This Thing Called Courage

Friday, February 27, 2009

New-Born Giraffe Recovering Nicely

Not long after the 5-foot newborn giraffe unfolded her long limbs into the world, staff at Southwick's Zoo in Mendon knew there was something wrong. The downy beast was not able to suckle. Her mother was not producing milk.
Dr. Peter Brewer, the zoo's chief veterinarian, gave the gawky creature, Molly, a bottle of cow's colostrum, the first milk packed with antibodies and nutrients vital for growth, organ function, and immunity from disease.
But Molly's appetite was weak and she was unable to stand. On Wednesday, worried about the giraffe's deteriorating condition, the zoo rushed her to the hospital - one specially designed for large animals at Tufts University's Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine in North Grafton.
Immediately, a team of veterinarians and neonatal technicians swung into action, giving the 2-day-old giraffe a full physical examination - assessing her heart rate, breathing, and blood - before determining that she was dehydrated and suffering from a low white-blood-cell count.
They pushed antibiotics through a catheter into her long neck and hand-fed her bottles of goat's milk. Now, 24 hours later, Molly appears to be thriving, hospital staff said.
"She's much more active today," said Dr. Daniela Bedenice, an assistant professor of clinical sciences at the school who has been put in charge of Molly's care. "She's latched on to the bottle. She's very spunky. So we're very happy about her response over the last 24 hours."
Molly, who weighs 86 pounds and has a bandage over the catheter, is expected to remain in the hospital over the weekend, while doctors continue to monitor her blood to make sure her immune system is strong and fighting infection. Bedenice said she had never treated a giraffe. It has been a bit of a challenge, she said.
"It may be a learning curve getting her to nurse - because they're tall animals," she said, adding that bottle-feeding duty has fallen to a veterinary resident and neonatal technician. "It's very good teamwork."
She said hospital staff members have come to admire the serenity of their unusual patient, as Molly blithely ignores the din of passing hospital workers and the clip-clop of horses tromping through a nearby hallway.
"She's a trooper," Bedenice said. "She really is a curious animal, and seems quite relaxed."
Brewer's sister, Betsey, who is an executive at Southwick's Zoo, said she had been deeply worried after Molly's birth on Monday at 4 a.m. "Her legs were really wobbly and she couldn't even stand up," she said.
Now that Molly is on the mend, she looks forward to the giraffe's return to the zoo.
Michael Levenson can be reached at

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Junipers and One Red Maple

ONCE AGAIN TODAY I SKIPPED MY USUAL Sunday routine, slept in, made vegan chocolate French toast (yum!) then jumped into the beautiful day (sunny and mid-thirites) feet first, with Fionn in tow. We did a great big walk, then, trusty pruners in hand, got to work again rescuing native Junipers along the Fellsway. There's a fairly large pond near where we go (Dark Hollow Pond-- oh those crazy Puritans and their names for things!) and on the eastern side of the pond is a long and quite steep slope, that runs up to the Fellsway. It is along this slope that many of the Junipers grow, as well as the oriental bittersweet that chokes and, eventually, kills the junipers. Today we went all the way down the slope to the ponds edge, something that will be impossible once summer comes, as it becomes impenetrable; and something that has been impossible thus far in the winter, as the slope has been all ice, until today. We cut away bittersweet from maybe six junipers or so, then discovered, way at the bottom of the slope by the pond's edge, a really lovely Red Maple (Acer rubrum) which happens to be another one of my favorite native trees. It's also known as Swamp Maple, for its propensity to grow in low-lying, wettish areas, and its absolutely brilliant red leaves in autumn make quite a holy show, especially at the water's edge, where the reflection gives you twice the bang for the buck. Old Yankees used to call this tree 'The Judas Tree,' as it is the first to change in the fall-- often late summer even. It's also among the very first native trees to bud-out and leaf-out in the spring. In fact its red buds were clearly visible today.

This particular specimen that we found today was being attacked from all sides by the bittersweet, which twisted and vined all the way to the top of the tree. Although we were tired at this point, we just couldn't walk away from such a pathetic site. An all-day chore, but we did three sides and called it a day. Fionn was most cooperative (most of the time) and was content to chew sticks and dig holes while he was tied to a handy branch.

