonsensically: "At every point in human history"? Did Ned Ludd, smasher of mechanical looms, also invent a time machine?) Luddites weren't broadly anti-technology, but rather opposed a particular piece of machinery that threatened their livelihoods. I've no idea whether their stance was beneficial to society at large, but calling it anti-progress is a stretch, unless one thinks progress and technology are synonymous, inextricable and very simple. ("Why do we keep writing sad stories about the West African slave trade, when we could be writing fabulous tales about fast ships and cotton gins!")

We need fewer dystopias and more Star Trek, laments Solana. And indeed Star Trek is one ofour most powerfully positive, and flat-out powerful, sci-fi stories. But what makes it so inspiring, apart from the transcendent fun of a good adventure smartly told, isn't holodecks or transporters or photon engines. It's the vision of an egalitarian, multiethnic and muscular democracy, in which great power is wedded to humility and generosity. As for the technology, the Klingons and Borg and other bad guys have it, too.

Image: Enokson/Flickr

Gathering Material by Brandon

I keep meaning to finish something new. Soon.

Image: Muskrat gathering grasses. To eat? Line her burrow? Make something special?

A Bed-Stuy Wilderness by Brandon

Recently I read of a neighborhood group who dedicated themselves to restoring their local outdoor space, a stretch of weedy canal-side land kept blissfully free from further development by pollution. They were, explained the article, making ecological improvements. Before-and-after photographs showed volunteers tromping on tall grasses and plants, and later tending to a few Home Depot-style outdoor shrubs planted in a barren bank of mulch.

It feels mean to criticize such decent, civic-minded efforts, yet the photos made me cringe. What resulted from the improvements seemed far less verdant than what existed before. Those unkempt, untended weeds were full of life, giving home and shelter to insects and small animals; and the land was wild. Sure, it was just a vacant lot — but such is the nature of wild in a megacity. Nobody tended it, nobody directed it.

Wildness as a value has fallen into disfavor among some conservationists. One hears a disdain for wildness: nothing is pristine, therefore nothing is wild. But to be wild isn't to be unimpacted by human activity. Wilderness is undirected, uncontrolled. It's where life continues regardless of what we do. Not outside the human sphere, but not within it, either.

On my corner is a vacant lot. It's maybe 40 feet on each side, and despite the march of gentrification down Bedford Avenue and up Myrtle, nobody's built anything there. Bordered by a concertina wire-topped fence, the gate locked, it's inaccessible; people throw trash inside, and street garbage accumulates in unsightly drifts on the outside, but it's left alone.

Each spring the lot is fast overgrown by weeds, that derogatory label we give to plants guilty of thriving, particularly in conditions — compacted soil, disturbance, dehydration — we've created. I use the term, too. It was in the Weed Atlas of NYC that I learned their names: stinging nettle and lamb's quarters, clover and curly dock and purslane, crabgrass and ragweed and mugwort, and most of all horsetail, which by mid-summer forms a hip-high forest. Morning glories climb and cover the fence. Bumblebees buzz from flower to flower, climbing in and out until the blossoms close in afternoon. Rats move through the brush. Sparrows gather there in the morning, our songbirds, and calling insects sing at night.

Unglamorous species, all, but wild. Give me a rat in the weeds over a snow leopard in a zoo, a horsetail patch over the High Line's manicured, unnatural nativity.

Early this spring I thought I might grow something in the lot. A pollinator garden, I hoped, packing dozens of mud balls with lovely-sounding seeds — agastache and penstemon and linaria, sunflowers and moonflowers, black-eyed susans, foxglove and lupine and teasel — and late at night tossing them over the fence. In coming weeks I watched the field. My flowers failed to grow, which was disappointing but gave me a new appreciation for the lot's life, for all that did grow so dense and rich.

Then one afternoon, that life was gone. The plants were cut to bare ground, the morning glories torn out. The trash had been hauled away, and along the fence were black plastic boxes of rat poison — as if that would control rats anyways, and as if environmental point sources of neurotoxins were any better for the neighborhood. The land was, to my eyes, despoiled, my neighborhood's wildest and most beautiful place destroyed. My heart ached.

Shortly thereafter I went away for several weeks. When I came back, a new generation of weeds was already shin-high. The morning glories were well up the fence, growing so fast they'd climbed the weeds, too, and for a while the lot was a field of their blossoms. Within two months the weeds were tall again, the morning glories splendid; my flowers still didn't grow, but no matter. They didn't belong. The lot is verdant. The trash is back too, but that's peripheral. The bumblebees feed, the sparrows sing each morning.

Image: Brandon Keim/Flickr