Monday, September 28, 2015

The Most Interesting Conversation You Will See Today

Water on Mars

A recent photo of Mars. Click for photo credit.
The idea of space exploration continues to pull on the imagination of the public. Last night, as I flew back to New York from San Antonio, almost everyone on the nearly full plane was straining to catch a glimpse of the blood moon eclipse. As we were deplaning, many stopped upon entering the terminal to find a window to gape at the celestial show. The magical events in our heavens continue to inspire us in ways that we cannot ever understand in our modern era.

That is why today's announcement, the day after the blood moon eclipse, about NASA finding water on mars is so electric. The emotional mysteries of the eclipse and the ability to scientifically determine that water is present on mars brings together the visceral desire to explore space with the hard scientific news that we can find water. Is life on Mars next? If so what does it look like? Where is it?

NASA is working on developing a manned space flight to Mars. After reading the book, Packing for Mars, by Mary Roach, I don't think I will be signing up for that mission any time soon. Personal care in weightlessness is something that I could live without. But someone could handle it. The human race has always produced brave souls willing to reach out to the unknown. The exploration of our fourth planet just got a little bit more exciting.

Almost every student I saw today said something to me about the big announcement. I am sure that there are many in today's generation inspired by this news who will be willing to jump into a spacecraft and start the very long journey.

Friday, September 25, 2015

The Best Thing You Will See Online September 25, 2015

My Review of Finding Abbey: The Search for Edward Abbey and His Hidden Desert Grave by Sean Prentiss

Click for photo credit.
Finding Abbey: The Search for Edward Abbey and His Hidden Desert Grave by Sean Prentiss. 2015. University of New Mexico Press. Reviewed by Robert Brinkmann.

Sean Prentiss’ new book, Finding Abbey: The Search for Edward Abbey and His Hidden Desert Grave is a modern reflection on one of the important environmental authors of the late 20th century that could only have written by one of his most ardent readers at this particular time in America. I cannot help but think that Oprah would have picked the book for her club if Oprah were somehow engaged with the environmental history of the United States. The book is largely a self-discovery around a quest for finding Abbey’s grave. Unfortunately, these are well tread trails. Most readers fully understand that it is not the destination but the journey. At the same time, readers unfamiliar with Abbey will find the journey informative, if not familiar. Many of us have been on quests for an elusive goal that may or may not be real. We have all tilted at windmills, albeit rarely is the windmill the grave of a famous environmentalist.

I have never been fully comfortable with Edward Abbey. I found his grizzled and grumpy writing fascinating--but I never related to him. To me, he was like many other creative icons of the 20th Century American West, like Ansel Adams and John Huston, who carefully crafted images by leaving out many realities. They celebrated only the most beautiful or natural settings. They typically eschewed cities and suburbs. Of course there is nothing wrong with this viewpoint. I just find it incredibly limiting. I never understood how environmentalists could look in one direction of wilderness with limited concern about the environmental issues impacting large numbers of people in their own neighborhoods.

I think my eye rolling about Abbey and others is the result of academically coming of age in the Anthropocene—although we didn’t call it that back in the 80’s and 90’s when I was in college.

I was trained as a classical geologist. Yet it became very clear to me early on in my studies and fieldwork that the world I was seeing was not the one I was reading about in science books. My fieldwork showed me an earth that was disrupted, polluted, and fundamentally changed. I found those who wrote about wilderness and nature important, but hardly the important voices that the environmental movement needed at the moment. They were looking in the wrong direction. As noted in my review of Women Pioneers of the Louisiana Environmental Movement, a new breed of activists emerged in the 1980’s and 1990’s that focused on the heavy impact of industrialization in their communities. The writing of Abbey, to me, seemed a bit elitist and insignificant. While many found him important, I never warmed to him as a major figure.

I also found his work oddly out of step with society. The characters in his novels were hypermasculine and the few female characters highly sexualized. Even in Prentiss’ work the few women he introduces us to are bartenders, research assistants, or wives of interviewees who provide food and drinks.  This isn’t that surprising given the nature of Abbey’s personal life and Prentiss’ juxtaposition.

