Monday, January 8, 2018

The Cleansing Quality of Science, Art and Nature

Elk at Cascade Head.

By Bob Ferris

I took a break this past weekend.  I danced away from politics, social media and the internet (mostly).  I did not look at the president’s tweets nor see Stephen Miller’s forced ejection from the CNN studios.  Rather I returned to my roots in science, expanded my appreciation of the complexities of art, and walked for a few days in places where at least some semblance of wildness clings tenaciously to the earth.  For me (and my artist wife) that trifecta experience happened at the Sitka Center for Art and Ecology at Cascade Head Ranch north of Lincoln City, Oregon. 

For those trained in the sciences and existing far from the intellectual give-and-take so common during our academic years, euphoria springs from hearing well-presented ideas and then participating in the resultant exchanges.  Certainly we still have interactions steeped in science, but countering the claims of someone denying climate change or the ecological value of wolves on a particular landscape is far different than exploring much deeper ideas with someone who understands both these concepts and others.  It is as different as listening to your neighbor's child during their first week of violin lessons and then enjoying the artful bowing of Itzhak Perlman.

While I think it is important for those who can to argue vigorously and often for science and scientific principles, it is also important for us to fill our figurative and literal inkwells.  I did this, in part, by listening to a couple hours of talks given during a "show and tell" event at the Sitka Center where their five fall resident artists presented their work or works-in-progress.  I suspect that all of these events are probably different in specifics but not in general theme or impact, but I will relate some of mine on this one (see here for upcoming set of residents).

Now before continuing I will admit that I once "regaled" a woman at a cocktail party with my elation after hearing of an organism so small that its cell walls were shredded by water molecules in the meniscus of a sampling pipet prior to being subjected to electron microscopy.  It turns out the woman in question was not looking at me with adoration or amazement but gathering breath to label me the “most boring man on earth” before leaving. So with this in mind, imagine my glee when one of the resident artists was a molecular biologist and granddaughter of Francis Crick of DNA fame and his artist wife Odile.  That Kindra Crick pursued both science and art seems a somewhat surreal expression of genetics and cultural inheritance.  As her interest is in the mechanics of memory it is no surprise that she has created a room-size art installation that allows the viewer to walk-through her artistic interpretation of this phenomenon. Her work at the Center fused this type of interpretation with mapping and the Cascade Head topography in a printmaking exercise.     

"Qualia: To Experience Red" by Kindra Crick (2015) 
Others on the program talked about arboreal ecology, riverine restoration, mycology and the allure of islands.  Each fully demonstrating the principles of the Center as well as illuminating their own art and science interface “super power.”  Having sat on selection committees tasked with choosing not only stellar candidates but being sensitive to the mix and diversity of the resultant assemblage, I recognized the “art” in this also.  The success being the full room in attendance and the general feeling that more could have been said rather than “when is this going to be over.”

The effectiveness of this exercise is greatly enhanced by two catalytic factors.  The first is a fertile and supportive audience and community.  Time and time again we see the association of creativity with safety and support.  When the collective crowd energy is shouting "go deeper" and "be freer in your thinking" that is when the magic in this realm happens. There has always been a lesson here in terms of quality of science under a more progressive setting versus those that are restrictive or forced.  It is illustrative here to understand that the USSR historically produced a lot of science but much of it was not very rigorous or discipline-expanding.  It is good that we are reminded that we risk this type of scientific stagnation if our current course of ignoring and strangling science is continued.  Events like this give form to what we risk.

The other catalyst is just simply nature itself or the intellectual release enabled by the experience of swimming in the wild world's manifold wonders.  One cannot hike to the top of Cascade Head or touch the waters of the Salmon River without some viscerally positive response.  Researchers Rachel and Stephen Kaplan found this long ago when looking at employee performance when nature was introduced to corporate campuses and it applies broadly.  It has been one of my career drivers as I fully understand that we become bereft as a society and nation as the landscape around us becomes less and less wild. We risk so much being led by those who do not grasp this fundamental principle or think it of less value than another digit in a brokerage account.  

Mouth of the Salmon River with the foot of Cascade Head to the right.
Part of my purpose in writing this is to encouraging folks to seek out places such as the Sitka Center as functional refugia as we experience this present, ever-escalating war on science and the arts.   These organizations and their sites should be visited and supported as they provide much needed intellectual grounding and a therapeutic balm for those walking wounded struggling to protect our precious science and arts.  Yes, this is yet another call to get out and get active, but that seems an essential repetition at this juncture.  And if it does your soul and eye benefit, as this did for my wife and me, then so much the better.

Thursday, January 4, 2018

Stupor Size Me

By Bob Ferris

Documentarian Morgan Spurlock once put together a film called Super Size Me.  It basically documented a person (himself) and the deleterious impacts of a constant diet of fast food.  It was not pretty, but there was a certain truthful elegance to the cinematic statement.  If a steady diet of fast food does that to someone, what does a steady diet of fast or faux news yield?  My sense is that it is something similar only I would characterize it as stupor-sizing.

A double bacon and cheese burger with an egg and extra sauce.

