November 2022 books read

  • Job: A Comedy of Justice – Robert Heinlein, 1984. Multiple re-read, one that I shared with my father (both fascinated by eschatology). I keep forgetting that this is much better than most late Heinlein. It combines the angst and love of a couple trying not to be separated from The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag with the mutiple universes of The Mark of the Beast, and includes a depiction of Heaven as a colossal bureaucracy directly inspired from:
  • An Extract from Captain Stormfield’s Visit to Heaven – Mark Twain, 1909. Re-read because of Job – always delightful. “As many as sixty thousand people arrive here every single day, that want to run straight to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and hug them and weep on them.  Now mind you, sixty thousand a day is a pretty heavy contract for those old people.  If they were a mind to allow it, they wouldn’t ever have anything to do, year in and year out, but stand up and be hugged and wept on thirty-two hours in the twenty-four.  They would be tired out and as wet as muskrats all the time.”
  • Die with Zero: Getting All You Can from Your Money and Your Life – Bill Perkins, 2020. I have very mixed feelings about this book – on the one hand, it’s a thought-provoking look at the timeline considerations of paying for experiences (you have to be young enough to enjoy them), and it’s good for ants to get a taste of the grasshopper virtues. But it’s a terrible book for grasshoppers because he discounts the uncertainties of both investing and aging, stating that you can plot a smooth curve of how to spend and give away everything before you die.
  • Career of Evil – Robert Galbraith, 2015. When I read #5 last month I though I was caught up with the series, but I subsequently realized I had missed this one, #3. It’s very dark… and quite tedious. So I went back to re-read:
  • The Cuckoo’s Calling – Robert Galbraith, 2013. … and this one, which I remember very much enjoying the first time around, has shrunk on me significantly. It’s not because my opinion of JK Rowling as a person has plunged (which it has), since typically the author’s character doesn’t much affect my liking for their work – but I do think the thoughtful critical assessments of her work itself I’ve read have sunk in and cumulatively taken most of the shine off.
  • The Novel of the Century: The Extraordinary Adventure of Les Misérables – David Bellos, 2017. A wonderful companion to Les Mis, recommended by the leader of our slow read book group. During the months we spent reading the novel, we speculated about how Hugo could have kept all the threads straight – that’s one question this book didn’t answer, but it shed light on many other challenges of writing and publication.
  • Winter – Ali Smith, 2017.
  • A Natural History of the Future: What the Laws of Biology Tell Us about the Destiny of the Human Species – Rob Dunn, 2021.
  • The Great Impersonation – E. Phillips Oppenheim, 1920. This is one of the classics referenced in Thrillers: 100 Must-Reads. It’s quite strange; I enjoyed it but kept expecting it to go in a different direction, so I didn’t predict the big twist which I easily could have seen coming. A lot of suspension of disbelief required!
  • Everything I’m Cracked Up to Be: A Rock and Roll Fairy Tale – Jennifer Trynin, 2006. Our friend who reads all the rock bios recommended this, and another mutual friend has a cameo. Trynin writes well. I had never heard of her and didn’t become a fan of her music, although she’s one of the most rock-star-looking people I’ve ever seen! Her journey from unknown, to a bidding war between every big label in the early ’90s, back to unknown, was interesting, but the book didn’t grab me. I can’t quite put my finger on why. Reading this great review (which I found searching for an example rock-star-look photo) makes me want to try it again someday, but realistically my TBR list will always be too long.
  • A Christmas Carol – Charles Dickens, 1843. My annual re-read, but the Amherst College group is discussing it in December, so I might go again!
  • The Magic Mountain – Thomas Mann, 1924.
  • The Grey King – Susan Cooper, 1975. Read for Annabookbel’s #TDiRS22.
  • Mad World: An Oral History of New Wave Artists and Songs That Defined the 1980s – Lori Majewski and Jonathan Bernstein, 2014. This is my prime teen/young adult listening and still stuff I love, so I really enjoyed this book. Lots of variation in how the artists today think about their early work! My favorite bit was the “Mixtape” sidebar in each chapter, focusing on similar songs to the chapter’s topic, like “5 More Melodramatic Songs About Heartbreak” for “Poison Arrow,” “5 More End-of-the-Seventies Songs That Pointed the Way to the Eighties” for “Being Boiled.” Some of the mixtape songs are quite obscure, so I’ll listen my way through at some point!
  • Citizen of the Galaxy – Robert Heinlein, 1957. Comfort re-read of one of my very favorite Heinleins. It starts as an homage to Kipling’s Kim, continues with a character based on Margaret Mead, and culminates in a board meeting proxy fight. And it all works… for me at least.
  • The Mummy Market – Nancy Brelis, 1966. One of the many books I loved and re-read at my public library as a kid, only registering where it was in the shelf layout, rather than the author or other such minor details. Luckily this title stuck with me so I was able to find a used copy as an adult. Three siblings get sick of their strict housekeeper/guardian, “The Gloom” and go looking for a parent at the market of mothers, run by volunteer children for children. I see that it’s still out of print but has garnered a lot of love on GoodReads and was eventually turned into a 1994 movie called Trading Mom. The trailer literally opens with “In a perfect world“!
  • Some Christmas Stories – Charles Dickens, 1911 (Chapman and Hall edition, cobbled together from earlier publications). I thought this was going to include the other Dickens Christmas classics like The Chimes and The Cricket on the Hearth, but it’s just a grab-bag of inferior pieces. The opener, “A Christmas Tree” (1850), is an evocative description at least.

