The Hidden Watershed

Click here to see which streams would be visible (and viable) if we didn’t pave over every inch of earth. It’s a map of watersheds in Maryland (the Potomac River Basin).

Here’s the accompanying article, which explains the work of University of Maryland researchers who used GPS to map the streams.

From the article:

When geologist Andrew Elmore came to the University of Maryland’s Appalachian Laboratory in 2008, he wanted to familiarize himself with the data on the area’s streams, the bedrock of his area of study.

It didn’t take long for Elmore to realize the data he sought didn’t exist.

The National Hydrography Dataset, which the U.S. Geological Survey has used for more nearly 100 years to map streams, was missing many of the waterways. Some of the unmapped streams had been buried long ago, trapped in culverts to facilitate development. Others were too small to be part of the map. Still others were so deep in forests that those charged with searching for the streams never found them.

As a result, counties and states were making important land-use decisions based on incomplete maps, which resulted in burying more unknown streams and harming others.

“Anytime you make a decision about how to regulate an industry, you need to know what kind of resources will be put in jeopardy by that activity,” Elmore said. “Streams are hotspots for biodiversity and nutrient cycling. To be able to know where they are is really a prerequisite for managing them properly.”

It would of course be way better if the goal was to identify the streams so that concrete could be ripped up in order to liberate them, instead of finding ways to “manage them properly,” but the intention here is still a net positive, if only for the fact that the maps highlight what is lost in exchange for “civilization”—typified in most cases by suburbia.



Here’s a strangely written Nature Bats Last post about how the main responsibility of doomers going forward is the collection and categorization of information (i.e. the building and preserving of personal libraries), so that future “humans” (humanoids or extraterrestrials) can know what we were thinking as we cut down the last tree. I can’t decide if this is the best or worst thing I’ve read on the internet this week.

Here’s James Howard Kunstler making a good case that when governments attempt to control everything (which they always do), that the effort only serves to bring about the reverse of the intended outcome; instead of a stronger concentration of power, the end result is an erosion of the legitimacy of the government to a point of a vote (either literal or metaphoric) of no confidence:

As history develops, people do things for the simple reason that it seems like a good idea at the time. Computer tech made it possible for bureaucrats and military apparatchiks to invade the privacy of everybody, but in the end it only had the effect of embarrassing the perpetrators and eroding a big chunk of the US government’s legitimacy.

And here’s an article about towns in Northern Ireland painting fake shopfronts to make the place look neater for the G8 summit. What do the locals think of the sprucing up and how the movie-set-esque coverings will look in the future? “They’ll just be pieces of paper blowing around the ground.”

The Darkling Thrush

A poem by Thomas Hardy:

I leant upon a coppice gate
      When Frost was spectre-grey,
And Winter’s dregs made desolate
      The weakening eye of day.
The tangled bine-stems scored the sky
      Like strings of broken lyres,
And all mankind that haunted nigh
      Had sought their household fires.

The land’s sharp features seemed to be
      The Century’s corpse outleant,
His crypt the cloudy canopy,
      The wind his death-lament.
The ancient pulse of germ and birth
      Was shrunken hard and dry,
And every spirit upon earth
      Seemed fervourless as I.

At once a voice arose among
      The bleak twigs overhead
In a full-hearted evensong
      Of joy illimited;
An aged thrush, frail, gaunt, and small,
      In blast-beruffled plume,
Had chosen thus to fling his soul
      Upon the growing gloom.

So little cause for carolings
      Of such ecstatic sound
Was written on terrestrial things
      Afar or nigh around,
That I could think there trembled through
      His happy good-night air
Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew
      And I was unaware.

This is probably my favorite poem about finding small moments to hold onto. James Kavanaugh’s “There Are Men Too Gentle to Live Among Wolves” is a close second, though. In Hardy’s poem, I love the idea that the author doesn’t learn anything from the bird, in the sense that the bird provides no explanations or narrative to contextualize the author’s melancholic mood. His block-ice lugubriousness is lifted but only briefly, and simply; Hardy remains unaware of the source of the bird’s joy and of how to attain it himself, except to enjoy the bird’s enjoyment and capture the moment. Don’t over-intellectualize the bird, is I guess the lesson here.

