Our January meeting of Ryerson Reads, the environmental literature discussion group, was focused on Abby Geni's The Last Animal (2013). Geni's debut volume, this collection of short stories explores the troubled, sometimes contradictory relationships between humans and the natural world, specifically our interactions with animals -- wild, captive, and domesticated.
Perhaps the most striking thing about these stories is Geni's mastery of various voices and various modes of prose fiction. In "Terror Birds" Geni writes in a gritty naturalistic vein about a child growing up all but feral on an Arizona ostrich farm. In "The Girls of Apache Bryn Mawr" she spins a brisk New Yorker-ish social satire that turns alarmingly dark as the kids at a Wisconsin summer camp for Jewish girls discover that one of their counselors may harbor a kind of inner beast. And "Captivity," possibly the finest story of the collection, is a comic tale that owes something to the Magic Realist tradition, and describes, among other things, an Octopus and his (or her) relations with the keeper of the cephalopod wing of the aquarium where they both spend their days.
One of the pleasures of Ryerson Reads is that no matter how carefully I prepare for these discussions the group's talented readers always surprise me, taking the discussion in directions I could not have foreseen. As we discussed "Captivity," for example, collating the story's two intertwined plot lines about different sorts of captivity, the group engaged in a rich (and unresolved) debate about the ethics of keeping animals captive for scientific or educational purposes. Does the scientific mission of institutions like the Shedd Aquarium (where Geni's story seems to take place) redeem those institutions from being what "Captivity" suggests they are: prison camps for animals?
One of the stories that provoked a particularly rich discussion among the Ryerson group was "Dharma at the Gate," a story of social realism roughly in the Raymond Carver tradition. This story features an ill-starred high school romance, and a golden retriever who acts as a kind of tutelary spirit to the young woman of the pair. I believe we found the story so engaging for at least two reasons. First, the story is about social class, and like Americans in general we take a kind of illicit pleasure in talking about class because it is one of our democratic culture's dirty secrets. Second, the story explores the unique bond that has obtained, since our species hunter-gatherer days, between people and dogs. Geni may have gone somewhat out of her depth in "Dharma at the Gate" in advancing a particular hypothesis about Homo sapiens and Canis lupus familiaris as coevolutionary partners, and then offering that hypothesis -- tentatively, ambivalently -- as a template with which to understand her characters' troubled romance. What the reader is left with -- opinions varied among the group -- may be a startling insight into her characters' motivations, or may be a richly readable muddle. Read "Dharma at the Gate" and decide for yourself.
The Ryerson Reads selection for March is Robert Pogue Harrison's Gardens: An Essay on the Human Condition (2008). This is a challenging academic book that endeavors to find in gardens -- real and imaginary -- clues to what makes us human. Harrison ranges from Epicurus to Bocaccio to the gardens of the Manhattan homeless in this learned study that is anchored in what he calls the ethics of care. Join us in March as we take up this rich and difficult book.
Ben Goluboff, professor of English at Lake Forest College and an expert in American literature, has led Ryerson Reads for the past 11 years. He will be revealing the book selections for the 2015-16 season at the Spring session, to be held on March 11th.
On a cold winter day, if you listen closely while walking Ryerson Woods, you can hear the unmistakable call of the black-capped chickadee. “Chick-a-dee-dee-dee,” it calls, perhaps to connect with its brethren at a good feeding spot or alarm them of an intruder, possibly a predator. Both male and female chickadees give this call throughout the year.
Chickadees live at Ryerson year-round – they can survive the winter because of special adaptations that other birds living in cold climates possess: by fluffing their feathers to trap warmth, by growing more feathers, and by shivering as a way to regulate their body temperature. They also seek tree holes and other crevices on the coldest days to protect themselves from the chilling wind.
Chickadees have other special techniques that help them during the coldest time here in northern Illinois. First, they can hang on the undersides of branches to retrieve hidden larvae and eggs. Yes, the insects that will come this spring are waiting there for just the right moment to emerge. Chickadees help keep the population in check.
Chickadees also feed on seeds – as you know if you feed the birds in your backyard. Have you ever watched them at your feeder? They sometimes take the seed and fly off with it in their bill – they’re hiding it for future retrieval. They actually remember where they hide the seeds – usually underneath tree bark.
In January, the cheerful sound of the black-capped chickadee’s call brightens anyone’s spirit. And when February comes, you can hear a new sound from these hardy birds – their spring song. They start early. Listen for “fee-bee” or “fee-bee-bee” or “hey, sweetie” with the first syllable higher in pitch. Click here to listen to the song: http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Black-capped_Chickadee/sounds
That means they are starting to think about raising young, establishing territories and finding a cavity in which to nest. Sometimes one will even sing in January.
While out at Ryerson Woods, take a walk and listen for the chickadee’s calls and songs – then step inside to warm up and view the art exhibition featuring sculptures and drawings of the birds you love. You also might hear chickadees when you're on the free Soundwalk scheduled for Jan. 25 at Brushwood Center.
Have any questions about chickadees? Let us know.
- Sheryl DeVore
The concept for the exhibit was the brainchild of Beck. “Birds connect us to the rhythms of nature. They help us understand the changing seasons by their comings and goings. They soar above us and around us and live amongst us in our backyards. We learn about beauty, grace, persistence, hope and ourselves when we take notice of the rhythm of the birds.” Beck spent the twelve months of 2014 creating the thirty paintings in this show, preferring to work in the field from life to directly experience the changes in the landscape and light as the birds moved through their year.
“I have observed them through the four seasons, taken note of their daily behaviors, routines and habits. I watched them nest and faithfully care for their offspring, I learned about their preferred trees and perches...I listened and learned to recognize their song…I missed those that departed in the winter, and rejoiced at their return.” This intimacy is conveyed in her paintings through a deep knowledge of her materials and is supported by her past experience as a professional illustrator. “I want the paint to participate,” she says with strong conviction.
Beck describes her creative process as beginning with an internal dialog based on an experience. That experience grows into a concept and then, through the artist’s rendering, tells a story. For example, the concept for her painting titled Graziozo (the musical term for gracefully) emerged from her emotional response when a great blue heron rose up languorously and flew off as she approached it. Musical terms provide titles for many of her paintings as befits art exploring rhythm.
It should be noted that the leadership role for the art program at Brushwood Center has recently changed. This is the final exhibit curated by former Executive Director Sophie Twichell. Long time Brushwood staff member Julia Kemerer was promoted to the position of Director of Arts and Administration last fall and is looking ahead to creating other exhibits to fulfill the mission of Brushwood. "We will continue to focus on art that explores the themes of nature and the environment. It’s a great way to make people think about their relationship with the natural world."
An opening reception will be held from 1-3pm on Sunday, January 11. Exhibition runs January 11 - February 26, 2015. For more information visit www.brushwoodcenter.org.
This blog is written by the staff and partners of Brushwood Center at Ryerson Woods