“Timefulness”—Thinking Like a Geologist to Save the World

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What does it mean to think like a geologist? Geology professor Marcia Bjornerud gives us a window into a field that studies the literal history of the Earth. She will be joining us on September 17 to discuss “timefulness”—her newly coined concept that encourages a drastic (but, she says, necessary) shift in our 21st century perspective. In the meantime, Bjornerud spoke with Town Hall’s Alexander Eby about the geologist’s mindset and the explanatory power that comes from reading the rocks.

AE: What gets a person interested in geology?

MB: Many of our students—and I think this is true across the country, not just at our university—discover geology almost by accident. Many of them first sign up simply to fulfill a lab requirement, thinking that geology doesn’t sound as scary as physics or biology.

AE: And then they realize they love it?

MB: Exactly. The field has a powerful capacity to convert people who don’t think of themselves as “the science type.” I think that’s because, for me, geology has this huge explanatory power and that’s really addictive. I sometimes say geology is the etymology of the world. Once you get in the habit of thinking that way, you want to understand how things came to be. For a lot of people that’s the attraction.

AE: And unlocking that explanatory power, was that the goal of some of your earlier books? To make geology more accessible?

MB: Definitely. This is the world we live in, and it’s really kind of shocking how little the average earthling knows about the planet. I think geology has a PR problem, if people are aware of it at all. It’s linked in their minds, understandably, with the oil industry, the mineral industry, or with this perception of dusty musty museum collections. There aren’t too many opportunities for people to get the big picture. That’s what I’m trying to achieve. I want to give people a window into this longer view, and help them engage with the logic of geology. Over the course of my teaching career I’ve learned that people are hungry for that big picture. They hear about dinosaurs once in a while, but they don’t really have a chance to see the grand overview.

AE: So is that the goal with introducing this concept of “timefulness?”

MB: Yes. It’s not an attempt to tell the whole story of the earth. It’s more about demystifying how geologists think about time. It’s about communicating how we’ve gone about constructing the geologic timescale and why it’s relevant. There’s a misconception that geology is all about the past. While that’s partly true, we also study the past because it’s the only thing that we have that can allow us to make intelligent inferences about what might happen in the future. So geology is increasingly as much forward-looking as backward-looking.

I think it’s an underappreciated intellectual accomplishment that humans know as much about the deep past of the planet as we do. And it’s not just one person who won a Nobel Prize for figuring it out, it’s two centuries worth of people from all over the world. Many different cultures, personalities, and kinds of scientists have contributed to this amazing history of the world.

AE: Accomplishments formed by standing on the shoulders of giants?

MB: Right. The logic of it is comprehensive. You can spend a lifetime learning all the details, but I think at least appreciating how we, collectively, have gone about understanding the past is a step in the right direction.

AE: How do you help a student learn to think this way?

MB: Well, it certainly helps to go out in the field and learn from first principles. One of my favorite metaphors for the way geologists see the world is that of a palimpsest manuscript. In the past, before paper was widely produced, documents were written on parchment. But parchment was expensive, and often used and reused. Old ink would be scraped off, leaving vestiges of the earlier writings underneath. That’s a good way of thinking about landscapes. If you can get out in the field and start seeing these ‘re-inkings’ then it becomes a kind of habit of mind. We can abandon our peculiar 21st century mindset that the past is burned up behind us and instead recognize that the past is in fact everywhere. Our own bodies and cells are narratives of evolution; everything around us has a backstory.

I had a math professor who would often say there are many sizes and shapes of infinity. I think that’s a useful way of thinking about the geologic past too. There are things that happened a long time ago, a long-long time ago, a long-long-long time ago. It’s central to the “timefulness” idea that we get some depth of field and get a sense of the distances between some of the big events in Earth’s history.

AE: Now, also contained in the title of your newest book is the notion of saving the world. How does this expanded depth of field and knowledge of the Earth’s history relate to saving the world?

MB: It speaks to a perceptual shift that we need to make. We need to think of ourselves as earthlings and not as somehow having outgrown the natural world. We’re deeply embedded in the natural world. Things that have happened in the past are going to continue to unfurl, like it or not, into the future. We need to think of ourselves as part of that continuum and set things in motion now that may not bear fruit until we are gone. We have to change our view of who we are in time—and our sense of obligation to future generations.

There are models for doing that here and there, so it’s not an entirely new idea. Kurt Vonnegut famously suggested there should be a new cabinet post, Secretary of the Future, who would provide counsel on behalf of the unborn. I’ve done some work with the Great Lakes Indian Fish & Wildlife Commission, which is a consortium of tribes in the Upper Great Lakes region that works to protect treaty rights around Lake Superior especially. The treaties that they protect were signed back in the 1830’s, and they’re trying to make plans for the next century or so. So there are models for how to do this, but we need a collective shift in consciousness and self identity.

AE: What can we do on an individual level to model our lives for this way of thinking?

MB: Get curious about the natural world. Get children in particular engaged—tap into their innate scientific curiosity, early and often. And just try to instill in people a sense of their connectivity to the natural world—to the geologic past and the geologic future.

AE: What do you think of the old adage, to say something is “set in stone” or “written in stone?”

MB: That means it’s temporary. Mountains come and go, and erosion prevails.


Don’t miss Marcia Bjornerud’s talk on 9/17 at The Summit on Pike.

Restoring Our Iconic Stained Glass

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The Great Hall’s signature oculus has returned from its extensive restoration! After nearly one year offsite with the experts at Seattle Stained Glass, the oculus has been revitalized and reassembled—and the transformation is stunning. The oculus won’t be installed until the renovation is nearly complete, but our skilled construction team has afforded us a glimpse at another of our building’s restored windows.

Where once stood a wall of scaffolding, we can now see the Great Hall’s iconic arched window on the south side of the building, complete with weather proofing and storm windows. These tall and stately panes add a characteristic burst of color to the gleaming terracotta facade, and we can’t wait to see how the assembly looks from the inside! Red weatherproofing material has been applied to exterior window framing, and new storm windows will protect from the elements to extend the life of the glass (don’t worry, the red won’t be visible when construction is complete).

