Friday, November 23, 2007

From The Recent Drawbridge: On The Moral Duty of Raiding Abandoned Orchards

The close proximity of utility and beauty that people find in the functions of non-human life is a netherworld that E.O. Wilson, the "father of biodiversity," has spent some time navigating. In his "biophilia" hypothesis, Wilson makes the case that human beings, over hundreds of thousands of years of evolution, have developed an "innately emotional affiliation" with other living organisms. The utilitarian and the aesthetic are inextricably linked, Wilson says, because "passion is inseverably linked to reason" in our comprehension of other life forms. Emotion is "not just a perturbation of reason but a vital part of it."

The most fragrant and dazzling flowering plants attract the greatest number of pollinators, including bees, birds, fruit bats, moths, as well as such primates as humans. An evolutionary side effect of the beauty of flowers was the dispersal of enormous amounts of sugar and protein throughout the world. And the abundance of herbivorous food energy, of precisely the kind found in apples, is one of the key factors that allowed for the rise and diffusion of large, warm-blooded mammal species, such as humans.

The case of the Kauai alula is one of my favourite examples of the lengths people will go. The alula is a peculiar and extraordinarily beautiful succulent and one of the world's rarest flowers. At the beginning of this century, there were just 20 left in the wild, confined to the Na Pali sea cliffs on the Hawaiian island of Kauai, 1,000 metres above the crashing surf. It had come to its perilous condition because of the extinction of its only known pollinator, a moth. To keep the alulas alive, botanists were lowering themselves down the cliff face by rope every year to pollinate the flowers by hand.

It is hard to make the case that these people were behaving merely out of rational self-interest, or that they were concerned only with the potential utilitarian value of the alula. Say what you like about how horrible the human species is, appropriating 40 per cent of the planet's primary productivity all to itself and chopping down all those forests. Human beings also do this.

. . .That's an excerpt in the British quarterly The Drawbridge from An Apple is a Kind of Rose, an essay from my book The Lost and Left Behind: Stories from the Age of Extinctions (Saqi). The latest edition just arrived in the mail today; I didn't realize its contents were also on-line. But the print version is gorgeous. The Guardian describes The Drawbridge this way: "A quarterly printed on a parchment whose girth commuters haven't encountered since Pooter was sauntering down the Holloway Road, it's a journal that thinks bigger than most, and in more ways than one. Boasting a ready-scribbled-on Sudoku grid, artwork by Joel Sternfield and David Shrigley and writing from Gerry Adams, Noam Chomsky and John Berger, there's intellectual meat here but no paucity of visual and verbal wit either."

Odd, the reception The Lost and Left Behind is getting in the UK. It's like its found a second home among readers of a wholly different kind than have come to the Canadian version (Waiting for the Macaws) or the American version (The Sixth Extinction).

That handy little function ("Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought") shows that American readers of The Sixth Extinction also bought books like David Sloan Wilson's Evolution for Everyone, Bill McKibben's The Deep Economy, Thomas Homer-Dixon's The Upside of Down, E.O. Wilson's The Future of Life and so on, suggesting a readership niche that accords with my sense of the kind of reader Waiting for the Macaws attracts in Canada.

On the UK Amazon site, a different readership is involved, with interests in a different genre. People who buy The Lost and Left Behind also buy such books as Nick Cohen's What's Left?, Christopher Hitchens' God is Not Great, Oliver Kamm's Anti-Totalitarianism, Paul Berman's Terror and Liberalism, Benson and Stangroom's Why Truth Matters, and that sort of thing.

I'm slightly more inclined to the titles on the latter bookshelf. But I'm grateful to find my books on either.


Blogger Graeme said...

I recently read Waiting For The Macaws and loved it; I just passed the book on to my girlfriend and she's now reading it. I'm also thinking that the book will make for a good Christmas gift or two. Thanks for writing it, Terry.

5:30 PM  
Blogger richard said...

Ditto - though thanks to your formatting, I can't tell who said it first....

My mother-in-law was asking if I wanted a subscription to something for Christmas: I wonder if it's too late to get The Drawbridge. Looks like quite the outfit.

7:03 PM  

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