We all encounter it or variations.  Why just yesterday I was treated to a thread where a person questioned the legitimacy of the Russian investigation.  The argument being that this was a "nothing burger" and that all of us who bought into this were taken for a ride by the mainstream media (MSM).  Upon visiting the profile of the person in question, it was telling to see where this person garnered his news (see one screenshot above and two below).

A large order of fries.

As we can see from the three screenshots of "likes" taken from our intrepid poster's Facebook page, we notice that he gets his news and forms his opinions based on a number of sources other than MSM.   Now I wish that I could say that this is an extreme case, but it is not.  In fact, it is fairly typical of what we see from those banging the anti-MSM drum.  Though it is hard to understand how exactly James O'Keefe can label himself a "journalist" without his page bursting into flames, but I clearly editorialize.

A drink the size of a small car.
When I look at this I think about a phenomenon known as post-prandial depression.  It can express itself as that slumber-inducing feeling that one gets after eating a large meal.  And this is particularly true when that meal is of comfort food.  It makes you feel sluggish dare I say stupefied. How possibly could this force-fed diet of fact-less and conspiracy-laden tripe packaged as "news" produce anything much different than that?

Followed by a hot apple turnover or two.
Groups on Facebook are often how we define ourselves and our interests.  In this case our MSM-doubting friend is proud to be a deplorable Trump supporter and against "Crooked Hillary." He also is likely just under thirty and graduated from high school which in and of itself means little until you think about what this generally portents in terms of the ability to process and interpret complex materials.   When compared with others in his age class he is somewhere in the lower 10-35 percent of the US in terms of educational attainment.  Yet here he is opining authoritatively on complicated political, economic and legal matters.   On what possible landscape does this make sense?

That this person and millions like him are eating this harmful intellectual diet is extremely troubling and needs to be addressed.  It is unfortunate too that they see themselves informed or empowered by this activity.  But what is even worse is that our sitting president gleefully eats the same fare at the same table and that is sad for all of us.  

Sunday, December 17, 2017

We Should Remember the First War on Christmas and the Knickerbockers who Fought It

By Bob Ferris

It is interesting to see the current rhetoric about the "War on Christmas" which is being promoted by the most self-righteous and intolerant among us.  These are those who shake, rattle and roll with religion and cannot seem to have any conversation that does not ultimately swing around to some mention of God, Jesus or being saved.   They also seem to be the ones who festoon themselves with all manner of symbols proclaiming their Christianity from cross-shaped earrings and necklaces to devotional t-shirts much as the Puritans wore black and the simple as overt signs of their devotion.

We live in a country with freedom of religion, so fine...great for you.  The operative word being "you." But problems arise when the "you" seeks to include and control "me" and others not "you."  It is instructive to remember that the first War on Christmas on this continent was waged by the Puritans who banned the celebration in 1659.  These folks, unbridled and in full control of government, followed up that enlightened action a generation and half later by hanging witches including one of my long-ago grandmothers, Mary Towne Estey, on my mother's side.

Now I will admit to having double-dipped Puritan roots in that both my mother and father descend from families on the Mayflower so I cannot escape genetic responsibility but I am likely more proud of those who resisted this prohibition and understood the social value of a time-honored and frequently-pagan celebration at this time of year to chase away the frozen cobwebs of our souls.   Perhaps the laughter and frivolity of it all was a type of early Vitamin D surrogate.

Enter ancestors Annetjie Loockermans Van Cortlandt and her daughter Maria.  The former is rumored to have celebrated Christmas openly in the New Netherlands colony and the latter certainly did as we have the above receipt from Walter the Baker (Wouter Albertsz) from 1675 which includes types of cookies that were essentially Saint Nicholas treats.  It is important to note here also that the wife of Clement Moore, Catherine Elizabeth Taylor, who wrote "A Visit from St. Nicholas" (now know as "Twas the Night Before Christmas") also descended from Annetjie and her husband Olaff Van Cortlandt.  Way to go knickerbockers!

For me there are number of lessons in all of this.  First, is that there is an almost universal need throughout cultures and belief systems to celebrate something when the skies are darkest and the days most short.  We should do so regardless of our beliefs.   It matters less what you celebrate and more that you do celebrate.  So kick up your heels and do something.

Moreover, these celebrations work best on a landscape of honesty and tolerance not one that waits anxiously to pounce on the newest Starbuck's cup design or a friendly, more inclusive seasonal greeting.   Sure you can emulate the Puritans and push for a "pure" Christmas but you should also remember that you probably do so while talking about some variant of Saint Nicholas which in its purest form includes mention of the walking-lump-of-stocking-coal known as the Krampus marching in the above video.

Your celebration also likely involves a decorated tree with complicated and convoluted roots both in Paganism and Christianity.  Sure Martin Luther is credited in some circles with this "tree" idea but golly the Vikings, Romans, Egyptians, and Chinese used it also in pre-Christian times.  (And don't even get me started on the Druids.)  Even the two Judeo-Christian holy days are named either for the sun or for the god Saturn.  My point being that no matter how pure we think ourselves, we are products of many cultures and beliefs (take a DNA test).  So why not celebrate the season with curiosity and wonder rather than hatred and spite?

