On walking and structure

I live in a very walkable neighborhood in Chicago, and have walked almost everywhere I need to go daily for more than a decade. I’ve been thinking more about the meaning of all this walking in the last few years, mostly by building a reading list on the topic and informally going through it. One of the best I’ve read is Rebecca Solnit’s Wanderlust: A History of Walking.

The book came out more than twenty years ago, in 2000, but I see no evidence that advances in technology or changes in society have dated it. Walking has had the status of a gratuitously simple, stubbornly un-innovative way of getting around for at least 100 years. Because it is so obvious that walking is behind the times, whenever there is a desire to return to basics, or a burst of nostalgia for simple things–at that point the topic of walking will be due for a revival. I think we had one last year, during the pandemic.

What I have taken from Solnit’s book is that walking is one of those subtle, mostly deniable ways in which people express a disdain for hierarchy, routine and structure. The authorities that offer an alternative to walking–businesses, governments–do it because they think everyone wants to eliminate downtime between the appointed parts of that day; people insist on that time. The walker is neither here nor there, in a liminal state (51), dropped off the official record. Walking remains one of the best ways to disguise doing nothing (5). Walking “connects different interiors” which would otherwise remain unconnected (9). The spaces between, for example, the gym and the workplace, can have meaning if a person is in a position to look at them. And finally, because walking is too ordinary to be interesting, it has no true experts (ix), only amateurs who use it for their own reasons.


Rebecca Solnit, Wanderlust: A History of Walking. New York: Penguin, 2000.

Tags hierarchy authority imagination freedom


A Recommendation: Leonard Baskin and Richard Michelson

Before Halloween recedes even further, one recommendation I have to cram in:

The collaboration between the artist Leonard Baskin and the poet Richard Michelson.

I never paid much attention to Baskin’s work, until I came across it while searching out Halloween books for my son. Many people have seen the FDR memorial in Washington, D.C., where Baskin contributed a bronze bas-relief sculpture of the president’s coffin being carried by a horse-drawn carriage.

Baskin and Michelson were friends and co-authors on several books for children, and Michelson helped promote Baskin’s work in an important art gallery he still owns and runs in Northampton, Massachusetts. Baskin died in 2000. The tribute Michelson wrote at the top of his gallery page for Baskin is worth reading.

Their books are written with a sense of humor, and illustrated in a style that walks right up to being inappropriately scary for kids. Still, they remain whimsical, sometimes even ridiculous:

Copyright Leonard Baskin

My son and I read Baskin and Michelson’s Animals that Ought to Be

Copyright Leonard Baskin and Richard Michelson

and Did You Say Ghosts?

Copyright Leonard Baskin and Richard Michelson

And we checked out a third, Imps, Demons, Hobgoblins, Witches, Fairies & Elves, by Baskin alone:

Copyright Leonard Baskin

Baskin was mostly an artist for grownups, but his style is a natural fit for the lighthearted scares of Halloween. Many of the illustrations in these books are just samples from Baskin\’s longer-running projects. For example, the “ghoul” in Did You Say Ghosts? appears to be based on a long study of the raptor figure:

Copyright Leonard Baskin and Richard Michelson

Michelson’s online gallery is a beautiful and careful memorial to his friend, and includes much material cataloged in several out-of-print books of Baskin’s work. I’d recommend spending a few minutes there. No website lasts forever, and Michelson’s is a great one. It’s the kind of site you can get lost in, anything but distracted.

Copyright Leonard Baskin


Leonard Baskin and Richard Michelson. Animals That Ought to Be. Simon & Schuster, 1996.

Leonard Baskin and Richard Michelson. Did You Say Ghosts?. Simon & Schuster, 1993.

Leonard Baskin. Imps, Demons, Hobgoblins, Witches, Fairies & Elves. Pantheon, 1984.

Tags books children recommendation


A tree that shines on its way out


The Honey Locusts outside my front window are turning yellow. These trees can be found on many city streets in Chicago. And they are hardy: lines of them thrive a few feet from the lakefront on the South Side. For most of the year I find them less than attractive; something about their long rows of small leaves give me the impression of a tree-sized weed.

And some have thorns.

W.J. Bean was more enthusiastic about the species, Gleditsia triacanthos. It’s native to North America, and the Englishman wrote approvingly of the prospect of importing it to the U.K. It has “beautiful fern-like foliage,” he noted, “which turns a clear bright yellow in autumn. (291, Trees and Shrubs, Volume II)”

On this I can agree. The tree is more beautiful when it’s shutting down for the season, cycling through a predictable, cascading bright yellow phase for a final few weeks.


W.J. Bean and George Taylor, Trees and Shrubs Hardy in the British Isles, 8th Edition, Volume II. J. Murray, 1970-1980

Tags plants naturalist city tree


Fear ecology

I was riveted by this long-form article in the New York Times about the rise of white sharks (aka great white sharks) off the coast of Cape Cod. It may seem like a sensational topic, but that wasn’t how I took it. One has to understand that white sharks were basically unknown in the area until 15-20 years ago. Now they are so numerous during the warm season that, if you know where and how to look, they are everywhere. So the piece is really about how dread creeps onto the surface of a beautiful place, changing how people experience it. Chivers writes that

Risk of attack remains low. But the quantity of large sharks, and fears that have accompanied them, have caused a cultural trauma, reshaping how people experience the ocean and forcing coastal communities into a period of reckoning and adaptation.

