A Conversation Among Objects

By | May 7, 2020

Guest post by Erik Anderson, Rolf Halden, Steve Jones, and Steve Mentz

How did you each pick your object?

CELL TOWER: (Steve Jones): 

How did I pick my object? I think my object kind of picked me. I started noticing I was surrounded by cell towers. Where I live in Florida, which is pretty much at sea level everywhere, you can see to the horizon in most places and the towers look like a lot of spindly tall trees (even when they’re not disguised as spindly tall trees). And yet we all learn to “unsee” them, to pretend they’re not there, because we want to believe that our phones are magical devices that connect us to an invisible and ethereal network. That denial of infrastructure—steel, concrete, and cable—became my topic, really. The tower is the object that focused and revealed the topic for me. 

In some ways, my relationship to my object has intensified in recent weeks, as the pandemic has accelerated. A conspiracy theory has been circulating online falsely linking the coronavirus to the proliferation of 5G cell towers. This has led to a rash of arson in the U.K., people actually burning down towers, sometimes posting videos on YouTube about their industrial sabotage. It’s just one more weird development in a weird time, but as Jordan Frith commented in a recent piece about the conspiracy theory, there’s a long history of health panics being linked to invisible wireless infrastructure. 

BIRD (Erik Anderson): 

I love what Steve says about seeing in the object what we’ve learned to unsee, how we habituate ourselves to objects so that we don’t have to really think about them, or consider what they mean. This is certainly true of birds too, and was one of the things that drew me to them. The difference is that unlike a cell tower, which would be tough to romanticize, a kind of fetishization is built into the way we see birds, which means in practice that we aren’t really seeing them at all. We’re seeing what we want to see, what we’re habituated to seeing. 

But on a very practical level, I came to birds through one particular South American hummingbird, a black-tailed trainbearer (Lesbia victoriae) that made its way into a local natural history collection around the turn of the last century–under, to my mind, very mysterious circumstances. I wanted to know what kind of creature would kill a thing to study it. 

CELL TOWER: (Steve Jones): 

Just in response to what Erik says about our tendency to fetishize birds, or the image of birds: one of the weird things I learned about cell towers is how connected to our romantic notions of nature they really are (counterintuitively). In my book, osprey nests and the issue of birds’ being killed by collisions with towers come into play in surprising ways. 

BIRD (Erik Anderson): 

Please say more, Steve! I’m very interested…

CELL TOWER: (Steve Jones): 

There’s a section in CELL TOWER about an Indian science-fiction movie from 2018, 2.0, featuring the vengeful rampage of a giant Kaiju-style bird-monster made up of millions of clacking cell-phones! The film builds on the speculative notion that electromagnetic radiation from cell towers might be interfering with birds’ internal navigation mechanisms, causing massive die-offs. There’s no real evidence for this particular form of harm, although many birds do die each year from collisions with towers (of all kinds). 

Here in Florida, ospreys like to build their big nests on cell towers, often the tallest objects in the landscape–the towers have to be to work efficiently. So you often see the big raptors, which are also called fish hawks, perched in 5-foot nests on the triangular antenna racks of the towers (even when the towers are not disguised as fake pine trees!). Cellular companies sometimes provide alternative nesting platforms on tall poles, just to keep the ospreys from using the nearby cell towers. And when a nest has to be moved to prevent short-circuit fires and electrocution of the birds, by regulation the ospreys have to be carefully resettled in an alternative spot. 

BIRD (Erik Anderson):

Just to say, quickly, that I love this bird-monster. And that the ospreys resonate with a lot of my research for BIRD. There aren’t, arguably, any bird habitats left where some version of the tower-nest isn’t happening, physically or figuratively. 

OCEAN (Steve Mentz):

The denial or making-invisible of infrastructure is such a great idea to think with! I’m tempted to start chatting merrily away about the local controversy about a CELL TOWER that recently went up in my neighborhood on the Connecticut shoreline, in between the salt marsh and the small air conditioner factory. Or maybe I should talk about the osprey nests in a different part of the salt marsh, the video-feed we used to watch every spring when there were chicks in the nests, and my neighbor having seen a bunch of fishing fish-hawks just yesterday…but I guess really I’m here to talk about my object OCEAN and how I came to it and it to me.

So — I live up the street from my object, about 300 yards down a turning road that ends up at a gritty comma-shaped southern New England beach. My parents, who like everyone else from New Jersey have ended up retired and playing golf in Florida, also live next to my object. And when I lived in Los Angeles in the early ‘90s and got earthquake-shocked awake before dawn on Martin Luther King Day, I walked down a different street to the same object.

Which is to say that OCEAN tries to grapple with an object that wants to be plural but really is just one big, wet, sloshy thing.

I’d enjoy batting around the Romanticism canard with Erik’s BIRD, since both the sea and birdsong have long standing connections to ideas about poetry and even ART itself.  The sound of the surf and the calls of birds serve as inspirations — I want my song to sound like that, says the poet — and in other ways they might represent the far limits of meaning — I can’t write as pure music as birds or the surf because as a mere human I have to make do with syntax and grammar. For those of us who write about the sea and literary history, there’s a theory, mostly invented by W. H. Auden in the course of three connected lectures he gave at the University of Virginia in 1949, that Romanticism invented the modern sense of the sea, via writers like Byron and Shelley and above all Melville. (I think Auden gets his history partly wrong, but he gets his Melville mostly right.) I write in OCEAN about the fantasy of a physical human-ocean merger through two idealized fictional figures, Queequeg the harpooner from Moby-Dick and Hans Christian Anderson’s Little Mermaid. 