The restoration of Town Hall’s stained glass oculus was generously funded by the Committee of 33.


Learn more about the renovation, and please consider making a donation in support of the project.

A Space For Us All

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We often say that Town Hall is more than just a venue, and this is true in many ways. But our organization wouldn’t be the same without our historic home. For twenty years, our institution’s values have been reinforced by the features of our landmark building. Simultaneously austere and welcoming, the marriage of civic-inspired architecture and community-focused construction combine to create an inviting space where our city comes together. The pillars along the building’s face lend the structure a political severity reminiscent of a government building (no wonder we’re so often confused with City Hall!), while the radiant terra cotta façade seems to manifest the warmth inside this bustling gathering space. There’s nowhere else quite like Town Hall, and we certainly wouldn’t be the same without this building. Anyone who’s been to an event inside our venue can attest—our home helps make us who we are.

Preserving the qualities that define each of our performances spaces is a critical goal of our renovation. It’s a delicate balance to achieve as we outfit the building with upgrades that will allow us to continue hosting our city’s inspired conversations. We’re upgrading the Great Hall, overhauling our Downstairs, and adding a new space on the lobby level, the Reading Room. Between these three performance venues we can accommodate events of every size—from a crowd of nearly a thousand seated shoulder-to-shoulder in the pews, to a cozy circle of a dozen chairs. We’re excited to re-introduce you to these spaces, at once familiar and transformed, when we re-open in February of 2019. But until then, come with us for a look behind the cloak of scaffolding at the three performance spaces coming to life inside Town Hall!

The Great Hall’s character is striking from the moment you enter. The curved oak pews radiate out from an unassuming stage, and on a full night you’ll see nearly 900 people packed into those benches. The voices of every discussion carry all the way up to the vaulted ceilings to mingle around the iconic stained-glass oculus. We’re keen to preserve these elements of the space that are so core to the identity of the Great Hall as a place where communities can gather to speak and be heard. That’s why the first item on our list for the Great Hall is a suite of acoustic upgrades. Our architects at BuildingWorks are working in tandem with master acousticians from Jaffe Holden to create a state-of-the-art acoustic program. A custom-designed acoustic reflector will hang above the stage, tuned specifically to the contours of the room to evenly distribute sounds from the stage to every seat in the house—with or without a microphone. We’re also permanently installing our Hearing Loop system to benefit audience members with T-coil hearing aids, as well as special sound damping materials between the floors of the building to prevent the uproar from a lively “kindie-rock” concert from interrupting a measured science panel just down the stairs. Combine all this with a face-lift of restored crown molding and the addition of cushions to our 98-year-old antique pews and the Great Hall promises to perform well, look sharp and feel comfortable every night—whether it features an international virtuoso, a civic leader, or the screening of a classic film.

While the Great Hall is holding tightly to the qualities that lend the space its characteristic warmth, the Downstairs space is transforming dramatically—so much that you might not recognize the room from one night to the next! Downstairs is becoming the Forum, a completely modular 300-seat space designed to keep up with Town Hall’s fluid calendar. One night the room might be configured as a three-quarter thrust stage for a civic lecture, the next it may become a runway for a queer fashion show, or a corner-round platform for a series of Bushwick jazz performers inspired by a heady science-fiction novel. The beauty of the space’s design is its ability to become the best possible version of itself, re-forming to fit the needs of each event and completely transfiguring the energy each night. Add to that a library and bar flanking the space’s ample 5,000-square feet, and the Forum is tailored to invite the community at large to make this space their own—an ideal complement to the aplomb and applause of the Great Hall.

The newcomer to Town Hall’s performance spaces—the Reading Room—resides between the two on our lobby level. This flexible 90 seat space provides the perfect accompaniment to the thunderous applause of the Great Hall and the mid-sized adaptability of the Forum. Ideal for intimate poetry readings, local policy discussions, and events by grassroots community organizations, the Reading Room embodies the promise that this is your Town Hall: a place where you can stand eye-to-eye with an icon one night, and mobilize your neighbors the next. We encountered this kind of energy on numerous nights during our 2017-18 Inside/Out season, when our calendar included more locally rooted events than ever before. The Reading Room is our way of creating a dedicated home for these discussions in our building—a close-knit environment where curious minds can engage directly with impassioned activists, inspired artists, and groundbreaking scholars from our region and beyond.

This building makes us who we are. Each room in our venue has witnessed decades of community congregation around the inspired ideas that infuse our region, ideas that are the pillars of our institution. We haven’t seen these new spaces yet; they’re still taking shape in a whirlwind of concrete and plaster. But when the tarp drops and the scaffold comes down, we hope you’ll be there with us to bring these new performance spaces to life—to fill them with our collective energy and shape them with the values of our community.

The Evolution of Beauty

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It’s been nearly 160 years since the publication of Charles Darwin’s the origin of species with its dazzling description of a model for the evolution of life inspired by those lovely whimsical finches. In that time, Evolutionary Science has advanced a long way, but according to Yale Ornithologist Richard Prum, something also has been lost: a scientific accounting, not just of the functional advantages that drive evolution, but of the aesthetics of animal sexuality that inspire individual choice.

 He develops this theory in the new book The Evolution of Beauty: How Darwin’s Forgotten Theory of Mate Choice Shapes the Animal World – and Us which he will discuss at an upcoming Town Hall event on Monday, June 11 at the PATH Auditorium in downtown Seattle. But in the meantime we arranged a conversation between him and Grace Hamilton. Grace is a PhD candidate in the Department of Biochemistry at the University of Washington and a participant in this year’s UW Science Engage program for public science communication. They spoke about the evolution of beauty, the terrifying arms race of duck genitalia and the queering of Homo Sapiens.

Buy tickets to Richard’s event here.


Grace Hamilton: I wanted to tell you first how much I enjoyed your book The Evolution of Beauty.

