Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Member Review of NATURALIST by E.O. Wilson

PVNWG Member Joy Pardue wrote the following review of our May 2010 book selection, E.O. Wilson's autobiography, Naturalist.

Does having a great story to tell make one a great storyteller? Or vice versa? In Naturalist we receive both as E O Wilson, PhD (henceforth referred to as E O) reveals the experiences that shaped the course of his life and led to his becoming the world authority on myrmecology. As he seems to do when he tackles any task, E O approaches it thoughtfully, methodically and whole-heartedly. Is it any wonder that his fascination with ants – of all creatures – enlarged his vision of the world. While scrutinizing just about every aspect of these tiny creatures E O developed powerful insights and controversial theories about humanity and life in general and, in the process, evolves into a dedicated naturalist and champion of Planet Earth.
In this autobiography, E O reveals himself as complex, multi-faceted individual. In reading his book I discovered a curious young boy, a serious student, an intrepid adventurer, a loving husband, a devoted father, a rigorous researcher, an exacting entomologist, a venerated professor, an astute observer of human beings, a relentless truth-seeker, an independent thinker and a wise philosopher.
E O uses none of these simple, complimentary terms to portray himself but, in the telling of his remarkable journey, he reveals all these attributes and more. Along the way he makes candid references to himself, using precise phrases such as “a child workaholic…congenital synthesizer…proud, scientific materialist…inveterate encyclopedist…environmental activist….” Tossing out words that even spell check doesn’t recognize.
All of the above descriptions ‘fit’ and give us insight as to how a scrawny kid who entertained himself with ‘bugs’, amphibians, reptiles and other creepy crawly varmints and approached the natural world with a keen curiosity and a vivid imagination stepped upon a pathway that led from the rural south to international recognition. One wonders whether he stepped onto or created that pathway.
Taking a cursory glimpse of his early life, many might describe E O as coming from a “dysfunctional family, a broken home…with a shiftless alcoholic father. Early on, it seems, neither parent provided much stability though his mother became more involved during his teenage years.
But that isn’t E O’s version. Not once does he whine or berate his family, his parent’s lifestyle or his circumstances. As he matured, he was surely aware of his parent’s shortcomings. However, in this remembrance of them, he chooses to highlight their strengths. His tribute to his father (p 126-127) is generous, kind and loving. Though E O expresses a measure of relief at his father’s exit from his life, his summary of the father-son relationship is compassionate: “No son knows his father well enough to matter till it’s too late.”
Wherever his family landed, E O routinely sought out the surrounding natural environment and usually managed to find at least one friend who shared his interests. Thus began another adventure! Surely, E O himself appreciates this pattern for what it was: Adaptation…in the service of survival! Also contributing to his success is his ability to see the world as a “magic kingdom”. Perhaps he wouldn’t have used this fine phrase when he began exploring southern ecosystems and discovering a world of wild wonders but his decision to entitle a chapter of his book as suggests that he continues to think of our planet as a Magic Kingdom. Seems he can’t get enough of Nature nor can he do enough to promote and protect it.
It is surprising to learn that he had a stint in the Gulf Coast Military Academy and hard to imagine he thrived there. How could a skinny, free-spirited lad adjust to life in a restricted, no-nonsense regime of a military academy? Probably by then he was as ‘disciplined’ as most of the other students and perhaps more than some of the faculty. E O portrays yet another life experience that doesn’t seem to ‘fit’ him in a positive light. E O’s narrative about his encounter with a water moccasin is so vivid as to be frightening. Reading his detailed portrayal of this viper, its attitude and the horrific struggle between the two of them was like having a ring-side seat. It’s a relief when E O finally rids himself of the monster and you know he is safe. From the snake’s point of view, this was a life and death struggle. Essentially, E Owas in the same predicament at that moment. Knowing a bite from that snake could be lethal is why this anecdote haunts me. Luckily, for E O and the world at large, he survived this particular adventure. Otherwise, there wouldn’t be a five-pound tome on ANTS. Nor would the Encyclopedia of Life be as far along as it is today. Perhaps it would never have been started.
