You know that a book that opens up with a David Abram quote isn't going to be an ordinary academic text. In a sense, HEH dives into the real complexitYou know that a book that opens up with a David Abram quote isn't going to be an ordinary academic text. In a sense, HEH dives into the real complexities that Abram invokes with such magic; it proves his point by starting us on the journey of really getting to know a place.
HEH is a tremendously good tool to explore the history of a place. Not only does it clue you in to aspects of historical data you would never have thought of--from historical soil surveys to plant phytoliths--nearly each chapter provides bibliographic references on where to start looking for relevant studies and records for each region of the country. The unique strengths and limitations of each technique are fleshed out, and the book ends with case studies that explain how they can be used in synergy.
Since I'm not using the book right now, what I got out of it (beyond knowing that I should come back to it when I do have a place/project) is a reinforcement of the complexity of ecological history. Restoration ecology is often critiqued for attempting to halt natural change and inhibit ecosystem dynamism by restoring an idealized historical state. Everything in the book makes it quite clear that that is impossible; each technique described produces a picture at a different resolution and timescale, and together they at best reveal several interacting change drivers acting at different rates. Rather than providing a fixed and static picture of what an ecosystem "should" look like in its natural state, historical ecology shows us a place as a character: defined by its responses to changing conditions.
This is something permaculture practitioners could stand to learn in greater detail. It's quite true that Anthropocene ecosystems must be vastly different from those of the Holocene, but historical ecology doesn't just describe what was. It tells us what could be. On a larger scale, its findings will likely be key to informing restoration ecology theory--things like threshold dynamics as functions of climate, vegetation composition, and disturbance rates--which would necessarily be (as I see it) a key underpinning of an effective Anthropocene (agro)ecosystem plan. ...more
Bill Cronon and Aldo Leopold sort of set the stage for ecological restoration philosophy in America. Cronon killed the wilderness myth and freed us toBill Cronon and Aldo Leopold sort of set the stage for ecological restoration philosophy in America. Cronon killed the wilderness myth and freed us to think of ourselves as an integral and healthy part of the biosphere (though most people didn't get the memo). Leopold got us started actually practicing restoration, and he gave our culture an environmental ethic that urged us to see the non-human world as part of our moral community. From what I've gathered, few thinkers (outside of the radical environmental movement, of course) have explored these ideas and tried to get them to sink in more than William R. Jordan and Frederick Turner. They are philosopher-poets of restoration ecology, and Beyond Preservation seems to be an attempt to get their works to become the focus of a larger conversation.
Jordan's The Sunflower Forest: Ecological Restoration and the New Communion with Nature raised a couple of really good points (restoration as ritual, community is less warm fuzzy and more constant sacrifice and compromise) and then dissolved into pet theory chaos. Turner, who seems to be a much better thinker and writer, has a penchant for the grandiose that leads him to Manifest Destiny thinking - interesting, compelling ideas, but seemingly irrelevant or impractical. Both authors would have benefited greatly by consulting more environmental history (then again, I think everyone should consult environmental historians before they do anything, which might be impractical).
Jordan and Turner both suggest the possibility of "synthetic" ecosystems, new assemblages of species that function together like historical ecosystems. However, they never actually discuss what this could possibly mean - intuitive if you just dwell on how complex ecosystems are and think this is the sort of thing much more advanced knowledge might bring, but really dumb if you think about the huge diversity of such managed landscapes throughout human history. The ecological intricacies of the Aztec chinampas system, or the Chagga homegardens, or the chestnut forests of New England, or the "wild orchards" of the pre-contact Amazon rainforest, could all have been mentioned, among many others. Hell, Jordan and Turner could even have branched out and acknowledged permaculturists' efforts to create precisely the synthetic ecosystem they prescribe. In the absence of such tangible examples, their exhortations feel empty and the philosophy is just sort of bland.
The same applies to Jordan's ritual bit. In a post-Cronon world (sorry) it's clear that restoring ecosystems requires restoring the human place in those ecosystems as well. If pre-contact American landscapes were managed and even designed by humans, then historical ecosystem restorations must also restore human cultures that are capable of these beneficial relationships. Jordan never states his argument in quite this way (though in his very ponderous book, he covers a lot of other permutations); his point is essentially that ritual can offer us a way to develop a deep sense of community with the ecosystems we are restoring. The catch-22 inherent in here seems to have escaped Jordan, as did the fact that restoration efforts could easily pay for themselves monetarily if crop plants were integrated (something that seems like it should have been a key element of his platform, given his willingness to consider "synthetic ecosystems").
While money may be crass etc, the truth is that a subculture with deep ties to restoration-ritual as the core of a community-relationship with nature isn't going to emerge without a lot of people getting paid to spend their time on the work. What seems to be happening instead is that restoration is just one more outdoor recreation, tailored for the older, upper-middle class book reading birder set (as one of the contributors in this book dubs them, the "LL Bean/J Crew crowd" - one of the few cogent points made). The introduction of ritual into the mix is extremely unlikely to create a new wave in American culture, something that represents a deeply felt and understood land ethic. It is much more likely to play into the appropriative, kitchsy New Age spirituality that is already rife in the environmental movement. A decent environmental history of these subjects would have made it clear to Jordan that a real land ethic evolves over generations and can't just be thought into existence.
Okay, so what about Beyond Preservation? Jordan and Turner's ideas are flawed by blandness and in several other ways as well, but almost none of the discussion essays here level any legitimate or interesting criticisms. Instead, they seem to be echoing old, hopefully dead paradigms or completely, seemingly willfully misreading Jordan and Turner's points. Most attack them for drawing a line between preservation and restoration, when clearly both are necessary - something literally everyone involved with the book agrees on. Others accuse the authors of bigotry or something like intellectual laziness for advocating invasive species control in restoration projects - as though it were discriminatory to prevent buckthorn from wiping out plant biodiversity in your restoration just because it is a Eurasian plant. This, again, seems willfully obtuse. Worst of all, many authors simply repeat canards of the old paradigm, the pre-Cronon/Leopold paradigm whose replacement Jordan and Turner are trying to develop. They argue that restoration represents an attempt to dominate and control nature, or that restored areas are "tainted" and can never be as pure and good as remnant ecosystems. One author insists it's insensitive to advocate restoration when there are hungry people in Africa, missing almost every point completely.
