Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Where the Birds Is

Art of Bird Finding, The: Before You ID Them, You Have to See Them
The Art of Bird Finding by Pete Dunne

"Whether you know it or not," writes Pete Dunne in his new book, The Art of Bird Finding, "you are a bird-finding machine.  Under the shell of your modern veneer, stripped down to raw sensory receptors, Mr. and Mrs. Homo Sapiens are genetically to pick up the clues that say:  LOOK!  LOOK!  BIRD HERE."

That's a comforting thought on frustrating days when I can barely make out any of the tiny songbirds flitting about my yard.  Much less identify the birds I can hear but never quite locate at the park.  Most of us think of ourselves as bird-watchers, although more often the goal seems to be bird identification.  But whatever we're looking for (pun intended) the first step is seeing the birds in the first place.  And Dunne's wonderfully succinct new guide is devoted to helping us do just that.

As a birder, I probably rely too much on my camera.  I'm not fond of binoculars -- mostly because I've never learned to use them effectively, and Dunne has some helpful hints here -- but I found that his discussion of the pros and cons of binoculars applied equally well to how I use the camera. 

Think of the advantages that are diminished or nullified when you bring your binoculars up to your eyes.  Right off the bat, your view of the world is reduced by about ninety-five percent.  Good binoculars offer a field of view of about eight degrees of arc.  Your eyes, with birder-enhanced peripheral vision, give you between 100 and 180 degrees of arc.  You bring binoculars to your eyes, you've just thrown away your greatest bird-finding advantage -- your ability to perceive the whole world in front of you.

I know I've found this to be true of my camera.  In fact, I've found that even though my distance vision is diminished without glasses, standing on my deck bare-eyed I am able to watch the entire yard, watch for the slightest motion or movement.  For me, it is these moments of stillness and receptivity that are among the most rewarding parts of birding. 

Pete Dunne is one of the most prolific and talented bird writers around -- his books include Pete Dunne's Essential Field Guide Companion, The Feather Quest, and the wonderful collection of essay/stories about raptors The Wind Masters.  The Art of Birding shows all his usual strengths.  For almost anyone, at any level, this book is a valuable trip back to the very beginnings of bird watching, a refresher course on what and where to look, and a guide to shifting our perspective. 

Yogi Bera once said that the secret to baseball was just to "hit it where they ain't".  The secret of birding then might be described as "look where they is".  And Pete Dunne will show us how.

(Books and Beast readers might also want to check out the latest post at Birdland West -- "A Flock of New Books for Birders" featuring the best of recent books on birdwatching, gardening and related topics.)

Monday, July 18, 2011

Writing for the Birds

 (The photos in this blog post -- except for book covers -- were taken by me, copyrighted by me, and can only be used with permission.)

I am standing at the living room window in the early morning (when I should be writing) sipping coffee and watching the yard come to life.  There is a bird feeder in the cherry tree by the deck, and every few seconds a tiny black-capped chickadee darts from a bush by the sidewalk, undulating in a quick wave, up and down like a dolphin swimming in the sea, and lands unerringly on the tiny plastic perch of the feeder.  They never seem to miss, even when the feeder is swaying in the breeze. And I never get tired of watching them, trying to imagine the very different world they inhabit, only a few feet away from me.   
The legendary science fiction editor John W. Campbell used to tell his writers (who included such future luminaries as Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein) to write an alien character "that thinks as well as a man, but not like a man".  My little songbirds, who don't share a common ancestor with me for something like a hundred and eighty million years, are as alien in their way as anything in science fiction.  Attempting to see through their eyes (which are sensitive to a much wider range of the spectrum than mine) stretches my imagination to its limits.

A Foray into the Worlds of Animals and Humans: with A Theory of Meaning (Posthumanities)
A Foray into the World of Animals and Humans
I get some help from Jakob von Uexküll -- a German baron born in 1864 -- a biologist and physiologist, with a deep interest in animal behavior--whose work would become the foundation for the imposingly named field of "biosemiotics" -- literally, the study of the signs and symbols of life.

At first glance, none of this -- chickadees or and old German scientist --  seems to have any relevance to the art of writing (or reading) fiction, but Jakob von Uexküll introduced a concept called the umwelt (um velt) which is invaluable not only in understanding my avian neighbors, but also in the creation of vivid fictional characters.

