Now we see through a glass, (darkly, nope…) Tiffany, Chihuly

At the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, light streams through vitrified pigmented sand:

From Louis Comfort Tiffany, Parakeets and Gold Fish Bowl, a piece made in about 1893. Tiffany’s use of glass to evoke the birds’ colorful and varied head patterns is stunning.

tiffany parrots

Sadly, the work now stands as an unwitting eulogy. By 1910 the Carolina Parakeet was extinct in the wild and the eastern US had lost its only native parrot. A few lingered for half a dozen years in zoos, but these individuals died without leaving offspring. Occasionally, the birds’ reflections surprise us with a gleam in museum galleries, but their light is almost entirely gone.

A few steps away, Dale Chihuly’s Lime Green Icicle Tower (2011) uses some of the same palate, but without direct representation and, I hope, presaging of extinction.


The piece is 40 feet high, about 10,000 lbs of glass in conversation with the sun, the museum’s atrium windows, and the vegetation outside. From some angles, inner and outer reflective surfaces combine and tangle. Intended or not, this creates a coda to Tiffany’s work: what we conceptualized as Nature is now, whether we like it or not, wrapped into Humanity. Understanding this, might we, perhaps, perhaps, snuff and shadow less light?


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A few bright spots in the dark woods

The many greedy layers of the forest canopy in Shakerag Hollow gobble the light. It is darker at ground level now than it is in mid-winter. Most understory plants are in hunker-down-and-sip mode.


One or two species, though, know that the forest hosts summer-warmed bees. In sunflecks on the forest floor, these blooms burn holes in the daylong gloam.


Tall bellflower, Campanula americana.


White Avens, Geum canadense.

And, yet more brightness, students from Sewanee’s Young Writers’ Conference, taking a saunter, learning a few tales from the woods. Listening on all sides, perhaps, and filtering. Peering with me through the dim light.

IMG_20160630_141949772 IMG_20160630_144158254

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New England clam preparation, gull style

Drifts of smashed clam shells lie on the exposed rocks at the high tide mark.


These are the leavings of aerial bombardment by herring gulls. As the tide recedes, mud flats are revealed and, buried in the gray ooze, quahog clams. These are big, heavy-shelled creatures, sometimes as large as my hand.


Their interior surface is blushed with purple at one end. Beads made from this colored shells were used as wampam currency by some of the American Indians of this region and, later, by European settlers. In the 17th century, tuition at Harvard could be paid with “1,900 beads of purple quahog and white whelk.” The scientific name of the clam, Mercenaria mercenaria, derives from the species’ importance in human mercantile transactions.

Purple from gastropods was also highly valued on the other side of the Atlantic: Tyrian purple favored by the Imperial elites of the Mediterranean and, later, Christian bishops, came from sea snails. Lately, molluscs have fallen from favor as status symbols, a loss for human aesthetics, but a gain for clams and snails.


As the tide falls, herring gulls gather quahogs from the mud, then fly to the rocky shore:


Just before they reach the rocks, the birds oar their wings to gain altitude, then toss the clam from their beak toward the ground:


The clams accelerate as they fall, but also move horizontally, carried by the forward momentum of the gulls’ flight. The birds know exactly when to release their clams, the crack of  impact always falls on rock, even when birds release the clam while still winging over mud or grass. Like humans who can throw a newspaper from a moving bike and always hit the mark, gulls are well-practiced at lobbing their food at the best shell-splitting rocks. On this short stretch of coastline, the birds have three favorite sites and each one is smothered in shell remains.


The violence of the fall is enough to break open the hard shells of the quahog clams:


Gulls quickly consume clam’s innards, a sizeable meal for a bird (a few large quahogs are enough to make a chowder that will fill a human belly). But the clam’s afterlife continues beyond gull gizzards. Within minutes of a gull’s departure, springtails colonize leftovers, munching on protein and fat:



Then, when the tide returns, algae colonize the leftover shells, gastropods graze over calcium-rich surfaces, and small fish and crabs take refuge under shelly eaves.




Gulls are not the only foragers. People — “clammers” — also follow the tide, raking the mud for quahogs and soft-shelled clams.


Clams are the third largest fishery in Maine, one rife with controversy about the right way to manage clams in the face of invasive predatory green crabs, warming waters, and pollution.

While humans fret (with good reason), herring gulls play (also, I think, with good reason). On warm days, the birds drop then re-catch clams seemingly for the joy of it. The feelings of clams about all this are, as yet, unstudied by students of animal behavior. Complete the aphorism, The unexamined clam is

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End Times and the interrogative mood.