I think about fear every day while out in public during this pandemic that is rapidly sliding into status quo. The article discusses what scientists call “fear ecology, a “concept describing the effects predators have on members of a prey species that do not get eaten but whose predator-avoidance strategies carry costs.” That mindset of avoidance, says a doctor who tried unsuccessfully to save a Cape Cod shark attack victim, “hovers over the region: the fear that sharks are going to ruin this idyllic place.”

I don’t avoid some places, people, or situations–bars, for example–because I fear them. It’s more simple than that: I just don’t go to those places. I spare myself the psychic costs of even fear. But what might be worse than fear is forgetting what a place looked like before the fear set in.


C.J. Chivers, “Fear on Cape Cod as Sharks Hunt Again.” The New York Times Magazine. October 21, 2021.

Tags danger uncertainty dread pandemic


Craig Whitlock and the *Afghanistan Papers*

The Perilous Situation of Major Mony
John Murphey, "The Perilous Situation of Major Mony, 23 July 1785," Source: Rijksmuseum. Original (Public Domain).

Craig Whitlock’s new book, The Afganistan Papers, is based on a trove of formerly unreleased interviews with hundreds of U.S. officials who participated in the War in Afghanistan.

What makes Whitlock’s book so great are its minutia, produced by interview subjects who were thinking on the fly in spontaneous conversation, and who didn’t necessarily know that their thoughts would be made public. Many of these details will likely never find a home in more synoptic accounts, but they add a fascinating texture to the broadest accounts so far of the U.S. occupation.

Given recent events, the book couldn’t have been better-timed. The early sections cover important questions about the motivation to stay in Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban.

From the first chapter: In the war’s first months, the U.S. troop presence was kept so small and provisional that there were almost no facilities of any kind. Whitlock writes that “soldiers who wanted fresh clothes had to fly their dirty laundry by helicopter to a temporary support base in neighboring Uzbekistan,” and there were no showers until around Thanksgiving 2001:

Some of the guys had been there for up to thirty days, so they needed a bath,” Maj. Jeremy Smith, the quartermaster who oversaw the laundry unit in Uzbekistan, said in an Army oral-history interview. His superiors didn’t want to send any extra personnel or equipment to Bagram but finally relented.

“Eventually they said, ‘Okay, let’s go ahead and do this,‘ ” Smith recalled. “But it was, ‘We’re not sure how long we’re going to be here, we’re not sure about a whole lot of things, so our presence here is going to be as small as possible. How few people can you send?’ The smallest number I could send was two. ‘What’s the smallest shower configuration you can send?’ ‘Well, it’s designed for twelve, but the smallest we can realistically send is a six-head shower unit.’ The mixer and the boiler and the pumps were all designed for a twelve-head shower, so a twelve-head shower only going through six heads had some really good water pressure. Everybody liked that.”

Over time, Bagram would balloon in size to become one of the largest U.S. military bases overseas. When Smith returned to Bagram a decade later for a second tour of duty, he was greeted by a fully functioning city with a shopping mall, a Harley-Davidson dealer and about 30,000 troops, civilians and contractors. “Even before the plane stopped,” Smith said, “I instantly recognized the mountains and after that I noticed it was the same smell. Then getting off, it was like, ‘Holy cow! I don’t recognize hardly anything.‘ ”0{#ffn2 .footnote}^

It’s a great anecdote about the initial U.S. reluctance to create the smallest roots of a permanent base. That first shower stall wasn’t a meaningful investment in any material sense, but it said something about the U.S. status as an occupier, more than all the showers that would be built in the years after.

But even the eventual sunk costs of the war effort–the massive facilities and aid that marked the long-term occupation–do not add up to any kind of explanation for why the U.S. stayed so long. This year’s pullout showed that the U.S. has no problem leaving an expensive footprint behind.

The little stuff just makes it easier to get through the next day and week, to be slightly more comfortable with not making a decision about whether to leave. The act of building a facility gave the occupiers a task to avoid boredom, so that they did not ask harder questions to their superiors about why they were there, and so that, when nothing else was happening on the ground, they could wait for what’s next. If the war planners only allowed amenities like laundry and showers with great reluctance, it says a lot about warding off a symbolically troubling frame of mind for the war effort: construction, maintenance, strategy, planning, etc. Whitlock’s The Afghanistan Papers documents how this worry plagued the leadership, long after the people on the ground had started wondering about, and improvising, these very things.

Later on in the same chapter, on broader motivations for the occupation:

The Bush administration was still leery of getting bogged down. But the swift and decisive military victories boosted U.S. officials’ confidence and they tacked on new goals.

Stephen Hadley, the White House’s deputy national security adviser at the time, said the war shifted into “an ideological phase” in which the United States decided to introduce freedom and democracy to Afghanistan as an alternative to terrorism. To make that happen, U.S. troops needed to prolong their stay.

“We originally said that we don’t do nation-building but there is no way to ensure that al-Qaeda won’t come back without it,” Hadley said in a Lessons Learned interview. “ [We] did not want to become occupiers or to overwhelm the Afghans. But once the Taliban was flushed, we did not want to throw that progress away.”

