On beauty and a space between

30 09 2008

Have you heard of the idea of animal aesthetics? (Some of you have, I bring it up all the time, or I used to.) Animal aesthetics are the emotional response of the nonhuman animal to something pleasing (or perhaps not so pleasant). This response is due to the perceptual wiring and cognitive integration of the perceiver his/herself and not to any actual information about the something pleasing or not so pleasing. A bird responds to a red leg band because there is something aesthetically pleasing about that red leg band, not because the leg band says anything about the health of the wearer. I could go on, but there is a simple description to start with.

So the quail. My initial project was to study mate choice for plumage ornaments. Males have a variety of decorations that females do not—longer darker crests, white and black faces, brown and tan patches on their chests, etc. So, the question was, do these matter to the female? Ultimately, I found some evidence that, yes, they do. But what I also found was that trying to really figure out what was going on was very difficult. This was because I did not have any idea really what the females’ saw. Did they see a bundle of separate patches of color (like the ornithologists that write the field guides?) or did they see an integrated whole, weighing some patches more and some less, depending upon some sort of species specific ideal or some sort of individual aesthetic taste or some combination of the two? This is all complicated by the fact that bird eyes are constructed differently than ours, and the part of their brain that corresponds to our cortex, is also constructed differently—millions of years of evolution will lead to separate but equal sorts of structures. Basically, I started lusting for an answer to “What the hell do the see, anyway?”

As you might suspect, my lust has remained unsatisfied. We cannot reconstruct with any accuracy what a bird sees, only measure response to grossly estimated visual stimuli.

This is, in many ways, why I stopped being interested in mate choice for plumage traits—and indeed mate choice in general. I do not think I can do the work to answer my questions with this particular species. (I should add that I have grown less and less amenable to invasive forms of research). I also think many of the hypotheses out there for mate choice end up being somewhat untestable because they can never be dis-proven—they end up as tautologies and assumptions.

Anyway. The perceptual boundary between us and the birds is fairly wide—there is a big gulf in evolutionary time between humans and quail. The gulf is smaller between humans, and for example, domestic cats. But even there, though our cortices are more similar, our eyeballs are wired differently, cats do not have the same number of kinds of cones (for color perception) but tend to have more rods in general in each eyeball—giving them better vision in low light. We can sort of reconstruct what they see, but even then, what are they processing as the signals hit the brain?

The research that would have to be done to answer these questions to a small extent, is often neurobiological. I find such studies remarkably interesting, but then, again, their invasiveness bothers me—so I constantly feel a bit torn by such work. And still, we are not particularly close to looking out through their eye sockets.

So here is that space. The space between you and me, yes, and between us and them. It is a mysterious place, and it brings me back for more. It is neither dark nor light, of color nor absent of color, smell, sounds or touch. We enter it in bits, empathetically, perhaps, with a tiny spurt of understanding masked by an enormous welling up of misinterpretation. May my misinterpretation not bring harm.


Quail Diaries: Reflections on an unopened notebook

30 09 2008

Confession: I have not opened the notebook since it arrived.

This is what it looks like. It is pale—sun bleached—and crusted with the red/grey clay that is the soil in the bluffs where my quail live. I’ve brushed it off some, but I do not want to brush to hard because I am worried about taking off some of the paper with the crusted mud. There has not been much rain on it for it is preserved a bit like a body in a dry climate, desiccated but intact.

When I opened it (in San Diego), it cracked and clumps of the clay/mud fell off, along with a puff of dustier soil. I do not remember it smelling of anything but I probably sealed off my noise as I was looking at it. (I am very easily put off by smells, and the scent of human decay is something that disturbs me—I automatically close my nostrils from within so as not to breath in scent, even if there is no real scent of decay to breathe in.)

Do I believe the notebook? The first page with its large 1972? It’s map of the southwest of U. S. and northwest of Mexico, with the escape route noted (in case we need to go to Mexico). There is a strong part of me inclined to believe it is a fabrication. Although, who and why a person would have fabricated it, and then left it, with some strange sort of patience, hidden on a hill under some chaparrel, near a suitcase, scraps of clothing and shoes, hoping someone would find it someday, is hard to imagine. This story, of a fabrication, is less parsimonious an explanation than the suggestion that the notebook is a true journal, made by an older child, while he/she followed his/her parents around, waiting out the “statue of limitations.” (And there is a question, he or she—the notebook is genderless).

Why do I have trouble seeing it as this sort of “true” document?—because it is too Hollywood. It disturbs me, but that is not what keeps me from believing in it. My understanding of the world has been constructed by a middle class, relatively safe (apart from the scalpels of doctors and dangers of more verbal and emotional assaults) upbringing. The sort of active extremities of a family in hiding belong to Hollywood. I can be emotionally caught up in them, empathize with the characters and feel a residual sense of being inside the world of the film (if it is a good film, that is) even after the movie. But it is still a fiction. Despite all my attempts, I am still naive and privileged–although lately, the miasma at my back feels like hardscrabble apocalypse.

There are many reasons I have not opened it—and I hope I will crack it when we are moved, over the next few weeks, into the house we are renting during our remodel.