Imagine the chickadee again. The umwelt is the bird's subjective world. "We must first blow," Uexküll writes, "in fancy, a soap bubble around each creature, to represent the world which it alone knows ... When we ... step into one of these bubbles, the familiar meadow is transformed ... Many of its colorful features disappear, others no longer belong together.  A new world comes into being."  

The chickadees, for instance, can see in the ultraviolet -- they see patterns on plants and animals which are totally invisible to me.  They can very likely see the polarization of sunlight and detect directions from it.  They may even -- we know this is true of other songbirds -- be able to perceive the magnetic field of the Earth.  And what's more, they live in a world much more three dimensional than my own.  Where movement, for me, generally takes place on the surface of the world, chickadees are free to move in any direction.  They can fly. 

To get into the soap bubble of another creature, we must look at a few important elements.  What are they capable of perceiving? What is most important in their lives? And how do they act upon the world? These elements define the creature's umwelt or "self-world", and they are the levers which allow us to step into that world.  

Chickadees eat insects, seeds, berries.  They live in trees and they are, at least in this area, pretty much protected from predators.  They are too small and fast to be worth a hawk's time, they don't spend enough time on the ground to fall victim to cats very often.  As a result, they are bold, curious, almost fearless.  I have leaned over the rail of my porch and looked down into the eyes of a chickadee looking back at me over the distance of a few feet.  I am important in their world now because I take care of the feeders, but often the activity of humans, even very close to them, barely registers at all.  We are unimportant, mostly nonthreatening, and hence invisible.  

I have watched chickadees and hummingbirds share a single tree in my yard.  To us, it looks like they share a small space, but I suspect that their umwelts barely overlap.  The hummingbirds are interested in syrupy sweet nectar, from flowers and feeders, which in turn fuels their constant hunt for insects.  Small, incredibly fast, as maneuverable as dragonflies, and fiercely territorial, they are solitary where the chickadees are social, and so aggressive that Ancient Aztec warriors took hummingbirds as their symbol, and wore their bright feathers into battle.  As focused as the hummingbirds are -- they live always on the thin line of survival, where every calorie can be the crucial difference -- I wonder if the incidental chickadees even register on their perception -- any more than songbirds downtown register on the perception of busy humans.  

From the outside -- the perspective of an omniscient narrator, perhaps -- these creatures inhabit the same world.  But within their individual soap bubbles, what exists and what doesn't, what is important and what is not, what they care about and what they don't, those worlds could be totally different.

The same is true of our fictional characters.  I am fond of the omniscient perspective, the view of the Elizabethan novelist who wanted to show us all the levels of society and how they interacted, even when they were oblivious to each other.  In modern terms, it's the perspective of the ecologist, who can see how so many living things share the environment, even when they never perceive each other.  But as writers, we also have to be able to draw close, to get inside the soap bubbles, and see the world as the individual sees it.  

Imagining ourselves into the minds and lives of other creatures -- human, alien, or animal -- is the ultimate creative act.  It can be argued that the most important contribution of fiction -- and especially of the novel -- to human culture is exactly this, that it allows us to step outside our own limited experience and see the world from other viewpoints, in other times and places.  That it broadens and deepens our sense of fellowship with other creatures.  As storytellers, as readers, and as a civilization this is something we desperately need.

So we can fly with the chickadees.

(Books and Beast readers might also want to check out the latest post at Birdland West -- "A Flock of New Books for Birders" featuring the best of recent books on birdwatching, gardening and related topics.)

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Possum Summer

Possum Summer
Possum Summer by Jen K. Blom

I love possums.  And I do realize that not everyone does.  ("They look like rats," is what most people say -- a comparison that isn't really fair to possums or rats.) When I started volunteering at a wildlife rehabilitation center a couple of years ago, the possums quickly became my favorites.  Sure, the baby squirrels and raccoons are cuter -- but raccoons are hooligans and squirrels can't be trusted.  Give me a quiet, civilized possum any day.

At my volunteer orientation the trainer said something that really stuck with me:  If you see a possum by the side of the road, you should always check, even if it is obviously dead.  Possums are marsupials -- mothers carry their young in a pouch, like a kangaroo.  So a female possum that's been hit by a car, for instance, could still have live babies in her pouch.  I have, more than once since then, pulled my car over to side of the road and braved traffic to check on the body of dead possum.  So far, I haven't found any babies.