Here’s what Carol Rumen at The Guardian had to write about it:

Hardy’s thrush of course belongs to the Romantic tradition, in which birds seem to express emotion in “songs” that have human significance. Modern readers interpret bird-song differently: we know the “ecstatic carolings” to be territorially possessive; as mundane as estate agents’ ‘Sold’ signs. Today’s ornithologically-minded poets content themselves with more descriptive responses, though birds have never yet gone out of poetic fashion.

I don’t quite know what that paragraph means but it sounds like maybe she’s over-intellectualizing the bird.


“Thus we better understand the curious implication assigned to the navigation of madmen and the prestige attending it. On the one hand, we must not minimize its incontestable practical effectiveness: to hand a madman over to sailors was to be permanently sure he would not be prowling beneath the city walls; it made sure that he would go far away; it made him a prisoner of his own departure. But water adds to this the dark mass of its own values; it carries off, but it does more: it purifies. Navigation delivers man to the uncertainty of fate; on water, each of us is in the hands of his own destiny; every embarkation is, potentially, the last.

It is for the other world that the madman sets sail in his fools’ boat; it is from the other world that he comes when he disembarks. The madman’s voyage is at once a rigorous division and an absolute Passage. In one sense, it simply develops, across a half-real, half-imaginary geography, the madman’s liminal position on the horizon of medieval concern—a position symbolized and made real at the same time by the madman’s privilege of being confined within the city gates: his exclusion must enclose him; if he cannot and must not have another prison than the threshold itself, he is kept at the point of passage. He is put in the interior and exterior, and inversely.

A highly symbolic position, which will doubtless remain his until our own day, if we are willing to admit that what was formerly a visible fortress of order has now become the castle of our conscience.”  – Michel Foucault, from Madness and Civilization

Lingua Franca

“Thinking you could or should have done something is all possible because of the subjunctive mood” says the interviewer in this NPR TED talk segment about Phuc Tran, who comments on growing up speaking English in a Vietnamese household in Portland, Maine. Tran’s main argument is that the subjunctive, which is found in many languages and is used to connote uncertainty, regret, and hypothetical or analogous simulations (e.g. “He plays the guitar as if he were a professional,” in English, or “Toca la guitara como si fuera un profesional,” in Spanish), is the mechanism by which people comprehend these abstract ideas in the real world. No subjunctive tense, no future. No regret. No hindsight at all, actually: “The subjunctive is like a time-space dream machine,” according to Tran.

“Because my dad is a non-native speaker of English, he didn’t grasp all the nuances of the subjunctive,” Tran explains, adding, “The subjunctive allows us to look into the future, and to see multiple highly nuances possibilities.” His dad, in this scenario, simply can’t fathom the idea that “if it hadn’t rained, we would’ve gone to the beach,” responding, “That’s stupid. Why would you want to talk about something that didn’t happen?”

But does grammar really limit a person from understanding a concept? I can’t believe this idea even needs to be debated. Clearly it’s not the case that people have different abilities to ponder basic physics just because of linguistic divergence. Tran’s dad can just as easily comprehend the idea, he just doesn’t want to dwell on the many roads not taken. Just because he doesn’t want to talk about them doesn’t mean he isn’t aware they exist. Does Tran really mean to suggest that a whole group of people don’t think about—nay, can’t even imagine—future or past events?

“You don’t think your family ever thought about what could have been?” the interviewer asks. “I really don’t,” responds Tran. Need I go on?

Not only is it completely patronizing (and, possibly racist?) to suggest that certain cultures, by manifestation of their linguistic habits, aren’t capable of reason, but it’s demonstrably fatuous, just by thinking about it for two seconds. If your parents can’t think of future possibilities, how did they raise a family? How did they escape Saigon and start anew in Pennsylvania? (Listen to the story if this is confusing.)