Later (p 150) E O comments “In the natural world, beautiful usually means deadly. Beautiful plus a casual demeanor always means deadly.” Of course, E O did not have this wisdom at the time he “was thrilled at the sight” of this huge cottonmouth or he might not have concluded that it “looked as though it could be captured.” In retrospect, his insights about “deadly” were on the mark when he described : “Although no emotion can be read in the frozen half-smile and staring yellow eyes, their reactions and postures give them an insolent air, as if they see their power reflected in the caution of human beings and other sizable animals.”
How many astute observations we find in this autobiography!
~ “….most adults…cannot bring themselves to acknowledge the innate savagery of preadolescent boys.” What a surprise to learn that E O was once a ‘pugilist’ which he apparently considers a normal phase of development.
~ “…the greater lesson of history are not solved: they are merely forgotten.”
~”This observation on the human condition…both altogether banal and eternally astonishing.”
E O consistently gives credit as well as generous praise for those exceptional students and colleagues he meets along the way. Having a healthy self-confidence E O isn’t threatened by other bright or talented scientists – many of whom were/are superstars as well. On the contrary, his tendency is to nurture, mentor and, when their interests meshed, collaborate with those who uphold the standard of excellence.
E O’s autobiography seems scrupulously honest and straightforward. And he seemingly tells it all - trials and triumphs…successes…squabbles….
Chapter 15 – ‘The Sociobiology Controversy” – is among my favorites. This is his account of the brouhaha that ensued after he published Sociobiology. Two decades later E O dispassionately reports the good, the bad and the ugly. Seems there was plenty of drama at the time and it must have been painful to E O on many levels. Not the least of which would have been his Chairmen’s harsh criticism and vicious attacks in the press. Dr. L determined E O’s theory was “politically dangerous” and his letter was an attempt to discredit a well-respected colleague.
Yet this fellow scientist didn’t bother to seek out E O (whose office was just above his) and discuss the controversy and their differing opinions as scientists are wont to do. In addition, E O felt shunned by his colleagues who offered no support; probably figuring it was better to keep a low profile, they remained silent. E O is honest enough to admit that he began to wonder if indeed he was “ a poor scientist and a social blunderer to boot.”
E O’s in-depth analysis of the chairman’s personality and modus operandi isn’t flattering but isn’t malicious either. As he does consistently in this autobiography, E O carefully assembles and analyzes the facts to explain clearly what has occurred. In this case, he seems compelled to describe his challenger to make sense of how and why the storm arose.
E O’s responses to this situation are impressive: he coolly analyzed what had transpired whereupon he went through several stages from anxiety to anger to ambition to opportunity! He’d identified the ‘adversary’ and couldn’t resist meeting it head on. Mostly, I think, because it mean learning about something entirely new. As he acknowledged somewhere in the book he had an insatiable “hunger to search for data and know….”
In the closing chapter E O comments “I will be an explorer naturalist until I die.” While re-reading that chapter I took a closer look at his definition of biophilia, a term he coined in 1979 which means “the inborn affinity human beings have for other forms of life, an affiliation evoked, according to circumstance, by pleasure, or a sense of security, or awe, or even fascination blended with revulsion. Could there be a more fitting summary of this great naturalist!!! Let’s add “biophiliac” to our long list of attributes. But the one comprehensive term that describes this remarkable man best is “Earthling Extraordinaire”.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Thoughts on Reading Mary Oliver

