Author Archives: Carla

Breed, I say, breed!

Some light-hearted – yet also troubling? – news from the Associated Press: endangered Chinese pandas are on loan to Australia, and both states are urging them to make babies. Verbally urging. In speeches. Surely this is a no-fail solution, right?

Advertisements

The truth about cats and dogs?

Apropos of what we’ll be discussing for much of next week, this episode of PBS’ Nature series discusses the relationship between humans and our classic domesticated pets – cats and dogs. Through expert interviews, a visit to a Humane Society shelter, and owner-bios reminiscent of the famous couple scenes from When Harry Met Sally, the show seeks to explain – or at least explore – the bonds between pets and their humans.

It’s easy to get indignant about humans domestication of certain animals – we’re asserting our dominance! we’re pretending we rule the globe! we’re stripping them of their natural wild natures! – it’s also important to remember that we evolved alongside our domesticated animals, both pet and pastoral, and through this coevolution we all have become different creatures. Marc Bekoff, a former Guggenheim fellow and Professor Emeritus of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at UC Boulder who is interviewed extensively in the episode, explains that these bonds of coevolution are strengthened by the presence of mirror neurons in both humans and common pets – that is, dogs and cats. Mirror neurons are what enable us to feel the emotions of another creature, be they of our species or another. As Bekoff puts it, they are “the neural basis for empathy…[required] for the formulation and maintenance of social bonds.” In other words, that prize human emotion – the one that leads to self-awareness, to social structure, to emotional relationships – is, in fact, not human at all.

Now, I’m not saying we shouldn’t point out the often elitist – or at least excessively moral – human paradigm that we, as a species, tend to impose on the rest of the planet’s animals. And it’s important to note that these animals are not human – they are close to us, but they are not, and never will be the same as us. As one of the dog owners interviewed in the opening sequence says, “they’re another tribe…and what I really love about dogs and cats is that they’re not like us.”

So watch the documentary. Though be warned, it might bring you to tears –I know it did me – the kind of hot, messy, gut-wrenching tears that we seem to save for the inevitable goodbyes to our pets.

Faux Fir and Other Unlikely Trees

Though our conversations have been steadily moving toward deeper, more conceptual, and ultimately far more significant topics – prejudice and racism, sex and sexuality, nature v. nurture – as much they should, it’s nice to occasionally add a little whimsy back into the mix.

Christoph Niemann is an award winning artist and graphic designer, as well as the author of several children’s books. His illustrations appear regularly in  The New Yorker (frequently on the cover) as well as in Wired and, of course, his New York Times blog.

Personally I love the Boxwood and Briefs (since we seem to be on a slight undergarment kick).

Alright, now back to the serious stuff!

Into the woods and out of the woods and home before dark.

Saturday night, nearing ten, I pressed my way through the cackling, calling crowd, into the courtyard behind Florence Moore auditorium, narrowly avoiding a wolf, his arms-outstretched, his head tilted back to the large yellow moon. Instead, I walked right into a prince. Apologizing and straightening my shirt, I pushed onward, finally reaching the comforting dark beyond the crush of people. I waved absently to my companions and set off alone. My mind was atwitter. Though I walked into nothing but concrete and asphalt, my thoughts were with the woods.

Stephen Sondheim’s ode to Grimms’ classics debuted in 1986 and opened on Broadway the following year. I’m a product of that same era, and Into the Woods played a pivotal role in my early childhood (together with Gypsy and Les Mis – my other foundational texts – this may explain more than I’d like about my personality). I was always slightly afraid of Into the Woods, in a way that was only matched, in those early years, by Disney’s Dumbo. And yet I watched it again and again – often stopping before the end, postponing the inevitable demise of the Baker’s Wife beneath the galumphing foot of the giant, but always starting again. The words to the title tune are burned on my brain.

Saturday night, as I marched my way back to the parking lot, shawl wrapped tightly about my shoulders, keys cold in my hand, I tried to piece my childhood fright together. What is it about the woods?

Sondheim’s woods are a place of abandon, of freedom and of violation. Social roles and societal rules don’t hold in the woods; the dicta of civilization can’t permeate the trees. At first, the woods are simply about sex – and violent sex at that. Both violence and fornication remain into the second act, but they are joined, in the woods, by forbidden friendships, gender equality, infidelity of all stripes, and, of course, mysterious, sooth-saying men.

The rub, of course, is that the woods is where innocence goes to die. But to simply say that woods = maturation is reductive – a poor simplification of a fairly complex work. The woods aren’t meant as a metaphor for growing up, the final goodbye to innocent childhood. Rather, they call for the end of parental naivety.

The woods are where adults are forced to confront themselves and, more importantly, their illusions of control. The few children in the story – Little Red Riding Hood and Jack of beanstalk fame – change little from curtain to curtain, though one could easily argue they have the most done to them in the course of the play. It’s the adults who bear the brunt of character development and it’s the woods that push them to it. The witch bemoans and then accepts, at last, her lack of power, relinquishing first her magic and then, just before the curtain falls, her now-departed daughter. Cinderella abandons her lush dreams for a happier, and more faithfully mundane, reality. The Baker’s Wife, before she meets her tragic end, stops micro-managing, embraces her desires and her sexuality, and gets down with a (married) member of the royal family. (The fact that the lovely lady dies promptly after said coitus is a whole other can of worms, ripe for somewhat indignant and feminist discussion, but I’ll leave it aside for now.)

The only adult who doesn’t give up control in some capacity is the Baker and that’s, well, because he never had any. Like the children, his life was ruled by outside forces – spells and societal norms – and it is in the woods that he is able to shake off these binds and construct his own happiness. Single (and adoptive) fatherhood, perhaps an eventual tryst with the former princess, perhaps a reconstructed business in the village, maybe even a side-venture – the witch is surely to have left her garden for good. Or maybe, he’ll opt to stay in the woods.

Close to home, a debate on what, exactly, are the aims of preservation

Point Reyes oysters are as famed an institution as the verdant peninsula’s happy cows and incongruous elk, but the succulent bivalves might soon become a thing of legend, at least as far as human palates are concerned. The question is raised: are National Parks meant to prevent the imprint of humans on choice bits of nature or is the goal one of harmonious interaction? The debate, of course, is nothing new; , there has been a sharp divide between the conservationists and the preservationists – those that would see nature safeguarded and efficiently used and those that would see it entirely free from the print of humanity – since the first federal act safeguarded a small patch of wilderness.

These are the issues which pit the spiritual mountain girl against the foodie within me. But, in the end, I think I come down the side of the conservationists – Teddy, I’m with ya. Perhaps this is purely species-ist of me; I might just be siding with my kind. But, if I’m honest, it’s because the places that I find truly beautiful are those that are impossible to use for any sane human purpose. The top of Mt. Dana isn’t suitable for human industry, neither is the plain of jumbo rocks in the heart of Joshua Tree. In the end, if conservation was the universal watchword and sustainable methods of farming, irrigation, ranching, and slaughter were used, there would be more open, untouched land to go around. And the land used for industry wouldn’t look – or be – too bad either.

Theme song anyone?

Nothing like a little questioning of the natural world with your indie.

[via Corner of 2nd and Guerrero]

“A Bambi For the 90’s, Via Shakespeare”

NYT