By the time Bush gave his speech to the Virginia Military Institute cadets in April 2002, he had settled on a much more ambitious set of objectives for the war. The United States, he said, was obligated to help Afghanistan build a country free of terrorism, with a stable government, a new national army and an education system for boys and girls alike. “True peace will only be achieved when we give the Afghan people the means to achieve their own aspirations,” he added.0{#ffn3 .footnote}^

When it came to ideological justifications for the war, the doublethink went down a pathway not entirely dissimilar to the intense ambivalence about the practicalities of maintaining an on-the-ground force. The country let itself develop ambitious plans for Afghanistan, but it needed to avoid the most plausible characterization of those plans. For example, U.S. officials, including President Bush, were especially reluctant to call their operation “nation-building:”

After the United States invaded Afghanistan, President George W. Bush told the American people that they would not get stuck with the burden and expense of “nation-building.” But that presidential promise, repeated by his two successors, turned out to be one of the biggest falsehoods uttered about the war.

Nation-building is exactly what the United States tried to do in war-battered Afghanistan—and on a colossal scale. Between 2001 and 2020, Washington spent more on nation-building in Afghanistan than in any country ever, allocating $143 billion for reconstruction, aid programs and Afghan security forces. Adjusted for inflation, that is more than the United States spent in Western Europe with the Marshall Plan after World War II.0{#ffn4 .footnote}^

Justifications for the occupation were tied back to the success of the invasion, which ended after a few months. The toppling of the Taliban, which scattered Al-Qaeda, was a lot easier to defend (to a domestic audience, to the world) as a response to September 11th. Everything that came after was not. And so the U.S. found itself in a position where nation-building was both everywhere–because the U.S. was indisputably doing it–and nowhere, because the very people who were doing nation-building said that it was indefensible, on grounds both historical and strategic.

Put these two facets about the Afghan war together–the tiniest implementation details and grandest arguments–and one comes away with a situation that was only tolerable so long as it could not be accepted for what it was, a kind of national exercise in procrastination around policies and objectives that helps to explain how twenty years could go by without a plan.

  1. [Whitlock, a journalist, first wrote about these interviews in a well-received series of articles for the Washington Post in 2019. ↩︎]{#fn1}
  2. [Chapter One, “A Muddled Mission” ↩︎]{#fn2}
  3. [Chapter One, “A Muddled Mission” ↩︎]{#fn3}
  4. [Chapter Three, “The Nation-Building Project” ↩︎]{#fn4}


Craig Whitlock, “The Afghanistan Papers.” Simon & Schuster, 2021.


The Apparent Position of Callisto, Jupiter's Outermost Gallilean Moon

On Sunday night (August 22nd, 2021), this was the view from the Chicago South Side, looking southeast over the lake, of the four Galilean moons. They are easily visible through 10x30 binoculars. From a sketch I made around midnight:

Drawing of appearance of Gallilean moons of Jupiter, night of 2021-08-30
Colors black/white inverted

What attracted my attention about Callisto’s position is that lies well outside the apparent plane of the other three moons. I usually see the visible Galilean lined up with one another, like we are looking at them edge-on from Earth, in the same orbital plane.

A quick illustration shows how the configuration in the sketch can occur. None of the four moons orbits in the exact same plane, although their inclinations are very close to one another. And the orbital plane of Jupiter is slightly tilted toward Earth. These factors mean that we see the orbits of the Gallilean moons at a slight angle to us, like we are looking at very narrow ellipse rather than single-dimension lines:

graphic of moon orbits
Orbital paths of Gallilean moons. Apparent tilt of moons' orbit relative to Earth is exaggerated for illustration. Actual tilt is between one and two degrees.

Callisto, the outermost moon, has a much larger orbit than the other three moons, meaning it travels up and down across the largest distance in both dimensions (see arrow in illustration), and giving it more latitude to reach an apparent position “above” or “below” the other moons, as we see it from Earth.


Digital Heirlooms in the Attic

Berenice Abbott and Pierre Mac-Orlan. Atget, Photographe de Paris (Paris: H. Jonquières, 1930), pl. 4. Public Domain. Getty Museum.

The story about the library book returned 100 years overdue is one those lighthearted newspaper pieces that still gets written up. Sometimes these overdue books come with an explanation that makes for a human interest story, but just as often they are returned anonymously, left on a doorstep or mailed back without return address or explanation.

When we do find out the reason for the return, it’s usually because because someone is clearing out belongings, and has sentimental attachments that lead them to send the old book back. The library is still there after all these years, and returning the book connects a dusty past to a living present. If the book was in the possession of a dead person, the return might be a kind of act on their behalf.

An article about the old, returned library book gives the public an occasion to reflect on a private possession. Still, for the most part, millions of objects, however interesting and worthy of attention in the distracted present, will never get that much recognition before they are sold as junk, stored until they rot, or tossed in the trash. But as long as those artifacts are on still on paper, they have a claim on existence, awaiting notice by some later passerby. It’s possible to return century-old books to the library because they are durable and resilient in storage. Paper, even if stored in degrading conditions, lasts a long time.