But it is worth exploring the hypermasculinity of Abbey and Prentiss’ book. There is something distinctly manly about Abbey’s writings and Prentiss’ approach to understanding him. Each year, when I attend the annual Geological Society of America meeting, I see hundreds of Abbeys and Prentisses. These are the bearded men who are not comfortable in urban salons. They are much happier in wilderness far from others. They are drawn to the field of geology for that reason. With their beards and dusty boots, they seem awkward at the annual convention amidst others in suits and ties. What draws these men to the wilderness? Many of these geologists, as part of their work, foreshadow development. They are sent to the wilderness to find and assess natural resources for exploitation. Many others study how to protect and preserve wilderness or are on a quest to unravel the mysteries of time that are stored as evidence within the geologic record. Yet everyone knows that the real geologic challenges of the moment, such as water resource management and environmental pollution, are not typically found in the wilderness. The pressing earth science work is in cities and suburbs. Nevertheless, many geologists go far afield. Just like Abbey and Prentiss and other environmental writers. This calling to the wilderness is strong in American literature. It has deep roots put out by Thoreau that extend to the present.

Of course, to many, the ideal wilderness is found in the American southwest.

Abbey’s most important work, Desert Solitaire, is a lovely piece about the southwest. However, his novel, The Monkey Wrench Gang, has the longest lasting legacy. In it he tells a somewhat novelized version of environmental monkeywrenching that was aimed at limiting development and growth in the southwest. It is this growth, Abbey argues, that is the root of all of the environmental problems in the region. While he is correct about his critique of overdevelopment, his other pieces on immigration written about the same time as The Monkey Wrench Gang, tainted his reputation considerably. More than 25 years after his death, Abbey remains a controversial figure.

Of course he is still a hero to many.

Prentiss, in his writings, comes off as an intellectual fan boy in search of nuggets of information about Abbey that will give meaning to his life. He tells us that he is unhappy living and working as a professor in Michigan and is only comfortable in the mountains of the west. He finds comfort in nature and began the quest to find Abbey’s grave as a way to make sense of his own life choices as a writer, environmentalist, professor, and activist. He visits key points in Abbey’s life and eventually takes us on a two-day search for Abbey’s grave. It would be easy to critique Prentiss as a self-absorbed neo-romantic who sees himself in many of Abbey’s former haunts. But I think that this may be too easy of a critique—it is one that other reviewers have explored. I think that Prentiss’ writing is more of a reflection of our modern era of selfies and entitlement, as well as on delayed male maturity, than it is on Prentiss himself. Who would go to search for a very small grave in an area with tens of thousands of acres for a weekend? Someone who thinks they can undertake a major undertaking by flying in and renting a jeep for the weekend. We find Prentiss sweating under the sun and learn of his dehydration for the vast amount of time (it was a few hours) he is away from his jeep full of water in the same place that immigrants make the trek from Mexico to the United States for days carrying gallons of water on their backs. We are in an entitled age in which trendy green small homes cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and one can find Abbey’s grave in the middle of a vast desert in a weekend.

I don’t want to take this critique of the book too far. I like this book for three main reasons. First, I found the focus on friendship moving. Many of us are lucky enough to have good friends who understand us in special ways. Abbey had such friends and Prentiss is wise to juxtapose his friendship with his environmentalist buddy Haus within the text to highlight this subtly in comparative prose. Haus is Prentiss’ constant companion in person or in thought. Their actions together within the last pages of the book are those of individuals who relate to each other as mysteriously as coyotes communicate in a pack.

The second reason that I found this book especially worthwhile is that it provides a new series of interviews with some of the main characters in Abbey’s life. We see a fresh look at the man twenty-five years after his death. His friends have had time to reflect. The interviews are deftly managed. The questions are unexpected. And as a result, we have an updated look at a man who has disappeared into legend.

The third reason I enjoyed this book is that Prentiss does not just give us the Abbey of the American West. Certainly his most important writing is about the west. But Abbey was a child of the east. He was born in rural Pennsylvania and lived for some time in the New York metro area. Prentiss walks the streets where he lived in all phases of his life. We learn Abbey’s complex personal geography. While he is intimately linked to the wilderness, for much of his life he was either an urbanite or a suburbanite (or at least an exurbanite) living on the fringes of the cities he critiqued. Most have a hard time picturing the great environmentalist John Muir earning a pleasant living on a fruit ranch in northern California. But he did. Likewise, it is hard to imagine Abbey in the suburbs.

