Posts Tagged ‘burkhard bilger’

Quote of the day: FEATHERS

September 22, 2017

FEATHERS

“Have you ever examined the feather of a bird?” Alfred Russel Wallace, the co-founder of evolutionary theory, once wrote. “No man in the world could make such a thing.” Feathers are even harder to fake than fur, their structure being vastly more complex and varied. Falcon feathers are stiff, like jet-fighter wings, for stability at high altitudes; owl feathers are soft and barbed, to muffle their descent on prey; sandgrouse feathers soak up water, so their chicks can sip them in the desert. The range of designs would put any wilderness outfitter to shame. Bald-eagle feathers zip up to keep out moisture; mourning-dove feathers rotate individually to control flight; golden-crowned-kinglet feathers keep the bird’s body so insulated that it may be a hundred and forty degrees warmer than the air. “If human hair were similarly diverse,” Thor Hanson writes, “a person might combine a neatly trimmed Van Dyke beard with a teased hairdo taller than the Statue of Liberty.”

Yet none of this compares to the complexity of bird color. The leaf green of a quetzal’s tail, the cerulean blue of a tree swallow’s back, the golden-eyed wings of a great argus are the work of an infinitely patient genetic process—mutation upon mutation, like paint layered on canvas. Some feathers are pigmented. Others have structural color: nanoscopic bubbles, lattices, and granules that scatter and refract light. Still others have both, the ornithologist Richard Prum, a professor at Yale, told me. The green broadbill of Sumatra and Borneo, for instance, has feathers that blend prismatic blue with pigmentatious yellow. Add to this the ultraviolet hues that birds can see and we can’t, and you can start to imagine how bedazzling a Himalayan monal truly is—how nearly hallucinatory to the female watching him dance. “All the beauty is in the feathers,” Wallace wrote. “I almost think a feather is the masterpiece of nature.”

–Burkhard Bilger, “Feathered Glory,” The New Yorker

In this week’s New Yorker

November 21, 2010

In the Thanksgiving-related Food Issue, Burkhard Bilger writes a fascinating long article about a culinary trend new to me, fermented foods. I was fascinated to see that the article centers on an old acquaintance of mine from ACT UP and Radical Faeries, Sandy Katz, author of “The Revolution Will Not Be Microwaved.” (Go, Sandy, aka Sanderkraut, aka Sandorfag!). Besides providing a glimpse of life at a pseudonymous Radical Faerie sanctuary in Tennessee, the article definitely speaks to my own sentiments about the silliness of modern-day germ-phobia:

“In the past decade, biologists have embarked on what they call the second human-genome project, aimed at identifying every bacterium associated with people. More than a thousand species have been found so far in our skin, stomach, mouth, guts, and other body parts. of those, only fifty or so are known to harm us, and they have been studied obsessively for more than a century. The rest are mostly new to science…Given how little we know about our inner ecology, carpet-bombing it might not always be the best idea. ‘I would put it very bluntly,’ [UMass Amherst biologist Lynn] Margulis told me. ‘When you advocate your soaps that say they kill all harmful bacteria, you are committing suicide.’ The bacteria in the gut can take up to four years to recover from a round of antibiotics, recent studies have found, and the steady assault of detergents, preservatives, chlorine, and other chemicals also takes its toll. The immune system builds up fewer antibodies in a sterile environment; the deadliest pathogens can grow more resistant to antibiotics; and innocent bystanders such as peanuts or gluten are more likely to provoke allergic reactions. All of which may explain why a number of studies have found that children raised on farms are less susceptible to allergies, asthma, and autoimmune diseases. The cleaner we are, it sometimes seems, the sicker we get.”

Bilger also bravely sits down for lunch with opportunivores, people who eat roadkill and do their grocery shopping by dumpster-diving. Yikes!

In Talk of the Town, Elizabeth Kolbert writes about the scary ignoramuses angling for power in the newly established Republican majority in Congress: “John Shimkus, of Illinois, is one of four members now vying for the chairmanship of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce. At a congressional hearing in 2009, he dismissed the dangers of climate change by quoting Genesis 8:22: ‘As long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night will never cease.’ He added, ‘I believe that’s the infallible word of God, and that’s the way it’s going to be for His creation.’ ”

Aside from the fabulous Roz Chast cartoon (above), my favorite thing in this issue is this poem by Clive James:

“Whitman and the Moth”

Van Wyck Brooks tells us Whitman in old age
Sat by a pond in nothing but his hat,
Crowding his final notebooks page by page
With names of trees, birds, bugs, and things like that.

The war could never break him, though he’d seen
Horrors in hospitals to chill the soul.
But now, preserved, the Union had turned mean:
Evangelizing greed was in control.

Good reason to despair, yet grief was purged
By tracing how creation reigned supreme.
A pupa cracked, a butterfly emerged:
America, still unfolding from its dream.

Sometimes he rose and waded in the pond,
Soothing his aching feet in the sweet mud.
A moth he knew, of which he had grown fond,
Perched on his hand as if to draw his blood.

But they were joined by what each couldn’t do,
The meeting point where great art comes to pass —
Whitman, who danced and sang but never flew,
The moth, which had not written “Leaves of Grass,”

Composed a picture of the interchange
Between the mind and all that it transcends
Yet must stay near. No, there was nothing strange
In how he put his hand out to make friends

With such a fragile creature, soft as dust.
Feeling the pond cool as the light grew dim,
He blessed new life, though it had only just
Arrived in time to see the end of him.

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