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 firstname.lastname@example.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…)
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 Colbywill be joining us onJune 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.
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.
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.”
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!
Planetary scientist Dr. Alan Stern and astrobiologist Dr. David Grinspoon will be at the Museum of Flight on May 17 to discuss the New Horizons mission. NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft, launched in 2006, became the first spacecraft to pass by Pluto. During its flyby, New Horizons made detailed measurements and observations of Pluto and its five moons. This coming New Year’s Eve, New Horizons will offer up images of the most distant body ever explored, provisionally named Ultima Thule. It is an object in the Kuiper Belt, an enormous asteroid belt that extends from the orbit of Neptune to approximately 50 AU from the sun (50 AU = very far away).
Before an astronomically interesting evening with Stern and Grinspoon, here’s a brief timeline exploring the history of our solar system’s controversial “ninth planet.”
4.5 Billion Years Ago:Pluto was formed at the same time as the rest of the planets around the sun during the formation of our solar system. (The oldest mineral dated on earth is a zircon with an age of 4.4 billion years).
1840s:Urbain Le Verrier predicted the not-yet-discovered planet Neptune was beyond Uranus, based on perturbations in Uranus’s orbit. Observations of Neptune—discovered in 1846—made it clear there was ANOTHER planet besides Neptune disturbing Uranus’s orbit. (Spoiler alert: it was Pluto!)
1894: Astronomer and mathematician Percival Lowell founds the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona, and is integral in the early efforts to find Pluto. (Unfortunately Lowell died in 1916, a full 14 years before the discovery of Pluto).
1905: While observing the orbits of Neptune and Uranus, Lowell believes that they are being displaced from their predicted positions by the gravity of another body. He posits the existence of a possible ninth planet, and begins his search for the elusive ‘Planet X.’
1930: After a week of intense comparison of photographs of the night sky at the Lowell Observatory, astronomer Clyde Tombaugh announces his discovery of a ninth planet.
1930: In a stroke of inspiration, eleven-year-old Venetia Burney living in Oxford, England gives Pluto its name just one day after the announcement of Tombaugh’s discovery. Venetia suggests that, due to its nature as a dark and remote planet far from the warmth of the sun, the planet should be called ‘Pluto’ after the Greek God of the Underworld. Venetia’s grandfather relays the suggestion to his friend Herbert Hall Turner, professor of astronomy at the University of Oxford. The name is a hit, and the newly-discovered celestial body is quickly christened ‘Pluto.’ (The name was beloved not only for being fitting from a mythological standpoint, but also because the first two letters ‘PL’ served as homage to Percival Lowell, who made its discovery possible.)
1978: U.S. Naval Observatory astronomers James Christy and Robert Harrington notice that images taken of Pluto show a bump on its surface—and that the bump is moving. Pluto has a moon. Named Charon (the ferryman of the Underworld’s river of the dead in Greek mythology), it is approximately half the size of Pluto. (Four additional moons have since been discovered: Hydra, Nix, Kerberos, and Styx).
2006: NASA launches New Horizons, the fastest spacecraft in history, travelling at 36,000 mph. The Principle Investigator is Dr. Alan Stern, making New Horizons the 29th NASA space mission that’s seen his participation.
2006: Pluto is demoted to a dwarf planet. Celestial bodies are discovered on the edge of the solar system in the Kuiper Belt, and one of them—Eris—is found to be larger than Pluto. This sparks a heated discussion: should the solar system have more planets, or should ‘planet’ be redefined altogether? After much debate, the International Astronomical Union decides that Pluto, Eris, and Ceres (the largest asteroid that lies between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter) would be designated as dwarf planets.
2015: After 9 ½ years New Horizons reaches its destination, flying within 7,750 miles of Pluto.
