…or so I’ve heard.
…or so I’ve heard.
I visited the Blue Lagoon, one of the most popular tourist spots in Iceland. Fun and nice, but a little weird, as are all hot spring resorts, I think. Eerie blue water that is nice and warm, with pots of white silica clay to slather onto your body. People wading about with clay-white faces, taking pictures of one another.
For those who want to avoid the pricey admission fee or the tourist scene at the Blue Lagoon, there is still the possibility of a refreshing soak in runoff from the many geothermal hiking areas around. I don’t know why, but this just brings Chaucer to my mind.
Besides hiking and bathing, there are other amusements in hot-spring land. Here are two people off to boil an egg in the runoff from a steaming borehole.
Much of the landscape around Reykjavik is rather forbidding, but I find it very beautiful. It has large plains covered in black lava flows, with thick, uneven carpets of moss.
I suspect that Iceland may have been featured in the final landing sequence of Kubrick’s 2001.
This one looks like something out of Escher.
With accumulated time on earth, comes the knowledge that much of what goes on in society is driven by generational demographics, or what used to be called “The Generation Gap.” It can be funny: hippies raising broods of yuppie wannabees, conservative button-down types being railed at by their liberal children – the usual. I groan inwardly when I see young libertarians walking around spouting slogans, thinking they’re hip and brash: their ideas are so 18th century. (And I do love the 18th century, you know.)
Is there a similar backlash now in the environmental movement, I wonder? I’m thinking of three young writers, all deeply interested in the man-nature ‘interface,’ who seem to be at pains to distance themselves from what they consider a soddenly romantic or New-Age-y environmentalism; the “we must heal/save/worship the Earth” variety.
I first became aware of it reading the journal put out by The Nature Conservancy. (I give to that group because it puts into practice my environmental golden rule – preserve habitat!) There was an interview with Emma Marris, who has written Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in a Post-Nature World. I don’t like that post-nature part: sounds way too much like Bill McKibben, but I like what she says:
NC: In your new book … you argue that “we are already running the whole Earth, whether we admit or not.” You say this calls for a new definition of nature beyond “pristine wilderness,” which no longer exists and hasn’t for some time. How must nature be defined now?
EM: I struggled with that definition in the book, since much of my argument is about enlarging nature to include more kinds of things and places beyond pristine wilderness, from backyard birds to city parks to farms. . . . I am not sure we need a rigorous and watertight definition. We know nature when we see it, because we respond to it. At any rate, there’s a lot more of it out there outside of designated nature reserves than inside.
Then there is the book I just read, The Meadowlands, by Arthur Sullivan, which is about his journeys through the Hackensack Meadowlands, dismissed by New York-centric comedians for years as the armpit of the nation. Sullivan revels in the industrialized natural history of the place, marveling that so much ‘nature’ has managed to survive in it. He has to sell books, so he plays up the eccentric characters he meets, the stories of mob burials and toxic waste – some of it completely true – as well as the natural and unnatural topography of the place, but he produced a readable guide to an area that has fascinated me as I gazed at it from my car or train window. He too finds nature in urbis but not in the English picturesque fashion that rus in urbis used to mean. As Pinsky notes in his review:
Sullivan’s account of the Meadowlands is anecdotal and genial, but his book, covertly ambitious, takes up serious matters. By looking observantly, without trite moralizing, at the natural world as well as at the disposable world we build, and at the great overlap between the two, this book suggests a challenging new model for how we ought to pay attention.
And today in the NYTimes, there was an interview with Andrew Blackwell, author of a travelogue of the world’s polluted industrial sores, including Chernobyl:
I love a backcountry hike as much as anybody, but venerating nature often has as much to do with what we think is pretty as with anything else. And a lot of the time it doesn’t leave much room for humans in the picture, which I think is a problem. Humanity’s not going anywhere
Great good sense, there. Humanity is not going anywhere, so like the Israelis and the Palestinians, we’d better learn to live together, with Nature, of which we are a part, anyway. And let’s drop this sentimental wooing of the pristine, the sublime, and the simply pretty, which amounts to nothing more than a self-serving rationalization for doing what we want with Nature anyway. Unless you’re Bill McKibben, and you think the game’s over and done with…
There are an awful lot of deep and unresolved contradictions in the philosophy of environmentalism as it is processed through political advocacy and the media machine these days – no surprise that! Perhaps these new writers, who seem alive to the humor, irony, and foolishness of these contradictions, are part of a larger trend that may be able to create a more sustainable environmental philosophy.
