October 29, 2014

Again, begin again

For the foreseeable future, I'll be blogging here. For an indulgent description of why, click here.

To view the more substantial posts I've written at this site and others that have shared its name, click here.

April 26, 2012

When artists discuss conservation science

It should be documented as the grandest, most sweeping appeal to tradition in history: to undermine the impulse to conserve, to manage habitats and wild populations, they argue for the "natural" flow of life, that livings things die, populations disappear under pressure, laissez-faire rhetoric dismissing modern extinction spasms.

This particular argument is easily dismissed: It makes the error of assuming that all extinctions are equal. The difference is, the contemporary declines are not due to inexorable glaciation or an extraterrestrial bomb, it's due to the rapid expansion and carelessness of an expansive conglomerate of very clever animal consciousnesses: We. We think therefore we shape.

I don't live in a progressive's dreamworld. I think it's beyond the scope of any program or project to comprehensively manage anything as complicated as a protected valley forest ecosystem or demographic economics (in the pursuit of "fairness"). The laissez-faire argument recommends inaction, not as a solution, but as a sort of acceptance of the truth. I appreciate the notion; often I feel that when we act - ideologically - without 1.) an evidential grasp of the true nature of the problem and 2.) the willingness/attention required to continue maintenance of a remedying program that will most likely change as the system itself evolves (Medicare comes to mind). In my mind, inaction can be the best way to handle certain complex situations, especially when the data are volatile, inconclusive or controversial, but it's never a solution. Sometimes there is never a solution. I find the idea that there is always a fix to any problem both arrogant and puerile.

Conservation has seen success, however, if we define success as directional movement toward historic restoration. We have found ways to manage disturbed areas and bolster populations of animals that were long lost from particular ecosystems. Humans have shaped the world to their liking. We can certainly reshape it into how we think the world was or how it might have been without our destructive influence. It's still preferential, but I appreciate the impulse to have enough humility to accept that we are not the only exceptional animal intelligence on the planet. It's still our prerogative, but it's addressing the adverse affects our biological success has had on other life. It's a mission to protect the vast amount of information stored within each quivering protoplasmic article.

The agents of this argument are far more interesting than the content of it. With the recent advances in neurology and its influences on philosophy, it has become chic for artists, writers and self-ascribed philosophers to parrot the slim reviews of this science in pop-sci publications and Nova documentaries without an even cursory understanding of the nature of science itself, particularly data interpretation/validation (falsification, etc.). It becomes a rapid-fire delivery of trivia-worthy facts and figures or an "exploration" of the science, a favored word of artists and art historians in particular, usually signifying an entry into the realm of unbridled - and decidedly unscientific - speculation; the science acts as a marginally solid springboard for confirmation bias. When confronted with an actual discussion of data and the real implications of it, within the field, as related to other science, the interest wanes and their institutionalized bias against technical knowledge asserts itself.

Don't think this, as is the tendency, and definitely don't act on it: "Well, I'm an artist/art historian/writer/philosopher and I don't do that." You don't, that's good. I know you exist, but you're in the minority. Near extinction, perhaps. In need of a equalizing (democratizing!) government program? One could make that argument.

September 6, 2011

Know Your Biomes IX: Chaparral



Fynbos in the Western Cape, South Africa*
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.

*Image by Chris Eason
**Image by Derek Keats

September 5, 2011

The new Encyclopedia of Life: Collections


I have to admit, I didn't use the Encyclopedia of Life very frequently in its first incarnation. I perused for media every now and then, or doubled checked the taxonomy for a species, but it was not a touchstone for research. The relaunch, however, gives users new functionality to make the experience more organized for personal and community use.

Like any good application, the startup/front page gives you just about everything you need. The mission statement is obvious, the search field is huge and the row of images tells you exactly what your searches will bring. The main site elements are listed below along with FAQ links, newsfeed tells you this is a busy place full of lots of other people. Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Flickr; Impression made. It's all familiar, accessible.

The main piece that I've grown to love is the collections. After you've created your account and start searching around for cute pictures of red pandas, you'll notice an Add to Collection button in the top right-hand corner of the page. Clicking the button displays a popup. Follow the prompts to create a new collection.


Collections allow you to create groups of organisms in EOL. Collections can be as subjective or scientific as you wish. Red panda could be included in a collection of the "Cutest Animals Ever" or a more natural category, maybe "Mammals of China." Once it's created, you can search for and add as many inhabitants of EOL as you wish by clicking the Add to Collection button and selecting one (or more) of your collections in the list. For the Cutest Animals Ever collection, you might want to add the echidna or the wolf spider. For the Mammals of China, you might want to add that other panda, whatever its name is.

I started a collection of monotypic taxa from the red panda, the sole species in the genus Ailurus. I searched for other monotypic taxa off the top of my head: the moose, the African civet cat, the Gingko. Then I started getting some responses from the community via the collection newsfeed. Katja said, "Don't forget the Aardvark!" Cyndy said the Western Osprey was a good candidate for the collection. Bob suggested that I add a description so that people visiting my collection knew exactly what "monotypic taxa" are. So I did:


This is how communities can grow out of collections of organisms, communities based on shared interests of one sort or another. In fact, there's functionality there to support those communities, just click the Create Community button next to your collection, add a description, invite some interested parties and start sharing.

EOL gets me thinking. It started with one of my favorite animals and quickly became a taxonomic scavenger hunt. I started researching: Just how many monotypic taxa are there? Why are they important? What does the classification say about these animals and their evolutionary history? As a writer, the answers become the building blocks for an essay. Usually there's nothing manipulable about those ideas; they spawn from reading papers, from the ideas of others. EOL provides a level of control that allows systems to be constructed that plead for further explanation.

Collection building can create new ideas, but it can also be useful for supplementing existing material. I've written about biomes and ecosystems frequently in the past, and it can be difficult to give readers a good idea of the extent or uniqueness of life in a particular region. I'm thinking about using collections in EOL when I can to create lists of organisms that constitute the ecosystem I describe so that readers can browse through the many unique organisms that live there. Excessive listing and description in prose structurally tedious; often its a choice between prose lists and long strings of bullets, which are ugly and usually scary for a casual reader.

EOL suddenly becomes a very interesting resource for science enthusiasts, educators and writers. I have some thoughts about how it could be used in more creative/artistic ways, but I'll hold off for a future post.

Go sign up and play around. It's Labor Day. The grill isn't ready just yet. EOL is a lot of fun.

August 31, 2011

[Un]remarkable space


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:

Earthquake damage

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.