Rekindling an Old Flame


Just two weeks ago I crossed through the magic portal:  I retired, not from other and better activities, but from almost two full decades of college teaching.  But even before I’d delivered my last lecture, run my last lab, and graded my last exam, I’d rediscovered at home an old, old flame—a  collection of thousands of quotations I’ve culled from a lifetime of reading in many different subjects.

Starting in the early 1970s I carefully marked the most interesting ideas in each book I read and then, before consigning it to the shelf, wrote down  the passages I especially liked on note cards and looseleaf sheets kept in bulging three-ring notebooks.  Later, a few years ago, I started to transcribe those quotations into digital form. But then the demands of my teaching drew me away again.

Now I’m back at it, hammer and tongs. And—joy of joys for a compulsive organizer—I’m doing it more systematically. First, I’m recording in more permanent form my lists of all the books I’ve read since I began keeping track at the age of twenty-one. They total about 2,700 titles. (To the average modern American this may seem a large number, but when one considers the bibliophiles and intellectuals of the past, it’s really not much to crow about.)  Next, I’m entering the individual quotations on my daily tick list into one of seventy-one different sections that highlight those themes in science, art, religion, philosophy, I deem especially important.

But why should I bother? From traditional print sources like Bartlett’s to a plethora of websites of varying levels of competence and seriousness, aren’t there enough quotation factories already? Perhaps. All I can say is that I’m madly in love and this is something I simply have to do. And so I shall whether or not it ultimately assumes any public form. The real point here is that I suddenly find myself swimming with a tsunami of great ideas, rather than bobbing in the windless sea of third-rate academic cant. It’s an exhilarating ride, and as a small New Year’s gift to you, I share below a few of the items from my ever-growing hoard. Because this site is primarily devoted to natural history, these selections mostly but not exclusively touch upon familiar themes. 

(And by the way, let me know  if you can identify the scribbler pictured at top, who is one of my personal Heroes of Art. At this point I can’t offer the first responder a new sports car or wall-sized flatscreen TV, but you will earn my undying admiration. )

 *  *  *  *  *  *

We shall never fully understand nature (or ourselves), and certainly never respect it, until we dissociate the wild from the notion of usability—however innocent and harmless the use.

 – John Fowles, The Tree

 *  *  *  *  *  *

The mists of the North have bewitched the Black, or Pontic, Sea. Beyond it lay the Bosporan kingdom and at its western end the Symplegades opened to the Amazon coast—merciless cliffs with dark patches streaked like walnut leaves in autumn; and the eastern or Caucasian end was known as the ‘furthermost run for ships,” where seventy tribes all spoke their separate tongues. “Thence people go to Amisus and Sinope, a sea voyage of two or three days, since the shores are soft because of the outsets of the rivers,” which build small sombre beaches, blackish like a dream. The water is shallow with flat rocks, and so little salt that rock-doves come to sip it; the foam is not crisp like the Aegean but greenish as old ivory, and loosely spangled; and the sun flecks it weakly, like flashes from rings.

  Freya Stark, Rome on the Euphrates (the interior quotations are from Plutarch’s Eumenes)

*  *  *  *  *  *

From fateful error, many times compounded, spins the intricate web of life.

                                     – Clifford Grobstein, The Strategy of Life

 *  *  *  *  *  *

I was as interested in the discovery of limestone as if it had been gold, and wondered that I had never thought of it before. Now all things seemed to radiate round limestone, and I saw how farmers lived near to, or far from, a locality of limestone. . . . I read a new page in the history of these parts in the old limestone quarries and kilns where the old settlers found the materials of their houses. 

– Henry David Thoreau, from a journal entry of 1850

 *  *  *  *  *  *

. . . Standing on a street corner waiting for no one is Power . . .

 Gregory Corso, from “Power”

 *  *  *  *  *  *

I love the birds and beasts because they are mythologically in earnest. 

– Henry David Thoreau, from the journal entry for March 31, 1852

 *  *  *  *  *  *

[Of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 CE] We had scarcely sat down when night came upon us, not such as we have when there is no moon, but that of a room when it is shut up, and all the lights put out. You might hear the shrieks of women, the screams of children, and the shouts of men; some calling for their children, other for their parents, others for their husbands, and seeking to recognize each other by the voices that replied; one lamenting his own fate, another that of his family; some wishing to die, from the very fear of dying; some lifting their hands to the gods; but the greater part convinced that there were now no gods at all, and that the final endless night of which we have heard had come upon the world. 