So when I heard about Jen K. Blom's new novel Possum Summer I knew I had to read it.   The heroine of the book is eleven year old P (short for Princess, a name she hates), and she does find a baby possum.  When she takes her dad's cattle dog out into the woods without permission the dog kills a possum, and P rescues the surviving baby.  Feeling responsible for his mother's death, she makes a promise to raise him until he is able to live on his own.

But  P's not allowed to have pets.  Her father , who is serving in Iraq, believes that every animal on a farm must pull its weight.  Still, P is a girl who believes in keeping promises, no matter what.  She's already working hard to keep her promise to her father, to take care of the farm while he's away.  So there's no way she's going to let her new little possum friend -- who names Isaac -- down.

In a time when children's fiction seems to be increasingly full of heavy grown up problems on one side and vampires and other supernatural creatures on the other, Possum Summer takes us back to an earlier kind of children's book.  It's the kind of book that I would have loved as a kid and it's a pleasure to discover that I can still enjoy it very much. 

P's world is the farmland of western Oklahoma, and she is the kind of stubborn, tomboyish heroine we expect.  The tone reminds me strongly of books like Old Yeller and Where the Red Fern Grows.  (Even Charlotte's Web -- although none of the animals talk.)

This is the kind of children's story where the children inhabit a world almost entirely their own.  Where every adult is peripheral and long summer days go on forever. (The adults are so peripheral here that their story threads are all pretty much left hanging -- which doesn't seem at all wrong.)

 Indeed that sense of childhood timelessness is so strong in Possum Summer that P and her farm feel more than a little anachronistic.  Though she is surrounded by the modern world, she is not of the modern world.  (I must admit that I have a hard time believing there is a twelve year old anywhere in the developed world who doesn't have at least a workable knowledge of the internet).  Her best friend is a computer geek, but P herself is never even seen watching TV.  Her room, we are told, is littered with books, but she doesn't tell us what they are, and we never see her reading them.  She does have a wonderful Lookbook -- a journal in which she writes and sketches about her day's adventures.  And her passion is totally for the farm, the animals, and the Oklahoma countryside.

But in the best children's fiction that world of childhood is never totally undisturbed.  The tensions and dangers of the adult world run just beneath the surface like one of those peaceful, pleasant dreams where we feel a constant tug of dark anxiety.  In the case of Possum Summer it comes from the financial problems of farmers, an outbreak of rabies that is threatening local animals, and above all from P's father, who has been injured in Iraq and whose relationship with both his daughters is severely strained.  Much of the strength of P's character comes from her struggle to measure up to her father's standards -- to keep the promises she made to him -- and at the same time be true to her own nature, which is very different from his.

I have to say, since this an animal-centered blog, that for animal lovers Possum Summer is both wonderful and heartbreaking. The beauty and harshness of life get equal weight. There are a couple of emotionally wrenching scenes and a climax that is, literally (at least for me) breathtaking.

Ultimately, everyone has to leave the world of childhood.  Not all at once, but in a series of steps, each of which can carry a heavy price.  Possum Summer is about the time in one girl's life when she takes several very large steps toward the responsibilities of growing up.  She meets them in the end with courage and unfailing love.

(Note:  Possum Summer is also wonderfully illustrated by Omar Rayyan.  If I had seen his drawings of the baby possum Isaac when I was young, I would have fallen in love with the species years before.  You can check out more of his delightful work here.)

Readers of Birds and Beasts might also enjoy our sister blog Birdland West, which covers birds and wildlife, mostly in the Seattle Area.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

The Rise and Fall of the Animal Planet

Fear of the Animal Planet: The Hidden History of Animal Resistance (Counterpunch)
Fear of the Animal Planet:  The Hidden History of Animal Resistance, by Jason Hribal

On May 5, 1922, in the small town of Sedro-Wooley, Washington, an elephant named Tusko escaped from the Al G. Barnes Circus ("famed throughout the country" according to promotional posters) and went on a rampage through town.  At least that's the way the papers described it. 

