Tag Archives: science

Being There

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We think of wilderness as an absence of sound, movement and event. We rent our rural cottages ‘for a bit of peace and quiet.’ That shows how switched off we are. A country walk should be a deafening, threatening, frantic, exhausting cacophony.


If today’s shorn, burned, poisoned apology for wilderness should do that to us, just think what the real wild, if it still existed, would do. It’d be like taking an industrial cocktail of speed, heroin and LSD and dancing through a club that’s playing the Mozart Requiem to the beat of the Grateful Dead, expecting every moment to have your belly unzipped by a cave bear.

All humans are Sheherazades: we die each morning if we don’t have a good story to tell, and the good ones are all old.

Up for a bit of time travel? No, no, no, not in the sci-fi sense of physically transporting to another era. But in the mostly imaginary sense of picturing oneself in a prior age. Well, maybe more than just picturing, maybe picturing with the addition of some visceral experience. Charles Foster has written about what life is like for otters, badgers, foxes, deer and swifts, by living like them for a time. He wrote about those experiences in his book, Being a Beast. He wonders, here, how experiencing life as a Paleolithic and a Neolithic person can inform our current understanding of ourselves.

I thought that, if I knew where I came from, that might shed some light on what I am…It’s a prolonged thought experiment and non-thought experiment, set in woods, waves, moorlands, schools, abattoirs, wattle-and-daub huts, hospitals, rivers, cemeteries, caves, farms, kitchens, the bodies of crows, museums, breaches, laboratories, medieval dining halls, Basque eating houses, fox-hunts, temples, deserted Middle Eastern cities and shaman’s caravans.

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Charles Foster – image from Oxford University

His journey begins with (and he spends the largest portion of the book on) the Upper Paleolithic (U-P) era, aka the Late Stone Age, from 50,000 to 12,000 years ago, when we became, behaviorally, modern humans. Foster is quite a fan of the period, seeing it as some sort of romantic heyday for humanity, one in which we were more fully attuned with the environments in which we lived, able to use our senses to their capacity, instead of getting by with the vastly circumscribed functionality we have today.

Interested in the birth of human consciousness, he puts himself, and his 12 yo son, Tom, not only into the mindset of late Paleolithic humans, but into their lives. He and Tom live wild in Derbyshire, doing their best to ignore the sounds of passing traffic, while living on roadkill (well, I guess they do not entirely ignore traffic) and the bounty of the woods. They deal with hunger, the need for shelter, and work on becoming attuned to their new old world.

We’re not making the wood into our image: projecting ourselves onto it. It’s making us. If we let it.

In one stretch Foster fasts for eight days, which helps bring on a hallucinatory state (intentionally). Shamanism is a major cultural element in the U-P portrait he paints. It is clearly not his first trip. He recalls an out-of-body experience he had while in hospital, the sort where one is looking down from the ceiling at one’s physical body, seeing this as of a cloth with a broader capacity for human experience. He relates this also to the cave paintings of the era, seeing them, possibly, as the end-product of shamanic tripping. This section of the book transported me back to the 1960s and the probably apocryphal books of Carlos Castaneda.

Social grooming was important to ancestors of our species. But, with our enlarged brains able to handle, maybe, a community of 150 people, grooming became too cost-intensive.

To maintain a group that size strictly by grooming, we’d have to groom for about 43% percent of our time, which would be deadly. Something else had to make up for the shortfall, and other things have. We have developed a number of other endorphin-releasing, bond-forming strategies that don’t involve touching [social distancing?]. They are…laughter, wordless singing/dancing, language and ritual/religion/story.

It sure gives the expression rubbed me the wrong way some added heft.

He has theories about religion, communication, and social organization that permeate this exploration. He posits, for example, that late Paleo man was able to communicate with a language unlike our own, a more full-body form of expression, maybe some long-lost form of charades. There is an ancient language, thought to have been used by Neanderthals, called HMMM, or holistic, manipulative, multi-modal, musical, and memetic communication. It is likely that some of this carried forward. And makes one wonder just how far back the roots go to contemporary languages that incorporate more rather than less musicality, more rather than less tonality, and more rather than less bodily support for spoken words.

He writes about a time when everything, not just people, were seen as having a soul, some inner self that exists separately, although living within a body, a tree, a hare, a blade of grass. This sort of worldview makes it a lot tougher to hunt for reasons that did not involve survival. And makes understandable rituals in many cultures in which forgiveness is begged when an animal is killed. This becomes much more of a thing when one feels in tune with one’s surroundings, an experience Foster reports as being quite real in his Derbyshire adventure. This tells him that Paleo man was better able to sense, to be aware of his surroundings than almost any modern human can.

Foster has a go at the Neolithic as well, trying to see what the shift from hunting-gathering to agriculture was like, and offers consideration of the longer-term impacts on humanity that emanated from that change. This is much less involved and involving, but does include some very interesting observations on how agriculture revolutionized the relationship people had with their environment.

…the first evidence of sedentary communities comes from around 11,000 years ago. We see the first evidence of domesticated plants and animals at about the same time. Yet, it is not for another 7,000 years that there are settled villages, relying on domesticated plants or fixed fields. For 7,000 years, that is, our own model of human life, which we like to assume would have been irresistibly attractive to the poor benighted caveman, was resisted or ignored, just as it is by more modern hunter-gatherers. Hunter-gatherers only become like us at the end of a whip. Our life is a last resort for the creatures that we really are.

He notes that even when farming took root, many of those newly minted farmers continued living as hunter-gatherers for part of the year.

