Sunday, February 11, 2018

Rainwalking



Hiking in the woods in a steady February drizzle is understandably not everyone's idea of fun, but it does have its upside. For one thing, you'll be unbothered by crowds. Except for a young couple treading on the ice of a pond that probably wasn't all that safe, and that at the very beginning of the walk, I saw no one. The human world fell away, except for the stone wall remnants of another era.

In the mist, the green of the mosses and lichens seemed to deepen, forming a muted palette with the stones and brown leaves that might be less evident on a clearer day.

I half-expected to hear spring peepers, but it must be too early still. In compensation, I spotted a screech owl peering warily from a nest box. It wasn't what I went looking for at all, which is, of course, the best part.

Saturday, January 27, 2018

January



Miscellaneous midwinter finds. Above, snail shell (untenanted). Below, Trametes betulina, lichen and fungus, frost on woodpecker hole, wild turkeys, stone.

Tuesday, January 09, 2018

Roundabout



Colin Sackett's Uniformagazine is a pamphlet-sized quarterly, published in the UK, that ranges eclectically over various themes, but especially the intersections of landscape, human activity, and memory. Most of its contributors are unknown to me. In issue No. 3, published in Spring–Summer 2015, Ian Waites revisits the publicly funded council estate where he grew up, finding a zone that has been deregulated and privatized to the point that it is no longer the center of anything that might be called a community:
I went back to the estate to photograph my playground only to find that it had all gone. The slide, the swings and the roundabout had all been removed, leaving behind a set of modern yet suddenly ancient earthworks: concentric circles of grass, concrete and disintegrating synthetic playsurfacing. Once there were roundabouts, and children who were given the chance to play in a changed society that valued social democracy, progress and community. But now all we are left with are archaeological traces of a future that was never quite allowed to come off, and which only I seem to notice. These earthworks act like conduits in space and time, carrying me back to my childhood, and to this estate as it was in its hey-day.
Ian Waites, "Once there were roundabouts," Uniformagazine No. 3.

Uniformbooks has published Waites's related book, Middlefield: A postwar council estate in time.

Sunday, December 31, 2017

Meetings with Remarkable Sheep



By longstanding custom, the origins of which are murky, part of every New Year's Eve is devoted to paying social calls on local livestock. A brief proclamation is read, a few hasty carols sung, and the sheep tolerate the proceedings with benign indifference.

Thursday, December 28, 2017

Blegvadiana



For a guy who has been making records for something like forty-five years and has a long and complicated discography, Peter Blegvad manages to maintain a fairly low profile. His new CD, Go Figure, has been released by ReR in anticipation of a full bells-and-whistles Blegvad retrospective boxed set promised for early 2018. By my count a little shy of half of the 17 tracks on Go Figure are new songs, the others being new versions of tunes that originally appeared on earlier Blegvad or Slapp Happy records or that were premiered on the Radio Free Song Club. The band is made up of usual Blegvad confederates Chris Cutler, John Greaves, Bob Drake, and Karen Mantler, the CD package features various Blegvad doodles, and the whole thing was produced and engineered by Drake in the south of France, though not on the Côte d'Azur, a locale that prompts these typically frivolous Blegvadesque lines:
We're so rich
we're out of reach.
We're at the top of the heap
at the bottom of which
people sleep on the beach.
The new version of "God Detector" doesn't seem like an evident improvement on the one included on Choices under Pressure, and nothing here strikes me as on a par with Blegvad compositions like "King Strut," "Hangman's Hill," or "How Beautiful You Are," but it's all tuneful and fun and it might grow on you. In the meantime there's that boxed set to look forward to.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

News



Thomas Pynchon:
Rachel and Roony sat on a bench in Sheridan Square, talking about Mafia and Paola. It was one in the morning, a wind had risen and something curious too had happened; as if everyone in the city, simultaneously, had become sick of news of any kind; for thousands of newspaper pages blew through the small park on the way crosstown, blundered like pale bats against the trees, tangled themselves around the feet of Roony and Rachel, and of a bum sleeping across the way. Millions of unread and useless words had come to a kind of life in Sheridan Square; while the two on the bench wove cross-talk of their own, oblivious, among them.
V.