 Richard Prum: I’m glad! That’s why you write it, to hopefully get some readers on the other end.

GH: Yeah, I’m not an ornithologist or an evolutionary biologist by training, but I really enjoyed the intellectual passion you bring to the task of resurrecting Darwin’s long neglected theory of mate choice, your dissection of the cultural biases that drove it out of the scientific mainstream in the first place, and the hypotheses about human evolution that this theory of aesthetic evolution provoked. Could you briefly define aesthetic evolution for listeners who haven’t yet had the pleasure of reading your book?

 RP: Aesthetic evolution is a process that involves a sensory perception, a cognitive evaluation, and some kind of social or sexual choice. And when these three things come together with some kind of heritable substrate or genetic or cultural substrate, then the result is a distinct kind of evolution that I have called aesthetic evolution. And it’s distinct because the features that evolve this way function in the perception of animals, not in the physical world. So we can compare, for example, the roots of a plant to the flower of the plant. The roots we could describe entirely in terms of their physical functions: holding the plant into the soil, absorbing water and nutrients of some kinds and also interacting with bacteria or fungi in the soil, these kinds of things. But the flower functions in the brain—if you will—of the bee or the hummingbird, the pollinator. And in that way, it functions in a distinct fashion where perception and essentially the taste of the animals matters.

GH: But this isn’t how the field of Evolutionary Biology, how they tend to view traits. Usually the argument is that these traits are not just for the perceptual benefit of others, but that they must convey some sort of information about reproductive value. So what led you down this very different mode of viewing evolution?

 RP: Yeah, quite right. The majority of my colleagues think that the pleasure of animals or the subjective experiences of animals, if you will—what it is like to be a bird listening to a song or a bee looking at a flower—most of my colleagues think that these experiences need to be explained away, that is as some kind of utility. And this is a worldview that requires that requires that adaptation by natural selection is a strong force that kind of dominates all the events in evolutionary history. However, somehow or other, the way I have connected my own personal history as a birdwatcher and as a national historian to my scientific research, I’ve just been attracted to another idea, a different theory, and it’s one that actually is historically the original one proposed by Darwin in 1871. And that is the idea that beauty can evolve because of the pleasure it produces, because of the fact that animals like it, right? And that alone can drive the evolution of ornament, sexual ornament in nature in many different ways that are unpredicted by adaptation.

GH: You study one of the most classically beautiful areas of biology, the birds, and what made you think that these ideas initially based on the observation of birds and their mating behavior, could be fruitfully applied to human evolution as you do so excitingly, in The Evolution of Beauty?

RP: Yeah. Well, a lot of my colleagues ask me “Rick, why would you create this mess for yourself? Why would you get involved with talking about people?” and there’s a lot of reasons. One: people are important! How we think about our own sexuality, our own sexual selves, our own beauty has really been influenced greatly by the same kind of science that I have been battling essentially in ornithology. That is the idea from evolutionary psychology and sociobiology, areas of evolutionary biology that have worked on human evolution, have been trying to support the idea that human beauty, whether it’s asymmetry or waist-to-hip ratio or various kinds of aspects of human beauty are all indicators of genetic or quality or condition. Right? And, and I think much of this work is notably bad science, and so that’s one reason to counter it, but it also has, I think, come to influence how people think about themselves. How humans think about their own sexual self.

So I think children or teenagers today grow up looking in the mirror with more challenges than teenagers had in the past in the sense that they look at every asymmetry or every difference from maybe canonical descriptions of beauty and imagine that that indicates actually objective qualities of themselves. And that idea is just deeply flawed scientifically and deeply damaging culturally. And so one of the reasons why to take on the evolution of human sexuality was to try to address that and propose a different path to understanding how we got here, how we got to be this way.

GH: In your book I found it very poignant your discussion of this bad science that often occurs in evolutionary psychology. How there are attempts to “quantify” even female beauty—and usually female beauty—in terms of things like waist-to-hip ratio or facial asymmetry.

RP: One of the oddities of the field is it takes a lot of intellectual shortcuts, but one that’s really prominent is to state that sperm are cheap and eggs are rare and expensive, relatively, and therefore males should be profligate and females should be sexually coy. And this has typically been played out as a sort of rich explanation of human reproductive biology. And I try to document in the book how failed that really is in many ways.

GH: And you cite a sort of intellectual antipathy towards the evolutionary power as female sexual autonomy as something that goes all the way back to Darwin and something that may have predisposed many evolutionary biologists to be hostile to aesthetic evolution.

RP: You know, a number of reviews and some of my colleagues have asked me: “why get into the political history of evolutionary biology and some of these topics?” And I think it’s responsible as a scientist to understand the implications of your statements, so I’ve gotten into these issues because I think that the culture has influenced the science—and not in a good way.

GH: You’ve done fascinating, and in some quarters notorious, research into the torrid sex lives of ducks.

 RP: Yeah. I’ve come to realize that duck sex is like a gas; it expands to fill whatever volume you put it in. Keeping it hemmed in a little bit. Yes, we have been working duck sex with my former Postdoc, Patricia Brennan, now a professor at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts, and her work has really been revolutionary in understanding an area of Evolutionary Biology called sexual conflict. It turns out it is quite related to the evolution of beauty and it’s really about what happens when freedom of mate choice is infringed or violated by sexual coercion or sexual violence. So the rather violent and troubling sex lives of the ducks turn out to be really instrumental in understanding sexual conflict in a new way. And that’s a big focus of the book.

GH: I was struck by your discussion of this research in The Evolution of Beauty. You assert that the revelation of an aesthetic mechanism for the evolution of female sexual autonomy in waterfowl is a profound feminist scientific discovery. What does it mean for a scientific finding to be feminist?

