Because now giant sequoias are starting to die where they stand. And it’s been my job to document it. Last summer, our park botanist requested a photo log of declining sequoia health. So each week when I was out in the field, I took pictures of several groups of dying sequoias, snapping photos from the same GPS point each time. Then I carefully labeled each photo with the date and location and dropped it into a folder on the park’s internal network. These photos won’t do anything to save the trees. But it seems important, somehow, to provide our grandchildren with some kind of record of the time we realized we might be losing the largest trees on Earth.
The latest paean in the recent gush of Octopus love. It is by now a legit genre in nature writing. Anyhow, this one in particular deserves some sort of prize for this lead:
In 1815, 15 years before he made his most famous print, The Great Wave, Hokusai published three volumes of erotic art. In one of them there is a woodcut print known in English as ‘The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife’ and in Japanese as ‘Tako to ama’, ‘Octopus and Shell Diver’. It depicts a naked woman lying on her back, legs spread and eyes closed, while a huge red octopus performs cunnilingus on her. The octopus’s slit eyes bulge between the woman’s legs and its suckered limbs wrap around her writhing body. A second, smaller octopus inserts its beak into the woman’s mouth while curling the thin tip of an arm around her left nipple. In Europe, the print was interpreted as a scene of rape, but the critics didn’t read Japanese. In the text arranged in the space around the three entwined bodies, the shell diver exclaims: ‘You hateful octopus! Your sucking at the mouth of my womb makes me gasp for breath! Ah! Yes … it’s … there! With the sucker, the sucker! … There, there! … Until now it was I that men called an octopus! An octopus! … How are you able? … Oh! Boundaries and borders gone! I’ve vanished!’
Ok, I’ll save you the trouble of Googling the Hokusai print (NSFW, obviously). I don’t put it here (purely) for prurience, but at least partly because it suggests at least one interesting, offbeat (and subconscious?) element to the seemingly endless human fascination with the highly intelligent, supremely sinuous, creature.
“[O]ne of the biggest variables for their subjects (who tended to be young, employed and educated) was where they were. They were significantly happier outdoors, especially in natural settings, than they were indoors, even when the researchers tried to control for the effects of being at work.
But there was a catch: Most of the participants didn’t behave as if they knew this, because they were rarely outside. They were indoors or in vehicles for 93% of their waking hours.
The Mappiness study reveals our epidemic dislocation from the outdoors—an indictment not just of the structures and expectations of modern life but of our self-understanding. As the writer Annie Dillard famously said, how we spend our days is how we spend our lives. Why don’t we do more of what makes us happy? Part of the answer is that we’re flat-out busy. But even when we have free time, we’re not always smart about how we spend it.
I have long been a believer in the connection between happiness, creative energy, and the outdoors. Put me on a bike or on a walk (throw in a dog for a multiplier effect) and I always come home feeling good and with at least three worthwhile insights into work or life. Put me on a boat and I come home transformed.
Busyness, as Florence notes, is a huge block to feeding our souls in the outdoors (and busyness is so often purposeless). Social media and cable news are also two indoor, soul-sapping, distractions (and connecting to social media while outdoors is a particularly odious felony). So do we have a formula for a better, happier, existence? I think we do: Fewer electronic distractions, less meaningless busyness, more time outdoors and unplugged. Pretty simple and pretty effective.
Humboldt was born during the era in which human beings stopped fearing nature and began to control it. The steam engine, the smallpox vaccine, and the lightning rod were rapidly redefining man’s relationship with the natural world. Timekeeping and measuring systems became standardized, and the few blank spaces remaining on world maps were quickly filling in. In New England, the colonists spoke of “reclaiming” North America from the wilderness, a project inextricable from the propagation of democracy. The jurist James Kent, seeking a legal basis for seizing land from Native Americans, argued that the continent was “fitted and intended by Providence to be subdued and cultivated, and to become the residence of civilized nations.” Explorers like James Cook and Louis Antoine de Bougainville circumnavigated the globe and published their journals, which Humboldt read avidly as a boy…..
