Monday, August 21, 2017

Charlottesville (8/21/2017)

I am Charlottesville!  I visited Charlottesville last week on my way to one of my teaching gigs, upstate.  It was only two or three miles out of the way, so I felt like I could do it.  Leaving town, the car I got was tuned to an AM station that played the rightwing character known as Rush Limbaugh.  His discussion was upsetting calling the people that want the removal of the confederate status worse than ISIS who are destroying the museums in Syria and Iraq.  It was nauseating!  No mention of course that a lot of these statues were put up in the Jim Crow era, as a direct result of the voting rights act and the end of school segregation in the 1960s.  They were a kind of “in your face” statement to the black community at the time.  Here in Virginia, black kids have to go to General Lee Middle School every day; if that is not in your face!


Driving down Monument Avenue in Richmond for the first few times I was in awe, the statues are beautiful and I did not really look at what they depicted or stood for.  It helped that I am a foreigner and was not really educated about the U.S. Civil War that much.  For us Europeans it was more about the War of Independence, and living in Yorktown that is just amplified.

But I have become much more sensitive to the racial relationships.  I often jokingly call myself the token or sometimes the only "real" African American.  I was born in Africa and I am a U.S. citizen.  But I am as white as any other full blooded Caucasian. 

So why did I go to Charlottesville?  I went for three reasons:
  1. To pay my respect to Heather Heyer and the spot where she was killed.
  2. To pay my respect to the town I like a lot, Charlottesville is a great, liberal town.
  3. For myself and to symbolically poke those KKK-ers, Neo-Nazis and Alt-Right criminals in the eyes and metaphorically kick them in the testicles.


This last point was particularly important to me after listening to the radio and after a weekend of hearing Trump saying that both sides were at fault and that what he called the alt-left were violent as well.  There might have been a few, but the counter protesters were resisting fascism, racism, anti-Semitism, and discrimination against women. 


HBO was showing that the right wing groups were marching and chanting the following three slogans:
  1. Jews will not replace us
  2. You will not replace us
  3. Blood and soil


The first and the third are direct quotes of slogans that were chanted in the 1930s under the fascist Nazi regime of Hitler (anyone want to buy my tiki-torches?  I am not sure if I can ever light them again without having to vomit).  The result was the gas chambers.  I had an uncle who died in a Nazi concentration camp and a father who spent time in one.  That is why I stand with the people resisting the rightwing wingnuts.  We need to squash them and that is why I dare to say that until Trump changes his tune, as a son of a father who spend time in a concentration camp and a nephew of an uncle who died in one, he is not my president.



Tuesday, August 8, 2017

It's a matter of perception and reaction (8/8/2017)

I was watching Morning Joe the other day when Tom Brokaw mentioned how he had been working on a documentary in Wyoming on the Japanese internment during World War II.  It was in this small town, I don’t remember the name, but that does not matter.  He mentioned that during the past elections 70% of the town voted for Trump and now, a half year in, he walked around town interviewing and talking to people, his estimate is that 69% of the inhabitants are still pro-Trump.  When asked why this was, he said that the local people in this town felt that no one in Washington really looked like them, acted like them, spoke like them, or represented them, especially not the Washington elite, but that Trump came the closest.

This reminded me of an article that I wrote in 1994, entitled: Viewpoint: Perception of the Western Rangelands by the Media, Environmentalists, and the Public.  It was published in Rangelands.  It’s not the most scholarly article ever written, and not my best writing (my English was still fairly new), but I meant well.  I was a student of the naturalist literature, in addition to just having finished my Ph.D.  I had read a lot.  Muir, Leopold, and Ehrlich were some of my favorite writers about the western culture; McPhee, Hubbel, and Hoagland touched on it somewhat, Hubbel on living in rural Missouri and McPhee and Hoagland was just a traveler and all out great writer.  I was in love with Powell’s account of his trip down the Colorado River.  

We lived in Gallup, New Mexico at the time where I helped with the management of a public radio station.  We just had the outbreak of the hantavirus and the CDC was all over the place and so were reporters.  Our little volunteer run radio station was hosting reporters from NPR.  In addition, as a family, we also had connections back on the east coast and could live in both worlds and read east coast naturalists (McPhee and Hoagland) who visited the west with their personal biases as well.  So, in 1993 I was invited to give a talk on this intersection of natural resources, literature, and the " East Coast" attitude towards the western culture at a conference in Colorado Springs and this resulted in my article.

