Friday, November 14, 2014

Making People Care

I suppose this can be considered a follow-up to my session of shameless gushing previous post about Medieval scholarship and "naturalism." The ultimate point of that post, somewhat delayed and understated, was that no one will care about a natural crisis when we represent it through decontextualized graphics about some far-off place. We need to ground our environmental concerns in the values of our present society.

So I'm going to toss around a few possible ways to do that...


  • Education. I've said it elsewhere on this blog: Education has the power to carry a person's mind to some other place, and teach it to do useful things there.

    During my time as a "naturalist" in this class, I haven't broken my usual routine very much. I haven't visited any forests, or sampled the life forms of any lakes. But even though I was never physically present in those places, my concerns for the natural world have become more urgent, more candid, and better grounded in fact — all because I took this course! Even if our society is entrenched in its own creations, we can use schools to visit the natural world in our minds. If this is done well before the student reaches college, we will have taught him/her this sense of connectedness to the environment as a facet of citizenship.
  • Transparency in the Food Industry. This one is a tall order, and we're unlikely to see the current food oligarchy take any steps to see it through. In lieu of a letter to Tyson or Kellogg, I'll advocate the "Buy Local" movement as a means to this end. Anyway...
    Our society is quick to criticize food or brands that are "synthetic" or "chemically altered," but only as they affect the health of the consumer. If the health of the consumer can be tied to the health of food sources — which it is — people will pursue that problem with the same energy and fervor. And the only way to connect these two issues is by releasing more information about food.
  • Better Graphics. In all seriousness, we need to represent natural crises in a more interesting and meaningful way. Any good public speaker will tell you that maps, charts, and statistics are meant to supplement a presentation. The rest is the speaker. We need local testimonials, local pictures and video, etc.

    Polar bears are nice, and I would be distraught if they went extinct, but the "polar-bear-standing-on-an-absurdly-small-piece-of-ice" image has become a thing unto itself, devoid of any context or relevance.
I have a few more in mind — but to be honest, they're all dependent on so many interrelated factors, to the point of being useless by themselves. 

How can we pursue environmentally-friendly legislation when Monsanto has a "revolving door" installed in Congress? How can we lessen the power of Monsanto-tier companies without some economic sorcery? Should we transition to pure socialism? It's a slippery slope, with dozens of branching paths...

What does my readership (my class) think? Any ... semi-concrete proposals?

Caddisfly Cases

I may have found a new fascination in nature: caddisfly cases.

Unlike certain other "make-your-own-home" invertebrates — trapdoor spiders, hermit crabs, bivalves, etc. — caddisflies are neither hideous nor mundane. They're pretty cool. 

Most creatures that create shells using harvested materials aren't exactly "skilled laborers." Though their shells are functional, they're very crude-looking to human eyes. Creatures that generate their own shells, such as snails, generally make nicer-looking homes for themselves. To my eye, caddisflies combine the methods and source materials of the former group with the technical skill of the latter group. Take a look at this...

The case of a brachycentrid caddisfly

That is a caddisfly case constructed from leaves, grasses, and other soft plant matter. Its sides are perfectly flat, and its opening is a perfect square (Source). Even though it's a little silly to apply a human sense of the aesthetic to the evolved behavior of an insect, that's still remarkable — even among caddisflies. Most cases look like a hodgepodge of random materials, but this looks like a proper structure!

Even more remarkable is that certain caddisflies are known to repair their cases when damage is incurred. My knowledge of these creatures is still very limited, but I'm already making a bit of an informal study of them (when my formal studies don't subtract from my time). Hopefully I was able to supplement the class's knowledge, just a little bit.

If not, I'm not all that concerned. I'd still be interested, regardless.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Proto-Naturalists and Proto-Science

Does anyone remember the good ol' days, when religion and folk superstition had all the answers? The peasants would gather around the measly kitchen fire, bowls of pease porridge in their laps, and reminisce about friends who had been stricken with the Black Death for their sinful ways. During Lent, the lords and ladies would dine on fish — and its closest natural relative, the chicken — in observance of the Lord's fast.

And the clergy would spend their time writing and copying passages such as this one:

De tribus principalibus naturis leonis.\ Phisici dicunt leonem\ tres principales naturas habere. Prima natura eius est, quod per\ cacumina montium amat ire. Et si contigerit ut queratur\ a venatoribus, venit ad eum odor venatorum, et cum cau\da sua tetigit posttergum vestigia sua. Tunc venato\res investigare eum nequeunt. Sic et salvator noster, scilicet\ spiritualis leo, de tribu Iuda, radix Iesse, filius David, cooperuit\ vestigia sue caritatis in celis, donec missus a Patre descenderet\ in uterum virginis Marie, et salvaret genus humanum quod perierat.


Translated...

Of the three main characteristics of the lion. Those who study nature say that the lion has three main characteristics. The first is that it loves to roam amid mountain peaks. If it happens that the lion is pursued by hunters, it picks up their scent and obliterates the traces behind it with its tail. As a result, they cannot track it. Thus our Saviour, a spiritual lion, of the tribe of Judah, the root of Jesse, the son of David, concealed the traces of his love in heaven until, sent by his Father, he descended into the womb of the Virgin Mary and redeemed mankind, which was lost.

A cutting-edge study of the natural world, no? This passage is taken from the Aberdeen Bestiary, a Medieval bestiary which once belonged to the library of Henry VIII.

In all seriousness, though, this writing contains something that I'd very much like to see return...

Consider the above "observation" of the lion's tail: According to "those who study nature," the lion uses the tuft of fur on its tail to brush away any traces that it leaves behind. How did the bestiary's writer — or his erroneous source — imagine this? What train of thought led him to that conclusion? This is my best recreation:

Everything was created intentionally by God, right? Therefore, everything in nature has a distinct purpose, whether or not that purpose is visible to humans. Why, then, would a lion have a single tuft of fur on the tip of its tail? What purpose could that serve? Since lions are rare beasts — having eluded the civilized world for so many years one can only conclude that it has adapted to eluding hunters. Perhaps it uses that tail fur to wipe away its footprints? Etc.

For a person with no knowledge of lions beyond their appearance, that isn't so bad. It's actually quite reasonable, if a little silly. And it's reasonable because the author assumed that everything in Nature is important, and that Nature's components work in special harmony. (Here it's "Nature," not "nature.") Today's natural scientists don't follow a literal Creationist theory for how the world came to be, but they still believe the underlined portion very strongly. That's what guided the research behind Darwin's theory of natural selection; that's what motivated Rachel Carson to write Silent Spring.

The Middle Ages were, objectively speaking, horrible — but they were the "good ol' days" in one regard: Everybody, not just the educated scholars of the day, believed that the Earth was a holy thing. I'm not religious, nor do I want to see any religious institution meddling in today's science...

...but I find it difficult to imagine today's environmental crimes in a society that thinks the Earth is sacred. Monsanto Seed Company would be excommunicated faster than you can say "DDT."

So I reiterate what I've been saying in most of this blog's posts: It's hard for normal people to care about hard facts that have been stripped of their societal relevance. The Earth is indeed sacred, but this truth now needs to be supported by reasons from our society. Flashing a color-coded map of the hole in the ozone layer — with temperatures and percentages and distant projected dates isn't going to make people care.