Jordan and Turner respond to the essays at the end of book, and their chapters both seem completely bewildered and kind of frustrated. They are forced to reiterate basic elements of their ideas and bat aside the majority of the book's contents out of hand as irrelevant and poor readings of their ideas. To be honest, I don't know why I finished this book :s...more
I came to Bumblebee Economics just looking for some basic life-history and ecology information about Bumblebees. While the energy economics were not vI came to Bumblebee Economics just looking for some basic life-history and ecology information about Bumblebees. While the energy economics were not very meaningful to me as a question in their own right, that framing question made the book much more enjoyable to read than works like “Wasps: etc” that are simply organized reviews of information collected in other research. Heinrich, of course, was beginning a career as a professional natural history author, and there are hints of that future eloquence here.
Some of the interesting things I learned:
Bumblebee hives around here routinely produce around 100 queens in a year; only one survives, on average. The largest hives have around 700-800 workers.
Individuals have some innate knowledge of general pollen and nectar harvesting, but unlike solitary bees (who are only active in a narrow window when only a few coevolved flowers are in bloom), bumbles must learn, through practice, to optimally access specific flower species. The flowers they learn are harvested almost exclusively, though they do visit one or two other species occasionally and switch to them if their primary goes out of season.
Bumbles don't store pollen and honey; their supplies won't last more than a few rainy days.
Much of bumblebee life revolves around maintaining optimal temperatures. The thorax must be warm enough to fly, but not so warm as to overheat (basically within the optimal temperature range for mitochondrial enzymes). Heat flow to the abdomen can be encouraged, to keep the thorax from overheating or to warm larvae in the nest. It also can be slowed, to maintain heat in the thorax on cold days.
Larger bees stay warm more easily, which is part of why queens are the largest – they need to forage in early spring. Size is controlled by the amount of pollen larvae receive, while temperature affects time to maturity.
Bumbles, unlike honeybees, don't communicate the location of food resources. Their evolutionary ecology is near-homogeneous bogs and fields of wildflowers, not tropical forests and savannas were flowers primarily occur on trees that bloom irregularly.
It is possible for even a human to determine with reasonable accuracy whether a clover bloom has been visited or is still full of nectar by smell alone.
Competition is complex in coevolved plant-pollinator communities, and introduction of weeds and honeybees complicates the situation even further. In some cases, honeybees could be a substantial competitor with bumbles; in others, no effect is observed. In general, long-tongue and short-tongue bees (within a species and between species) visit appropriate flowers, evidence of competition for nectar; however, hives of the same species have been experimentally manipulated and shown no negative effects of increased competition. ...more
When I started The Sunflower Forest, I was excited. Jordan was the first book I'd read in ages that advanced a perspective on environmental issues thaWhen I started The Sunflower Forest, I was excited. Jordan was the first book I'd read in ages that advanced a perspective on environmental issues that seemed fresh and new. It bespoke promises of a personal paradigm shift, if a small one.
Jordan starts at Leopold's commandment to "see land as a community to which we belong." He agrees with the concept, broadly, but points out that the environmental movement has read this in an extremely superficial way. The outdoor recreation movement has largely co-opted the concept of personal relationships with nature as a narrative to sell their various products and "getaways." As Greg Summers did in Consuming Nature, Jordan realizes that primarily consumptive modes of interaction with nature cannot yield reciprocal, regenerative, and healthy modes of interaction. The insight Jordan adds is to investigate what Leopold's mission actually means: how do communities form?
It often feels like this book is just another spin on the intellectual treadmill. Leopold says that we must change our culture's view of nature in order to enact a restorative approach. Jordan says that restoration is the key to developing a culture that sees itself as a member of the ecological community. On one hand, then, there is no problem. We should advance in both practical and cultural realms simultaneously, largely as the movement has done. On the other hand, which obtains more broadly, we are caught in a catch-22. We cannot begin large-scale restoration works until we have generated broad social support for such ventures, but it turns out that doing restoration is the only way to generate that support.
But that's not entirely fair. Jordan's idea is valuable. On whatever scale the environmental movement is capable of changing culture and restoring ecosystems, that's valuable, and we need to think seriously about how best to do it. So if the National Park System and BBC's Planet Earth aren't the best way to embrace our membership in Earth as a community, what is? Most importantly, if it doesn't hurt, it's not working. True relationships require sacrifice. This is the first sign that the outdoor recreation movement is building smug self-satisfaction and physical fitness among its customers, but not a true community. They are premised in commitment, and this is perhaps the hardest thing for Americans, who are totally absorbed in an economic and cultural system that is utterly alienated from the land where we live, to achieve.
Jordan's solution, reasonably, is to look to the sociological and mostly anthropological research on community-building. From sociology, he gets the insight that communities are not harmonious Edens of neighborliness, but rather a complex web of power struggles, heterogeneous factions, and competing value systems. At other points in the book, Jordan must struggle mightily to analogize his human examples to the problem of community-with-nature, but this one's easy. Our nature-culture needs to wrestle head on with the inevitable levels of violence, dominance, and competition involved in any human relationship with a landbase. In much environmental thinking, these aspects are simply elided in favor of the rosy vision focused on cooperation. Derrick Jensen, a great example, tried to distinguish, in ethical terms, the violence of hunting from the violence of civilization in a few pages in Endgame, a mere window dressing. Once his values were superficially justified, he went on to claim that evolution is based on cooperation, not competition :s
From the anthropological literature, Jordan ascertains that most human cultures come to terms with the violence they must inflict to live through ritual. The stereotyped example concerns the Native American hunter thanking the Deer Spirits. Jordan makes the (somewhat grasping) claim that ritual sacrifice of innocents is a "way of dealing with . . . troubling cold blooded killing of the barnyard and the systematic mass-murder of cultivation and harvest." From this analogue, Jordan is obviously looking for serious rituals - Connie Barlow's Great Story, for instance, is great but fails utterly to grapple with the enormity of the issues at hand, to plumb their dark depths and emerge with a sense of meaning. He cites only a few festivals associated with restoration projects in the Midwest. His most serious suggestion, and certainly one of the book's most memorable if not best ideas, is to destroy a portion of a restored ecosystem as a meditation on its value to us.
