Sunday, August 28, 2011

Polar Bears, God, and Evolution

can evolution save the polar bear?

There have been recent reports of polar bears hybridizing with grizzly bears: is this a good thing?  Normally the two never meet.  Though it's easy to think of places like Alaska as being just "north," in actuality the habitats are more subtle than that.  More or less everywhere in Alaska on the main "land" part of the state (forest, rivers, mountains, and open tundra), the grizzly bear survives.  Some eat a lot of salmon, some are more vegetarian, but they are found widely and the eat just about everything, from mice to garbage to human beings.

The polar bear lives in Alaska but off the coast, on the sea ice or along the beaches.

Most of us have probably just seen a polar bear stuffed, usually in a museum (though the airport in Anchorage has a dandy one, and my wife says that the White King casino in Elko, Nevada, purports to have the largest record in the world on display).  Here is one from the San Diego Museum of Natural History.

The Los Angeles Zoo always had polar bears on display when I was growing up, though I learned later that they had to use bleach to keep the fur from going green with mold.  Here is a recent shot from the San Diego Zoo, with a bear chomping on his morning "enrichment": a treat of carrots, which I assume have the snap, crackle, pop of seal bones.

Their usual diet though is meat, and lots of it, sometimes in the form of a dead whale but usually from seals.  Part of a polar bear's daily intake is indicated by this fridge full of fiberglass meat, also at the San Diego Zoo.

As the reality of global warming begins to show its effect (and please note, I am not saying anything controversial, such as the fact that I drove to work today caused global warming; I merely saying that in the Arctic, ice sheets and glaciers are melting: I have seen it first hand), polar bears won't be able to hunt seals. 

What next?  Can they learn from grizzly bears, switch over to tundra food like mushrooms or voles or dead caribou?  One one hand, it seems plausible.  If we look at the skulls, we can see how close these two species are.

(This display also is in the San Diego Natural History Museum.  AVC biologist Cal Yorke joins Hood in praising the quality of their exhibits, even as we note that some of the best best exhibits of all are in Chicago, at the Field Museum, in New York City, and in London, at their Natural History Museum in Kensington, across from the Victoria & Albert Museum.)

That explains how the two species have come to hybridize recently.  One estimate that I have heard is that they diverged as species in just the past 500,000 years or so.

Several related questions tie in with this.  Is their extinction inevitable, and if so, would cross-breeding with grizzly bears help prevent that, where does God fit in with extinction, and, last, if humans are directly or indirectly responsible for extinction, should we feel badly about that fact?

To start with these in reverse order, I do want to debunk one myth.  That is the notion that indigenous North American people (the Inuit, for example, in the far north, and other First Nation inhabitants continent-wide) are somehow more spiritually attuned to the natural world.  Certainly, they CAN be: I would like to think that anybody can become attuned to anything, from an exquisitely rendered violin concerto to the song of the Western Meadowlark to the sound of a car engine that needs a tune-up.  But in terms of the relationship to nature, humans today have a variety of complex contact points, ranging from those who think it all should be bulldozed in order to make way for more Wal-Mart parking, on over to the tree-huggers who wear hemp and don't think introduced goats should be removed from offshore islands where they are decimating native plants. 

If people rely on nature directly, they are obligated to be aware of it.  Broadly speaking, the Eskimos do have 100 words for snow.  (Well, for snow and ice and related weather.)  Yet as anybody's direct dependence changes, so to does their culture and their awareness.  My grandmother was born in Sweden, but that does not mean I know how to speak Swedish.  So too, a current-day Inuit may have identical skills and values to their sealskin-kayak-building ancestors from a hundred years ago, but then again, they may not.  It is not inevitable.  When I did stay with an Eskimo family a few years ago on an island in between Nome and Siberia, here is what was in their entry space by the front door.

This is hard to see (my photographic skills have gotten better recently) but is a broken outboard motor and an uncured polar bear hide, stiff and useless, both tossed aside in their front porch area.  They had shot a polar bear earlier in the season but had not salvaged the skin properly, and now it was beyond salvaging.  This is neither good nor bad, it is just a fact.  A polar bear was shot, and they opted not to do anything more, after skinning it.  (Any animal skin needs to be cured or prepared, if it's not to rot or become too stiff to work.)  Being of a particular race or culture does not inherently make one at tuned with nature.