The Magic Mountain – Thomas Mann, (tr. by H. T. Lowe-Porter)

I’d heard so much about this book and have been meaning to read it for so long that I was very excited that it was finally chosen for Great Books. It’s been on the suggestion list before but never got enough votes. But I was quite disappointed, especially compared to the other Mann we’ve read, Death in Venice. The monologues and dialogues with Settembrini and Naphta were too frequent, too long, and too tedious. I had been looking forward to the theme of time and its subjectivity, but not much of that felt fresh. I did enjoy the cozyness of wrapping yourself in blankets and fur sleepsacks amidst the snows, and the impact of new technology like the x-rays and the gramophone was interesting. The most memorable bits were Hans Calstrop’s memories of his schoolmate Pribislav Hippe (the “Kirghiz”), who lent him a pencil, and the chapter “Snow” about Calstrop getting lost in a storm and dreaming of utopia. One of the Great Books participants, who loved it, says the book is about Germans blindly following the Nazis, not caring or paying attention to what was going on around them. As Mann said in the afterword:

You will have got from my book an idea of the narrowness of this charmed circle of isolation and invalidism. It is a sort of substitute existence, and it can, in a relatively short time, wholly wean a young person from actual and active life. Everything there, including the conception of time, is thought of on a luxurious scale. The cure is always a matter of several months, often of several years. But after the first six months the young person has not a single idea left save flirtation and the thermometer under his tongue. After the second six months in many cases he has even lost the capacity for any other ideas. He will become completely incapable of life in the flatland.

The translation seems quite problematic – I went back to compare the German and often couldn’t find the passage without a lot of effort because the match up is so loose. To my surprise, I stumbled across the fact that occasionally L-P took dialogue in German between Castorp and Clavdia, who often speak French to each other, and translated it into French? Why??? For example, Clavdia says “Du wirst das verstehen” and L-P renders it as “Tu peux comprendre çela” [sic – should be “cela”] So weird!