Instead of brainstorming ideas for meaningful and effective rituals for restoration, most of the book was spent on a garbled investigation of anthropological studies of ritual, particularly those of Frederick and Victor Turner. He is fixated by a concept he refers to as shame. This concept is, in Jordan's conception, the central theme of the book, but it was never really clear to me what he meant by it. He put so much faith in it, though, that he went so far as to say that most writers in the Western tradition "confused shame and guilt," because they didn't make the distinction between them that he does. As my bud Alex pointed out, this all reeks of an academic pet theory. Jordan, as far as I can tell, is not trained as an anthropologist, and he is simply drawing a picture that makes intuitive sense to him. Unfortunately, it's pretty idiosyncratic and doesn't come across very well to the reader.
This is unfortunate, because when Jordan's ambiguous shame thread isn't clouding the text, he is a cogent thinker and provides insightful analyses of many relevant bodies of knowledge. To demonstrate the difficulty of entering and maintaining a community, he examines initiation rites that include bodily mutilation, long periods of isolation and deprivation, and humiliation, all in order to destroy a prior identity and reshape a new identity as a community member, with all the responsibilities that entails. Piaget provides a four-stage framework for entering a community (as an outsider, primarily): achieve awareness of the other; get a job and learn the language; exchange gifts; and resolve ambiguity through ritual. Gift exchange creates an unresolved sense of mutual obligation; debts are not meant to be settled but to bind members to each other in a permanent relationship of mutual trust and interdependence. In literature, the genre of the pastoral shows us the differences between flawed and misleading narratives of humans and nature, and stories that enlighten our place.
It's perhaps unfair to expect Jordan to solve the problem he poses. After all, creating a culture's worth of ritual and symbology with enough hold on our imaginations to counteract the power of American pop culture is not easy/possible in a book like this. But there are a few interesting kernels to build on: premising environmental rituals on events like the equinoxes, which bear little relevance to the life of the community, is a recipe for weak rituals; and the awesome idea that, "like the innocent victim of traditional sacrifice, the weeds and exotic plants the restorationist kills die for our sins" (which Jordan got from someone else). Most important, of course, is the genuine valuation people place on a landscape they have invested much in creating. Most of Jordan's argument rests on the obvious salience of this process.
Reading The Sunflower Forest as a follow-up to and in light of Mark Shepard's Restoration Agriculture, it was reassuring to me that Jordan built that possibility into his definition of restoration. While he focuses primarily on the form of restoration that aspires to erase the history of ecological violence and return to a previous condition, he embraces the idea that restored landscapes must be landscapes that give to and take from humans. He rejects the concept of living lightly on the land, a sort of ecological anorexia that fixates on reducing consumption rather than on consuming better. Instead, he proposes that an eventually key component of restoration must be providing economically for the needs of the restorers. Obviously, he takes for granted that this consumption will be done in a way that respects the continued health and growth of the restored system. People who have invested sufficiently in a landbase to restore it to health won't lightly throw that away for fleeting gains.
His ideas about what form this will take are mixed. On one hand, he cites the brilliant Buffalo Commons idea that Richard Manning argued for so eloquently in Grasslands. On the other, his best idea for moister areas like Wisconsin is to include a prairie community as a cover crop, a resting phase in a crop rotation for corn and soybeans. I'm sure this is a vast improvement over the present corn-soybean rotation, but it's certainly not an ecologically appropriate way to produce food in Wisconsin.
The Sunflower Forest certainly didn't live up to its initial promise, but it has useful insights and starts a very important conversation. ...more
In my quest to learn more about gender/feminist theory and understand the crux of the argument between rad-fem and trans-fem thought, Serano's book haIn my quest to learn more about gender/feminist theory and understand the crux of the argument between rad-fem and trans-fem thought, Serano's book has been by far the most helpful. While the book occasionally seems somewhat repetitive (as though some of the chapters were written to be read independently) it explores all the important historical debates and aspects of gender theory and cultural critique relevant to the discussion. The history of sex science covered in Sexing the Body: Gender Politics and the Construction of Sexuality is reviewed in a much more digestible fashion. The history of intra-feminism theoretical debate on the topic is laid out in a clear and comprehensible fashion, which helped me grasp some of the points made in this more academic version (http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/fem...).
Some of the salient points I wanted to remember (sorry, the bullet list format is more for me than for you, reader):
- media portrayals of trans-women (which tend to focus on deception narratives, makeup and clothes, surgery, and sex work) highlight the artificiality and sexualization of femininity, which is symptomatic of our culture's misogyny more broadly
- misogyny often manifests itself as a disdain for femininity, the "things women do," and this has negative consequences for everyone from femme gay men in the gay rights movement to feminine males to trans women to cis women to even cis boys, whose behaviors and personal expression are circumscribed by the stigmatization of "feminine" traits. This is the key thesis of the book, and Serano argues that we need to embrace the value of femininity itself, its validity as a personal expression for anyone, and its parity with the traits collected as "masculinity."
- in radical circles, freeing individuals from the constraints of androcentrism and the gender binary can result in the apotheosis of androgyny and other alternative gender expressions. However, this can end up in what Serano terms Subversivism, which doesn't reject but merely reverses the gender-normality hierarchy.
- Serano's gender theory (I suppose it could be seen as an alternative to the radfem model, though they easily could be complementary, since Serano's focusing on individual variation and the feminist bit concerns classes and oppression) posits that each of the dozens of traits wrapped up in femininity/masculinity/gender expression, biological sex, sexual orientation, vary independently of each other; are largely intrinsic and not consciously alterable, though they may change over time, especially as our self-understandings, definitions, and terminology evolve; are products of complex interactions between many factors that are little-understood and yield a variety of products on a spectrum in each metric; each factor roughly correlates with biological males and females but there is no exclusivity in any trait. This model eliminates oppositional sexism (the idea that maleness and femaleness are opposites)
- In addition to oppositional sexism, Serano also coins (I think?) the term "traditional sexism" to define the oppression that limits males to male traits and females to female traits and uses violence to stigmatize those who don't conform.