The same people in this village used to hunt whales from kayaks.  Here is a picture I did not take.

I bought this in Anchorage and it's undated; from context, I would guess c 1960.  (This is from Stewart Photo, in Anchorage, who retain copyright.)  Killing an animal for food or clothing or even as an initiation rite seems to me a different interaction with nature than killing things because (armed with a rifle and a snowmobile) you just can.  The Inuit may be able to help us understand how to manage our resources in Alaska and elsewhere, but they, too, may have moved past direct reverence.  Maybe we are all "post-natural" now.

To explore this issue, this past summer I went to the Norwegian Arctic to see polar bears for myself.  My wife and I joined 18 others and 5 crew on this historic ship, the Noorderlicht ("Northern Lights").

It has an iron hull and a shallow draft, and we could explore islands and fjords inaccessible to other expedition ships, including ones being run this summer by National Geographic.  We saw 14 bears alive, and one dead one, about which more later.  Some of the yearling cubs had no idea what we were, and would come over and try to puzzle us out, like this fellow, below.

What is happening is that as the temperature of the planet changes, the thickness and the location of pack ice changes, and in turn (to oversimplify) the polar bears swim around for hundreds of miles, unable to find thick enough ice to support them and the seals they eat.  Bottom line?  They starve.  This is happening now.  I saw polar bears eating grass, I saw polar bears eating seaweed, I saw polar bears swimming in futile circles after eider ducks, trying to catch the chicks.  They were desperately hungry.

Here is what a dead polar bear looks like.  This is not a zoo, this is not Photoshop, this is just direct reality.

So what can the bears do?  If they co-mingle with grizzly bears, will that solve everything?

I wish it would, but what they need can't be replaced so easily.  You need to have paws a certain size in order to walk on snow.  You need to have a body a certain minimum size in order to have a surface-to-bulk ratio that is efficient in cold weather.  These things can't be slimmed down.  Polar bears are larger, on average, than grizzly bears, and those in turn are larger than the more southerly bears, the ones we have in Angeles Crest, the black bears.  A gazelle is slim and fast and can live on relatively small plants, but it can't survive a prolonged blizzard.  Polar bears are the size they are and the color they are for incontrovertible  ecological reasons.

I am not suggesting that we know all the facts about how weather works or what drives climate.  Nor am I suggesting that the most recent episode couldn't be a normal swing (though evidence implicates modern man fairly damningly).  But the fact is, animal distribution and the mix of what lives, what does not come back next season will change, whether we want it to or not.

Some think this may be God's will in action.  I want to know how that can fit in, then, with the concept of stewardship that so many Christian leaders and thinkers find as part of our moral obligations.  Others think that there is no such thing as evolution, because it's not directly explained by the narratives of the Bible.  One of the AVC biologists, Dr. Matt Rainbow, has thought very profoundly about this, and certainly, he is just this side of being a full theological scholar.  He knows his Bible (and his Bible scholarship) very very well.  He has a way of helping us (on the one hand) understand evolution in all its molecular complexity, while (on the other hand) still retaining room in a rigorous scientific model for a God who initiated it all.  I will not summarize all of his work here, and especially not so briefly, other than to encourage you, if this fascinates you, to talk to him during his office hours.

We have a grizzly bear on the California state flag, but now they are extirpated, which is to say, extinct here (though surviving elsewhere, such as Yellowstone National Park).  If we were to go back in time a few hundred years, the Antelope Valley would have had, yes, antelope (the species called pronghorn), and also complex grass communities that no longer exist, surface pools of water, condors, and, yes, grizzly bears.  Is it better to have Claim Jumper and dollar stores?  Maybe not better or worse, just different, but that too has implications for the future.

On the long-term scale, polar bears can evolve into something different--perhaps a kind of whale bear, able to breath through the top of its head, competing with the orca for seals and salmon schools.  But on the short term scale, their genetic dispersal through the half-grizzly hybrid scheme is bound to fail.

