Disappearing Insects

In The Guardian Michael McCarthy reports that insect populations are disappearing at a catastrophic rate – 75% of all insects lost since 1989, which of course begins to explain the similar collapse of many species of birds. My own personal experience of the prevalence of insects in gardens, fields and on car windscreens correlates with this.

Our ecosystem is undergoing rapid and massive collapse, by historical standards. It is pretty clear that a major contributory cause is modern industrial farming and related so-called pesticides.

And yet the majority, look, shrug their shoulders and carry on as before. Politicians take the lead from either the status quo, industrial lobbying or their own dogmas about reversing changes done by ‘the other side’. Environmental leaders are tolerated but not really listened to.

Where is the massive programme needed to reverse this catastrophe before it is too late? Such as a massive increase in organic farming, reduction in intensity of cultivation, rewilding of low-productivity farming land, extension of nature reserves, end to unnecessary mowing of verges and fields, massive reduction in use of pesticides, and on and on?

We seem like frogs in a pan of water that is being slowly heated up. From minute to minute there seems little different and nothing to be really concerned about, so we don’t try to jump out. Of course, eventually the frog dies as the water boils.

Featured image of Ovipositor and sheath of Aulacid wasp
from Insects Unlocked [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

 

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Inner and Outer

Simple observation tells us that there are two aspects to life: inner experience and the outer world, subjective and objective. Our senses provide the link between the two, the inner perceives the outer.

We also recognise the life in other humans, beings in the animal world and, more subtly, insects, fish, the vegetable world, and so on. They clearly also have a ‘vital, living’ inner as well as a perceived form. Even places and spaces can have a clearly perceived atmosphere.

As far as I can see, Descartes came along and muddied the water, saying ‘I think therefore I am,’  when the reality is ‘I perceive therefore I am’ – thinking is something layered on top of this. This was part of the process that led to the creation of modern science and technology, and their focus on the objective, rather ignoring that inner subjective element. Quantity became all-important, to the exclusion of quality. Vitalism, that recognised the living spark within, was in the process rejected.

It seems at times that we live in a sort of half-world, glorifying science, technology, money, material goods, laws – but somehow disconnected from the qualities, beauty, truth and goodness that make it all worthwhile, indeed that make human life work sustainably – as is beginning to become apparent.

Featured image of Tao symbol courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

 

To Have or To Be

to have or to beI read Erich Fromm’s book To Have or To Be (1978) many years ago, and remember being impressed by the ideas put forward. So I recently sought out the copy with yellowing pages from the shelf of books that have survived regular culls over the years. I discovered that Fromm’s ideas are just as relevant today, and the problems he identified have arguably got worse.

His basic idea is simple. Having and being are two fundamental modes of experience, the relative strengths of which are key determinants of character. Modern capitalist society emphasises having things, property,  money, goods and so on – so these are major determinants of character, and the society is essentially competitive. Other more co-operative societies have been more concerned with being in the world and how we relate to it.Read More »

Miss Abbott

The teacher I recall most fondly from my primary school years (ages 7-11, then called junior school) in 1950s Lincoln was Miss Abbott, probably then in her mid twenties. She was our class teacher in the second year, so I was probably 8-9. She was basically an effective teacher and a ‘nice’ person – a word I was subsequently exhorted to avoid by teachers seeking to encourage a broader vocabulary.

south common lincolnOn the most memorable day, the whole class went out for a walk to Lincoln’s South Common, where we had an outdoor lesson on nature, and particularly the wildlife in the ponds that are found there. This was my first experience of pond dipping. And we played games on the grass.

It cannot be a coincidence that my most memorable learning experience took place out of doors in nature, rather than all the many other days spent in the classroom in front of a blackboard.

Sadly, there may have been frogs, sticklebacks and damsel flies that subsequently suffered due to the enthusiasms stimulated, but the passion for nature has remained.

Picture of pond on Lincoln’s south common
by John Bennett, via Wikimedia Commons.
The pond in memory was smaller than this one.

Swallow

swallow dranseThis swallow was just asking to be photographed, perched on a cable at Thonon-les-Bains, France. The photo was taken about a month ago. By now this bird is probably well on its way down to South Africa for the winter, part of the great seasonal bird migrations.

We’ll miss that ceaseless flying to and fro over open ground or water catching insects, and look forward to next year’s return.