2017: Planetary scientists gather at the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference. One presentation, ‘A Geophysical Planet Definition,’ stated, “In keeping with both sound scientific classification and peoples’ intuition, we propose a geophysically-based definition of ‘planet’ that importantly emphasizes a body’s intrinsic physical properties over its extrinsic orbital properties.” The presentation continues with the assertion: “A simple paraphrase of our planet definition – especially suitable for elementary school students – could be, ‘round objects in space that are smaller than stars.” Given that definition, Pluto is a planet.
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.
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.
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.
Increasingly, activists who work on climate change frame their movement around the idea of environmental justice, an interweaving of social, racial and economic justice with the fight to mitigate the effects of climate change and seek a just transition from the fossil fuel economy.
For Ashley Dawson, a professor of English at the City University of New York, the key sites of this struggle are the world’s cities: where radical social movements and innovative urban planning rise up in places at the highest risk of environmental disaster. He tells this story in his new book Extreme Cities: The Peril and Promise of Urban Life in the Age of Climate Change.
He will be discussing the book at an upcoming Town Hall event on Sunday, May 6th, but in the meantime we arranged a conversation between Ashley and Town Hall correspondent Jessica Ramirez. Jessica is an organizer working with Puget Sound Sage, a cross-sector organization based in Seattle that works on equitable policy solutions for our region.
She and Ashley spoke about Extreme Cities, their common experiences witnessing the effects of climate change firsthand, and what urban resiliency really means in an era of rising waters.
Jessica Ramirez: Thank you Ashley for talking with me today. Where are you right now?
Ashley Dawson: In Jackson Heights in Queens, a neighborhood in New York City.
JR: So you are from the very urban center of the urban centers.
AD: That’s where I live now. I’m originally from Cape Town, South Africa, but I’ve been a New Yorker for several decades. So I think I get to claim this beast as my own at this point.
JR: Well I really wanted to get to know you a little bit more and touch on the book through ways of your life experience. I grew up in Corpus Christi, Texas, which is on the Gulf of Mexico, born and raised there. My family continues to live there. I’ve lived in Seattle for the last 15 years and going home about once a year for the last 15 years I’ve seen and witnessed the radical change that the coastline has undergone over the last decade or more. We had a really intense hurricane come through there last year. The year before that, around the holidays, we had a water shortage because of a chemical that was leaked into our water system that left the whole city without water for over a week. People were having to drink bottled water. I’ve really seen the change of the coastline with the new refineries popping up all the time.
When I was younger I remember looking at them and thinking how pretty they were because in the evening they look like big towers with Christmas lights. So I was always really fascinated by them and I just thought “oh the twinkling lights across the bay,” and as I’ve gotten older and with the work that I do at Puget Sound Sage and the kind of issues that we touch on around environmental justice and environmental racism and the way that effects low income communities and communities of color, I’ve really had an incredibly different relationship with my hometown and I’m starting to look at it in a much different way: in which ways can I help insert kind of this popular education on climate change within my family with family, friends with neighbors when I’m home. And I’m curious for you growing up in Cape Town, how have you seen where you’re from change over the last several years?
AD: That’s a great question. I have not lived in Cape Town for many years. As you can tell from my accent, I spent my teenage years in the United States. My family left South Africa in the 1970s because of apartheid. But Cape Town has been in the news a lot recently because of the drought. I mean there’s a very severe drought affecting all of southern Africa and in fact there are bad droughts right now in many other parts of the world, but since much of Sub-Saharan Africa really relies on rain fed agriculture, the drought in southern Africa is particularly devastating for people and farmers. In South Africa it really threatens to undermine the gains that have been made since the end of apartheid. There’s been a real struggle for the black majority in South Africa to get access to the land that was taken away from them by white settlers—my own ancestors included. The ANC I think has not done enough to help that land redistribution and the farmers who have gotten access to land still are really, really struggling and the impact of the drought has made things a lot worse.
