Insect of the Week: Pipiza

Adapted from page 308 of Field Guide to the Flower Flies of Northeastern North America:

Pipiza are small black syrphids that vary from having all black abdomens to having paired yellow spots on tergite 2 and sometimes also tergite 3. They can be mistaken for Heringia and Trichopsomyia and so should be checked for a bare anterior anepisternum and katepimeron. Th ere are 52 world species; 11 in the Nearctic and seven from the northeast.

A recent revision in Europe (Vujić et al. 2013) turned much of the original taxonomy on its head and illustrated how difficult this group is. Despite recent work by Coovert (1996) in the Nearctic, taxonomic concepts need to be reevaluated incorporating genetic data. Many problems with current concepts exist but cannot be solved without complete revision. We thus follow Coovert here with the caveat that changes are needed.

Pipiza species are often found flying through herbaceous vegetation or around shrubs. Known larvae are predators of aphids and phylloxera (mostly gall-making or leaf-rolling aphids that create waxy secretions). Characters illustrated below generally work, but male genitalia should be checked for confirmation.

Field Guide to the Flower Flies of Northeastern North America
By Jeffrey H. Skevington, Michelle M. Locke, Andrew D. Young, Kevin Moran, William J. Crins, and Stephen A. Marshall

This is the first comprehensive field guide to the flower flies (also known as hover flies) of northeastern North America. Flower flies are, along with bees, our most important pollinators. Found in a varied range of habitats, from backyard gardens to aquatic ecosystems, these flies are often overlooked because many of their species mimic bees or wasps. Despite this, many species are distinctive and even subtly differentiated species can be accurately identified. This handy and informative guide teaches you how.

With more than 3,000 color photographs and 400 maps, this guide covers all 416 species of flower flies that occur north of Tennessee and east of the Dakotas, including the high Arctic and Greenland. Each species account provides information on size, identification, abundance, and flight time, along with notes on behavior, classification, hybridization, habitats, larvae, and more.

Summarizing the current scientific understanding of our flower fly fauna, this is an indispensable resource for anyone, amateur naturalist or scientist, interested in discovering the beauty of these insect.

InDialogue with Marcia Bjornerud and Mark Serreze: Why long-term thinking on the natural world matters

The dangers of a colonial attitude toward the Earth

Marcia Bjornerud

Anthropologist Clifford Geertz famously defined culture as the constellation of stories that groups of humans tell themselves about their place and purpose in the world.  In western culture, with its Judeo-Christian underpinnings grafted to principles of social democracy and capitalism, the stories we share about who we are largely exclude the Natural World.  Nature is at most a passive backdrop – the scenery against which the ‘real’ stories unfold, not a central protagonist in the narrative.

As a result, most of us believe we can simply opt out of Nature’s own long-term plans for the future.  We tend to confuse technological prowess with wisdom.  The people we call “visionaries” base their conceptions of the future on the notion that we should do everything in our power to circumvent the bothersome constraints of the natural world.  We love the stories these great and powerful wizards tell us of how they will make life ‘frictionless’ and reality virtual.  Bedazzled by their shiny gadgets and habituated to the constant streams of novelty they feed us, we in the audience can¹t be bothered to look up and think for ourselves about where exactly we might be going.

And so we behave like bad tourists, entitled conquerors, on Earth, enjoying its amenities and ransacking its bounty without ever having noticed that it has its own ancient language and customs.

This colonial attitude toward the Earth leads to insanities like our continued collective inaction on climate change, or the idea that it could be solved by a silver bullet solution like injecting sulfate aerosols in the stratosphere — and that this will have no unintended consequences.  Or in the extreme case, the delusion that we could create a livable space for ourselves on another planet (once we wreck this one).  Engineering the climate or terraforming Mars sound easy if you are completely unaware of the intrinsic timescales of geological and biological phenomena, the deep evolutionary pathways that gave rise to the world we live in, the intricately choreographed, behind-the-scenes biogeochemical cycles – the housekeeping crew — that make Earth habitable.

We are naïve and impetuous. Earth is old and patient. It has seen good times and bad, hosted biospheres through mass extinctions and evolutionary radiations, reshuffled its continents in countless configurations, constructed and dismantled mountains many times over.  Whether we like it or not, our long-term plans must conform to its long-established practices.  We can alter and accelerate some of these, temporarily, but nature will take notice and take action.  That is, the scenery is going to start directing the play.

We imperil ourselves both physically and psychologically if we don’t bring our conceptions of time in line with nature’s rhythms.  Environmental malefactions and existential malaise are both rooted in a distorted view of humanity’s place in the history of the natural world. 

The solution is to tell different stories about who we are as Earthlings.  That’s all it will take – nothing more than a simple cultural revolution.

Marcia Bjornerud is professor of geology and environmental studies at Lawrence University. She is the author of Timefulness: How Thinking Like a Geologist Can Help Change the World,  Reading the Rocks: The Autobiography of the Earth, and a contributing writer for Elements, the New Yorker’s science and technology blog. She lives in Appleton, Wisconsin.

Beating climate change: Taking action and accepting hard realities

Mark Serreze

Mitigating climate change promises to be a defining battle of the 21st century.  Climate change has already taken hold across the planet. In the Arctic, it is already leading to a radically new environment, with the impacts of rapid warming and shrinking sea ice cascading through the food chain. As a climate scientist who has spent 35 years studying the north, I’ve had a front row seat to watch it all unfold.  Can we beat climate change and maintain a livable planet?   We can, but we must take a long-term view, and accept some hard realities.    

SerrezeCarbon dioxide has a long residence time in the atmosphere, so even if emissions were quickly reduced, much of what we’ve added still will be up there for the foreseeable future.  We are making strong inroads in transitioning to renewable energy sources, notably solar and wind, and have become more efficient in how we use energy.  But for many years to come, we will still be largely dependent on fossil fuels, and greenhouse gas levels will continue to rise.   

It also takes quite a while for the climate to adjust to a change in greenhouse gas levels, mostly because of the immense thermal inertia of the oceans.  The planet has yet to come into balance with the greenhouse gases we’ve already put in the atmosphere – there is heat “in the pipeline”.  Similarly, it will take time for the planet to cool in response to a reduction in carbon dioxide levels.  Simply put, we can’t simply stop climate change in its tracks.

Where does this leave us?  First, stop the blame game and accept where we are.  We have built a modern global society around the immense amount of energy in a lump of coal and a barrel of crude oil.   What we didn’t realize, or perhaps chose not to realize, is that it was a trap.  We need to move on.   Second, prepare to adapt to a warmer world.  It promises to be a rough road, and climate change will have the biggest impacts on those in less developed parts of the world that are least responsible for causing it (and are justified in pointing fingers).  I believe that the planet will manage, provided that we can get a handle on limiting the amount of warming but we have to act quickly – the window of opportunity is closing.

We need to further develop renewables and increase efficiency but also be pragmatic as we transition.  We must to be willing to make honest assessments of the risks and benefits of all energy sources.  As we mobilize against climate change, we must be prepared to be in it for the long haul, and understand that when it comes to powering our future, nothing comes for free. 

Mark C. Serreze is director of the National Snow and Ice Data Center, professor of geography, and a fellow of the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences at the University of Colorado at Boulder. He is the coauthor of Brave New Arctic and The Arctic Climate System. He lives in Boulder, Colorado.

      

InDialogue with Thomas Seeley and Nick Haddad: Why is insect conservation important?

The PUP Ideas blog is pleased to announce our new InDialogue series. In keeping with our mission to provide a range of perspectives and voices, each month we’ll be posing a big question to a pair of authors. With Earth Day fast approaching, we’ve asked a series of questions to our natural history authors on issues from the central role of oceans to climate science. Today we asked PUP authors Thomas Seeley and Nick Haddad to sound off on why insect conservation is important, and to reflect on the magnitude of the loss of key populations. Watch this space for more Earth Day posts in the coming days.