My phone tells me:


Questions ensue:

In what way could this be OK? Can we imagine ways in which this might not be OK? Does the use of “Unfortunately” and OK in the same statement evince an emotionally mature mélange of acceptance and willingness to move on, or is it simply a sign of careless typing? To whom should we REPORT? Would the recipients of the REPORT care? Does the Android operating system have a way of reaching said recipients and, if so, can I buy the messaging upgrade? Can I REPORT other occurrences that alarm me or cause me anxiety? Or should I, in those anxious moments, be more OK? Where, finally, is the UNDO button?

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Grassland birds

In a hay meadow near Brunswick, Maine:

Bobolink, taking a break from his jumbled singing flights over the field.


Savannah sparrow, keeping an eye on neighboring males.

sav sp1

According to the North American Breeding Bird Survey, neither species has been faring well. The bobolink has declined by about 2% per year since the 1960s. The savannah sparrow’s decline is about 1.25% per year.

North American Breeding Bird Survey trend for bobolink, then savannah sparrow (“index” on the vertical axis is a measure of the number of birds seen along annual survey routes):

boblink suvey wide

sav graph surveywide

These declines are typical for meadow species in North America. According to a review by ornithologist Jon McCracken, birds that nest in upland grasslands have, in the last century, “experienced the most pronounced declines of any other group of birds on the North American continent.”

In the last few decades, intensification of agriculture — earlier hay-cutting, more frequent hay-cutting, conversion of grass to alfalfa — has drastically reduced breeding success of these species. Before that, in the mid-1900s, regrowth of forests on former agricultural land was the main cause of the decline of grassland birds. This followed the 1800s and early 1900s, the heyday of hay in eastern North America. Early European colonists cleared large areas of forest, opening grassland. Then, as American agriculture moved to the midwest and heating oils replaced firewood, grasslands in eastern North America declined as forests regrew (and grasslands in the midwest declined as they were plowed for grain crops).

Given the great variability of grassland acreage over the last centuries, the “right” or desirable amount of bird-friendly grassland in the region is obviously hard to state. But the combined effects of early hay cutting (goodbye nests) and land conversion (hello alfalfa fields and housing subdivisions) suggests that, if we want to maintain populations of these species, we’ll need more (and better) grassland than we now have. The economics of farming makes this a significant challenge. Stiff competition from industrialized meat and milk businesses mean that hay meadows are not money-makers, hence the long-term decline.

sav sp flight




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Fiddlehead gastronomy

You know you’ve arrived in Maine when the supermarket has a fern fiddlehead special in the produce section:


And Portland restaurants find ways of preparing the ferny curls with chard and dressing:


And, a few weeks later, when the wild ferns have fully unfurled, the remnant kitchen fiddleheads are roasted and turned to soup:


Ferns are well defended both mechanically (tough to chew on) and chemically (how many insects do you see munching on fern leaves?), so they seldom appear on human plates. After a long winter, though, anything green looks good to vitamin-starved mammals, so people cut the young unfurling fronds of ostrich fern — fern furls curtailed forever, very poignant — and eat them raw, lightly steamed, or roasted. Ferns can bear a small amount of harvesting, but repeated cutting will kill the plant.

Ferns are also harvested for food in Korea and Japan, always as fiddleheads. I’d be interested to know of examples from other cultures. In the non-human realm, the European woodmouse loves to chew on ferns, perhaps echoing the dietary preferences of sauropod dinosaurs?


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Lesson from Carthage: How to catch an octopus, defeat an empire

Almost all that remains of the ancient city of Carthage is a small harbor on the peninsula outside Tunis. The Romans leveled and burned the rest of the city at the end of the Third Punic War. Many more recent cities have since been built over the rest of the Carthaginian remains. “Carthage” is now an upscale suburb of Tunis.

From Google Maps:


The harbor is now a fishing port, used by the small, colorful boats that are common in many Tunisian ports.







IMG2587Stacked along the dock were piles of ceramics, each threaded with ropes or netting. These are octopus traps. Thinking they have found a good rock nook, octopuses slide inside the submerged containers. When the fishermen pull on cords, the jostling alarm causes the octopus inhabitants to hunker down. Fear is their undoing. There is an unfortunate echo of the two-thousand-year-old history of this harbor, as the Carthaginians used a similar strategy of holing up, one that the Romans overcame, ending Carthage’s rule.

Now, though, the harbor is peaceful, inhabited by fish-scrounging cats, a few local kids at play, and fishermen joking as the stow their pots.