The affectionate forays into Abbey’s life, woven into Prentiss’ journey to find the great writer’s grave, create a unique primer on Abbey for those who are unfamiliar with the importance of his work.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Most Interesting Thing You Will See Online September 24, 2015

3.3 Million Premature Deaths Each Year Due to Outdoor Air Pollution

There is a fascinating article in Nature this month that focuses on the epidemiology of outdoor air pollution. It is estimated that 3.3 million premature deaths each year are caused by outdoor air pollution. In the west, the sources of pollution are what you would expect: cars, energy production, and factories. However, when one looks to the developing world, particularly China and India, the causes are local home fuels for heating and cooking. In some parts of the world, particularly the Eastern U.S., Russia, and parts of Europe, agricultural emissions from fertilizers are the main culprit in the premature deaths. The model that the authors used predicts that the death rate will double by 2050.

Check out the article here.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

The Most Interesting Thing You Will See Online September 22, 2015

Tree blessing in Cambodia to fight deforestation...


Tree Families--A New Poem by Stan Brunn

 Note; from articles in NATURE and CHRISTIAN SCIENCE MONITOR:  2 September 2015

                                  Tree Families
Scientists recently have informed us something we need to know 
That we lost half our forests from 12,000 years ago
And with agriculture cultures forest cover began to slow.  
Now they estimate the current number of trees at 3 trillion
            Or about 200 trees per member of earth’s population
That is, women, men and children.
And 15 billion trees per year on the planet disappear
            These 2 losses per person is nothing to find cheer
            Whether in Russia, Brazil, Indonesia or former Zaire.
Most tree losses are due to human destruction
            For fuel, paper products and construction
            In many a prosperous and also a poor nation.
Each year the total forest area loss is the size of Senegal or Syria
            And in five years it is Zimbabwe’s  and Japan’s area
And a century the size of Mexico or Saudi Arabia.
The annual numerical losses may not seem great
But over a long term the losses accumulate     
And cover more area than many a ministate.
If each earth inhabitant planted two trees per year
            For each one that will disappear
All Planet Earth would have much to cheer.
Trees are the vertical roots of Planet Earth
            For many they are landscapes of renewal and rebirth
And for others a beauty of inestimable worth.
Trees are sacred to some traditional and postmodern cultures
            And vital income sources for tropical and circumpolar economies
            As well as rich sources of celebrations, poems and musics.
We would probably be wise to practice planting trees for preservation
            In heritage sites, national parks and places of biodiversity protection.
            In tropical, subtropical and alpine locations.
The wanton cutting of forests contributes to global warming
            And habitats of plant and animal ecosystems shrinking
            And the precarious livelihoods of forested cultures destroying.
Human ecologists would ask about the destiny of other tree statistics
Including family trees being destroyed by pollution and epidemics
Civil wars, disasters, drugs and abusive alcoholics.
Tree families and family trees both need protection
            Lest both become endangered and suffer from lack of attention
            By willful neglect and greedy globalization.

                                                                                                Stan Brunn

Monday, September 21, 2015

Best Thing You Will See Online September 21, 2015

Humpback whale in Long Island Sound...

In the Heart of the Sea--A Review

 In the Heart of the Sea by Nathaniel Philbrick. 2000. Penguin Books. Reviewed by Robert Brinkmann.

I avoided reading Moby Dick until I was in my mid twenties. I read large chunks of it while camping alone in the Plumas National Forest in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California. That summer I was spending the time off from my Assistant Professor job at the University of South Florida by working as a consulting geologist looking at soil erosion associated with logging. I would spend the workweek living with a large crew in a rented apartment building. When weekends came, we all went our own ways, glad to be away from the people we spent all of our time with for days in a row. My favorite thing to do was to go camping and hiking in the vast forests of the region.

In many ways, I was living a modern, albeit safer, version of Moby Dick. I related to the crew of the Pequod and found myself entranced not only by the dramatic story of Ishmael and his companions, but also by the in depth description of whaling that Herman Melville imparts in his tome. Anyone who has done concentrated fieldwork with a crew develops some of the attributes of a whaling crew and can relate to some of the situations Melville describes in the book.