Wild Geese
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting--
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

Experiencing this poem for me is like experiencing nature itself, experiencing the essence of being human too perhaps. The contrasts jump out.. The contrast of the notion of repentance and punishment---for what? For being 'bad' in some way. For sin? It contrasts hardness and suffering, --the bony knees shuffling on the hard ground, the pain of despair, the emptiness of a desert of loneliness, --with the softness and beauty and fullness that nature offers to us if we know how to open ourselves to it.
The repetition of the word "meanwhile" is soothing. It suggests the constancy of nature, the neverending cycles, the rhythms that ebb and flow and never cease. Meanwhile, meanwhile, meanwhile, the sun and the rain, life givers, provide their blessings indiscriminately and continuously.
She uses simple words, and simple images, simple figurative language: clear pebbles of rain, deep trees. One doesn't have to work to get the meaning of the poem, but just let the words move through you and the images and feelings arise.
Like the wild geese, Oliver repeats her message "over and over" in this poem and others. Her poetry is smooth and shiny like clear pebbles of rain, but also sometimes harsh, and strangely exciting.
What meaning is the phrase "the world" for Oliver? This reference is made frequently in her work. In her essay Owls she says "There is only one world." In The Dipper"Oliver writes: "The world is full of leaves and feathers and comfort and instruction. "
"Whoever you are, no matter how lonely." Salvation is universal for Oliver, we "do not have to be good." We do not have to suffer to earn it. A universalist is one who believes salvation is extended to all human kind, a universal rain.
Beginning with images of sin, suffering and aloneness, she leads us to " over and over announcing your place in the family of things." That word "things" struck me as harsh for someone so attuned to nature's beauty and spirit. But I think she purposely chose to juxtapose the words "family" and "things." If we humble ourselves and include ourselves as no better than all the other creatures (which we often treat as no more than "things'), and 'things' like rain and trees, we then honor our vulnerable animal nature, return to our roots, find our place in the family and, like the wild geese, head for home. Yes, it might seem harsh, but also exciting, and comforting, like rain in a desert.
And perhaps that is the sin suggested here, setting ourselves up as superior to and separate from to the rest of 'the world,' the rest of nature. When we let go of our exalted human status we can access the freely offered salvation, an antidote for our despair and loneliness, our human angst. It is a letting go, not an effort, not an endurance, not a sacrifice, but a receptive act. Oliver counsels: Live simply. Live in the joy of the body. In "Such Singing in the Wild Branches" she says: "First, I stood still, and thought of nothing. Then I began to listen, Then I was filled with gladness. I seemed to float, to be a wing or a tree, and I began to understand what the bird was saying, and time stopped." And in "Yes! No," we read "To pay attention, this is our endless and proper work." And in The Swan: The path to heaven--its in the imagination with which you perceive the world, and the gestures with which you honor it. In Long Afternoon, she tells us "Everyday I walk out into the world, to be dazzled, then to be reflective. It suffices, it is all comfort, along with human love."

Tuesday, March 16, 2010


It has been many years since I studied poetry as an English major. So I thought I would read a little about poetry itself since our PVNWG author this month is Mary Oliver. Here are the things I thought most powerful (and helpful) from my reading:

From Molly Peacock, How to Read a Poem...and start a Poetry Circle

Poets and readers of poetry are those who have felt intensely and thought deeply.

Poetry is always tuned to paradoxes.

The apprehension of a poem is a sensuous mental activity. And understanding is gained just the way a love relationship is deepened--through the blind delight of examining it with the senses and the intellect all at once.

It can be a great comfort to hear our own voices emanating through the letters of words that come from someone else.

Poems considered as "talismans." Talisman--an object that gives its bearer a special hold on life.

...that inverted sense of being listened to by a poem, although you are listening to it.

Duende--a word Frederico Garcia Lorca uses for the great devilish spirit in poems.

What we hold sacred is often related to our bodies.

Poetry--a respect for the conscious act of living.

Poetry is the art that offers depth in a moment, using the depth OF a moment.

You can FEEL a poem without really understanding it.

A poem is made with words, but is only 1/3 a verbal act. It is equally an auditory and a visual art, which we take into our bodies as well as our minds.

Reading poetry gives you an internal massage.

As you meet your own experience through someone else's articulation of it, you are refreshed by having a companion in your solitude.

Lyric poems seem to stop time. (Lyric poetry is uttered in the first person.)

Three parts of a poem
The Line: the music, intuitive, a skeleton, holds the poem up. Sounds like emotions. Line means rhythm, sometimes rhyme, appeals to one's instinctive understanding
The Sentence: thoughts of the poem, appeals to our intellectual pleasure
The Image: the visual art of the poem, its central nervous system, the poet's vision, word pictures, both instinctive and constructed, a "two way mirro" between the other two ways of seeing

Each poem has two musics, the line and the sentence

Imagery flares across the sky of the poem as the two musics play.