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Birding at the Bardo

Some of the world’s best preserved Roman mosaics are housed at the Bardo Museum in Tunis, Tunisia, and the Archaeological Museum in El Jem, just a little south of Tunis. They date from the time of the “Roman African Province,” 146 BCE–435 CE, a time of great prosperity (for some). After the defeat of the Carthaginians, what is now Tunisia become a trading and agricultural hub in the Roman empire. The wealthy built many large, lavish houses, some of which were eventually buried under sands and rubble until the last century. Now, they stand in fabulous museums in Tunisia.

The mosaics are often huge, several meters in both dimensions. A few are comprised of geometric designs, but most show scenes from mythology and everyday life. The mosaic artists’ work is remarkable for its attention to the particularities of natural history: local birds, fish, and other species are represented with skill and often a touch of humor.

A painful beach scene:


Some ornithology: swallow, hoopoe (fairly common in rural areas, even today), crane, owl (standing as a symbol of defeat over envy, according to the signage), a peacock, moorhen, quail, what appear to be some thrushes ready to be made into pie, and, finally, a bird being made into pie.





















IMG2737Sadly, the museums are empty of visitors. We walked through hall after hall, alone save for museum employees. The same is true in much of Tunisia. A country whose coasts were thronging (and thonging) beach holiday resorts and whose cultural sites were popular destinations for history and archaeology buffs now receives few foreign visitors. Miles and miles of beach hotels stand completely empty, as if the Rapture had taken away all the lovers of blue seas, discos, and seafood. Historical sites — Roman, Carthaginian, Byzantine, French colonial — are visited by local schoolkids and few others. Two bombings by extremists succeeded in closing down a thriving tourist economy. The terrorists got exactly what they wanted: travel warnings from Western countries that stemmed the flow of foreign money to the only remaining Arab Spring democracy.

We tolerate all kinds of risks in life, but if a minuscule risk comes from a jihadist, our governments capitulate, promulgating the message of fear, enclosure, avoidance. Travel in the last years in the West Bank and Jerusalem, and now in Tunisia, all areas flagged as “dangerous” by State Department warnings, suggests to me that a more productive approach might be one of informed engagement.

To whet the appetite, the Roman amphitheater at El Jem. Seating for 35,000. Gladiator and animal rooms still intact. Walk right in…only a nesting kestrel in the high arches and some schoolkids for company:





Photo credits: David Haskell, Katie Lehman

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Sebkhet Halk el Menjel

Underfoot: the crunch of thousands of shells. On the nose: a tang of salty algae. In the eyes: dust thrown here from the Tunisian deserts and over-plowed olive plantations to the south.

The lake was a surprise, a silver sheet interrupting a day’s drive through scrub and bare soil. As we approached, the sheet expanded, nearly thirty thousand acres of shallow water.


On the southern shore, shells were blown into drifts, a molluscan gravel onto which the wind also piled the discards of humanity.



Looking down into the lake, at first we saw only multicolored bivalve shells. Then, motion: turning, spinning, leaping. Tiny shrimp-like creatures, almost translucent.


These brine shrimp (Artemia, see a pair just to the right of the black pebble above) are among the few animals that can survive the hyper-saline waters of this lake. They feed by filtering specialized halophile bacteria and algae from the lake’s shallow waters.

Birds, including thousands of flamingos, are drawn by the abundance of shrimp. Like the shrimp themselves, flamingos filter the water for their food, pumping tongues through sieve-like beaks. Long experience with humans has taught the birds to stay away from the lake edges, but we approached close enough to hear the sluicing sound of shrimp-filled water squiring through lamellae in flamingo beaks.


This lake is one of many “Sebkhets,” salt lakes, in central Tunisia. The water seems to taunt the donkeys, camels, and goats that live around them: great expanses of liquid in a parched land, yet utterly undrinkable. To the north, more abundant Mediterranean rains turn the land green and hospitable. Further south, the taunting ends where the Sahara begins.


Photo credits: David Haskell, Katie Lehman

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Nature writing cult…

“They are haunted by visions. They are visited by strange dreams. They are – like Muhammad on Jabal al-Nour and George Fox on Pendle Hill – vouchsafed revelations in high places. They are the nature writers, and they bring us wisdom from the wilderness.

The question is, why do we listen to them?”

This from Richard Smyth’s latest piece in the New Humanist, The Cult of Nature Writing. I was delighted to be interviewed for the essay and I’m greatly enjoying Richard’s insight and wit.

“Go birdwatching or bug-hunting; take a hike. Experiences of this kind shouldn’t require the mediation of a prophet.” Yes, indeed. Let’s take off the prophet’s robes. Then, perhaps, write a short essay about what the defrocking experience teaches us about chickadee physiology?

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