Short quotes

  • “It went against his grain to eat butter served in the piece instead of in little fluted balls.”
  • “the feeling of reckless sweetness he had felt for the first time when he tried to imagine himself free of the burden of a good name, and tasted the boundless joys of shame”
  • “One always has the idea of a stupid man as perfectly healthy and ordinary, and of illness as making one refined and clever and unusual.”
  • “He talks so well; the words come jumping out of his mouth so round and appetizing — when I listen to him, I keep seeing a picture of fresh hot rolls in my mind’s eye.”
  • Dr. Krokowski says “Symptoms of disease are nothing but a disguised manifestation of the power of love; and all disease is only love transformed.”
  • “the eyes said thou, for that is the language of the eyes, even when the tongue uses a more formal address”
  • Joachim: “You will find that when people discuss and express their views nothing ever comes of it but confusion worse confounded. I tell you, it doesn’t matter in the least what a man’s views are, so long as he is a decent chap. The best thing is to have no opinions, and just do one’s duty.”
  • “Their spirits, particularly the sallow Frau Magnus’s, were proof against any ray of cheer; forlornity exhaled from her like damp from a cellar.”
  • “Walking, he thrust the end of his stick in the snow and watched the blue light follow it out of the hole it made. That he liked; and stood for long at a time to test the little optical phenomenon. It was a strange, a subtle colour, this greenish-blue; colour of the heights and deeps, ice-clear, yet holding shadow in its depths, mysteriously exquisite.”
  • Snowflakes: “little jewels, insignia, orders, agraffes —no jeweller, however skilled, could do finer, more minute work”
  • Conserve jars: “The magic part of it lies in the fact that the stuff that is conserved is withdrawn from the effects of time, it is hermetically sealed from time, time passes it by, it stands there on its shelf shut away from time.”
  • Behrens on a new resident: “Not much hope, my lad; really none at all, I suppose. Of course, we’ll try everything that’s good and costs money.”
  • Tears: “those clear drops flowing in such bitter abundance every hour of our day all over our world, till in sheer poetic justice we have named the earth we live in after them” (meaning “the vale of tears”?)
  • Re Mynheer Peeperkorn, whose name I could not read without laughing: “his trouser pockets … are put in running up and down, not like yours and mine and most people’s of our class.”
  • Also about him: “He had said absolutely nothing. But look, manner, and gestures were so peremptory, perfervid, pregnant, that all, even Hans Castorp, were convinced they had heard something of high moment; or, if aware of the total lack of matter and sequence in the speech, certainly never missed it.” The same observation recurs in a longer quote below.

Long quotes

[from the foreword] We shall tell it at length, thoroughly, in detail — for when did a narrative seem too long or too short by reasons of the actual time or space it took up? We do not fear being called meticulous, inclining as we do to the view that only the exhaustive can be truly interesting.

Space, rolling and revolving between him and his native heath, possessed and wielded the powers we generally ascribe to time. From hour to hour it worked changes in him, like to those wrought by time, yet in a way even more striking. Space, like time, engenders forgetfulness ; but it does so by setting us bodily free from our surroundings and giving us back our primitive, unattached state. Yes, it can even, in the twinkling of an eye, make something like a vagabond of the pedant and Philistine. Time, we say, is Lethe; but change of air is a similar draught, and, if it works less thoroughly, does so more quickly.

A familiar feeling pervaded the child: a strange, dreamy, troubling sense: of change in the midst of duration, of time as both flowing and persisting, of recurrence in continuity — these were sensations he had felt before on the like occasion, and both expected and longed for again, whenever the heirloom [baptism basin] was displayed.

Habituation is a falling asleep or fatiguing of the sense of time ; which explains why young years pass slowly, while later life flings itself faster and faster upon its course. We are aware that the intercalation of periods of change and novelty is the only means by which we can refresh our sense of time, strengthen, retard, and rejuvenate it, and therewith renew our perception of life itself. Such is the purpose of our changes of air and scene, of all our sojourns at cures and bathing resorts; it is the secret of the healing power of change and incident. Our first days in a new place, time has a youthful, that is to say, a broad and sweeping, flow, persisting for some six or eight days. Then, as one “gets used to the place,” a gradual shrinkage makes itself felt. He who clings or, better expressed, wishes to cling to life, will shudder to see how the days grow light and lighter, how they scurry by like dead leaves, until the last week, of some four, perhaps, is uncannily fugitive and fleet. On the other hand, the quickening of the sense of time will flow out beyond the interval and reassert itself after the return to ordinary existence: the first days at home after the holiday will be lived with a broader flow, freshly and youthfully — but only the first few, for one adjusts oneself more quickly to the rule than to the exception; and if the sense of time be already weakened by age, or — and this is a sign of low vitality — it was never very well developed, one drowses quickly back into the old life, and after four-and-twenty hours it is as though one had never been away, and the journey had been but a watch in the night.