Being stewards to the bees

Thomas D. Seeley

There is no doubt that humans are now the primary movers and shakers of the natural world.   We are busy tearing down the planet’s forests and, in one way or another, we are appropriating some 40 percent of the solar energy captured by plants.  But we are not self-sufficient.  We depend on what Edward O. Wilson has called “the little things that run the world”:  the insects and other invertebrates, which together form most of the biomass in terrestrial habitats.  If humans were to disappear from the planet, then life on Earth would certainly go on.  Indeed, it would begin to heal itself.  But if insects were to disappear, then our species and countless others would go extinct, because most of the flowering plants—including those that produce the fruits and vegetables we eat—would die out for lack of pollination.   

There is one insect whose pollination services are especially important to us:  the honey bee, Apis mellifera.  This bees’ paramount value to humans was recently quantified in an authoritative, 59-author paper on the contributions of various bee species to crop pollination.  It reports that honey bees provide nearly half of all crop pollination services worldwide.  Remarkably, this one species’ contribution to humanity’s food production nearly equals the combined contributions of the many thousands of other bee species.  Clearly, the conservation of honey bees merits special attention. 

One way we can support Apis mellifera is by conserving forests.  They provide habitat for wild colonies of honey bees, and these colonies are important to their species’ long-term survival.  Recent studies of the population genetics of honey bees in the southern and western states of the U.S. have found that wild colonies—those living on their own in hollow trees and the walls of buildings—have far higher genetic diversity than the managed colonies in these states.  This is because commercial beekeepers typically replace the queens in their colonies every year or so using queens purchased from large-scale queen producers, and these replacement queens are the daughters of a small number of “breeder queens” (ca. 600 for the entire U.S.).  These practices create a genetic bottleneck in the population of managed honey bee colonies within the U.S. 

Other studies have revealed recently that the wild colonies of honey bees—those not living in beekeepers’ hives—possess effective mechanisms of resistance to a species of parasitic mite (Varroa destructor) introduced from east Asia.  The females of this species feed on the adult and immature honey bees.  They also spread a virus that deforms the bees’ wings and destroys their health.   Approximately 40% of the managed colonies in the U.S. die each year from infections of the deformed wing virus.  The wild colonies are also infested with these mites, but they have better survival because they have experienced strong natural selection for mechanisms of resistance to Varroa destructor.   These include chewing the legs off adult mites and destroying cells of bee brood infested with mites.

Besides conserving forests that support populations of wild colonies, we can help Apis mellifera by revising the practices of beekeeping, to find a better balance between the needs of bees and the desires of beekeepers.  Most of the practices of conventional beekeeping—such as encouraging colonies to grow extremely large, and packing them close together in apiaries—boost the productivity of colonies as honey makers and crop pollinators, but also increase their vulnerability to parasites and pathogens, including deadly Varroa destructor.   To conserve Apis mellifera, we must build a new relationship between human beings and honey bees.  We must revise our methods of beekeeping to bring them more in harmony with the honey bee’s natural way of life.  Only then will we be truly responsible stewards of Apis mellifera, our greatest friend among the insects.

Thomas D. Seeley is author of The Lives of Bees. He is the Horace White Professor in Biology at Cornell University. He is the author of Following the Wild BeesHoneybee Democracy, and Honeybee Ecology (all Princeton) as well as The Wisdom of the Hive. He lives in Ithaca, New York.

 

The value of the rarest butterflies

Nick Haddad

When I began writing The Last Butterflies in 2013, I worried that the title was over the top. After all, I was writing about just a handful of the rarest butterflies in the world. The five rarest butterflies number from a few hundred to a few tens of thousands of individuals. Could these be in any way representative of the last butterflies on the earth?

One way they are not representative is in their “value”. Their value might be to ecological systems. However, the earth’s thirty thousand individual Fender’s Blue butterflies might weigh as much as a basketball. These simply cannot be of consequence to interactions with other plants or animals as parts of functioning foodwebs. They are not effective pollinators or herbivores of, or food sources for, other species in their environments. Perhaps their value is in the bigger lessons the understanding of their declines holds for the declines of other butterflies. If so, then knowledge accrued during their decline can provide guidance to avert catastrophic declines of other insects.

Also when I started writing this book, I did not imagine broad implications to other insects that have economic value that can be measured. Data had not yet amassed to support the “insect apocalypse,” a phrase used to refer to catastrophic loss of abundance and diversity of insects. Then in 2014, reports surfaced that Monarchs reached epic low numbers, 97% below their peak two decades earlier. Later that year, a more general survey found declines across butterfly and insect species at the rate of 10% or more per decade. Such broad losses across insects must have substantial cost.

In this context, the rarest butterflies have higher value. Most of what we know about the insect apocalypse is what we know about butterflies. Are the rarest butterflies and Monarchs representative? A chilling picture has emerged. My former student Tyson Wepprich just completed an analysis of butterfly abundances using data collected across Ohio in surveys conducted every week for two decades. He found that butterfly abundances are declining by 2%  / year; abundances are now a third lower than twenty years ago. This is not an isolated case. Tyson reviewed other, decades-long studies in the UK, the Netherlands, and Spain. All of them have found 2%/ year decline in butterfly abundances. It appears that, after all, The Last Butterflies is an appropriate book title.

This rate and magnitude of loss is perhaps the best indicator of the cost of insect decline. Considered together, butterflies are the best known group of the earth’s 5.5 million insects. The less substantial evidence that exists for other insects points in the same downward direction. Like butterflies, those insects are herbivores, prey, and pollinators (and, of course, many are predators). They are exposed to the same levels of habitat loss, pesticides, and climate change. The scale of loss of butterflies, even if it is only partially representative of loss of other insects, will cause catastrophic loss of functioning ecosystems on which we all depend.

Circling back around to the rarest butterflies in the world: what is their value? It is certainly not in their importance within their ecosystem, at least not now. Their decline has generated some value in the sense that is provides some guidance for conservation of other insects, animals, and plants. Their true value, however, is intrinsic; when driven to extinction by global environmental changes, loss of value will be to people, and to the earth.

Nick Haddad is author of The Last Butterflies. He is a professor and senior terrestrial ecologist in the Department of Integrative Biology and the W. K. Kellogg Biological Station at Michigan State University. He lives in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Twitter @nickmhaddad

Clifford Bob on Rights as Weapons

Bob_Rights as WeaponsRights are usually viewed as defensive concepts representing mankind’s highest aspirations to protect the vulnerable and uplift the downtrodden. But since the Enlightenment, political combatants have also used rights belligerently, to batter despised communities, demolish existing institutions, and smash opposing ideas. Delving into a range of historical and contemporary conflicts from all areas of the globe, Rights as Weapons focuses on the underexamined ways in which the powerful wield rights as aggressive weapons against the weak. Clifford Bob looks at how political forces use rights as rallying cries: naturalizing novel claims as rights inherent in humanity, absolutizing them as trumps over rival interests or community concerns, universalizing them as transcultural and transhistorical, and depoliticizing them as concepts beyond debate.

How exactly are rights weaponized?

Rights become weapons when political forces use them aggressively to advance their goals and attack other groups, institutions, and customs. Of course, rights do not literally become material weapons, but politically they have similar effects. For instance, powerful or majority groups often claim their own cultural rights as a way of attacking minority and immigrant groups by forcing them to assimilate or by keeping them out of the society completely. This use of majority rights seems to be increasingly common, and I analogize it to the use of dynamite because it is often intended to undermine or destroy the minority culture itself (at least in its adopted home). In other chapters, I show how rights are used in other weapon-like ways, as rallying cries to mobilize political forces and as camouflage to cover up sometimes questionable political goals.

