Reading 18-24 November 2012 (ZiR)

Reading 18-24 November 2012 (ZiR)

Texts William Eaton has been pleased to spend time with this week

[One in an ongoing series of posts. For the full series see Zeteo is Reading.]


Began slowly and late, tired from all the work and reading involved in getting out the Fall Issue of Zeteo. Meanwhile Agni sent me their fall issue (the print version), and there were reproductions of the work of the artist Lesley Dill, and she wrote a little about her work, concluding with a nice line about how we are like glasses of water in the ocean.  ♥

Crashed on the couch, recuperating, alternating between mindless sports programming and Ken Burns’s The Dust Bowl, whose underlying story spoke strongly to me. Here are people who followed their greed and lack of respect for their environment into a disaster. With help from the federal government (help from other Americans marshaled by the vision and optimism of FDR and his administration), the people toughed their way through some extremely hard years, and now their offspring (in and out of agribusiness) are more or less on their way to repeating the previous experience. Their irrigation systems are draining the underground aquifer built up over millions of years; they’ve only got about 20 years of irrigation water left. The TV documentary is based on Timothy Egan’s The Worst Hard Time (Houghton Mifflin), and I found an interview with Egan at the publisher’s website for the book. A few excerpts here:

What caused the Dust Bowl?

Most of the people who lived through it say it was a human tragedy — one part hubris, one part greed, one part bad luck — not some freak of nature. When you look at the relevant weather data and compare it to the historical record, it’s very revealing. The wind speeds were about the same as always. The high temperatures in summer and the lows in winter were not that much out of the norm. Yes, there was a terrible drought. But the Great Plains has always had these elements — high winds, heat, cold, and drought. There was not some extraordinary combination of rare and traumatic weather.

So what was different?

The grass . . .  was wiped off the face of the southern plains. The southern plains was a frontier well into the twentieth century. Then suddenly came a gold rush of sorts — a gold rush for grain. The price of wheat doubled, tripled, and quadrupled, prompting a stampede to rip up the prairie grass and replace it with wheat. When grain prices crashed, people walked away, or stopped planting. Then the land was barren, with no grass, and it started to blow. By 1935, more than eight hundred-fifty million tons of topsoil had blown off the southern plains — nearly eight tons of dirt for every resident of the United States.

In the documentary, in another context, Burns and the film’s writer Dayton Duncan recall a famous line of Woody Guthrie’s: “I ain’t a communist necessarily, but I’ve been in the red all my life.” 

Cat Gironda’s article on “Rethinking Rape” in the Zeteo Fall issue led someone to send me a link to an Anthony Gottleib article in The New Yorker: It Ain’t Necessarily So: How much do evolutionary stories reveal about the mind? Gottleib, who used to teach on philosophical subjects in the CUNY Liberal Studies program (Zeteo‘s home base), has some fun with his subject, e.g.:

[E]volutionary psychologists are greatly concerned with sex, and with women’s bodies. Barash speculates at length on why women don’t have something similar to chimps’ bright-pink sexual swellings to advertise their most fertile time of the month. There are several ways, he thinks, in which female hominids could have boosted their reproductive success by concealing their time of ovulation. Perhaps it was a game of “keep him guessing to keep him close”: if a male could not tell when his mate was fertile, he would have to stick around for more of the month to insure that any offspring were his and thereby, perhaps, provide better parental care. Among the other possibilities considered—some rejected, many not—are that concealed ovulation gave females more freedom in their choice of mates, perhaps by reducing the frenzy of male competition.

This is all quite entertaining—almost as entertaining as Barash’s romp through eleven evolutionary theories about the “biological pay-off” of the human female orgasm, which unfittingly comes to no gratifying conclusion. . . . The simplest theory is that these swellings dwindled to nothing after our ancestors began to walk upright, because the costs of advertising ovulation in this way came to outweigh any benefits. Swellings could have made it harder to walk for several days each month, could have required more energy and a greater intake of water, and would be of less use as a signal when you were no longer clambering up trees with your bottom in males’ faces. ♣ ♣ ♣

Reading in Paul Kingsnorth’s knowing Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist from the  January/February 2012 issue of Orion magazine. Two summary passages here:

We are environmentalists now in order to promote something called “sustainability.” What does this curious, plastic word mean? It does not mean defending the nonhuman world from the ever-expanding empire of Homo sapiens sapiens, though some of its adherents like to pretend it does, even to themselves. It means sustaining human civilization at the comfort level that the world’s rich people—us—feel is their right, without destroying the “natural capital” or the “resource base” that is needed to do so. . . .

Today’s environmentalism is . . . an adjunct to hypercapitalism: the catalytic converter on the silver SUV of the global economy. It is an engineering challenge: a problem-solving device for people to whom the sight of a wild Pennine hilltop on a clear winter day brings not feelings of transcendence but thoughts about the wasted potential for renewable energy. It is about saving civilization from the results of its own actions: a desperate attempt to prevent Gaia from hiccupping and wiping out our coffee shops and broadband connections.♦ ♦ ♦

A Friday evening catching up on reading recent issues of the Chronicle of Higher Education (yikes). In an , article about “Professors of the Year,” a comment about and from Lois Roma-Deeley, Outstanding Community Colleges Professor. On her first day of teaching, decades earlier, a colleague had told her that what professors ultimately teach is love. “It calmed me and oriented me to the essentials: love of the subject, love of the students, love of the whole genre.”

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