I'll probably be posting over here again more often. Not much science to chat about lately.
As much as any biome or global ecoregion is a challenge to group, differentiate or otherwise generalize, the chaparral or Mediterranean woodlands (scrubland/heathland/grassland) biome may be the best example such classification difficulties. There’s perhaps more general agreement regarding the features of this biome, even if the name tends to change from author to author. Many texts will not even include this biome in their list of major regions, instead making a small reference to it in the section regarding deserts. However, these areas, considering their combined territory, contain about 20 percent of the world’s species of plants, many of them endemic gems found nowhere else. On the flipside, due to the often environmentally heterogeneous nature of this biome, organisms that are prominent, integral members of other biome classifications are found in the chaparral as well. For the sake of consistency in this post, I’ll continue to refer to this biome as chaparral, as incomplete a descriptive designation as that may be.
Specifically, chaparral biomes exist in five major regions: South Africa, South/Southwest Australia, Southwestern California/Mexico, Central Chile and in patches wrapped around the Mediterranean Sea, including Southern Europe and Northern Africa. These regions are unified by their hot, dry summers and mild winters, referred to as an archetypal Mediterranean climate at 40 degrees north and south approximately.
The vast majority of rainfall usually comes with the cold fronts of winter. Annually, chaparral can experience anywhere from 250 mm of rain all the way up to 3000 mm in isolated subregions like the west portion of Fynbos in South Africa.
Plants in chaparral areas tend to be sclerophyllous (Greek: “hard-leaved”), meaning the leaves are evergreen, tough and waxy. This adaptation allows plants to conserve water in an area where rainfall is discontinuous, but probably evolved to compensate for the low levels of phosphorous in ancient weathered soils, particularly in Australia where there have been relatively few volcanic events to reestablish nutrients over millions of years. Obviously, these plants also happen to do very well during the xeric summers of the chaparral where drought is always a threat.
Because of the aridity and heat, the chaparral plant communities are adapted to and often strategically dependent on fire. Evolutionary succession scenarios constructed by scientists typically point to fire as one of the major factors that created much of chaparral areas in Australia and South Africa from Gondwanaland rainforest. (Fire ecology really deserves at least a post of its own, which I’d like to discuss given the time in the future.)
Some of the regions in the chaparral are exceptional. In South Africa, the area known as the Fynbos constitutes its own floristic region (phytochorion) among phytogeographers, the Cape Floristic Region. While it is the smallest of these floral kingdoms, it contains some 8500 species of vascular plants, 70 percent of which are endemic. The March rose (Oromthamnus zeyheri) is one of the standout specimens of the group as well as the national flower of South Africa, the King protea (Protea cynaroides). P. cynaroides is a “resprouter” in its fire-prone habitat, growing from embedded buds in a subterranean, burl-like structure. Another endemic species, the Cape sugarbird, is shown feeding on a King protea below**.
There is one unique threat to the chaparral: anthropogenic fire. In the past, if nature had not provided a fire to burn back the accumulated brush in these areas, often the native peoples would do so, and generally speaking, the fires seemed to be controlled and effective. But increased frequency of fires due to negligence or downed power lines can potentially cause catastrophic, unrecoverable fire. Only so much tolerance to such a destructive force can be built by evolutionary processes.
Another move finished. That's seven-ish in the past four years. I swear I'm not going anywhere this time.
I said that in February of this year. "We're not going anywhere this time. I swear." That's the hindsight bastardization, anyway.
There's something comforting about our apartment this time. Instead living among the bloodless ranks of plastic-sided townhomes filled with [blank] professionals - empty rooms, empty homes - we moved to an old neighborhood close to the metro. The homes are all brick here; worn, cracked, discolored. You know what it will smell like when you roam inside. The outlets are in weird places. The furnace is ancient, painted white to cover the rust patches, patched with sheet metal to cover the holes made by the rust.
Normal people get up and go to their normal jobs. The men wear normal uniforms and carry shiny toolboxes to white vans. There's a bunch of normal kids who beat the shit out of each other and chase the stray cats in the alleys. The kid upstairs pounds our ceiling running (Imagine: all that force through the little pressure points). I imagine his mother and I groaning in unison. Go back to sleep, kid. She clicks down the stairs in a rush every morning and Oscar growls and barks as she passes our door. Oscar hates when people are in a rush.