Our account of the first three weeks of Hans Castorp’s stay … has consumed in the telling an amount of time and space only too well confirming the author’s half-confessed expectations; while our narrative of his next three weeks will scarcely cost as many lines, or even words and minutes, as the earlier three did pages, quires, hours, and working-days. We apprehend that these next three weeks will be over and done with in the twinkling of an eye.

Which is perhaps surprising; yet quite in order, and conformable to the laws that govern the telling of stories and the listening to them. For it is in accordance with these laws that time seems to us just as long, or just as short, that it expands or contracts precisely in the way, and to the extent, that it did for young Hans Castorp.

Waiting means hurrying on ahead, it means regarding time and the present moment not as a boon, but an obstruction; it means making their actual content null and void, by mentally overleaping them. Waiting, we say, is long. We might just as well — or more accurately — say it is short, since it consumes whole spaces of time without our living them or making any use of them as such. We may compare him who lives on expectation to a greedy man, whose digestive apparatus works through quantities of food without converting it into anything of value or nourishment to his system. We might almost go so far as to say that, as undigested food makes man no stronger, so time spent in waiting makes him no older.

[Naphta says] The Fathers of the Church called mine and thine pernicious words, and private property usurpation and robbery. They repudiated the idea of personal possessions, because, according to divine and natural law, the earth is common to all men, and brings forth her fruits for the common good. They taught that avarice, a consequence of the Fall, represents the rights of property and is the source of private ownership. They were humane enough, anti-commercial enough, to feel that all commercial activity was a danger to the soul of man and its salvation. They hated money and finance, and called the empire of capital fuel for the fires of hell. The fundamental economic principle that price is regulated by the operation of the law of supply and demand, they have always despised from the bottom of their hearts; and condemned taking advantage of chance as a cynical exploitation of a neighbour’s need. Even more nefarious, in their eyes, was the exploitation of time; the monstrousness of receiving a premium for the passage of time — interest, in other words — and misusing to one’s own advantage and another’s disadvantage a universal and God-given dispensation.

Not sure I understand this at all? But it’s in the mouth of Naphta, who often says nutty things. And maybe I haven’t run with the right kind of Protestants:

Judaism, by virtue of its secular and materialistic leanings, its socialism, its political adroitness, had actually more in common with Catholicism than the latter had with the mystic subjectivity and self-immolation of Protestantism; the conversion of a Jew to the Roman Catholic faith was accordingly a distinctly less violent spiritual rupture than was that of a Protestant.

“Ah, the trees, the trees! Oh, living climate of the living — how sweet it smells! “

It was a park. It lay beneath the terrace on which he seemed to stand — a spreading park of luxuriant green shade-trees, elms, planes, beeches, birches, oaks, all in the dappled light and shade of their fresh, full, shimmering foliage, and gently rustling tips. They breathed a deliciously moist, balsamic breath into the air. A warm shower passed over them, but the rain was sunlit. One could see high up in the sky the whole air filled with the bright ripple of raindrops. How lovely it was! Oh, breath of the homeland, oh, fragrance and abundance of the plain, so long foregone!

