The Improbable Bee by Brandon


How does a bee find a flower? Perhaps, if it lives in a hive, another bee tells it where to go, but even that first bee needs to find the flower, and anyways most bees are solitary. So that bee flies off to forage, and if it's lucky it spots something of the right color, and that something turns out to be a flower. Not just any old flower, necessarily: Some bees are generalists, but others specialized -- for long-necked flowers, or maybe morning glories, or pea plants or penstemons.

Will they always be successful? Of course not. But there's always a chance; and so bees fly. And what distances! Out in the tarmac sea of a stadium parking lot, the center of a Utah saltpan with no plants for miles on any side, on a third-floor balcony in an industrial Brooklyn neighborhood, where there's a box of linaria: A bee will come by, with eyes so powerful he can a fringe of red, a signal of readiness, at the throats of their fingertip-size blossoms.

Soon he's doused in yellow pollen, like a celebrant of Holi, the Hindu festival of colors, and carries it home. If these blooms are good, he knows, so nearby linaria might be ready, too; he can smell these with antennae sensitive enough to detect part-per-trillion concentrations, to recognize single molecules floating in air.

What are the chances of that? Maybe some enterprising postdoc or apiarist has calculated them. Whatever they are, it boggles the mind; and yet it happens, again and again, an invisible equation of uncertainty, from which calculation -- trillions upon trillions of times -- the living world blossoms around us. You can reach out and touch it. Plant a flower, and a bee will come.

I think of the technologies we would derive from bees -- all those tech-press standbys of scientists who would use their eyes to make cameras, their antennae to detect bombs, their aeronautics to make, appropriately enough, new drones. I tend to be skeptical, though this could be useful enough. But will any of these bees ever make the flowers bloom?

Thoughts on Taxidermy, Fashion & Bighorn Sheep by Brandon

Seen on the G train: A bookish young hipster bringing home the taxidermied head of a bighorn ram.

As a kid I saw bighorn sheep several times, though I'm not sure whether the memories are my own or appropriated clips from Marty Stouffer's Wild America. Probably both. Sure-footed and wary, deep-chested rams colliding with an impact that should crack the mountain.

Recent lines from the New York Times: Two interior designers live in a 2,000-square-foot TriBeCa loft featuring "a stuffed baby seal in a glass-encased seascape diorama … and many other taxidermied creatures, including a wallaby, a hawk with a rabbit in its talons and an enormous lion’s paw, claws fearsomely intact."

Less recent lines: So-and-so, directors of the play 69°S., in which white-parka-clad puppeteers on stilts recreate the Antarctic ordeal of Ernest Shackleton's icebound crew, are "the kind of theatrical couple who collect old taxidermy."

It's easy to envision. The mounted deer head, or even a mountain goat; fox on the floor, weasel on a table, beside some early-industrial instrumentation of indeterminate purpose and terrariums made from laboratory glassware.

Maybe so-and-so aren't like this. Maybe they deviate from type. The point is that there is a type, a predictable bohemian aesthetic, a kind of. (One that, should I sound too superior, I happen to share, at least somewhat. Not being able to afford large-animal taxidermy until it falls from fashion and lands in eBay, naturalist prints take their place. A dozen or so. Including one of a bighorn, natch.)

Fashion alters and cheapens what it consumes. If you're not careful, you lose what you buy, especially when fashion and personal taste -- identity -- converge for a time in agreement. When cultural waves recede, they cause erosion. Awareness is a seawall.

There are at least two distinct currents to this mainstreaming of naturalia. Label one the Nineteenth Century Explorer: Spiced with steampunk, evoking an age of mannered discovery, gentleman adventurers launching expeditions and returning with tales to delight drawing-room crowds. A spirit of mechanical marvels and curiosity cabinets, maps drawn well but incompletely, of biological ephemera and naturalists' drawings.

Where does it come from? A rejection of overt consumerism, possibly, inasmuch as natural history seems intrinsically less commodifiable and more authentic than other subjects.

A necessary thrift amidst a stagnant economy and fears of collapse; pressed flowers and folios taken from library discards are, in their non-boutique varieties, reasonably priced.

A psychic escape from the pervasive sense that no space on our map remains blank, that civilization has filled its container and is pushing back inwards. A need for nature in denaturalized lives.

Or maybe the meaning is not so dark. Maybe naturalia frames emerging appreciations of urban and suburban ecologies, or a sense of new, as-yet-unfilled maps arising in digital and social space, freed from old topographies. Maybe it's nothing more complicated than an appreciation of beauty.

Maybe it's all these things.

