Collisions and Extinctions

On February 21, 1918, a male Carolina Parakeet named Incas died in the Cincinnati Zoo. He was the last known member of his species.

In his book “Hope is the Thing with Feathers,” –arguably the most thorough and emotionally compelling account of bird extinctions ever written—author Christopher Cokinos writes of the sad and maddening saga of the Carolina Parakeet. Sad because mindless, pointless, and destructive human behavior drove the extinction, and maddening because there was ample time and opportunity to have kept it from happening.

The degree to which various factors, woven together, drove Conuropsis carolinensis to extinction are not entirely clear, but it is clear that this stunning, vibrant bird—like many other extinct species–could not survive its collision with mankind.

While the Carolina Parakeet was the only member of the parrot family endemic to the United States mainland (the thick-billed parrot, which has been reintroduced, was never widespread), the way in which collisions with humans drive extinction is as contemporary as today’s paper. As I was writing this, a video of a spotted leopard wandering in a closed Indian mall went viral. (In this case, there was a happy ending.) Human beings are learning to recognize that other species are worthy of protection and respect–and although this post is a story of the worst of human disregard for other animals, we are, as a species, slowly learning to coexist. It will not be enough for some species–but there is hope for others.

Carolina Parakeet (Jacques Barraband, public domain)

Reading about the disappearance of the Carolina Parakeet is profoundly sad—and a critical lesson in how culture and technology shape the world. Practices considered acceptable during the bird’s decline seem astonishing from the perspective of 2019, reflecting a degree of mindless cruelty and indifference shocking even by the standards of the Trump era.

Lest we point only to ourselves—Westerners—for the relentless shooting of flocks, clearing of timber, and wholesale disregard for these and other creatures, Cokinos reminds us that the moa, a flightless bird of New Zealand, of which there were nine species, was hunted to extinction by the Maoris about 600 years ago. An article in Science titled “Why did the Moa go Extinct,” cites evolutionary biologists Trevor Worthy and Morten Allentoft.

“The inescapable conclusion is these birds were not senescent, not in the old age of their lineage and about to exit from the world,” said Worthy. “Rather they were robust, healthy populations when humans encountered and terminated them.” Allentoft commented: “We like to think of indigenous people as living in harmony with nature, but this is rarely the case. Humans everywhere will take what they need to survive. That’s how it works.”

Contemporary human beings, however, do not need to drive species to extinction to survive. That we do so by indifference is that much more unforgivable.

The wholesale level of ignorance and indifference chronicled by Cokinos resulted in mindless cruelty. Even renowned avian artist John James Audubon–whom one would presume had some feeling for birds—advised owners of newly captured parakeets to calm them by plunging the birds repeatedly in water, Cokinos writes.

In addition to the direct human killing of the birds for “sport,” plumage, and from ire at their occasional eating of crops, the introduction of honeybees also likely contributed to their demise. The birds were able to adapt to many human-related impacts, but the rapid spread of honeybees, who took over tree cavities favored by the parakeets, was accompanied by an observed decline in their numbers.

Carolina Parakeets feeding on Cocklebur (John James Audubon, public domain)

Parakeets–and all Psittacines (the parrot family)–are social beings–and their social connectivity can go to great lengths. Flocking is a survival behavior that evolved over millions of years. One need only watch a hawk go after a flock of birds to see this adaptation in action. Although the parakeets were able to adapt to many environmental challenges, “bullets generally work faster than behavioral adaptations,” writes Cokinos.

The otherwise adaptive flocking tendency proved deadly when confronted with guns. An explorer named John K. Townsend described a slaughter he witnessed in 1834: “They seemed entirely unsuspicious of danger, and after being fired at only huddled closer together, as if to obtain protection from each other, and as their companions are falling around them, they curve down their necks and look at them fluttering upon the ground, as though perfectly at a loss to account for so unusual an occurrence.”

In a chapter titled “Guns and Parrots” from his book “Wild Echoes,” author Charles Bergman quotes Audubon: “The gun is kept busy, with eight, ten or even twenty being killed at each discharge. As if conscious of the deaths of their companions, the living birds sweep over the bodies, screaming loudly as ever… I have seen several hundred destroyed in this manner in a few hours.”

That this was considered “sport” may strike us as obscene–but that was the ethos of the time, and there was little outcry over the practice.

Although some accounts contend that the Carolina Parakeet inflicted a toll on crops, Cokinos notes that he could find no record in the traditional agricultural sources such as the farmer’s almanac that cited Carolina Parakeets as responsible for crop depredations. Contemporary ornithologist Daniel McKinley, who published a series of monographs on the Carolina Parakeet from 1959-1985, is quoted as saying “even if the parakeet did not do much damage, it could be blamed for all of it.”

Carolina Parakeets also suffered for the plumage trade, where they joined a long list of birds in gracing women’s hats. They were also shot for food.