We will have icebergs and the northern lights, either way.  What kinds of things we want to be stewards of, from polar bears to gazelles to whales to fields of poppies, depends on the decisions we make today, on the futures we imagine, on the possibilities we inhabit.  The choice is ours.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Windows (the glass kind, not the computer kind), and why we like to look out of them so much

I used to live at the beach, but the way poor people do, not rich people.  If a rich person says that he or she lives at the beach, we picture something fronting the sea, with a wide view over the waves and sand.  When I taught at UC Irvine, off and on for five years I lived at the beach.  Depending on the state of the tide, at any given moment my back door might be within 200 yards of prime breaking surf.  Of course the thing is, my house was on the alley just BEHIND the houses that looked at over the beach itself.  I could see an itty bitty sliver of ocean through my bathroom window if I looked west through the alley and then over the fence of the rich person's house that really was on the beach.  I just lived near the beach, not at the beach.

It is the window and its view that makes the difference.  In the case of Newport Beach, about two million dollars of difference.

I was thinking about this because English teacher Santi Tafarella recently gave me a book.  There's a term in art history, "vernacular photography," which is the sixty cent way of saying "snapshots that us regular folks take."  His book is a celebration of an imaginary 24 hour day all around the world, made up of photographs taken by blog contributors.  Each shot is a view out a window, with the time of day indicated.

Some views are scenic, some are bleak, some are quirky.  It made me think about our relationship to windows, and to the kinds of photographs we take from them.

During a visit to England this summer, a friend of a friend loaned us a beach house in Suffolk.  Here is the view of the house from their front yard.

The view from the ground floor just looked back out into the garden.

From the upstairs, however, if we stood just right and used binoculars, there was an entire seascape that one could watch.  Here's the view (except I took it from outside the house, where I was when this delightful ship passed).  What can I say?  It is nice to have rich friends...or more exactly, at least to have friends who themselves have rich friends.  Clearly, the owners of this house live AT the beach.

Looking out the window and wanting to capture the view is not just something achieved recently.  True, in the past, actual glass was expensive to make (and in Tudor England, heavily taxed), so one might even take one's windows with one if going from the town house to the country house.  Later the invention of plate glass allowed for multistory apartments and factories to be built; you needed a lot of cheap glass to make a modern city, from the mid-19th century onwards.

Artists have wanted to paint the scene from their window perhaps going all the way back to cave art.  A recent survey at the Met in New York focused on that.  Their exhibit catalog (from which the next two images come) is called in a nod to an EM Forster novel Rooms with a View: The Open Window in the 19th Century.

This charming piece is a bit like a Zen poem, in that it takes you outside slowly, and in ever-widening circles.  It was done by the German Romantic, Caspar David Friedrich, and it dates from 1822.  The title is minimal: just Woman at the Window.  I first saw it in Berlin, many years ago, though it also has been displayed here in Los Angeles.  What one sees better in person than in a book (or a blog) is the mast of the ship, just right of the midline, as the boat moves into view.  That makes us think about the rest of the ship, the part we cannot see, and also the motion of its slow, stately passage through a canal.  And that in turn lets us thinking about where it has been and where it is going: a dynamic "through axis" for what initially seems to be a quiet, domestic scene.  Scholars believe that the woman is the painter's young wife, so he may have had many thoughts as he looked at her, at their new house, and at the passing maritime commerce.

Another interesting window view that seems just as good as a photograph or maybe even better is this one, also from the same exhibition.

This time we are in Rome, not Northern Europe, and Achille-Etna Michallon, a French scholarship student, reveals what he could see from his studio window.  This is pencil on ivory-colored paper (it has darkened a bit, over the years), and can't you just admire the heck out of his draftsmanship?  This artist died in his twenties (from pneumonia, apparently), so that's why you do not know his name.

I can't pass a sexy window without grabbing my camera.  I wish I could draw as well as the people in the Met's book, but for me, I use Fujichrome and other tools.  Here is a scanned slide from a hotel in a national park in Patagonia.  I never did find out who the horse belonged to.

Another time I was blessed with a view outside of my usual income bracket was on a whale watching survey in the Maldives.  Through the luck of the draw, on this two week trip I got put into the deluxe cabin.  Each day, as the anchor came up and I looked out from the bed to watch for dolphins, here was the kind of view I had:

Not all ships that I have been on have been this nice.  In a recent trip to the Norwegian Arctic, we had more rain than snow.  (Thanks to global warming, I suppose.)  We were further north than the topmost part of Alaska by many hundreds of miles, but instead of snow, here was the view.  This is not from my cabin, which was a dank little cell below decks, but from the common room.