RP: Well, since the 70’s and on, there has been a fascinating literature in feminist science, feminist biology. But much of it is a cultural critique of science itself, and that’s not what I’m referring to. I’m not talking about science that starts with some kind of political conclusions or assumptions and then elaborate theories. I’m talking about finding that aspects of the political and cultural debate of feminism—and by contrast, patriarchy—are actually evolved in other species than human beings. In the case of duck sex, the discovery is that freedom of choice matters to animals, right? There is something it is like to have freedom of choice, and as a result when freedom of choice is violated by coercion or sexual violence, there turned out to be evolutionary consequences of that.

And the way in which they work is deeply fascinating and I think actually informative to both human evolutionary biology and contemporary culture. So I think of this as a feminist discovery in the sense that we’re finding out that the concerns of human culture and of human wellbeing and thriving are not unique to us. Sexual autonomy is not a concept discovered by suffragettes and feminist in the 19th and 20th century only. It is an evolved feature of the social sexual lives of other kinds of animals. And that opens up a whole new kind of conversation between evolutionary biology, feminism, and gender theory that I’m very excited about.

GH: It’s fascinating stuff. But because of this research funded by the National Science Foundation, studying sexual autonomy and a sort of terrifying genital arms race between male and female ducks, you were briefly the right-wing poster child for profligate government spending. What was that like? That sounds like every scientist’s nightmare.

 RP: Well, it was a bit horrifying. So what happened was during one particular phase of debate about government spending during the Obama administration, our grant to study the evolution of the evolution duck sex, the co-evolution of sexual conflict in ducks, was found by a right wing think tank and then soon became the subject of Fox News and other attacks. You know, it was sobering. But one of the things that we were confident of is that duck sex is fascinating, right? The fact of the matter is that the reason why they picked—in one case, $30 billion of government waste and they’re picking on our $350,000 grant—the reason why it’s so fascinating is that duck sex is fascinating! And we knew that if we had, if you will, a fair fight or a level playing field that people would find it fascinating and worthwhile

GH: And it’s not just the sex lives of ducks though, that you talk about in The Evolution of Beauty. You have a whole chapter called “The Queering of Homo Sapiens” in which you— and I’ve heard several theories about the evolution of homosexuality in humans, the idea that it’s kin selection, that this will somehow benefit the nieces and nephews of people with exclusively same-sex attractions—but you posit a new theory that I hadn’t heard before: that males with traits associated with same-sex preferences were actually preferred as mates by females. I was wondering if anyone had pointed out that this theory is an inversion of a classic lament that all the good ones are gay. You’re saying that rather than all the good ones are gay, all the gay ones are good—as in desirable.

 RP: Well, you know, starting with a study with a human sexuality is complicated because of course there’s a lot going on! You know, there’s male choice, female choice, male/male competition, female competition, sexual conflict, and culture all piled on top. And so I originally imagined one chapter on human sexuality, but it turned into four because doing it responsibly took so much more time. But you’re right, there is a chapter on the evolution of same-sex preferences and attractions and that I, it as you stated, propose a new theory. And basically what I’m proposing is that same-sex behavior, both between women and men, evolved because it furthered female sexual autonomy during our human evolution. That is, female/female sexual interactions would foster alliances that were appropriately defensive against male sexual and social control—essentially a male hierarchy—and that male/male sexual interactions would also further a social environment that would be less focused on the control of female sexuality and allow females with more social opportunities to further their own autonomous interests.

And so what this means is interesting in two ways. One: it is congruent with the more conservative hypothesis that may be represented by Andrew Sullivan, who wrote a book called Virtually Normal. Which was basically that the gay couple next door are just like everybody else except for who’s in their bed, right? And this is the sort of normalizing view. And it’s true in that sense that I think that this is a deep part of evolutionary history, of the changing of the evolution of a pro-social human species.

However, this hypothesis is also congruent with the more radically queer theorists within the discipline who see same-sex behavior as inherently disruptive. And the reason why I use the term “queering” of Homo Sapiens is to say that same-sex attraction I think evolved specifically because it functions to undermine male social and sexual hierarchy. That is, it evolved because of this feature, which means that there is something inherently queer about it. “Queering” in the sense of undermining the normal, undermining the control, undermining in this case male social control. So I think there’s something for everybody in there. This is a way of opening up the topic that begins with the aesthetic. Previous theories have tried to explain same-sex behavior through its indirect or correlated features, right? But I’ve been saying that at the center of this biology is subjective experience.

What is it that animals want? What do they prefer? And in this case, when it comes to the diversity of human sexual preferences and desires, we can see that we can’t just explain it away as “oh, gay folks are helping raise their nieces and nephews and therefore that’s how the genes are propagated,” right? These are end-arounds, these are dodges, if you will. The real issue is the evolution of desire itself. And that’s something that other previous theories have not gotten to. And so I’m trying to propose that, and by taking the aesthetic view that means that that becomes our, our main question: how does desire itself, how does the object of desire, evolve? And that’s, I think, why it’s been a successful idea.

Richard Prum is the author of The Evolution of Beauty: How Darwin’s Forgotten Theory of Mate Choice Shapes the Animal World – and Us out now from Doubleday books. He spoke with Grace Hamilton, PhD Candidate in Biochemistry at the University of Washington. He will be speaking about the book on Monday, June 11 at 7:30pm at the PATH Auditorium.

Doing It Right

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Our 2017–18 Inside/Out season has been a grand experiment. Last summer we handed the building keys to Rafn Construction, packed up our whole operation, and set out for an all-hands-on-deck exploration of the fundamental questions about how and why we do what we do. We set goals to meet new audiences and institutional partners, to listen and collaborate more closely with our community, and to develop a more welcoming culture for Town Hall.

We made big discoveries and fast friends—and our 44 (and counting!) neighborhood venues have shown us extraordinary hospitality. (No way to thank everyone, but this year would have been inconceivable without our partnership with Seattle University.) We learned that while a lot of our old friends miss our home as much as we do, it’s also been kind of fun to try something new and meet people in their own neighborhoods. Well, that’s a good thing, since we’ll continue Inside/Out in the fall before we come home in early 2019 to a revitalized Town Hall.