Scientists, too contributed to their demise. As the birds edged nearer to extinction, ornithologists continued to shoot them so they would have specimens once they were gone. Another form of destruction involved egg collection. It was not until the advent of field guides and binoculars in the twentieth century that ornithologists generally stopped shooting birds for study. While reading of ornithologists shooting endangered parakeets (and other vanishing birds) is maddening, Cokinos notes that scientific collecting killed far fewer birds than hunting or shooting by farmers. But it was another contributor to extinction.

Once the population dropped below a certain point, the absence of genetic diversity must have contributed to accelerated decline. And because the parakeets, like other, parrots, are highly social, they may have needed a minimal flock size to trigger breeding.

While Incas was the last known Carolina Parakeet, we will never know precisely when the last bird died. Cokinos quotes the memoir of Missourian Gert Goebel, who wrote: “Until the later (18)30s, great flocks of parakeets came into our region every fall and remained till the following spring… As the settlements increased and the forests were more and more cleared away, these birds ceased to come.” Cokinos describes scattered sightings that occurred from the late 1800s through 1912 or 1913.

Even after their extirpation from the wild, there were opportunities to save the species—had there been any concerted, intelligent effort to do so. In addition to being killed for sport, plumage, collection and by farmers, Carolina Parakeets were also kept as pets and by zoos. Despite knowledge of the bird’s disappearance from the wild, and their willingness to breed in captivity, “owners exhibited a startling lack of rigor for essential concerns, such as determining the best diet for the bird or creating social conditions conducive to reproduction,” according to Cokinos. He quotes Daniel McKinley about the failure to keep the species going through captive breeding. “They had their chance. Their records show a series of disappointments and a heartbreaking waste of eggs and of young birds and old…

Edward Maruska, director emeritus of the Cincinnati Zoo, where the last known Carolina Parakeet once lived, told Cokinos that the species could not only have been kept going in captivity but quite possibly re-introduced into the wild.

The death of Incas was reported in the February 22, 1918 Cincinnati Times-Star, and Cokinos quotes the story, which attributed the death in part to Incas’ grief over the loss of his mate.

Far-Famed Last Parakeet of Its Kind is Mourned at Zoo: Grief Was a Contributing Cause: A student of bird-life, acting as coroner in the case of Incas, the Carolina Parakeet, said to be the last of his race, might enter a verdict of ‘died of old age.’ But General Manager Sol A. Stephan of the Zoo whose study of birds goes further than mere physical structure, development, and decay, knows the bird died of grief. Incas, coveted by many zoological gardens, died Thursday night surrounded by his genuinely sorrowing friends, Col. Stephan and the keepers. Late last summer, Lady Jane, the mate of Incas for 32 years, passed away, and after that, the ancient survivor was a listless and mournful figure indeed.


Nighthawks in the City and the Coming of Spring

The other night I stepped outside for a minute and was immediately mesmerized, a quiet smile suffusing my heart. The nighthawks were calling as they soared over the rail yard across from my house in Baltimore.

Nighthawks, also known as goatsuckers, are in the Caprimiguldae or nightjar family, according to the American Bird Conservancy. They are remarkable birds that feed on the wing by opening their mouths and scooping up flying insects. Hearing them on a chilly February night lightens the heart, as they are among the true harbingers of Spring. Although the voice of a single Common Nighthawk (the species most frequently found in Maryland) is a simple nasal “peent” (and when diving, a booming mechanical sound), they migrate in flocks, and when a flock is calling the blending of voices creates a compelling, dissonant harmony.

Common Nighthawk in Flight (photo by Jacob W. Frank, NPS , Wikimedia Commons)

I listen as they glide above the rail yard, between a busy interstate and a neighborhood of row homes. Is this not a miracle—that creatures so wild can grant us their voice, despite the concrete, cars, and noise nearby? They ask nothing in return–only that they are left alone–and they remind us that despite our conceits we share this planet with other beings.

Although classified as a bird of least concern, Common Nighthawks are in steep decline, with an estimated 61 percent drop in population since the mid-1960s, according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology (CLO). They are long-distance migrants, forming large flocks as they fly 1600 to more than 4000 miles each way–among the longest migratory routes of any North American bird. According to CLO, Common Nighthawks migrate overland through Mexico and Central America, with many passing over Florida and Cuba before crossing the Gulf of Mexico to their wintering grounds in southern South America. Along the way, they stop in woodlands, coastal dunes, river valleys, farmlands, and marshes. Habitat loss, pesticides, and collisions with cars while the birds forage over highways at night are factors in their decline.

Nighthawks lay their eggs on gravel beaches, rocky outcrops, open ground, and forest floors, according to COL, and in cities, on flat gravel roofs. They do not build nests, relying instead on camouflage. When nesting on gravel roofs the eggs and nestlings may suffer predation from crows and birds of prey. A recent study in Conservation Physiology also found that increasing temperatures as a result of climate change are associated with high stress levels in nighthawk chicks.