He finishes up with a glance at the contemporary. More of a screed really. He notes that phonetic writing severed the connection our languages have with the reality they seek to portray. Pre-phonetic languages tend to be more onomatopoeic, the sounds more closely reflecting the underlying reality. He sees our modern brains as functioning mostly as valves, channeling all available sensation through a narrow pipeline, while leaving behind an entire world of possible human experience that we are no longer equipped to handle. To that extent we all have super-powers, of potential awareness, anyway, that lie waiting for someone to open the right valve, presuming they have not been corroded into inutility by disuse. He tells of meeting a French woman in Thailand whose near-death experience left her passively able to disrupt electronic mechanisms. She could not, for example, use ATMs. They would always malfunction around her.

He takes a run at what is usually seen to indicate “modern” humanity.

I’ve come to wonder whether symbolism is all it’s cracked up to be, and in particular whether its use really is the great watershed separating us from everything else that had gone before.

He argues that trackers, for example, can abstract from natural clues the stories behind them, and those existed long before so-called “modern man.”

He calls in outside authorities from time to time to fill in gaps. These extra bits always add fascinating pieces of information. For example,

Later I wrote in panic to biologist David Haskell, an expert on birdsong, begging him to reassure me that music is ‘chronologically and neurologically prior to language.’ It surely is, he replied. ‘It seems that preceding both is bodily motion: the sound-controlling centers of the brain are derived from the same parts of the embryo as the limb motor system, so all vocal expression grows from the roots that might be called dance or, less loftily, shuffling about.

Foster is that most common of writers, a veterinarian and a lawyer. Wait, what? Sadly, there is no telling in here (it is present in his Wiki page, though) of how he managed to train for these seemingly unrelated careers. (I can certainly envision a scenario, though, in which we hear lawyer Foster proclaiming to the court, “My client could not possibly be guilty of this crime, your honor. The forensic evidence at the scene clearly shows that the act was committed by an American badger, while my client, as anyone can see, is a Eurasian badger.”) It certainly seems clear, though, from his diatribes against modernity, where his heart is. In the visceral, physical work of dealing with animals, which lends itself to the intellectual stimulation of a truer, and deeper connection with nature.

The first time (and one of the only times) I felt useful was shoveling cow shit in a Peak District farm when I was ten. It had a dignity that piano lessons, cub scouts, arithmetic and even amateur taxidermy did not. What I was detecting was that humans acquire their significance from relationship, that relationships with non-humans were vital and that clearing up someone’s dung is a good way of establishing relationships.

In that case, I am far more useful in the world than I ever dreamed.

GRIPES
Foster can be off-putting, particularly to those us with no love of hunting, opening as he does with I first ate a live mammal on a Scottish hill. (Well, as least it wasn’t haggis.) I can well imagine many readers slamming the book shut at that point and moving on to something else. Will this be a paean to a manly killing impulse? Thankfully, not really, although there are some uncomfortable moments re the hunting of living creatures.

Sometimes he puts things out that are at the very least questionable, and at the worst, silly. Our intuition is older, wiser and more reliable than our underused, atrophied senses. Really? Based on what data? So, making decisions by feelz alone is the way to go? Maybe I should swap my accountant for an inveterate gambler?

He sometimes betrays an unconscious unkindness in the cloak of humor:

The last thing I ate was a hedgehog. That was nine days ago. From the taste of them, hedgehogs must start decomposing even when they’re alive and in their prime. This one’s still down there somewhere, and my burps smell like a maggot farm. I regret it’s death under the wheels of a cattle truck far more than its parents or children possibly do.

I doubt it.

One stylistic element that permeates is seeing an imaginary Paleo man, X, and his son. Supposedly these might be Foster and Tom in an earlier era. It has some artistic appeal, but I did not think it added much overall.

All that said, the overall take here is that this is high-octane fuel for the brain, however valved-up ours may be. Foster raises many incredibly fascinating subjects from the origins of religion, language, our native capabilities to how global revolutions have molded us into the homo sap of the 21st century. This is a stunning wakeup call for any minds that might have drifted off into the intellectual somnolence of contemporary life. There are simply so many ideas bouncing off the walls in this book that one might fear that they could reach a critical mass and do some damage. It is worth the risk. If you care at all about understanding humanity, our place in the world, and how we got here, skipping Being a Human would be…well…inhuman. It is an absolute must-read.

We try to learn the liturgy: the way to do things properly; the way to avoid offending the fastidious, prescriptive and vengeful guardians of the place. Everything matters. We watch the rain fall on one leaf, trace the course of the water under a stone, and then we go back to the leaf and watch the next drop. We try to know the stamens with the visual resolution of a bumblebee and the snail slime with the nose of a bankvole and the leaf pennants on the tree masts with the cold eyes of kites.

Review posted – 9/17/21

Publication date – 8/31/21

I received an ARE of Being a Human from Metropolitan Books in return for a modern era review. Thanks, Maia.

=============================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal, and Twitter pages

By my count this is Foster’s 39th book

Foster’s bio on Wiki

Charles Foster (born 1962) is an English writer, traveller, veterinarian, taxidermist, barrister and philosopher. He is known for his books and articles on Natural History, travel (particularly in Africa and the Middle East), theology, law and medical ethics. He is a Fellow of Green Templeton College, Oxford. He says of his own books: ‘Ultimately they are all presumptuous and unsuccessful attempts to answer the questions ‘who or what are we?’, and ‘what on earth are we doing here?’