That hasn’t made the news so much as the water crisis in Cape Town. Where the city is about to essentially run its main reservoirs dry and it’s already rationing water, so what that means is that many of the more affluent people living in the city, which because of the history of apartheid means the predominantly white populations of the city, are struggling with lack of access to drinking water, which the majority of people in South Africa have coped with for a long time and it’s generated a lot of fears about the viability of the city going forward and of course this is one crisis among many around the world and I’d be happy to talk about New York City and some of the experiences I had been living in New York City in recent years that help to catalyze the book and those have to do not so much with drought but with sea level rise and the impact of hurricanes. So they’re connected in a lot of ways to what you’re just described experiencing in the south in Texas, Jessica,
JR: Thanks Ashley. I read through your book and you do have a significant amount talking about Hurricane Sandy, so I imagine living in New York City that had an impact on you. Can you tell us more about the connection of what drew you to this book and your experience with Hurricane Sandy?
AD: Sure. Well, as you could tell from the comments I just made about South Africa and given my background and the work I’ve done in recent years with environmental justice organizations, I think it’s absolutely crucial to think about cities and the impact of climate change driven natural disasters on cities and urban populations in a kind of variegated way. You can’t think of cities as homogenous. Even though a lot of statistics produced about cities tend to treat cities as unified units. There are places that are very radically segregated and segmented by histories of racism and economic inequality and exploitation, and when you have some kind of a climate-change-driven disaster like a hurricane, it impacts communities that are uneven and the impact is consequently very uneven and often efforts to help people cope in the aftermath and help them rebuild reflect those histories of racism and economic inequality. And I very much saw that with Hurricane Sandy.
The neighborhood I live in is predominantly immigrant and predominantly people of color, but it was pretty much spared a lot of the wrath of the hurricane. However other neighborhoods in Queens, like the Rockaways, which are on an island—kind of barrier island—off the coast of New York City was very, very hard hit. And that community has a disproportionate amount of the public housing in our borough of New York. Basically under the master builder of the Twentieth Century, Robert Moses, a lot of working class people of color communities for essentially just moved as far away from the center of the city as possible to these barrier islands. And when Sandy came, it knocked out power for the island and flooded a lot of parts of the Rockaways so that people living in the projects didn’t have running water above the fifth floor. They often didn’t have functioning elevators and they didn’t have functioning boilers, so their heat was not working.
This kind of experience is reproduced in many vulnerable communities around New York City so that although the hurricane devastated Wall Street and the area around Wall Street and famously that bottom quarter of Manhattan lost power was plunged into darkness. The really dramatic impact was on people who were already struggling economically before the storm hit. And we already know about those kinds of uneven impacts of climate change from Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. But those dynamics were working themselves through in cities around the globe today and not always in quite as visible ways as in Hurricane Katrina with all of its tragic images of people struggling on rooftops and trying to escape the floods. So my book really tries to talk about urbanization and climate change as a global crisis and a crisis of global urban inequality,
JR: Yeah. There’s definitely a lot there. Urban Centers, for me, when I think about climate change, for a really long time I always thought about climate change as being kind of over there in a corner somewhere.
Actually in my mind I just went straight to California where there’s no water and I just thought, you know, this is an issue for them, not something that I don’t need to care about, but I just thought of it as being… that there is a bigger gap between me and climate change. But then about three years ago I got involved with the farm worker campaign up in the Skagit valley, about an hour north from here, and really started to hear about what struggles are for farm workers who pick in the fields and the kinds of pesticides that they’re working with and what those pesticides are for are to grow foods in radically difficult climates and that is the food that we eat and these are the foods that they pick. This is the poison that gets seeped into their hands, that they bring home to their families, the areas and the environment that their children grow up in.
And this is also making me remember about the last handful of years in Seattle, wildfires in Eastern Washington where the smoke just billows beyond the mountain pass and into Western Washington and how everyone complains about the smoke and can see what’s happening, but the connection of why that is happening is still hard for some people to make and so thinking about urban centers as the center of where climate change is existing, and then even rural areas are not safe to be either. Where is the medium—what are the ways in which we mitigate climate change and how do you see people doing that? How are some of the most radical ways that you see folks working on climate issues from the urban center?