Overall, one of the key points I make in the book is that rights are tools or weapons that political groups of any ideology can pick up and use to advance their goals. Why can rights be used on multiple sides of conflicts? It is chiefly because they are a means of achieving political or economic goals, rather than ends in themselves. A right, even a human right, is a right to something. It is that thing, whether abstract such as privacy or concrete such as food, rather than the right to the thing, that is the ultimate focus of conflict. It is true that the right and its underlying content are often discussed interchangeably, but analyzing them in isolation from one another, as I do, makes it possible to see how rights can be used in multiple ways, as various types of political tools or weapons.

What are some historical examples of the biggest culprits in the use of rights to further nefarious ends?

As I’ve said, my view of rights as weapons does not apply only to what we might call the misuses of rights by the nefarious. But let’s talk about them first! One of the most important examples in the U.S. has been states’ rights, in effect a form of majority rights used by powerful interests along with outright violence to block the political advance of African Americans. That sordid story is well known. Less known, at least to me  as a political scientist before I began this book, was the way in which major voting rights movements in nineteenth-century America competed against one another. There were three major suffrage movements, among those without property, African-Americans, and women. Although there was no necessary bar to their working together for universal suffrage, and although some forward thinking activists proposed such unity, for the most part the three movements sought suffrage for their own group alone. Even more interesting, at times each movement used its own rights claims as a blockade against the similar claims of the other groups. White men without property urged that a grant of the vote for them would help ensure the continuing power of white males. For their part, although women such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony began their careers in the abolitionist movement, they frequently argued against the vote for freed slaves or argued that women should receive the vote first. When the opposite happened after the Civil War, suffrage leaders continually proposed that women should receive the vote as a way of blocking black power, because white women would vote with white men against African-Americans. I used this and other cases to develop a systematic conceptual account of when and how rights are used as blockades.

Is this phenomenon of rights as weapons an inevitable aspect of democracy, or are there strategies that can be employed to prevent it?

I do see the use of rights as weapons as an inevitable part of modern politics—and not necessarily a bad part. For one thing, it is usually better than the use of real weapons to achieve political goals, although at times political forces combine the two sets of tactics, with rights arguments serving to legitimate violence. Trying to prevent political groups from using rights aggressively would be futile. What I hope to have contributed, however, is a way that observers can cut through the righteous rhetoric in which most conflicts are clouded—to uncover what is truly driving the rivals and to understand the tactics they are using to promote themselves and attack their foes. Recent American wars have frequently been draped in rights talk. The war in Afghanistan, for instance, began as a response to 9/11, but within weeks the Bush administration justified it as a means of improving women’s rights. Clearly, women were treated terribly by the Taliban, and some Afghan women welcomed the invasion as a means of advancing their rights. But others, even Afghan women who fought for their rights before 2001, opposed the invasion and saw it as a greater threat to the lives of Afghan women than the Taliban’s laws. They also argued that women’s rights could never succeed in Afghanistan if they were imposed by foreigners at the tip of a drone, rather than growing indigenously through the efforts of Afghan women themselves. In the U.S., however, this complex reality was obscured by the appealing nature of women’s rights (which I of course fully support). This may be one reason we are still fighting there, whatever the Afghan people really want.

When rights are used in this way, is it always a negative? Are there examples of groups weaponizing rights for positive aims?

Many! For centuries, political movements have used rights to advance human progress, as in the abolitionist, suffrage, and civil rights movements in the U.S. and similar movements worldwide. In the book, I discuss the American Revolution and the reasons that in the 1770s the colonists transformed their prior claims to the rights of British subjects into demands for their “natural right” to independence. I would call that a positive example of using rights as a rallying cry, with the express purpose of advancing the revolt and attracting foreign fighters and support. But of course the British saw things rather differently—as illegitimate claims put forth, in Samuel Johnson’s words, by “dictators of sedition” who had strategically “put in motion the engine of political electricity, to attract, by the sounds of liberty and property.”

In the modern era, we have many examples of minority groups in democratic countries using rights as what I call spears. Because of such groups’ political weakness, majoritarian political institutions may not offer promising fields for their operation. One way they can achieve their goals of equality and nondiscrimination is to mount narrowly targeted attacks on a single key law, with the hope that a court will support their cause as a matter of right. There are many such cases, including Brown v. Board of Education and the recent Obergefell v. Hodges same-sex marriage decision. In the book, I examine a more ambiguous and less successful case in Italy. In the mid-2000s, a small group of atheists unhappy at the power of the Catholic Church in Italian society brought a lawsuit challenging one small but important policy, mandating crucifixes in public school classrooms. The group had no chance of ejecting the crucifix through legislation. So instead they opted for a spear-like thrust in the courts, based on Italian and European human rights law. And they won at the European Court of Human Rights! But only for a brief time, because a transnational coalition of religiously conservative countries fought back and reversed the judgment on appeal. In the end the court found that the crucifix symbolized Italian culture and history, as much as Catholicism, and held that the majority had a right to maintain its culture, even if in other countries with other traditions, a crucifix would be illegal in a public school classroom.

What should vulnerable groups know about the use of rights as weapons as they work to further their goal of equality?

Vulnerable and minority groups have often used rights claims to advance their agendas and improve their lives. Many have been experts at using rights to mobilize their constituencies and appeal for outside support. In many cases, they have succeeded in establishing their rights claims as laws and have been able to move toward achievement of the underlying social, economic, and political goals they seek.

But what the vulnerable may not always be prepared for is the way in which contrary rights claims may be used by their opponents to mobilize their constituencies and counter-attack. Moreover, they may be caught by surprise that opponents they thought they had defeated long ago have risen again, in new guises promoting novel rights. This has been the case with the radical feminists discussed previously, many of whom say that they have been shocked by the possibility that the advances for women they thought they had won long ago may now be threatened by people they consider to be men. Long-running conflicts over voting rights in the U.S. take the same form, with current voter suppression efforts in many ways an echo of rights-based battles fought in decades and centuries past. Vulnerable groups need to remain constantly on guard and adept at defending what they have previously achieved—as in fact most of them are.

Was there anything that surprised you as you were researching for this book?

Lots of things! One of the most interesting parts of the research focused on the use of rights as camouflage for ulterior goals. This is hard to study because political forces that use rights in this way typically cover up their real purposes. I examined the use of animal rights to mask nationalist aims in Spain, specifically how Catalan nationalists implemented a ban on bullfighting in the region, ostensibly to protect the bulls but in fact as a means of attacking a key symbol of Castilian nationalism. The bullfighting ban was the brainchild of a transnational animal rights movement that interacted strategically with the Catalan nationalists—and fought against Spanish nationalists and the bullfighting lobby. I learned a great deal about how multiple social movements make use of one another in complex political struggles (and far more than I intended about bullfighting). In the end, I was able to find very good proof of camouflaging in this case, and on that basis I developed a framework for understanding how rights are used as camouflage in many other conflicts.

What do you hope readers will take away from reading this book?

In addition to reading about fascinating rights conflicts from around the world and learning how to analyze them systematically, I hope that readers take away a fuller idea of how political groups view and use rights. Rights are not only shields to protect the powerless or hoists to uplift the downtrodden. Although that is one aspect of rights, they can also be offensive weapons, that the powerful can use to oppress the weak. Ultimately, this means that although rights claims can be helpful to political movements, it is political power, amassed through any number of means, including the use of righteous rallying cries to galvanize support for one’s cause, that is crucial to allowing a movement to achieve and maintain its goals.

Clifford Bob is professor and chair of political science at Duquesne University. His previous books include The Marketing of Rebellion, The Global Right Wing and the Clash of World Politics, and The International Struggle for New Human Rights. Twitter @cliffordbob

 

Myronn Hardy on Origin: “Birches”

It began with that set of Encyclopedia Britannicas on the tall family room shelves.  Those maroon and navy bound books that had everything in them.  The volumes I often used to lookup random things: cities, countries, animals, historical figures and events.  Those were the books we had in my Michigan childhood home.  Those books and a random one I hadn’t touched until I was six or seven, the thick book with a black dust cover photograph of blurry sun beams passing through heavy boughs of nondescript trees. 

