A Stationary Odyssey

Monday, October 30, 2006

More about elephants. This article from Yahoo caught my eye after reading the earlier NYTimes article. They did what is called the "mirror test," where they put an elephant-sized mirror in the elephant cage and watched what they did. The elephants appeared to use the mirror like a person would, looking at themselves, and didn't think the image in the mirror was another animal but recognized it as a reflection.


I've always thought elephants were remarkable creatures, but didn't count myself as one of the worlds biggest fans. Now, with the information that is coming out, I really wonder if we have been slaughtering one of the smartest creatures on earth to carve their teeth into trinkets. I've always supported the ban on ivory, but now I think there is a lot more we should do to help elephants. There have been recent reports describing the horrific impact climate change is going to have on the human populations in Africa, but we should also consider the impact on other species there, too.

Carmen. My brother Steve was just in a production of Carmen at the Syracuse Opera. He was the head smuggler, Dancairo, which is pretty important in terms of the story. Unfortunately, it has no aria, so its not as well-known a part as the Toreador or the lead. As always, he was really excellent in his part, and the show as a whole was quite good, with two exceptions. The projected "opera titles," the translation, were pretty bad, with important lines left out, poorly timed, and poorly coordinated. The sets were pretty abstract, and I didn't think they added that much, especially in the smuggler's camp which had strange bits that no-one could figure out what they were. The sets were rented and came with no explanation or instructions (I found this out from Steve), so they did the best they could. The singing and the acting was good, especially for acts 2, 3, and 4 (act one the singing was good but the acting seemed a little stiff), so it was worth heading up to see.

My biggest thought on the show in general was that it could have had a different title, though not as catchy; "Don Jose is a raving madman."

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

No Gentian this year. We have been watching for this year's fringed gentian, and there is no sign of it. There are no plants in our patch that we can identify, and none in the Cornell land either. We have seen people from the Cornell Plantations going to look in the main area, but there have been no blue flowers at all. I don't know what killed it, but I would guess its something with the strange weather we've had this year. Too much rain, too cold in August, or maybe even something about last winter's weather. As a biennial, it has to survive through two years, but hopefully this year's non-blooming plants made it to bloom next year.

I wonder if this is a sign of things to come. I hope not.

Friday, October 20, 2006

CNEHA Conference. The Council for Northeast Historic Archaeology is having its annual meeting in Tarrytown, NY this weekend. I'm giving a paper comparing what we excavated from a late-nineteenth century hotel with some menus from that same hotel dating to about 1909. Its an interesting comparison. They sold a lot more steaks than pork chops, and the stew was pretty fancy -- "Ragout of Lamb Parisienne." I'd guess the place around the corner was serving "Lamb Stew."

I was also able to figure out one of the stranger things we found. In a pollen sample, Brassica pollen accounted for 10% of the sample, which is quite rare. Mostly you get tree pollen, grasses, and that sort of thing. On the menu, there is an entry for "Chow-chow." Chow-chow is pickled cauliflower with a variety of other vegetables. Cauliflower, being a flower itself, has pollen in large quantities, so the chow-chow was the source of the pollen we found archaeologically. They must have really liked their pickled cauliflower.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

My brother is in Uruguay for the next year, as my sister in law is there on a Fulbright. He has a blog, A Year in Uruguay, that has all kinds of interesting things.

The New York Times has an article about Montevideo, which is where they are living: http://travel2.nytimes.com/2006/10/15/travel/15next.html

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Revenge of the Elephants?

There's an article in the New York Times about elephant violence against humans and other animals like rhinos. Here's a quote:

But in “Elephant Breakdown,” a 2005 essay in the journal Nature, Bradshaw and several colleagues argued that today’s elephant populations are suffering from a form of chronic stress, a kind of species-wide trauma. Decades of poaching and culling and habitat loss, they claim, have so disrupted the intricate web of familial and societal relations by which young elephants have traditionally been raised in the wild, and by which established elephant herds are governed, that what we are now witnessing is nothing less than a precipitous collapse of elephant culture.

It has long been apparent that every large, land-based animal on this planet is ultimately fighting a losing battle with humankind. And yet entirely befitting of an animal with such a highly developed sensibility, a deep-rooted sense of family and, yes, such a good long-term memory, the elephant is not going out quietly.

It makes me think about some of the Mad Max movies, where a culture of violence develops in a post-apocolyptic future. In this case, though, the elephants have a target: humans. We brought about their nightmare society, so they are taking it out on us. Makes you think a bit about "sentient life," society, and intelligence. Perhaps humans are not the most intelligent species on this planet, but the most prolific of a group of sentient species including elephants and dolphins. Of course, this may be pushing things a bit, but there seems to be more than many people are willing to admit to the behavior of "intelligent animals."

Two years ago, Bradshaw wrote a paper for the journal Society and Animals, focusing on the work of the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust in Kenya, a sanctuary for orphaned and traumatized wild elephants — more or less the wilderness-based complement to Carol Buckley’s trauma therapy at the Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee. The trust’s human caregivers essentially serve as surrogate mothers to young orphan elephants, gradually restoring their psychological and emotional well being to the point at which they can be reintroduced into existing wild herds. The human “allomothers” stay by their adopted young orphans’ sides, even sleeping with them at night in stables. The caregivers make sure, however, to rotate from one elephant to the next so that the orphans grow fond of all the keepers. Otherwise an elephant would form such a strong bond with one keeper that whenever he or she was absent, that elephant would grieve as if over the loss of another family member, often becoming physically ill itself.

I think there is plenty of evidence that elephants are intelligent, have emotions, and many other human traits. Perhaps what we need to do is develop the science fiction tool, the "universal translator," to learn to talk to the elephants. But until then, we need to do what we can to provide political stability in lands where elephants live, provide assistance to organizations helping elephants in the wild, and reduce the pressure people exert on elephants and elephant habitats. Its the right thing to do.