concept to publication

Category: nature

La Vie en Rose

"La Vie en Rose" was named a notable essay of 2019 in Best American Essays 2019, edited by Rebecca Solnit.

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.


One morning in 2016, keepers at the National Aquarium of New Zealand arrived at work to discover the institution’s inventory of octopuses unexpectedly halved. Mild-mannered Blotchy remained in his tank, his expression revealing nothing. But Inky, his bold erstwhile companion, was nowhere to be seen. 

Sometime during the night, it turned out, Inky had worked his way through a small opening at the top of the tank where a cap plate had been set slightly ajar. From there he had descended to the floor and suckered his way eight feet across it, trailing a tell-tale drippy track. At that point he slid through a six-inch-diameter, 160-foot-long drainpipe — he could probably hear water noises through it — and plopped into Hawkes Bay, an arm of the vast South Pacific. Whether resentful of his imprisonment or simply curious and adventurous, Inky had returned to the sea. He was free!

It’s hard not to see some sort of intentionality in Inky’s great escape, a crafty octopean consciousness at work. But René Descartes would have been unconvinced. According to Descartes, only humans possess the nonmaterial mind that he called the res cogitans (the realm of thought). Inky, he would have said, possesses merely corporeal materiality, so his behavior must somehow have occurred within what Descartes called the res extensa, the realm of noncognitive substantiality. Cogito ergo sum, Descartes said — one of philosophy’s most famous, and most self-centered, phrases. And something of a fallacious, or at least presumptive, one: what exactly is this “I” that he posits from the presence of thought? Descartes thought, so he thought he was somebody. He did not believe creatures such as Inky could claim the same. 

But in 2012 a group of scientists publicly took issue with Descartes. The occasion was the Francis Crick Memorial Conference in Cambridge, England, focusing on “Consciousness in Humans and Non-Human Animals.” It assembled, in the words of the Declaration on Consciousness that it produced in a public signing witnessed by Stephen Hawking, “a prominent international group of cognitive neuroscientists, neuropharmacologists, neurophysiologists, neuroanatomists and computational neuroscientists.” The scientists found that by stimulating parts of animal brains, even without a neocortex (the most recently evolved part of the human brain, associated with the senses), they produced behaviors consistent with similar effects associated with emotions in humans. 


atelopus frog

Isn’t this a fine-looking fellow? He’s Atelopus, a newly discovered species of fluorescent psychedelic frog, found in Suriname. (Suriname, formerly Dutch Guiana, is north of Brazil on the Atlantic coast.) This is one of two dozen new species identified by researchers in that country. Caribbean Net News has the full story (but I got it via Book of Joe).

Alameda Manzanita on Sobrante Ridge

alameda manzanitaSobrante Ridge Regional Botanic Preserve, on the site of a former cattle ranch, occupies a space more or less surrounded by the suburban East Bay community of El Sobrante. I wonder how many El Sobranteans are aware that this preserve houses a beautiful rare and endangered manzanita, only found in one other location.

Bay Area biomes

Land's End, San FranciscoI’ve completed a brief survey of Bay Area plant communities over at Frisco Vista.

The Bay Area topic suits me because I’ve accumulated a bunch of photos from around the bay over the years.

Zooming in on a snowflake

I don’t have much to say about this, except it’s, well, cool.

Rampaging Sea Lions

sea lion (via

What’s making the sea lions cranky? Frisco Vista, a new site devoted to San Francisco travel (what they’re building is so new they’re still working on the foundation) is asking that question.

More Bad Ministration

So the Bushies appointed a guy who doesn’t believe in family planning to be head of the agency in charge of family planning.

Well, what’s new, the outgoing Chairman of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works (James Inhofe, OK), says we don’t have to worry about global warming, and isn’t that a relief?

Why not? Because “God’s still up there.” (And I guess Inhofe’s message is that he’s still on the side of the fat cats and big oil guys.)

Transcript and video at Think Progress, which concludes “Despite Inhofe’s repeated efforts to muddy the picture, there is no real scientific debate over whether global warming is manmade or naturally caused.”

Ecobungling, 19th century style

Indian Mongoose on Oahu

This handsome fellow is an Indian Mongoose (called manakuke in Hawaiian). Seventy-two mongooses were introduced into Hawaii in 1872 in an effort to control rats that had arrived in the islands as a side effect of the sugar cane industry. The rats, like many newcomers to the islands, found Hawaii to their liking, and they began to eat seriously into the profits of the cane magnates. So why not bring in a few mongooses, which are known to eat rats? Well, for one thing, mongooses are diurnal and rats are nocturnal. So while the occasional rat bit the dust, the mongooses didn’t really have much effect on the population as a whole.

A big problem with the introduction of rats on the island is that they eat birds’ eggs, and that has damaged the islands’ unique, diverse, and bountiful but fragile (given new forms of predation) bird population. Unfortunately, the mongooses like eggs even better than they like rats, and eggs don’t fight back. So now the birds’ eggs are literally under attack day and night.

In African and India there is a variety of predators that help keep mongooses in check, mainly raptors such as eagles as well as land predators such as jackals and cheetahs. In Hawaii there is no predator to keep the mongooses in check. A male mongoose can father offspring within four months of its birth, and females produce litters of two to five pups.

All in all a recipe for things getting out of control, and in our short time here we saw many of these critters (and a few wild pigs as well, another introduced species causing problems).

It was difficult to get a picture, because mongooses don’t like being exposed in the open. They are extremely quick (and clever), and they are usually seen scurrying from the cover of one bush to another.

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