It's really lovely to be outdoors all day long on these late winter days, something I haven't done since I had my landscaping business. One can understand John Muir's quote about the outside vs. the inside, as after it while, it does feel that the outside is really the inside, in terms of the comfort level and the feeling of being 'at home.' Some slowly dying gene, I suppose, from the old days, which, TG, is not quite dead yet. Like the junipers and one red maple we saved today.

(The pic above, taken with my cell phone, shows two junipers at the top of the slope by the edge of the Fellsway (right and left) and then a lovely specimen of juniper with really perfect form (center) across the street, with Spot Pond behind that. The top photo, taken from the Internet, shows a young Red Maple growing alongside a stream in Canada, with its characteristic autumn brilliance.)

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Fast Birds

Scientists flabbergasted by speedy birds

By RANDOLPH E. SCHMID, AP Science Writer Randolph E. Schmid, Ap Science Writer WASHINGTON – Little songbirds cover more than 300 miles a day on their annual migrations, flabbergasting researchers who expected a much slower flight. For the first time, scientists were able to outfit tiny birds with geolocators and track their travel between North America and the tropics, something only done previously with large birds such as geese.
New tracking equipment, weighing only a little more than a paper clip, is now allowing the tracking of purple martins and wood thrushes, researchers report in Friday's edition of the journal Science.
"The migration was surprisingly fast," said Bridget Stutchbury, a professor of biology at York University in Toronto, Canada.
That's much faster than the 90 miles or so per day that had previously been estimated.
"We were flabbergasted by the birds' spring return times. To have a bird leave Brazil on April 12 and be home by the end of the month was just astounding. We always assumed they left sometime in March," said Stutchbury.
"I don't think anybody had an idea that these little songbirds could travel that fast," she said in a teleconference arranged by the National Geographic Society.
And they made better time going north in the spring than heading south in the fall.
Stutchbury said she believes the spring migration is faster because there are major advantages to arriving first on breeding grounds, including getting the best nesting spots, the chance to get high quality mates and to start breeding first.
"This is a breakthrough for understanding of bird migration and for conservation of smaller birds. I am surprised by the speed of flight, which is comparable to larger birds like the Pacific Golden Plover," said Helen F. James, a curator of birds at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History.
"It's simply wonderful that we're going to be able to see these movements," said James, who was not part of the research team.
Indeed, the aim of the research is to understand how migration, and changes such as in climate and habitat, are affecting songbirds.
"Thirty species of songbird in North America show significant long-term decline," Stutchbury said. "We need to know whether it's the winter grounds or the breeding grounds driving these populations down."
In the study, wood thrushes and purple martins were captured in western Pennsylvania and fitted with the locating devices. The 1.5 gram clear plastic trackers sense and record sunrise and sunset, and when the birds return and are recaptured the data can be downloaded to a computer. Purple martins and wood thrushes weigh about 50 grams each — just under 2 ounces.
The timing of sunrise and sunset gives the location of the bird on each day of recording.
The tracking devices were placed on 14 wood thrushes and 20 purple martins during 2007 to track the fall takeoff, migration south, and journey back. In the summer of 2008, the researchers retrieved the geolocators from five wood thrushes and two purple martins. It wasn't clear what happened to most of the other birds, though Stutchbury said at least two were seen but the researchers could not catch them a second time.
The purple martins migrated to the Amazon basin in Brazil for the winter, while the wood thrushes wintered in a narrow band of Nicaragua and Honduras. Some of the birds took pauses along the way, spending a few days in the southeastern United States or in Mexico's Yucatan area.
Stutchbury said she initially worried that the tracking devices would slow down the little birds, "but those worries kind of ceased when I looked at their spring migration speeds."
She is now conducting further tests on these same species, and other researchers are doing similar tests in other small birds such as bobolinks, she added.
The research was funded by the Natural Science and Engineering Research Council of Canada, the National Geographic Society and the Purple Martin Conservation Association.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Great Backyard Bird Count This Weekend

(from tonight's site)

By Beth Daley, Globe Staff

Birds are notoriously hard to get a handle on. They don’t stay in one place, can travel thousands of miles in the course of a year and their populations can be governed by a slew of complicated forces from disease to climate change.