This is not the case for digital objects, whether text, photos or other media. The old computer or phone stored in the attic may technically hold a lot of memories, but formidable barriers exist to its rediscovery.

First, an attic full of digital stuff comes with major concerns about material breakdown. I am not aware of any digital storage medium that does well outside of prolonged room-temperature conditions. And failures are often invisible. The objects in a digital archive, like CDs, may look fine to the eye, but one can only be sure by using them. You needn’t burn the attic down to lose a lifetime of memories stored on a hard drive. Just let it sit, and it will almost certainly fail within a few decades at most.

Second, there are the concerns about the technology itself. Technology changes fast today, and while certain standards may look the same on the surface (e.g., the plain text file), more subtle issues like archaic encoding formats might still render today’s data practically inaccessible to future computers. If you want to read a file on my computer a few decades from now, you may need to supply not just an ancient copy of software to run it–you’ll need to provide the hardware, too.

The consequence is that very little of the ordinary digital present in the attic is likely to survive.

And that’s OK. The world is overwhelmed as it is by the information it creates. And to be fair, very little of the richness of the past has survived, too. But some of today’s digital world, some nth fractional sub-unit of all the bits being produced today, likely will make it into the long future. And like in past eras, the stuff that survives won’t necessarily be what was deliberately preserved.

Consider this phenomenon in archaeology: there is little trace of most dwellings in ancient England or Ireland. One guess about why is that these peoples built their houses with turf, basically dirt from a bog, that was quickly reabsorbed into the earth once the houses were abandoned. These people weren’t thinking about documenting their lifestyle for posterity–turf was what they had lying around. Compare this archeological record to that of the cliff dwellers of the U.S. desert southwest, who also built with what they had available: clay and mud (adobe brick), which has in many cases lasted thousands of years. In this sense the cliff-dwellers got lucky when it comes to the archaeological discoverability–and the historical record–of their civilization. They lived in a place with ready-to-hand materials that were made last.

I suspect that what survives of the digital world in the future will be just as accidental as the objects that archaeologists have already discovered about past eras. Let’s imagine that the next few decades see a burst of innovation in the electronic drive storage industry. Many more storage media exist than we have today, some made with exotic and rare elements, others with old standby technology, and all with various trade-offs. Or maybe a few varieties of solid-state drive take advantage of the atomic properties of some ultra-durable element like iron or lead. In any case, anyone who happens to have used a certain type of drive will have created data that lasts for 100,000 years under the right conditions.

Or, imagine the archival equivalent of the mosquito in amber from the Cretaceous period, some natural disaster, an asteroid creating a plume in the desert that buries a cloud data center in an old-school cloud of dust and rock. One data center might be a tiny fraction of the information stored on today’s cloud, but still a huge chunk of material for the archaeologists of the future to pore through with their paleo-digital forensic tools.

It’s anyone’s guess what will be preserved–and what, if anything, it will represent to later eons of intelligent life. Ever-more attention is being given to the fragile materiality of digital life, but it’s still just as likely that what does get preserved will endure by accident rather than deliberate selection. Monks and scribes have saved much of what we have from the last few thousand years, but who has inherited that calling today? Perhaps a set of text messages that someone sends this afternoon will survive a hundred million years after a play by Shakespeare. We can’t rule it out. A lot can happen in a future that–whether to not people are around to see it–will last a long time.


Doc Searls Blog, “Will our digital lives leave a fossil record?” 2020 (Accessed 2021/08/09).


The Thinking World: Will Evolution in the Anthropocene Converge on Beings that Learn?

This article in the New York Times summarizes the recent scientific research on a problem I wondered about a few months ago: what happens to animals that navigate by starlight, when the stars are washed out by the city? As it turns out, there are many other animals that rely on celestial phenomena to move about. Dung beetles may walk a straight line by looking at the trail of the Milky Way. Seals appear to swim with consistency toward bright star-like objects in the sky.

They also mention the study I discussed previously, about Indigo Buntings. The birds were taught in artificial conditions to treat the bright star Betelgeuse as the pole star instead of the current north star, Polaris. Stephen Emlen, the scientist responsible for the study, is quoted interpreting the results this way:

This suggested that the bird’s stargazing skills were learned, not derived from some star map encoded in their genes…In the glittering dark, each young bunting had apparently spent some time looking up, studying, as the stars traced circles in the night sky.

If we accept his theory, it suggests that the birds may be clever enough to deal with the perpetual, gradual change in alignment of the night sky. They did not evolve with some fixed blueprint of specific stars. Even better, they were born with a rudimentary awareness of how celestial rotation works. 26,000 years, the period over which the Earth’s axis wobbles to point at different stars across the sky, is enough time for evolution to change an organism, but not that long a period when compared to the one hundred and fifty million years or more over which modern birds evolved from dinosaurs.

Here’s an off-the-cuff definition of animal learning to make sense of this situation. Learning is what animals do to survive when there is no time or opportunity to evolve. Animals learn when something about their environment changes too quickly for selection pressure to make a better bird, or beetle, or seal. At this point they can either (1) use their existing biological equipment to make use of the environment they have, or (2) die out or retreat from the environment that has changed.