(Yes, we are remodeling, and my hands are cut and bruised from trying to dig up all of our plants and save them—as well as trying to move the worms and other invertebrates we find in the soil. I cannot let go. Please don’t ask me to run through what it feels like to envision the destruction of some of our yard—unkempt and wild as it is. I have not come to terms with it. The earth is a body and the worms are her friend.)

An Apocalypse of Sorts

25 09 2008

Evoke the forms. Where you’ve nothing else construct ceremonies out of the air and breathe upon them.

from The Road by Cormac McCarthy
pg. 74

You might be interested in John Oliver’s take on W.’s goals (not to be the Worst president….but to be the_____________)
The Daily Show 9/23/08


22 09 2008

Ok, so I was to open the notebook–we are in chaos here, however, with the imminent construction, the move to the rental and random cats needing to be trapped because their caretakers are idiots*.

Instead I am posting an excerpt from my present manuscript–it is Abigal’s story pasted together–in the actual manuscript these bits are scattered. But here you are in luck! They are all in one place! Wow.

To read the manuscript click: abigal

And of course, although you, my audience, is typically speechless (I assume by the brillance, or perhaps idiocy, of my postings) you are welcome to comment.

*These cats, just so you know, are not our cats, but were lost by the prior tenants in the attic of the house we will be renting. I am trapping them but am faced with the desire to keep them rather then return them to such fools who would leave their frightened kitties without water, food, or a litter box.

Stay Tuned

19 09 2008

The notebook (and coyote skull and burned bones) arrived in a box yesterday. I am going to do my level best to bring to you aspects of the notebook in the next few weeks. It scares me.

I also may present to you my present conundrum–to quail or to crow…Perhaps you can help me out.

And I may rant about the gutting of American science–how the draining of NSF and NIH have taken the heart out of science.

Fun times! Good company! Good food and Pretty hair!

Nonhuman animal representation and the banal

19 09 2008

I stumbled upon an artist’s work–his/her drawings of animals are quite skillful–but here’s the kicker: the pieces are titled things like “Light”, “Paradox”, “Leadership” and “Communication.” These titles quite changed my experience of the drawings. They pissed me off. Do you see…do you know why?

The title changes the image from something that could be an individual to something that is a generic. There are like the inspirational posters found in dentist offices

My stomach is turning and churning.

There is the utter banality and meaningless of it–the emptiness of the signified (there is none). These motivational posters and these sketches are a direct illustration of the banality of cultural and political discourse (dammit…it’s why people LOVE Sarah Palin).

So first, there is this sibling like relationship between these drawings (which I am not posting because I do not wish to be rude) and motivational posters. These are all offensive and damaging because the world does NOT need any more representations of nonhuman animals reduced to mere symbolic gestures. They incorrectly reinforce our sense of other organisms as a uniform and simple set, rather than a cluster of complex individuals (each squirrel is an individual, not a representation of “Squirrel” as a simple definable set). The more we reduce these creatures to simple human defined categories the easier it is to shift these categories to those we find useful in any context–a practice that is generally detrimental to the non-human animals involved. (e.g. This particular cat becomes a member of the group “feral cat” and in term becomes a member of the group “invasive species”–not good news for the cat, for now we are free to do what we wish without thinking about ethics or with empathy).

The drawings bother me more than motivational posters because the artist’s professes to be in spiritual exploration. This indicates the he/she believes him/herself capable of rendering some form of truth beyond the “worldly” (for want of a better term). Like so many people that profess to be spiritual voyagers, the loss of any respect for the concrete starts to devalue (in my opinion) any suggestion that these people are on a true spiritual path. Also, so often they talk about nature as this benign healing influence, these creatures as acting embodiments of this spiritual path, and this a) misses the violence and suffering, and in missing this, misses the moments of grace (they are there..in the baby bear clinging to it’s mother, who was shot by hunters last week. Grace in the grieving of the baby bear who is now at PAWS being treated for dehydration, near starvation and lethargy. OK so the argument might be that this is not Nature with a capital N–you know what, that nature does not really exist.)

It is interesting to me that this artist also has images of women with titles like “Ecstasy” and “Seduction.” Hmmm, what do you think of that?

Aphid, Radish, Parasitoid (Interlude)

18 09 2008

A description of a newly released paper in science reads:

In an ecosystem comprising a parasite, an aphid, and a radish, the use of different resources by each species, not species diversity per se, increases overall consumption.

I think that is quite a wonderful description. An image of a radish, with a single aphid and a single parasite, comes to mind, the radish being bright red (this is how I think of radishes) and the aphid white, and parasitoid a tiny buzzing thing.

All of this is, of course, my own stereotyping of the brief description of the paper: Niche Partitioning Increases Resource Exploitation by Diverse Communities/ Deborah L. Finke and William E. Snyder. Science 12 September 2008: 1488-1490. The paper itself is a report on a very interesting test of a central question in ecology and conservation biology: What makes a community of organisms diverse? The paper both supports some classical ecology models and reinforces some recent postulations. Yes, my notice was drawn by an emotional response to a descriptive image, BUT I do recommend the paper itself and attach it:here.