The second of naturalia's currents is easier to decipher. Hipster rustic, a reclamation of 19th and early-to-mid 20th century white Americana as a rich and authentic source of culture. Then as now, times were hard; people were tough, self-reliant, frugal; naturalia of a piece with the lumberjack henleys and Red Wing boots and engineer jackets.

The fashion industry, as frivolous a professional class as exists, needed for the last several years to clothe themselves in utility. Once that might have seemed like co-option, revolutions drained of power through branding, but it felt more like guilt. If you're going to blow $300 on impulse with unemployment at 10 percent, it should be made of waxed canvas. Go Forth, advises Levi's.

The economy's better now, of course, so fashion has moved on to chillwave hiker. The art school kids walking to class late in winter look like they're off to climb Mt. Rainier in the early seventies. The Chelsea boys look like they've come back and changed for dinner. This summer they'll go on day trips to Yosemite.

Animals are a part of all this, for explorers and hikers alike, but as setting. A sign, a signifier, a t-shirt drawing of a deer based on an image found in the first page of Google's image search. And I can't shake the feeling that naturalia debases nature, turns animals into objects, renders our beautiful, extraordinary living world and its inhabitants as aesthetic commodities with no more or less meaning than paisley or a bright colorway. It's life as accessory.

That pleasant young man on the G train.* A bighorn's head, severed from any sense of its heaving flanks and liquid eyes, its meaning as a species or experience as an individual. It is signage.

I give my gum to the rats and whistle at the mockingbirds.

* Of course, for all I know his dad took him to see bighorn sheep when he was young, and he studies them in graduate school and always dreamed of having one's head and is himself named Ram. Et cetera.

A Parrot Nests in Brooklyn by Brandon

Escaped from an ornithologists' crate that fell to the tarmac at JFK, refugees from pet owners, released by a guerilla naturalist in Greenwood Cemetery: Whatever their origins, monk parrots have settled in Brooklyn, favoring utility pole transformers for building their Smart Car-sized, hive-shaped colonial nests, which are unexpectedly tolerated by Con Edison, the city's electricity company. Locals hold the birds in fond esteem, perhaps because they're loud, colorful and scratch out precarious livings on the fringes of institutional power; they are, in short, the perfect symbol for this borough of immigrants.

Photo: Brandon Keim

Alton Bog by Brandon

Alton Bog At the bottom of Alton Bog is an ancient silt seabed; atop that, ten thousand years of vegetal remains, raising the bog's center above the surrounding wetlands. The soil is acidic, infertile, hypoxic; plants receive only what nourishment falls from the sky, and trees standing a few feet tall can be hundreds of years old.

Of no interest to loggers or developers, the bog has remained largely undisturbed since the last ice age. As with all old growth, that continuity manifests itself in a sense of peace.

Images | Orono Bog Boardwalk

Alton Bog

The Other Seasons by Brandon


Even though winter isn't yet over in Maine, spring has signaled its arrival. Evenings are brighter; sparrows are flocking; here and there a warm breeze surprises the cold. But before spring fully arrives comes a period of thaws and rain known locally, for self-evident reasons, as mud season. And then, after spring but before true summer, comes blackfly season, when the cost of a pleasant evening is a ring of itching bites at your sockline.

Thinking on this got me wondering about what other local, vernacular seasons existed, marking life's cycles in richer detail than the standard four seasons. I put a call out on Twitter; this is what it returned, arranged roughly from the present.

California is now more than halfway through mudslide season, which goes hand-in-hand with flood season. In upstate New York, it's partway through pothole season, which will last until the end of spring. On the Hudson, spring brings shadbush season; those bushes bloom in time with shad returning from the sea. In New York City, where city-planted street trees are wind-pollinated, it's allergy season, and fiercely so. In Alaska, it's breakup. Over the course of several weeks, seven months of snow melts in the day and refreezes each night.

From spring until next winter in the midwest it's construction season. In the Pacific northwest, it's still grey season, alternately known as rainy season, which lasts year-round, minus summer. (In Texas, there's almost summer and gone summer.) Summer in Arizona is also monsoon season, and well into Nova Scotia's summer comes mosquito season.

Summer is tourist season in Maine, followed by blueberry season; blackflies are forgotten, but in Arizona it's whitefly season. In Washington it's drought season. Bermuda Longtail season marks the start of college in Bermuda. Around this time fire season begins in California and will last through Christmas, perhaps longer.

In Vermont, after the leaves fall but before it snows, is stick season. With any luck, there will be an Indian summer. Alaska's winter is presaged by freezeup. The arrival of northerners in Arizona is the beginning of snowbird season, ending with their April departure.

In California, it's always earthquake season.

Image: Mud season in full effect, by Dwight Sipier.

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