Healing the Heart of Democracy

I was very struck by a recent communication from the Charter for Compassion, which summarised five critical ‘habits of the heart’ to sustaining a democratic society. As I read through them they seemed intuitively right. See what you think:

  1. An understanding that we are all in this together.
  2. An appreciation of the value of “otherness.”
  3. An ability to hold tension in life-giving ways.
  4. A sense of personal voice and agency.
  5. A capacity to create community.

I consider this in the context of some of the related current symptoms of what needs to change in the West today (same numbering):

  1. Gross inequality. Many live like kings while large numbers struggle to survive.
  2. A fear or rejection of other races, nations or groups of people.
  3. The immediate setting of hard boundaries when there is tension, eg Catalonia today.
  4. The attempt by so-called leaders to suppress people expressing dissent, numerous examples.
  5. The polarised divisions in many leading countries eg USA.

The five habits are detailed more at the website of the Centre for Courage and Renewal, and originate from Parker J. Palmer’s book, Healing the Heart of Democracy: The Courage to Create a Politics Worthy of the Human Spirit (2011)

Note that these are habits ‘of the heart’ – it is after all a change of heart that is needed in the majority, starting with me and you. Where else?

Cormorant flying

I have a new respect for those wonderful images of birds in flight that you find on the blogs of various photographers. Since there were so many cormorants flying around at the location of my last post, could I get any decent results with my little travel zoom (Panasonic DMC-TZ80)?

Of course, the camera speed is not fast enough to freeze the bird in flight (see featured image of blurred flying cormorant), so you need to focus and pan as you take the photograph. Easier said than done, the speed at which these birds fly. I soon learned to track them as they came round in a part-circle, so was already ‘with’ them when ready to shoot – and use of ‘burst mode’ gave the maximum chance of one decent frame.

Then there’s the question of focusing – if you just ‘autofocus’ against a complex background that seems to give lots images of blurred flying cormorants against blurred backgrounds. I think the camera just has too much to do in the time.

I settled on just trying the birds that were flying a little higher, so that the background was just a plain blue sky. Sorting through all the many shots taken later on, there did seem to be one or two half decent (click to enlarge a bit).

There’s no doubt a good pro with the best equipment can do a thousand times better, but then he/she can’t put it away in a pocket.

Cormorant

We often see cormorants in the UK, usually the odd specimen perched fishing from a log or rock, sometimes in small groups. It was quite refreshing, then, to come across a large group of hundreds of these birds, perched in trees around a lake at the Dranse estuary nature reserve near Thonon-les-Bains on the southern shores of Lac Leman (Lake Geneva).

cormorants dranse.JPG

There was a constant to-ing and fro-ing, with a smaller number of them directly fishing from the lake surface or in characteristic wing-drying pose.

The size of this population is a testament to the health of the waters and fish populations in Lac Leman.

Of course, you will also see cormorants by the sea, as they can live with both salt water and fresh water.

Coot feet

The ubiquitous coot is one of the commonest birds in UK, Europe and US, so often does not receive a second glance. But have you ever looked at its feet?

coot feet martin mere
Coot feet, Martin Mere, Lancashire

The feet are quite remarkable, not webbed like those of ducks, but sectioned and well suited to walking on soft, uneven surfaces, such as water weeds and mud. Do take a look next time you see a coot out of the water.

Coots are of the family of rails, which includes the similar moorhen.

Shy Grebes

Great crested grebes are reasonably common in the UK, but not usually as numerously evident as the ubiquitous mallards, coots and moorhens. So it was refreshing to come across a large group of around 30 of these birds at the nature reserve on the Dranse estuary near Thonon-les-Bains on the southern shores of Lac Leman (Lake Geneva).

It was noticeable that, as soon as they became aware of our presence, the grebes moved further away, out of decent range of our 300mm-lens-equivalent travel zooms. The featured image was the best shot I could manage.

So the crested grebes seem to be fairly shy birds, which is the reputation of the little grebe, of which there were also some specimens present at the Dranse. The history of being hunted for their feathers probably explains why these birds are so wary of human beings.

Immortality

I happened to be reading Yuval Noah Harari’s book Homo Deus and around the same time watching Satish Kumar’s interviews Being an Earth PilgrimHarari was speaking of the obsession of certain Silicon Valley magnates with the achievement of immortality, whereas Kumar was describing how both his mother and the activist poet Vinoba Banave recognised when their life was coming to a natural end and accelerated this process by self starvation.

