Friday, October 29, 2010

A Word For That... (Petrichor)

Petrichor is name of the scent of rain on dry earth. It comes from the Greek word petros (meaning "stone") and ichor (which is the mysterious fluid that flows in the veins of the gods in Greek mythology).
The term was coined in 1964 by two Australian researchers, Bear and Thomas, for an article in the journal Nature. In the article, the authors describe how the smell derives from an oil exuded by certain plants during dry periods, whereupon it is absorbed by clay-based soils and rocks. During rain, the oil is released into the air along with another compound, geosmin, producing the distinctive scent. Amazing.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

The wonders and discomforts of "femme-y" imagery...

Visual essay by Shana Moulton:
Squiggles, Trees, Ribbons and Spirals: My Collection of Women’s Health, Beauty and Support Group Logos as the Stages of Life in Semi-Particular Order

Why is this the visual language that has stuck like the only stubborn burr to the butts of us ladies? Let the richness of our experience, the diversity of our aesthetics, and the complexity of our lives guide us towards a more exciting and expansive graphic design for the female experience and womanly psyche!

Thoughts on wolves and wildnerness

This morning, I was struck by this almost one hundred year old news story. It is a horrific story that brings together our worst anxieties about wilderness, animals, and our human frailty and vulnerability. Yet, I think the story's horror is only matched by it's strangeness and extraordinariness in that wolves rarely attack humans and when they do, it is most often because of the intensive stress on their communities due to human activity. Exceptio probat regulam in casibus non exceptis? (i.e. "the exception confirms the rule in cases not excepted"?).

WOLVES KILL BRIDAL PARTY: Only Two Escape Out of 120 in Asiatic Russia (The New York Times, March 19, 1911)
ST. PETERSBURG, March 8. -- Tragic details of the fate of a wedding party attacked by wolves in Asiatic Russia while driving on sledges to the bride's house, where a banquet was to have taken place, are now at hand, and in their ghastly reality surpass almost anything ever imagined by a fiction writer. (Full article can be downloaded here or click on image).

Interestingly, a similar story as that described in the article above, makes an appearance in several works of fiction (just two examples are Willa Cather's My Ántonia and Gene Wolfe's Tracking Song).

As I wrote this, I kept reminding myself that wolves used to roam free over much of the land that humans now consider 'their own'; the privatization of land and the exploitation of its resources being alien to these ancient animals. Conservationists and writers like Farley Mowat have been able to fight the demonizing of wolves (Never Cry Wolf (1963) remains a favorite book of mine) and wolves are finally being reintroduced to their former homelands.

European contact and colonization brought an aggressive and antagonistic relationship with American wildlife (not to mention the gruesome atrocities committed against indigenous peoples). Settlers began a long and harrowing battle to get rid of all the deer, elk, bison, turkeys, pigeons, etc - all in the name of Progress, Manifest Destiny, and to serve the gods of Agriculture, Settlement (i.e. Real Estate development), and Industry - in other words, modern industrial globalized capitalism. In such a climate, wild animals were left less and less land on which to live, eat, and survive, and often full-fledged extermination followed suit. So, the bears, wolves, and coyotes found themselves as 'trespassers' on land that was previously common, wild, and open. Populations of wolves were pushed into more and more marginal areas. With nothing else left to eat, the animals attacked livestock, and sometimes people. Settlers targeted these predatory animals and the federal government even employed trappers who spent years hunting down the last wolf and killing it. The last wolves were actually killed by the U.S. Biological Survey, which is the agency that transformed itself into the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that is now responsible for wolf restoration!

So for years, wolves were poisoned, shot, and beaten. When dens were found, the wolf pups were beaten to death and then the adults who returned to the den were shot. But it was poison that probably killed the greatest number of wild animals, wolves included. The poisoning campaign continued on up until the '70s, when poison baits were still being used throughout the western United State, even on public lands by federal agencies.

It is amazing to think that while the wolf population was systematically extinguished, the number of domesticated dogs continued to rise ever steeply in the US. According to the Human Society, there are approximately 77.5 million owned dogs in the US alone, with 39% of U.S. households own at least one dog. (This number does not include the large number of homeless or feral dogs). The DNA of a wolf and any domesticated dog are practically indistinguishable, yet their fates have been so wildly different. I think of the forests that have been destroyed, while houseplants, pesticide-ridden flower farms, and floral prints on tablecloths, bedspreads, and summer dresses continues to rise. Thoughtless destruction, lust for power and control, pathetic substitution, and short-sightedness seem to be a pattern that is hard for our species to avoid.