AD: Yeah, that’s a great question. I want to, before getting into radical adaptation and mitigation, I want to just backtrack to what you said because I think it’s really important about the ways in which people deal with toxicity and how hard that is to pin down because getting exposed to pesticides and potentially—years down the road—developing some kind of cancer is very different from getting exposed to a hurricane or a heat wave. It’s a form of attritional disaster unfolds over an extended time span and consequently is often kind of invisible to science. And corporations are very quick to exploit that and to say “well, you know, you can’t prove any kind of connection between exposure to a certain toxin and an impact many years down the road.”
The critic Rob Nixon has talked about this as a form of slow violence. He also talks about, for instance, Gulf War syndrome, that is the result of soldiers sent to Iraq during the US invasion—either the most recent one or the one in the 1990s—getting exposed to depleted uranium which they were using to blow up tanks and other things and becoming sick after many years. So I think a lot of this has to do with understanding different forms of time and temporality and how we can make connections between different forms of violence and the unfolding of injustice on different temporal scales. And that’s really important to do I think because as you say, often the way that climate change is framed is as something that’s going to happen in some remote future, you know, unless we do, x, y, and z one day we’re going to have to deal with something that’s going to impact us. So I think it’s really important to emphasize that climate change is happening in the present. It’s likely to become much more extreme than the future, but it’s already happening and it’s happening in all sorts of different ways.
So just to give you a kind of concrete example of this, to think about the ways in which existing urban infrastructures are impacted by climate change as the heat island effect in cities means that there’s increasing heat stress on pipes, on transportation systems, on electric grids that can often cause catastrophic and sudden breakdowns, but that are a long time in the making. So to think about those kinds of things and then to think about the ways in which people are exposed to these forms of climate change and how there’s a kind of attritional violence to climate change so that people gradually get worn down and we need to be aware of that as well as to think about so-called natural disasters like hurricanes for example. So all of that is really important in thinking about how we engage in adaptation and mitigation because it means we have to reframe how we conceive of disasters and preparation for disasters. Right now, particularly in the United States, a lot of work around disasters has to do with sending in resources to communities that are affected by disasters. Treating those communities as homogenous as I was saying previously…
JR: Puerto Rico, right?
AD: Yeah, exactly. And FEMA doesn’t think about the inequalities in communities and the need to dispense aid in recognition of these kinds of histories of inequality which we’ve been talking about. And so one has to be aware of those kinds of histories and impacts as one thinks about adaptation and mitigation. So to give you a concrete example of this, a couple of examples that I look at it in the book, one has to do with a very ambitious project that was commissioned by the Rockefeller Foundation and which the Federal Housing and Urban Development Department got involved in which was trying to rethink design and architecture in order to deal with sea level rise and climate change in New York City. And so it proposed things like sea walls to protect downtown Manhattan or to protect an area of the southern Bronx where there’s a huge food and produce market that supplies food for about 20 million people in the New York metropolitan region.
So there was this idea of creating sea walls to protect these areas. But because of the efforts of community groups who had been excluded by previous redevelopment initiatives and particularly the redevelopment of downtown, for example, after 9/11—predominantly working class communities like Chinatown and the lower east side—really didn’t get very much of the aid after 9/11. Most of it went to affluent communities living down around Wall Street. So there was a real push to have community involvement in the rebuilding efforts after hurricane Sandy in the plans for future development. And so the plan for sea walls was to make them wide enough that they could have community amenities like parkland for example, or access to the waterfront and in the more radical cases that some of the construction would be done by local folks who had good unionized jobs. So there was something quite progressive about that.