- Her description of cis privilege makes a ton of great points that really clarifies that issue a lot. They're all much more subtle and deep than the obvious issues with government documents, etc. 1. Cis people take gendering of strangers for granted - they assume that it is immediately obvious what gender a person is and don't think of this as an active process of sorting so much as a passive process of observation. 2. Cissexual assumption means that cis people assume everyone else is cis until proven otherwise. This creates a series of awkward situations for trans people - they must "come out" as trans, which is difficult and dangerous given the social stigma about it. 3. Gender entitlement is the presumption that cis people have the right to decide who is and is not a member of a gender - ie, that their gendering is correct despite what the individual may say. 4. Birth privilege - the idea cissexuals' gender is more natural and authentic because they are born into it, while trans people are forced to fight their way into their gender, even though in both cases subconscious sex presumably arises due to the same forces and at around the same times. Serano points out that this birthright is frowned upon in other situations, like caste systems, but never questioned in gender. 5. Never having to confront the idea that your subconscious sex could differ from your body and the way people gender you. This is the root issue of a lot of the above.
Interestingly, Serano makes a lot of the same points that this author (http://liberationcollective.wordpress...), among the least offensive and awful radfem writers on trans people I've seen, makes. - gender is complex - masculinity and femininity are complex bundles of traits that can express in any number of combinations - gender expression goes well beyond stereotypical extremes of masculinity and femininity - all of the traits involved in gender expression are spectra, not dichotomies - gender identity doesn't need to be constant over time to be valid - gender oppression occurs through social perception, regardless of self-perception - femininity is systematically devalued and degraded by nearly every sector of our society (echoing Serano's title thesis)
Points where Serano seems to depart from the reasonable end of the radfem trans critique: - The assertion that there is such a thing as "subconscious sex." This is an empirical question to which the radfems have applied an ideological answer. The way Hungerford talks about trans people makes it eminently clear she has no idea what gender dissonance is like (neither do I, but I listen when people tell me about it), showing that her argument is deeply premised in the very cissexual privilege she's trying to erase.
- The idea that masculinity and femininity have an existence beyond patriarchy's oppressive hierarchy
- Serano warns against oversimplifying gender! Most of the confusion in the radfem school comes from the arrogant assumption that their ideological understanding of gender overrules the complexity of the world and renders empirical investigations unnecessary.
- Respecting people and their experiences, giving validity to their subjectivity, going far enough to listen to them and not accuse them, as a group, of being oppressive by their very existence
Gah. The radfem arguments are very frustrating to me. They're so willfully ignorant and offensive but yet so close to saying exactly the same thing, and being the activists I want them to be in every other way....more
"an evolutionary history approach walks right into the house of biology to reach a deeper understanding. One of the questions it encourages us to ask"an evolutionary history approach walks right into the house of biology to reach a deeper understanding. One of the questions it encourages us to ask is why species have the traits that they do. It reminds us that species are not givens; they have histories."
The premise of environmental history is that the full story of human history cannot be understood without extensive reference to the interactions between humans and the natural world. Russell's project is to emphasize, within that field, the specifically genetic, evolutionary impacts made in those interactions. It's a very straightforward, uncontroversial suggestion. Insofar as he's right and not enough environmental historians take this aspect of change into account (The 10,000 Year Explosion: How Civilization Accelerated Human Evolution is a great exception - you should probably read it if you're interested in a book like Russell's), then his work is a suggestive palliative. But insofar as the idea itself is obvious and makes reference to things that have been studied extensively before - antibiotic resistance in pathogens, pesticide resistance in weeds and insects, and domestication - most of the book seems bland and superfluous.
I did find his argument about organisms as technology quite compelling. He points out that there's no clear reason to separate tools and processes we use for a purpose based on whether they are alive or not. There are plenty of crossover cases in the middle that make this clear - genetically modified organisms, vat grown vitamins, living houses, bamboo-frame bicycles, and biological weapons are all alive but clearly technology. From there, it's not much of a leap to factory farms, where animals are little more than chemical converters of feed to meat. But if it's the intentional conversion of feed to meat that matters, then any chicken raised by humans is "technology" in the same way. And this argument can extend out into some very ecologically complex farming systems. I find that interesting.
He recapitulated some arguments made by others that I found interesting enough to record here:
Russell hypothesizes that human hunters triggered B. priscus to have smaller horns and travel in herds (which is not advantageous in terms of food and land/individual). wikipedia's narrative goes like this: B. priscus migrated to North America around 500 or 250 ka, diverged almost immediately into two species, with the second, B. latifrons, having much larger horns and travelling in even smaller groups. This makes sense in Russell's logic, since the bison lost adaptations to human hunting when they moved to a continent where there were no humans (whereas B. priscus shouldn't have changed due to human hunting pressure - they were already used to it in Eurasia). B. antiquus emerged from B. latifrons around 250 ka, and B. antiquus led to B. bison by way of B. occidentalis by around 5-10 ka. So the spread of Clovis hunters is associated with bison getting smaller.
There are several selective pressures at work on the amount of melanin in skin. Folate breaks down under too much UV, and of course it also causes melanoma. However, UV is required for synthesis of vitamin D. While most humans were dark skinned and obtained vitamin D through extensive sun exposure in Africa, once they migrated out of Africa, they gradually turned to dietary sources of vitamin D (as dark skinned Inuits still did until the malnutrition outbreak caused by the introduction of European diets). However, once humans in northern latitudes shifted to grains and dairy, dietary vitamin D intake was insufficient, which shifted selection pressure towards lighter skin, despite its disadvantages in other arenas. Since vitamin D deficiency (rickets) affects children, it has a much more immediate effect on reproductive success than melanoma, a disease of later life. Russell argues that the shift to lighter skin was aided by the genetic bottleneck of out-of-Africa humans. Russell's argument is supported by this new research claiming that blue eyes (a reduction in melanin production) came from a single mutation around 6-10 kya, approximately the time of agriculture's introduction to the area.