New Hampshire Audubon has urged homeowners and others with flat roofs to create gravel nesting patches for urban nighthawks. The program, called “Project Nighthawk,” provides specific information on creating these patches. A link to their detailed handbook is here.

The common name goatsucker is based on ancient superstition, according to David Sibley, the renowned author-illustrator. Aristotle wrote about the alleged goat-sucking habits of these birds, and in 77 AD, Pliny penned this: “They be night-thieves, for all the day long they see not. Their manner is to come into the shepherds’ coats and goat pens, and to the goats’ udders presently they go and suck the milk at their teats. And look what udder is so milked, it giveth no more milk, but misliketh and falleth away afterward, and the goats become blind withal.

As Sibley notes, it is unclear if many people actually believed this, and the superstition faded centuries ago, despite the persistence of the nickname. We know with certainty that nighthawks eat only flying insects and have nothing to do with goats.

Despite their nocturnal habits and eerily wild calls, Common Nighthawks have adapted to cityscapes. A story in Audubon was titled “The Common Nighthawk is the Cool City Bird You’ve Been Missing.” In my highly urban Baltimore neighborhood, the birds pass through in flocks in late winter or early Spring, and late Summer or early Fall, apparently drawn to flying insects swarming the lights illuminating the rail yard. But they do not linger—their plaintive calls livening the night before moving on. Although nighthawks can be seen during the day, I have seen them here only after dark in silhouette as they glide above the lights.

Common Nighthawk (photo by Andy Reago & Chrissy McClarren, Wikimedia Commons)

As I write this they have already passed on—-and I may not hear them here again until late summer when they are on their return migration. But knowing that they have returned once again provides some assurance that–for now, at least—wild things persist as they have despite the heedless activities of man.

Criticizing Israeli Policies is Not Anti-Semitic

Let me state at the outset that I am a dual Israeli-American who served in the Israeli army. Now to the topic at hand.

A recent flurry of reporting has highlighted the tendency to equate criticism of Israeli policy with antisemitism—seen as problematic for some Democrats who quietly have problems with Israeli expropriation of Palestinian land but appreciate Israel’s role as a steadfast U.S. ally. [See: Prominent Democrats Form Pro-Israel Group to Counter Skepticism on the Left.] The latest flap came when Democratic Rep. Ilhan OMar, one of two Muslim-American women in Congress, tweeted criticism of the strident pro-Israel lobby AIPAC (American-Israel Public Affairs Committee) suggesting that their campaign contributions had been used to buy support for Israel from U.S. lawmakers.

While Omar’s tweets were heavy-handed and construed by some as playing on unsavory stereotypes of Jewish money buying influence, the underlying contention—that AIPAC, in particular, has used contributions and lobbying to influence lawmakers is hardly controversial. That, indeed, is what lobbyists do. While apologizing for the tone of her comments, Omar—to her credit—did not back down from her contention that lobbying and contributions play an outsized role in American politics.

According to The Hill, Omar wrote: “Anti-Semitism is real and I am grateful for Jewish allies and colleagues who are educating me on the painful history of anti-Semitic tropes. My intention is never to offend my constituents or Jewish Americans as a whole. We have to always be willing to step back and think through criticism, just as I expect people to hear me when others attack me for my identity. This is why I unequivocally apologize.”  She continued: “At the same time, I reaffirm the problematic role of lobbyists in our politics, whether it be AIPAC, the NRA, or the fossil fuel industry. It’s gone on too long and we must be willing to address it.”

The premise of AIPAC and others unwilling to render any judgment on Israel is that it is not possible to be critical of current Israeli policies under Benjamin Netanyahu without being anti-semitic or against Israel’s right to exist within secure and recognized borders. This is both ludicrous and an offense to free speech. It is akin to saying that you cannot be a supporter of the United States if you oppose the policies of Donald Trump and his administration. This is so patently absurd that it strikes me as sad that this continues to be a matter of serious debate.

Jerusalem and the Dome of the Rock (photo by Berthold Werner, Wikimedia Commons)

Back in 1978, I moved to Israel, where I served in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) as an infantry soldier, combining military service with farming as part of the Nachal infantry brigade. When not in training or on active duty, I lived on a kibbutz on the Kinneret (aka the Sea of Galilee), where I milked cows, harvested dates, and picked bananas.

Among Israelis, particularly those in Nachal, there was no conflict in having both a profound love of country and profound reservations about the policies of the Israeli right. I grew up as a so-called birthright Jew—my family lineage is Jewish as far back as we know. I also grew up believing that the most central tenet of Jewish culture included the pursuit of social justice and care for the world. The concept has a name in Hebrew–Tikkun Olam—literally “repair of the world.”