Oh well.  Not every trip is a dream trip, and at least we saw fourteen polar bears.

This college has a study abroad program, sending AVC students and faculty to London and to Salamanca, Spain.  Last fall I was one of the lucky (the VERY lucky) winners to teach in London.  Student housing is arranged through the program with either home-stay family hosts or in shared apartments.  Faculty made their own rental arrangements.  Here was the view from my kitchen.

It certainly made dong the dishes pleasant, except later in winter, when it got dark at 4:30.  London's fireworks holiday is not in the summer as our Independence Day is, but is in fall, on Guy Fawkes Day.  He was the foiled terrorist associated with the Gunpowder Plot, made famous to Americans by the 2006 movie V for Vendetta.  (Those masks, from that movie, appeared in San Francisco recently, as a reaction to BART shutting off cell phone access to protestors.)  The name is also in the Harry Potter books, as the name of a phoenix, a creature that rises from its own ashes.  Here are my neighbors really going at it for Bonfire Night (as Guy Fawkes Days is also called).  I shot this from the same kitchen window.

It is probably a bit less hazardous than it looks since this being England, all the shrubbery is utterly saturated by the daily rain.

In looking through the book of window views that Santi gave me and this art catalog of the windows in paintings, it has made me want to open my own house up.  Right now the curtains are closed against the glare, but I think it's time to let some of that acetylene AV light come flooding in.

Yes, certainly.  There is just one thing I need to do first ... first I should get the Windex and make it so at least I can see out.

Better get going!

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Missing Portion of the Internet Found

Mysteries Solved: Blog Resumes

In the odd way that these things work: the AVC blog has been being written and posted, complete with pictures, yet depending on one's browser, the posted posts were not posting for some people.  Yet to the AVC webmaster (Stephen Burns) and to the Blog blabber (Charles Hood), things looked fine.  It all depended on which way you came into the maze.

Alerted to the problem, we sent a team of technicians, shaman apprentices, and highly trained robots down into the catacombs to prowl all of the World Wide Web, searching for leaks in the Matrix.  After hours and hours of searching, followed by months of careful analysis, we have found the broken part of the Internet.  Here is a picture of the disconnected section.

We then used special underwater welding torches to mend the broken links.  All of the AVC blog posts, going back to Antarctica, should all now be reformatted and relaunched.

We apologize for the delays and hope now we have a permanent work-around in place.  We also hope to get back onto a regular schedule.  Thank you for your patience so far.  Upcoming topics will investigate windows, Vermeer, old cars, horses, why Santi Tafarella has gotten a million hits, and the tense relationship of cameras and art museums.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Tim Burton at LACMA

Hollywood comes to an Art Museum

Most major US art museums now try to book a blockbuster show once or twice a year, something with a themed subject that requires a special ticket and a long entrance line. They increase membership that way, gain branding identity, and (they all hope) make a killing in related merchandizing.

Safe-bet topics for a blockbuster show are Vincent van Gogh, King Tut, or anything having to do with mainstream French Impressionism. Once in a while you can risk a slight deviation, such as the Tate’s interesting and provocative show on Victorian Nudes, or LACMA’s amazing retrospective about the photographer Diane Arbus. In general though, stay safe. When Impressionism museums like the Orsay in Paris go through a partial shut down in order to remodel, they can farm out their premier collections in a series of traveling shows that delight museum directors around the world. They get a hefty rental fee and the hosting US museums get a summer blockbuster that draws in a million people.

Alas, the Orsay now is finished and in Cairo they’re burning mummies for firewood, so what’s a museum to do? Easy. Turn to something even more popular than art: the movies.

So this summer the “Big Show” at Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) is not about a painter, not about a pharaoh, but features somebody with even more cultural capital than Napoleon himself: director Tim Burton.

To be sure, this is a popular show. I picked what I hoped would be a slack time (4 pm on a Friday) and it was still jam-packed. For company I had AVC writer and adjunct teacher Nicelle Davis, AVC artist and teacher Christine Mugnolo, and CSU student Abbey Fitting. We all admire his movies to a greater or lesser extent (the earlier ones like Edward Scissorhands more so than the mis-edited and self-indulgent Alice in Wonderland), but we all agreed that the show felt too much like pandering. LACMA can’t really be taking all of these plastic models and costume sketches seriously, can they? They just are trying to draw in big crowds. (And it seems to be working.)