The Industrial Revolution was most famously driven by the mechanization of cotton production in England. However, this process was possible because of long-strand cotton from the Americas - shorter cotton from India didn't produce fibers strong enough to endure the rigors of machine handling. Most historians simply ignore this fact and treat cotton as a commodity, or at best take it for granted that long strand cotton arose in the Americas, simply as a happenstance. Russell wants us to flesh out this story and see its resonance in deep time. Long strand cotton was actively selected for (not to say intentionally bred for) by groups of Amerindians in Peru and elsewhere. The plant was able to evolve the traits desired by Amerindians and later the textile industry only because of the genetic flexibility provided by tetraploidy. That is, the "D" genome of cotton found in the Americas was joined by an overseas migrator bearing the Old World "A" genome. Instead of replacing each other, the two combined, leaving each individual with 4 copies of each chromosome - two in each genome, which differed from each other. These extra copies provide back-ups that prevent mutations from being fatal and thus allow a greater range of traits to be expressed. So Russell argues that this means the Industrial Revolution is a product of active biotechnological groundwork done by Amerindians and of a happenstance migration across the Pacific 1-2 mya....more
While some exceptions have made their way into popular purview - chiefly the understanding that industrial humans are destructive - ecology is still lWhile some exceptions have made their way into popular purview - chiefly the understanding that industrial humans are destructive - ecology is still largely seen the way it was presented by William Paley: a web of interactions in which inefficiencies and waste are pared away by the exigencies of natural selection and where every piece has its function, even if it's not yet clear to us. This is evident in Optimal Foraging Theory and Optimal Defense Theory, which are essentially tautological: whatever organisms do must be the optimal choice to make, because of Evolution.
The Ghosts of Evolution is Barlow's attempt to explode that vision out into a historically complex picture of the world. The premise, of course, is that there are plant traits (mostly fruit, but a few thorns and growth habits are thrown in for good measure) that evolved in response to a specific sort of mutualism that no longer exists.
The book is initially kind of weak. Barlow's premised the whole thing on a "groundbreaking" paper Dan Janzen and Paul Martin wrote in 1982. She's enamored of the idea, she finds it romantic and exciting. Much of the book is structured around quotes from email exchanges she had with the two authors. For a book about such an old topic, it seems remarkably rich in speculation and low in primary research. She constantly presents these anecdotal "experiments" she's done, with the caveat that they're "not real science" so we shouldn't invest any Truth in them, but with the clear feeling that she really wants the suggestions they made to be true, just because she would find it Cool.
While the premise wears rather thin in the first few chapters - it's really sufficient to assert that honey locust, persimmon, pawpaw, avocado, and the Kentucky coffee tree are anachronisms and why without being so repetitive about it - the book picks up when Barlow broadens her scope.
There's a wonderfully intensive discussion of comparative digestive anatomy. She concludes, reasonably, that most of the anachronism fruit eaters were hindgut digesters - foregut digesters aren't made for fruit. She points out that the Pleistocene megafaunal extinction left a continent devoid of hindgut herbivores larger than a beaver - though she uncharacteristically fails to speculate on why this is. Most of the large animals that moved in from Eurasia were foregut digesters. I like discussions of digestive anatomy because they are inextricably linked with forage chemistry, which turns faunal assemblages into keys to and engineers of a chemical landscape.
The beautiful thing about the book is the way it expands our perceptions of the relationships among organisms. Anachronistic fruits are the living evidence of megafauna, and the present distribution of the plants that produce them is evidence of their absence. Barlow's knowledge of the specific histories of animals, plants, and their interactions as continents moved throughout North America's history seems rich and full, which is unusual. I find the whole thing complex and hard to wrap my head around - camels and horses arose in North America, while Bison arose in Eurasia, but they migrated across the Bering Straits at various different times up to the Pleistocene. I really want to learn this deep history with more familiarity, because I tthink the historical, evolutionary, dynamic perspective is the only way to understand the logic of a land community.
Overall, Barlow made an interesting picture and changed my view of ecology and evolutionary history (particularly just noting that evolution can leave anachronistic features as big as avocados for 13,000 years is remarkable). It's not the most eloquent or subtle book, but it works....more
Twilight has the dubious distinction of being one of the only references Mark Shepard cites in Restoration Agriculture. He implies that Martin detailsTwilight has the dubious distinction of being one of the only references Mark Shepard cites in Restoration Agriculture. He implies that Martin details some of the Pleistocene ecologies that he urges us to mimic in designing Anthropocene food-producing ecosystems. Such lessons are few and far between in the book, however; Martin lays out the history of the megafauna overkill hypothesis and gives a remarkably fair presentation of the evidence and arguments for and against it, though of course he comes down on the side that made him famous. The end of the book simply hints at the ways Martin's fieldwork in paleontology could inspire unexpectedly productive restoration ecology efforts. Of course, most of these involve importing wild Old World megafauna like camels and llamas, which remains a far cry from Shepard's domestic milieu. So while Shepard is right to point to Martin and Pleistocene ecology as appropriate models for designing new ecosystems, he certainly doesn't do so in any satisfying detail, and Twilight is not a very helpful place to look - though I'm sure the sources Martin cites are probably a good place to start....more
I picked this up randomly from the 3rd floor of the Mudd (best floor) because I'm looking into performing restoration as part and parcel of my own ResI picked this up randomly from the 3rd floor of the Mudd (best floor) because I'm looking into performing restoration as part and parcel of my own Restoration Agriculture: Real-World Permaculture for Farmers project. I was hoping it'd be technical and practical, a sort of textbook on restoration. Instead, it's just a series of somewhat repetitive essays on the ways restoration projects are the perfect field study plots for ecologists. They make two nice points, again and again: restoration provides manipulable field sites, places ecologists can fuck with things and usually make them better no matter what; and successful restoration projects are the "acid test" of ecology as a predictive science.
They constantly make a watch analogy: you know you understand a watch when you can put it back together and tune it up to run at the right speed, and thus you know you understand an ecosytem when you can put it back together and have it function correctly, with all the appropriate levels of productivity, biological interactions, and ecosystem services. They point out that since ecosystems are self-healing, artificial systems are often better tests of knowledge. If you know what is important about each component of the system, you can replace each with another that fulfills the same functions. This is exciting, because it is the practice of restoration agriculture (eg, replacing bison with cows that are managed to graze like bison).