During my time in the IDF, I had occasion to serve on the West Bank to protect Palestinian residents from potential reprisals by right-wing Jewish settlers in Hebron following a Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) massacre of six of the settlers. The fear was that the settlers would go on the rampage—launching a pogrom. This was the word that was used—and one would have to be immune to irony not to be shaken by the implications.

If Democrats here oppose anti-immigrant policies and the vilification of women and minorities—-why do they characterize as “anti-Israel” or “anti-semitic” almost anyone who questions the ongoing expropriation of Palestinian land and the de facto apartheid that characterizes substantial segments of Israeli society? I mean this question rhetorically–clearly, the answer is that Democrats fear that this issue will be exploited—as it has—by Republicans for political advantage.

A further irony is that Republicans—the party of untrammeled private property rights–have no problem with the massive violation of property rights entailed in Israeli expropriation of Palestinian land.

It is true that Israel has a population of non-Jewish citizen Arabs who have the same rights as other Israelis. But there is a growing, entirely disenfranchised population of non-Jewish inhabitants under occupation, who have little hope and few opportunities. The criticism of Netanyahu’s aggressive settlement building, which can occur only by taking land from Palestinians, is no more a criticism of Israel’s right to exist then is criticism of Trump’s policy of separating immigrant children from their parents if they enter the U.S. without documentation a criticism of Americans’ right to exist in peace and harmony.

I am not naive enough to be surprised that rational, reasonable, ethical criticism of Israeli policies has been weaponized by the Right. But the idea that massive land expropriation and continued oppression of a disenfranchised population of nearly 4 million Palestinians are worthy of serious criticism should not be a matter of debate. An indefinite occupation is eventually untenable—and should the Israeli government officially annex the territories without granting full citizenship status to its inhabitants, the situation will become increasingly intolerable for Palestinians. Israelis may be able to continue to crush dissent by periodic attacks on guerrilla enclaves that exist in civilian areas, leading inevitably to more and more civilian deaths—and for most Jewish Israelis, numb to the perpetual conflict, life will go on. But it will continue to corrode the beating heart of Israeli society.

When I was serving, I remember passing through the teeming, squalid refugee camps on the Gaza strip—and initially being shocked at the conditions. Rudimentary public health has been destroyed—to the extent that safe drinking water is virtually non-existent. An article in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported that 97 percent of Gaza drinking water is contaminated by sewage and salt. Restrictions on the movement of staple food items have led to breadlines. Yet almost never are such issues raised by either Democrats or Republicans, and they receive little—and transient–coverage by major U.S. media.

Bread lines in Gaza (photography by Al Jazeera English, Wikimedia Commons)

The continued occupation has already damaged the soul of the Israeli nation, which, on its founding, set the goal of being “a light unto the nations.” It is no surprise that the corrupt Netanyahu regime has been credibly accused of trading influence for favorable news coverage, and of accepting bribes in exchange for political favors. Oppression and corruption invariably go hand-in-hand.

It is unfortunate that some extreme voices on the Left are, indeed, anti-semitic–Louis Farrakhan comes to mind–and it is true that their joining of antisemitism and criticism of Israel has tainted the conversation. But the existence of people who are both bigots and critics of Israeli policy should not delegitimize honest dialogue about what is going on in Israel—and the Right’s weaponization of reasonable criticism of Israeli policies should not be accepted without rebuttal.

A strong case can be made that opposing land expropriation and ongoing conflict is ultimately the best policy for both Jewish Israelis and the occupied Palestinian population. Having lived in Israel for three years, it is not hard to imagine how the symbiotic energies of these two peoples could result in an explosion of innovation in agriculture, energy production, and technology. It is impossible to overstate the way in which a continual state of low-level conflict has drained energy from the creative potential of both Israelis and Palestinians. I am certain that a real resolution with a compromise on both sides, would be deeply disappointing to those who are truly anti-semitic and anti-Israel. It would, indeed, be the best revenge.

Engineers Human and Otherwise, and Walls of Extinction

Last week I hiked out at Black Marsh, a remarkable suburban ecosystem a few miles north of Baltimore on the Chesapeake Bay. On my way back to the parking lot, I heard a loud splash and was delighted to see a beaver near his impressive lodge.

He was joined a minute later by his mate, and they swam around, bumped noses, splashed, and generally made themselves known. Other than humans, beavers are arguably nature’s most striking engineers, and at Black Marsh, as in other aquatic ecosystems, are integral to the health of the marsh community.

An engineer splashes and glides past his lodge at Black Marsh in Baltimore County in early February 2019

Unlike beavers, human engineers often alter the environment in ways that harm all other living things. When Trump first pitched his anti-immigrant wall along the Mexican border, there were a number of articles highlighting how walls fragment and divide critical ecosystems. But these discussions have faded–although the peril posed by walls in sensitive habitats has not. This blog is a tap on the shoulder as we think about the wall going forward. Below is a sampling of what has been written about walls and ecosystems.