Narration resembles music in this, that it fills up the time. It “fills it in” and “breaks it up,” so that “there’s something to it,” “something going on” … For time is the medium of narration, as it is the medium of life. Both are inextricably bound up with it, as inextricably as are bodies in space. Similarly, time is the medium of music; music divides, measures, articulates time, and can shorten it, yet enhance its value, both at once. Thus music and narration are alike, in that they can only present themselves as a flowing, as a succession in time, as one thing after another; and both differ from the plastic arts, which are complete in the present, and unrelated to time save as all bodies are, whereas narration — like music — even if it should try to be completely present at any given moment, would need time to do it in.

“Mynheer Peeperkorn has a gift, say what you like; and thus it is he can stick us all in his pocket. Put Herr Naphta in one corner of the room, and let him deliver a discourse on Gregory the Great and the City of God — it would be highly worth listening to — and put Mynheer Peeperkorn in the other, with his extraordinary mouth and the wrinkles on his forehead, and let him not say a word except ‘By all means — capital — settled, ladies and gentlemen!’ You will see everybody gather round Peeperkorn, and Herr Naphta will be sitting there alone with his cleverness and his City of God, though he may be uttering such penetrating wisdom that it pierces through marrow and cucumber, as Behrens says.”

In this book I learned

  • Third breakfast! Wikipedia only traces it here, but I doubt Mann made it up.
  • I can’t find anything about “Scotch-thread drawers” online except in full-text versions of MM, but looking up the German original it’s “file d’écosse-Unterhose.” So the translation should really be “lisle underwear.” (I doubt my blog has enough Google traction to make “Scotch-thread drawers” come up in this context – I posted the first instance of “kalegarth” back in 2005 and now it doesn’t even come up (because the blog was inaccessible for years and I’ll never get my rankings back, ah well…))
  • Original sweaters: “The women wore chiefly close-fitting jackets of wool or silk — the so-called sweater — in white or colours, with turnover collars and side pockets.” Cardigans, I guess. The German has “sogenannte Sweater… mit Fallkragen und Seitentaschen.” Love those Compound Nouns!
  • I knew Blue Peter only as the British television show, which supposedly refers to a flag indicating a vessel is about the leave, but here it’s a sputum flask. Again the translation is weird, though – it’s “Blauen Heinrich,” Blue Henry, and that’s how it’s most commonly known in English. There’s even a book – looks interesting. Blue Peter is a known variant in English, but I’d love to get more information.
  • Gala Peter chocolate
  • Formamint – “Formamint was a lozenge made up of formaldehyde, milk sugar, citric acid and pepsin-hydrochloric acid” per this very interesting-looking article I want to go back and read someday…
  • Jonathan had just told me about the parlor game of sketching a pig with one’s eyes closed, and here it is in MM, one of the faddish parlor games the residents play.
  • Soldanella, which Mann describes as having “little eye-lashed bells of rose-color, purple, and blue”
  • Coincidentally, Jonathan was reading the September 1927 issue of The Bookman and came across this: “Thomas Mann, author of The Magic Mountain, seems to be winning American favor even greater than that of Hermann Sudermann, whose Song of Songs was for long the most popular of modern novels translated from the German.” Wikipedia says “after 1945, [Sudermann’s] plays and novels were almost completely forgotten,” but Song of Songs has an entry, and the Garbo vehicle Flesh and the Devil was based on one of his novels.
  • Tula-silver-handled cane (Tulasilberkrücke): synonym for niello, found on the very helpful Canequest site
  • Skilly – but in the original it’s Linsen, lentils!
  • The Seven Sleepers
  • Philopena (Vielliebchen, translated “philippina”)
  • Weird fact: Boris Johnson is the great-grandson of the translator.

Winter – Ali Smith, 2017

Read for Second Monday book group. I loved the Christmas Carol echoes – it starts with “God was dead: to begin with” – but hated the Trumpish end: “You’re going to be saying Merry Christmas again, folks.” And the protagonist Art who writes a column “Art in Nature”… it’s a little on-the-nose. Nonetheless, Smith is always a beautiful writer.

