Monday, September 29, 2014

My Clash with Wendell Berry

DISCLAIMER: The contents of this post are, frankly, beneath my standards.
I wanted to dissect this conflict of ideas and attitudes, but I just...

I don't know. My natural disgust and annoyance managed to overpower me.

Unfortunately, this post does not describe an actual confrontation — verbal, physical, or otherwise — between Wendell Berry and myself. I wish that it did. Berry is an interesting thinker, and I would love to engage him on a more immediate level than I can presently.

But that is neither here nor now. 
I don't mean to sound crass, but Berry will likely die before he reads these words.

Instead, I'm going to discuss my disagreement with Wendell Berry as represented by his published writings. I have not read all of his work, but I have read enough to know where he stands in relation to contemporary America. I know of his farmer's lifestyle, his conservation efforts, and his ongoing battle with Kentucky's destructive coal industry. 

That should be enough to engage him in preliminary discourse, no?

"God favors my side, ye heathens. Tremble in the wake of
your imminent damnation. Deus vult." -- (Not) Wendell Berry

As the above non-quotation would suggest, my chief objection to Wendell Berry is not with his actual beliefs, but the way in which he presents them. 

Berry is a "hardcore" conservationist; he uses only the purest methods of farming, lives without Kentucky's coal-powered electricity, and devotes every stroke of his typewriter to the preservation of the planet. Though that lifestyle holds no appeal for me, I can appreciate its merits. How can I not appreciate a person's passionate devotion to an ideal — especially one so pure in principle?

What I don't appreciate is Berry's utter scorn for those who don't align with him. 
I have yet to read a single nonfiction piece by Wendell Berry which does not take a position of unassailable superiority. He's pessimistic, disdainful, dismissive, and sour. After reading his work, you feel like a loathsome pile of waste. According to him, everyone who partakes in the fruits of industry is complicit in large-scale industrial crimes. Is that the mentality of the conservation movement at large?

Perhaps years of fighting the frightful monster of KENTUCKY COAL have made him combative; I can't say, and I don't presume to speculate about that. I can, however, say that I've never encountered a more absolutist-minded writer than Berry — excepting, say, Kim Il-Sung. Is that how conservationists wish to be perceived?

I don't know. Already this post has become a jumbled mess, nothing like the "discourse" I was hoping to have....

My point, I suppose, is that conservationists like Wendell Berry — or, for that matter, people like Wendell Berry — prevent people like me from participating wholeheartedly in the conservationist movement. I'm not a relativist; I believe that objective rights and wrongs do exist. I'm also perfectly willing to admit the shortcomings of my own lifestyle; I will listen to critics. But when judgmental finger-wagging turns to wrathful fist-shaking, I don't feel that fist-shaker and his beliefs are worthy of my respect.

I admit that I've curbed my desire to partake in local conservation efforts, if only to avoid association with people who think like Wendell Berry. I can oppose an institution or a certain culture, but I will not bring myself to despise people by virtue of their native culture, as Berry seems to do.

How many allies has the conservationist movement lost by virtue of one sour apple?


Today's reading is not a short story at all, but an essay by yours truly. 
Yes, it's in poor taste to recommend your own school papers — but I really do have more to say about Wendell Berry, and this piece presents those ideas in a neat, structured way. It's a response to Berry's short essay, "Why I Am Not Going to Buy a Computer."

Ignore the stilted style; pay attention to the reasoning. Stick through it to the end.
Response to Wendell Berry 

Monday, September 22, 2014

BREAKING NEWS: Invaders from the Orient!

This past Saturday, I identified an invasive species -- more specifically, the Halyamorpha halys -- for the no-good foreign pest that it is. Granted, this is probably common knowledge to anyone living in the eastern United States...

It was "breaking news" to me, though, and that's what this blog is all about! Allow me, then, to describe the work of my budding naturalist's instinct, which led me to this discovery.


Initial contact was made on Saturday, September 20, as I was making a return trip from AutoZone. I had gone there to test my car's battery -- and in order to listen to the AutoZone associate as he tested it, I lowered my driver-side window and kept it open. It remained open from the moment the test began, to the moment I started my car with a brand-new battery; I suspect this is how the invader found its way inside.

Shortly after exiting the lot, I felt a light itch on the tip of my nose. I've had allergies since birth, so I didn't think much of it. I rubbed my nose without a second thought; the itch stopped. 

Then I felt something on my chest -- moving up my chest -- and in that moment, the cause of the nose itch became much clearer. It also became a little uncomfortable. "Unsettling" wouldn't be too strong a word. A stink bug was crawling up my shirt with surprising speed, determined to reclaim its former perch on my face. This is no exaggeration; it really did seem interested in my nose. Twice I brushed it from my shirt, only for it to return with new speed and strength -- aiming for the same spot, my nose. Once it reached my cheek.

I'm hardly squeamish around insects, but I'm not keen to have animals of any kind on my face. Furthermore, if you recall, I was driving at the time. The stink bug was proving to be a distraction and a hazard to everyone on the road.

Eventually, I was able to scoop the stink bug onto my finger, from which it jumped onto the steering wheel. There it seemed content to gaze over a new dominion, carapace lifted high into the air. A few minutes passed in this way, until I was safely able to dethrone Emperor Stink by flicking it out my window.  End scene.

This episode, humorous as it was, put stink bugs on my mind. 
When a creature repeatedly flings itself at your face, you're apt to remember it, no?

