Friday, September 23, 2011

Holy Carp, Wolfman!

"I'm shocked!"
Asian Carp keep showing up in the news because they keep showing up in more rivers and lakes. They are not wanted. They eat, grow into giants, and displace other species. They could disrupt a 7 million dollar plus fishery business in the upper Midwest. But how to keep them out? In Minnesota, a plan to put electric barriers between the Mississippi River and the "wild and scenic" St. Croix has stalled, partly because of territorial issues. Does the other river bank--Wisconsin--have to be involved? What agency oversees a plan, and will the plan be effective?
A Star Tribune story of September 18th narrates how a $5 million dollar initiative to erect "an underwater sound barrier" got washed away. It seems the state's Department of Natural Resources thought the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers would take over at some point, because that's what the Corps tends to do. "We were surprised to hear they couldn't work with us on the project," Steve Hirsch, the DNR's director of ecological and water resources, told the Star Tribune. Hirsch added that the Corps claimed "they weren't authorized or funded to work on it."In short, there are turf wars and a lack of communication among politicians who voted for the funding, the DNR, the two states, and the Army Corps. As the carp says, "I'm shocked!"
Complicating the issues is a debate about the effectiveness of barriers against hungry carp.  But here the Army Corps recently offered "new evidence that a series of barriers in the Chicago River waterway system have been 'very effective,'" and increased voltage might improve that further.
For some, there's way too much government entanglement with Big-Mouth Carp, and they want private industry (with grant help from somewhere, and often that somewhere is a gov't) to sell the Carp back to Asia as food. Eat the crappy carp!
"We're in uncharted waters here," according to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources spokesman Chris McCloud in Thursday's Chicago Tribune. "Why remove them and put them into a landfill when you can take them and use them for good? If we can get past the name 'carp' and the perception ... we can prove this is going to be a highly nutritious, cheap meal." It tastes, according to promoters, like a cross between scallops and crabmeat, if you can get past the barrier of numerous bones. Carp are low in mercury and high in Omega 3 fatty acids, so let's call carp "silverfin" (Patagonian toothfish was re-imaged as pricey Chilean sea bass) and get it on the menu. A Chicago chef already has a recipe for "Carp-accio."
Well, let them eat carp!
There are those who take offense at the terms of the discussion with "invasive" species pitted against "native." One problem is that such terms don't account for "natural" or adaptive biological changes over the eons and for changes caused by climate and geographical events. Other reasons for concern include a problematic analogy with human migration issues. For example, are illegal immigrants (or any immigrants) from other countries a threat to U.S. "natives"? It has also been pointed out that summarily applying "illegal" to children and infants just doesn't sound right. This is an area where human/animal comparisons fall apart: humans have the advanced cultural skills (we hope) to deal with global interchanges. Also, what does "native" mean when applied to U.S. residents? They're actually Asiatic but crossed an Alaskan land bridge in Prehistory? They were already here when the Mayflower landed? They came on the Mayflower? They fled a potato famine? They fled the Nazis and arrived with advanced degrees in physics? Complicate that with the travels of European or American "natives" in the era of colonialism and currently with globalization.? Is Coca-Cola a dangerous invasive species?
The Random Animal will leave these questions for presidential debates. There's also the point that being a species native to the North American Continent insures acceptance and protection. Take the case of the wolf, again. As noted in the blog of August 24th, Montana and Idaho will have hunting seasons for the re-introduced wolf. Apparently, withdrawing the wolf from the endangered species list was part of a federal budget deal--the wheeling and dealing that happens to pass legislation or tuck in a special interest item. All this is explained on a recent PBS Newshour report. Many ranchers still hate wolves, though wolves were in the area first. Since their reintroduction in 1995 to Yellowstone National Park, wolves have spread outside those boundaries and have killed about 4500 cattle and sheep. (It is difficult to find out if specific herds are particularly beset or how many livestock roamed the areas.) One rancher interviewed couldn't see the point of anyone wanting such a successful predator around. Another ranch family addresses the risk of wolf attach by keeping cattle grouped within movable fencing, mimicking the protective circle buffalo create. It takes more time and money, but they have not had wolf problems. And problem wolves have been shot regularly, under gov't oversight, and they are not part of the hunt count. The scientist involved with the wolves' return is not against hunting them. It's the numbers that are upsetting. As the Newshour reports, Montana has about 600 wolves and will permit the taking of 220. The Idaho plan is to reduce the state's 1000 wolves to 150. That's pretty close to the definition of "decimation." The argument for wolves? They are a "cash cow" for the Park, drawing in observers, photographers, amateur naturalists. They have reduced elk herds in the region, so plant growth has revived, preserving more plant species, keeping the rivers healthier, and supporting more small wildlife including songbirds.
Maybe "native" and "alien" are misleading terms for carp and wolves. It's a matter of viable bio-diversity. Add too many carp, and that's damaged. Take away too many wolves, and that's damaged.
If only the wolf's main food source was carp.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Melville's Moby Dick and Jon Stewart's Daily Show