Saturday, December 09, 2017

World of Wonders



I read this book by the late Stephen Jay Gould shortly after it was published in 1989, and more or less randomly grabbed it off the shelf and re-read it recently. I'm not a scientist, let alone an invertebrate paleontologist, so the impressions that follow are strictly those of a layperson.

To be as brief as possible (and with no pretense of doing justice to a rich and intricately argued book), Gould's immediate subject was the rare assemblage of soft-bodied fauna discovered, a century ago, by Charles Doolittle Walcott in the geological formation known as the Burgess Shale in the Canadian Rockies. Walcott, a geologist who was the Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution at the time, classified (Gould's word is "shoehorned") his new discoveries into existing taxa (mostly of arthropods), but subsequent work by Harry Whittington, Simon Conway Morris, Derek Briggs, and others revealed that many of the creatures properly belonged in previously unknown classes or even phylla that later become extinct. These Cambrian fossils, Gould reasoned, provided evidence that in the aftermath of the Cambrian explosion that produced the ancestors of the metazoan animals with which we are familiar (e.g. crustaceans, molluscs, vertebrates — and of course us) there was a wide diversity or disparity of body plans, many of which ultimately proved to be evolutionary dead ends. Instead of a steady progress of expanding diversity from a small number of original phylla, the analysis of the Burgess Shale fauna suggested a winnowing over time of possible avenues for evolutionary development. There may be more species now, but the roster of higher-level taxa was greater during the Cambrian than now. (Or so it seemed.)

Gould's broader argument, which he used the Burgess Shale reclassification to support, centered on the importance of contingency to the evolutionary history of life on earth. The lineages that became extinct were not necessarily essentially inferior to the lineages that survived; they perished because of circumstances that were equivalent, at least in part, to a roll of the dice. Climates changed, continents moved around, asteroids impacted the earth, etc. The fact that these lineages no longer exist (while others do) proves, in a certain sense, that they were less fitted to the challenges that followed, but since the challenges themselves were contingent and not predictable we can't say that a different roll of the dice might not have produced an entirely different outcome. A minor shift might well have led to the premature extinction of the chordates and hence precluded our own existence. (Gould's title alludes explicitly to Frank Capra's film It's a Wonderful Life, in which one small change holds the possibility of triggering a cascade of altered consequences.)

In the past thirty years continuing analysis of the Burgess fauna has, inevitably, complicated the picture considerably. It's no longer as clear as it seemed in 1989 that all of the re-classified species are true "weird wonders" that can't be contained within the familiar major phyla and classes. That process is highly technical and well beyond my ken, but although Gould, had he lived, might have been disappointed by the implications of more recent developments for his thesis, he was well aware of (and specifically notes) the fact that science proceeds by a grinding process of error and rectification. ("One cannot hope to do anything significant or original in science unless one accepts the inevitability of substantial error along the way.") His larger point, reading the role of contingency, remains open.

Ironically, one of Gould's main sources (fully credited and repeatedly praised in the book), Simon Conway Morris, has been one of Wonderful Life's most vigorous detractors. For Conway Morris, who has made a particular study of convergent evolution, the logic of evolution imposes such constraints that certain outcomes can be said to be predictable or even inevitable; one of them, in his opinion, is higher intelligence of the kind that we possess. Even if the chain of contingent events had been modified, for instance, so as to extinguish the primate lineage, "humanoid" intelligence would have been highly likely to evolve (or would eventually evolve) in another. Underlying Conway Morris's argument are his Christian beliefs and his philosophical antimaterialism (although criticism of Gould's book is not limited to those who hold such beliefs).

Though both scientists — Gould and Conway Morris — have used specific paleontological evidence to buttress their positions, the broader logical and philosophical arguments are fairly resistant to easy resolution by mere fact, and one suspects that if and when the classification of the Burgess fauna is finally settled, the debate will simply be continued in another venue. Regardless, Wonderful Life seems to me to hold up as a landmark of intelligent science writing for a general audience.