Gaius Plinius Caecilius Secundus (Pliny the Younger), from a letter to Cornelius Tacitus

 *  *  *  *  *  *

You would never believe the sport and entertainment that your human puppets provide daily for the gods. You are aware that these gods set aside their sober morning hours for composing quarrels and listening to prayers. But after that, when their minds are well clouded from the nectar and they have no desire to transact business . . . they sit there, gazing down at mortal men and watching them argue. There is no show like it. Good God, what a theater! 

 – Desiderius Erasmus, The Praise of Folly

 *  *  *  *  *  *

In troubled times of uncertainty or transition all sorts of low individuals always appear everywhere. 

– Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Devils

 *  *  *  *  *  *

The universe is the ultimate free lunch. 

– The cosmologist Alan Guth, quoted in Hawking’s A Brief History of Time

 *  *  *  *  *  *

We call nature–meaning this totality in all of its manifestations–the  Ultimate Non-Absolute.

 – Frank Herbert, Children of Dune

 *  *  *  *  *  *

[Of America’s natural features] Nothing dollarable is safe, however guarded.

 – John Muir, quoted in Wulf’s The Invention of Nature

 *  *  *  *  *  *

The most famous Supreme Court decision upholding mandatory minimum sentences is Lockyer v. Andrade. In that case, the Court rejected constitutional challenges to sentences of twenty-five years without parole for a man who stole three golf clubs from a pro shop, and fifty years without parole for another man for stealing children’s videotapes from a Kmart store. These sentences were imposed pursuant to California’s controversial three strikes law, which mandates a sentence of twenty-five years to life for recidivists convicted of a third felony, no matter how minor. Writing for the Court’s majority, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor acknowledged that the sentences were severe but concluded that they are not grossly disproportionate to the offense, and therefore do not violate the Eighth Amendment’s ban on “cruel and unusual” punishments. In dissent, Justice David H. Souter retorted, “If Andrade’s sentence [for stealing videotapes] is not grossly disproportionate, the principle has no meaning.” 

Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow

 *  *  *  *  *  *

When people talk of going back to nature, do they really know what they are asking for? 

– Joseph Campbell, Myths to Live By

 *  *  *  *  *  *

How happy I am to be able to stroll in the woods, among the trees, bushes, wild flowers, and rocks. No one can love the country as much as I do. The woods, trees and rocks return the echo which man is longing to hear!

 Ludwig van Beethoven, from an 1810 letter, translated by Lillian R. Hall and quoted in Schott’s liner notes to the Sony Legacy CD recording (SBK 89838) of Beethoven’s 1st and 6th Symphonies

 *  *  *  *  *  *

Homo sum: humani nihil a me alienum puto.

[I am human, and am therefore indifferent to nothing done by humans.]

– Publius Terentius Afer (Terence)

 *  *  *  *  *  *

“My dear, dear aunt,” she rapturously cried, “What delight! What felicity! You give me fresh life and vigor. Adieu to disappointment and spleen. What are men to rocks and mountains? Oh, what hours of transport we shall spend! And when we do return, it shall not be like all other travelers, without being able to give one accurate idea of anything. We will know where we have gone—we will recollect what we have seen. Lakes, mountains and rivers will not be jumbled together in our imaginations; nor when we attempt to describe any particular scene, will we begin quarreling about its relative situation. Let our first effusions be less insupportable than those of the generality of travelers.” 

Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice

 *  *  *  *  *  *

The real danger lies in our loathing of man and our pity of him. If these two emotions should one day join forces, they would beget the most sinister thing ever witnessed on earth: man’s ultimate will, his will to nothingness, nihilism. And indeed, preparations for that event are already well underway.

 – Friedrich Nietzsche, The Genealogy of Morals

 *  *  *  *  *  *

[Of his exploration of the Andes] When we reached the crest and looked backwards, a glorious view was presented. The atmosphere resplendently clear; the sky an intense blue; the profound valleys; the wild broken forms; the heap of ruins, piled up during the lapse of ages; the bright-coloured rocks, with quiet mountains of snow; all these together produced a scene no one could have imagined. Neither plant nor bird, excepting a few condors wheeling around the higher pinnacles, distracted my attention from the inanimate mass. I felt glad that I was alone: it was like watching a thunderstorm, or hearing in full orchestra a chorus of the Messiah. 