Interviews
—–The Guardian – Going underground: meet the man who lived as an animal – re Being a Beast by Simon Hattenston
—–New Books Network – Defined by Relationship by Howard Burton – audio – 1h 30m

Items of Interest from the author
—–Emergence Magazine – Against Nature Writing – on language as a barrier to understanding
—–Shortform – Charles Foster’s Top Book Recommendations

Items of Interest
—–Wiki on Bear Grylls – a British adventurer – mentioned in Part 1 as an example of someone more interested in the technology of survival than the point of it (p 62 in my ARE)
—–Wiki on Yggdrasil – mentioned in Part 1 – humorously (p 85)
—–Wiki on the Upper Paleolithic
—–Dartmouth Department of Music – a review of a book positing that Neanderthals used musicality in their communications Review Feature – The Singing Neanderthals:
the Origins of Music, Language, Mind and Body by Steven Mithen – Foster addresses this in this discussion of the origins of human language
—–Wiki on Carlos Castaneda
—–Discover Magazine – Paleomythic: How People Really Lived During the Stone Age By Marlene Zuk Like it says – an interesting read

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It’s Quiet, Too Quiet

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Except during the lockdown to slow the COVID-19 virus, cities drown us in sound. Buses grind gears, trucks beep, and street-corner preachers call down damnation on it all—what does this do to the human being, whose ears evolved as a warning system? In daylight, our eyes can warn us of danger in front of us. But our ears alert us to opportunity and danger twenty-four hours a day, from every direction, even through dense vegetation and total darkness.


When predators are on the prowl, birds and frogs, even insects, fall silent. No wonder humans are drawn to places where the birds feel safe enough to sing.

It’s quiet, too quiet. And it’s getting quieter.

There is a soundscape, a world of vibrations, wherever we are. I started reading this collection in a laundromat, pen and notebook at the ready. The wall-mounted TV blares The Goldbergs, an upgrade from the unspeakable Judge Judy, but still, noise that attempts to pierce my concentration, vying for attention. I sit on a bench at a table just inside a set of long, tall windows. A soft drink vending machine hums a steady note. Washing machines and dryers rumble. The irregular shmoosh-shmoosh of traffic passing on a wet street is muted by the window, higher tones intercepted by the glass. The only natural sound is a man with an operatic voice eager to engage on the subject of marriage as he folds newly-dry clothing on a table. While the urban orchestra may be largely comprised of mechanical instruments, it is not entirely so. The occasional dramatic crack and bang of nearby lightning are giant cymbals and following kettle drum, fading to a flutter-tongue trombone.

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Kathleen Dean Moore – image from her site

The sounds of nature we experience most are weather-related. The howl of a gale, the whistle of a sustained wind as it slips past constructed edges, the susurrus of wind-shuddered trees, the plik-plik-plik of hail, the long shushing notes of rain. The screech and hiss of cats fighting offers the sudden blare of a coronet and soft mallets on a high-hat. Aside from that, we do not hear mammals beyond, for the most part, neighborhood canines who make their presence felt when mail or packages are delivered or when someone approaches too close to their no-walk zone. I seriously doubt you have heard much from our fellow urbanites of the rodent family. Ground hogs save their conversation for underground, raccoons chitter on occasion when deciding among themselves which garbage can is most accessible. Roaches, ants, bedbugs and termites being notoriously quiet, the buzz of crickets and cicadas is the likeliest insectile sound we will experience, depending on whether you live in close proximity to a hive of bees, yellow-jackets, or hornets. And, of course, the occasional pestiferousness of a horsefly, or mosquitoes. Depends what part of the world you inhabit, of course.

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Gulls on Anacapa

Avian life probably offers the most sound from creatures in our natural aural canvas, the pik-o-wee of a red-winged blackbird, towee-oh-towee-ooh-towee-oh of a robin the hee-ah, hee-ah of the blue jay, the caws of covids, and gurgle of pigeons as they strut on an adjacent rooftop out of reach but within lunging distance of murderous pet felines safely contained behind windows, the rustle of feathers as a startled mourning dove launches. It is the sounds of avian life that receives the most coverage here.

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Great Blue in the Everglades

All this competes with the incessant onslaught of the television, 24/7, or so it seems, spewing news and noise into the world. City traffic also offers ongoing background noise. In my neighborhood there is the added joy of numberless hordes eager to blast car stereos at teeth-shattering volumes, as they pick up pizza next door. And there’s the hair place across the street that has proven resistant to civil pleas to lower the volume on the music they blast onto the sidewalk in hopes of attracting, I am guessing, the hearing-impaired. Silence is a rare event, and is unnerving because of that infrequency.

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Frigate Bird in the Dry Tortugas

I was living in Brooklyn when 911 happened. The sirens were ever-present, well, more ever-present than usual, masking the sudden absence of all air and most street traffic. Any city resident could tell from auditory clues alone that something very bad had happened. The soundscape changed, more than the hush created by a large snow. There was a different quality to it all, and it was unnerving, as if the quiet was in anticipation of another disaster. That was a sudden shift, and thus noticeable. The shift Kathleen Dean Moore writes of is a very different sort, more like the apocryphal frog in a pot of boiling water, which does not notice the gradual increase in heat until it is too late.

Great Egret - Big Cypress National Preserve
Great Egret in Everglades

It is necessary to leave the larger cities (unless, of course, yours features sufficient acreage to allow one true aural relief from the urban) to have a chance at a more natural chamber orchestra. The sound of waves at oceanside, of burbling streams in the woods, or rushing rivers before they become major thoroughfares. In the absence of prowling predators, there is usually no such thing as woodland silence. Particularly at night the airwaves are alive with diverse calls and responses, come-ons and threats, warnings and conversations. But the rich chorus of the unpeopled world is being silenced, as member after member of that grand orchestra has been removed from their seat. Vivaldi incorporated the sounds of wildlife into his masterpiece, The Four Seasons. Let’s hope that critter-mimicking played-instruments or recordings are not all we have left of the sonic scape of the world of wildlife.