While they use the language of succession throughout but point out that the point of restoration is to speed up succession and that the science of succession has shown that it is not a linear process and it does not reach the same endpoint in all circumstances. Changing the nature of the disturbance, the rate of migration, and possibly altering the composition of key soil-influencing plants can shape the community towards desired conclusions. In my case, the desired conclusion is wildlife habitat that fills ecosystem services and produces truckloads and truckloads of nutritious food. There seems to be no moral issue with creating an intensive food-bearing ecosystem - after all, you're starting with a cornfield, so anything you do will improve it. As long as you aren't introducing exotics into the area, you're practicing restoration ecology!
The essays are repetitive and relatively simplistic, and in hindsight I'm not sure why I read the whole thing. Certainly none of it was helpful in practical terms. It did bring up several specific ideas for the farm - ensuring we have mound-building ants for prairie seed distribution; inoculating trees with MR fungi; planting in species-diverse clumps; creating a diverse age structure for the community; possibly encouraging hawks and owls with nests and perches until the trees are mature. It also inspired me to plan a trip to the UW Madison Arboretum later this spring and to try to meet with restoration ecologists there. ...more
Almost all sources on indigenous communities' foodways treats them like livestock feed, trying to analyze how they can possibly get enough protein, whAlmost all sources on indigenous communities' foodways treats them like livestock feed, trying to analyze how they can possibly get enough protein, whether lack of protein drives their cultural quirks (as in Cannibals and Kings: Origins of Cultures), and why the Inuit eat such gross stuff. Sophie Coe offers a refreshing palliative to that attitude, focusing on the cuisine in which Native Americans combined the vast array of food plants she describes briefly in the first section. Unfortunately, she asserts there is not enough evidence to do this justice for any culture but the three major civilizations - Aztec, Inca, and Maya. And she seems to be right, because I felt that the evidence on even the Inca and Maya was a bit thin too.
But no matter, because just the one solid description got the point across. Coe shows us a wide and complex food gathering and dividing and preparing culture, one that seems to touch and exploit every facet of the somewhat unique ecosystem at Lake Texcoco. She describes how they fill most of our culinary niches with different plants - marzipan made from squash seeds, tortillas and tamales of maize, honey from stingless bees and sugar from agave leaves, axolotl or giant waterbug tacos for the poor, dried algae blocks eaten like cheese, hairless dogs raised on vegetarian diets for meat, and turkey and other forest fowl raised from wild eggs. Spices with flavors totally unknown to us were used to spice chocolate drinks of many sorts, none of which resemble anything we know. Orchards of dozens of tropical fruits that didn't make their way into the modern economy yielded year-round bounties. And everything was consumed with chile broth or whole chiles.
It is at once tantalizingly familiar - reading about tortillas and early salsas made me so nostalgic for Mexican food that I finally made some decent tortillas - and totally bizarre. As it should be. It's actually a great lesson for me now in why it is I can't just reproduce Winnebago subsistence ecosystems - the products they yield are appropriate to a Winnebago cuisine and a Winnebago audience, but they are fundamentally incompatible with my customers' tastes. At least unless I can create a marketing campaign that makes that food seem exotic and compelling. . .
The overall impression is the strongest thing I got from the book - it's hard to communicate so much variation in a digestible form, so that's probably inevitable. The impression was largely a romanticization of the complexity of Aztec integration with their environment, taking so many different sorts of foods from so many different ecozones. But that just made me wish the book had focused more on food production and gathering techniques - I want to know how the Aztecs managed this complex array of ecosystems to produce all this food. But alas, this information either lies in some other book or doesn't exist at all. And woe to he who'd like to know about pre-contact food habits among Wisconsin societies. :(...more
In Grassland, Manning shows what he is capable of when he's free of the tight constraints of argument and expository description. Given the deep ecology creds established in Against the Grain, it's really not that surprising that Manning would shine in deeply felt bioregional environmental history. Grassland is impressive. Manning's main goal is to really look at the biome, to see its parts and appreciate that its inhabitants and functions are as important and wonderful as any of the more well-loved systems like mountain valleys, rainforests, and tidepools.
It is somewhat general for a really place-based history, covering grasslands from western Montana to Kansas to western Wisconsin. Manning focuses on the big changes in ecological function and the associated cultural and economic factors. In the deep past, these include the Laramide orogeny, which put much of North America into the rain shadow that drove out the forests, the Pleistocene extinction (and the less well-known replacement with Eurasian mammals) and the immigration of the Clovis peoples, and the introduction of horses to Plains society and the associated shifts in lifestyle and politics.
Much more attention, of course, is focused on the ecological imperialism of European settlers, the central tragedy of the story. Manning focuses first on grazing, railroads, road construction, which allowed settlers to replace the bison-horse-native american system with ranches and begin the process of degradation.
Agricultural, Manning argues, was much worse. The ecological package that aided conquest of the East coast was ill-adapted to conquering the dry Plains, so the USDA actually sought out new plants to help them destroy the ecosystem. They brought in new varieties of winter wheat from Siberia, adapted to the dry conditions. Dozens of other invasives were sought that enabled settlers to plant trees, shrubs, and other civilized amenities on their grassland homesteads. Many of these species became noxious invasives, while others introduced devastating diseases to which North American plants had no immunity (this effort is supposedly responsible for the demise of the American Chestnut, for instance).
The process of wheat expansion turned rangeland that was relatively degraded but still hosted dozens of plant species into a monoculture. The moldboard plow and tile drainage essentially destroyed the pedological and hydrological basis for diverse life in the plains. It was the worst disaster the place had ever seen, and as agriculture has intensified, it has only gotten worse.
Manning finishes the book off with a discussion of activism, but he spares us the standard exhortations to action. He points out that the only sustainable way of life on the Plains is one that respects what the place wants to be - he says "the song the land calls forth" or something. He goes so far as to assert that the plains are not meant for writing, so our stories here must be written in the landscape of the place.
This is a clever way of dismissing the environmental activism narratives he seems to find rather cloying, based on Romantic ideals that favor sublime vistas and paint humans out of the landscape. The activism he sees, based on words not places, has not yet managed to really help the land. While conservation is well-established in various government agencies, it is a vision based on urbanite recreation, which leads, eg, the USFWS to stock streams with non-native fish and kill birds that compete with ducks, favored game birds. It is an extension of the ecological imperialist mindset, not a rejection of it, much less a return to the land. Worst is when people who are advocating just that solution - a bison and elk-based economy premised on the restoration of native vegetation and natural hydrology - are challenged by "animal rights" activists who fail to see that a healthy landscape is the only thing in the interest of animals, including humans. In general, Manning's cynical perspective is a refreshing change of pace from the standard activist book formula.