Moby Dick is two books in one. It is a complex allegory and it a wonderful natural history of whales. I have driven  my English professor friends nuts when I argue that Moby Dick is just a book about whales and I have driven my ecologist friends nuts when I wax on about the book's deep symbolism. Of course this is the beauty of the book. It has something for almost every reader. Given that I was alone in a tent on a mountain, I think I found the book at the right time of my life. I know many people who had to read it for school assignments that hated it. Moby Dick isn't a book that can be enjoyed upon forced consumption.

Your author at a photo-op at the Cold Spring Harbor
Whaling Museum. 
Since reading the book by headlamp many years ago, I have returned to it many times. I find myself continuously intrigued by whales, whaling, and the sea. One of the great joys of my life occurred during a serendipitous occasion when I got lost driving in New Bedford, Connecticut.  I stopped at a random street to try to figure out where I was. As it turned out, I was parked right in front of the Seamen's Bethel, the church that Melville used as a model for the scene of the fiery sermon prior to the Pequod's crew heading out to the whaling grounds. Visiting hours of the church museum just started. It was a good morning.

Long Island, while not having the extensive whaling history of New Bedford or Nantucket, did have some important whaling ports. One such port, Cold Spring Harbor, today has a very nice whaling museum with a collection that includes one of few remaining whaleboats in existence.

On a recent visit to this museum, I picked up the book, In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex by Nathaniel Phibrick. The book is a popular press (Penguin Books) book that was published in 2000. It is getting a bit of a renaissance since a film of the same name is coming out this year. If you are familiar with the style of the more popular Devil in the White City by Erik Larson, you will find the author's use of dramatic historic non-fiction narrative familiar.

The drama of In the Heart of the Sea focuses on the whaleship Essex which was rammed by a whale on November 20, 1820, and sunk. The crew fled in smaller whaleboats. The book details life on the Essex prior to the tragedy, life on the small whaleboats for over 60 days on the open sea after the ship sank, and the lives of the survivors after they returned to land. The book recounts the true day to day dilemmas of the crew. Should they eat those who died of natural causes? Should they draw straws in order to sacrifice one of the crew so the rest could live? How should they ration food and water?

Beluga whales were seen in Manhasset Bay this summer.
This view from my backyard at low tide looks toward
New York  City. We can see the top of the Empire
State Building and the new World Trade Center Building.
We can also see whales if we are especially lucky.
So far, we haven't been lucky. But we see lots of other
sea life. The juxtaposition of whales with one of the largest
metro regions in the world seems difficult to fathom
at first. But the New York area has long been a major
fishing (and whaling in the past) center.
Perhaps what is most interesting about the story of the Essex is that it influenced a tremendous amount of art and literature. Moby Dick is largely based on the true story. Like a game of telephone, the sordid story of hunger, cannibalism, and murder was spread from ship to ship. Melville was but one to put his own take on the story.

As we have modernized our society, we have fewer white whales--or chupacabras or yeti. Instead, we have tagged endangered species with transponders and can map them using Google maps. The mysteries of the world are fewer. In the 20th century, we killed whales using modern technology. No longer do we send out whaleboats and spears. Now we have high-powered weapons that can easily kill a whale without any danger to the hunters. We almost hunted the whales out of existence in the modernist 20th century without inspiring any novelist or poet. Instead, the period inspired contempt and disgust for the profligate whalers.

Today, many whales, including the sperm whale, are making a slow comeback due to their protection via international treaties. Just this year, humpback whales, beluga whales, and dolphins were spotted in the bays off of the north shore of Long Island. These were rare sightings in the area and are perhaps evidence of the increased population of cetaceans. Perhaps we are heading into a time when we can be inspired once again by whales and how we interact with them.

Years ago, long before the success of A Dolphin Tale,  I volunteered at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium. I led tours, worked the gift shop, and helped with some of the sick marine animals that would come to the aquarium. I helped scrub sea turtles and I would swim late at night in circles in a wet suit for hours while holding a dolphin up so that it could breath. I would swim around and around an old sewage treatment tank staring at the stars. I could see lightening off in the distance and smell the sea around me as my breath synced with the small spinner dolphin I held in my arms. We have come a long way since the Essex sailed in 1820 on its whaling voyage.

In the Heart of the Sea is an excellent book that reminds us of all that we lost and all that we can lose. It inspires us to imagine a different time while also imagining a time to come.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Everyday Choices: Totally Tubeless!