Short quotes

  • “That’s what winter is: an exercise in remembering how to still yourself then how to come pliantly back to life again. An exercise in adapting yourself to whatever frozen or molten state it brings you.”
  • “Then his mother stops speaking and starts humming a tune and Art knows the doors of the reminiscence have closed, as surely as if the Reminiscence is a cinema or a theatre and the show is over, the rows of seats empty, the audience gone home.”

Long quotes

Well, imagine it like this, the optician says. Imagine I’m a car mechanic and someone brings me in a car for a service, and it’s a car from the 1940s, and I lift the lid and find the engine still nearly as clean as when it left the factory floor in (the optician checks her form) 1946, just amazing, a triumph.

You’re saying I’m like an old Triumph, Sophia says.

Good as new, the optician (who clearly has no idea that a Triumph has ever been a car) says.

Those green things, white things, polystyrene. You’re wrong, they’re recyclable. They’re free of whatever it is that’s bad for it. It’s not as bad as you’d think. I quite like them. I do! No, it’s interesting, because, because they’re so amazingly light, so that when you pick them up it’s surprising every time. You always expect them to be heavier. Even if you tell yourself, even though you know they’re light, you think you already know, you pick one up and it’s like, wow that’s so light, it’s like holding actual lightness. It’s, like, the weight of your own hand just somehow got lighter. Like a bird’s bones kind of light. If you pick up several, hold several so your hand’s full of them, you look at your hand loaded with things and your eye can’t understand it because although you can see that your hand’s full of something it feels like almost nothing’s in your hand.

None of these things is happening here. They are all happening far away, elsewhere.

But they may as well be, Iris says. What does here mean anyway, I’d like to know. Everywhere’s a here, isn’t it?

In this book I learned

A Natural History of the Future: What the Laws of Biology Tell Us About the Destiny of the Human Species – Rob R. Dunn, 2021

I liked this very much – some Nature and Environment folks thought it wasn’t human-focused enough, but that’s what I enjoyed. Dunn outlines what he calls “life’s laws,” principles akin to gravity, inertia, and entropy, that affect our environment but which humans mostly ignore at their peril. I didn’t make a proper note of them all as I read, so this list may be incomplete.

  • Species-area law (from island studies: how many species will emerge in a given geographic area)
  • Natural selection (evolution away from any imposed control like pesticides etc.)
  • Law of the niche (limits how much species can adapt to climate change, for example)
  • Law of escape (species moving away from their natural controls)
  • Law of dependence (we need our microbiome, for example; moving to outer space or other planets is a fantasy)
  • Law of cognitive buffering (species with extra brainpower will be adaptable to more conditions)

I would love to go back to this book someday to re-order/check this list – and read/re-read Dunn’s other books, because I love his writing style. He is both witty and inspiring. We had previously read Never Home Alone, which was also great, and there are many others.

In this book I learned

Although with a book like this, it’s a fine line between this section and the short quotes – those should also be memorably expressed, which for someone like Dunn makes the line even finer!

  • In Panama, Terry Erwin found about 1,200 different beetles, “more beetle species in one kind of tree in one forest than there are bird species in the United States”
  • There’s microbial life – lots of it – in the Earth’s crust! (Dunn doesn’t mention this, but looking this up taught me of the boundary called “the Moho” – great name)
  • Culex pipiens mosquitos populated the London Underground in the 1860s and are now a variant or possibly a new species, Culex molestus
  • A population of Aedes aegypti mosquitos, who can’t survive the cold outdoors in DC, persist by using human structures under the Mall in the winter
  • Humans mostly still live in the temperate areas of the globe; there are more of us but we’re just more concentrated in the same comfortable-for-us places, not spread out
  • “House sparrows can think circles around other species of sparrows”!
  • “It is thought that the ability and need to pass along microbes was part of what made termites social”
  • C-section babies miss being exposed to their mother’s microbes (increased risk of diverse diseases & infections)
  • Dallol geothermal area – amazing images – populated by Archaeans whose “dozen species are more evolutionarily diverse than all the vertebrates on Earth combined”
  • “Coendangered” (now “coextinct”) species like the black-footed ferret louse and the California condor mite
  • “Colonies of a single species of army ant, … Eciton burchellii, host more than three hundred other species of animals (to say nothing of other life-forms, such as bacteria or viruses)”