Charles Darwin, The Voyage of the Beagle

 *  *  *  *  *  *

To make Routine a Stimulus

Remember it can cease—

Capacity to Terminate

Is a specific Grace—

   Emily Dickinson, from Poem 1196

 *  *  *  *  *  *


O now the drenched land awakes

Birds from their sleep call

Fitfully, and are still.

Clouds like milky wounds

Float across the moon.


O love, none may

Turn away long

From this white grove

Where all nouns grieve.

  Kenneth Patchen, an untitled poem

 *  *  *  *  *  *

The only way you can feel the least bit important is to think of all the mud that didn’t even get to sit up and look around.

 Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., Between Time and Timbuktu



Nihil Contra Naturam

After spending many hours driving through the suburban and industrial expanses of my native Lake County, Illinois — many of which are looking decidedly shabbier, more threadbare, and more deserted than they were two decades ago — I unwind whenever possible by hiking in the magnificent nature preserve of Illinois Beach State Park.

Just this morning, on the bank of its Kellogg Creek canal, I had frank and meaningful discussions with a pair of kingbirds in a surviving American elm, with a typically indignant and chattery kingfisher, and a catbird mewing somewhere nearby in  the grapevine-clad shrubs.  Then in the marsh and wet prairie I exulted in the late-summer splendor of the DYCs — the goldenrods and seven-foot native sunflowers that struggling botany students call the Damned Yellow Composites on account of their shameless  hybridization and blurring of identification traits.  Ah, those bold and golden yellows, punctuated here and there by the regal blues and purples of the New England asters and blazingstars. Ah, nature.

On the drive home afterward I passed rows of half-abandoned strip malls and an ex-Kmart whose deserted parking lot is now a tarmac for hundreds of herring gulls. Suddenly a decades-old realization popped back into my consciousness: what I was seeing there, in all the despirited jumble of our decaying consumer culture, was every bit as much a production of nature and its forces as the harmonious and colorful prairie ecosystem I’d just left.

Nihii contra Deum nisi Deus ipse is a Latin maxim attributed to the great German poet Goethe: There can be nothing against God, unless it is God Himself.  I mutate that very pregnant thought into Nihil contra Naturam nisi Natura ipse: There can be nothing against Nature unless it is Nature itself.  Everything this planet and its cosmos have suffered to be born is a part of nature, and every human work is, ultimately, natural. And for that reason all history is natural history. When a prominent environmentalist writes a book entitled The End of Nature, he lacks the cold and steely eye of the geologist who knows that humankind is just the latest great disturbing force, very much within nature, driving yet another mass extinction. This is certainly not to say that the environmentalist is wrong to scream bloody murder at the rapid global warming we’re so stupidly causing. But the better title, harrowing enough, would have been The End of Civilization and Various Other Ecosystems. The Earth abideth forever. Well, almost forever, until that part of nature we call the  Sun becomes a red giant billions of years hence.

If we dare to recognize that civilization is as much an efflorescence of nature as a prairie is, it doesn’t mean we have to spend as much time birdwatching at the local Auto Zone outlet as we do in much more aesthetically pleasing spots. There is, as Thoreau and a host of others have noted, tremendous spiritual recharging to be had when one devotes oneself to nonhuman nature in wild places. But neither should we be unaware or disdainful of some magnificent windows that nature has opened for us in urban and suburban settings. In botany, one of the most fascinating things one can do is to study the ecology of weed species on waste ground — with its fascinating examples of survival in harsh surroundings and amazing evolutionary adaptations. From the standpoint of the native-habitat restorationist these often-alien plants may be politically incorrect in the extreme. But even they can teach the willing mind many wonders. 

Still, the educator in me has the most fun showing tour participants how much nonhuman Earth history — sometimes stretching back three and a half billion years — there is to be found and celebrated in any built environment — from the collar-county suburbs and Fox Valley towns to the heart of the Loop.  This invesigation into the ancient natural origins of our brick, terra cotta, and building stone is the domain of my most fervent intellectual love these days, architectural geology. I’ve just finished a scholarly article on it (publication date as yet unknown). This theme will also be, I hope, the subject of my next book. To get a sense of the proposed book’s subject matter, keep an eye on the photo gallery I’ll be putting up on this site soon and adding to frequently.




When It Comes to Mass Denial, Modern America = 1940 Norway


Norway is, geologically and scenically,  a magnificent country. Its people have a proud and largely a maritime past that certainly did not end with the Vikings. As someone who teaches college-level oceanography and physical geography, I especially honor the great Norse explorers Fridtjof Nansen and Roald Amundsen. And in modern Norway there is so much to admire. We Americans could productively study how this Scandinavian nation prioritizes its health and human-services needs much more sanely than we do. But if one casts a backward glance to the beginning of World War II, one sees the Norwegian people at a time that was not their best. They committed amazing blunders analagous to those the United States is making now.