I remember having to hoist myself onto the counter and stretch my arm to its limit just to pull that one book from the high shelf.  Once safe, down from the counter with the book in hand, safe on the gray carpeted floor, I read its cover, The Poetry of Robert Frost: The Collected Poems, Complete and Unabridged.  I opened the book erratically to the poem, “Birches.”  I read it intensely.  I knew what the world “birch” meant because there was a birch in the front yard.  And whenever my parents and I walked through the yard, or other yards or forests, they’d named the trees in it.  Perhaps they wanted me to know their names, to know they had names, histories even.  They wanted me to be aware.

In that poem, Frost refers to ice storms and that ice breaking from those birches as glass.  After a storm, I remembered making the same assertion in my very young mind.  The language in the poem was thrilling.  The way it worked on the page both charmed and perplexed me.  I got up from the floor to ask my mom what was the difference between this form of writing and what I’d seen in those encyclopedias or the newspaper.  She said, “This” she pointed to the poem, “is concentrated.”  She when on to compare it to the pulpy-concentrated orange juice she mixed with water each morning. 

            “So this is pure?” I asked.

            “I don’t know about pure but that’s kind of it,” she said.  I didn’t tell her then, but I felt I’d found something to make, something to attempt to make.  I found myself staring at that birch in the front yard and noticing the strange beauty in its pealing skin.  Somewhere in the process of staring at this tree, and once swinging in its boughs, I realized that that poem and other poems I’d read in Frost’s book, were prompting me to notice or see more profoundly: to notice the small, or what I’d later be told, the “insignificant.”  And that my task, perhaps, was to make that “insignificant” thing momentous, to make it the center.

            This one poem, this one book of poems, that almost fresh awareness of the birch in our front yard, began my seeing, my imagination, my seeing-imagination in poetry.  It began my writing of poetry.  I had no idea but now pondering it, sifting through it, there is the birch.  There are birches. 

            In high school, one of the large boughs of the birch had becoming infected.  The leaves became yellow and dropped in the summer.  Eventually, it had to be removed from the tree to potentially save the whole of it.  Of course, this large bough seemed to be almost half the tree.  I watched that large part being sawed off and helped with its later chopping up and removal from the yard.  I later wrote something about this.  A poem that began with yellow dust billowing from an electric saw as yellow leaves blew about the speaker in August. 

            That image became nightmarish.  It kept repeating itself in dream and I kept writing that poem, kept changing it.  The poem never worked but it marked a moment:  the birch’s almost death, that title of the first poem I remembered reading, and my first real attempting at writing poetry.

            In 2009, a year after my second book, The Headless Saints was published, I received the Robert Frost Poetry Fellowship to attended the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference.  A month after that conference, I moved to Morocco where I lived and taught at a university there for nine years.  I didn’t see any birches there. But there were sycamores and cedars.  And I wrote several poems with those trees in them.

             I’ve lived now in Maine for eight months.  Here there are birches everywhere.  And I’ve seen their branches covered with ice.  I’ve been carrying around Frost’s “Birches.” 

            I keep thinking about this idea of return, the space of return.  These groves of birches I walk though almost every day is a return I hadn’t expected.   Perhaps this is the next poem. 

Myronn Hardy is the author of four previous books of poems: Approaching the Center, winner of the PEN/Oakland Josephine Miles Prize; The Headless Saints, winner of the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award; Catastrophic Bliss, winner of the Griot-Stadler Award for Poetry; and, most recently, Kingdom. He divides his time between Morocco and New York City.

A Celebration of Mathematics Editor Vickie Kearn

This month, across the world, we have celebrated the enduring contributions of all women. For those of us at PUP, it is a chance as well to focus on a particularly generous, intelligent, and dynamic publisher, Vickie Kearn. In April, Vickie will retire from the Press after 18 years of synergistic and inspiring collaborations in math and computer science publishing, leaving us with a library of books that have educated and entertained millions, billions, and zillions of readers (borrowing from the title of one of her recent acquisitions).

Vickie has also been a powerful role model for women in STEM publishing, and one who empowered a population of publishers, myself included, and our new math editor Susannah Shoemaker as another. Vickie’s strength as a competitive publisher set the bar dauntingly high, but in that competition was also always an admirable collaboration, knowing that a cohort of us were changing the face of scholarly STEM publishing. It has been such a great privilege to be a colleague of Vickie’s since 2017, to travel to a math meeting with her, to meet incredibly creative authors with whom she has worked, and to learn from her at weekly project meetings. The PUP math list, particularly the popular math list, has grown exponentially and in multiple dimensions under Vickie’s leadership. If there are theorems or rules in math publishing, I would attribute these to Vickie’s rule: be smart, be curious, be generous, and be strong.

–Christie Henry

CH: Some say math is its own language. How did you learn to speak it?

I grew up in Venezuela and the English school only went through the 9th grade, so when I was 15, I went away to boarding school in North Carolina. There were only 125 girls in the whole school and there were two math teachers. One taught the girls who liked math and another taught those who did not like math. My class was very small since fewer of us liked math. Elsie Nunn was my teacher for three years and she made me fall in love with math. Before she taught anything new, she taught us about the person responsible for what we were about to learn. There was always a face behind the numbers, a person who had a family and hobbies. I found I could connect with these people. We had math club every day after school and she always had wonderful stories to tell. When I went to the University of Richmond, I knew I was going to major in math. This led to an unexpected benefit and a bit of a surprise. In the late 1960’s, University of Richmond was a Baptist school, and the classes for the men and women were held on separate sides of a lake. The one exception was that the upper level math classes were on the men’s side. Men and women were only allowed to talk with one another on Wednesday, Saturday, and Sunday, but I was able to talk with them every day because we had math class together. The surprise for me was that I was the only female math major. This felt strange at times, but Ms. Nunn had prepared me well and I got along fine with my classmates. The classes were small and we stuck together because unlike many people at UR we were more interested in math and less interested in parties.

CH: How can we continue to empower girls and women in STEM- as authors and publishers?

Based on conversations I have had with other women my age, I have had a very easy time in my career. This could be because I only have an undergraduate degree and did not experience the problems that arise in graduate school and a career as a mathematician. However, I would advise young women to join an organization that focuses on confidence building, like the Girl Scouts. I would also recommend finding a mentor—someone to look up to who can advise about a field that has long been male dominated. After I got my undergraduate degree, I taught school for 8 years, five of them in elementary school and 3 teaching math in junior high school. Most of the elementary teachers were female and the math teachers were both men and women. Although all of my college classmates in my math courses were male, it wasn’t until I went into publishing and attended my first mathematics meeting that I realized how gender specific math was.  I believe that as more women with math PhD degrees publish books and give plenary talks at conferences, the more visible they will be, and in turn, young women majoring in math will feel more a part of the mathematics community. It is critical for publishers to encourage female mathematicians to write scholarly books and ask them to review books under consideration for publication. We need more women who are advising publishers on the decisions we are making about the books we are publishing and not rely only on male scholars to help us make these decisions. Publishers need to ask female scholars to blurb books and endorse scholarly publications. There are many terrific female mathematicians and we need to increase their visibility in the book publishing community.

CH: You have published textbooks, popular math books, graphic works, works of magic, and monographs, all successful. What are the 5 essentials of a great math book?

A great book is not always measured by the number of copies it sells. It is sometimes measured by the impact it makes on a small community of scholars. Did it provide that one missing piece of information that led to the solution of an unsolved problem? Did it inspire a high school student to major in math? Did it turn a “math hater” into someone curious about math? Nevertheless, they all can benefit from some essential advice.