More on captive wolf reintroduction and captive breeding programs here. And a brief fact sheet on the wolf population in the USA, here.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Ernst Haeckel (another complicated and talented German)

Ernst Haeckel (1834 – 1919) was an eminent German biologist, naturalist, philosopher, physician, professor and artist who discovered, described and named thousands of new species, mapped a genealogical tree relating all life forms, and coined many terms in biology, including anthropogeny, ecology, phylum, phylogeny, and the kingdom Protista. Too bad he was also a total racist and apologist for ethnic discrimination. (His portrait appears third from the left on the top row and his illustration throughout in this quilt of images provided by the tentacles of Google and avid digitizers worldwide. Two more - out of thousands - of his amazing illustrations are below).

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The 2010 Nobel Peace Prize sits in jail in China

Excerpts from Gal Beckerman's article, The Peace Prize's Subversive Potential:

Since the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded last week to Liu Xiaobo, a man jailed in China for advocating democracy and human rights, the Chinese government has reacted with disdain and denial. Mr. Liu is a "criminal" whose award is "a blasphemy against the peace prize," said one government spokesman. "Every Chinese can sense a deliberate maliciousness" in the prize, declared an editorial in a state-run newspaper.

This response recalls the 1975 Peace Prize, which went to Andrei Sakharov, the nuclear physicist who had helped develop the Soviet hydrogen bomb before becoming the Soviet regime's most vociferous critic. Like Mr. Liu today, Sakharov professed democratic values that his Communist rulers dismissed as Western mores being forced on the rest of the world. One of Sakharov's most famous writings was the 1968 essay "Progress, Coexistence, and Intellectual Freedom," which circulated widely in samizdat form and was considered an existential threat by Soviet leaders. Mr. Liu, for his part, is currently imprisoned for signing Charter 08, a manifesto demanding political reform and civil liberties.

Chinese authorities have blocked Chinese Internet users from being able to search Mr. Liu's name. In its frenzy to maintain control over what ideas their citizens can access, the government in Beijing has exposed its own vulnerability.

There is another parallel between the two Peace Prizes. Sakharov was given the award during a period of détente between the United States and the Soviet Union. By 1975 the U.S.-Soviet relationship had for a few years been characterized by a realpolitik focus on arms control and trade, while moral issues—like intellectual freedom and the right to emigrate—were downplayed. The Peace Prize forced those issues onto center stage. Mr. Liu's award offers hope that, after years of a U.S.-Chinese relationship that has concentrated on economic partnership and overlooked issues of human rights, China might now have to recognize that universal values can't be so easily ignored.

And the call to action from Amnesty International (follow the link to learn more, sign a petition, donate money, and get involved in AI):

hina expressed outrage last week over the Nobel committee’s decision to award its prestigious Peace Prize to incarcerated Chinese human rights activist Liu Xiaobo. But the real outrage is China’s treatment of those who dare to speak truth to power.

We couldn’t be more thrilled for Liu and the spotlight the award places on his unrelenting fight for fundamental freedoms and human rights in China. But Liu won’t be able to celebrate his win with the rest of the world from the confines of his prison cell.

Adding insult to injury, Chinese authorities have placed Liu’s wife Liu Xia under house arrest, likely preventing her from receiving the award in Norway on Liu’s behalf. They’ve also cracked down on activists celebrating Liu’s achievement. Liu Xiaobo needs your help.

Liu, a 54-year old author and scholar, is a prominent government critic who has repeatedly called for human rights protections, political accountability and democratization in China. In 2009 Liu was charged with "inciting subversion of state power" and given an 11-year prison sentence after an unfair trial for co-authoring a proposal for political and legal reform in China.

Amnesty International has long called for Liu’s release. We need your help now more than ever to send a loud and clear plea for Liu’s release. This award can only make a real difference if it prompts more international pressure on China to release Liu, along with the numerous other prisoners of conscience languishing in Chinese jails for exercising their right to freedom of expression. Now is the time to act.