October 27, 2005

Tales from the Underground: A Natural History of Subterranean Life, David W. Wolfe

Here's a sampler of soil knowledge; the chapters stand pretty well alone but build well if read in order. The subjects are 'fun stuff', oddities of natural history, but Wolfe points out the many practical things provided us by soil creatures: antibiotics, bioremediation, plant health... the one that surprised me was prarie dogs as pasture-maintainers.

Prairie dogs keep the plants near their cities pruned to just below prairie-dog standing height. I guess they like to be able to either stand up and look out, or drop down and scurry in secret. They don't, because of this, eat anything down to the roots. As many a lawn-caretaker knows, regular trimming of grass will often make it grow more densely. Better yet, mowing a bit higher, say, prairie-dog height, encourages many plants to grow and none to take over: it's one of the main things you need to do to maintain a flowering meadow. So prairie dog habitat often has denser and more diverse cover than the same land without its dogs; their cropping encourages clover, and discourages shrubs and prickly pear. Without the prairie dogs, bad-fodder shrubs and pear tend to take over and outcompete the grass, making the land less useful to grazing animals. There is, I gather, some reason to believe that prairie with prairie dogs would support more grazing animals than prairie without. (Consider, of course, the thundering herds before western colonization.)

Alas, the U.S. has been actively subsidizing the poisoning of prairie dogs since the early 19th c., and we don't have a lot left.

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Posted by clew at 10:46 PM

October 13, 2005

Darwin's Plots, Gillian Beer

Turns out I can't read this (excellent) summary of how Victorian literary language shaped, and was shaped by, Darwin's ideas and prose right now. I need to read too many science papers on ecophys and other evolutionary forces, and I can't read them while teasing apart their language for the inheritances from storytelling that Beer brings out so elegantly. The points of view are too close in their subject, and too far apart in their object.

One of the points early in the book is that Charles Darwin himself had difficulty finding language that didn't imply planning and intent where he didn't mean to imply it.

I recommend it to anyone who likes Victorian writers, though, especially late Victorian writers. I especially liked the connections to the Symbolists and the proto-Freudians and the general teeming, interconnected density of the Vicky view. Coleridge, Mary Shelley, Charles Dickens, all the gang.

I suspect that George Eliot's intersection with Darwinian themes was more austere and systematic, but I only skimmed the chapter on it.

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Posted by clew at 04:40 PM
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