Erik, I’d love to hear more about why you started with a bird in a museum rather than one outside your door. (I should note that I’m not quite halfway through BIRD…)

BIRD (Erik Anderson):

So BIRD actually began in a science writing course I was teaching back in 2014. I took my students into the relatively large specimen collection in the museum’s basement, gave them a handout on some basic bird anatomy, and asked them to describe a bird that appealed to them. I did the exercise too, as I often do, and in the process I got to thinking how peculiar all these stuffed birds in floor-to-ceiling glass cases were. “A Robin Red breast in a Cage / Puts all Heaven in a Rage,” as Blake said, and I suppose I registered the indignity of the birds’ condition. The fact that the museum couldn’t tell me how or when my particular bird arrived only added to my vicarious sense of pique. 

I think a big part of what’s developing here seems to me to be about resisting the received let’s-call-it-wisdom around our various objects. The fact that a taxidermy bird, let alone a room full of them, is already defamiliarized probably set me up to write the book in the way a living bird never could. 

For me, though, I knew relatively little about birds, living or dead, when I started. It seems others knew far more about their objects. I’m curious to hear more about your writing/research processes

ENVIRONMENT (Rolf Halden): 

Before I get to birds and their ENVIRONMENT, first a confession. I am a terrible fisherman and have successfully passed on this skill to my 13-year old son. When we were vacationing in California near Lake Tahoe one summer, the two of us got up early to venture not to the big lake but to a small pond – Saw Mill Pond to be exact – to catch some of the fish that were placed there for children and, I guess, amateurs like me. We spent the day and, of course, didn’t catch a thing; but shortly after our arrival – it was still dawn –  an artful fisherman swooped by and pulled a trout out of the pond effortlessly in a heartbeat. It was a “seahawk,” STEVE JONES’s osprey, that either wanted to break its fast or teach us a lesson in humility. Those hours spent at a body of water, whether a tiny pond, Lake Tahoe, or the mighty OCEAN, that’s where my love for the ENVIRONMENT originates. So peaceful, so majestic, so intricate; so vast and yet so vulnerable.

OCEAN (Steve Mentz):

Watching birds fish certainly is a humbling experience for any fisherman! A couple mornings ago I watched a graceful long-necked snowy egret wading in the water at low tide, darting its bill into the silty bottom. He flew off when I tried to take a picture.

ENVIRONMENT (Rolf Halden): 

I came to writing a book about the ENVIRONMENT for the most part, out of frustration, really. My students and I are running these large sophisticated analytical machines in our laboratory. They are called tandem mass spectrometers, and they record just about any folly humanity commits. Sitting in front of this analytical tool and watching the information pour out of it is downright frightening. Take ocean water, air, dust, soil, food, breast milk or cord blood and extract the chemicals therein – a process yielding a balsamic reduction of mankind’s chemical footprint – inject this concoction into the machine, which costs as much as a starter castles in the desert, and watch the instrument report back how we are raping not just our planet but also our children, our babies, and even the unborn life in the mother’s womb. Out of the instrument pour signals from the pollutants around and within us. Not just one or two, but an endless stream of ill-conceived, human-made chemicals that are choking off our future, our hopes and our dreams. The scientific articles our team publishes, a couple of hundred so far, about this systematic global pollution of both people and planet, they receive little attention. So in frustration I turned next to public seminars, a TEDx talk, and then finally to writing the book ENVIRONMENT. It was all done in quite a hurry to get it out in time for Earth Day 50, April 22, 2020. I wrote a fair bit on a primitive campground in Colorado, with the wind brushing through the canopy of Ponderosa pines, and the birds and insects going about their daily routine. In a camping chair, with a computer on my lap and a large rechargeable battery by my side, it turned out to be an amazing journey: from the beginnings of life, into outer space, back to Earth, into the backyard of Rachel Carson’s house, and up the stairs of Capitol Hill. That’s the journey shared in the book, written mostly in the pockets of our surroundings that have not yet been invaded by CELL TOWERS.

CELL TOWER: (Steve Jones): 

I hear you, Rolf. But I’m tempted to add, here, as a footnote, that since last month, even in those surroundings you might have had a cell-tower-in-space flying overhead–a dedicated satellite in low orbit launched by the company Lynk

OCEAN (Steve Mentz):

I’ve got a Rachel Carson chapter in my OCEAN, too, though my particular affection for her work comes as much from the sea-trilogy as from the break-out triumph of SILENT SPRING. I write about her ideas of Ocean in contrast with Aldo Leopold’s “Thinking Like a Mountain,” which I interpret as a more masculine and terrestrial eco-vision. Carson was an amazing, heroic, tragic figure, not to mention an extraordinary writer and artist. I’m tempted, Rolf, to skip forward to your Carson chapter before I read the rest of ENVIRONMENT!

ENVIRONMENT (Rolf Halden): 

Please do, Steve. No specific point of entry is needed to readily observe Nature’s artful bloom and humanity’s self-inflicted gloom. But we are an adaptive species, as has become readily apparent in the current COVID-19 pandemic. We can and hopefully will rally, cooperate, and prevail. The hard part is to watch this long process of gathering the required motivation…

Cell Tower, Ocean, Bird, and Environment

In an era of rising anxiety about what is true and what is not, books in our Object Lessons series challenge objective reality by examining the things we take for granted, providing fresh insight into the extraordinary objects that exist in our daily lives. 

BIRD by Erik Anderson

CELL TOWER by Steve Jones

ENVIRONMENT by Rolf Halden

OCEAN by Steve Mentz

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