Tusko had thrown his trainer and stormed from the animal tent half an hour before show time, while he and other Barnes elephants were being cleaned. His leg irons had been removed in the process. Rumors at the time suggested that the inspiration for his escape was either a severe beating or an aromatic heap of fermented moonshiner’s mash that the hungry Tusko had infiltrated. “At once,” the Courier-Times reported, “two other elephants were mounted and a score of keepers and attendants went after the big brute.”  (J. Kingston Pierce, essay number 5270)

Tusko was pursued by circus folk on other elephants and by townspeople "tipping back bottles of ripe 'moon' to heighten the excitement.  Differing accounts suggest that Tusko's escape was set off by either an unusually severe beating or a "heap of fermented moonshiner's mash" that Tusko got into.  Or both.  Either way, he raised quite a ruckus, scared many of the town folks and became one of the most colorful pieces of folklore the small town of Sedro-Wooley can lay claim to.

Beneath the folksy retellings and funny anecdotes, however, the story also offers us a glimpse into what the life of an elephant with a traveling circus -- of which there were hundreds in the early part of the twentieth century -- must have been like.  And what we glimpse is not pretty. (You can see my previous posting on elephants in entertainment "Tears For Elephants" here.)

There are many stories like Tusko's (he escaped several times in his career, until it was finally deemed too risky to keep him in the circus, and he was sold to a zoo).  And they aren't just historical.  Try Googling "tiger escape zoo" and you'll be surprised by how often this happens.

In his ambitious new book Fear of the Animal Planet, historian Jason Hribal has collected a lot of these stories -- ranging from recent events like the escape of Tatiana the tiger at the San Francisco Zoo in 2007 to historical accounts of the life and death of the famous elephant Jumbo, who lived in a zoo in England before being acquired by P.T. Barnum.  What the stories have in common is they all concern escapes and attacks -- "fighting back" in Hribal's view.  His book is subtitled "The Hidden History of Animal Resistance" and if it did nothing more than collect these stories it would be an incredibly persuasive book.  The details of these animals' lives, outbreaks, and deaths have a power that is hard to ignore.  (Tatiana was supposedly being taunted by several young men at the zoo who threw things at her, and despite being loose in a zoo full of people for twenty minutes or more, she seemed to go after only those specific targets, ignoring everyone else.)

Unfortunately, that's not all that's in Fear of the Animal Planet, and I'm sorry to have to say that the book as a whole is deeply flawed.  I wanted to love it and I am in sympathy with its basic idea.  But the presentation is marred by dogmatism, philosophical sloppiness, lack of documentation and a persistent tendency to attribute thoughts and feelings to other creatures as if they were facts in situations where it is simply impossible to know what they were actually thinking.  And above all, I think the whole project is crippled by an unnecessary anti-scientific bias that robs it of its richest vein of support and credibility.

Hribal asserts -- you can't really say he argues, because the book doesn't present an argument in any sustained sense -- that these behaviors can be seen as acts of conscious resistance, and that they are comparable to the kinds of resistance that humans mount against oppressive and abusive circumstances.  I, personally, think that's a defensible position, but defending it effectively would take either a lot more or a little less than Hribal does in this book.

Fear of the Animal Planet doesn't present an argument -- it takes its own position as axiomatic -- because ultimately it is neither history nor philosophy -- it's a political polemic.  And as such, it becomes two dimensional and ineffective.  Those who already agree with Hribal don't need the book, and those who don't will be so turned off by his flat rhetoric that they won't respond to the book's most effective element:  the stories themselves. 

To start with, there is almost no documentation or attribution of sources.  There is a brief paragraph at the end of the prologue that spells out, in a general way, the materials that were consulted.  But this purports to be a work of history and the lack of detailed documentation and citing of sources is a serious flaw. When one is dealing with little known events and burdened by a controversial thesis, it's best not to give critics another reason to not take you seriously.

Let me look at just one passage that I think represents fairly well my problems with the book.  This is from the story of Jumbo, a world famous elephant who eventually became the star attraction of P.T. Barnum's circus.  Hribal does a very good job of recounting Jumbo's life and showing us how he became the best known captive animal in the world. 

Modern biologists call this developmental period: musth (Hindi word for madness).  And they define it as a phase of glandular secretion, higher testosterone-levels, and heighten sexual arousal.  In other words, this is a case of over-active and uncontrollable hormones; otherwise known as "heat".  One would have hoped the fields of natural science would have moved beyond the 17th century and biological determinism.  But to no avail.  Non-physiological factors -- such as captivity, poor labor conditions, brutal training methods, or the grind of the entertainment industry -- do not matter.  Intellectual maturity and independence of mind are not considered.  Rebellious attitudes and vengeful emotions do not exist.  Freedom, or the desire for autonomy, is something an elephant could never imagine.  Agency is a non-concept.