In a December 6, 2018 article for Scientific American, Margaret Wilder began simply–“Nature is fluid–walls are not.” She points out that in July 2018, more than 2500 scientists signed a letter opposing the waiver of federal and state environmental laws to build the wall. The letter states that “the wall threatens some of the continent’s most biologically diverse regions…”

Humans benefit from ecosystems not only for their intrinsic beauty and capacity to connect us to something larger than ourselves and the human-engineered environment, but because they also provide recreational and employment opportunities for people living in biologically diverse environments.

Jaguars are among the large mammals that could be driven to extinction by Trump’s proposed border wall (photo by C. Burnett, Wikimedia Commons)

In November 2018, more than 170 conservation groups sent a letter highlighting the vast destruction of wildlife and ecosystems that would be caused by the wall. After commenting on the major conservation areas that would be sundered by the wall–the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge, Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, Sabal Palm Sanctuary, Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park and National Butterfly Center, Big Bend National Park, Big Bend Ranch State Park, and Black Gap Wildlife Management Area–and declaring their “steadfast opposition to the damage a border wall across these and other parts of Texas would cause to birds, other wildlife and their habitats,” the authors point out the major negative economic impact it would render.

These nature preserves provide essential economic activity in Texas. According to a 2011 Texas A&M University study, nature tourism—primarily birding—contributes $463 million annually to the local economy. Located near several birding hotspots, the Alamo Inn B&B, for example, hosts more than 1,200 visitors a year. “Ninety-five percent of our guests are birders,” says innkeeper and guide Keith Hackland, who adds that his bird-watching visitors so far have come from 40 different countries and every U.S. state.

While the wall debate has lately focused solely on the way in which it symbolizes human division and intolerance, the disastrous impact that it would have on wildlife is being ignored. Human activities invariably have consequences on other living things—but in this case, the consequences would be immediate and far-reaching. It may be possible to undo much of the harm to humans that Trump’s misguided anti-immigrant policies have already had. But the building of miles of a tall, impenetrable barrier would cause irreversible harm to myriad non-human species and pose a real risk of driving many to extinction. In an article titled “Border Wall Will Deliver a Huge Blow to Biodiversity,” Sukanya Charuchandra, writing in The Scientist, reports that “more than 1500 species of flora and fauna will be at risk of extinction if a continuous U.S.-Mexico border wall is built.” The article quotes Jennifer Miller, a scientist at Defenders of Wildlife: “Debates about the border wall typically focus on immigration, economics, and national security, but the harm to Americans’ natural heritage is an outcome rarely discussed.”

Mexican Grey Wolf pup (Wikimedia Commons, author unknown)

An extended wall along the U.S.-Mexican border would adversely affect numerous threatened and endangered species, including jaguars, Mexican grey wolves, and some dwindling species of butterflies, according to a report from the Center for Biological Diversity titled “A Wall in the Wild: The Disastrous Impacts of Trump’s Border Wall on Wildlife.” Wilder notes that a wall would block large mammals from water, food, and mates, and that “25 species, among them the Peninsular bighorn sheep and the desert pupfish, will find their living habitats degraded and destroyed on over 2 million acres within 50 miles of the border. Based on actual findings from the nearly 800 miles of border fence that already exist, we know that it isolates in Mexico some birds who can’t fly over it, including the cactus ferruginous pygmy owl and many others. At a minimum, alternative designs should be seriously considered to include “virtual” walls of sensors and wildlife crossings.

The Ferruginous pygmy owl would be seriously impacted by Trump’s proposed border wall (photo by Dominic Sherony, Wikimedia Commons)

In an article titled “Up Against the Wall,” the National Wildlife Federation lays out the damage the wall would cause and features a striking photograph of javelinas blocked by an existing border wall on the U.S.-Mexico border near the San Pedro River in southeastern Arizona.

During World War II—decades before the Endangered Species Act was envisioned– there was an opportunity to save one of the most magnificent and legendary birds of North America. But despite the efforts of the National Audubon Society and a young graduate student from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology named James Tanner, the last remaining site known to have a significant population of Ivory-Billed Woodpeckers was sold to a logging company that then used German prisoners of war to clear cut the tract, driving the birds to extinction. An article from Audubon titled “The Long Goodbye” notes that the lumber was used to build boxes used to ship tea to British soldiers.

Ivory Billed Woodpecker (John James Audubon, public domain)

One could argue that when the last vestiges of the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker were driven to extinction in 1941 we didn’t know better–and while that argument provides no comfort it holds some truth. Now, however, there is no excuse. We do know better. And yet the pleas of conservationists who can help us find a better way to enhance border security without desecrating Creation are–ironically–voices in the Wilderness.

Love and My Grandmother’s Mustache

It is almost Valentine’s Day, and media—new and old—are replete with discussions of love—by which they mean romantic love—certainly the least coherent form. But it makes for good popular music, movies and other tale-spinning, and is almost always the featured version.

