Elephants: Wanted Dead…or Alive?

In Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, one of the assassins says he’ll use flattery to lure the Roman dictator to the Capitol, comparing it to how elephants are “betrayed” with “holes,” i.e., trapped with hidden pitfalls. The comparison sounds archaic, but may soon sound a lot more so: without serious intervention, some warn that the African elephant, whose ancestors have roamed the earth for 50 million years, will fall into the final hole of extinction within 20 years.

That’s right, viewers of Julius Caesar may one day ask, “what’s an elephant?” During our own lifetimes, the majestic African elephant, a highly intelligent animal that appears to have a form of language, is becoming extinct.

African elephants: headed towards extinction in 20 years.

You may think it takes magic to make elephants suddenly disappear, but it doesn’t. It’s happening right before our eyes and we know why. According to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, there were as few as 472,000 African elephants in 2007, down from 1.3 million in 1979. That’s an average loss of over 25,000 elephants per year.

It’s no mystery how this is happening: massive numbers of elephants are being slaughtered for the illegal ivory trade.

In May, the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, led by Senator John Kerry, held hearings on the “Global Implications of Poaching in Africa.” Representatives from Save the Elephants and the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species described how an armed militia, backed by organized crime, recently massacred as many as 400 elephants in the Cameroon for their ivory.

“How shockingly destructive and historically shameful it would be if we did nothing while a great species was criminally slaughtered into extinction,” said Kerry.

The situation of the Asian elephant, the other species of the world’s largest land mammal, is equally dire. Today’s wild population of Asian elephants is dwindling fast and is now estimated at less than 33,000. Sadly, the plunging number may leave programs such as Elephant Trails at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C. as one of the last chances for the species’ survival.

In contrast to their African cousins, the main challenge for Asian elephants is habitat loss: the forests where wild Asian elephants live are being cut down to grow cash crops, such as palm.

Asian elephants: less than 33,000 in the wild.

To his credit, Senator Kerry is taking the problem seriously. He’s introduced Senate Bill 2318  to expand the State Department’s “Rewards Program” to include transnational organized crime and reduce trafficking of all kinds. At the May hearing, he sounded open to the idea of expanding the Rewards Program to include compensating countries that destroy stockpiles of ivory, as Gabon recently has done.

What can you do? Please take a few minutes and send an email to Senator Kerry, expressing thanks for his concern about the elephants’ plight, and the hope that Senate Bill 2318 is expanded to include rewards for destroying ivory.

It’s a small contribution you can make to help keep this magnificent species alive.


The Arecibo Message, 37 Years Later: Think It’s Gonna Be a Long, Long Time…

The Arecibo Message was sent on November 16, 1974.

In case you missed it, last week marked the 37th anniversary of the Arecibo Message, the human species’ first really serious attempt to start a conversation with extraterrestrials, in this case the denizens of globular star cluster M13.

We transmitted our message (shown right) from the Arecibo radio telescope on November 16, 1974. Among other things, the message shows our solar system (the yellow squares) and provides detailed information about the composition of human DNA — just in case our friends might like to build their own set of Lego people. As you can see, there’s even an illustration of what the critters should look like if the instructions are properly followed.

Hopefully, no one will have one of those angry IKEA-like experiences during the assembly process.

At the bottom of the message is a purple graphic of  the Arecibo radio telescope, which is located in Puerto Rico. Compared to a photo of the telescope, it’s not a bad rendition.

As far as I can tell, the Arecibo Message did not include the exact location of the telescope – probably a good thing for the folks living in Puerto Rico.

“Hey, Zorzwitt, now that we’ve arrived, I see the critters here don’t match their picture. Should we fix that?”

“Sure Xaxsar, that sounds fun!”

Traveling at the speed of light, the Arecibo Message will arrive at the M13 star cluster 24,963 years from now. Any reply will take 25,000 years to get back to Earth.

Thank you, Mr. Spock.

Believe me, there’s more than one person I wish I could tell, “Sorry, but it’ll be at least 25,000 years before I can get back to you, okay?”