Green Heron - Butorides virescens  725Green Heron in the Everglades

It is, of course, not just creatures that Moore writes of. There are plenty of other sounds she celebrates, the song of dripping water in a luminous cave, the calming sounds of a singing mother soothing a squalling infant, the roar of the surf, the music of wind playing over cacti spines like a bow over strings, and plenty more. While a wide range of auditory experience is noted in this book, the largest representative of sounds that may be lost is the songs of birds.

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Anhinga in a tree – Everglades

I am no one’s idea of an outdoorsman, thus my very urban point-of-reference noted above. But neither have I been locked in a box. National Parks hold a magnetic attraction and I have been fortunate enough to have visited a bunch. Moore’s effervescent tale of a pika sitting on her son’s shoe while somewhere above the treeline, and squeaking out a warning when Moore happened to move about in the family camp downhill from her progeny reminded me of having seen a pika sitting atop a rock in Glacier National Park, and issuing the same squeak. There is an excellent chance that a few of the critters she mentions here might be found in whatever part of the states you live in, or similar creatures in places outside the states. That occasional direct connection adds to the enjoyment of reading about experiences she has shared with us.

Tricolored Heron - Egretta tricolor
Tri-colored Heron – Everglades

In Earth’s Wild Music, Kathleen Dean Moore, has produced a cri du couer about the anthropo-screwing of our planet. She notes, in particular, the auditory element of our world, our experience of it, and the diminution of the actual evironment of sound on our planet as species go extinct.

Juvenile White Ibis - Eudocimus albus  737
Juvenile White Ibis – Everglades

It is a book rich not only with a blaring call for recognition of what is taking place, for concern and action, but with notes of information, many of which will make you say to yourself, “Huh, I never knew that,” whether silently or aloud.

The calls of shorebirds, which evolved at the edge of the sea, have high frequencies, audible over the low rumble of surf. In the forest, birds have low-frequency voices because the long wavelength of the low tones are not as quickly scattered or absorbed by the tangle of leaves and moss.

or

The true gifts of the saguaro are the stiff spines set in clusters on the pleats of their trunks. When the wind blows across the spines, they sing like violin strings. Better yet, when you pluck a spine, it will sing its particular tone. If a person is patient in her plucking she can play music on a saguaro cactus.

It was a jaw-dropping read for me, not just for the content, but for the gift of poetic description that Moore brings to her mission. I experienced the same piercing joy in reading this book that is usually reserved for books by Ron Rash or Louise Erdrich.

The gifts of nature tell us there is a persistence to life that no measure of insolence or greed can destroy…the natural world holds us tight in its arms—calm as we tremble, patient as we mark the days “until this is over,” strong as we weaken. When the time comes, the natural world will embrace us as we die. It will never leave us. If we are lonely, Nature strokes our hair with light winds. If, frightened in the night, we wander outside to sit on a bench in the moonlight, it will come and sit beside us. If we are immobilized, having lost faith in the reliability of everything, still the Earth will carry us around the sun. If we feel abandoned, the Earth sings without ceasing—beautiful love songs in the voices of swallows and storms. This sheltering love calms me and makes me glad.

Moore has been at this for some time. This is her eleventh book, continuing her lifelong dedication to writing about the moral imperative for protecting the only planet we have.

I am two things, a philosophy professor and a natural history writer. They speak to the same thing, I think, which is developing a responsible relationship with a place, so that you can openly learn about it and it can openly inform you and you feel this moral urgency in protecting it. – from the NHI interview

It is not so much that this book should be read slowly, it MUST be read slowly, sips, not gulps, savoring the stunning beauty of her words, the appreciation of, the wonder at our world, the sorrow at what has already faded. It reads like a novel that does not link scenes through action, but through theme. Yet those scenes can be compelling. There are 32 essays. In a chapter set in Washington state, flooding had loosened the grip on the earth of a stand of huge cedars, sufficient so that biblical winds could push them over, into each other, causing a cascade of tree onto trailers, stoving them to ruin, across roads, requiring the liberal use of chainsaws to clear passage, with the residents holed up in a local tavern hoping for surcease like a science fiction town hoping for the best against an invading zombie army. In another, she comes face to face with a cougar in a cow field. There is the song of water dripping in a luminous, unsuspected cavern, more like glass than stone.

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Pelicans – Everglades

There are occasional moments of LOL humor, one telling of a pot luck gathering. The children line up beside the planks, studying the food as if they expect it to hatch. I am not saying that there is a lot of that in here, or that her humor will appeal to you as much as it does to me, but it does appear from time to time, and is most welcome.

Moore pleads with us not only to save what can still be salvaged, but to broaden our appreciation for what is all around us, to learn to listen, and to hear all the instruments of nature, the auditory environment of the world, particularly the natural world. If you just stop, and attend, you can pick out a wide range of sounds wherever you are, whether the sounds are urban or bucolic, indoor or outdoor, from people or with no people at all nearby.

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Singing cormorant in Brooklyn

Insets at the end of each chapter highlight news, usually dire, from the real world, relating to the chapter just ended. These bolster her argument that mass political action is needed in order to have any chance at stopping corporate looting of our common heritage. Individual actions are fine, but if one focuses only on that, the battle is already lost.

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Raccoon descending a tree – Florida

I started making a list of the many sounds, almost all human, that make it to my less-than-sensitive ears. Maybe a 24-hour slice might make someone more aware. Getting out to a more natural setting to listen there will have to wait a while, and will not likely include a full 24-hour sample, but it would be nice to be able to listen for a piece of day and a piece of night. Of course, it would certainly be a challenge to identify the noises heard in a sylvan setting, given my, and probably your, unfamiliarity with the songs of individual bird species. But listening is at least a beginning. Maybe you can settle in for what happens by in a back yard or visits a bird feeder, maybe spot and listen to visitors stopping off for a brief how’ya’doin’ on a window ledge or stoop. When I was still in Brooklyn, there was a fair range of avian traffic in Prospect Park, not too far from where we lived, and in Greenwood Cemetery, which was across the street. I did listen, a bit, but I wish now that I had paid closer attention. I did, however, get a pretty full dose of the cooing of the many pigeons that bred quite happily on our sixth-floor terrace. I doubt that particular sound is at much risk.