Short quotes

  • “More than half the Earth is now covered by ecosystems we have created—cities, farm fields, waste-treatment plants. We now, meanwhile, control, directly and incompetently, many of the most important ecological processes on Earth. Humans now eat half of all the net primary productivity, the green life that grows, on Earth.”
  • Dunn suggests this daily affirmation: “I am large in a world of small species. I am multicellular in a world of single-celled species. I have bones in a world of boneless species. I am named in a world of nameless species. Most of what is knowable is not yet known.”
  • “We are reminded of the scale of the unknown by near tragedy and actual tragedy. We forget about the unknown in the calm wake of near tragedy and the sorrowful quiet of real tragedy. We forget at our own expense.”
  • “As an ecologist, it seems unlikely to me that we could engineer entirely new ecosystems on other planets that we could manage sustainably when we have struggled to avoid destroying the already functioning ecosystems around us on Earth.” [see also quote below]
  • “’Variability’ sounds both vague and harmless. It is neither; it is, instead, one of nature’s greatest dangers, an elemental threat. Variability is to be feared. Variability needs to be planned for.”
  • “From the perspective of their microbes … termites offer housing and transport and a bit of food preparation to boot. They are an entomological mix between a taco truck and a bed-and-breakfast.”
  • “Even in those cases in which the most economical (by any measure) solution is to replace a functioning natural ecosystem with technology, doing so tends to yield replicas of those natural systems that are missing parts and, more generally, act ‘like’ nature systems but not as natural systems.”
  • “Honey bees are no more native to North America than are starlings, house sparrows, or kudzu. Yet as agriculture in North America intensified, honey bees became a key piece of glue necessary to hold together a broken agricultural system.”
  • “To bees, flowers are like toilet seats. And while bees do wash their hands (or, rather, their feet), that is often not enough to prevent the spread of parasites.”
  • “Nearly the entirety of the living world bears the print of human biocides. We have pressed our wide thumb ever more forcefully into the spinning clay of nature.”
  • “Generally speaking, it seems that the more extreme a set of conditions, from a human perspective, the less well the ant species living in those conditions are likely to have been studied.”
  • “The feral cats of Australia are likely to survive the extinction of human Australians. Goats will live on in many regions. With regard to the extinction of humans, goats are tougher than cockroaches.”
  • About speculation that a form of artificial intelligence could outlive us: “it is interesting that in some ways we find it easier to posit that we can invent another entity that can live sustainably than to imagine that we can do so ourselves.”

Long quotes

Repeatedly scientists have announced the end (or near end) of science, the discovery of new species, or the discovery of life’s extremes. Usually, in doing so, they position themselves as having been key to putting the final pieces in place. “Finally, now that I am done, we are done. Look what I know!” And repeatedly, after such announcements, new discoveries have revealed life to be far grander and more poorly studied than had been imagined. Erwin’s law [named after a beetle biologist] reflects the reality that most of life is not yet named, much less studied.

Trying to control the cassava mealybug:

To find the enemies of the mealybug, one would have to know where the mealybug came from. No one did. In the absence of knowing where the mealybug was from, one could benefit from knowing where the relatives of the mealybug were from. No one knew which species it was related to, much less where they lived. In the absence of knowing where its relatives were from, one might go to the place where cassava was first domesticated (where its pests and parasites and their pests and parasites might be most common). No one had studied the geographic origin of cassava in much detail.

As much as the world can sometimes seem futuristic, many of the most brutal tasks are still carried out by human bodies. Human bodies pick fruit, load trucks, and kill pigs and chickens, and so it is still human bodies on which the global economy depends. Fifty percent of global agricultural production alone depends on the work of small landholders, who do much of their work outdoors by hand. Collectively, those human bodies, with their innumerable arms and legs, are directly susceptible to the effects of temperature.