Took a little time to get away to Vieques, a small island off the east coast of Puerto Rico, about 20 minutes by plane from San Juan. For decades, much of the island was used by the US military as a proving ground for artillery, with the result that it was never developed as a tourist destination. It remains a very quiet and undeveloped spot now that the bombing has been halted (decades of agitation achieved the goal in 2003) although some, not all! are hoping for a big uptick in development.
Those who are hoping against casinos and resorts are the ones who treasure the island as a little bit of relatively unspoiled nature. The place reminds me of my days in Goa, many years ago, but without the people. At least, when we were there, it was not hopping at all, although the high season starts after Christmas. How high it gets, I don’t know.
Besides the beautiful beaches with calm water and fine sand, Vieques is known for the ‘bio-bay’, or Mosquito Bay (not for bugs, but for pirate ship that used to hide there) which has the highest concentration of bio-luminescent creatures of anyplace in the world. These microscopic organisms produce bright light when they are disturbed – nobody knows why for sure. If you have ever taken a cruise in warm waters at night and peered over the bow, you may have seen flashes of light from the bow wave that are caused by these critters – they are not rare, but this bay is remarkable.
At night, paddling through the water on kayaks, the bright stars above, and the water totally dark, any movement disturbs the Pyrodinium bahamense dinoflagellates, which causes quite a show. The paddles pierce the dark surface of the bay and are surrounded by a bright glow. If you shake your hand in the water, everywhere there is white light. Fish darting below the surface of the water leave streaks like meteorites crashing through the atmosphere. Pounding on the side of the kayak sends out a pressure wave causing every creature within twenty feet to glow brightly. If you scoop up the water and let it run down your arms, it looks as if you are covered in glowing molten metal.
Swimming in the bay is prohibited! We took an excellent tour of the area led by Abey, son of Abe, who is one of those folks happy to see development held at bay. He even is happy the military was there for so long – it kept the bay and other areas undisturbed. He rants about the evils of urban life a lot, but seemed to accept my comment that romantic nature lovers are all born in the city. If you go, give them a call: they really know the territory!
Ghost Crabs will keep you company…
And speaking of nature, here’s an old video:
Ah, back to one of my favorite hobbyhorses – Man & Nature! Over at the civilized roundtable hosted by Man_of_Roma, there was a little exchange about irony and nature, apropos of religion. Personally, I see little irony in the relationship of man and nature (if we can just sort out what that relationship is…) other than the fact that we humans are so smart, yet so blind at the same time. We insist on thinking that the universe somehow cares about us, or is, at least, cognizant of us. That something is out there that …um…well, thinks about us.
I don’t think so at all. Voltaire, such a clever fellow, was shocked, yes shocked, that God, if he exists, could destroy such a fair city as Lisbon with all its innocent inhabitants. (Is that ironic. I mean, didn’t he read any history?) Rousseau was more phlegmatic in his response, and he’s considered the blustering romantic. (Another irony? Note, they are all cultural ironies.) I’ve posted about their exchange of ideas on the Lisbon tsunami/earthquake here.
Here in my town, we had a little bit of Nature’s irony last night. A ripping storm moved through with terrific winds, knocking down 150 trees in in Teaneck alone. (Amazing – our power didn’t go out for once!) I’ve posted pictures from this morning below.
Two people were killed last night by a falling tree or power lines. They were out walking. Why? Could they have been members of the sizable orthodox Jewish community in town? They have to walk to and from temple on Saturday. Killed performing their duty to God? Is that ironic? Would a pagan have acted thus, or would they have stayed put in their home, and made some small burnt offerings? I guess if you’re orthodox, this is a little bit of a theodicy problem – how could God permit this to happen to people carrying out his will? (Who knows – maybe it will turn out they were atheists out boozing – I haven’t heard for sure.)
Ah yes, the trees! Trees are so good! Protect trees, be green. No, trees kill! Trees are the instrument of evil Nature! Or is it the weather, the storms? Whom, what do we blame?