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Canada Geese in Brooklyn/Queens

Earth’s Wild Music is a contemplative read. Maybe the best way to take this one in is to keep it by your bedside and read a few pages, a notion, an observation or two, every night before going to sleep. It will both soothe you with the beauty of its writing and alarm you with the deep terror of its message.

The warning signs are all there, blaring like a chorus of trombones, like a host of angry drivers stuck behind an accident, leaning on their horns, like a pack of fenced dogs trying to scare away a passerby, if only you will listen.

Hope is not all we need. What we need. What we need is strength—strength in numbers and strength in moral conviction. What we need is shrieking, roaring courage.

Review posted – March 12, 2021

Publication date – February 16, 2021

I received a copy of this book from Counterpoint in return for a noisy review

=============================EXTRA STUFF

The critter shots in the review are all mine, and are clickable

The author’s personal site

Interviews
—–Catapult – A Conversation with Kathleen Dean Moore, Author of ‘Earth’s Wild Music’ by Lenora Todaro
—–PostCarbonInstitute – Kathleen Dean Moore | What Could Possibly Go Right? by Vicki Robin – video – 25:25 –
—–Natural History Institute – Reciprocal Healing: Interview with Kathleen Dean Moore, Ph.D. by Alan Wartes – video – 36:11

Songs/Music
—–WETA – Classical Breakdown – 3. The Four Seasons, how Vivaldi depicts the world in sound – Spring
—–West Side Story – Maria referenced in Chapter 3 – The Sound of Human Longing
—–Sound Design – 7/17/18 – Supernatural Cactus Creatures – the alien-sounding sounds of applying a bow to a saguaro
—–Oregon State University – Music to Save Earth’s Songs

Items of Interest
—–It’s quiet, too quiet – compilation
—–Cornell Lab of Ornithology – Home page – a huge source for bird images and sounds
—–Cornell Lab of Ornithology – Common Loon – noted in chapter 3
—–Nature – Why dissonant music strikes the wrong chord in the brain by Philip Ball
—— The One Square Inch Project – referenced in Chapter 22, Silence Like Scouring Sand
—–New York Times – How Does That Song Go? This Bird Couldn’t Say by Mike Ives – on how endangered birds are failing to learn the songs they need for courtship, which could lead to their extinction
——Poets.Org – Vanishing by Brittney Corrigan
—–New York Times – This ‘Shazam’ for Birds Could Help Save Them by Margaret Renkl — On the Merlin app that helps identify birds by their songs

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Smoke Gets in Your Eyes by Caitlin Doughty

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There are many words a woman in love longs to hear. “I’ll love you forever, darling,” and “Will it be a diamond this year?” are two fine examples. But young lovers take note: above all else, the phrase every girl truly wants to hear is, “Hi, this is Amy from Science Support; I’m dropping off some heads.”

You have all seen The Producers, right? The version with Zero or Nathan, in the cinema, on TV, on the stage, whatever. Those of you who have not…well…tsk, tsk, tsk, for shame, for shame. Well, there is one scene that pops to mind apropos this book. In the film, the producers of the title have put together a show that is designed to fail. The surprise is on them, though, when their engineered disaster turns out to be a hit. During intermission of the opening performance, to Max and Leo’s absolute horror, they overhear a man saying to his wife, “Honey, I never in a million years thought I’d ever love a show called Springtime For Hitler. One might be forgiven for having similar thoughts about Caitlin Doughty’s sparkling romp through the joys of mortuary science, Smoke Gets in your Eyes. If you were expecting a lifeless look at what most of us consider a dark subject, well, surprise, surprise.

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Yes we are, and dead-ender Caitlin is happy to help with the cleanup

Caitlin Doughty has cooked up a book that is part memoir, part guidebook through the world of what lies beyond, well, the earth-bound part, at least, and part advocacy for new ways of dealing with our remains. Doughty, a Hawaiian native, is a 6-foot Amazon pixie, bubbling over (like some of her clients?) with enthusiasm for the work of seeing people off on their final journey. Her glee is infectious, in a good way. The bulk of the tale is based on her experience working at WestWind Cremation and Burial in Oakland, California, her first gig in the field. She was 23, had had a fascination with death since she was a kid and this seemed a perfectly reasonable place in which to begin what she believed would be her career. Turned out she was right.

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Caitlin Doughty from her site

Smoke Gets in your Eyes is rich with information not only about contemporary mortuary practices, but on practices in other cultures and on how death was handled in the past. For example, embalming did not come into use in the USA until the Civil War, when the delay in getting the recently deceased from battlefield to home in a non-putrid form presented considerable difficulties. She also looks at the practice of seeing people off at home as opposed to institutional settings. There is a rich lode of intel in here about the origin of church and churchyard burials. I imagine churchgoers of the eras when such practices were still fresh might have been praying for a good stiff wind.

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No Kibby, no smoke monsters here

Doughty worked primarily in the cremation end of the biz, and offers many juicy details about this increasingly popular exit strategy. But mixing the factual material with her personal experience turns the burners up a notch.

The first time I peeked in on a cremating body felt outrageously transgressive, even though it was required by Westwind’s protocol. No matter how many heavy-metal album covers you’ve seen, how many Hieronymous Bosch prints of the tortures of Hell, or even the scene in Indiana Jones where the Nazi’s face melts off, you cannot be prepared to view a body being cremated. Seeing a flaming human skull is intense beyond your wildest flights of imagination.