But seriously, if Earth did receive some reply to the Arecibo Message, would anyone still be here to get it?

Rather than the Arecibo Message, a better set of assumptions about interstellar communication might start with The Queen’s Messenger. Broadcast in New York in 1928, the first television show was a rather violent, blood and daggers story of a British diplomat’s tryst with a Russian spy.

The Queen’s Messenger has traveled 83 light-years so far, and already has reached many stars. In its first 50 years of travel alone, it would have gotten to well over 100 stars, some of which are likely to have Earth-like planets.

The first TV show is about to reach a new batch of G-type stars, which are yellow stars like our Sun, such as 23 Librae, that has two planets. If anyone there sees The Queen’s Messenger and decides to send back a reply, we might receive it sometime in 2096.

But then again, we may never hear a peep. Extraterrestrials may be smarter than most Earthlings, and perhaps don’t watch much television.  Instead, they prefer writing blog posts, or occupying themselves building complicated things with the Legos they just learned about.

Brian Lynch and Hervé Sellin: Interpreting French Music in a New Way

Debussy's Music Lives On in a New Jazz Hybrid

Two weeks ago, I witnessed public acts of lovemaking.

It happened in Baltimore and it was beautiful, transcending all things physical through a new synthesis of modernist French music and jazz created by Brian Lynch (trumpet) and Herve Sellin (piano).

As I listened to this wonderful fusion of classical music and jazz, I couldn’t help but think how it represented a kind of procreation, the offspring of a passion-driven union of two great musical art forms, or “memes,” if you follow Richard Dawkins’ views about the evolution of culture. By combining musical memes from the classical and jazz worlds, the Lynch/Sellin collaboration gives new life to both, perpetuating them like children do with their parents’ genes.

In the intimate surroundings of An die Musik on August 5, Lynch and Sellin, joined by David Wong on bass and Shareef Taher on drums, gave the first public performance of compositions inspired by works of Claude Debussy, Erik Sati, Henri Dutilleux and Olivier Messiaen. The music, vibrant and at times haunting in its beauty, included jazz interpretations of Debussy’s Second Piano Etude and the third movement from the only Dutilleux piano sonata.

Lynch and Sellin spoke to the audience about their attraction to the music of modernist French composers, whose work spans the late 19th and the 20th centuries (at 95, Dutilleux is still composing). Like someone who describes what he finds attractive about a lover’s eyes, Lynch, demonstrating with his trumpet, explained to the audience how composers such as Messiaen used an “octatonic scale,” a symmetrical scale that divides the octave into equal parts, or what jazz composers refer to as the “diminished scale.” In other words, the two musical genres share something in common, and they seem to like each other − a lot. Lynch said he was “crazy” about the French modernists.

Tommy Cecil, the accomplished jazz bassist well known to Washington, D.C. jazz fans, also attended the concert. He said the octatonic scale is not unlike a blues scale, which is why it works well with jazz music, adding that the mode seems to break from the heavily chromatic sound of late German romantics (Wagner, Brahms, Mahler, Strauss) who dominated music until the time of the emergence of French Impressionism.

Of course, mixing classical music and jazz is nothing new. The successful collaboration of two other French musicians, Claude Bolling and Jean-Pierre Rampal, comes to mind. By focusing on a particular subgenre of classical music – French modernism – Lynch and Sellin have produced an excellent new musical mélange.

Following the concert, Sellin suggested contemporary jazz composers would do well to follow the approach of classical composers and develop a single theme with “balance” rather than incorporate a multiplicity of musical elements. After hearing Sellin’s marvelous take on Dutilleux, I hope jazz artists listen to him.

The Lynch/Sellin project is supported by a grant from the Chamber Music America and French American Cultural Exchange, made possible by the French Embassy, Cultures France, the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, the Florence Gould Foundation, and SACEM.

Lynch said he hopes the project will continue, and that he and Sellin get to the recording studio.

Lynch won a 2007 Grammy for Best Latin Jazz Album of the Year for “The Brian Lynch/Eddie Palmieri Recording Project – Simpatico.”  The Hervé Sellin Tentet won The French Jazz Academy’s award for Best French Jazz Album of the Year for the 2008 release, “Marciac New York Express.”