But plants that were drafted by community organizations took some of those efforts much further. So there are other examples. For instance, the environmental justice organization, WE ACT which is based in Harlem, drafted a plan: a kind of climate action manual for northern Manhattan, which is predominantly people of African descent and people originally from Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico, Latinx folks. And so there was a effort to really think about community development to cope with histories of police targeting and mass incarceration of these communities and to do things like build community owned solar powered micro grids that would be resilient in the case of some kind of a natural disaster like Hurricane Sandy, but which would also generate income for communities and jobs for communities and that’s just one example of something that would be both mitigating since it would cut down on carbon emissions, but it would also be a form of adaptation since it could increase resilience and it would also fight against gentrification and structural divestment in communities like Harlem over many, many decades.
JR: Puget Sound Sage for the last three years, has been a member of a state wide coalition for communities of color working on climate at a statewide level (Front and Centered), forming and shaping the policy for an initiative that folks are collecting signatures to put on the ballot in November, initiative 1631, which is a fee on pollution, wanting to reduce pollution by investing in clean air, clean energy, healthy communities, and more specifically it takes workers out of the fossil fuel economy and brings them into job training programs to work in clean energy. It helps try to mitigate the tribal nations who are losing land along the coastline every single day and really trying to stop that in its place. And really holding the people who are creating a lot of this pollution accountable for what it is that communities of color and low income workers are really facing on a day to day.
The Alliance for jobs and clean energy is this amazingly robust—over a hundred different organizations from labor, environmental organizations, and communities of color—who come together for three years to shape this initiative. And I feel very lucky to live in Washington state where we have people who are really thinking beyond the most… you know, when we talk about sea walls, you could build a sea wall all day long and it could get as high as it needs to, but is that the answer? And so thinking really long term about how do we actually stop this in its place.
And also at Sage, we have another program where we’re trying to build out a climate resiliency hub in south Seattle so that should there be a day where we need to be “off the grid”, can that infrastructure exists in a place where communities of Color and immigrant and refugee folks, low income folks, houseless, folks can all be at and still thrive in and it can that be the place where people can restructure and center themselves and ground themselves again on what we need to do next. I’m curious, through your studies, can you tell me where you’ve seen the most long term work be put in place? As you were talking about WE ACT and the climate action manual, I know that people are in a lot of places all the time and this is just really ringing to me how much we need to be more coordinated in our efforts around long-term strategy on climate. So I’d love to hear from you where you see other long term strategies existing in the urban centers.
AD: That’s such an important question. A lot of what you described Jessica early resonates with some of the things that I encountered as I was doing research for the book. For instance, that climate resiliency hub that you talked about. Part of the WE ACT climate action manual is a call for social centers. The idea is to have spaces which people can escape to when there is some kind of natural disaster or places that would have power or air conditioning if the grid goes down in the summer for instance. But even more importantly they would be places which would give access to various community organizations because I think there’s a real recognition that resiliency isn’t just about shoring up infrastructure. That it’s really about making social connections. You know, the difference between life and death, studies have shown, when a heatwave occurs in the city often has to do with knowing your neighbors and having folks check on one another.
And that I find is very much the case. In New York City after Hurricane Sandy, it was organizations like Occupy Sandy and then the Good Old Lower East Side, which is a tenants rights organization in the Lower East Side, but during Sandy it was kind of transformed into this community survival organization which really sent people door to door to check on vulnerable folks. That social connection is hugely important. So core questions about how to foster that long-term by creating spaces like a resiliency hub and by kind of multiplying those spaces across cities are a really key. It’s hard to do to be honest because particularly in a place like New York City, which is a center for global capitalism, which over the last 40 years has shifted increasingly into some financialization strategies and into accumulation through investment in high end real estate. You know, there’s a huge premium on space in the city and so public housing are really under attack and communities are under attack and I’m sure there’s similar kinds of phenomena in Seattle.
So I think it goes back to the beginning of our conversation where you’re talking about ways to think about community control of land. You know, not only protecting existing public housing. We’re pretty lucky in New York City. We have a public housing authority which has survived all the attacks on public housing in cities in the last few decades. The situation is terrible in a lot of the housing in New York City and our current governor has just been scandalously cutting funding for public housing. So there are huge fights to carry forward around these kinds of basic issues. And then in terms of struggling for social hubs or community resiliency centers, it’s a tough one. And we need to call for those and we need to push progressive politicians like our current mayor, Bill de Blasio, to create that kind of infrastructure while also pushing for some of the elements of just transition away from fossil fuels that you were describing.