This argument sounds all-too familiar; add it to the list of “X culture has 100 words for Y” myths that are used to put people into boxes and marginalize their cultures, i.e. to drive wedges into unnecessary cracks. Do Eskimos really have 100 words for snow? Possibly, but so do English-speaking people, via compound structures like “wet snow,” “packed snow,” “fluffy snow,” etc.—compounds which are squished into the same word in German, rendering the “Eskimos really understand X better than English-speaking people” (or vice versa) trope useless at best—and dangerous at worst.

And speaking of English, it has retained many quirks, most notably the unnecessary “do,” as in “Did you go to the store? — Yes, we did go to the store,”—which in other languages is simply implied by inflection, as in Romance languages where the inquisitive is simply the present tense structure with question marks on either end. In Spanish, translated, the question would read: “You go to the store?—Yes, we went to the store.” Different grammar, same idea.

Since Spanish speakers (and anyone else but English speakers, since the “did” insertion is a holdover from Cornish, Welsh, and other Celtic languages being melded by Norse and Saxon settlers butchering each other’s languages as the two cultures mingled) don’t use the unnecessary “did,” do we ask whether they’re incapable of comprehending the past? Of course we don’t. People of different languages simply have different ways of expressing the same natural phenomena.

Of course the segment had to also include a bit about how humans are the only animals capable of language, and about how therefore we are the only beings capable of abstract thought and of sharing learned experiences with fellow creatures (which is essentially the catalyst of technology).

Let’s just forget that other primates can not only understand English but can communicate in sign language, or that they can make tools (like the fishing rods made by orangutans) and teach others how to replicate them, or that they mourn when loved ones die, suggesting an understanding of concepts like finality and alternate realities (now someone is with us, alive, part of our family, etc. and now they’re not, sadly). And that’s just primates. Let’s just forget that whales communicate—with each other and with other species, like dolphins. Let’s forget that they can even mimic human speech in English.

Let’s forget all of that, because humans aren’t part of connected ecosystems, we’re exceptional: we’re the exception to the rule, and therefore we’re the rulers. It would almost be funny if it weren’t for the actual devastation this kind of thinking wreaks on living beings with families and communities and lives and emotions. Oops, there I go, using the subjunctive again—so if you’re Vietnamese you can’t possibly understand this concept.

Related: if whales one day demonstrate that they understand sarcasm, then will it be enough to convince people to stop filling their stomaches with plastic and boiling their habitats and poisoning all their food?

Stopping By Woods On a Snowy Evening

A Poem by Robert Frost:

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep.
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

Stop. Be quiet. Think about the little things. Remember seconds and minutes. Take in fresh air. Before you get back to rushing, remember that there were moments when you felt truly happy and there will be moments when you feel truly happy. Pet a cat or a dog. Make and hang a bird-feeder (it’s hard for the birds in winter). Write a note to someone—or to yourself. Close down gmail and look out the nearest window. Stare. Gaze. Sigh. Rest. Now go forth!

Lessons from Easter Island

Here’s a cool link about possible alternative scenarios that played out on Easter Island, which has become kind of the pet example when talking about human overshoot. New research suggests that rats were responsible for the loss of trees—not human slash-and-burn agriculture, as previously thought—and that these same rats became the island inhabitants’ main food source. What most likely killed the human inhabitants, then? Sexually transmitted diseases, contracted from the visiting European explorers. Neat.

The takeaway of this alternative scenario is that people will never be alarmed enough by collapsing ecosystems to halt or reverse course. They’ll simply try to adapt until they all die, along with the trees. The only thing that saved the island—the actual island: the soil, microorganisms, flora, and other animals that depend on them—is that it’s an island, i.e. it’s contained; humans ran their course of destruction and then petered out, while life out in the open ocean went on, as if this blip never even happened.

It’s likely to be a different outcome in today’s world, where every continent is both connected and filled to the brim, and where even a gradual collapse means the release of nuclear waste—if not nuclear weapons. Nope, it doesn’t bode well for us civilized folk, as we continue to build and topple moai instead of addressing where all the trees have gone. Rats taste like chicken, right?