London’s wolf howls true and Woolf gets it right, too

White Fang doesn't sound too human.

Stories featuring animals have always been popular and not just with kids. One of my favorites is Robert Olen Butler’s “Jealous Man Returns in Form of Parrot,” a short story that wonderfully dodges the criticism of being anthropomorphic. Butler need not be concerned with the A-word since his tale involves a man reincarnated as a parrot, a bird inhabited by a human mind.

In truth, fiction told from an animal’s point of view can’t help but be anthropomorphic. The writer uses human symbols – words – to convey characters’ thoughts, feelings and emotions, whether they be those of a person or animal. Words, by their nature, infuse non-human characters with human traits and qualities.

The writer should be a kind of translator or interpreter, conveying an animal’s point of view in a manner that honors the uniqueness of a different species. For example, the writer can show how the animal perceives the world through its own senses, rather than making it sound so human one wouldn’t know the difference except for descriptions of fur walking on all fours.

And yet, the growing consensus among animal experts for the last 15 years has been that animals show human-like emotions. Jeffrey Masson in his classic, “When Elephants Weep,” speculates that, based on behavioral observations, even spiders may love their babies − and one day scientists may prove it.

At the same time, animals may have emotions that humans find alien. No doubt their sensory experiences are different from those of people. Animals “think in pictures” according to Temple Grandin. She draws comparisons to autism (she’s autistic herself), characterizing animal consciousness and thought as a highly visual experience, with heightened auditory and olfactory sensitivity. Animals do not display “abstract” thinking to the same extent as humans, even while sharing many similar emotions. This is where, I think, writers can get into trouble with anthropomorphism, when animal characters “think” too much and end up sounding too human.

Jack London’s “White Fang” brilliantly avoids such an error. How? For the most part London objectively describes White Fang’s raw feelings – his personality – without lots of detail about the wolf dog’s observations about his thoughts and emotions:

“If ever a creature was the enemy of its kind, White Fang was that creature. He asked no quarter, gave none. He was continually marred and scarred by the teeth of the pack, and as continually he left his own marks upon the pack. Unlike most leaders, who, when camp was made and the dogs were unhitched, huddled near to the gods for protection, White Fang disdained such protection. He walked boldly about the camp, inflicting punishment in the night for what he had suffered in the day.”

With simple and consistent objectivity, London shows us the wildness of a non-human protagonist who gains the reader’s respect and admiration.

Virginia Woolf’s “Flush: A Biography,” the story of Elizabeth’s Barrett Browning pet spaniel, is another example, I think, of getting it right. Her approach pays special attention to the dog’s senses, especially that of smell. Flush’s nose rules him, over and above his love for the mistress who takes him for a walk:

“The cool globes of dew or rain broke in showers of iridescent spray about his nose; the earth, here hard, here soft, here hot, here cold, stung, teased and tickled the soft pads of his feet. Then what a variety of smells interwoven in subtlest combination thrilled his nostrils; strong smells of earth, sweet smells of flowers; nameless smells of leaf and bramble; sour smells as they crossed the road; pungent smells as they entered bean-fields. But suddenly down the wind came tearing a smell sharper, stronger, more lacerating than any — a smell that ripped across his brain stirring a thousand instincts, releasing a million memories — the smell of hare, the smell of fox. Off he flashed like a fish drawn in a rush through water further and further. He forgot his mistress; he forgot all humankind.”

Here, the action of Woolf’s character is guided not by his thoughts but by his experience in the moment. Flush knows only his nose.

Whereas Butler’s delightful story of a man-parrot is a first person account that raises no issue about anthropomorphism, those of White Fang and Flush are told by omniscient, third person narrators that succeed by not being too anthropomorphic.

The challenge, I think, becomes more difficult when an animal which is not a reincarnated human narrates the story. The best the writer can do is to create, through interpretation and translation, impressions of the uniqueness of a different species, using words so humans might understand.