How the poem feels to your tongue is the embodiment of the feelings that the sounds evoke.

The rhythms of lines can walk the sharpest yet un-nameable feelings through the poem.

There are really only two subjects of lyric poetry, love and death.

Poet or "scop" in Old English (pronounced shope) means "maker."

Poetry has been called the "art of naming."

From Edward Hirsch, How to Read a Poem (and Fall in Love with Poetry)

Emily Dickinson's compelling test of poetry:
"If I read a book [and] it makes my whole body so cold no fire could ever warm me I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only way that I know. Is there any other way."

Reading poetry is a way of connecting--through the medium of language--more deeply with yourself even as you connect more deeply with another.

The reader completes the poem, bringing to it his or her own past experiences.

You are "really" reading poetry when you feel encountered and changed by a poem.

The sound of the words is the first primitive pleasure in poetry.

Poets speak of the shock, the swoon, and the bliss of writing, but why not also speak of the shock, the swoon, the bliss of reading?

Looking forward to our discussion of Mary Oliver on the 28th!

Thursday, March 11, 2010

“This Race Is For The Birds" Connects People FOR Nature

When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe. –John Muir

The Potomac Valley Audubon Society’s This Race is for The Birds! takes flight on April 24. Nine years young, the Race is a major fundraising event for PVAS’ popular children’s programs. PVAS believes that children who early learn a love for nature will carry it throughout life. In 2009, more than 3000 local youngsters benefited from activities like the Audubon Discovery Camp and in-school nature education for kindergarten through 5th grade.

The word race suggests a competition, resulting in winners and losers. But This Race is for the Birds is actually a celebration of connection—an event made possible by a network of relationships among people in our community and across the generations.

The National Audubon Society was originally formed by people with a passion to preserve the web of life that is nature. Likewise, PVAS and This Race is for the Birds draw folks together in a common purpose. Everybody wins in this Race, including the birds, butterflies, and bugs.

This Race is for the Birds takes place on the grounds of the National Conservation Training Center, the “home” of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Situated on 533 acres overlooking the Potomac River, the campus is in harmony with its stunning setting. Five miles of foot trails wind through meadows and eastern hardwood forest. Paved walking paths hug the curves of the landscape. As if to give their stamp of approval, a pair of bald eagles nest in a giant sycamore tree not far from the entrance gate
(See photo, right. See Live Eagle Cam and updates here: http://www.fws.gov/nctc/cam/ )

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service works to safeguard ecosystems in over 150 million acres of land and sea—a huge task. Jay Slack, NCTC Director, says that “The FWS simply can’t accomplish its mission without working with others.” In line with that philosophy, NCTC has partnered with PVAS from its beginning. Slack says that “ PVAS members were important in the process of establishing NCTC--we listened carefully to what they had to say.”

Over the past eleven years, the PVAS and NCTC partnership has continued to blossom. Citing their history of jointly sponsored events, PVAS Executive Director Kristin Alexander says “NCTC is the best partner any organization could wish for.” The annual Race for the Birds is one of their most successful collaborations. “The Race is a natural fit for us,” Slack says, “ It’s a way to get people outside, away from TV and video games. People who connect with the outdoors are more apt to participate in conservation efforts.”

Karene Motivans first got involved with PVAS when her young children attended the PVAS summer camp at Yankauer Nature Preserve and she befriended other campers’ parents. Now they all enter the Race together to show their PVAS spirit. Motivans knows of one group who sponsors the Race each year in loving memory of Mark Benedict, a PVAS member who worked for The Conservation Fund at NCTC’s campus. They choose this way to honor his years of service to conservation.

Motivans says one reason the Race is special is that the rest of the year the trails at NCTC are closed to the general public. Late April is the height of spring in the WV eastern panhandle. “You see native wildflowers like Mayapple, Spring Beauty, Virginia Bluebells (photo right) and Dutchman’s Breeches. Each year the experience is different.”