The difference appears to be in the attitude to death. Kumar sees this as the natural culmination of the process of a life; the magnate sees it as an undesirable end to be avoided.

Surely the desire for immortality is a gross illusion of the psychological ego. The process of a life requires a growth of the person to a level at which the ego and it’s selfish concerns are transcended. Here lies the death of the ego that it was so fearful of avoiding, such that it desired immortality. Whether achieving this state or not, the person ultimately dies – Kumar would say this is to be reincarnated and take the process further.

There is no case in nature, out greatest teacher, of a life or process that is without end, or death. Life indeed demonstrates as a set of processes that are born, manifest, grow, flourish and ultimately die.

The search for immortality is a great vanity and illusion of the hubris of the psychological ego.

Of course, this is not to suggest that there is not value in research aiming to increase the typical human lifespan, which may well serve some purpose of which we are not yet even aware.

Fennel Arachnid

Tying up the flowering fennel stalks in the garden recently, I suddenly became aware of this dark blob near my face. Close inspection revealed it to look like a spider, very well camouflaged in the fennel fronds, its long spindly legs a similar thickness to the fennel foliage.

The back end of the summer seems to be the season for spiders – the more you see the more you notice. I’m not really into arachnid identification, but the very long legs suggest this is a harvestman?

And if its a harvestman, it’s not a spider, but another sort of arachnid called opiliones. These are apparently sometimes colloquially referred to as ‘daddy longlegs’, but for me ‘daddy longlegs’ is the large type of crane fly, frequently seen flying around at a similar time of the year, often getting into our house.

Here’s a more detailed pic in case anyone can enlighten me further.fennel spider 2

Houston and Harvey

Having family in Houston, the recent hurricane Harvey has been rather on my mind of late. There are two main lessons from this experience, an experience shared across much of the globe.

Global Warming

Of course, climate change and global warming did not cause Harvey – there have been major hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico for many decades.

But it is clear that the raised level of temperatures in the Gulf and ocean waters, caused by rising levels of CO2 and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, will have increased the severity of the effects of Harvey. It didn’t have to be as bad as it turned out.

If action is not taken on the lines of the Paris agreement, which itself did not make change fast enough to avoid severe consequences, future hurricanes in Texas will descend with increasing fire and fury on oil state Texas and its neighbours. The havoc caused so far by the current hurricane Irma, approaching Florida, gives a hint of the disasters to come.

Supercharged Capitalism

Houston was a star of unalloyed capitalism, the oil capital, minimal planning regulations, cheap housing, rapid expansion of population, apparently a great place to live.

But within that apparent success lay the seeds of disaster. New industrial and housing developments gave minimal consideration to the increasing demands put on old drainage systems, and the need to retain flood plains. Flood defences such as the Barker and Addicks dams were not kept adequately up to date. There was a lack of zoning of industry and housing, so minimal consideration of pollution effects on people living close by petrochemical works… It all seemed like the free market right winger’s wet dream! Harvey exposed this toxic mix as totally inadequate for a city in Hurricane Alley.

The City of Houston, the US and the world need to step back and get a grip on a more sensible way to manage human affairs, before we become submerged in a never ending chain of disasters. Supercharged capitalism is at best unintelligent.

The featured image apparently shows a waterway, which is a recently taken photo of the flooded Beltway, a major Houston artery. Things are far from being back to normal.

 

Verdun

The memorial museum at Verdun in Eastern France gives a striking impression of this central point of one of the key battles of WW1. Between 1916 and 1917 French and German generals rained down uncountable munitions on soldiers in a hell on earth, with multiple initiatives and counter-initiatives. The museum gives a good feel for the reality of that war for those involved – a sobering experience.

As at the Somme, the result was essentially stalemate, with hundreds of thousands killed on both sides and a traumatised generation of Europeans and their allies.

Fortunately the Americans came along and sorted the battle out with overwhelming force. But nobody got the subsequent politics right at Versailles and we had to go through the whole thing again with WW2.

europe founding fathersThe Bishops Palace in Verdun has an exhibition showing how the whole experience led to the establishment of the movement towards a united Europe, including pioneering spirits such as Jean Monnet and Winston Churchill. What an inspirational project that was, after the horrors of the extended World War – indeed it still is for many people.

europe founder chuchill
Churchill

Sad that weak UK governments have created the Brexit process because of disagreements they were not willing to work at and resolve within the EU.