My maternal grandmother Sadie Lockman when she was about 90 years old

After my grandpa Sam died, my grandmother Sadie moved to a small walk-up apartment in Baltimore where she lived until she was 89 years old. She then decided that she should move to a place where, should she become less able to get around, she would not have to move again. That move alone says a great deal about her character—how many older people have the clarity and determination to preemptively move before they have to? Rather than clinging to the past, Sadie, clear-eyed and courageous, accepted the future and acted.

After grandpa’s death, Sadie decided she would learn how to invest the very small life insurance payment she had received. This was before the era of mutual funds, and Sadie soon became a regular fixture at a local brokerage firm—and proceeded to methodically invest and build substantial savings. She was able to support herself to her dying day—and was proud that she had taken almost nothing and built financial security.

Sadie was known and, I think, loved, by the brokers at this firm. I will never forget that one time I got lost after visiting Sadie in Baltimore and pulled over at a phone booth (there were no cell phones then) to call her to see if she could direct me to the interstate. She told me to hold on, called her broker, and then had me call him for directions!

I am now 66 years old, and over time have been increasingly struck by how quiet gestures speak volumes about love. As anyone who has had an elderly grandmother knows, it is very common, due to hormonal changes in aging, for old ladies to develop a noticeable mustache. And as Sadie got older, she did develop a mustache. When my mother, Charlotte, noticed this, she embarked on a ritual mustache waxing whenever the hair became noticeable. There was something touching and lovely about this small gesture—a way of helping my grandmother retain her dignity and beauty in the sunset of her life.

It is the small gestures that we take with our friends and loved ones–and in this I include both our human and non-human loved ones–that far outweigh the transient gestures of romantic love. As anyone who has experienced romance knows, the romantic phase invariably fades—and if the relationship does not evolve into one of companionship and appreciation, it does not endure.

When my mom got older and had to move into assisted living, it was my sister Jackie who often helped mom shower, and if necessary, undertook the intimate process of helping her clean herself. I remember being grateful that I had a sister—and one who did this without complaint whenever she was there and saw that it needed to be done.

The next time you are pondering the meaning of love—and you will be inundated with stories and reflections on love in coming days–think about a daughter lovingly waxing her mother’s mustache, or helping her elderly mother shower.

What My Time in the Israeli Army Taught Me About Walls

It has become a popular “what-about-ism” to point to the Israeli wall separating parts of Israel from the West Bank and Gaza as justification for a similar barrier to be built on the U.S.-Mexico border by the Trump administration. There are a lot of problems with this comparison, but I will start from my own experience serving as an infantryman in the Israeli Army from 1978-1981.

Israel’s Wall (photo by Justin McIntosh via Wikimedia Commons)

While I was serving in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), I came across various barriers, but the one I saw along the Israel-Lebanon border was designed with two barbed wire fences separated by a wide area of raked ground. I do not recall if the fence was electrified, but the primary deterrent was that in order to cross from South Lebanon (I was stationed in Metula much of the time) into Israel it was necessary to cross the raked dirt–which would leave footprints. A jeep patrolled and re-raked the area constantly. There were also sentries at various points. The setup was low tech—but effective.

Keep in mind that this was to deter those who wanted to infiltrate Israel to KILL people–not to find a job and make a better life for their families. The new Israeli wall, while surely effective, is primarily a political statement and a symbol—presumably it would demarcate the limits of any Palestinian state or autonomous area. It is a “fact on the ground.”

In this sense, the Israeli wall has something in common with Trump’s proposed wall—one is as much a symbol as a security barrier, while the proposed U.S.-Mexico wall would be primarily a symbol. Like the actual Israeli wall, the proposed U.S. wall would separate communities and interfere with commerce. And like the Israeli wall, it would be an ugly monstrosity and would interfere with ecosystems that are organically connected.

Often in the Trump era I find myself writing about things that seem absurdly obvious. Is there anyone who really believes that the Israeli security situation (regardless of what one may think about Israeli policies towards its Palestinian population) is analogous to the situation on our southwest border? If such is the case, it is probably impossible to persuade them that the costs of a wall here far outweigh any potential benefits.

U.S.-Mexico Border Fence in El Paso, Texas (photo office of Rep. Phil Gingrey, U.S. Congress)

That said, the use of fencing, as well as drones and additional border patrol officers is a reasonable part of any solution to the influx of people seeking better lives in the United States. In addition—and is this not obvious?—we need more judges and administrators to help give people an expeditious means of having their asylum applications heard and adjudicated. The criteria that should be used in evaluating asylum requests is a different topic for another day. But I tend to see things through a lens that reminds me that “there but for the grace of God go I.”

Old Wine, New Bottle, and Hypocrisy: Starbucks CEO’s Possible Third-party Presidential Bid

More than three years ago, I wrote a letter to Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz about the disparity between the green image the company projects and the actual way their sourcing promotes deforestation. The letter followed my hearing a report from the Union of Concerned Scientists on sourcing of palm oil and other agricultural products.