This season has been uncharted waters for us, so there’ve been a lot of ways to “get it right.” With the time we have left Inside/Out, you’ll know you’re doing it right if…

…it’s a sunny Tuesday and still you say: “what the heck? I wonder what’s on at Town Hall?”
…you attended a program because it was just down the street.
…you attended a program because you “always wanted to know what that place was like on the inside.”
…you wanted to know more so you bought the book.
…you stopped by a table afterwards to learn how to get involved.
…you introduced a friend to Town Hall.
…you introduced yourself to the person next to you.
…you stepped up to a Q&A mic and asked a question in the form of a question. (No, really: THANK YOU. That guy at Freeman Dyson’s recent talk (he knows who he is) could learn a thing or two from you…)
…you showed up with an open heart and a curious mind—or vice versa—and used Town Hall to expand your horizons, not just to ratify your beliefs.

Think about this over the summer—what did you discover about Town Hall this year? What have you always hoped we could do, or would be? What have you missed this year, and what have we gained? Please respond to the post-show survey or write me with your thoughts at info@townhallseattle.org.

Thanks for staying with us this season—we are truly grateful. We’ll see you again in September after our last (ever) summer break! (Air conditioning—now that’s a change we’ll all welcome…)

 

 – Wier Harman, Executive Director

Fearsome to Friendly:
Our History with the Orca

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Many in the Northwest consider the orca to be our region’s unofficial mascot. But how did we come to love orcas so much in the first place? Environmental and International History Professor Jason Colby will be joining us on June 5 (just in time for Washington’s Orca Awareness Month!) to take us on a deep dive into our society’s intricate history with killer whales. In the meantime, Colby sat down with Town Hall’s Alexander Eby to discuss all things orca—from etymology to questions about captivity to the rituals of our resident orca pods.

 AE: I wanted to ask you about the title of your book, Orca: How We Came to Know and Love the Ocean’s Greatest Predator. Can you tell me a little bit about that moniker, ‘the ocean’s greatest predator?’

JC: Well, the orca is really the undisputed apex predator of the ocean. When it comes to prey, they’re specialist hunters. You’ve got so-called “transient” killer whales that focus on marine mammals: seals, sea lions, and even some smaller baleen whales. You have the salmon-eating specialists that are famous in our area and others that focus on sharks or stingrays. But everywhere in the world orcas eat what they want and nothing preys upon them.

AE: Are there any reported cases of orcas harming humans?

JC: There’s one case of a young surfer who was bitten on the leg by a killer whale, but it was probably a case of mistaken identity—the whale probably thought he was a seal or sea lion. There was also a famous Arctic expedition in the early 20th century where a photographer was on the ice and a pod of orcas approached him and started breaking the ice apart. It’s possible they were just curious. It’s possible they were investigating the expedition’s dogs, thinking they were seals or sea lions. The photographer ran across the ice and got away safely, but that account was then published all over the world. It created this perception of the killer whale as an extraordinarily dangerous and formidable predator. There were certainly stories among sealers in Seattle and Victoria of dangerous encounters with killer whales, but no documented attacks that seemed intentional.

AE: If they don’t typically harm humans, what earned them a name like “killer whale?”

JC: The origin of the name almost certainly comes from the Basque and then Spanish and Portuguese assassino de baleias, or “whale killer,” which was likely transposed in English as “killer whale.” That name would have originated among fishermen and whalers who saw orcas attacking much larger whales. If you step back to a period prior to when we saw these animals with affection and imagine what they looked like to the humans who had never seen them before—immense predators with jet-black skin and wolf-like teeth—it’s understandable that we would find them frightening. Humans have a long history of being unsettled by sharp-toothed predators. It must have been pretty easy to imagine that we could wind up on the menu.

We use the name orca now, and we’ve convinced ourselves that it sounds friendlier and more complimentary than killer whale. But the name appears in the works of many 19th and early 20th century writers from a time when we still saw orcas as dangerous. These writers knew their Latin, and dubbing the whales “orca” was meant to convey a much more frightening image. In Latin, Orcinus Orca essentially means ‘demon from the Netherworld.’

AE: That is rather evocative. But we don’t think of them that way anymore. What’s been responsible for the change in public opinion over the last few decades?

JC: Up until the early-to-mid 1960’s this was a species that was still considered a potential threat to human beings. More importantly, this was a species that was viewed as a threat to more valuable resources like salmon and seals, which were being harvested for profit. Orcas were considered a vermin species, much in the same context of wolves, bears, and cougars across North America. It wasn’t until the early to mid 1960’s when the encounters with live killer whales in captivity began to transform public opinion. Seattle is really at the heart of this story. On Pier 56 there was a private Seattle Marine Aquarium, which no longer exists today. The aquarium’s owner Ted Griffin was on a quest to befriend a killer whale.

AE: Was he one of the first ones to see orcas as intelligent creatures rather than just pests?

JC: There were others that were interested in observing them, but Griffin was the one who showed the world that they’re intelligent creatures and potentially friendly to people. Canadian fisherman up north accidentally caught a couple of killer whales in their nets, and Griffin figured out a way to build a floating cage around one of these whales and bring it down to Seattle. This hundreds-of-miles-long journey of this floating cage became front-page headline news, not just in Seattle but across the world. Griffin traveled with this whale, which had been named “Namu,” and they arrived in Seattle right before Seafair in 1965. And there was a massive celebration on the waterfront with a huge crowd gathered to welcome them.

 Namu became the first whale to ever perform for people in public—and perhaps even more important is that Griffin himself became the first human being, that we know of, to swim with a killer whale. This was a revelation to people, to scientists and naturalists and writers. Most people thought that if he got in the water with this animal it would tear him apart. Instead he befriended this animal and started performing with it. This relationship, this connection between Griffin and Namu, was really transformative to the way the world saw this predator.

AE: Because killer whales became such an icon in this context of captivity, there’s a complex discussion still going on about killer whales in captivity today. What’s your perspective on killer whales in captivity?