First, I feel that the most essential thing is that the author writes on something that she or he is passionate about. If this is the case, the reader will be engaged and love reading the book. Second, the author needs to clearly define the audience. No book can be for everyone. If the author defines the audience that way, then the book will be for no one. Third, the author needs to write for the audience and keep the mathematical level consistent throughout the book. One problem I have had with authors writing for audiences without an advanced math degree is over and under explaining math concepts. Fourth on my list is authors often introduce terms without defining them or define them by introducing other terms that need elaboration but instead lead to further confusion. Always provide examples that clarify definitions. Finally, if you have included any jokes or explanation marks in your manuscript, please delete them before sending the manuscript to your editor.

CH: What are the 5 math books you would gift to every aspiring female mathematician to learn about the art and science of math? 

Before I reveal my suggestions, I would like to say that I think that the books I have suggested would make anyone want to learn about the art and science of math. They are particularly important to me because they point out the personal relationships that can develop out of the love of a subject. It is so hard for me to select only five because each book one selects to publish is special. Each one has a backstory. Most of my choices are, OF COURSE, Princeton University Press books because they are the ones I know the best and ones I have the time to read. 

My first suggestion is not a book but a wonderful website, MacTutor History of Mathematics. I have spent many hours there and there is a link to Female Mathematicians, which is updated regularly.

The Calculus of Friendship: What a Teacher and a Student Learned about Life while Corresponding about Math by Steven Strogatz (Princeton University Press) is a book about a teacher and a student and their love of calculus as chronicled over thirty years through their letters. As you know by now, my love of math came from my high school math teacher. This author tried to help me find her. Unfortunately, we were unsuccessful. Later, at my 50th high school reunion I found out that she had passed away but it was the act of trying to find her that is illustrative of how tightly knit and wonderful I find the math community to be.

The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa (Picador) was translated from Japanese. This is a novel about a math professor whose memory, due to an accident, is reset every 80 minutes, his housekeeper, and her young son. It is a wonderful story about how mathematics can bind three very different people.

Mathematics and Art: A Cultural History by Lynn Gamwell (Princeton University Press) covers the history of mathematics through exquisite works of art from antiquity to the present. I believe that learning about the history of mathematics is as important as the mathematics itself because you understand the time and place in which it is set and the math takes on more meaning.

The Seduction of Curves: The Lines of Beauty that Connect Mathematics, Art and the Nude by Allan McRobie (Princeton University Press) connects mathematics with art and engineering. This book focuses on the seven curves that are the basis of the catastrophe theory of mathematician René Thom. It is an accessible discussion of their role in nature, science, engineering, architecture, art, and other areas. Also included are their use in the work of David Hockney, Henry Moore, Anish Kapoor, and the delicate sculptures of Naum Gabo. The final two chapters focus on the collaborative work and friendship of Thom and Salvador Dalí. I searched for a book that could explain the work of René Thom for over twenty years before I found this one so it is pretty special.

CH: If you could invite five historic women mathematicians to join you at a dinner, who would they be, and why?

There are so many wonderful women mathematicians, historical and modern, that it is hard to choose just five. There are also many women who have made terrific contributions to mathematics who do not have advanced math degrees. See the references at the end of this post for additional resources.

At the top of my list would be Olga Taussky-Todd. Early in my career, I had the privilege of working with her on a book and got to know her a bit. I would love to spend more time with her. Not only was she smart, she had a great sense of humor. She made many contributions to the field of linear algebra, as did her husband, John, and we spent many hours talking about results in which, at the time, was one of my favorite topics in math. After Olga died, John gave me the poster from which the photo here was taken.

Emmy Noether is very important to me as I published a biography of her in my first position as an acquiring editor. I learned a lot about her work and would like to know more about her as a person. She has been described by many as the most important woman in the history of math. She developed the theories of rings, fields, and algebras.

Sophie Germain and I share a birthday, so of course I have to have dinner with her. Due to the great opposition against women in mathematics Sophie was not able to have a career in mathematics. Even her parents opposed her. She learned from books in her father’s library, often secretly after everyone was asleep. In spite of this she made many contributions to math such as her work on Fermat’s Last Theorem.

CH: What are five of your favorite mathematical puzzles?

Instead of listing single puzzles, I’ve chosen my favorite puzzles as types or groups. The following are some illustrations.

Word logic puzzles are fascinating and can also drive you crazy. Here is an example from Brain Food:

At a family reunion were the following people: one grandfather, one grandmother, two fathers, two mothers, four children, three grandchildren, one brother, two sisters, two sons, two daughters, one father-in-law, one mother-in-law, and one daughter-in-law. But not as many people attended as it sounds. How many were there, and who were they? Go to Rinkworks.com for more excellent puzzles and the answer to this one. However, you should try to solve it first.

Kakuro is like a crossword puzzle with numbers. Each word” must add up to the number provided in the clue above it or to the left. Words can only use the numbers 1 through 9, and a given number can only be used once in a word. Every kakuro puzzle has one and only one solution and can be solved through logic alone.

Martin Gardner was a master puzzler. If you don’t know who he is, or his puzzles (like cutting the pie, twiddled bolts, and the mutilated chessboard) head over to martin-gardner.org You will be glad you did.

I love playing Yahtzee which is more a game of logic, luck, and chance but always a lot of fun.
Jenga also does not strictly fall into the category of math but a lot of my math friends love playing it and it often appears at math meetings.

CH: how should we best compute the impact of mathematical publishing on the world?

From teaching in rural and inner-city schools for 8 years, I learned that there were so many students and adults who knew nothing about surviving in an increasingly complicated world that depends on a mastery of basic math skills. Over the past 42 years, I have seen the publication of numerous wonderful books for this very audience. These are books coming from university presses, commercial presses and society presses. These are books that have been published for the “math haters” and those who think math is hard. They present math through music and art and in graphic novels, detective stories, and puzzle books. There are ancillary materials posted on websites where readers can manipulate equations and discover new math of their own invention. As the number of books being published continues to increase, more people are clearly reading them. I am finding that there is much more enthusiasm for mathematics than there was four decades ago. There has been an increase in math clubs, math circles are very active, and the Girl Scouts announce many new STEM badges each year. I believe that publishers will continue to produce high quality books from mathematical writers around the world. This includes books that are being translated from one language into another, fostering an understanding of cultural differences through books about mathematics. I take every opportunity I can to tell people about the cool factor of math. If you are reading this post and have not discovered the wonder and empowerment of math, I’d advise you to go find a mathematician or anyone who has and ask them to let you in on the secret.

Additional Resources for inspiring information on women in STEM
MacTutor
Grandma Got STEM
A Mighty Girl

Bird Fact Friday: The Evolution of Avian Intelligence

Adapted from pages 14-15 of Bird Brain:

Despite there being almost 10,000 species of birds, only a few have yet to be studied for their cognitive abilities. Some, based on their lifestyles and relative brain size, such as this woodpecker (left), hornbill, and falcon (right), are likely to also demonstrate smart behavior in intelligence tests.

The species lived in splendid isolation on the island of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean until contact with European sailors in the seventeenth century led to its extinction in just a few decades. Although the relatives of dodos (pigeons and doves) are not thought of as the smartest of birds, can we put the dodo’s demise down to its own stupidity? Certainly, having no natural predators and not having had much contact with humans before the seventeenth century, they had little or no reason to fear us. If dodos had had the capacity for rapid learning, perhaps they might have adapted quickly and learned to escape their human hunters, but they were up against the most efficient and effective killer the planet has ever seen. Given the dodo’s clumsy body design—large and flightless—and that it had nowhere to run, it’s clear that dodos were in the wrong place at the wrong time, though being stupid didn’t help! 