In my article I described how I saw that there was this divide between the ranching community and the people on the east coast; and recommended the we tried to bridge that gap.  We could do that be reacting rapidly to any negative information.  Being in radio and in teaching, I suggested that the reaction should be positive and educational.  But then I got job offer in the mid-west and we moved to the east in 1994.


Now twenty-three years later, after moving to the east coast, I am amazed that nothing seems to have changed, or maybe the differences have become even larger.  The ranching side seemed to have dug in even more and it still is "us against them."  I honestly did not think this would ever stay this way.  In the time of the internet and free information flow you would think we would open our mind and gotten closer, but it seems that the divides have deepened (politically, socially, and economically).

I am not a good enough philosopher or political scientist to be able to tell you why that is.  All I know is that when we dig in and close ourselves off, we can just blame them.  Keeping a dialogue going and educating our fellow human beings would be so much better but would take so much effort, and you can get disappointed.  The only thing I hoped was that dialogue and education could prevent it at least for the ranching community.  But, it seems to be a lot like in real life (here I am assuming that that town that Brokaw visited depends for a large part on ranching).  

But it is not unique to the ranching community, or the west.  There are times when I briefly talk about evolution or about climate change in my classes and there are always one or two persons who accuse me of spouting my "liberal bias."  I have learned to get a thick skin and to go on.  As I mentioned before, hopefully it will rub off on one or two in every class I teach.


I agree this picture does not represent the western U.S., so why do I show it here?
Well, this past weekend the family and I did some exploring along the eastern shore of the Northern Neck, the northern peninsula in Virginia.  I took this picture in the Hughlett Point Natural Area Preserve.  My daughter wanted to know what these grasses were doing out there in the water.  Teaching moment: A nice time to talk about sea-level rise; how the peat that is visible between the shore where we are standing and the grass once was also covered with the smooth cord grass, but the sea-level rise killed (drowned) the grass and the exposed peat is now eroding away and eventually so is the shoreline.  It is so important to be educated and to disseminate that information and to teach and educate.That is how we change the world.    

This is the philosophy we all need to have.  Keep that dialogue going, be tolerant of the other side and don't close yourself off and hope your attitude will rub off.  Terms "fake news" shut all chances for a dialogue, all the sudden we don't listen anymore and the divide opens wider.  Let's not be like that frog in that pot with water that is slowly being brought to a boil.  It will notice until it is too late.  We need to try to educate each other even when and if you get push back or accused of things you really not intent to do.  Hopefully something will stick and the opposite sides will come together if only a few inches,  



Monday, July 31, 2017

Wanna go down with me? (7/31/2017)

" I observe that there are two entirely different theories according to which men seek to get on, in the world," Elihu Root wrote.  "One theory leads a man to pull down everybody around him in order to climb up on them to get to a higher place.  The other leads a man to help everybody around him in order that he may go up with them."  Pretty deep isn't it; but who the heck was Elihu Root?

Root was Secretary of State and of War under President Theodore Roosevelt and McKinley.  He was a political "wise man", an adviser; he was an important lawyer; a U.S. Senator; and the recipient of the 1912 Nobel Peace Price.  Wow, and now I finally learned about the man.  Damn it, he was a republican.  But wait, that was a long time ago when we did not have that extreme political partisanship.

Why bring this up?  More and more am I getting this feeling somewhere in between bewilderment, confusion and sometimes being amused.  It sure is an interesting world we live in.  We see Root's theories playing out every day.  This past week it has been going on in our Nation's Capital, where civility seems to have taken a back seat, and people are pulling each other down in order to get ahead.  You must be living under a rock if you have not heard about Anthony Scaramucci's interview with the New Yorker.  Hopefully they are not pulling us all down with them, but it starts feeling that way.

Wow, here again I venture into politics and I shouldn't.   The minute I do this the hits from Russian internet sources to my blog increase exponentially.  I am not sure why, but somehow, somebody must either like or dislike it when I write about U.S. politics.  But regardless, it bothers me that humankind when confronted with these two pathways of getting ahead will still elect to choose to climb over others rather than work with others.  It is a dog eat dog world out there!