We plant hundreds of trees in town to keep up property values, make streets look nice, lower temperatures, preserve that smalltown American look, but we crowd the trees into little spaces so their roots can’t develop well. Another irony here? The unintended effect – death, disruption, property damage – from a beneficial action, planting trees. Shall we cut down all the trees? Then we would be safe! Or, as Jean Jacques observed, if we did not insist on living in such close proximity to one another, falling trees would hardly be such a problem.
Please don’t think I’m heartless and cruel – I sympathize with those residents who have to deal with the fear and aftermath of a storm that blows huge trees into their houses, and of course, I’m not happy to see people killed to prove a point. But, I could go on, it entertains me so . . .the ideas that is…
It seems that the Bill McKibben view of the world is gaining traction: there are no “acts of God,” it’s all man’s fault! Nature is now a fiction – we live in one big humanly engineered environment, including the weather. It’s all because we insisted on moving beyond the hunter-gatherer stage of culture.
A point of reference in this evolution of views is the article in the NYTimes today, about the residents of a small island in Alaska who want to collect damages from energy companies because their shoreline is eroding. They demand that the corporations pay to relocate them all to the mainland. Why? Fossil fuel consumption is causing global warming which causes sea level rise and ice pack melt which is threatening their chunk of dirt.
The chain of causation, which should be established by scientists, not lawyers, is weak and unproven, but then there are folks in New Orleans who want to bring similar suits to recoup losses from Katrina. But if energy companies are at fault, what about the rest of us who drive cars and cook with gas? If this kooky logic is taken to its logical conclusion, we end up in a dystopian fantasy out of Margaret Atwood or Huxley, in which it is a capital crime to light a match or cook food because it threatens the survival of the community. As Orwell’s animals might have chanted, “Sunlight good, firepower, bad!”
I wonder – was Prometheus chained to that rock because he angered Zeus by stealing fire and giving it to mortals, or did mortals fashion the story to express their unease with him for having giving them the gift of fire that raised them from the status of “natural” animals, to men controlling their fate in nature? The Greek version of the expulsion from Eden..? We’re still dealing with it.
Gardens in western civilization are heavily weighted with symbolism and mythic allusions. We visit them to vicariously experience Eden, to see a tamed version of Nature, which is fearsome in the raw, to escape the gridiron of the city, to revive our spirits by contact with Mother Earth, and so on. Prospect Park, in Brookly, NY, happens to be in the Park-as-garden-as-Eden mode, as opposed to the more formal gardens you might see in Paris, say. For my money, it is far superior to its much more celebrated brother, both by Olmsted, Central Park in Manhattan.
Sometimes Mother Nature intrudes on our little faux naturel versions of au naturel living, and often, we people don’t like it one bit. The New York Times had an article the other day about a swan spat, involving two families of mute swans (they make noise, but they’re called mute). One male patriarch is trying to run the other family off his turf, and he’s getting pretty agressive about it. Some local residents are horrified, and they are trying to redress this imbalance of forces by helping the persecuted family of swans and cygnets. (Oh yes, they are all sooo cute!) Park officials and workers, wisely, are refusing to get involved, and want nature to act this out on its own. The woman in the video at the link provided above teaches literature at Hunter College. I wonder what her specialty is – English Romantic poetry?
I recall a personal experience in that twin Edenic enclave, across Flatbush Avenue from Prospect Park, the utterly gorgeous Brooklyn Botannical Gardens. There is a large and beautiful Japanese garden within it, and the centerpiece is a sizable pond with some ornamental posts. During one visit when I walked by the pond, there was a large crowd of visitors ooohing and aaahing so I went to see what the commotion was about. Several families of ducks were swimming about with their very young ducklings, fluffy and brown, kept close.
As I was leaving that day, I passed by the pond again, and as I approached it, I passed several people leaving with stricken faces. Some children were crying. What was the problem? I went to the edge of the pond amidst people shaking their heads and turning away in disgust or confusion. On one of the ornamental posts in the pond was a Black Capped Night Heron, often seen roosting there. In its large and powerful beak, it was holding a duckling that it was maneuvering down its gullet.
It was a teachable moment.