credit to

No, this is not a set-up for a bad joke. I've been slowly re-reading Moby-Dick (don't remember the first reading) and should be finished in time for the 2016 elections. It takes a long time to reach actual discussion of The Whale; and the blubber-thick book of wind-driven ships, Quakers, and harpooners seems wildly distant from current crises of international debt defaults, climate change, and twittering politicians. The novel resides in that unreachable ocean, The Past.
Then again, in the opening chapter,  narrator Ishmael imagines the front page of a newspaper announcing his whaling voyage sandwiched between these headlines: "Grand Contested Election for the Presidency of the United States" and "Bloody Battle in Afghanistan." Herman Melville and a writer of the next generation, Mark Twain, might have been shocked and dismayed by Bernie Madoff  Ponzi schemes, but they would not have been surprised. Confidence men--the Con--have prominent places in their fictions and apparently in the American fabric. Both writers recognized the ability of people to con others and that most frequent trick, to con themselves. A nation of self-conners.
And while those with a recollection of American Lit. think of Moby-Dick's tale (sorry) as tragic, involving Death and Ahab, Ishmael offers a wry running commentary on the strangeness of human beings and their business. There's snark. He could be Jon Stewart or John Oliver, an extremely well-read and less crude version, bemused by pretension and folly in all he sees. A landlady, concerned about the doings or the having done of a boarder locked in his room, exclaims "He's killed himself ... It's unfort'nate Stiggs done over again--there goes another counterpane." To save bed covering counterpanes she dispatches a servant: "Go to Snarles the Painter, and tell him to paint me a sign, with--'no suicides permitted here, and no smoking in the parlor.'"
O.K., Ishmael's (or rather Melville's) sentences are extremely layered, and as with Hawthorne and Thoreau a plethora of deep meanings are implied but not necessarily revealed and validated. There's an undeniable quest for meanings that, in the end, remain inscrutable or absent. After reflecting on how there's "all the difference in the world between paying and being paid," a point brought home by the current recession, Ishmael speculates on an "invisible police officer of the Fates, who has the constant surveillance of me, and secretly dogs me, and influences me in some unaccountable way." (This 160 years before phone tapping and Rupert Murdoch--an Ahab after a story). Phrases, allusions,  vocab, and foreshadowing throughout the book (Fate, Providence, Monster, superior natural force, ponderous heart, reality or a dream) send undergrads scrambling for the Code Book offered by internet versions of Cliff Notes.
Despite the aggregation of footnotes--blubber valuable or not--attending the text, the book is deemed by certain sources as appropriate for grades 5 (a precocious grade 5) and up. There are no sex scenes or bad words (depending about how you consider "sperm" as in "sperm whale), while the violence, mostly against animals, is quite acceptable. Certainly in the last decades of the 20th century, Ishmael's lack of obscenity and sexual encounters, along with his apparent acquiescence to authority, seem very innocent. That's until you get to the Gay Marriage part. Or the bonding with non-Christians.
It's not really same-sex marriage, but early on Ishmael shares a bed with the purply heathen Queequeg, who sounds like a cross between a giant Aborigine and a Smurf.
Thanks to Rockwell Kent and Pop Culture