Learning and evolution cooperate. Those individuals that learn are more likely to contribute their genes to the species, thereby increasing the pool of genes that contribute to learning. This suggests that an environment that changes quickly is likely to select not for any particular trait, but for beings that learn to live with change. In interesting times, only the smart animals survive. In a sense, it’s another way in which humans are making the world in their own image. If there is anything that distinguishes Homo sapiens besides the ability to think, it is the ability to cause environmental change on a different order of time than the cosmological, geological, or evolutionary timescales that preceded them. Thinking is fast by nature. Rapid change gives an advantage to learned adaptation over instinctive fitness. And when the environment changes really fast, within even the memory of living Homo sapiens, it may it favor animals who learn, too.


Bernd Heinrich Oliver Rackham What Makes Naturalist

No one decides who gets to be a naturalist. There are no degrees or governing bodies. The term is distinctive, in that it describes an activity that is very demanding and absorptive, yet inclusive. A person is on the way to becoming a naturalist when he, for example, takes pictures of biological samples in the field and contributes them to an open population database like iNaturalist. And the “New Naturalist Library” series has for 75 years published detailed surveys by top scientists, who study the natural world, from climate and weather to butterflies. These scientists, specialized and rigorous as they are–they call themselves naturalists, too.

The plant biologist Oliver Rackham writes in the preface to his book Woodlands:

I was brought up on such classic New Naturalist books as London’s Natural History by R.S.R. Fitter, Mushrooms and Toadstools by John Ramsbottom and The Sea Shore by C.M. Yonge. In that tradition I deal mainly in observations that do not call for specialised equipment and that any well-motivated observer can make. In this field amateurs can still do things that professionals, locked into their own ethos and culture, find difficult. I hope to inspire young readers to lay down the basis for long-term observations to be repeated in future decades.

Rackham makes no attempt to wall off the naturalist’s calling from the ordinary public. Quite the opposite, he suggests that the amateur can do more than participate in naturalistic activities. The amateur can, in fact, contribute to an activity defined by “observation,” provided that he is willing to keep at it over the long term.0{#ffn1 .footnote}^

Today the ideal of the naturalist is often integrated with formal scientific expertise.0{#ffn2 .footnote}^ Getting out in nature takes time, and scientists are the ones with grants that pay the bills, university positions with flexible schedules, and a vocational expectation that includes going out into the field and looking around. Everyone else is of course not barred from study, but just being out in nature does not quite make one a naturalist. Then again, there are many field scientists doing their own specialized work, “locked into their own ethos and culture,” as Rackham puts it, who are not really engaged in naturalistic pursuits, either. So what makes a naturalist? Consider this description, by the biologist Bernd Heinrich, about the process of taking field notes:

After so many years of making observations, there is hardly a thing I encounter that does not connect me in one way or another to familiar ideas or observations. However, I am most interested in the seemingly anomalous. In taking field notes, the way to find these peculiarities is to keep track of many observations that may not appear at the time to be relevant at all. Similar to the way a subtle twist in a blade of grass may betray the presence of game, a single observation in my field notes may stand out against a backdrop of sentences standing in an ordered array. The way that I keep a journal now reflects the chaotic nature of this type of chase. I cannot afford the luxury of presorting data. I don’t walk around with a notebook. But I often carry a piece of folded paper in my shirt or pants pocket, along with a pencil stub. The information flow as I jog down our driveway and up our country road may be infinite, and I cannot stop every few feet and record everything. I simply remember most observations while I jog, though I may still record mundane things that catch my eye and that might be useful in identifying something in- teresting. At these times I’m not trying to solve a problem; instead, I’m open to signs of one.0{#ffn3 .footnote}^

Heinrich describes an observers’ routine that is honed by trained scientific curiosity. But the act of observing cannot only serve an existing scientific agenda. Field notes are not a record of what is important. They are a minimal record of what rises to the level of being noticeable, a translation of an “information flow” that is “infinite” into a set of recoverable mental traces. “I cannot afford the luxury of presorting data,” he writes. There is no template for the field observer. The naturalist only sees what he records, and field notes are the written, recoverable proof that he has not just seen, but noted too. All his training does not change their mundane character. Real expertise stands on a continuous, stubborn, unbored openness to detail.

A consequence of the naturalist’s unflappable commitment to actual observation is that she avoids two oscillating dangers of the modern relationship to nature. The naturalist is not a romantic who ascribes soft spiritual forces to the not-human, who needs to sustain the illusion of a wild or untouched nature to value it. And the naturalist is not really a scientific materialist, either, who seeks to dissect natural processes in terms of physical laws, models and forces. Another feature of naturalistic observation is that while it requires a total commitment to detail, there is also a holistic quality to it, a tendency for the mass of detail to start out as a collection of incongruous parts but end as a system.