Some of my neighbors ride a bike to work, but I doubt they think of themselves as Cyclists. A Cyclist is a person that uses a bicycle for their primary mode of transportation even though he or she has more than enough money to use a car. The idea is that Cycling is better for your health and the planet's health than using your car, which is true, but because most normal people roll their eyes at Cyclists (Note: it doesn't help that Cyclists wear silly clothes that cost more than most bike-riders' bikes) and continue to use their cars, Cyclists usually just end up getting in the way and pissing off the normal people, which in turn makes them seek each other out and create support groups and the like. Cyclists often whine on the internet about how they're treated on the road. After they're done whining, they drive their SUV to Whole Foods to fill out the menu for their All Organic Dinner Party. You can't use your bike to pick up organic appetizers for 15 people.
Just this morning, as I loaded Heather up for school, waving to the gasman (he looked sleepy), I noticed that the vine that winds through the hedges in front of the building next door was peppered with morning glory blossoms. There's other vines too, that wind up the brick to our roof. I often stop to think about the aerial roots of young vines, how they find those comfortable little crags in stone or bark, how they nestle in and fit snug. Are they soft nodes as they squeeze their way in? Do they harden in maturity?
Part of the concrete frame around our window crumbled in last week's earthquake. I took a picture of it during the hurricane:
After the hurricane, the maintenance guys framed and fixed it. Oscar was a little disturbed by the floating men with drills outside our window. I had to bring him into the bedroom for a co-nap the other day to calm him down. Overall, he seems happy with their work. It's their methodology he questions.
Twitter is back up. Link is up there, next to the aerial plankton. I'm working on revising and submitting some short stories. I'm thinking about which of the four novels I've started in the past couple of years I should focus on. The library around the corner has a lovely science section I want to delve into. I've been thinking about all the ecology basics posts I started years ago and wondering if I should continue work on them. I've read many papers that I never bothered to detail on here. I have some theories as to why and might even share with the world why I consistently shy away from sharing. Maybe.
The morning glories out front remind me of what I saw on a Walk the other day. A Walk is what I do sometimes to try to reduce the life-endangering fat around my midsection. I'm not really going anywhere in particular. Some people walk to move themselves from one place to another and end up getting exercise in the process. I used to be one of those people when I lived in Atlanta.
Anyway, there was a woman in her sixties bent over in her garden showing her grandson how to weed. It was a good day to weed, as my mother says, because the ground was wet. Normally, there's nothing spectacular about an older woman in the garden with her grandson. Thomas Kinkade probably thinks about that a lot as he watches his employees paint his ideas. The spectacular thing was that she, her garden and her grandson were reflected in the wide panes of a sliding glass door of her basement apartment. On this tiny plot, crammed between a busy sidewalk and an adequate living space, she did her own landscaping. There were no contracted professionals in red shirts blowing pine straw around soft asphalt, just a grandmom with her grandson in her unremarkable garden dug into a remarkable space.
There's something sad about the fact that, after 10 uninterrupted minutes of writing with a pen in a paper notebook, my hand muscles ache and the tendons in my arm feel like they've been pulled from their dockings.
Like most of the country, sometime in the next week I’ll shuffle up to a ticket booth, shovel out 40-ish dollars and see the second half of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. I want to see if the movie adaptation can save that train wreck of a narrative in the last book.
I’m not really sure at what point during the evolution of the series that this essay started to come together. Maybe the bumbling luck in the Goblet of Fire. Maybe the null result of Dumbledore’s Army. Perhaps it was the trip with Dumbledore to the seacave and the ensuing helplessness in the event of his death. As I read more about Harry Potter, the less I thought of him as a hero. He is rarely cognizant of his circumstances, and even when he’s presented with ample clues, he (she?) relies on the heavy-handed power of deus ex machina to force a conclusion. It gets to the point where you wonder who is more inept: Harry Potter or J.K Rowling.
Harry Potter is like a modern-day Candide, a hapless victim, a thrall of inherited circumstance, an unwilling, unwilled window to Rowling’s world. The biggest difference, of course, was Candide was Voltaire’s rhetorical pawn and I’m not really sure what – if any – point Rowling is trying to make. I think she’s trying to tell us a story for its own sake. I think she started writing it for the kids. It’s since developed into an unintended mirror of culture and identity.
Antonia Susan Duffy wrote a piece in the NY Times in 2003 discussing the strange world of HP:
The important thing about this particular secondary world is that it is symbiotic with the real modern world. Magic, in myth and fairy tales, is about contacts with the inhuman -- trees and creatures, unseen forces. Most fairy story writers hate and fear machines. Ms. Rowling's wizards shun them and use magic instead, but their world is a caricature of the real world and has trains, hospitals, newspapers and competitive sport. Much of the real evil in the later books is caused by newspaper gossip columnists who make Harry into a dubious celebrity, which is the modern word for the chosen hero. Most of the rest of the evil (apart from Voldemort) is caused by bureaucratic interference in educational affairs.