JC: So the purpose of writing my book was to almost be a prequel to the 2013 documentary Blackfish, which was very successful in focusing people’s attention on orca captivity. But the film was successful in part because people cared so much about orcas already. My aim was to tell the story of why we cared so much about orcas in the first place.

I always like to contextualize this historically. Keeping killer whales in captivity played a critical role in transforming people’s views of this animal, but obviously the context of the 1960’s and 70’s is different from today. I think that most scientists now would say that the research that can be done on these animals in captivity has been done, so it’s hard to make the argument that we need to keep killer whales in captivity to study them. But it’s worth remembering that most of the killer whales in captivity in North America are captive-bred. I don’t say that to diminish the animal rights question. Rather, I say it to point out that what happens with animals bred in captivity doesn’t have a lot of bearing on the survival of killer whales in the wild.

I worry that the focus on the moral question of captivity takes attention away from the overarching threats to wild killer whale populations. Our region’s resident killer whales used to number around 250 and now number at 76—and they’re probably in an extinction spiral. The biggest threats to killer whales aren’t aquariums or corporations in Orlando that are keeping a few orcas in captivity. With the growing prevalence of fisheries and pipelines, even here in the Northwest, there are factors that threaten killer whales on a much larger scale.

Food scarcity is a major issue due to growth of commercial fisheries and sport fishing. We also see pollution from increased tanker traffic contaminating their habitats—and even the noise from the tankers can be damaging. Orcas are acoustic animals, and the louder our waters get the more difficulty they have hunting and communicating. So as compelling as the moral question of captivity is to us, it’s not related to these factors which I believe are a much greater threat to the species.

AE: Is there something that you wish people understood about orcas?

JC: One of the things that struck me as I studied orcas is that they are extraordinarily close-knit socially. Our resident Northwestern pods are multi-generational and matriarchal, with extraordinarily long-lived “grandmothers” who can lead their families for nearly a hundred years. Over that time these killer whale pods have developed their own traditions, memories, and itineraries of this region.

For example, take the northern resident killer whales who travel between mid Vancouver Island and southeast Alaska. When they return to northern Vancouver Island in summer they visit these beaches—”rubbing beaches,” people call them—where they take turns rubbing up against these small round rocks. Their visits to this “whale spa” have been observed for generations.

And of course the southern residents have their own rituals. Probably their most famous one is the “greeting ceremony.” The southern residents have three distinct pods: J, K, and L. When the pods come together they line up abreast a few hundred yards apart and pause for a few minutes, then suddenly bolt forward into this large frolic. It’s really fascinating to watch.

They’re remarkably sophisticated animals with their own cultures, their own rituals, their own memories. And I do wonder how they interpret the changes that we’ve imposed on their ecosystem. It’s been transformed incredibly rapidly in a short period of time, and one wonders what they make of it.


Don’t miss Jason’s event on Tuesday, June 5. Get your tickets here.

Stay in the Loop; Hear it All

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As part of the acoustic upgrades taking place during Town Hall’s renovation, we’re permanently installing the Hearing Loop system in all three of our performance spaces. To give us a better idea of how a Hearing Loop works—as well as how this critical system supports members of our community who experience hearing loss—we turn to Mike James, who serves on Town Hall’s Board of Directors. Mike spoke with Town Hall’s Alexander Eby about his history with hearing loss, and shared all the reasons why he passionately supports the Hearing Loop’s installation.

Town Hall’s platform is built on the idea that everyone deserves to be heard—and for audience members like Mike James, this philosophy has never been more literal. Mike has lived with hearing loss since his late 30’s. Though his hearing aids are sufficient for smaller events, he’s encountered difficulty fully engaging with the lectures and performances he loves when they’re held in larger halls. But Mike is still a frequent visitor to Town Hall’s events, and he’s been able to fully experience our programming thanks to our Hearing Loop system.

“I’m fortunate enough to live right across the street from Town Hall,” Mike explains. He regularly attends Town Hall’s programs, and the Hearing Loop has enabled him to participate on any given night in impassioned community conversations, civic discussions, and science lectures. “The beauty of the Hearing Loop system is that it just…happens. You can sit down in the audience along with everyone else, and the sound from the event is transmitted directly to your hearing aids.”

Hearing Loop systems wirelessly transmit sound through microphones on the stage, transforming hearing aids fitted with telecoil receivers—like the ones Mike wears—into in-the-ear loudspeakers. “It’s the quality of the sound that’s the most significant thing. You’re hearing the program with your hearing aids, so it’s adjusted specifically for your own levels of hearing loss. You can clearly hear what’s going on onstage, and at the same time you can be a part of the discussions going on around you.”

From his position on Town Hall’s Board of Directors, Mike has enthusiastically supported the permanent installation of the Hearing Loop system in Town Hall’s performance spaces. For other audience members experiencing hearing loss, this could make all the difference in the world. “A lot of people like me gave up on going to the theater or attending lectures because of the difficulty of hearing. That’s really overcome with the loop.”

To support audience members like Mike, we’re permanently outfitting our Great Hall, Downstairs, and the new West Room with their own Hearing Loop systems as part of Town Hall’s historic renovation. Accessibility is core to Town Hall’s design, and the Hearing Loop is a critical part of ensuring that members of our community who experience hearing loss will remain a part of the discussion.

“I was born in England, and I have relatives there. We’ve traveled together throughout Europe, and found that Hearing Loop systems over there are common. At museums, box offices—you name it, all of that is looped.” Town Hall is inspired by this broad accessibility, and we’re excited to be among the first organizations in our region to offer this technology to our community. “The great thing about Town Hall is that they’re one of the first institutions in Seattle to really pioneer this. It’s a tremendously positive change, and a real asset to Town Hall.”


Please consider making a donation to the project here.