What is, perhaps, most telling, is that Schultz never bothered to reply to the letter. This fits perfectly with his arrogance and narcissism, characteristics that we endure daily with the current occupant of the White House. Surely the answer to the United States’ political challenges is another egotistical, power-seeking billionaire with zero political experience!


A Palm Oil plantation destroyed for the agricultural market (photograph by Hayden [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons)

Schultz’s trial balloon has, of course, evoked the nightmarish specter of 2000, when Ralph Nader’s narcissistic run as a third-party candidate for president helped defeat Al Gore and put George W. Bush in office, leading to the disastrous Iraq War and subsequent ramifications that have continued to disrupt international geopolitics.

This morning, I heard a brief interview with Schultz on NPR–and it was apparent that he has such a profound belief in his own superiority that—unlike billionaire Michael Bloomberg—he is incapable of seeing the risk that a bid as a third-party candidate could have in helping re-elect Donald Trump. He heaped scorn on Elizabeth Warren’s wealth tax proposal–which was reviewed by Bloomberg News and found to be a proposal, that if implemented, could result in a profound transformation of the U.S. (and global) economy in a way that would help mitigate inequality, eliminate ongoing deficits, and provide resources for progressive social policies such as expanded national health insurance and more robust environmental protection and lower carbon energy production.

The proposal of course received harsh criticism from conservatives–but compared to other proposals, such as Alexandria Octavio-Cortez’s proposal for a 70 percent marginal tax rate, the analysis in Bloomberg News found that it would be potentially far more effective in raising large sums and changing the game. While it would certainly face challenges in becoming law, Schultz’s contempt for the policy and his belief that he is the one to rescue the U.S. is reminiscent of Donald Trump. And even if the policy faces headwinds, or would require modification to become law, it is critical that bold proposals be put forth in order to focus the conversation.

Warren’s proposal, if implemented, would raise $2.75 trillion over a decade from about 75,000 families. Keep in mind that there are 325.7 million people in the United States. The proposal would reportedly cost Amazon’s Jeff Bezos $4.1 billion the first year it was implemented. Is it a stretch to think that there could be broad popular support for a tax plan that impacts 0.1 percent of the wealthiest people in the country?

Wealth and power do not, of course, gracefully concede their influence. But it may be that after the 2016 debacle and the ongoing economic rape of everyday Americans and the environment by Trump and his cronies, that a truly progressive politician with intelligently articulated policies could both be elected, and be effective. The attitude personified by Schultz–that we should timidly tweak here and there and not even consider bolder, more progressive policies, has contributed to the public cynicism over politics, and the despair of those caught in a paycheck-to-paycheck existence.

Miracles… and Miracles…

The Peace of Wild Things–Wendell Berry

When despair grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting for their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

I sometimes read the conservative website National Review, and have, over time, observed something striking: nature is rarely accorded any intrinsic value—there are only “natural resources”—no acknowledgement that the multiplicity and complexity of the natural world is miraculous and profoundly moving by its very existence–or that it is essential for human wholeness, or that our failure to cherish and protect the wild world is a form of madness.

In a recent opinion piece Kevin D. Williamson waxed poetic about the remarkable miracles of human technology and initiative, while lamenting the disasters that still befall human beings. Nowhere—nowhere—was there a suggestion that–for example– the complex ecosystem of the Amazon, which gives breath to the earth, and houses an unimaginable biodiversity, is a miracle worthy of awe, reverence, and salvation.

Virtually everything in National Review–and increasingly in the vast majority of conservative thought—reflects a blinkered worldview in which human beings stand apart from nature, that our concerns are the only concerns that matter, and that prosperity is defined only in terms of narrow, material benefits to mankind. Remarkable advances of human technology, have, indeed, given millions a more comfortable life, and we are able to witness dazzling technological feats such as probing the outer reaches of the solar system. When the recent Mars Insight probe landed safely, I was awed–and grateful for our ability as a species to achieve such things.

But I have found that my sense of awe in man’s technological prowess is often exceeded by observing nature—and I am struck with profound sadness and grief over the destruction of wild places and the growing rate of extinction. In the universe of National Review and other conservative organs, the miracle that is our biological inheritance as one sentient being within a living planet is of so little significance that it warrants nary a mention. Indeed, according to Williamson: “The miracle of modern life — modern life itself, really — has one ultimate source: the division of labor.”

The division of human labor, specialization, and human enterprise is worthy of appreciation. Yet I am struck–again–that this worldview has no place for the miracle that is 300 species of hummingbirds, or the fantastic capacity of chimney swifts to migrate thousands of miles, while doing almost everything on the wing. [See Charles Foster’s “In Which I Try to Become a Swift.”] I suppose that the feeling of awe that religious folks get during worship is something like the feeling I get when I see hundreds of swifts gather in the late fall and then suddenly form an avian cyclone as they drop into a chimney without colliding with each other.