Ms. Rowling's magic world has no place for the numinous. It is written for people whose imaginative lives are confined to TV cartoons, and the exaggerated (more exciting, not threatening) mirror-worlds of soaps, reality TV and celebrity gossip. Its values, and everything in it, are, as Gatsby said of his own world when the light had gone out of his dream, ''only personal.'' Nobody is trying to save or destroy anything beyond Harry Potter and his friends and family.
Now, I don’t completely agree with her assessment of Rowling’s fans – that’s habitual among the scornful – but the idea of Rowling’s secondary world as trivial and shallow resonates with my impressions of the series.
Like most modern fantasy, the wizarding world of HP is a place of trite, amalgamated whimsy. No doubt, for centuries stories and myths morphed over time, massaged by their tellers, shaped by conquering cultures and wanderers. But until recently, the extent of the myth salad we now endure was not nearly as confused. By the time stories of vampires, dragons, knights, wizards and goblins were being incorporated into video games, the motifs were becoming woefully overused. Rowlings world is a mashup of a mashup of a mashup with no binding principle, no underlying metaphysical unity. Voldemort strikes fear into the hearts of the most powerful wizards, but he can only kill one person at a time. He and his black broom band scare a few people in London. The most horrible spells are nothing more than a knife in the dark, a beating in a small alley. But if the world is truly “only personal”, Armageddon comes with a flick of the wrist.
Should we expect anything else in this age? I don’t think so. It fits the times. Harry is the perfect man-child: ineffectual, entitled, spineless, lost, confused and utterly reliant on a decisive father figure and the life-filling drama from his friends. Even in the end he cannot rise above his circumstance – Rowling won’t let him. He must be nannied beyond the grave to rise up – truly undead now – and actualize the “we had it all along” narrative deception. In the wake of his resurrection, the victory of the good guys is like all the stories we spoon-feed to our kids in America: loud, inconsistent, sugary and indulgent. As I read it, I could only think of Heather’s eight-year-old nephew going on in detail to me about how he’d like to buy a pool so he could fill it with sharks and blow up the sharks with a rocket launcher.
The story really isn’t about Harry at all. The protagonist is Dumbledore as far as I can gather; he’s the only one that really knows what’s going on at any time. So why make the mistake of an amateur novelist? Passive characters can be excellent narrators of a story and still play a big part or turn out to be the most important piece. It’s hardly fulfilling to follow someone so empty.
Heroes sacrifice themselves for the sake of something bigger. In a place where the end of you is the end of the world, is it possible to be a hero? Perhaps it’s better to call Harry Potter a survivor rather than a hero, and the frame of that story is a very different shape than the one Rowling forced this story into.
Finally got around to adding a tab for a list of the better posts I've written under the VG banner over the years. Navigating tags is a pain, this seemed like a much better way to gather up the more substantial work I've done over the years. Brought back a lot of memories in the process.
...but I want to.
For the past four years, we've been bouncing around the eastern seaboard, and toward the end there, I just wanted to be home. Heather and I have had a recent tragedy that brought us back, and this time, we're staying. I love my home, I love DC, love Maryland. Hopefully we're here to stay.
It's been tough to keep working beyond my dayjob at times. This impermanence, I think, has fostered some interesting ideas for fiction, for telling stories about people, but hasn't given me the stability I had in college for studying, for absorbing more technical ideas and writing. It's something I've grown to miss.
There's a wonderful groundedness that comes from taking new research, pulling from old and spinning it into a clean essay. It's a sharp contrast to the tepid apathy of this age, where ideas have become a kind of currency, assigned a material weight, proposed for acceptance as something that can be measured and held. We want to pin them to our lapel with a flourish, a great red feather, this idea of self, identity defined by this concept or our perception of it. It is with the utmost importance that this idea - the defining idea - is handled with care; only apt fingers - knowing hands - can draw from it the will to stand in a courtroom and demand respect.