I failed to appreciate these aspects as much, but Manning delved pretty deeply into the literature of the Plains, a historical hub of bioregionalism and home to many authors who thought they needed such a literature. This may belie his earlier notion of an "illiterature of the Plains" but it does help flesh out and humanize his story. His coverage of Native American culture and history was way too thin, which is a shame....more
Looks at farming with nature in a relatively shallow way, seeing only the straightforward organic practices like crop rotation and hedgerows that giveLooks at farming with nature in a relatively shallow way, seeing only the straightforward organic practices like crop rotation and hedgerows that give wildlife a marginal part of the farm; doesn't even consider more interesting things like Mark Shepard's Restoration Agriculture: Real-World Permaculture for Farmers, which just builds the habitat into the farm. The problem with this approach is that it just works back to farming around the 1900s, which was diverse out of necessity but still perpetuated the already well-advanced destruction of North American biota brought by the European colonists. Otherwise, seems like a nice introduction to farm issues that destroy habitat, and harm the world, along with fairly simple modest ways to combat that, and a lot of practical experience dealing with community members, discussions of how to create the impetus in communities to support these practices. Awesome deep ties to Aldo Leopold and the Foundation....more
Nutrition is tasked with answering the age-old question: what are the characteristics of a healthy diet? This is a rather complex problem. It involvesNutrition is tasked with answering the age-old question: what are the characteristics of a healthy diet? This is a rather complex problem. It involves tremendous individual variation due to gene interactions and life history. It requires a thorough grasp of metabolic pathways and the roles chemicals play in the body, how they move around, and how the body compensates for changes in their intake. It is tasked with sorting through an enormous bevy of phytochemicals only recently recognized as important. The techniques we have to go about answer the question are further limiting. Conducting a controlled experiment with sufficient replication is almost impossible given variations in individual diet and lifestyle. More invasive and direct experiments are generally unethical and/or impractical. On top of all that, the subject is further confounded by the role of corporate money in funding and thus guiding research agendas, influencing public agency recommendations, and marketing products that are cheap to produce or earn a premium as "healthy."
I was inspired to get a scientist's-eye-view of the nutrition question by my interest in food chemistry and physiology, by my own issues with wheat and possibly other things, and most of all by the desire to be an educated voice on the perennial debates that come up in our house. The nature of our diet at Greenfire is mostly dictated by preference and environmental/ethical concerns, but our community focuses so much on our food that food fads come and go all the time. We've had raw food diets, purges and cleanses, veganism, the primal diet, dairy and gluten free eaters, plenty of vegetarians, a few fish allergies, people who love tofu and hate butter, others who love butter and hate soy products, and a few sugar addicts (myself chief among them). This is all, from what I understand, a product of the human compulsion to load food choices with a significance, culturally and medicinally, that is found in few other issues, a way to deal with the immense burden of choice omnivory imposes.
For all those reasons and more, I buckled down and read this nutrition textbook cover to cover in ten days. This was a very useful exercise, though it ended up being somewhat unsatisfying on the recommendations end and gave a somewhat poor account of the history of research in the area. The book overwhelmingly describes physiology, biochemistry, and metabolic pathways at the expense of broader issues. This reflects the state of knowledge: biochemistry and physiology have been researched thoroughly for a century and this research has yielded insights that provide the groundwork for understanding more complex issues. It was occasionally a bit tedious, though I felt like I could have grasped most of it if I'd spent the time. I skipped the list sections and the extensive naming of enzymes in digestive pathways, knowing I can come back if I have more specific questions.
The occasional tedium is punctuated by a series of wonderful revelations about physiology and food chemistry, and I really enjoyed the first part of the book for that reason. I learned (view spoiler)[the difference between soluble and insoluble fiber (and why soluble fiber doesn't help with constipation – it consists of mucilages, gums, and pectin to begin with, and most of it is degraded by intestinal bacteria), why polyunsaturated fats are considered healthier than saturated fats (omega-3 and -6 PUFAs are essential precursors to a series of messenger molecules called eicosanoids; saturated fats increase “bad” low-density lipoprotein cholesterol), why poop is brown (red hemoglobin breaks down into brown stercobilin), what cooking accomplishes chemically for digestion (it breaks down crystalline starch groups), which protein represents the ideal amino acid ratio for humans (eggs; beef is around 65% as good), and why fermentation in the intestines causing changes in poop schedule (fermentation produces gases that expand the lumen, the trigger muscles await to begin squeezing food towards the rectum). (hide spoiler)]
Further, I know in some detail why various conventional wisdom dietary chestnuts are suggested. (view spoiler)[Saturated fats and trans fats raise the proportion of bad cholesterol, a risk factor for heart disease. Unsaturated fats counteract that effect but are only half as effective – consuming equal amounts of each leaves cholesterol on the rise. The specific saturated fats dominant in butter, palm oil, and coconut oil are the chief culprits here. High PUFA diets also depress fat synthesis, decreasing weight gain. High Na:K ratio and low Ca are risk factors for heart disease as well, since they increase blood pressure. The ratio of energy from fat and carbs is not a clear factor in obesity the key in is ratio of total energy intake to expenditure. (hide spoiler)]
Given the support throughout for these rather mainstream dietary conventional wisdoms, I was somewhat surprised when they ended the book by suggesting that the “paleolithic diet probably provides a template for modern dietary design.” I was hoping to take the lessons I'd learned here and apply them to the paleo diet, as well as the recommendations I'll find in Lierre Keith's The Vegetarian Myth: Food, Justice, and Sustainability (which I get the impression fall more on the Weston Price Foundation side than the paleo, but that might be wrong).