Then my naturalist's instinct came into play. In contemplating the stink bug, I realized that I had never seen one as a child. I had long since taken their presence for granted -- but when I reflected on my early butterfly-chasing years, I could only conclude that I had never seen a stink bug during any of my backyard adventures. "Have I had contact with an invasive species?" I thought. It seemed likely, and a quick Internet search proved my hunch correct.

The brown marmorated stink bug is a species native to China, Korea, Japan, and Taiwan, though even in those places it is regarded as a pest. Apparently, it first became notable in the United States in 2010, when invading populations swelled into states along the Eastern coast -- and eventually into Kentucky. Here it has several lookalikes in the "shield bug" family, each of which I've made a point to identify by looks. 

The brown stink bug, in particular, looks nearly identical to the invader...

Brown Marmorated Stink Bug
Credit to Purdue University

Brown Stink Bug
Credit to Kim Hosen

The trick to distinguishing the invasive pest from the native pest is in the word "marmorated," which means "marbled" or "freckled." Though the brown stink bug does have a freckled white-and-brown coloration, the brown marmorated stink bug has a much bolder pattern that continues up its antennae, and looks very much like marble. If a distinct white band can be seen on each of the bug's antennae, the stink bug in question is of the invasive, brown marmorated variety.

As an unofficial naturalist at best, I have no idea how this distinction can serve the average person. Squish one and save the other? Squish them both, but with varying degrees of animosity? I can't say.

Of course, if the insect in question is desperately clawing up to your face, identification may be a difficult thing -- perhaps not worth your time. That, I suppose, will be the closing sentiment of this post: In the name of ecological soundness, to what extent are we willing to tolerate discomfort, pause our daily human routines, or take additional pains? Is a single insect worth the effort? Again, I can't say. Further field work is required.

Today's story is another by Roald Dahl, titled "Royal Jelly." I suppose it serves as an outsider's perspective of entomologists and bug enthusiasts -- in addition to being simply interesting. 
If you don't mind odd formatting, here is a .PDF for instant reading: "Royal Jelly," by Roald Dahl
It may be slightly abridged. I'm not sure. If you'd rather read it as I did, search for The Best of Roald Dahl or The Complete Short Stories of Roald Dahl. Well worth the expense.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

The "Type B" Scientist - an Introduction

Where science was concerned, my seven-year-old self was a master of Doublethink.  I maintained two radically different ideas of how "science" was done — and somehow I managed to keep these definitions totally separate until the peak of my elementary school school career.

The water cycle, photosynthesis, volcanoes, vertebrates and invertebrates...
These were mere morsels to whet the appetite, I thought. Actual science, as conducted by actual scientists, had to fit one of my two preconceived models. For convenience, I'll call them Type A and Type B:

Type A was very much inspired by television — by Dexter's Laboratory, giant cartoon robots, and flashy advertisements for electronic junk. In shiny metal laboratories, Type A scientists stood around enormous computer screens that revealed the secrets of the world to them. They wore immaculate white lab coats, rubber gloves, and indestructible safety glasses. They talked in jargon so dense that it became a language unto itself, known only to the truly enlightened. Through the simple-yet-sophisticated process of placing a petri dish under a laser scanner, these machine-people could understand everything in the known universe.

Type A. You get the idea, yes?
By contrast, Type B is best represented by an old British colonel in a pith helmet, tramping through the wilderness with his machete and his magnifying glass. Type B Science required that its practitioners be more than mere scholars; they had to be explorers and gentlemen and poets and...

They needed to clutch things in their hands, examine them with their eyes. They could read the secrets of the world simply by looking around them. Type B scientists were to nature what Sherlock Holmes was to crime. They did more than mine for data; they produced something beautiful and valuable from that data.

If this gentleman had acted a little less destructively,
he would have been an excellent "Type B scientist."


As time passed, Type A eventually overtook Type B in my mind. Outlandish as it is, the image of Dexter's Laboratory remains more relevant to today's practical science. The old British colonels are irrelevant and unscientific — and not only that, they were filthy Imperialists! Bent on the subjugation of foreign peoples! Glutted by the wealth of foreign lands! Enemies to every rare and beautiful species on this planet!

Who am I to argue with these accusations? According to the perspective foisted upon me by years of schooling — and well, to actual history — most of these old white men fall short of my childhood imagination. If they weren't ethnocentric twits who saw only monetary value in things, they were quack hobbyists whose essays and poems have little to no scientific merit.

Skip now to the present day, two weeks into BIO 1164. Dr. Atkins has been singing the praises of old-style naturalists — the very sort of people who inspired me to shove semi-organic matter under my toy microscope. Moreover, he has shown us that people within the scientific community still value the old "Renaissance Man" approach to nature. What a wonderful feeling! It's validating — and not in the "You were right all along!" sense, but the "Hey, your interests aren't completely worthless!" sense.

In short, I'm very pleased and hopeful.
My dreams of being an old British colonel are still alive and well.

I am, at the time of writing this, sitting on my backyard deck. The air is cool, the trees are glowing green in the early evening sun, and the crickets are chirping all around me. Hopefully this observation fits my blog's quota of actual nature content. Hopefully I'll be able to say more about these things in the future, now that this introductory post is finished and published.


To close, I'd like to recommend a short piece of literature that relates, if only slightly, to nature or naturalism. This is a trend that I want to continue throughout my keeping of this blog. It may be a short story, a poem, or an excerpt of a larger work; if I can find a link to the text online, I'll post it.

This week's piece is a short story by Roald Dahl, titled "The Sound Machine."
To those who are familiar only with Dahl's children's stories, its style and tone may come as a bit of a surprise. Or it may not. The story can be found on page 33 of this .PDF file. Enjoy!