But a demand for respect is always inherently a request. The affirmation is sought from an established entity, which adds a fascinating undercurrent to these interactions: if we were truly defined by an idea, would we seek such an approval? A demand is not a request; we demand things by actions, not words. Demands are not things that are sanctioned by others, they are done. Art demands attention and acceptance by its existence. The greatest artists do not request approval to create, they do so with courage to cut deep into themselves and smear the inner beauty, love, anger, hatred, disgust, selfishness, despair over their canvas. The demand to see, to hear, is made by the boldness or subtlety of the piece itself, the skill of the artist to manipulate our senses. It's an argument that seeks no response.
To see ideas treated without such regard is puzzling. We continue to spiral deeper into splintered subculture, siphoning down into tiny minorities seemingly only compelled by the shared acknowledgement of contrast, a shade of a hue. By starting with a wide cultural category, one can trickle down into outlying areas where the subcategory defies its super-category and crosses over into another camp entirely. What a grand star chart you could create with the categorization of identity-defining ideas.
Willingly, we walk fields of post-modernist apathy in These Uncertain Times. I marvel at the depth of despair in some, the depth of ignorance in others and those tiny, peripheral flickers of hope. Blink and they're gone. We're headed somewhere, but I don't think anyone knows where it is. The internet is rife with accusations of intellectual dishonesty and calls for reason, rationality, but the reality is that even most fervently demonstrative of these virtuous human beings is as deeply hypocritical as those they demonize. There are some things in life that are only worth a smile and a shrug. The point is, you have to keep walking.
To find stability again, enough stability to delve into something tangible will be a relief from the ether of creativity. I never said it was a heavy ether, mind you, but enough to compel me to continue writing about people, about ideas, about feelings and irrationality and hands and slips of memory, of sense. To write creatively is a compulsion; to write about nature, about reality - that is work. My saving work.
In the clearing just below my grandfather's hunting cabin, between thick rows of red and blue spruce, you have to be careful with the lawn mower. Three perfect white sitting rocks are quickly overgrown with daisies and other weeds in the spring, so it's important to fish the stones from the tangle to avoid twisting a blade. I spent an evening there, about an hour, sitting, waiting for the sun to fully set, for the sky to blacken. Eventually I lost patience and went inside. The trees remained shadows against dark blue for much of the night.
Down there though, sitting on those rocks, it's quiet. The silence is deep, broken only by the furtive movements of rodents and birds in the woods and the rise and fall of the choral of tiny frogs by the pond. Occasionally the song halts while a larger animal passes - perhaps deer or raccoon - and then resumes. I get edgy thinking it might be a bear.
These are the moments we crave with nature. I sought out the exact place for my cathartic need for the quiet mountain that evening in the same way millions of people seek out specific places to connect with nature: state parks, hiking trails, cabin rentals, on and on. When my grandfather's place was inaccessible due to distance, I found other ways to connect. If I went too long without having that selfish bit of time, I felt pensive, frustrated. E.O. Wilson cites our evolutionary heritage. I tend to agree, but it runs deep in different ways. In my case, it's partially familial. Being in the woods anywhere reminds me of happy, uncomplicated times I spent with my family.
There's something untrue about it all, however. I sit in the night and listen, hearing little, breathing deep, but under my feet billions of organisms fight for territory and resources in the tiny cracks between soil granules. The soil itself is a conglomerate of varied origin, the decayed remains of animals and plants, fragments of ancient rock from continents long dead. The weeds we hacked down just days before have begun to vigorously regenerate, to vie for a better access to sunlight. Down the road, a snake invades the den of a family of chipmunks overnight, consumes the young. The guardians of the den are dead, flattened by passing cars on the asphalt. The babies would have died of starvation anyway.
You can almost see it, hear it when you want to, the cells of every living things around, the innumerable chemical processes firing off and all of this in context temporarily strips away that peace, leaves bare a reality, if not the reality of nature. The limitations of our own senses save us from prolonged exposure, but it invades nonetheless, if you let it.
There is something disrespectfully incomplete about popular conceptions of nature, especially when the escape into these places we love is for pure beauty, pure peace. There's something I dread about reentering that world, seeing the things none of us want to see, the brutality of it: death, chemical compulsions, the needs of predators. It's a reminder of how things really are and squashes that silly daydream of somehow returning to nature and finding our "proper" place among it once more. As a species, we ran away and didn't look back until about 100 years ago or so.
It's easy to wax poetic about the parsimony of nature, the circle of life, the harmless, birds-eye view of the majesty (and other such cliches), but it's difficult to actually witness the sad little realities that form the foundations of the big, happy system. The peace that I derive from nature is always denuded, raw, contextualized; I return to the city relieved but mindful. It's never a light escape. It never should be.