We have a similar alliance to what you just talked about there in Washington. In New York, it’s called a New York Renews, and it’s a alliance of Labor—progressive labor unions—and environmental justice organizations and other social movements that are fighting to put fees on big fossil fuel polluters and to direct resources to people working in fossil fuel industries and also to communities that are environmental justice frontline communities that are particularly adversely impacted by climate change. We haven’t managed to get that through the state legislature. There was a huge mobilization on April 23rd, just a few days ago around this and we’re pushing in the state legislature, but unfortunately again, our democratic governor Cuomo, who is likely to try and become president has not been supporting these measures adequately, so there’s a lot of heavy lifting to do politically around this stuff.
JR: Well, Ashley, thank you so much for your time and as we’re talking about social organization and the need to be more connected from urban centers to rural areas and from west coast to east coast, I appreciate you taking time out to talk to me about your book and look forward to seeing you in Seattle.
AD: Thanks so much, Jessica. It’s really been a privilege to talk to you and to hear about the work that you’re doing. I really look forward to hearing more.
Ashley Dawson is the author of Extreme Cities: The Peril and Promise of Urban Life in the Age of Climate Change out now from Verso Books. He spoke with Jessica Ramirez from Puget Sound Sage. Ashley’s upcoming Town Hall event will be on Sunday, May 6th at 5pm at the Rainier Arts Center in Seattle.
An Air Force loadmaster in the Vietnam War is shot out of the sky, then saved by falling into a banyan. An artist inherits a hundred years of photographic portraits, all of the same doomed American chestnut. A hearing- and speech-impaired scientist discovers that trees are communicating with one another. These characters and their struggles exemplify the sweeping, impassioned story of activism—and stunning evocation of the natural world—that is author Richard Powers’ twelfth novel, The Overstory.
Town Hall’s Alexander Eby talked with Powers about where his idea for the novel originated and why trees, specifically, are important to telling our complete story.
AE: I’m curious about the overall premise of your novel, The Overstory. The overarching throughline seems to be the presence of trees and their relationship to the characters. Can you tell me a little bit more about that?
RP: I suppose that’s the easiest way to describe the common denominator of this story. It’s about nine people with very different personalities and very different histories, each of whom for different reasons must come to take more seriously the invisible presence of these enormous long-lived creatures. But beyond trees, I guess it’s a story that asks how to dramatize the relationship between humans and non-humans—how to raise this question of what it would take for us to live here on this Earth rather than be constantly fleeing into one that asks the rest of creation to live on our terms.
AE: So more than just trees in that sense. The whole of nature.
RP: I used trees as an entry point into this broader question of people coming to terms with the world beyond the human. So much of the book has to do with current research that’s revealing all kinds of unexpected aggregate behavior among trees, for instance, their ability to communicate with each other via chemical signaling in semaphore. It just seems another fresh way to talk about this endless challenge of people in a world that is increasingly hard-pressed by our relegation of the rest of creation to the role of mere resource.
AE: It’s fascinating to see what we’re discovering regarding research on the behavior of trees. It’s just difficult for us to observe given that this all happens in such slow motion relative to our own lives.
RP: Yes, the research is proceeding in a lot of different directions. The roots of trees are connected underground by fungal filaments, and the exchange of hydrocarbons and sugars between the tree and the fungus, and the reciprocal nurturing of the tree by the fungus produces what Suzanne Simard, one of the leading researchers in the topic, calls the “Wood Wide Web.” It forces us to think of the forest as something that emerges out of lots of individuals, deeply connected in webs of cooperation.
To me that story—the discovery that these other enormous creatures have agency and memory and social connections and complex behavior—compels a rethinking of who we are in connection to these other entities. All of that compels a rethinking of who we are in connection to these other entities.