And equally sad that European politicians have not so far shown the vision to help the UK around its genuine problems.

Ghent

The Friday SquareIn the square of the Vrijdagmarkt in the delightful medieval centre of Ghent in Belgium, there is a statue of a local luminary – Jacob van Artevelde. He is so honoured because Ghent survived the 100-year war between England and France due to his efforts at ensuring neutrality and maintaining links with England. The statue points towards England.

Of course England has always had close ties with Europe, and periods of major influx of Europeans, such as the Romans, Angles, Saxons, Vikings, Normans. And we’ve been involved in so many continental wars over the centuries, culminating in the World Wars of the 20th century, when we took in many more as refugees.

The wise men of the immediate post-war world decided to link the countries of Europe together to avoid the possibility of future pointless wars, encouraged by the British, and Winston Churchill in particular. Of course this led to today’s European Union.

Strange then, that unscrupulous UK politicians have fostered the very nationalism that potentially leads to wars to engineer the UK’s exit from that Union. Something about ‘taking back control’ and ‘making Britain great again’ – the freedom to go off on our own, ‘do deals’, form alliances, and repeat unlearned lessons of history.

They should be ashamed of themselves.

Hopefully the duped UK populace will support a change of course in time.

Inline image by Sergey Ashmarin, via Wikimedia Commons

Parasol Mushroom

I was struck by these rather large mushrooms, several inches across, that had appeared in small groups in the grassland in Tatton Park. It seems that they are parasol mushrooms.

The two young ones entwined like mother and child are particularly cute.

These mushrooms are apparently more common in the south of Britain, but there certainly seemed to be plenty at Tatton.

They are said to be edible, but then again a very similar species is poisonous, so don’t – unless you know what you’re doing and it is legal to pick them.

I was cursing not having taken camera with me,
but at a pinch the smartphone made not too bad a job of it.

The Heart of Man

the heart of manReaders of my last few posts will have detected a certain attraction to the ideas expressed in Erich Fromm‘s book The Heart of Man: Its Genius for Good and Evil, first published in 1964.

There is much more in the book than my blog posts listed below, which will give a flavour of some of the content. I find Fromm’s work accessible, readable and very relevant today, when the mistakes of the past are rising again to confront humanity – the mistakes that led those such as Fromm to leave a Europe where Hitler’s racism was brewing up into war, for the relative stability of the US.

Fromm throws light onto the nature of good and evil, and particularly the psychological roots that are the causes of war, or alternatively that lead to periods of Renaissance.

Periods of Renaissance

In “The Heart of Man”, Erich Fromm relates social narcissism to the Roman Catholic Church and to the Renaissance, in an illuminating discussion on the nature of periods of Renaissance which might give us clues to the nature of a New Renaissance.

Humanism and Fanaticism

When considering narcissism in large groups, such as major religions, Fromm suggests that there are counteracting forces of narcissism and anti-narcissism at work. He uses the Roman Catholic Church as an example, the personal humility that is at the heart of Christ’s teaching being at the opposite end of the scale to the intense narcissism of a church that believes it is the only chance of salvation and its officers provide the only path to God.

Read More »

Fromm on social narcissism

Following up my earlier post Fromm on Narcissism, I move on to Erich Fromm’s thoughts on social or group narcissism and the role it plays as a source of violence and war.

Any social grouping depends on a sort of group narcissism for its survival and continuation, similar to the narcissism of the individual.

Similarly, we can distinguish benign and malignant forms. The benign form tends to involve some form of achievement outside the group by productive effort, which maintains contact with reality. The malignant form tends to involve concern for the group itself, its splendour and past achievements, and its continuation regardless of its current contribution.Read More »

Fromm on Narcissism

Erich_Fromm
Erich Fromm in 1970

In The Heart of Man, first published in 1964, Erich Fromm examines “the role of narcissim for the understanding of nationalism… and the psychological motivations for destructiveness and war”. It all sounds very relevant today.

Fromm recognises that narcissism fulfils an important biological survival function for everyone, but needs to be at an optimum level modified by the reality of social cooperation. (cf healthy attachment to one’s own children, which needs to be bounded by reality.)Read More »