If you have an interest in his working process, you can get a brief taste of that here, since there are sketchbooks and early home movies. And if you just want to see all things Burtonesque, there are enough corpse brides and carnivalesque fat men to delight you for hours. But is it art? That seems not even to be part of the discussion, though I wish that it were. What is the relationship between an idea and its execution? Some of the objects on display (a costume, say) Mr. Burton certainly did not make. True, great painters of the past had their own workshop assistants, and even Ansel Adams, at career’s end, did not do his own darkroom work. But let’s let that be part of the discussion, then: who gets the credit for making the art if it’s one person’s idea and another person’s labor?

This model looks like a Tim Burton kind of thing, yet somebody else made it. Who’s the artist here?

Critics have savaged this show by the way. From a website run by LA Weekly, let me summarize things said in the LA Times. This is from earlier this summer.

A jet-lagged Tim Burton hit Los Angeles this weekend and Los Angeles hit back — well, more precisely, the art critic for the Los Angeles Times hit back with a brutal review of the huge new exhibit at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art that is titled, simply,”Tim Burton.” Critic Christopher Knight essentially gave the exhibit a review so harsh that it might even have made the ever-optimistic Ed Wood cringe.

Knight wrote: “Tim Burton,” the big, poorly organized traveling show from New York’s Museum of Modern Art that surveys the genesis and development of the Hollywood director’s distinctive visual style, opened Sunday at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. It should be effervescent. Instead, the show is a monotonous plod.” The critic also weighed in on the exhibit’s propensity for props: “In an art museum, do we really need to see baby Penguin’s black-wicker pram from “Batman,” Catwoman’s shredded polyurethane cat suit or the fluffy angora sweater used as a fetishistic prop in “Ed Wood“? Such dark or peculiar items are often outward signs of their character’s concealed inner life; but that’s catalog essay interpretation, not exhibition material. You get the feeling they’re only here to satisfy the paying movie fans. Sometimes the display looks like the Arclight Cinema lobby on steroids. Toss in assorted puppets and a few toy-like sculptures, such as a suspended flying-saucer carousel illuminated by black-lights, and the quotient of celebrity self-indulgence climbs.”

Meanwhile, across the entrance hall from the Burton show is a second show in the same building: Gifts of the Sultan—the Art of Giving at the Islamic Courts.

On the day I visited, it had 5% of the attendance of the Burton show, yet was actually more marvelous—marvelous in the original meaning of producing wonder and awe. One could marvel at the jeweled swords or the gorgeous gilded holy texts, or be surprised by the saturated color of this horse and groom:

This book page dates from 1530 and uses colors similar to this illustration by Tim Burton, featured on the back cover of the exhibition catalogue:

Of the two, I like the horse better: it has a powerful grace and dignity, and yet still packs a wallup graphically. Burton like many cartoonists prone to exaggeration and a quick sugar rush, but once that fades, there’s not much content here: I don’t really understand much about hidden desires or the sources of nightmares or even the role of women in the 21st century. I like the use of color and design, certainly, but it’s not very profound.

Maybe it doesn’t need to be. Like a lot of kids in my generation, I grew up with Twinkies and Ding-Dongs. There were no hand-crafted organic brownies in my Fess Parker lunch box. (If I am fat now it’s my own fault, not Hostess’s.) Is it okay to like the quick and the easy, things like Tim Burton, who is certainly the Twinkie of visual culture? One of the great things about a Ding-Dong in my lunch was that I could wad the aluminum foil wrapper up into a ball and throw it at girls. Try that with Tim Burton’s blue zombie woman and she’s likely to zap you back with her death-ray bosom.

In the end, what is most surprising and most strange is not in the Burton show, but across the hall in the Sultan’s show.

I will end with a not-so-rhetorical question. Look at the final two images in this blog post. Which of these two images is, ultimately, more strange, more threatening? The painting of a man who could have you put to death . . . or the Disney-friendly Skeleton Jack? If you’re unsure, go see both shows and decide for yourself.