But the authors have done that for me, suggesting that the paleo diet provides high fiber, low phytate (a compound that chelates minerals and prevents their uptake), lean meat with great unsaturated fat contents, a low glycemic index, and a rich source of phytochemicals, nutrients, and minerals well above the standard American diet. They cast doubt on research suggesting high protein diets are linked to heart disease and some cancers, pointing out that saturated fat acts as a lurking variable with known causal links to those issues. That's exciting, because the paleo diet model is much easier to produce sustainably than vegetarian diets are.
Since the emphasis is squarely on the known biochemistry and physiology, the recommendations throughout the book are always offered with a grain of salt (sylvite, preferably!), and it seems a lot of them have been thrown into doubt by research since the publishing date. The saturated fat issue particularly has come into question, as research has dismantled the connection between them and heart disease. A lot of research, specifically, that seems to throw its weight behind the fat- and protein-loving, simple carb hating conventional wisdom research from the past few decades.
Questions I still have: why does glycogen break down/disappear, leaving meat a poor source of starch? Where does it go? What's up with fructose - is it as bad for you as Robert Lustig would have you believe? Am I really consuming an unhealthy amount of sugar? What's the deal with dietary antioxidants?
Most interestingly, what is the relationship between fats consumed and fats stored? I've heard it argued that fat storage comes from carbohydrates, not fats, that excess fats consumed are flushed out in urine; that energy intake is what determines fat storage, and ratio of carbs to fats as a source is irrelevant; that PUFAs decrease fat storage. What's up here?
Edit: I've spent the rest of the day reading various more modern diet sources - the Vegetarian Myth, MarksDailyApple.com, and this guy: http://authoritynutrition.com/11-bigg.... It's quickly become apparent that Medeiros overlooked a lot of interesting and important debates in nutrition science - the controversy over the lipid hypothesis v. the carbohydrate hypothesis, which was actively debated for decades before the book was published. In hindsight it's clear they did not thoroughly cover the debate in actual diet recommendations, in favor of focusing heavily on the known biochem and physiology. It's fine to focus on the known and elide the unknown, but they presented one side of the debate without making it clear there was a strong opposition to it, which is shameful.
There a host of other interesting issues I wish they'd covered, but which may be more recent topics of research, so I'll give them a pass there - lectins, phytates and other anti-nutrients, soy hormone mimics, inflammation and the possible negative side of effects of PUFAs (which are constantly touted in the book), the chemical role of cooking in digestion, etc....more
Yvonne Baskin is a skilled science writer who only seems to write about things I find really fascinating. There's a strangely institutional flavor toYvonne Baskin is a skilled science writer who only seems to write about things I find really fascinating. There's a strangely institutional flavor to her works, since they're very explicitly hired out projects of SCOPE. It almost seems like this explicitly educational purpose has kept her from widely popularity, but maybe that's just because I imagine everyone would want to read about this stuff if they knew these books were around, and maybe that's not true.
In this work, Baskin sets out to present the then-new and burgeoning research on ecosystem services, the ways they are being assaulted and diminished, and the connection to biodiversity. I picked it up to review the breadth of ecosystem services in general, but more specifically because I had a few questions about conservation biology and restoration ecology and I knew this would be a good entry point.
My specific question stemmed from the recent trend in conservation towards "biodiversity," premised on the idea that species are valuable treasures and have a moral status that warrants against their blithe destruction, but more interestingly on the idea that there are serious consequences to losing too many species. That is the collapse concept: ecological degradation will trigger a rather sudden shift of state to a global situation that no longer supports industrial civilization. I wondered how well understood the connection between biodiversity (essentially, how many species are still around) and ecosystem services.
The Work of Nature undertakes to address that question. The answer, incidentally, is that diversity is correlated with stability and resilience. Communities with low diversity are more or less maximized for whatever set of conditions presently obtains. In high diversity communities, when conditions change, species groups better adapted to those conditions gain competitive advantage and take over the main work of the ecosystem; in low diversity communities, conditions adverse to whatever happens to be around directly impair functionality.
Beyond answering her basic question, however, Baskin surveys a vast array of interesting ecological research and paints a fairly thorough picture of the complex relationships involved. She chooses not to distract from her narrative by personifying the scientists at all, but she still always names them and places their research in the context of its region and biome. This brings home the fact that the research is extremely limited so far, and its conclusions generalize poorly: there are many relationships she describes that obtain in one place but not one I'd expect to behave similarly.
The overall impression is that this kind of research is fantastically productive and interesting, and infinitely necessary, though frustrating in its infinite complexity. It reassures me that agroecology is both a fertile and valuable field to enter! ...more
Altieri's book is one of the foundational texts of Agroecology, and it seemed like a logical read to pursue my interest in that field. But it turns ouAltieri's book is one of the foundational texts of Agroecology, and it seemed like a logical read to pursue my interest in that field. But it turns out that it's not really a very good book. I skimmed it, reading a few of the examples they give.
The flaws: Way too many flowcharts, graphs, charts, etc. They rarely convey information but instead express these typologies and lists. The text is filled in with the exposition of the same ideas - few specifics, huge generalizations, and nothing concrete to grab on to. This is really problematic because of the complexity of agroecology. There are no generalizable solutions, and everything that is done ought to be deep place-based, with a thorough understanding of the natural history of your crops, of your markets, and of the environmental history of the area. All of that makes the discipline fascinating, but it makes it almost incomprehensibly abstract when discussed in non-specific terms.
The examples themselves are essentially just lists of crops with some basic descriptions of interactions. Difficult to focus on and without any concrete lessons.
The book comes from the early days of the field, so it suffers from an incredible dearth of data. Techniques used by traditional farmers are appropriately respected, and the authors usually just take the benefits and values of their systems at face value. That's fine, but data is one of the few relatively objective and convincing ways to present this stuff, and it really helps tie observed phenomena to the places and environments where they have been proven (this is key because much of this research is so underfunded that it is rarely reproduced in multiple places - extrapolation is the de facto best-case habit but it is not always justifiable).
Worse than all that, but not a fault of the book's, was that everything that was interesting or compelling was stuff I already knew. Having been to the MOSES Organic Farming conference three years in a row, using cover crops, biological pest management, and intercropping was no news to me. Having toured the Chagga homegardens, I understand the logic of perennial polycultures fairly well. The book may have been interesting and revelatory when it was first published, but this stuff has all been worked into the mainstream of the sustainable ag movement by now....more