There's so much wrong with this paragraph that it's almost impossible to know where to start.  In general, it sets up a straw-man labeled "science" and whacks away at it without ever once addressing real scientists, real studies or real points-of-view.  The recognition of the effects of adolescence is not "biological determinism" -- we recognize all those factors, for instance, in human adolescents -- we even take them into account in explaining their behavior -- and yet we still hold them culpable and responsible for their actions.  We recognize both the physiological effects of puberty and "intellectual maturity" (not usually a condition of adolescence), "independence of mind" "the desire for autonomy" and agency.  In fact, understanding the effects of biology on behavior is no more determinism than recognizing environmental effects of "poor labor conditions" "brutal training methods" and so on.  Apparently social sciences are okay, but biology is too totalitarian.

The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (Penguin Classics)
The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals by Charles Darwin
The fact is that the image of science that Hribal sets up throughout this book is just wrong.  It might be true that a hundred years ago (or as he says in the 17th century) the view he is attacking was the prevailing view among scientists -- although as far back as Charles Darwin and Thomas Huxley, to name just two, there were prominent scientists who were interested in the thought and emotions of animals.  Darwin wrote a whole book about it. It certainly isn't true today.  The study of animal cognition and animal emotions has exploded in the last couple of decades, and scientists now openly debate questions of intention, thought, desire, and agency when discussing non-humans.  Just off the top of my head I could suggest half a dozen (or more) scientists and philosophers -- Mark Bekoff, Jane Goodall, Roger Fouts, Temple Grandin, Irene Pepperberg, Daniel Dennett, Frans de Waal -- who's work bears directly on these questions.  Not all of them would agree with Hribal, for sure, but all of them hold a much more nuanced and receptive view of non-human intelligence than Hribal allows for anywhere in his book.  And all of their work -- and much more from this rich vein of scientific inquiry -- could have been used to bolster and support Hribal's thesis.  But he never even tries.

Let me go on a little bit with the story of Jumbo from the book:

But Jumbo was no scientist, and he certainly did not see himself as a machine.  Resistance was his new thought.  He flew into terrible rages.  He tried repeatedly to escape.  He hurled himself against the enclosure.... [Italics added by me]

The problem with this passage -- and it's common of the technique throughout the book -- is more subtle, but also more dangerous.  I have written a lot about point-of-view in fiction -- and how traditional points of view can and cannot accommodate non-human consciousness.  I think anyone who has read anything I've written in this blog knows I believe in animal agency and consciousness.  But Hribal is not writing fiction here, he's writing history -- a serious historian simply does not attribute thoughts and feelings to a subject where no decisive documentation exists.  To say that Jumbo's actions strongly imply those kinds of feelings is fair.  To just insert them into the story as facts is intellectual dishonesty.  Speculation (or mind reading) should be clearly distinguished form historical fact.   

Consider it in another context.  A historian writing about George Washington would be scrupulous not to attribute thoughts or feelings to the man where they couldn't be supported.  And would likely be even more careful when writing, for instance, about someone from another culture whose ideas and preconceptions were likely to be very different.  But Hribal, writing not just about another culture, but about other species, feels free to gives us their thoughts and feelings in declaratory sentences with no qualifications and no objective support.  Not just as a writer -- but as a lover of animals -- I find that very disturbing.

Hribal draws no distinction between the responses to captivity of a highly social herbivorous creature like an elephant and a mostly solitary predator like a tiger.  He attributes exactly the same motives, thoughts and reasons in each case.  He doesn't seem to be interested in how their unique biological and evolutionary history shaped their different kinds of perceptions and responses.  (This, I guess, is "biological determinism".)  A tiger's view of the world would be as different from an elephant's as an elephant's would from a human's.  This is similar to a historian writing about incidents in widely divergent societies and times as if everyone involved shared the ideas and perceptions of the dominant culture. When we do it to humans, we call it imperialism.  It is, ironically, the very failure Hribal  attributes to science -- not trying to understand different species and animals as individuals, but simply projecting our own values, responses and feelings on them.   

I don't usually write negative reviews. I prefer to focus on books that are worth praising.  But Fear of the Animal Planet is too important a book to ignore.  When I first received it from the publisher, I was excited.  I was hoping for a book that would really engage in an intelligent, thoughtful way with the complex questions it raises.  

Sadly -- despite the importance of the stories it collects -- this is not that book.