[The basic idea of the law of cognitive buffering] is that animals with big brains are able to use their intelligence in inventive ways so as to find food even when food is scarce and maybe also warmth when it is cold and shade when it is hot. They buffer bad conditions with big brains. Superficially this would appear to be a law that bodes well for us humans. We have very big brains relative to our bodies, big enough that our heads nod with their own weight when we are exhausted. What’s more, those big brains are thought to have evolved, in part, to help cope with variable climates. But whether our big brains will help us in the future is going to depend on just how we use them, whether we and our institutions are more like a crow or more like the dusky seaside sparrow [which went extinct].

Carpenter ants, for instance, depend on bacteria passed by mothers to daughters, generation after generation, in order to produce some of the vitamins they require. At least one of those bacteria species is now housed, by the carpenter ants, in a special kind of cell that lines its gut. It is inside the ant’s cells, integrated into its body. It is inherited by baby ants inside their eggs. It is part of the ant’s body, part of its egg, and yet it is still separate. Conditions too warm for the bacteria, but not the ant, kill the bacteria. Then after a while, no longer whole, the ants slowly die too.

[Space colonization would be], for humanity, something akin to a rebirth, or at least a molt. By this I mean that they require us to take with us the species we need to survive. This is a much harder task than any that species on Earth must engage in. When a leaf-cutter ant queen flies to start a new colony, she carries with her the fungus that her progeny will grow on the leaves they gather. But she doesn’t need to take with her the plants that make the leaves. We will need to take the plants and also much more.

Of the ideas I’ve articulated in this book, the idea that we should save the services of nature, where we can, rather than trying to reinvent them is perhaps both the most obvious and the most contentious. It is obvious in that on some level it is intuitive that we should not break what is already working. It is contentious in that, increasingly, the future being imagined by scientists and engineers is one in which more and more of nature’s services are replaced by technologies. Recently, a number of researchers have gone so far as to suggest that they don’t need nature. They argue that, with genes in the lab, they can create whatever is needed. It is possible that they are right. I doubt it. I suspect my vacuum-cleaner repair person would doubt it too. And here is the thing: if they are wrong, and we have failed to save the ecosystems we needed, failed to keep them from breaking, well, then the consequences will be great.

[This] shows a version of the big evolutionary tree of life. If the branches were all labeled, you would quickly notice that the names on the branches are mostly unfamiliar. Some of the big branches on the tree of life, for example, include the Micrarchaeota, the Wirthbacteria, the Firmicutes, the Chloroflexi, or the even more cryptic “RBX1,” Lokiarchaeota and Thorarchaeota. If you were to look for the branch that includes humans, you might struggle to find it. This isn’t a mistake but, rather, a reflection of our own place in life’s bigger picture.
On this tree, or rather, a sort of bush, each line represents a major lineage of life. All species with cells with nuclei are part of the Eukaryotes, represented as a single broom-like branch … in the lower right-hand section of the tree. Eukaryotes include malaria parasites, algae, plants, and animals, among other life-forms. The Opisthokonta, one small part of the Eukaryote branch, is the branch that includes animals and fungi. Animals, if we zero in, are just one slender branch of the Opisthokonta. From this broad perspective, vertebrates do not get a special branch on the tree. The vertebrates are a small bud. The mammals are a cell in that bud. Humanity is, to continue the metaphor, something less than a cell.

Ecologists love to go to and study rain forests, ancient grasslands, and islands. They hate to work in toxic dumps and nuclear sites, even if the dumps and nuclear sites are proximate and relatively easy to study. And who can blame them? Meanwhile, the most extreme deserts on Earth are both remote and inhospitable, the kinds of places one is exiled to rather than the kinds of places to which one flocks when classes are done. They too are rarely studied. The result is that we tend to be blind to the ecology of some of the most rapidly growing ecosystems, blind to the future’s extremes.