More than 50 percent of birds are members of the songbird family or passerines. In fact, most of the birds we encounter every day in our gardens and parks are passerines, including sparrows, thrushes, finches, titmice, robins, blackbirds, and crows. Although not all members of this family are melodious singers, as anyone who has experienced the loud cawing of a crow will testify, all learn vocalizations specific to their species and, indeed, have evolved a special brain circuit to do so. This ability, rare in the animal kingdom, shares properties with human language which will be examined in Chapter 3.

Although birds have been studied with respect to the structure and function of their brains, their learning, and cognition for over a century, very little is known about the cognitive abilities of more than a tiny proportion of species. Most species are not kept in laboratories and thus are unavailable for experimental study, so our best ideas about their intelligence are only guesses based on their relative brain size (in comparison to their body size; see Chapter 1), their diet, social system, habitat, and life history (how long the species lives and how long the young take to develop to independence). These clues help build a picture of what these species may need their brains for—finding food, relating to others, building a home—but without being able to run experiments the picture can only be a sketch. Nonetheless, this technique is still useful for making predictions as to how intelligence may have evolved, specifically in those species we would expect to be the intellectual heavyweights. Three groups of birds— woodpeckers, hornbills, and falcons—possess some or all of the traits displayed by species known to be smart (The Clever Club; Chapter 1) but have yet to be tested. All three groups are outside the passerines but are closely related, so any cognitive skills they may have are likely to have evolved independently (that is, not from a common ancestor).

Bird Brain
An Exploration of Avian Intelligence
By Nathan Emery with a foreword by Frans de Waal

Birds have not been known for their high IQs, which is why a person of questionable intelligence is sometimes called a “birdbrain.” Yet in the past two decades, the study of avian intelligence has witnessed dramatic advances. From a time when birds were seen as simple instinct machines responding only to stimuli in their external worlds, we now know that some birds have complex internal worlds as well. This beautifully illustrated book provides an engaging exploration of the avian mind, revealing how science is exploding one of the most widespread myths about our feathered friends—and changing the way we think about intelligence in other animals as well.

Bird Brain looks at the structures and functions of the avian brain, and describes the extraordinary behaviors that different types of avian intelligence give rise to. It offers insights into crows, jays, magpies, and other corvids—the “masterminds” of the avian world—as well as parrots and some less-studied species from around the world. This lively and accessible book shows how birds have sophisticated brains with abilities previously thought to be uniquely human, such as mental time travel, self-recognition, empathy, problem solving, imagination, and insight.

Written by a leading expert and featuring a foreword by Frans de Waal, renowned for his work on animal intelligence, Bird Brain shines critical new light on the mental lives of birds.

Adrienne Mayor on Inspiring Women Writers

Adrienne Mayor is the author of  Gods and Robots, the fascinating untold story of how the ancients imagined robots and other forms of artificial life—and even invented real automated machines. In honor of Women’s History Month, we asked her to share some of the women writers who inspired her work on this book—and those who have captivated her since childhood.

Thinking about women whose writings have inspired me since childhood is a happy assignment. There are far too many to list, but here are seven. As a young bookworm in South Dakota, I haunted the public library and eagerly anticipated the Bookmobile’s weekly visit. I was reading the “Little House on the Prairie” books while my new elementary school, named after Laura Ingalls Wilder herself, was being built in the cornfield across the street from my house.

Captivated by the adventures of self-sufficient, independent kids free to roam without any grownups around, I loved the Moffat and Pye families created by Eleanor Estes (1906-1988). Based on her own childhood in the early 1900s and told with dry humor, Estes’ plots were filled with serious, real-life details. The kids gathered coal lumps on train tracks to keep warm in winter, investigated mysterious events, and recovered a kidnapped puppy—I was not a big fan of magic or fantasy.

Estes, a children’s librarian, wrote award-winning Children’s Literature. But I was spending my allowance on another sort of literature. Namely, comic books by the pioneering female cartoonist Marjorie Henderson Buell, the creator of Little Lulu. That smart, daring, sassy, audacious little girl who made her own rules was my first feminist hero.

My other favorites were The Phoenix and the Carpet and Five Children and It by E. Nesbit (1858-1924). A British socialist, Nesbit took up writing children’s books to support herself. Like Estes, E(dith) Nesbit had lost her father at an early age and was raised by a mother who struggled to make ends meet. Her stories were set in Edwardian England and the children were usually home alone, free to roam the countryside and London, not mention fabulous excursions to ancient Egypt and Babylon. Now, E. Nesbit’s plots did involve magic but in such a pragmatic fashion that the magic often became a nuisance and bother, compelling the five young siblings to be resourceful and inventive to survive the fantastic situations they found themselves in. As Gore Vidal noted in his review of Nesbit’s works (NY Review of Books), her boys and girls are intelligent, sarcastic, cruel, compassionate, selfish, cooperative, arrogant, funny, impulsive, rude, thoughtful–like adults but also like real children. Eleanor Estes, Marjorie Buell, and E. Nesbit were all unsentimental distillers of “the essence of childhood,” and their books are good to read at any age.

I Married Adventure, the autobiography of Osa Johnson, was another beloved book of my youth. Osa left Kansas to become an adventurer and documentary film pioneer who explored faraway Africa, the South Pacific, and Borneo in 1917-37. She and her husband each flew their own amphibious biplanes; they lived in tents and encountered exotic wild animals–with their primitive Eastman-Kodak movie cameras whirring all the while. I read Osa’s memoirs countless times, day-dreaming over the sepia photos, imagining where I might travel one day.

One scientist who inspired my own research and writing was Dorothy Vitaliano. A geologist, she invented the discipline of “geomythology.” In her path-breaking book Legends of the Earth: Their Geologic Origins (1973), Vitaliano proposed that scientific details of catastrophic natural disasters such as earthquakes, volcanoes, and floods were preserved in folklore, myths, and legends around the world.

While working on Gods and Robots: Myths, Machines, and Ancient Dreams of Technology, I developed renewed admiration for Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) written when she was nineteen. I hadn’t realized how strongly Shelley’s story was shaped by her knowledge of philosophy, science, and classical mythology about Prometheus, who fabricated the first humans and gave them fire. Shelley portrayed Victor Frankenstein the “modern Prometheus” for her era. I’m in awe of her ability to weave Immanuel Kant and alchemy, occult transference of souls, and advances in chemistry, electricity, and human physiology so marvelously into a timeless and gripping science fiction tale—at such a young age.

—Adrienne Mayor

 

 

Jesse Hoffnung-Garskof: Racial Migrations

“A Group of Cuban Leaders,” identified, from back left, as Commander Antonio Collazo; Brigadier Flor Crombet; Major General Antonio Maceo; Brigadier Cebreco; Colonel Salvador Rosado; Brigadier Morúa; Commander Borja; Colonel Aurelio Castillo; Commander Manuel Peña; Castillo, a Venezuelan; and Antonio Maceo’s dog, “Cuba Libre.” The photograph was taken between 1884 and 1886. Courtesy of the Biblioteca Nacional de España.

Near the end of July in 1885, General Antonio Maceo spoke to an enthusiastic audience at an assembly hall on East 13th Street in Manhattan.  The general, one of the most famous leaders of the unsuccessful war for independence in Cuba between 1868 and 1878, was in the city seeking donations to buy arms and munitions for a new war.  A group of volunteers, under his command, had already departed for Kingston Jamaica, where they were preparing for an invasion of Cuba.  The event was one of hundreds of gatherings held by exile revolutionaries in New York in the last third of the 19th century in support of such efforts.  But it sparked unusual controversy.  The Spanish Consul in the United States wrote to the district attorney asking him to prohibit  the gathering, arguing that it violated neutrality laws and because it was “to be attended by colored men, and presided over by the so-called Major Gen. Antonio Maceo.” The district attorney replied that there was no legal mechanism to prevent such an assembly, but the local precinct did send sixteen patrolmen to monitor the event, having received reports that it would be “disorderly.”