One of the best books I’ve read recently is historian Geirr Haarr’s superbly researched The German Invasion of Norway: April 1940 (Naval Institute Press, 2009). This work meticulously delineates how the author’s countrymen — then officially neutral though certainly aware of the horrific geopolitical forces unleashed all around them them as Nazi Germany squared off against Great Britain and France — failed to respond effectively when Hitler’s warships, swarming with invasion troops, brazenly sailed straight into their major harbors, and when paratroopers descended from the skies over their towns and strategic airfields. It should be noted that the Nowegian people did mount some resistance in some places immediately — and a lot more after the German occupation had been achieved. But in the early days of the invasion their willingness to defend their country was spotty at best and sometimes unbelievably absent.

The odd thing is that Norway’s political leadership in 1940 had been given quite a bit of warning that something very bad was brewing and heading their way. Alas, warnings only work when one has the active will to listen. As Haarr reveals, his nation was then run by inward-looking, risk-aderse politicians and shockingly ineffectual army and navy commanders who, unlike their Finnish and Swedish counterparts, had  done little to upgrade their very modest national defense capability as war clouds loomed.

Ironically, when the Germans did invade they did not do so with their stereotypical ruthless efficiency. They fumbled here and bumbled there, were deterred by bad weather conditions, and clearly hadn’t thought out all their long-term logistical needs. But no matter. The Norwegian civilian and military leaders made so many glaringly wrong decisions and in many cases were so undercorncerned that in retrospect they appear to have had a collective national death wish. Examples of this ineptitude abound in Haarr’s account, which is at once riveting and deeply depressing.

For example, Norway’s coastal fortresses were often poorly manned and had insufficient ammunition; the big guns often stood silent during the Nazi incursion because they were inoperable or there was no one to man them. Many Norwegian warships did not even have radio equipment; to find out what was happening to their country, their skippers had to go ashore and hunt for a public telephone.

At the height of the crisis, the Norwegian defense minister pointedly avoided meeting with his military commanders and ordered only a “partial mobilization,” in which troops would be called up in the course of days instead of hours. It was recommended that he use a radio broadcast for the sake of speed;  instead he decided to spread the alarm by postal letter and telegram.  And when the requisite telegram was drafted and ready to be sent, it was discovered that the local telegraph office had already closed for the day and would not open till 8:00 the next morning. All this while Norwegian cities were swiftly falling to the bluff-and-bluster tactics of their new foe.

After a while, the reader wonders if he has wandered into a comedy screenplay. The entire capital of Oslo surrended meekly (well, there was some booing, apparently) to a small contingent of lightly armed German infantrymen. When urged  to attack the Nazi ships coming up his fjord, one Norse submarine commander demurred; he feared his crew would become sleep-deprived by nightime operations.  Elsewhere a fortress commander permitted his city to shut off its power plant even though it meant his gunners could not use their own electrical ammunition hoists to load their artillery batteries in time to effectively stop the German cruiser Köln and her support ships, which were then gliding by.

Some Norwegian torpedo-boat captains did contemplate attacking oncoming German ships, but in the end considered it too dangerous and so told their crews to disband and go home after scuttling their vessels. And what happened to one Norwegian warship captain in particular seems to sum up the whoie mess. After stopping and correctly identifying a German vessel carrying vital supplies for the Wehrmacht forces, he directed his gunners to open fire on it. But, as he later ruefully reported, “this was something my crew was not fully up to. I had to give the order three times before they would shoot.”

Whatever apathy-inducing substance was in Norway’s drinking water that fateful year has in recent decades somehow made its way across the North Atlantic and straight into the American psyche. True, we do not currently face an invasion, whatever that fact-deprived confidence trickster in the White House tells us about “terrorist” refugees and border-crossing Mexicans. No, we have an enemy much, much deadlier: a highly sensitive planetary system of atmosphere and ocean that can rapidly change in ways directly hostile to our civilization. As horrendously destructive as Nazi aggression was in World War II, its impact may well be dwarfed by human-induced global warming in the decades to come.