And that’s kind of an odd program for literary fiction. Traditionally, contemporary novels don’t venture much beyond the psychological or the social. The stories that we tell these days are almost exclusively about us. We fascinate ourselves. We pay attention primarily to the social relations among people, to the tensions inside our own psyches.
AE: Is that why you chose to situate this in a novel format?As fiction?
RP: The stories we tell about who we are, the stories we tell about what non-humans are. They need to be informed by all of those concerns that are traditionally the arena of non-fiction, but they need to have the heft, the emotional impact, and the visceral quality of fiction. We are entirely dependent upon plants, biologically and culturally. They should be at the heart and soul of the story that we tell about ourselves. It shouldn’t be a separate domain treated specifically and exclusively by scientific or non-fiction writers.
AE: And it seems like your representation of trees at the center of this story is aiming to redefine what we imagine a character to be.
RP: We have been almost entirely colonized by a way of thinking that I sometimes call “individual commodity culture,” where meaning is exclusively the domain of the self and life consists exclusively of individual people introspecting, coming to terms with their own conflicting values and making peace with others around them. At this point we believe that life is this simple struggle between ourselves and our immediate friends and family. And that’s as far as the story goes.
It’s difficult to understand that most people who have lived in human history didn’t have that assumption. That for them, meaning was out there. It’s tough for us to think of meaning as anything other than a subjectively negotiated thing.
AE:Is this story the spurred by any meaningful personal relationships with nature or specific trees at all that you can recall?
RP: Until six years ago when I first began to think about this project, I was as blind to trees as anyone. I mean, I saw them, I appreciated them aesthetically, but they didn’t particularly seem to have their own urgency. It was really first experience of a Redwood forest that began to challenge that. I think a lot of people have that when they see Redwoods for the first time; there’s something so majestic that you can’t be blind to them in the way that you are to plant life so much of the time.
Once I saw a Redwood forest as something more than a resource or aesthetic diversion, I returned to the forests of the East where I grew up and began to see the trees of my childhood for the first time, just to look at them and to understand all of the incredibly complicated shapes and forms and structures that they create. I had, again and again, this experience of coming back to the forest of the East while writing this book and saying to myself, “I had no idea.” I never—I had never seen it.
AE:I can imagine visiting forests you grew up with and seeing trees that you saw as a child, coming back to them years later. And it’s the same tree, the same organism.
RP: But everything’s different because something had changed in me. I began to see what had been largely invisible to me up until then. And I guess that’s my hope for this book. I hope that the reader has that experience of being un-blinded toward these incredible creatures in their own street or deeper into the woods as far as they want to go—that experience of perpetually saying “I never saw that before. I have to look at them now with new eyes.”
AE: It sounds like a lot of native Seattleites will be inspired to take a trip to the Grove of the Patriarchs after reading this.
RP: Or even to see the urban planting in a different way. To understand the richness and diversity of street trees. It’s a great place to start.
Humans often look at the animal kingdom through our own lens, and many times we tend to project our own values and emotions onto the animals. Here to set the record straight is National Geographic Explorer Lucy Cooke. She’ll be joining us on April 22 with wisdom from her new book The Truth About Animals. To give us some perspective on all varieties of animals, beloved and besmirched, Cooke spoke with Town Hall’s Copywriter Alexander Eby about her upcoming event.
AE: In your book you aim to dispel some misconceptions we hold about animals, and you mention Aristotle and Disney in particular as examples of where some wrong ideas came from. Can you tell me more about that?
LC: So the book is about how we have misconstrued animals, and explaining where those misconceptions came from. That’s not to single those two out, Aristotle or Disney that is, but it’s really just to show the range of misconceptions that exist. Aristotle of course was the first Zoologist, the grandfather of Zoology, and he was a fantastic scientist, but even he made some mistakes. And Disney of course is a founding father of popular culture and how we see animals in a popular sense, so really that statement is just to illustrate how we make mistakes about animals not just in popular culture, but scientifically as well.