Consider the last book by book by Oliver Rackham, The Ancient Woods of the Helford River, published after his death from a partially-finished manuscript. In one chapter he reviews individual patches of woods in a schematic sketch. Here is how he begins his description of the Calamansack Wood along the Helford:

A house was built in the wood in 1918. Much of the wood is mown in August on a two-year cycle. This favours bluebell at the expense of bramble. Two mowings kill holly, resulting in a characteristic empty bottom to the wood. This wood is on a steep south-east-facing slope with a plateau at the top; it is very exposed to the east, except in a deep narrow ravine down to Pill Cove. In the west are two houses of the 1930s, one of which is a period piece with its green pantile roof; their gardens have increased at the expense of the wood. A foot-holloway zigzags down to the pill, at the mouth of which is an elegant granite boathouse.0{#ffn4 .footnote}^

Rackham sees no problem with building his naturalistic account on a description of an old house. To see this wood is to begin with the outlines of human activity around which it has grown. Neither the human nor the wood has priority here. He will write of how they grow through one another.0{#ffn5 .footnote}^ Then, following his own advice, he steps back further in time:

The wood is clearly divided, and has been for at least two hundred years, into a coppice on the exposed slopes and a timberwood in the ravine. The coppice was last felled between 1820 and 1860, apart from an area c.1930 and a few small patches since. The timber trees appear to date from the 1770s. The ancient stools are up to 10 ft in diameter.

Calamansack Wood is a natural process that coexists with a human past. For Rackham it begins with the first mention in the record, and with the earliest signs of human activity:

Calamansack Wood is well recorded back to 1249, the longest certain documented history of any Helford River wood. With Merthen and Gweek, it is one of the earliest woods in England to be shown on a map. It has an ancient boundary bank and an internal earthwork corresponding to a sixteenth-century subdivision (see page 62, Fig. 4.1). There are at least three charcoal-hearths.

Finally, he ends by speculating on the name of the wood itself:

What did the name Calamansack mean? The 1249 form, Kylmoncote, makes no sense in Cornish and is evidently a misspelling. Kylmonsek occurs in 1308 and 1331, Kyllymansak in 1442, and in 1478 we meet a John Kyllymonsek. The first part of the word is probably kyl ‘corner’; monsek is a word of unknown meaning with the adjectival ending -ack. The place-name therefore means ‘Something-y Corner’. By 1442 the name had been reinterpreted as if it contained kelli, ‘grove’, perhaps because of the wood. The hamlets of Calamansack Wartha and Wollas were both in existence at least by 1365 and finally the Kyllymonsek family was named after them.

I make no claim that Rackham’s account of the Calamansack wood is a model for the naturalist’s approach to observational practice. A naturalist gets to invent, in some sense, an idiosyncratic genre of his own. Rackham’s model is an original synthesis of details which could have been put to other purposes. But its essence, as he wrote in the Preface to Woodlands, is being attentive to the factor of time, being willing to decompress the present as far as the details of the total environment (ecological, historical) will allow.

  1. [That Rackham calls upon people to observe nature “over the long term” brings up the related idea of natural history, and its connection to the naturalist tradition–a worthwhile question for later. ↩︎]{#fn1}
  2. [The entry for “naturalist” in the OED suggests one definition close to what I mean: “an amateur concerned more with observation than with experiment.” This sense appears to have arisen in the mid-19th century, in parallel with the professionalization of science. Cf. one OED example from Charles Darwin’s Origin of the Species, where he writes that “every naturalist knows vaguely what he means when he speaks of a species.” ↩︎]{#fn2}
  3. [Bernd Heinrich, “Untangling the Bank,” in Field Notes on Science and Nature (33) ↩︎]{#fn3}
  4. [The following passages are taken from Chapter 7 in Helford Woods, “Individual Woods,” pp. 107-110. ↩︎]{#fn4}
  5. [In the Forward to Woodlands, he confesses that “I write as a now rather old-fashioned botanist, concerned with woodland as an ecosystem with a life of its own, in which human agency is one among many environmental factors. In this book trees are themselves wildlife, rather than merely a habitat for wildlife.” ↩︎]{#fn5}


Bernd Heinrich, “Untangling the Bank.” In Field Notes on Science and Nature, ed. Michael Canfield. Harvard, 2011

Oliver Rackham, Woodlands. New Naturalist Library (100). Collins, 2010.

Oliver Rackham, The Ancient Woods of The Helford River. Little Toller Books, 2019.


Who Gets Local Control?

James Scott writes convincingly about the tendency of large institutions, like states and private enterprises, to pursue their own interests by abstracting away the complexity of the actual world:

The necessarily simple abstractions of large bureaucratic institutions, as we have seen, can never adequately represent the actual complexity of natural or social processes. The categories that they employ are too coarse, too static, and too stylized to do justice to the world that they purport to describe.0{#ffn1 .footnote}^

According to Scott, any organization that works on a large scale, across different populations or a wide geographic area, will find systematic ways to work on its own terms. This could be people, natural resources, land–it doesn’t matter. The point is that large organizations work with the tools they have available: standardization, which is achieved through quantification and measurement, and control over the environment that makes up the local system. Large organizations pay very close attention to all these variables so that they can exclude or pay a lot less attention to everything else on the ground.

