Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Of Wolves and Men, by Barry Lopez

In Of Wolves and Men (Simon & Schuster, 1978) Barry Lopez examines the importance of wolves in human history and culture.  Early sections of the book describe the wolf in its own environment.  This interest in the wolf as an animal, as an inhabitant of nature, is what I expected and wanted from this book.  I hoped for descriptions of how wolves live and hunt and reproduce, their pack mentality, their intelligence relative to other animals.  Lopez treats all these subjects, but not at the sort of length and depth that we found in Arctic Dreams (1986), his best work. Instead, in later chapters, Lopez describes attitudes of native Americans towards the wolf, cultural misperceptions of the wolf as an evil and cowardly creature, the sustained campaign to wipe out wolves on the American continent in the late 19th and early 20th century, folk tales and fables about wolves, and so on.
Lopez is especially interested in Native American views of the wolf.  Their views illustrate the importance of the wolf in one aspect of human history.  To me, these sections of the book reveal more about native American cultural beliefs and practices than they do about the wolf.  These sections are undoubtedly based on extensive reading and research, but they lack objectivity.  How would an anthropologist view them?
Lopez argues that human interpretations of the wolf often are driven by preoccupations unrelated to the animal—that views of the wolf as evil, murderous, and cowardly are in fact projections of traits that human observers discern within themselves.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016


In Zootopia (co-dirs. Byron Howard, Rich Moore, Jared Bush, 2016) we are given a utopia in which animals long ago agreed to put aside their inborn instincts and live together in peace and harmony.  Even so, not everyone in this fantasy world is treated equally.  Foxes are stereotyped as sly and dishonest.  Rabbits are regarded as too small and weak to serve on the police force.  Everyone makes fun of, or is exasperated by, the slow-moving sloths.  The film focuses on a young female rabbit, Judy Hopps, who wants to be a police officer, and on the fox, Nick Wilde, who eventually becomes her friend and ally.  The lessons here, aside from the overall lesson of peace and harmony blah blah blah are that in the city of Zootopia everyone can achieve their dreams and that people (that is, animals) shouldn’t be stereotyped.  Another lesson pertains to race and racial differences—whatever one’s racial, or spec-ial character, he or she should be treated like everyone else.  These are all lessons our world could profit by.  In fact, they are so commonplace that it’s easy to ignore them and just to be entertained by the colorful, fast-moving, and witty film.  Maybe, however, given the young audience the film is partially aimed towards, the lessons are worth repeating.  For the adults who watch this film with the children (or without them) there is much to be entertained by.
The film does invoke its own stereotypes—a heavy and slow-talking hillbilly fox is an example.
Although the plot is an old one—a character who wants to prove that, in spite of the expectations of everyone around her, she can be the person she wants to be, it’s the execution that makes this film so pleasantly watchable.

Zero K, by Don DeLillo

The main character in Don DeLillo’s Zero K is difficult to evaluate.  We don’t learn his name—Jeffrey Lockhart--until the closing pages of the novel.  In his relationship with his father Ross, he’s the epitome of a passive-aggressive son.  Resentful of his father for abandoning him at a young age, for letting his mother die alone, he also seems to love his father.  Yet their way of interacting reminds me of what it is like to sit at the keyboard of a computer.  You type in certain combinations of words and commands, You receive certain responses.
He seems disaffected—from himself.  He’s committed to nothing—other than to not taking any job that his father might have recommended or arranged for him.  He’s apparently not averse to taking money from his father, a billionaire, since he has no discernible source of income.  He’s numb, passive, cold and disconnected. 
He reminds me of the protagonists in Cosmopolis and Point Omega and The Body Artist.  Does DeLillo find such characters fascinating, or is this the best he can do?
I wanted to like this novel.  DeLillo is a fine writer, one of the best writers of the last fifty years.  He’s nearing the age of 80, and one hopes for something like a return to form—a form last represented for me in his 1996 great work Underworld.
One of the prime subjects of Zero K is the intersection of death and technology.  How does this intersection influence our attitudes towards death, towards life?  What if through developments in cryoscience and medical science it becomes possible to prolong our lives indefinitely? How does that prospect change our conceptions of who we are, not merely as individuals but as members of a species?  Annihilation, apocalypse, seem always on the margins of this novel, yet they never come, except for the characters who choose to be frozen.  DeLillo himself seems obsessed with death, and his awareness of it dominates this novel, not always to good effect.
I have to admit to my own obsession with the same subject, and perhaps as a result I should read this novel again to make sure I haven’t misjudged it.

Drifting into Darien: A Personal and Natural History of the Altamaha River, by Janisse Ray

Drifting into Darien: A Personal and Natural History of the Altamaha River (Univ. of Georgia Press, 2013) is not as well constructed as Janisse Ray’s earlier books, though it is just as interesting.  The first half is an account of a kayak trip down the Altamaha River.  Ray discusses the history of the river, the region that depends on it, the people and animals who live along the river, and the pollution and industrial development that threaten it.  Foremost among her concerns is a paper mill which pours toxic effluents into the river and the Vogle nuclear power plant.  The second half of the book is a series of short essays about wildlife, people, and places associated with the Altamaha.  For instance, there is a short chapter on bears that describes past and current ranges of bears in the southeast, and that suggests what must happen in order for their range to expand.  Many of these chapters are provocative, and they leave the reader not entirely satisfied and wishing for more information.  Ray has become an increasingly lyrical and effective writer over the course of her career.  Her poetic descriptive abilities are evident throughout.  Her passion and fierce commitment to nature and the environment are always apparent.  There are moments when she falters—one chapter ends with a quotation from a Tony Orlando and Dawn song, for instance--and she is occasionally too careless, too flippant, with her language.  Although I am sure that Ray thought carefully about the order in which she arranged the short chapters in the book’s second half, the effect is sometimes of randomness.

Pinhook: Finding Wholeness in a Fragmented Land, by Janisse Ray

I’ve lived my entire life in Georgia (with five years in South Carolina) without ever having heard of the Pinhook Swamp, the subject of Janisse Ray’s third book, Pinhook: Finding Wholeness in a Fragmented Land (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2005).  People like me are likely among the intended audience for the book, in which Ray recounts the area’s history, its environmental significance, and efforts to preserve and reclaim it. The swamp is so thick that few people ever penetrate it.  Ray has been there repeatedly.  Her descriptions of the animal and plant life in the swamp are among the book’s virtues.  Her efforts to create a mystical significance for the swamp, signified in her subtitle and its emphasis on “wholeness” don’t work as well for me.  I know what she is arguing—that preserving the Pinhook area prevents it from becoming divided up and “fragmented” by farmlands and housing developments—it is thus kept whole.  Moreover, the ecological significance of the swamp, which provides an open pathway for wildlife to move back and forth between the Osceola National Forest in Florida and the Okeefenokee Swamp in Georgia and Florida, is preserved.  But she also argues for wholeness as a mystical sense of fulfillment in human life.  This part of the book becomes problematic for me. Ray is at her best when she is writing about her own experiences in the swamp, its importance to the preservation of the local environment, and ongoing efforts to preserve it.  Pinhook offers some of her best writing, but the way she has organized it, especially in the latter half, with a number of short chapters that pique the reader’s interest without really satisfying it, leaves the book seeming more fragmented than whole.