Lost in Light: A Short Film on Light Pollution

Via BoingBoing, a beautifully shot video by Sriram Murali showing the damage done by city lights.

Shot mostly in California, the movie shows how the view gets progressively better as you move away from the lights. Finding locations to shoot at every level of light pollution was a challenge and getting to the darkest skies with no light pollution was a journey in itself. Here’s why I think we should care more. The night skies remind us of our place in the Universe. Imagine if we lived under skies full of stars. That reminder we are a tiny part of this cosmos, the awe and a special connection with this remarkable world would make us much better beings – more thoughtful, inquisitive, empathetic, kind and caring. Imagine kids growing up passionate about astronomy looking for answers and how advanced humankind would be, how connected and caring we’d feel with one another, how noble and adventurous we’d be. How compassionate with fellow species on Earth and how one with Nature we’d feel.

This is an easy problem to fix. On the political front we could start by getting rid of billboards like the mayor of São Paulo did. On the technological front, there are a lot of lessons to learn from the lighting designers of the High Line in New York.

Ian Hamilton Finlay’s Sundials

Sundial Print: Umbra Solis 1975 Ian Hamilton Finlay 1925-2006 Bequeathed by David Brown in memory of Mrs Liza Brown 2003 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/P11953

Sundial Print: Umbra Solis 1975 Ian Hamilton Finlay 1925-2006.

On my long bucket list is the construction of a Root Simple sundial. Towards that end I’ve begun a short Sundial Pinterest board that, as of today, is entirely made up of Ian Hamilton Finlay sundials. Finlay’s poetry, art and gardening deserves greater recognition. The print of one of his sundials, above, is a clever meditation/pun on the distinction between the map and the territory.

You can own an original Finlay print for a modest sum. The perfect gift for the gardener in your life!

Video Sundays: Slow TV

In the 1990s I had a job at a tiny low-power TV station operated by the University of California, San Diego. To fill the hours between our sparse programming, a fellow employee named Steve would play one of two things: a recording of bird sounds or, if the space shuttle was up, NASA’s feed. The funny thing about the NASA feed was that it was mostly a static shot of a bunch of engineers at Houston Mission Control staring at their computers.

Guess what? People loved the bird sounds and NASA feed way more than the boring lectures that were our main programming. The producers at Norway’s national television station discovered this same phenomena a few years ago with a surprise “Slow TV” hit that consists of over seven hours of footage shot from the cab of a train going from Bergen to Oslo. They followed up this show with an eighteen hours of salmon fishing, real time knitting, a fire and a five day ferry voyage. You can see producer Thomas Hellum discussing these shows in a Ted Talk.

Should you want something more pastoral, allow me to suggest three hours of bison grazing. It’s surprisingly relaxing:

And a winter train journey:

Hopefully this slow TV thing will replace the violent junk and reality shows that otherwise dominate our mediasphere.

You can find many of the Norwegian Slow TV experiments in both Netflix and on Youtube.

If you want a little more narrative with your Slow TV I suggest Andrea Tarkovsky’s movies which you can access for free.

Saturday Tweets: The Earth Laughs in Flowers

The Great Beekeeping Debate

Jan-van-der-Straet_Bauerlicher-Bienenstand

Of all the subjects we cover on this blog none is as controversial as beekeeping. I think most outsiders would be surprised as just how testy things get when conventional and natural beekeepers bump into each other. It’s a debate every bit as heated as gun control or abortion.

The two sides are divided on a number of practices. Probably the most important is the issue of whether or not to treat bees for diseases and pests (most notably, varroa mites). Other issues include the use of foundation, keeping feral bees, re-queening and the type of bee housing. Even within each camp there’s a kind of spectrum between a hyper-interventionist stance and a hands-off approach. Some “natural” beekeepers treat their bees with essetial oils, for instance.

But I think the divide is more philosophical. It’s about systems thinking versus an overly reductionist stance. Reductionsim and systems thinking, in fact, can be complimentary. In science you take apart a problem to look at individual causes and effects. But you must, at some point, put those parts together to look at the whole. As the alchemical saying goes, “solve et coagula,” “dissolve and join together.” Reductionism is fine and useful. What’s not good is the arrogance that comes from thinking that since you understand part of the problem you understand the whole and can immediately start applying technological solutions. As Nassim Taleb has pointed out in his books The Black Swan and Anti-fragile: Things That Gain from Disorder, monkeying with complex systems from a point of ignorance leads to horrible, unintended consequences.

Take the issue of varroa mite treatments. Let’s say you test a miticide’s toxicity on bees. You expose the bees to the miticide. The mites die and the bees live. Success! But . . . the unforeseen. What if that treatment wreaks havoc on the microbiology of the hive? What about a chemical’s effect on the symbiotic relationships with those microorganisms and their bee hosts? What happens when the mites develop resistance to the miticide? What happens when propped-up weak bees swarm and establish themselves in the midst of a feral population? These are all difficult to understand long term questions that highlight the danger of moving quickly from an isolated study into an immediate application. Natural beekeeper Michael Bush has written and lectured extensively on these issues.

Natural and conventional beekeepers are also asking different questions. I’ll be frank. The California State Beekeeper’s Association meeting that I attended in 2015 left a very bad taste in my mouth. It really should have been called the Almond Pollinator’s Association meeting. It was all about facilitating the pollination of California’s unsustainable 1 million acres of almonds. Those million acres are pollinated by at least 1.7 million beehives that have to be trucked out of state every year once the almond pollination season is over. Speaker after speaker blamed natural beekeepers for their disease problems. Retired UC Davis bee expert Eric Mussen brought the ad hominem attacks to a fevered pitch by calling natural beekeepers, “hippies” and “bee-havers.” I haven’t heard “hippie” used this way since Spiro Agnew left this mortal coil. And Agnew would have been right at home with an organization that still has a ladies auxiliary in 2016 (in contrast to natural beekeeping organizations I’ve seen that are integrated and, in fact, made up of a solid majority of women).

The question of how we pollinate millions of acres of monocultured crops in different parts of the country is a different question than how to keep a few hives in a biodiverse urban area. To be fair, the first question is essential since it’s how we currently keep everyone fed. But much of the advice given to large scale beekeepers does not always apply to small scale backyard beekeepers.

The hubris can go both ways. Those of us on the natural beekeeping side can also think we understand the whole better than we do. We can fall into the same reductionist traps. Just because a mite treatment is “natural,” such as dousing a hive in essential oils, does not mean that it’s healthy for the bees. We also must not lose sight of the fact that we are in a relationship with honeybees that goes back many thousands of years. They aren’t exactly wild animals in most places and may depend, to varying degrees, on our support. Someday we might reach a kind of sweet spot between highly interventionist and low intervention beekeeping methods. My bet is that it’s on the low intervention side of the equation, but only time will tell.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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