Scott argues that no state has ever come into existence through asking all its people what they need and want. Instead, it brings people under its control, who already have purposes, goals, and ideas of their own , and treats them according to what it thinks they need to do and be. In the past, this meant making them grow crops or serve in a military. Today, these same states might get people ready for compulsory schooling, provide employment, and supervise their health and wellness. Some aspects of these programs may be beneficial, but still, the state only offers the benefits that it has the tools to administer.0{#ffn2 .footnote}^

Most of Scott’s research focuses on how states use their power, but he does devote some attention to how private enterprise has reached a status similar to the state. I could not read Scott’s account of scientific forestry and agriculture without thinking of modern computing. Everything that has become digital over the last few decades has also become some combination of simpler, more abstract, and more amenable to what can be logged in a database (i.e., measured) and represented on a screen (e.g., images, videos). The face of a powerful, expansive-as-a-state private industry today surely has to be the company known Facebook–and “big tech” in general.

But the state persists. As a result every locality is now caught in multiple forms of abstracting, monolithic power, from federal and regional government, to globe-level tracking and surveillance, to the expansion of warehouse-based logistics and ever-more-concentrated factory farming.

Once multiple schemes of rationalization compete, interesting things happen. Scott writes that “today, global capitalism is perhaps the most powerful force for homogenization, whereas the state may in some instances be the defender of local difference and variety.“0{#ffn3 .footnote}^ I think of the recently passed French law to protect the sounds and smells of the countryside, or the policies many other countries have to protect distinctive regional cultures.

The average person lives under multiple centralizing forces, and this is a good thing–maybe one of the basic escapes from what would otherwise be an unbearable life dominated by a single authority. Most institutions of modern life acknowledge, in principle, that even they have limited powers, and that there are other legitimate spheres of action over which they ought to cede control. Scott notes, for instance, that the original justification for classical economic liberalism (i.e., “the free market”) was “not only that a free market protected property and created wealth but also that the economy was far too complex for it ever to be managed in detail by a hierarchical administration.“0{#ffn4 .footnote}^ According to this version of events, earlier states, which sought to control the use and allocation of resources, simply could not be as productive as those which ceded control over economic decision-making to local economic actors in the field. In an authentic free-market economy, local peoples achieve some independence because it is in the ultimate interests of the state to let individuals exercise their judgment.

Going further, it seems to me that the battle to achieve some level of local control is one of the most important and contentious issues in politics today, one that arguably cuts across both the developed and developing world.0{#ffn5 .footnote}^ To stick with my own country, much of the dysfunction in American politics can probably be explained by looking at what local control looks like to real people, who is allowed to achieve it, how much of daily life is conducted outside the view of distant authorities, and how local peoples think about the centralizing structures in their lives. Scott’s argument made me think harder about some tentative answers to each of these questions.

Two schools of thought in the U.S. about the reason for local control

I see two main flavors of argument used to justify local control in the U.S. The first is that a group needs local control because it is in the best interests of the country or wider society to do so. The second is that local control is a foundational good in itself.

To give an example of the first type, one of the highest collective goods in the US is the economy (i.e., “the market”). Favorable treatment of financial entities and liberal capital allocation are justified by the belief that they allow worthy smaller actors to receive investment that might later have broad national rewards. This can be seen in the “startup” model of US corporation. The startup is a business model in which ambitious, innovative small groups operate within a relaxed field, outside of existing corporate or other bureaucratic structures. Investor support relieves this group from the normal business pressures of breaking even, allowing them to take risks and pursue unconventional measures according to their own judgment about what is valuable. The eventual expectation is that the business will meet or exceed the normal standard of success (monetary profit). And the country will benefit by allowing this form of temporary local decision-making through increased economic competitiveness and greater wealth. It is no accident that the character of the free-spirited, eccentric, brilliant software engineer is tied to the paradigmatic modern startup, the software company, the field where creativity appears to promise greater profit, faster, than almost any other business ever.

Other justifications of the first type that come to mind include:

The second argument for local control, that it is an intrinsic good, can be seen in the American historical tradition of religious freedom, and the small religious sects that was the basis for many local communities in the early American republic. The idea remains in action today, whether through distinctive regional communities like the Amish or as an idea like the “Benedict Option.” The idea that religious peoples are a unique group whose interests are fundamentally different than the mainstream, secular United States, carries a lot of weight with Christian groups in the US today.

The American emphasis on individualism also represents the maximization of the principled argument for local control. By this logic, if every locality is itself composed of individuals, each with their own slightly different positions and stakes within the locality, then the individual is the purest expression the most particular local interest. But there are more powerful reasons to reject the individual’s connection with localism which I will discuss below.

Arguments made on behalf of local populations are often nationalized in the U.S.

In the Federalist Paper #51, James Madison writes that any nation will be composed of many interests, some more powerful than others–but most will still be in the minority. Therefore the best chance that any minority has to thrive is to seek out the umbrella protection of a strong centralized authority, i.e., the state. Madison’s assumptions may still be true, but he was perhaps not aggressive enough in imagining the relationship between central power and the minority. It is one thing for a minority seek out the protection of central authority on the grounds of neutral principle, but why should the minority limit its ambition, when it can influence the decision-making processes of that authority, or even take it over? The capture of state and federal decision-making power by “special interests,” whether through lobbying or elected officials with ulterior motives, betrays a situation where specific local interests seek to permanently tilt government power in their direction. Perhaps this is an inherent tension in a democratic republic, where the citizens elected to government are supposed to act on behalf of “the people” in general, but of course also come from a locality of their own, with interests of their own from both before and after their time in government.