James Munnis is co-director of the event this year with his wife Suzy, who has been involved in some capacity with the Race “since day one.” James Munnis is a veteran of many century (100 mile) bicycling events. You can hear his relish for a challenge when he says “Organizing a race takes months of planning and the work of many people. This Race is for the Birds is a completely volunteer effort. We all do our best to give the runners a great experience.”

Munnis is proud that the Race offers something for everyone (See IN A NUTSHELL at bottom). “The biggest draw for kids is the one mile. Most kids’ races usually charge at least something. Ours is free and every child gets a prize!”

The Race continues to evolve. To better adapt to the interests of participants, this year PVAS is adding a wider variety of distances and shifting the longer runs from paved surfaces to the trails. Munnis expects the 4.9 and 7.8 mile choices to entice entrants who have mastered the 5K (a little over 3 miles). “It will give them a bit of a stretch but not too much” he says.

Munnis believes it is rare to find any outdoor athlete who does not value a close connection to the elements. “People who regularly exercise outdoors are attuned to how fragile the environment is and how quickly things can change.”

Race organizers are seeking out more eco-friendly vendors and products. Munnis is pricing T-shirts made in the U.S. from recycled blends or organic cotton. Aid stations will use biodegradable cups and waste will be recycled or composted.

The Race has always offered registration online, says Alexander. “but this year we have a dedicated website (http://www.raceforthebirds.org/) that also links visitors to the websites of other local races. It’s another way to build community and promote the benefits of active fun outdoors.”

Mark Cucuzella and fellow runner Tom Shantz are donating their expertise in logistics and marketing gained in organizing other events like the Freedom’s Run launched last fall. Cucuzella, a physician, is working to build fitness-oriented traditions in what he hopes will become a National Heritage Area, linking historic places like Shepherdstown, Harper’s Ferry, and the Antietam National Battlefield (photo). His aim is to improve the health of the community.

Cucuzella describes the Race for the Birds as “more experiential than competitive—to me its about enjoyment of the senses. There is nothing comparable locally to the site of the PVAS race-- I consider it a privilege to participate.”

One shouldn’t forget the corporate sponsors of the race—their generosity is indispensable. “The businesses in the local community have been so good to us,” says Alexander. “Without their commitment and support, PVAS programs would not be possible.” Stan Corwin-Roach and brothers Steve Roach and Scott Roach own R.M. Roach and Sons in Martinsburg. The family business was founded in 1952 by their grandfather. “We have sponsored the PVAS race from it’s start,” says Corwin-Roach. “We are happy to do so because PVAS has done so much for this area--and they always make the most of the resources they have.”

Corwin-Roach remembers joining early PVAS members like birding experts Bob Dean and Jean Sheely in the re-introduction of ospreys more than twenty years ago. But he admits he has retired his running shoes. “One year I ran This Race is for the Birds side by side with a nine-year-old kid,” he laughs. “He pulled ahead and beat me at the end!”

This Race is for the Birds reminds us that there is an important race that all of us are running--the race to be more mindful stewards of our natural resources. The community that is PVAS illustrates that we can best do this by joining together. PVAS programs promote conservation throughout the year by encouraging children and adults to connect with nature. On April 24, you can celebrate spring, support PVAS, and have a great time connecting with nature, friends and family in a beautiful outdoor setting. What could be a better investment?

Event: This Race is for the Birds!
Where: Trails of the National Conservation Training Center
Date: April 24, 2010
Website: http://www.raceforthebirds.org/
Times: 9am for 2 mile, 4.9 mile and 7.8 mile runs.
Kids run begins when runners return (10ish).
Pre-registration: www.RacefortheBirds.org
“Day of” Registration: 7:30-8:45am April 24 ($2 added to fee)
Distances and Prices:
1 mile kids fun run: FREE (self-timed)
2 mile jog/stroll: $15 (self-timed)
4.9 mile Race: $20
7.8 mile Race: $25

Written by Trillium for the March 2010 Good News Paper, Shepherdstown WV

Photos by Trillium