Photo by E. Christa Farmer.
I went on a routine trip to the grocery store this weekend, and I saw something exciting: tubeless toilet paper rolls!

I was tempted to buy them, because my municipality does not recycle paperboard (do any?), and there are only so many art projects one can make with old paper towel and toilet paper rolls. And there's something icky about re-using toilet paper rolls, anyway. But I looked at the back:
Photo by E. Christa Farmer.
...and the content of the paper was not labelled as "post-consumer recycled paper." Now, I want to believe that the "FSC paper from responsible sources" label means something, and I'm sure it does for durable products. But it seems to me it is better to use paper that would otherwise be thrown away, than to grow new trees- however responsibly- especially for toilet paper! So I went with the brand that claims to be made from more than 80% post-consumer recycled paper. I hope they make it tubeless someday! Do you think I made the right choice?

Best Thing You Will See Online September 20, 2015

Native Bison at the Naschusa Grasslands...

Nature Conservancy Brings Back Bison in Illinois

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The Los Angeles Times published an interesting article this morning by Ted Gregory on the successful efforts of the Nature Conservancy to bring back the native Bison in Illinois. The site where this is taking place is a 3500 acre (roughly 5 square miles) grassland, called the Nachusa Grasslands, near Chicago. Check out the full article here.

The article is interesting in that it highlights that these are native bison. Most of the other bison in Illinois were interbred with other cattle and thus are not fully native. This is the first successful reintroduction in Illinois of the native bison that once were kings of the vast prairies of the Midwest.

The article also points out how the prairie ecosystem improved since the reintroduction of the bison. The ecosystem diversity increased significantly.

For those of you unfamiliar with the Nature Conservancy, you should really get to know their work. Check out their Website here. They purchase, restore, and conserve thousands of acres of land every year all over the world. In many ways, they are creating global parks and preserves that transcend national, state, or local park or preserve systems.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Calling All Writers!

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One of the great things about blogging is that you get to publish your ideas immediately. Have you ever felt the need to get your thoughts out faster than normal publication outlets? Have you wanted to start a blog, but didn't know quite how? Do you want to be part of a blog that aspires to be one of the leading voices on environmental and sustainability issues?

On the Brink is looking for writers who are interested in publishing essays, book reviews, humorous commentary, and short opinion pieces on sustainability, higher education, and the environment. Writers should be willing to contribute at least twice a month. You do not necessarily have to follow the overtly positive outlook of the Editor, Bob Brinkmann, but your writing should make a contribution to promoting a local, national, or global conversation on sustainability, higher education, or the environment. We are especially interested in writers who are interesting, controversial, funny, or irreverent and know how to draw readers. We are also keen to publish the work of photographers and videographers. We are also looking for leads on good interview subjects.

If you are interested in any of the above, send a note to Bob Brinkmann at

As many regular readers know, we have undergone some site changes in recent months. Currently we are looking for someone to manage our online brand and overall look. Please let us know if you have any interest in this area. The blog is growing and we need someone to help us expand and manage our online presence.

The blog is also interested in developing a broader audience. We currently get tens of thousand of hits a month and visitors increase each day. If you have ideas on how we can reach a larger audience, please help us or let us know your ideas. The long term goal of the blog is to be one of the most sought after voices on environment, sustainability, and higher education in the world. There's a ton of crappy content out there. Let's make some blog magic.

If you have the skills, consider joining the On the Brink team. Write for us. Help us with the format of our site. Create content for the blog. Share posts with your friends and family.

Friday, September 18, 2015

Best Thing You Will See Online September 18th, 2015

Moonbows at Yosemite!

Yosemite National Park

Today I continue my series highlighting interesting open access Flickr photos of all 59 U.S. National Parks. In this post we go to YosemiteNational Park in California. 

I'll run through all 59 National Parks in alphabetical order. If you have any photos that you would like to share from any national park that I could post, please send them along. Following the photos, you'll find links to previous On the Brink posts of the National Parks. Check them out to see the beauty of the U.S. National Parks as captured by visitors.

Click for photo credit.
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Lassen Volcanic National Park
Mammoth Cave National Park
Mesa Verde National Park
Mount Rainier National Park
North Cascades National Park
Olympic National Park