Hyacinth Macaws seen from a blind (July 2001, Piaui, Brazil)

On a trip to Brazil in July 2001, I found myself overcome with tears of wonder as I stood in a blind watching dozens of Hyacinth Macaws swoop in to feed on palm nuts. There, is apparently, no place for such emotions in a culture where nature exists only as an extractive resource to be mined, logged, monoculture-farmed and otherwise exploited with value only found in what can be gained from its destruction.

In “What Is Conservatism,” published in National Review in October 2018, the authors put forth their manifesto: “The market economy, allocating resources by the free play of supply and demand, is the single economic system compatible with the requirements of personal freedom and constitutional government; and… it is at the same time the most productive supplier of human needs.”

What if those “human needs” include the need to seek meaning in wild places, in beauty, in solitude and the knowledge that even in places unseen diverse life thrives–and the market system has failed to find a way to value that which is priceless? In an essay in Orion Magazine titled “Down with Descartes,” author Charles Eisenstein wrote:

Black Marsh at North Point State Park in Maryland (August 2017)

  “…..Looking out upon the strip mines and the clearcuts and the dead zones and the genocides and the debased consumer culture, we ask, What is the origin of this monstrous machine that chews up beauty and spits out money? The discrete and separate self, surveying a universe that is fundamentally other, understandably and logically treats the natural and human world as a pile of instrumental, accidental stuff. The rest of the world is fundamentally not-self. Why should we care about it, beyond its potential to be useful to us? So it was that Descartes, a pioneering articulator of the modern sense of self, articulated as well the ambition to become the “lords and possessors” of nature. And so it was that we built the infernal machine.”

Have You Thought About Genghis Khan Today?

I meditate every day and also frequently listen to a podcast called “Insight Hour with Joseph Goldstein,” in which Goldstein, an early proponent of mindfulness meditation in the West and founder of the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts, discusses key topics related to mindfulness and Buddhist philosophy.

Fisherman on Inle Lake in Burma (2014)

One of my favorite episodes is titled “Compassion and Equanimity in Difficult Times.” In the talk, Goldstein, making a point about establishing perspective, relates having read a book about the Mongol conqueror Genghis Khan. He notes that Khan, in his time, shook the globe, creating a vast empire with consequences for tens of millions of people. Goldstein then asks: “How many of you have thought about Genghis Khan today?” The question is greeted by laughter–but the point well taken. Khan is now thought of only in historical context.

As we face the constant barrage of news surrounding Donald Trump, it is helpful to remember that it will not be very long—a matter of a few years– before he becomes an historical oddity.

The news about Trump, war, famine, ecosystem collapse, climate change and other distressing events may at times feel overwhelming, spurring a tendency to withdraw and retreat into indifference. In his discourse, Goldstein carefully distinguishes between “equanimity” and “indifference”—which in Buddhist thought is called “the near enemy” of equanimity. By maintaining equanimity, we are able to remain engaged and compassionate.

The photograph of the Inle Lake fisherman, which I took on my visit to Burma in 2014, is a symbol of balance–equanimity. As 2018 comes to an end, and we look forward to a new year, it is critical that we remain engaged—not indifferent–and like the Burmese fisherman, stay carefully balanced as we move across the surface of time.

Nylah Burton’s Moving Commentary on Alice Walker’s Antisemitism

I recently commented on the controversy over acclaimed writer Alice Walker’s vicious and deranged antisemitism, previously little known but brought to light in a “By the Book” author interview in The New York Times. Walker, it turns out, has a history of antisemitism, revealed both by her admiration of a bizarre antisemitic conspiracy tract by David Icke, and by a poem she wrote titled “It Is Our Frightful Duty to Study the Talmud.”

Jewish Amulet by David Elias Krieger (Wikimedia Commons)

While the NYT author interview was widely criticized, the most poignant critique was written by Nylah Burton in New York Magazine on December 28, titled “Alice Walker’s Terrible Antisemitic Poem Felt Personal–to Her and to Me.” The NYT also wrote a followup on December 21 noting that in her blog, Walker subsequently doubled-down on her praise for Icke, calling the author “brave” and asserting that the book was not antisemitic.

In the followup the Times cited readers who saw Walker’s recommendation as a “dangerous endorsement of bigotry and hatred,” and who contended that in the current environment, where conspiracy theories have led to antisemitic crimes and violence, publishing the book recommendation without context or explanation was irresponsible.

On the other hand, in a recent email conversation, my nephew Ben made a spirited defense of the Times decision to publish the Walker interview without comment or context–and I will let Ben have the last word: “The Times is right: inserting editorialization into their interviews would achieve nothing but the gradual erosion of their reader’s trust [that the Times will] portray the world without ideological filtering or distortion.”