Some among us, prompted by piffleheaded conspiracy theorists and high-paid shills of the fossil-fuel industry, still believe this issue is just a hobby horse ridden only by Rousseauist environmentalists disaffected by modern techno-culture. But to cling to this patent falsehood we must ignore the peer-reviewed research of thousands of competent Earth scientists and biologists worldwide. And they’re not the only experts one can cite. The current and future dangers of climate change have also provoked the grave attention of our military and intelligence communities, which — whatever else you may think of them — have had the courage and good sense to listen to what the scientists have told them, and plan accordingly.

Still, I suppose there is cause for hope of a sort. A recent Pew Research Center poll found that 68% of the American public now accept that climate change is real and that 82% agree that we should limit greenhouse-gas emissions. But this report also notes that less than half of those surveyed think global warming will actually affect them personally. In other words, there’s a twenty- to forty-percent gulf between the vague, head-nodding recognition of the threat and the understanding it isn’t just a third-order abstraction someone else should worry about.

To me, this is an example of a virulent new national strain of pollyannaism — the state of being overly optimistic for no verifiable reason. This attitude, which certainly benefits our corporate overlords, can be summarized as “Sure, the future looks bleak, but some day something will pop up and fix the problem without my help.” Try using that mindset the next time your car brakes give out or your child  is running a temperature of 104 Fahrenheit. 

Note that this is a mindset quite apart from the traditional gung-ho, up-and-at-them, can-do attitude than many foreigners still admire about Americans. As a matter of fact, it’s just the opposite. It’s a chirpy form of fatalism that marks us for what we have become — a community of apathy and obedience.

Perhaps the Norwegians of 1940 also believed that cheerful meekness in the face of the whirlwind was the best survival stategy.  Regardless, they ultimately departed from their delusions, at the cost of untold suffering.

Now, with a new arch-denialist American president and the same old joke of a Congress preventing any substantive response to the greatest environmental threat in human history, it’s not difficult to predict an outcome similar to Norway’s.  But this time it will not be one nation that suffers. It will be all. And much of the blame will be laid on the passivity of the American public and the criminal behavior of its leaders.


It’s Time to Go Back on the Road


As of today I’m three weeks into my new public-outreach initiative and the response has been encouraging, to say the least.

At last count, fourteen public libraries, nature centers, gardening groups, and educational institutions in northern Illinois have scheduled me to present natural-history talks and to lead tours.  More, I’m told, are on the way. (See my Upcoming Events page for all the details.)

But this isn’t just (or even primarily) about one educator scaling back his college teaching so he can return to his old love of writing and direct involvement with the public. It’s a small but potent indicator of what I sense is a much larger trend.

At a time our newly elected federal administration is trying its damnedest to roll back environmental safeguards, to pin the vastly researched and substantiated issue of climate change on a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese, and to turn the workings of governance into freakish self-parody,  public institutions and citizen’s groups are counter-punching, consciously or unconsciously, by showing revivified interest in presenting natural-history themes to their constituencies. Or so it seems on my stretch of turf.

If my supposition is true, we’re witnessing a very human invocation of Newton’s third law: an equal and opposite reaction to the original disturbing forces of nature blindness and unbridled greed. It just might be that species Homo sapiens is at its best when it’s pushing back against patent absurdity. At any rate, may this trend last as long as I’m taking my show on the road — and much, much longer than that.

In his Outline of History, H. G. Wells noted all too prophetically that “human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe.” There’s no doubt about that. But it’s finally time to realize what education actually is — especially nature education.  Online and social-media interactions aren’t enough. Watching shark specials or disaster documentaries on a glaring, vision-degrading screen aren’t enough. The acquisition of worthwhile knowledge intrinsically requires face-to-face human interaction. Listening to someone who has something informative to impart. Then discussing it, and framing new ideas based on what you and other people think.

So hit the road yourself. Put the phone away for a while and get involved in a local fossil-collecting, gardening, or birders’ club. Or take a real, nonvirtual geology or biology course at your local community college — not just so you can get a higher-paying job, but to better read the greater world around you and thereby become a better citizen. Urge your local library or nature center to present talks and activities where you can actually learn something new and not just be entertained (pace puppet shows, Celtic-music groups, and tree-planting ceremonies). And if you’re in northern Illinois or have the ability to get yourself there, consider stopping by for one of my public lectures. It would be a pleasure to meet you.



This site was begun on 6 February 2017 as an update and reworking of Ray Wiggers’s earlier site, which, after the better part of a decade, had to be discontinued due to his heavy college-teaching load.

Now that this site is up and running, pages and updated information will be added frequently — everything from listings of public talks and tours to blog posts on important natural-history topics.

You’re invited to bookmark this site and check back often . . .