Beyond her paying gig, Doughty has, for some time, been undertaking to run a blog on mortuary practice, The Order of the Good Death, with a focus on greener ways of returning our elements back to the source. (Would it be wrong to think of those who make use of green self disposal as the dearly de-potted?) One tidbit from this stream was meeting with a lady who has devised a death suit with mushroom spores, the better to extract toxins from a decomposing body. I was drooling over the potential for Troma films that might be made from this notion.

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No, not pizza

One of life’s great joys is to learn something new while being thoroughly entertained. Smoke Gets in Your Eyes offers a unique compendium of fascinating information about how death is handled, mostly in America. Doughty’s sense of humor is right up my alley. The book is LOL funny and not just occasionally. You may want to make sure you have swallowed your coffee before reading, lest it come flying out your nose. I was very much reminded of the infectious humor of Mary Roach or Margee Kerr . Doughty is also TED-talk smart. She takes on some very real issues in both the science and economics of death-dealing, offers well-informed critiques of how we handle death today, and suggests some alternatives.

If the last face you see is Caitlin Doughty’s something is very, very wrong. The face itself is lovely, but usually by the time she gets her mitts on you you should be seeing the pearly gates, that renowned steambath, or nothing at all. Preferably you can see Doughty in one of the many nifty short vids available on her site. You will learn something while being thoroughly charmed. Reading this book won’t kill you, even with laughter, but it will begin to prepare you to look at that event that lies out there, somewhere in the distance for all of us, and point you in a direction that is care and not fear based. If you enjoy learning and laughing Smoke Gets in Your Eyes is dead on.

Review posted – 12/11/15

Publication date – 10/15/2014 (hc) – 9/28/15 – TP

I received this book from the publisher in return for an honest review. Well, not really. I mean they specifically said that there was no obligation to produce a review, so there is no quid pro quo involved, but it does seem the right thing to do, don’tchya think?

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal, Twitter, Instagram and FB pages

You MUST CHECK OUT vids on her site. My favorite is The Foreskin Wedding Ring of St Catherine . All right, I’m gonna stop you right there. Go ahead. I know you wanna ask. No? Fine. I’ll do it for you, but you know this is what you were asking yourself. “If she rubs it does it become a bracelet?” Ok? Are ya happy now? Sheesh!

If you are uncertain about making a final commitment to reading this book you might want a taste of the product first (That sounds sooooo wrong) Here is an article Doughty wrote about her first experience with death as a kid, from Fortnightjournal.com . There are several other Doughty articles on this site as well.

Another book sample can be found here , in The Atlantic

Doughty offers a nifty list of sites to use for dealing with death, your own (presumably, you know, before) or others.

Interview in Wired

You might want to check out one or more of the following
—–The Loved One
—–The American Way of Death
—– The American Way of Death Revisited
—–Six Feet Under

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Eels by James Prosek

book coverYeah I know, there are two reactions to the notion of eels. First there is fear when one thinks of large, oceanic moray eels popping up out of some hidden coral niche to snatch a chunk out of your leg as you swim by. Second is “eeewww.” This is for the slippery guys who inhabit rivers, streams and extreme restaurants. Get over it.

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James Prosek – from NPR

James Prosek’s Eels is a fascinating look at an unappreciated creature. Did you know that scads of eels migrate from freshwater streams and rivers to mid-ocean to spawn? The location of the Pacific spawning ground is still unknown, (or at least unrevealed) but they head for the Sargasso Sea in the Atlantic. The author attempted to keep eels once, but their wanderlust resulted in them damaging themselves trying to escape. The urge to get back to the sea can also result in the major YouTube wet dream of giant eel balls (no, Beavis, not oversized fish nads, but masses of intertwined critters, cavorting in a movable orgy) rolling their way over dry land to get to the ocean. It is probably a good idea to step aside.

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from fishermensvoice.com

Prosek offers wonderful profiles of people for whom the eel is a major part of their lives, scientists, eelers, eco-warriers, South Sea Islanders. Ray Turner is a back-woods sort in Pennsylvania who makes a living as an eeler from a year’s worth of work and a few nights of harvest. A large part of the book looks at the significance of the eel in Maori culture. This is quite eye-opening. Think buffalo and Plains Indians. He writes also of how the Japanese regard the eel and manages to find a flight to the very remote Micronesian island of Pohnpei, mentioned to him by a few of the people he interviewed for the book. It is a place of great significance in eel legend. Eels are reputed to be able to make sounds like barking dogs and crying babies, and are ascribed magical powers beyond that. Way cool. He also looks at the activities of conservationists who are trying to spare these remarkable creatures from extinction.

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a Moray eel from howstuffworks.com – not just another pretty face

Catches of eels are plummeting worldwide, the result of dams, overfishing, and the usual human fouling of natural waterways, increasing the need for information about the eel life-cycle so that this important fish (yes, eels are fish) can be preserved.

Prosek’s book is, in short, great fun. By the time I finished I could honestly say, “I’ve been slimed,” but in a good way. This book was released in 2009. It is definitely worth your while trying to locate a copy and when you do, don’t let your chance to learn about these fascinating creatures slip away.

Review posted on GR in June 2010 – updated December 2013

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Prosek’s web site

There is a video on PBS featuring Prosek, The Mystery of Eels that is definitely worth a look, although it is refreshing to see that there is something that this renaissance man, (yeah, he plays music too, in addition to being an accomplished artist and scientist) is not great at, voice-overs. The content and visuals more than make up for Prosek’s stolid delivery.