It was not uncommon for boarders in an inn, particularly the poor ones, to share beds, and the landlord thinks it quite amusing to pair the vulnerable young Ishmael with a tattooed "cannibal" who's been out trying to sell a shrunken head. After some initial awkwardness involving a tomahawk, the two settle down to sleep, and Ishmael awakens the next morning with "Queequeg's arm thrown over me in the most loving and affectionate manner. You had almost thought I had been his wife." There's certainly no talk of sexual attraction, and during following days the men focus on getting an assignment on a whaling ship. But their camaraderie deepens. In the chapter "A Bosom Friend," Ishmael concludes, "there is no place like a bed for confidential disclosures between friends. Man and wife, they say, there open the very bottom of their souls to each other; and some old couples often lie and chat over old times till near morning. Thus, then, in our hearts' honeymoon, lay I and Queequeg--a cosy, loving pair."
How this passage would fare on FOX network discussions I don't want to know. The 5th grade teacher who dares to impose such dense prose on young students could well focus on the emotional intimacy, which lacks eroticism. Melville himself was married in a traditional way, and in a traditional way it went badly. Let's guess that Melville was difficult and moody. Then his sea-tale popularity, dragging his income along, started to make a frightening dive, rather like that of an incumbent president's during a recession. That might drive any wife to nagging or retreat.
Back to the bonding of Ishmael and Queequeg--probably shocking in 1851 was the intimacy between a very white Christian and a dark tattooed Pacific islander who worships a black wooden totem. Many of the early encounters between the two and other whalers revolve around Ishmael defending Queequeg's character--"see how elastic our stiff prejudices become when love comes to bend them." (And we are being set up for end events, which are far from cozy liaisons.) The plot moves forward when Ishmael convinces the managers of the Pequod, self-righteous and cheap Captain Bildad and blustery Captain Peleg, to sign up himself and Queequeg. "Queequeg here is a born member of the First Congregational Church," Ishmael protests, and when the pious Bildad pushes for explanation, Ishmael expounds that "every mother's son and soul of us belong" to the "great and everlasting First Congregation of this whole worshipping world." Bildad hesitates at that ecumenical inclusion, but Peleg accepts Queequeg's faith upon seeing his "wild sort of" accuracy with a harpoon: "Quick, I say, you Bildad, and get the ship's papers. We must have Hedgehog there, I mean Quohog, in one of our boats. Look ye, Quohog, we'll give you the ninetieth lay [a portion of profits far larger than Ishmael's], and that's more than ever was given a harpooneer yet out of Nantucket."
And that brings us to the Corporate Business of Whaling in the 19th and the 21st century--more on that to come.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Last Heron of Summer

The nights are cool, the afternoons hot. The monarchs are moving south, but some migratory species still find time to bask in ultra-marine skies. This great blue heron found his pedestal,

Then he spoke,
And then fanned his wings to the sun.

The Random Animal will be traveling for a few days and will return with some book reviews.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Wanted: Beavers, not Horses

Photo by Mary Beth Atwood from

Texas is on fire. About 120,000 acres are burned or burning, about 700 homes have been lost thus far. According to the Texas Forest Service website, fire fighters spent the labor day holiday responding to 22 new fires.
Like the "megafires" described in a recent Audubon Magazine article (and discussed in an earlier blog here), these conflagrations degrade ecosystems and cause human suffering. When people suffer, animals suffer. That includes species often privileged or idealized, like horses. The two-year drought in Texas has turned grass and hay into kindling. Animals do not have enough to eat; farmers and ranchers have nothing to harvest and store. Hay is imported from states like Iowa, but that's not the same as having adequate grass growing where the animals live. More and more bone-thin horses are left with rescue groups, as  reported by ABC news earlier this summer. The same circumstances that lead to horse abandonment or surrender also inhibit adoption or horses restored to health. Some rescue groups, like Brighter Days near San Antonio, fear that they cannot take in any more animals.
While Texas and the nation struggle with immediate responses to fire and drought, other long-term solutions are up for consideration.
Some ranchers in rain-starved regions would like to see beaver return. This may seem like an odd longing, especially since beaver are often seen as pests whose constructions block trout streams, boating channels, or drainage lines.
"I know you want me."

As reported by a recent Wall Street Journal article, "in many states, it's legal to shoot a beaver on private land." However, the same article explains that beavers are excellent restorers of wetlands. As one conservancy director explains, "We can spend $200,000 putting wood into a stream, cabling down logs. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't. Put in a colony of beavers and it always works." So ranchers in places like Wyoming and Washington want to bring beavers back to places where they had been banished. What beaver dams retain can mitigate the impact of a dry season and provide drinking water for cattle and wildlife, and the subsurface water table fluctuates less. So now beavers are live-trapped elsewhere to be transferred to ranch lands that have some water source. Other species, from cougar and moose in the North and songbirds about anywhere, seem to rebound where beavers have created wetlands.
Texas is not currently in a situation where beavers can save the day. But the re-evaluation of beavers suggests that holistic approaches to ecosystems are not just for the dreams of abstract nature-lovers but for those who make a living from the land.
Dam, it's gone!