The accusation was familiar.  The general was a man of partial African ancestry and the most prominent of the revolutionary leaders who had made the abolition of slavery and the end of racial privileges central to the project of independence.  He was a target of suspicion and accusation, fomented by Spanish enemies and some Cuban participants in earlier war.  The Spanish had construed the rebellion as a rising up of blacks against whites.  Some white Cubans had sought to undermine or constrain his leadership.  Yet the accusation also points to an important point.  Cubans of African descent did, in fact, constitute a large proportion of the exiles who participated in and supported the expedition in 1885.  There is no record of exactly who was in audience that cheered for the General that evening, and raised nearly 12,000 dollars, under the watchful eye of the New York City patrolmen.  But many Spanish-speaking New Yorkers, of African descent,  were certainly in attendance.

These early Afro-Latinx migrants, and their impact on Cuban and Puerto Rican revolutionary politics, are the subject of my book, Racial Migrations: New York City and the Revolutionary Politics of the Spanish Caribbean.  I have been able to document the emergence, by the middle of the 1880s, of a well-organized community of black and brown cigar makers, seamstresses, waiters, cooks, laundresses, and midwives, who had begun to settle and build institutions within the segregated apartment buildings of Greenwich Village.  Indeed, at the time of Maceo’s appearance, in July of 1885, some prominent members of this community had already shipped out to Kingston as part of the expedition.  Several weeks after the general’s speech, the community gathered at the third annual Cuban-American Picnic.  Organized by the Logia San Manuel, the picnic drew together Cubans of color with African American friends and neighbors.  Dance music –likely some combination of Cuban danza and the local sounds that would later be known as ragtime—was provided by Pastor Peñalver, a young Cuban recently graduated from the “colored” high school on Manhattan’s West Side.

The man who came to serve as the spokesman for emigres of African descent was a cigar maker and writer, originally from Havana, named Rafael Serra.  Serra volunteered for the expedition in 1885, was commissioned as Lieutenant, and spent two years in Jamaica and Panama waiting to deploy before returning in disappointment to New York.  Once back in the city, he mobilized the Logia San Manuel and other independent networks and institutions established by migrants of color to support the struggle for black civil rights in Cuba. He recruited them to participate in Republican Party organizing in New York.  He mobilized them to create an immigrant educational society, designed to support the entry of men of color from Cuba and Puerto Rico into the professions.  He and his wife, a midwife named Gertrudis Heredia, allied with the white poet and journalist José Martí, to recruit white and black workers into the Cuban Revolutionary Party under the banner of “a nation for all.”  When Martí died in 1895 and Maceo died in 1896, they drew on the same New York community to support a struggle to preserve the democratic values of the party.  And, finally, in 1902, Serra returned to Cuba, where he became one of the most successful black politicians in the early republic, twice winning election to the House of Representatives. 

Racial Migrations traces the trajectories of Serra, Heredia, and other migrant revolutionaries as they traversed and confronted distinct local systems of racial domination.  It explores the politics they articulated, the coalitions they built, and the compromises they made as they participated in nationalist projects that, famously, promised to transcend racial division.  The book contends that this idea of a nation without race, and the political system that emerged under its banner, so often imagined as having sprung fully formed from the mind of José Martí,  can be better from the vantage point of the migrants who gathered to cheer Antonio Maceo in New York, who joined the 1885 expedition, who created the Cuban-American picnics, and who, only later, chose to throw their support behind Martí.

Jesse Hoffnung-Garskof is professor of history, American culture, and Latina/o studies at the University of Michigan. He is the author of Racial Migrations, A Tale of Two Cities: Santo Domingo and New York after 1950 (Princeton).

 

 

 

Images from Between Worlds: The Art of Bill Traylor

Bill Traylor (ca. 1853–1949), one of the most important American artists, came to art-making on his own and found his creative voice without guidance. Traylor was enslaved at birth in Alabama , and his experiences spanned multiple worlds—black and white, rural and urban, old and new—as well as the crucibles that indelibly shaped America—the Civil War, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, and the Great Migration. Between Worlds, a magnificent exhibition catalogue by curator Leslie Umberger, presents an unparalleled look at the work of this enigmatic and dazzling artist, who blended common imagery with arcane symbolism, narration with abstraction, and personal vision with the beliefs and folkways of his time.

Traylor was about twelve when the Civil War ended. After six more decades of farm labor, he moved, aging and alone, into segregated Montgomery. In the last years of his life, he drew and painted works depicting plantation memories and the rising world of African American culture. Upon his death he left behind over a thousand pieces of art. Between Worlds convenes 205 of his most powerful creations, including a number that have been previously unpublished. This beautiful and carefully researched book assesses Traylor’s biography and stylistic development, and for the first time interprets his scenes as ongoing narratives, conveying enduring, interrelated themes.

Here are several of Traylor’s works from the period 1939—1942.

The exhibit that this catalogue accompanies is on view at the Smithsonian American Art Museum through April 7, 2019.
 

Bill Traylor, Untitled (Yellow and Blue House with Figures and Dog), July 1939, colored pencil on paperboard. Smithsonian American Art Museum; Museum purchase through the Luisita L. and Franz H. Denghausen Endowment. Photo by Gene Young

Bill Traylor, Untitled (Basket, Man, and Owl), ca. 1939, colored pencil on cardboard. Collection of Victor F. Keen. Image courtesy Bethany Mission Gallery, Philadelphia


Bill Traylor, Untitled (Event with Man in Blue and Snake), 1939, colored pencil and pencil on cardboard. Collection of Penny and Allan Katz. Photography by Gavin Ashworth

Bill Traylor, Untitled (Seated Woman), ca. 1940–1942, pencil and opaque watercolor on paperboard. Smithsonian American Art Museum; The Margaret Z. Robson Collection, Gift of John E. and Douglas O. Robson. Photo by Gene Young

Bill Traylor, Untitled (Man, Woman, and Dog), 1939, crayon and pencil on paperboard. Smithsonian American Art Museum; Gift of Herbert Waide Hemphill, Jr., and museum purchase made possible by Ralph Cross Johnson. Photo by Mindy Barrett

Robyn Creswell on City of Beginnings

City of Beginnings is an exploration of modernism in Arabic poetry, a movement that emerged in Beirut during the 1950s and became the most influential and controversial Arabic literary development of the twentieth century. Robyn Creswell introduces English-language readers to a poetic movement that will be uncannily familiar—and unsettlingly strange. He also provides an intellectual history of Lebanon during the early Cold War, when Beirut became both a battleground for rival ideologies and the most vital artistic site in the Middle East.

In what sense is Beirut a ‘city of beginnings’?

The three decades after World War II were Lebanon’s version of France’s trente glorieuses. The country enjoyed an astonishing period of economic growth, and Beirut was the chief beneficiary: it became the most vibrant and intellectually alive city in the region. This was also a time when regimes in Egypt, Syria, and Iraq were becoming less tolerant of dissent, and so intellectuals from all over the region—including Palestinian thinkers fleeing the Nakba of 1948—emigrated to Beirut. The state was relatively weak, meaning there was minimal censorship, and every intellectual and political tendency had its own base of operations (oftentimes a café). There were nationalists, Marxists, Baathists, pan-Arabists, existentialists, and modernists—the group I write about in the book. My title is taken from the Syrian poet Adonis, who was one of these immigrants to Beirut. He fled Damascus in 1956 and began a new life in Lebanon.

Who were the central figures of this modernist group?