Supported by the windfall of his inheritance, he abandoned his mining career and planned a “great voyage” to a distant location. The destination did not seem to make much difference—he considered the West Indies, Lapland, Greece, and Siberia, before settling on South America, once he was offered a passport to the Spanish colonies from King Carlos IV himself. Nor did he have any specific object of study. He would analyze everything, from wind patterns and cloud structures to insect behavior and soil composition, collecting specimens, making measurements, and taking temperatures. He wanted no less than to discover how “all forces of nature are interlaced and interwoven.” He took as the premise of his expedition that the earth was “one great living organism where everything was connected.” The insights that followed from this premise would be worth more than all of the discoveries he made.
His life and ideas are masterfully chronicled in a biography by Andrea Wulff, and I’ve just started digging into it. It is amazing how relevant his thinking and ideas seem today, in a world in which humanity’s domination of nature is destroying, instead of nurturing, nature.
In England researchers from the University of Exeter Medical School recently analyzed mental health data from 10,000 city dwellers and used high-resolution mapping to track where the subjects had lived over 18 years. They found that people living near more green space reported less mental distress, even after adjusting for income, education, and employment (all of which are also correlated with health). In 2009 a team of Dutch researchers found a lower incidence of 15 diseases—including depression, anxiety, heart disease, diabetes, asthma, and migraines—in people who lived within about a half mile of green space. And in 2015 an international team overlaid health questionnaire responses from more than 31,000 Toronto residents onto a map of the city, block by block. Those living on blocks with more trees showed a boost in heart and metabolic health equivalent to what one would experience from a $20,000 gain in income. Lower mortality and fewer stress hormones circulating in the blood have also been connected to living close to green space.
It’s difficult to tell from these kinds of studies why people feel better. Is it the fresh air? Do certain colors or fractal shapes trigger neurochemicals in our visual cortex? Or is it just that people in greener neighborhoods use the parks to exercise more? That’s what Richard Mitchell, an epidemiologist at the University of Glasgow in Scotland, thought at first. “I was skeptical,” he says. But then he did a large study that found less death and disease in people who lived near parks or other green space—even if they didn’t use them. “Our own studies plus others show these restorative effects whether you’ve gone for walks or not,” Mitchell says. Moreover, the lowest income people seemed to gain the most: In the city, Mitchell found, being close to nature is a social leveler.
Quite apart from now being vegan, I have long been skeptical of all the ways in which humanity catches, farms and eats fish. Species after species seemed to dwindle in number, despite “fisheries management,” and farming fish seemed equally destructive. So when people asked me what fish they should eat, I usually answered “You should eat no fish.”
But my editor at Outside, who loves fish and loves the planet, kept insisting this was the wrong answer. So I researched and reported a story on the question of fish. The answer I came up with is much more useful, interesting and surprising than I expected.
Here’s how it starts (which is already causing me grief from vegan absolutists on Twitter):
I contemplated the simple sandwich on the plate in front of me: a beautiful slab of glistening rainbow trout, crisp lettuce, and a freshly baked French roll. The trout skin was lightly seared and seasoned. The pinkish meat was firm and toothsome. I genuflected briefly, then two-fisted the thing and took a big bite. A slightly smoky, sweet flavor gave my taste buds a sensation long denied. I chased it with a slug of Fort Point ale. Soon, both fish sandwich and beer were gone. I am a vegan, but I was untroubled. Eating the trout seemed like the right thing to do.
I am always ambivalent about our endless and relentless efforts to track, film and commercialize killer whales (and other “charismatic megafauna”).
On the one hand, this is a much better way to see what a killer whale is really like than, say, going to SeaWorld. On the other, I feel that it must be stressful for whales and other animals to so frequently experience the presence of curious humans. I feel this most acutely with regard to the Southern Resident Killer Whales off the US Pacific Northwest coast, who daily have a flotilla of whale watching boats following them. Perhaps in addition to the citizen and nonperson rights we’ve been considering for animals, they might appreciate a right to (occasional) privacy.
Still, sometimes the result is spectacular footage. And if viewers walk away with an enhanced sense of the majesty and inherent value of a wild killer whale, then perhaps it is a trade-off that needs to be made.