When I look in nature (let me remind you that I am a naturalist/biologist and not a political scientist or philosopher), the great societies are all based on cooperation rather than climbing over each other's back.  Bees and ants can only function in unison, not as individuals.  They don't climb over each other to get ahead.  Yet bee and ant colonies are among the most complex societies known to man, with strict social structures.  They tend to kill other species or intruders from other colonies, but their social organization is amazing.  Even a pack of wolves, macaque monkeys, chimpanzees, you name it, all have structure.  Yes there is competition and dominance or seniority, but I do not think that this is to the detriment of others in the group; maybe with the exception of the co-dominant in the group that gets pushed out.  That's a struggle for leadership of the group, not dominance at the cost of others.


This is not one of my better pictures (the bee is not in focus), but it shows our cup plant in bloom and a visiting bee.  Bees have a tremendous social structure that allows to function the way they do, to collect honey, from large distances.  Their communication is amazing as well.
Trees in the forest are the same; they all compete for light, water and nutrients.  Plants of the same species tend not to climb over each other, but they do compete.  In their competition they actually help each other grow faster, taller and more efficient.  What a novel idea.  Yes there are parasitic plants and vines that will strangle other plants, but as I have written before (for example in "Dog hairs in the woods") there is structure and a natural order to things.

As I tell the people in my classes, I am a master of over-simplification.  It is much more complex than this.  I just feel that currently as a society we are in a race for the bottom.  The way we are treating each other is horrible; the civility is gone; as is the empathy for our fellow human beings.  I am sorry, but after a week like last week I had to vent.  Hopefully next post will be positive again, and hopefully John McCain can come back to the Senate again to preach what seems his version of commonsense and bipartisanship.

Let me have it and rip me apart with you comments and critique!

Friday, July 14, 2017

Why are you here? ... On Training and Teaching (Part IIX) (7/14/2017)

I finished with the development of a new class about six weeks ago, before I went on vacation.  So it had been sitting on the shelf for that long before I finally was able to pull it off and teach it this week.  Boy, lesson learned; although I did review it a few times in the past week, it still felt foreign at certain points.  It definitively had its rough edges.  The reviews were kind, but I am my harshest critic, I can do better.  I asked them shred me, to be brutally honest, but they were too nice.

Fascinating isn’t it, we live in a strange society where if you want critique and ask for it you can barely get it.  Really, I thought it was not that polished and flowing well.  On the other hand we have a person at the helm of this country who will try to squash you like a bug if you give him the slightest little bit of critique.  You’ll be at the mercy of what his little fingers can type out in his twitter account.  It is such a strange world out there.  I am not that way; I really would like to learn from my mistakes and screw ups; although I am far from perfect (although I may come over as too arrogant in one or two of my posts).

This week I received a survey from the National Science Foundation that was sent to people with Ph.D.’s (I wonder under what rock they found me).  One of the questions was interesting.  It asked me what was important in my job (I am paraphrasing here); was it:
  • Money
  • Benefits
  • Freedom
  • Research
  • Teaching
  • Perceived contribution to society

I needed to say yes or no.  Well, the state does not pay much of anything, so that wasn’t it, I do not do research, so we can scratch that one as well.  So I choose the remaining ones.  But after I had to rank them, and there came the rub, to me it still is my perceived contribution to society.

A few weeks ago I was part of a meeting/survey that was conducted by the Virginia Institute for Marine Science on their service to local communities.  People that were asked to attend were all (volunteer) members of local boards that deal with wetlands and coastal issues.  The first question there was: “Why do you volunteer.”  My simple answer was: “To give back to the community that is willing to put up with me.”

There you have it.  It reminds of those cliffs full of gannets, murres or puffins that we saw in Newfoundland, and the story of the people from (coastal) communities in Newfoundland that pulled sailors from ships that hit those rocks and took care of them.  In my previous post I spoke about two of them, but another example is the S.S. Ethie.  This ship perished December 11, 1919 and here again, the kind people that lived along the shore helped to save the crew and passengers (including a baby) and took care of them once they were on shore.
Remnants of the SS. Ethie that shipwrecked in 1919.
So yes I want to contribute to society.  It was Henry David Thoreau (who just celebrated his 200 birthday this week) who encouraged "Civil Disobedience."  I would like to advocate contributing to society instead.  If we all contribute a little, the world would be a better place.  That is why I still teach, and still enjoy it, even though the pay sucks!  That is also why I encourage feedback, improve my classes and myself in general.