I focus on three figures: Yusuf al-Khal, Adonis, and Unsi al-Hajj. Al-Khal was the editor-in-chief of Shi‘r [Poetry] magazine, the house organ of the Beiruti modernists, which published its first issue in 1957 and closed in 1970, after 44 issues. Al-Khal was also a poet, a critic, and a translator of English-language poetry, but I emphasize his work as an editor, which I think was crucial to the movement. It was al-Khal who defined the group’s mission and fixed its place in Beirut’s intellectual landscape. Adonis is probably the most significant figure of the group—the greatest poet and most prolific critic, as well as a discerning translator of French poetry (particularly Saint-John Perse and Yves Bonnefoy). My book looks closely at his signature collection of poetry, The Songs of Mihyar the Damascene (1961), as well as his work as an editor of the classical tradition, and his lifelong engagement with the genre of elegy—the Arabic marthiya as well as the French tombeau. The book’s epilogue juxtaposes his reaction to the 1979 revolution in Iran with the 2011 Arab Spring. Finally, I devote a chapter to Unsi al-Hajj’s collection of prose poems, Lan [Will Not] (1960), the most difficult—and to my mind the most exciting—of all the modernists’ books: a delirious evocation of adolescent sexuality and a work of radical religious skepticism. The book is one of those literary landmarks that we have hardly begun to read and absorb.

What did modernism mean to poets and intellectuals in Beirut at that time?

In a sense, it meant the same thing to them as it did to artists and critics all over the world. The post-war moment is one in which modernism goes global—I’d even argue that post-war modernism is the first truly global style of art. The various art movements of the early twentieth century—Futurism, Vorticism, Simultaneism, Suprematism, etc.—were local styles with significant but limited international circulations. You could argue that postwar modernism is essentially an American phenomenon, which, by virtue of the United States’ suddenly expanded reach, goes everywhere including Lebanon (a staunch US ally at the time). But I think that modernism after the war has two elements that distinguish it from earlier movements: first, a commitment to artistic autonomy, which typically meant freedom from political interference, especially by the state. This is a moment when writers all over the Arab world took for granted the virtue of combining literature and politics—Sartre’s notion of the engagé intellectual was a commonplace—and so the modernists’ insistence on trying to separate poetry from politics cut strongly against the zeitgeist. The second is a commitment to internationalism, not as an accident of circulation but as a fundamental constituent of artistic work—which, perhaps as a consequence, tended to favor abstract aesthetics (this is as true of the Beiruti modernists as it is of their contemporary, Clement Greenberg). This internationalist commitment also explains the group’s deep interest in translation. Shi‘r magazine published Arabic translations of T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, W.B. Yeats, Paul Valéry, Paul Claudel, Henri Michaux, Octavio Paz, Rainer Maria Rilke—and many other European and American modernists.

You suggest that the American CIA played a role in disseminating this new idea of modernism. How so?

In 1950, the CIA set up the Congress for Cultural Freedom (CCF) as a front group for its work of wooing European intellectuals away from Communism. Basically, the CCF was the cultural arm of the Marshal Plan, and it employed a familiar rhetoric of artistic freedom and international solidarity. Before it was exposed in 1967, the CCF set up a network of high-brow magazines—Encounter, Preuves, Der Monat, and others—and it sponsored dozens of conferences around the world, on topics like “The Future of Freedom,” “State Aid to the Arts,” and “Constitutionalism in Asia.” The story of the CCF in Europe is now well known, thanks to the efforts of historians like Frances Stonor Saunders, but its activities outside Europe are much less well understood (even though the so-called Third World was the focus of the Congress’s work after 1955). In 1961, the CCF held a conference in Rome, “The Arab Writer and the Modern World,” and all the Beiruti modernists participated, along with Ignazio Silone and Stephen Spender. My book tells the story of that conference in some detail—using the CCF’s extensive archives, housed at the University of Chicago—in an effort to understand what the American spies and Arab poets wanted from each other, what they had in common, and what ultimately divided them. It turns out to be an interesting story, with all kinds of unexpected ironies, and one that speaks to the history of Cold War liberalism in the Arab world more generally.

What was the effect of this movement on Arabic poetry?

I think the Shi‘r group contributed to a radical transformation of Arabic poetry. Some of this change was effected by their translation of foreign models of poetry into Arabic. Probably their most influential import was the prose poem (in Arabic qasidat al-nathr), which Adonis and Unsi al-Hajj began to write in the early 1960s, at the same time they were beginning to translate the poèmes en prose of Perse and Antonin Artaud. Many Arab critics at the time rejected the form as a French affectation, but lot of young poets took to it and by now it has become almost an orthodoxy. The modernists also undertook a thoroughgoing revision of the classical literary heritage (in Arabic al-turath). If you look at the 1400-year history of Arabic poetry with the modernist idea that poetry and politics are separate and even incompatible activities, then you arrive at a very different idea of that tradition from the standard one. This is what Adonis did over the course of the 1960s and 1970s, when he turned toward the Arabic turath to uncover buried or marginalized “modernist” counter-traditions within the classical past. Like many modernists, the Arab modernists were also archaeologists.

What can readers who aren’t familiar with Arabic literature learn from your book?

I wrote my book with just that audience in mind, though of course I intend it to be of interest to experts as well. I think the tradition of Arabic poetry is one the world’s great literary traditions, and hope my book can suggest some of the ways that it lives on, sometimes very powerfully, in the present. The story of the Shi‘r group is a fascinating one, which wends its way through so many of the highways and byways of twentieth-century thought, both political and artistic—nationalism, liberalism, philosophical personalism, aesthetic abstraction, Islamism, and others. I also hope that for those who are familiar with modernist movements in Europe, America, and elsewhere, my book will help them to read and examine those traditions with new eyes.

Robyn Creswell is assistant professor of comparative literature at Yale University and a former poetry editor at the Paris Review. His writings have appeared in the New Yorker, the New York Review of Books, and Harper’s Magazine, among many other publications. He is the translator of Abdelfattah Kilito’s The Tongue of Adam and Sonallah Ibrahim’s “That Smell” and “Notes from Prison.”

Browse our 2019 Mathematics Catalog

Our new Mathematics catalog includes an exploration of mathematical style through 99 different proofs of the same theorem; an outrageous graphic novel that investigates key concepts in mathematics; and a remarkable journey through hundreds of years to tell the story of how our understanding of calculus has evolved, how this has shaped the way it is taught in the classroom, and why calculus pedagogy needs to change.

If you’re attending the Joint Mathematics Meetings in Baltimore this week, you can stop by Booth 500 to check out our mathematics titles!

 

Integers and permutations—two of the most basic mathematical objects—are born of different fields and analyzed with different techniques. Yet when the Mathematical Sciences Investigation team of crack forensic mathematicians, led by Professor Gauss, begins its autopsies of the victims of two seemingly unrelated homicides, Arnie Integer and Daisy Permutation, they discover the most extraordinary similarities between the structures of each body. Prime Suspects is a graphic novel that takes you on a voyage of forensic discovery, exploring some of the most fundamental ideas in mathematics. Beautifully drawn and wittily and exquisitely detailed, it is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to experience mathematics like never before.

Ording 99 Variations on a Proof book cover

99 Variations on a Proof offers a multifaceted perspective on mathematics by demonstrating 99 different proofs of the same theorem. Each chapter solves an otherwise unremarkable equation in distinct historical, formal, and imaginative styles that range from Medieval, Topological, and Doggerel to Chromatic, Electrostatic, and Psychedelic. With a rare blend of humor and scholarly aplomb, Philip Ording weaves these variations into an accessible and wide-ranging narrative on the nature and practice of mathematics. Readers, no matter their level of expertise, will discover in these proofs and accompanying commentary surprising new aspects of the mathematical landscape.

 

Bressoud Calculus Reordered book cover

Exploring the motivations behind calculus’s discovery, Calculus Reordered highlights how this essential tool of mathematics came to be. David Bressoud explains why calculus is credited to Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibniz in the seventeenth century, and how its current structure is based on developments that arose in the nineteenth century. Bressoud argues that a pedagogy informed by the historical development of calculus presents a sounder way for students to learn this fascinating area of mathematics.