13 Un-Bee-Lievable Facts About Pollinators

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Town Hall is excited to be teaming with The Common Acre to present the Seattle Pollinator Week Symposium at the Rainier Arts Center on June 19. The symposium takes place during National Pollinator Week—approved by the U.S. Senate 11 years ago—as a time to address the urgent issue of declining pollinator populations. Wild bees and other pollinators contribute to billions of dollars a year in global pollination service, yet relatively little is known about them. Why are they important? Let us tell you, by the numbers:

75%: Percentage of all flowering plant species that need pollinator for fertilization.

$20 billion: The worth of products produced in the United States, due to pollination.

200,000: Approximate amount of insect species that are pollinators, including bees, flies, beetles, wasps, ants, butterflies, and moths.

1,000: Approximate amount of vertebrate species that are pollinators, including birds and bats.

1,050: Approximate amount of crop plants grown, including coffee, almonds, and chocolate that wouldn’t grow without pollinators.

1/3: Fraction of all foods and beverages made possible by pollinators.

300: The number of fruits, including mangoes and bananas, pollinated by bats.

0.85 ounces: Approximate weight of a Mexican long-nosed bat—the pollinator of the blue agave plant that gives us tequila.

1,000: The amount of pollen grains required to be deposited on a watermelon flower within only a few hours to get marketable fruit.

1723: The year the word ‘pollen’ was first used. (It’s from Latin, literally ‘fine powder.’)

20,000: Approximate amount of bee species.

50%: The percentage loss of managed honey bee colonies in the United States since 1945.

$14.6 billion: The annual benefit of managed honey bees to agriculture.

Join us at the symposium to learn more about the ways our communities can help preserve our precious pollinators. Bee there!

Joshua Roman’s Previews His Newest Piece “Tornado” with JACK Quartet

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You just a heard a selection from the first part of Tornado, a new piece composed by Town Music Artistic Director Joshua Roman and performed by the JACK Quartet. Over the course of 27 minutes, the piece takes the audience from that peaceful musical setting into the eye of a whirlwind and out again to the other side.

Tornado will have its Seattle debut next week on Thursday, May 10 as part of our Town Music series. But in the meantime we arranged a conversation between Joshua Roman and Melinda Bargreen, a writer, music critic and composer based in Seattle. They spoke about Tornado, and Roman’s developing work as a composer.

Get tickets for JACK Quartet with Joshua Roman here.


Melinda Bargreen: I’m curious about your new work that we’re going to be hearing in Seattle, Tornado, where it came from, where the title came from and how the commission took shape?

Joshua Roman: Yes. So I’m from Oklahoma. I’ve been in, I never bothered to count but enough tornadoes that counting seems silly. I grew up with the weekly test sirens on Saturday afternoon at noon. I love them! They’re horrible and they’re scary and they’re just these giant pieces of nature that just come out of the sky and still you with… you can’t avoid it. You can’t ignore it. It just takes over. And I think there’s something incredibly powerful about that and about nature, and that’s the natural disaster that we had in Oklahoma. Now we also have earthquakes. But back when I was growing up it was basically just tornadoes. Maybe love is the wrong word, but I had this extreme fascination with tornadoes. And so when I’m thinking about writing something for the JACK String Quartet, which was how this came about because I’d worked with the JACK String Quartet.

We love playing quintets together. We had Jefferson Friedman write us one that Town Hall commissioned years ago, and Ari (Streisfeld), the former violinist from JACK arranged some Gesualdo madrigals. And we started playing around with how to build the repertoire out. And I had started composing in the meantime. And so we figured: well, that’s easy, while we’re trying to decide how we take the next step, let’s just go ahead and move forward. I’ll write a piece for us and we’ll have an even more complete program that we can take around and play together. And so when I started thinking about that, I really wanted to give myself a way to utilize JACK’s strengths, which there are many of, but one that sets them apart is their ability to just tackle all sorts of crazy stuff and make it fit together. I mean, they’ll play John Zorn and Gesualdo in the same program. It’s amazing. So I wanted to write something that really gave us something to sink into in that way. And when I start as a composer, each piece, it helps me—sometimes I can get going with just a musical idea—but sometimes to think of that first musical idea, I want to have some non-musical inspiration. And for this I just thought of the chaos in the swirling of a tornado and that would be such a wonderful way to have a context for me to explore JACK’s sounds and how we could play together. And so it sort of built out from there. But the original kernel of this was finding a way to marry working with the JACK Quartet with really being myself. And this is how it all fits together.

MB: Well, I noticed in the music there’s a great deal of pictorial element, which I think is fascinating because it really does suggest a tornado. First: it sounds like you’re opening with something sort of jaunty and pastoral. There even sounds like there’s a little quote from Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony.

JR: Funny. I didn’t even notice that. But it is. Yes.

MB: That is funny. Yeah. And then of course things escalate from there and I swear at one point we are hearing a siren warning. Is this accurate? Like a tornado siren?

JR: Yes, there is a spot where the viola does it, and then the other strings come up and join in. It’s right as the not-so-literal—the figurative funnels start to develop. This swirling starts to really come out of this chaotic sound. So yeah there are elements in there for sure.

MB: It’s fantastic. It seems to me there may be a theater element in there somewhere too. Some of the effects that I’m hearing on the strings. I wish I were seeing as a listener in a concert hall because I know you’re doing weird stuff there that I can’t tell except by sounds.

JR: Oh yeah. That is the wheelhouse of the JACK String Quartet. So there’s lots of slapping the strings with the bow. I play the tailpiece at one point. John, the viola player, turns his viola around and crunches the hair with the stick of the bow against the back of the viola. There’s something that we ended up just calling a “duck crunch” because there’s no name for it, but I had to notate it somehow. There’s all sorts of stuff that people will see.

MB: At some point it sounds like you’re actually blowing on the strings. Does that happen?

JR: Yes. So that’s actually the air sound, and I didn’t know what to call it besides air sound. It’s the bow being very lightly drawn across the strings while the left hand is touching them with the whole hand so that you don’t get harmonics. The idea is not to have any pitch, which is actually a little difficult, but to have just the sound of the wind, and it’s a very difficult but fun technique of just making string sound with the bow.

