Friday, September 13, 2013

Song of Myself - Walt Whitman

Whitman writes of wonderful interconnection; cosmos wheeling underneath, numbered hairs and dignity within, and without. So many roads to walk and, similarly, to move under our feet. "And there is no object so soft but it makes a hub for the wheel'd universe." How to synopsize, how to coalesce and communicate a statement of the self that is at once driving headlong, and similarly, felt at the margins? Both bold in assured dignity and timid in tentative wonder? Much as Whitman bequeaths himself to the dirt, or hastens to converse with the chorus of the all-purposed invisible, he lives and breathes, touching within and without, in surrender.

The binding notion for Whitman, in my own estimation (at least today) is total emptiness at the center: the arrival of oneself is the whole coming-together of an entire history of the universe - past, present, and at the knife-edge of creative novelty. We are, and it all is, constantly being reinvented. "Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself. I am large, I contain multitudes." Total stability renders phenomena immobile. Thermodynamics demands the loss of energy; the unintended outcome gives rise to the new world, and, thus, the new self. If we were already full, determined, drivers of our own destiny, then whither our new sense of self, our own transformation? We would be rendered immobile by Ecclesiastes - disparaging of nothing new under the sun. Recombination. Stagnation. Death there.

But I hesitate to simplify it, even so. Surely there is much more to find and be found. Wiser minds thinking wiser thoughts. The mountain doesn't simply come to Muhammad, nor can it provide our own salvation. Each, like Whitman, brings what he or she will to each new pass-way, each tight-rope movement. Transcendent effort, his, and each of us can meet him along the road - that place of co-production. Thus, the world is borne again, and each of us within it, and constituting it. Forever and ever. Great exultation there.

"I know I have the best of space and time, and was never measured and never will be measured."

Thanks, Gary.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Moa - Quinn Berentson

Quinn Berentson's Moa: the life and death of New Zealand's legendary bird, is part environmental and scientific history, part anthropological travelogue, and all elegy for these grand, extinct, birds of New Zealand. The moa emerges in Berentson's work as both product and producer; gateway into a disappeared world, and formative of this new-found place.

In detailing the settlement of New Zealand alongside the introduction of the moa to the western world, Berentson reveals how the last journey of the moa would be New Zealans's first: as they both entered into our consciousness. Uncovering the shifting grounds of uncertainty surrounding scientific discovery, Berentson allows us to peer into the unknown in the world around us, and reflect upon, not only how we come to know, but that we too leave footprints on the landscape trod.

Complete review published in Ostrich: Journal of African Ornithology

Monday, September 2, 2013

Trying Leviathan - D. Graham Burnett

The sound of a startling hubbub permeated New York City between Christmas and New Years, 1818. At issue was a court case debating a, seemingly, simple question, "are whales fish?" Yet, as D. Graham Burnett relates, this straight-forward question of classification and natural history was anything but, for it touched not only on the place of cetaceans and people in the "great chain of being," but also on the place of scientific and popular knowledge within the young American republic. In delving deeply into the historical and social context of the court case, Maurice v. Judd, Burnett has provided a far-seeing window allowing the reader to glimpse not only the evolution of classification within biology, but also contestations over who was the rightful representative of the natural world within the human sphere and the how definitions and placements of the natural delineated roles and differences within society.

It would be easy for a retrospective historian to look at this trial as one more tired example within the popular opinion versus scientific knowledge narrative. Luckily for us, Burnett has far too deft a touch, and is clearly too careful a thinker, to allow for such reductionist pandering. Rather than attempt to cut through the uncertainty and messiness of the period, with some modern-day dismissal of our naive and ignorant predecessors, Burnett sinks himself into the morass of context, to make us wonder along with everyone else, "what exactly makes a fish a fish?" Was it so settled that scientists thought whales were mammals? What about whalemen? Surely those who had actually grappled with a living beast ought to have their say. As for the common people, even their understandings were not so easily categorized. This final concern was of central importance. For, as the trial closed, it was about the practical application of understandings within the young republic, and how these differed across space, that would decide the fate of leviathan. Maurice v Judd was to become not only a question of classification, but of the placing of science within the politics and policy of the city.

Toward the end of his work Burnett refers to natural history of the period as existing within a "paradigm of confusion" and, indeed, it is the careful elucidation of this paradigm which grounds Trying Leviathan. Certainty and uncertainty rarely fall into such neat classifications. Too frequently we assume to know everything, or nothing. Truly, it is often the case that we have some information, that we move forward tentatively, with uncertainty. Capturing the spirit which animates the tough slog of living gives history a more nuanced, and yes, a more truthful animation.  Whether we hail the whale as a brother of Mammalia is about expertise yes, but also about common acceptation, which, like knowledge, is always subject to revision and change. We too are caught in the same morass; overwrought by the same hubbub.