Theodore Roosevelt, also a descendant of Annetje Loockermans (as are the acting Fondas and Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton), was one of at least three presidents who was not holding a Bible while sworn into office.
And, finally, patriotism in this nation, which seems to be incorrectly connected with religion far too often, should start with knowing your county's history not rewriting it to conform to your beliefs.  The Founding Fathers and early settlers were from families that generally had suffered when a church or churches had too much power over them.  They were often Huguenots persecuted by Catholics.  They were also Catholics or Quakers chased out of Virginia and other colonies by Anglicans and Presbyterians.  Or even Jews and so-called Musselmen (Muslims) that took hits from all sides. Therefore, the Founding Fathers went to great lengths to provide for religious freedom regardless of religion.  We should honor that and fight efforts to pull that principle asunder.
"Oh blessed Season! Lov'd by Saints and Sinners/ for long Devotions, or for longer Dinners." Benjamin Franklin 1739
I am with old Ben: Celebrate the season for whatever reason, whoever you are, and in your own manner.  For me my inner knickerbocker seeks some ancient memory more than a century before the sleigh lithograph (at top) when Captain Petrus Douw and his wife Anna Van Rensselaer (granddaughter of Maria Van Cortland) lived at Wolven Hoeck (Wolf Corner) and drove sleighs on the frozen river where their son Volkert Petrus Douw later raced his famous horse "Sturgeon" to victory across the softened ice.  I wonder what it was like to spend Christmas in this manor house (see below) where Indian treaties were signed, a barrel of spiced wine sat, and the stone above the entry door was incised with the initials PD and AVR.  Happy Holidays all!


Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Patagonia and the Truth of Theft

By Bob Ferris

Several years ago our house was burgled.  Some items were taken.  Some were of monetary value like my computer and others were of more personal value like my old pair of binoculars that I used during my fieldwork and an alligator tooth given to me in the 1950s by my great-uncle who along with my great-aunt was a patron of the artist Andrew Wyeth.  The thieves also dumped out drawers, broke things, and made a mess of our house.  My house was still there after the break-in but it was somehow diminished by the act of this theft.  I think of this now as I watch this debate about Bear Ears and the spins laid out by Interior Secretary and serial aircraft abuser Zinke on behalf of Trump and the extractive industries to counter those made by Patagonia.

Using Zinke's logic, I should not call what happen to my wife and I "theft" because I still have my house.    I should just ignore what happened and not consider myself or my space violated or diminished in any way.  In looking at this I am forced to conclude that Mr. Zinke does not understand the concept of "lying."  Perhaps he needs to be shown an example?  Enter Glenn Beck.

See video here.

It is really hard to know where to start with this chain of lies, half-truths and shadings spewed by Beck.  Let's start with the soft stuff.  He sews confusion by mixing and matching federal lands types like monuments and refuges which are legally different beasts. In this he seems to forget that the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge was an idea born in the early 1950s and put in play during the Eisenhower  (a Republican) administration.  Certainly it plays into his narrative to blame it on President Carter, but Carter simply signed legislation given him by Congress (ANILCA).  The map is cute too but the idea that the West was somehow "penalized" by federal lands demonstrates Beck's ignorance of history including all the federal acquisitions, wars, treaties and state constitutions that contributed to that circumstance and why. 

It should be remembered in the above that Glenn Beck is a devote of the late Mormon extremist and John Bircher W. Cleon Skousen.  If Skousen is not someone front-of-mind for you, his annotated US Constitution was often seen in the pocket of Bundy family members (see above) and is the origin of the confusion between the Property and the Enclave Clauses of the US Constitution.   It is hard to think that anyone who swallows the specious Skousen myths has a firm grasp on either truth or logic.  Even in the Mormon church this line of reasoning has been soundly rejected.

But this is about lies and lying.  Beck lies in his video each time he characterizes how federal monuments can be used by ordinary people.  These are places where all can walk, camp, visit and frequently hunt.   The photo above is of rock climbers using Bears Ears for recreation.  The below photograph from a Toyota-associated site promotes camping in Bears Ears and these folks shown are definitely off the road and doing things that Beck claimed were undoable in monuments.  What is really prohibited in monuments are the extractive and destructive actions that diminishes the value of these lands for most users (i.e., the theft).

See text accompanying this photo and other similar shots here
If you are still having trouble understanding what this is all about visit an active oil well and pitch a tent near it or try picnicking next to a uranium mine (see below example in Arizona).  Would the presence of a pumping well or the below type development enhance or diminish your outdoor experience?  This is an important question that needs to be asked of the users who vastly outnumber the abusers.  But a more important question is: Why folks like Zinke and Beck would work so hard and lie so often to convince you that nothing is being stolen or that you should hate or resent these spectacular public lands that provide so much to so many? 

I am not a large consumer, but this holiday season my money is going to Patagonia, REI and other commercial interests standing up for honesty and lands that benefit all of us rather than a few who would ruin them for the rest of America and then move on.  I might even visit Bears Ears or Grand Staircase-Escalante and if I do the latter I will probably stop by and see a friend at Hell's Backbone Grill & Farm a local business that supports these monuments when they open again in March.