One of the examples you bring up as a classic misconception we hold is about penguins “holding hands.” How does that example illustrate our misunderstanding?
As a species, we have a compulsion to anthropomorphize. We’re constantly looking for our reflection in the animal kingdom. But this trips us up and it obscures the truth and it makes us believe things that are wholly inappropriate about animals. Penguins are a good example. They look like wobbly little humans, they have this awkward way of walking when they’re on land, which is not at all how they behave in the water. But this way of walking reminds us of toddlers and it triggers our impulse to nurture. We’re sort of helpless in the face of penguins; we want to adore them. So when we see images of penguins and it looks like their flippers are touching, we imagine that they’re holding hands and that they’re in love.
But that is not true at all. Penguins are birds with tiny brains that live in an incredibly harsh environment and they actually have a kind of brutal existence. They often fight one another in the Antarctic, and they’re often thought of as being monogamous and forming long-term loving relationships. But the majority of penguins find new partners every season, and penguin “divorce rates” go up the further north you travel. The most egregious example is the famous Emperor penguin, and only 15% of Emperor penguins manage to stay “faithful” from one breeding season to another.
So we humans project that loving and faithful image onto penguins, when in reality there’s actually a bit of a darker side to them. Is there an animal that’s the reverse? One that has a negative image which it doesn’t necessarily deserve?
In the book I write about spotted hyenas, who are one of those species that are widely disliked. They’re portrayed in Disney’s Lion King as stupid lowly scavengers or cowards, but the truth is a long way from that. Spotted hyenas are one of the most successful carnivores on the planet. They are a matriarchal society, and extremely intelligent. The researchers I’ve spoken to have suggested that they’re of greater intelligence than lions. They can actually count up to three, and they use their numeracy skills to work out whether they have the advantage in numbers when they’re faced with lions. They listen to the sound of the roars and they work out whether they have a band that’s big enough to overtake the lions. They’re really extraordinarily skilled hunters.
Hyenas are one of the animals that have been considered in a negative light, but we should really consider them the feminist icon of the animal kingdom. They’re a matriarchal society, and they’re extremely successful and intelligent hunters.
It seems like you’re doing a lot of good PR work for these animals, trying to set the record straight.
I think it’s time we re-branded the animal kingdom according to fact, and not sentimentality.
That makes sense. And it also resonates with some of the work you did a few years ago as The Amphibian Avenger.
(*laughs*) Yeah. I spent six months travelling around South America by myself investigating the amphibian extinction crisis. They don’t get a lot of press, amphibians. They don’t have a furry smiley face and they are less relatable perhaps to ourselves than primates or bears or animals we can see ourselves in. But amphibians are a key part of the food chain, and they’re also the canary in the mine, as it were. Because of their thin skin that they breathe through they’re a good kind of barometer for the ecosystem as a whole. So if the amphibians are in trouble you can pretty much guess that there’s something wrong with the ecosystem too, and the fact that they’re dying out in such huge numbers should be something we’re more keenly interested in.
And since then your travels have taken you even further than South America. You’ve become a National Geographic Explorer as well. Where else has that work taken you, and what was it like?
I was given the award in 2011 in response to the work I did with amphibians, bringing the conservation message about amphibians to a broader audience. I travel a lot. I spend a lot of time in jungles and out there in the wild. While in South America I visited eight or nine countries. I saw fungus-infested frog farms, licked poison dart frogs, drank frog smoothies in Lima, and chased down endangered species in the Amazon.
Well we’re excited to have you coming to Seattle after all that.
Yeah, I can’t wait to come to Seattle. I’ve never been, and I’m looking forward to my visit enormously! If I’m lucky enough to get some free time I would love to see the orcas. They’re one of those absolutely incredible animals that’s widely misunderstood. Another matriarchal society, hugely empathetic in nature, very smart, they’re fantastic. I hope I get to see them, as well as lots of wonderful human beings during my visit.