12/3/13 – Gillian Anderson, in full eel attire, promoting conservation – must see

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Filed under Non-fiction, Reviews, Science and Nature

Among the Great Apes by Paul Raffaele

book cover

…through the observations in Africa and Southeast Asia of scores of primatologists spawned by Fossey and Goodall, we have discovered great ape species each have their separate character. The orangutans are introspective loners; gorillas laid back and largely undemonstrative; the bonobos gleeful hedonists; and chimpanzees the thugs, by far the most destructive and murderous…from the Prologue

But, to varying degrees, and for diverse reasons, they are all disappearing from the wild.

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From the Universitad Pompeo Fabra in Barcelona

The author wanted to see what he could of them in their native haunts while there was still the opportunity. He looks at gorillas, chimpanzees, bonobos and orangutans, the first three in Africa, the last in Borneo. What he finds is both fascinating and alarming.

Paul Rafaele is a certified character. In 2007, he was interviewed by Peter Carlson for The Washington Post. Carlson characterized him as

a professional adventurer, perhaps the last in a long line of popular writers who ventured into wild places and returned with electrifying tales of fearsome animals and strange humans.
“He’s the last of a breed,” says Carey Winfrey, Smithsonian magazine’s editor in chief. “I don’t want to use the word ‘throwback,’ but he is a throwback.”
He’s a throwback, Winfrey says, to such 19th-century British explorer-writers as Richard Burton and John Hanning Speke and to the American writer Richard Halliburton, who traveled to Devil’s Island and swam the Sea of Galilee and followed Cortez’s route through Mexico and wrote about it all in countless articles and best-selling books in the 1920s and ’30s.
“He has a childlike curiosity and enthusiasm for people and places,” Winfrey says. “His world is a world of infinite possibilities and infinite heterogeneity. It’s the world as seen through the eyes of a 16-year-old schoolboy

The last apes the Aussie adventurer reported on in book form were the naked variety, and he was looking into the predilection of some for feeding on their own. Not so much with our furrier cousins.

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This image graces the inside rear flap of the book, and does as good a job as any of portraying the author

Gorillas

Diane Fossey made the world aware of gorillas, but not all of them. Turns out there are several sub-species. She specialized in the mountain variety, the largest of the four. There are eastern and western lowland varieties and the one you almost certainly never heard of, the Cross River gorillas, which are undoubtedly the most endangered of them all. Sorry, none from Skull Island or any other islands for that matter.

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The best known gorilla of all time

Raffaele interviews a host of field experts and fills us in on how gorillas live. We get a look at their family structure, group interaction, diet, child rearing, and the problem infants face should troop leadership change hands. We also learn that gorilla vocalization includes higher-pitched tonal calls, similar to humans humming and singing, favored by younger troop members. Can’t you damn kids keep it down? (toga, toga, Toga, Toga, TOga, TOga, TOGa, TOGa, TOGA, TOGA) Sometimes the musicality spreads. Raffaele quotes gorilla expert Amy Vedder:

One individual would start a low rumbling sound, breathing in and out in a modulated tone. This might remain a solo performance, and last no more than a minute. Often, however, others would join, adding gender- and age-specific basses, baritones, tenors and sopranos in a mix. The result was a chorus of entwined melodies, rising and falling in a natural rhythm that might continue for several minutes; a gorilla Gregorian chant in a Virunga cathedral.

Bet ya didn’t see that coming. We learn a bit about the differences among the subspecies. The Cross River offers the most unique experience of the four gorilla habitats. No, our furry friends are not punting back and forth across a waterway on bespoke rafts. Their particular brand of gorilla is named for the Cross River, where they live. It took greater effort for Raffaele to get to them than it did to reach any of the others. He was not exactly a kid when he headed out there, a trek that included significant life-threatening passages. It is particularly exciting to read of that leg of his adventure. The Cross River gorillas are the least interfered-with of any gorilla population. The animals are not at all habituated to humans, and their protectors want to keep it that way.

The plusses and minuses of habituation to people come in for considerable discussion here, for all the species under review. All the gorilla sub-species face enormous challenges. Eliminate near-constant civil wars, locals setting traps by the thousands in gorilla habitat to catch bush meat of various sorts, corrupt officials selling off protected land for logging and making charcoal, and our cousins’ chances of surviving into the 22nd century would skyrocket. If wishes were horses, though, a lot of these folks would probably kill and eat them. The fear is quite real that someday in the 21st century, because of greed and corruption, when we think of gorillas in the mist, the only thing remaining will be the mist.

Chimpanzees

If Kong was the prototypical image many of us had of gorillas, there is a chimpanzee of comparable familiarity, although of much more modest dimensions.

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Doctor Zira in Planet of the Apes (1968)

No, but nice try. There was a much earlier representative of the species, one that remained in the public consciousness long after the films in which he appeared had become quaint. I speak, of course, of a matinee idol.

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Why, Cheeta, of course, ever helpful, ever reliable, Jungle Man’s best friend

The reality of chimpanzee life in the wild is not quite so comforting. Raffaele learns about how culture is transmitted from generation to generation, relative educability of male and female young, age-based mate preference by males (it is not what you might expect), their use of medicinal plants, including A. pluriseta, an abortifacient. They are also quite willing to form gangs and murder members of their own troop. They show a decided predilection for violence. Chimpanzees are clever, and use their intelligence for dark ends.

Bonobos

Bonobos are very similar to chimps in appearance, seeming to be a slightly smaller version. But there are significant differences between the species. Carston Knott, keeper of great apes at the Frankfurt zoo, told Raffaele,

I tell new keepers that if you throw a screwdriver in with the gorillas, they wouldn’t notice it for weeks on end unless they sat on it. The chimpanzees would use it to destroy something within minutes, but the bonobos and orangutans, within thirty minutes, would figure out how to use it to unlock the cage door and escape.