Sunday, July 9, 2017

Newfoundland "bathing" (7/9/2017)

Back from vacation already for about three weeks and Newfoundland feels worlds away.  It was such a different world.  I’m not sure if it was the news blackout we gave ourselves, the relaxed atmosphere, the constant supply of seafood, the great people, the cool temperatures, nature, or what it was.  Life had slowed down, I felt so relaxed. 

I took this picture at sunset along the west coast of the island just outside Rocky Harbor
I want to bet it was a combination of a lot of these things. But one thing I am for sure, I was constantly reminded about some of the things I wrote in my posts about “forest bathing”; the smell of the balsam fir in the forest was overwhelming. As I mentioned in that post, Japanese researchers found that the smell, fragrance or volatile substances called phytoncides that these and many conifers give off have a property of reducing stress levels and increasing killer cells, cells that kill tumor cells, in your body. They also lower your blood pressure. This effect seems to last a couple of weeks. Well darn it, it must have worn off in me by now, especially after being confronted by our life back here in the U.S.A., including nasty tweets!

The woods of Gros Morne National Park, a mixture of peat lands with balsam fir, larches, black fir, pitcher plants, and some other really cool plants.  It is especially the fragrance of the balsam fir trees that is so good for you! 
Nature in Newfoundland was amazing.  From some of the historical photographs and documents we saw, the island was quite forested and loggers cleared it over the years.  It looks like nature has not yet recovered from all that logging.  Newfoundland has a harsh environment, say the least, but wonderful.  I was amazed that on parts of the island, the deciduous trees had not yet broken bud and the larches had had just started in early June.  The ferns were in their fiddle stage.  Even the evergreens appeared to have just started their annual growth spurt.  This means that the growing season in these parts of the island is not more than about 4 or five months each year, and those cleared forests have a difficult time growing back.  Combine that with moose browsing and you know the results in some areas.  Still it kind of looks like what I would expect (tundra like).

This and many of the ferns in this area were finally sticking their head above the sphagnum moss.  Other plants that were growing here included pitcher plants and alder. 
Then there is this amazing variety in a small area. I am referring to an area called the “Table Lands” from which you can hike the Green Gardens Trail in Gros Morne National Park. In that area you go from a region that literally looks like Mars in a few miles to the Garden of Eden. It is a 8 mile hike (4 miles each way) but a crazy experience.

While not exactly the "Table Lands", this is an extension or the bottom of it.  There is little plant growth because of certain toxicities.  This is where the "Green Gardens" hike starts, and there is not much green here.  Actually the story goes that the Mars Rover was tested near here on the Table Lands.  How appropriate.

But then you come over the ridge and after a gorgeous hike you get in the "Green Garden."  Wild sheep graze here and there is some amazing scenery.  This hike will stay with me for a long time, because it was so beautiful, but also because my phone was stolen here (my only bad experience on the island ... see my previous post <here>).

Being out there in the Atlantic Ocean, close to Greenland and Iceland; right there where the cold Labrador Current runs into the Gulf Stream, near the Grand Banks one of the richest fishing grounds in the world, you can expect that Newfoundland is a seabird paradise.  It is therefore also a birdwatcher's paradise.  There are some colonies of birds that you only find here in North America.  One of themy are the puffins.  Other colonies we visited were those of the Cape St. Mary's Ecological Reserve, which were just absolutely unbelievable.  

Suffice it to say, we need to go back!  We did not get to see it all.  We need to hike more, go whale watching, see more moose, caribou, and visit areas we did not have the time for.

Puffin rock near Elliston.  During our visit is was around 38 degrees Fahrenheit (4 C), the wind was whipping (more than 20 mph) and it was drizzling.  When we got off the rock someone told us that last year a lady was blown off the rock to her death under very similar climatic conditions.  


The Murres of Cape St. Mary's Ecological Reserve.  These guys are sitting on eggs.

Gannets, gannets and gannets everywhere at Cape St. Mary's.  From a distance it looked like the rocks were snow covered, but they were brooding gannets.  And it smelled like their food ... fish.  

More gannets.

Need I say more?