One interpretation the American “Culture Wars” is that they are an attempt to elevate local social mores to centralized structures of authority (the legislature, the courts). The issue goes in the reverse direction, too. It might equally be the case that national and regional authorities have taken more interest in social issues that were formerly left untouched by the state.

Even in an age of large bureaucracy, the number of truly centralized powers is small

There are only so many nation-states, and likewise, only an elite few private industries that can exert state-like monolithic power.

Therefore most groups–even many powerful ones–are in a position to claim a local standpoint for their interests. Large corporations, for example, do not necessarily acknowledge their control over immense funds, employees, capital, or resources. Instead, corporations present themselves as representatives of one local interest which faces threats from all the others, from equivalent industries in other nations, and from state policies that might disfavor them relative to other groups. In this way, even entities with a global reach appear to be narrow actors with very limited goals and aims. The special interests of any given group become, in effect, its locality.

New powers often get their start by serving state power; over time they compete with it

A member of the New York Times editorial board wrote a few weeks back about tech companies that seek to take on the powers of governments. He was thinking of Amazon’s purported nationwide contest over the location of its second headquarters, or Facebook’s new “Supreme Court” that reviews controversial policies like Donald Trump’s ban. Those are high-profile examples which go to a more general point: centralization as a process of power consolidation is never moving in just one direction, and it is never finished. New players are always possible, and new forms of control threaten ones that are already established. And there is no difference in principle between the state and other abstracting powers. We are now seeing an accelerating force, “information technology,” that consolidates information across national borders, creating new fault lines along the old human networks. The internet, which originally began as a research project by the state, now promises to be an abstracting, centralizing force to rival it.

This was not inevitable. The beginnings of the internet represented a new potential for centralization, because it required people to accept standard protocols for how information was received and transmitted across the network. But how the network would be used (i.e., what would be shared across it, who would profit from it) and what would be done with the information that resulted (i.e., who would store it and why) was still undecided. The internet was mostly unprofitable in its first decade of existence, because those who sought to control it had not successfully answered any of those questions. There was not yet a drive to centralize because it was not clear what the players on the internet would be centralizing for. Once the business models to profit from information technology became obvious, the character of the entire internet changed dramatically within a few years, toward a centralized model with identifiable goals: aggregation of viewership (advertising revenue), bulk collection of data flows (surveillance) and standardized entry points to the network (“platforms”).

The example of the internet shows that the landscape of centralized power changes dramatically when a new power arrives to consolidate local difference. Usually this is associated with technological innovation, but the innovation cannot be for its own sake. When technology contributes to a problem capable of being measured or achieved (e.g., profit), then centralization achieves the human urgency to push for realization.

Central authority gives individuals the power to understand its inner workings, because it must train some of them as administrators of the system

I wrote above that, at least in liberal societies that have a strong tradition of individualism, individuals might be considered their own form of hyper-“locality.”

An alternative explanation is that strong individualism is actually an abstracting development that makes a good companion to centralized authority. At the foundational of a modern, contract-based, mass society is a type of individual who is stripped of stubborn cultural dialects and local loyalties. The contemporary version of the abstract individual is the administrative mind, ambitious to seek advantage within systems that reward indifference to the past, pragmatism, loyalty and an abandonment of substantive rationality.

On the other hand, even the person who has been thoroughly socialized into centralized state power still retains her agency. Everyone comes from somewhere, and few people live such a deracinated life that they are not in a position to observe local effects–the effects of centralization–on the ground. Some of the most powerful modern testaments to centralized power were created by people who got their start acting on behalf of the state, putting them in a position to observe and understand it. Orwell was an administrator to British colonial rule in India before he became a writer about totalitarianism. In a different time and place, the NSA contractor Edward Snowden was just one mundane administrator of a new scheme to organize information–until he started to look around.

From the Preface to The Free World, by Harvard Professor of English Louis Menand, about U.S. culture during the Cold War:

“Cultures get transformed not deliberately or programmatically but by the unpredictable effects of social, political, and technological change, and by random acts of cross-pollination. Ars longa is the ancient proverb, but actually, art making is short-term. It is a response to changes in the immediate environment and the consequence of serendipitous street-level interactions.“0{#ffn6 .footnote}^

  1. [James C. Scott, Seeing Like a State, 262 ↩︎]{#fn1}
  2. [Among his case studies, Scott uses the beginning of wide-scale agriculture in the so-called “fertile crescent,” where he makes the case that hunter-gatherers, who were deeply skilled at securing a wide variety of foods, had to be captured and coerced into growing monocrop grains. He also writes about the beginnings of modern “scientific forestry” in Europe, where state authorities took apart complete forest ecosystems, systems on which many people depended, so that they could consolidated, inventoried, culled and re-cultivated into regular stands of “natural resources.” ↩︎]{#fn2}
  3. [Scott, Seeing Like a State, 8 ↩︎]{#fn3}
  4. [Scott, State, 102 ↩︎]{#fn4}
  5. [For example, Facebook pursues different strategies for growth in the United States and India, but it is very active–and very interested–in both. ↩︎]{#fn5}
  6. [Menand, The Free World. Preface. (Epub version). ↩︎]{#fn6}