Considerable differences are noted here between chimps and bonobos, the latter being the closest ape to humans, DNA-wise. It is summed up nicely in one simple statement: Chimps are from Mars, bonobos are from Venus. Well, one aspect of their existence anyway

Chimpanzee females come into heat for only a few days a month, and so competition for them among the males can be fierce, with the dominant male granting more mating rights to his allies. But bonobo females are receptive to the males for most of each month, and that means there is hardly any fighting by the males for their favors.

The lively sex lives of bonobos is not restricted by age or gender. Monkey business is just fine for bonobos, whatever their age, with partners of both genders, with plenty positional creativity being applied. Another element that differentiates bonobos from chimps is that bonding with mom persists for a lifetime. Chimpanzee maternal bonds are a lot more fragile. Unlike their larger ape cousins, bonobos do not kill other bonobos.

Orangutans

The orangutan is the largest arboreal creature on earth. Unlike their African cousins, orangutans are primarily solitary, slow moving creatures. They do not really need to get anywhere in a hurry. The orang habitat is under considerable assault, as the government clears large swaths of native forest in order to plant palm oil trees to satisfy a growing international demand. Raffaele picks up a bit of intel on the orang sex life. It includes oral. He spends some time looking at an operation in Borneo that aims at rehabbing orphaned orangs and returning them to the wild, paying particular attention to some serious problems with the program. One unusual feature about orangs is that there is dimorphism among males. The leader of the pack grows large and sprouts those facial flanges that look like rubber add-ons. Should the big guy slip on a banana peel and take a header, the vacuum will indeed be filled. And the successor will sprout the same extra bits.

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Clyde’s seems an appropriate response to the eco-vandalism the Indonesian government is committing against the orangutans’ habitat

Raffaele does take breaks from his extended nature travels to stop in at facilities doing relevant research in various parts of the world. These outings are quite interesting. He is not a fan of zoos, but does acknowledge that the finer institutions of that sort do offer real potential benefits to the species with which they work. He also has a riveting conversation with the head of a tribe whose members, he says, can transform themselves into gorillas and back again. Very Castaneda.

You may or may not go ape for Among the Great Apes, but you will certainly want to hoot and holler for all that you will learn on this journey, and might even want to thump your chest a bit when you are done, thus letting those around you know just how big and powerful your brain has become. And as for the 800 pound gorilla in the room, it is probably two gorillas inside an over-sized gorilla suit. Real gorillas only grow to about four hundred pounds. It night not even do them much good were they to begin growing to double their natural size. The challenges all the great apes face are unrelenting and deadly. The long-term prospects for all the creatures addressed here are far from great. But you will learn a heck of a lot following Raffaele on his quest, or I’m a monkey’s uncle.

======================================EXTRA STUFF

PR on Facebook

PR on Twitter

Interview with the Washington Post

The Smithsonian page for Raffaele includes links to several articles he wrote for them over the years. The information reported in several of these were incorporated into the book

Ok, I really tried to figure out how to get this image into the body of the review, but I just could not force it in. So, in a fit of self-indulgence, I am dropping it down here. Any look at a book about apes, and yes I know this is not supposed to be an ape, but a Homo Sap predecessor, seems incomplete without it.

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If you do not recognize this, you may have more evolving to do

April 26, 2016 – Just came across this sad news piece by Rachel Nuwer in the NY Times about some simian cousins – New Gorilla Survey Supports Fears of Extinction Within Decade

September 10, 2016 – An interesting piece in the NY Times about bonobo girl-power – In the Bonobo World, Female Camaraderie Prevails by Natalie Angier

November 8, 2016 – A video item in the NY Times reports on research showing similarities between human and bonobo vision – The Aging Eyes of Bonobos

December, 2016 – National Geographic Magazine – Inside the Private Lives of Orangutans – By Mel White – Photographs and Videos by Tim Laman – Pretty interesting stuff

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A Sumatran orang branching out – from the article

September 2017 – National Geographic Magazine – The Gorillas Dian Fossey Saved Are Facing New Challenges – By Elizabeth Royte

October 2017 – National Geographic Magazine – How Jane Goodall Changed What We Know About Chimps – by Tony Gerber

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Flint was the first infant born at Gombe after Jane arrived. With him she had a great opportunity to study chimp development—and to have physical contact, which is no longer deemed appropriate with chimps in the wild. – photograph by Hugo can Lawick – Image and description from article above

October 24, 2017 – Wild and Captive Chimpanzees Share Personality Traits With Humans – by Karen Weintraub

November 2, 2017 – NY Times – New Orangutan Species Could Be the Most Endangered Great Ape – by Joe Cochrane

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An orangutan from the Batang Toru region of the island of Sumatra in Indonesia, which researchers say is a distinct, third species of great apes. Credit Tim Laman
Text and image from the NY Times article above

November 4, 2017 – NY Times – Smuggled, Beaten and Drugged:The Illicit Global Ape Trade – by Jeffrey Gentleman

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A female bonobo feeding fruit to her baby at Lola Ya Bonobo. Since 2005, United Nations investigators say, tens of thousands of apes have been trafficked or killed. – Credit Bryan Denton for The New York Times
Image and text from above NYT article

April 27, 2018 – NY Times – Stand up and pay attention. Researchers may have found a clue in a particular population of chimps that helps explain how humans began to walk upright – Hints of Human Evolution in Chimpanzees That Endure a Savanna’s Heat – by Carl Zimmer

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Early hominins might have used some of the strategies documented in Fongoli chipmanzees, like staying near water. Humans have skin glands that let us sweat much more than chimpanzees, and the origin of our upright posture might have been an adaptation to stay cooler.CreditFrans Lanting/lanting.com – Image and text from above article

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