MB: That sounds so cool. Well, what I hear with the ears is pretty fascinating and I think it’s going to be one of these sort of concert/performance pieces where you really benefit from being in the hall.

JR: Yeah. I’ve found that. Of course I know what everyone’s doing, so when I listen to it I like to either be playing it, or: headphones on, all the lights out and then you just get immersed in that sound world and it’s quite terrifying. But seeing it, you really get a sense for all of the crazy things that are happening musically and instrumentally.

MB: I wanted to ask you, does the cello interest you a little less now that you’re composing more, just straight cello performance recitals, performance opportunities? And would you like to write more pieces based on purely the solo cello feel like Bach suites and all the famous pieces in the repertoire—the Britons—the things that only exercise your own instrument.

JR: It’s interesting. When I first started composing, largely there, there was some desire to do it for its own sake, but a lot of the push aside from what was coming from situations that came up was this philosophical notion that in order to understand the music of Bach and the music of Beethoven, I should challenge myself to put myself in their shoes, and actually write music. How can I interpret the work of somebody like Dvořák, if I have not sat down with a blank page and tried to turn it into a piece of music? A lot of this is still, for me, very much connected to playing and as much as I love composing I think I’m doing about the right amount right now. I wouldn’t want to do too much more because I’m still incredibly passionate about the cello.

And up to this point, I’ve written almost exclusively pieces that I would be involved in, and I’m not super interested in writing something that I wouldn’t be playing because I am still focused on the cello. And for me, this is about becoming in some ways, ironically, a more traditional classical musician going back to 18th and 19th century roots when that was just expected. I feel like it makes me, when I play Beethoven, it makes me more able to relate. And that’s been one of the really fun byproducts of throwing myself into this process. So for me it’s not really a conflict and it’s one of those things that I think when you talk about it in terms of branding, it can be a little difficult because it’s not something that people have been used to in recent decades, but if you’ve really looked back, that was their tradition to be making and playing music. And so I feel pretty good personally and artistically about how that all matches together and it’s a matter of making sure that people understand how it fits together, my colleagues and the people that I play for, that it’s all from the same place.

MB: That makes absolute perfect sense. A really well-rounded musician is able to do several things at once. It seems to me. And that’s certainly the direction that you have moved. Well, Joshua, one thing I’d like to say is that as a Seattle music lover and part of the community here, it has been so terrific having you come back periodically, watching you grow and develop, watching the way you change the soundscapes around you and the atmosphere of music in Seattle: from chamber to orchestral to solo to your ability to express yourself in words as well as music, so we feel very lucky here. I think everyone who loves music is eager to have you back in town.

JR: That’s so sweet. Thank you. I’ve always felt incredibly supported on this journey and when I go to Seattle, and even just these conversations—I carry them with me everywhere I go. I feel very much like Seattle is home. It’s a beautiful feeling and I don’t feel alone on this journey.

That was Joshua Roman, Artistic Director of the Town Music Series here at Town Hall. He spoke with Melinda Bargreen. The Seattle debut of his piece, Tornado, will be part of our upcoming concert with the JACK Quartet on Thursday, May 10 at Seattle’s First Baptist Church.

Get tickets for JACK Quartet with Joshua Roman here.

Environmental Luminaries Return to Town Hall

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Every year our Distilled fundraiser captures the essence of Town Hall’s programming—the big ideas, the amplification of community voices, and the collaboration with organizations on a local or nationwide scale. This year we’re bringing back two luminaries who have a celebrated history on our stages. Brady Piñero Walkinshaw, former member of the Washington State House of Representatives and current CEO of Grist, will join Annie Leonard, Executive Director of Greenpeace USA, to reflect on all the ways which Town Hall embodies the spirit of civic engagement and inspires activists in our city and beyond.

Brady Piñero Walkinshaw is a familiar guest at Town Hall. Earlier this season he spoke with sea ice scientist Peter Wadhams on October 4 about the massive planetary changes he’s observed in the Arctic region. They ruminated on the ways in which sea ice is the “canary in the mine” of planetary change, how it plays a vital role in reflecting solar heat back into space, and how research shows that Arctic sea ice may be in decline faster than ever before. Walkinshaw is the CEO of Seattle’s own environmental media outlet Grist. He served in the Washington State House of Representatives from 2013 to 2017, representing the 43rd district. He is a Fulbright Scholar, and founded a nonprofit in Honduras that fosters youth leadership and prevents urban violence.

Annie Leonard is the Executive Director of Greenpeace USA, and has worked with organizations such as GAIA (Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives), Health Care Without Harm, and Essential Action.  Leonard also has a decorated history on Town Hall’s stages. In 2010, she made a marquee stop at Town Hall on her tour to spread awareness for her film The Story of Stuff, investigating where our stuff comes from and where it goes when we toss it. The film blossomed into The Story of Stuff Project, which works to empower people around the globe to fight for a more sustainable and just future. Leonard also met with Erik Assadourian and Chip Gillers as part of the State of the World 2013 to explore the scientific and political feasibility of a sustainable society. And In May 2015 she joined a panel of climate scientists, filmmakers, and artists to lend them an environmentalist’s perspective in reflecting on the top 10 student submissions to the UW Climate Change Video Contest.

These environmental activist icons join us at Distilled on May 18 at the Canvas event space in SODO—and we would love to see you there as well! Distilled gathers our Members, our friends, and our community for an evening of cocktails, games, conversation, and a chance to raise the paddle in support of Town Hall. You’ll enjoy live music and an inspired conversation from Walkinshaw and Leonard on Town Hall’s role in advancing the work of impassioned change-makers. Their meeting is reminder that the programs at Town Hall elevate our awareness and impel us to action. From Grist to Greenpeace, the people on the forefront of environmental activism congregate on Town Hall’s stages—and their ideas resonate locally, nationally, and globally.

Get Your Tickets to Distilled 2018 here.

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