The Edge Effects editorial board brings you a handful of recommendations based on the most interesting stuff that’s come across our desks, screens, and speakers over the last month (or so). From books and articles, to podcasts, music, and film, we’ll keep you on the edge.
During the dog days of summer, while my own canid companion and I sprawl lazily in front of the fan, it seems appropriate to recommend a short but thought-provoking opinion piece from this week’s Sunday New York Times by Mohammed Hanif called “Of Dogs, Faith and Imams.” Hanif raises interesting questions about the intersection of religious belief and our relationships with one of the few nonhuman species with which many of us willingly share our homes and hearths. Scholars from Yi Fu Tuan to Donna Haraway to Heidi Nast (among others) have puzzled at length over our relationships with animal companions. But our relationships with nonhuman animals have spiritual as well as intellectual meaning for many. Where does the dog fit in between the sacred and the profane?
During a trek of the Cape Wrath Trail in the remote Scottish Highlands with my brother, we brought along The Casual Perfect, a wonderful book of poems by Lavinia Greenlaw. Her poems were fitting companions to our days. Greenlaw, who is from England, weaves landscape and emotion in almost dreamlike stanzas. Her imagery is vivid in a way similar to petroglyphs or a silhouette, reducing everything down to its shape and essence, as in the following poem entitled “Joy and Difficulty”:
To move freely, to come back early,
to pitch camp on a shingle spit,
to sleep through the coming loose
and so accumulate to one end
while unmaking ourselves at the other
as if it were possible to do this
without drawing on old for new.
What exists beyond the reaches of earth’s atmosphere, and how have past authors tried to imagine it? Should we go looking? Should we stick closer to home? What, exactly, are we looking for? Fresh off two weeks thinking about these questions with precocious middle school attendees of the Great Books Summer Program, the instructor in me is convinced: podcasts make great teaching tools. They also make great solo entertainment, so this month I’ll simply enthuse: John Roderick’s SongExploder debut features The Long Winters’ frontman imagining a doomed Space Shuttle Columbia crew in gorgeous, humane fashion. And Liev Schreiber’s reading of Italo Calvino’s short story, “The Distance of the Moon,” lets loss and longing take on gravitational weight in this world where moon and earth, near kissing, orbit towards inevitable separation.
Now completing its final year, Humanities for the Environment (HfE) is an interdisciplinary research project supported by a Andrew W. Mellon Foundation grant to the Consortium of Humanities Centers and Institutes (which recently held its annual meeting in Madison). HfE “explores how the humanistic disciplines contribute to understanding and engaging with the challenges of global environmental change.” But that description hardly does justice to the rich work HfE is producing at its three international “observatories” in Australia, Europe, and North America; check out its projects, publications, and people to see what I mean.
What is code, anyway? Last month, I wrote about the surreal landscapes Google’s image recognition algorithms are busily generating. This time, check out Paul Ford’s fun, 38,000 word take on computer programming in general. For him, programming’s all “a comedy of ego, made possible by logic gates,” and he dissects the business, science, history, and (gendered) culture of the art/hobby/growth industry. What you might wonder at the end of the read (don’t forget your certificate of completion!) is, what about how code has shaped our experience of place and nature?
Kaitlin Stack Whitney
I recently heard an excellent interview with Dr. Parker, a retired US Fish and Wildlife Service scientist and administrator, on her career and experience as a pioneering black woman in the agency. When asked what inspired her education and career path choices, she named her mother—and also specifically mentioned the Marvin Gaye song “Mercy, Mercy Me (The Ecology).” (Check out the lyrics here or listen to the song below.) The 1971 hit and its legacy as an influence on environmental thought in the United States is a great reminder that how we study and teach the American environmental canon needs to be far broader than Muir and Leopold.
As my plane touched down in Seattle last week, I was finishing Kathryn Schultz’s recent New Yorker article about the terrifying and very real possibility of a devastating earthquake in the Pacific Northwest. While Schultz’s descriptions of the potential impacts of a major seismic event almost made me want the plane to take off in the other direction, they were also a reminder of the important lessons that can come from understanding our environmental past at long, geologic time scales. For the present, they come as a call for preparedness, a call which begs that we look to the more recent past to avoid repeating the unequal distribution of vulnerability to environmental disaster (for more on this recent past in Seattle, see Matthew Klingle’s excellent Emerald City: An Environmental History of Seattle).