But you can help scientists learn more by counting birds in your backyard – or nature center, park or any public land – for at least 15 minutes (or much longer) between Friday and Monday as part of the 12th annual Great Backyard Bird Count.
At first glance it may not seem scientific. But the results of tens of thousands of people observing birds – last year more than 9.8 million birds of 635 species were counted in North America – helps researchers understand migratory and population trends, how winter snow and cold influence species or how bird diseases such as West Nile Virus are affecting birds in different areas. It might even help explain why Massachusetts is experiencing enormous roosts of robins this winter.
Each year that these data are collected makes them more meaningful and allows scientists to investigate far-reaching questions, according to the National Audubon Society and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology which host the count.
Here’s how to get started: Count the greatest number of individuals of each species that you see together at any one time.
If you need help identifying birds, print out the regional bird checklist to get an idea of the kinds of birds you’re likely to see in your area in February.When you are done, enter results through the webpage (look for the button that says enter your checklists). While the count ends Monday, you have until March 1 to submit counts.
The count includes prizes and a photo contest. There is also a frequently asked question page that will help you conduct the most accurate count you can.

Sunday, February 08, 2009

Jennifer, Juniper

There's this really lovely stand of Native Juniper (Juniperus virginiana, but most people know it by its common name, Eastern Red Cedar) growing along the Fellsway (picture at left, taken with my phone.) It's in an especially nasty area, a sliver of land between Route 28 (The Fellsway) and Route 93. As such it's noisy, always, and replete with trash (which people throw out the window) (presumably) from both highways, as well as hub caps and so forth; and, right now, piles of black gross yucky snow inundated with sand and rock salt. And yet these junipers keep on keeping on, and lend grace, beauty, and a sense of nature where it's most desperately needed. The junipers-- there are probably three or four dozen all told, of all sizes and shapes and ages-- stretch out along, say, a half mile run of the road. But they are currently facing a more serious threat than all the other aforementioneds above: orinetal bittersweet, an invasive, viney species that has rampantly grown around and around many of them, slowly chocking them to death or pulling them down. Bastards!

This cannot be borne! (As they used to say down South.) So every now and again, armed with Fionn the Dog (for moral support) and my trusty little pruner, we take a few hours and have at those cursed bittersweets. Such was the case today, and a lovely day it was for it, temps flirting near the 50 degree mark, a bright blue sky with brighter white streaming clouds, and a fresh wind from the west-- heaven, really, and the sun getting warmer by the day.

I don't know why this work feels so utterly satisfying. I really could do it all day. Perhaps it's a debt begining to be repaid. At this point I would say about half of the junipers have been freed. I've still got a ways to go, but today I really could see what a difference my help is making-- and, again, I'm not sure I've ever done more satisfying work. Funny, that.

As Goes Iceland?

(As usual, a thoughtful and underreported bit of news and analysis from the always right-on Tom's Dispatch.)

A New Era of People Power in the Streets?

Of all places, it was Iceland that went bust first. It happened so rapidly -- the island's staggeringly indebted banks collapsed, as did the country's currency, in little more than a single week. If you weren't one of Iceland's many inhabitants who suddenly found themselves desperately impoverished, it seemed like a perfect metaphor for our dystopian planetary moment and, as the economic meltdown continues, it's being used just that way.
As other countries -- Ireland, Greece, Italy, Spain, Great Britain -- begin to queue up to experience some version of Iceland's fate, that nation or its stand-in capital, Reykjavik, has gained something like logo status. It's already the Xerox or Swoosh of modern disasters, which means, without thinking twice, the German magazine Der Spiegel could headline a major report on possible European bankruptcies, "Reykjavik on the Thames," and far more startlingly, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown could feel called upon to publicly deny that his country was truly in bankruptcy analogy-land.
The first national bankruptcy of the twenty-first century, Iceland is now a laboratory for possible future developments on an increasingly unsettled planet. Rebecca Solnit, who last year traveled with TomDispatch readers all the way from insurgent Chiapas, Mexico to murderous New Orleans, begins her new year at another periphery, the fish-rich but desolate island of Iceland in the distant north Atlantic, which somehow, briefly, made itself into the epicenter of worldwide economic disaster. There, she offers not just horror, but hope -- Solnit's coin of the realm as the author of Hope in the Dark -- for a renewed planet. Tom
The Icelandic Volcano EruptsCan a Hedge-Fund Island Lose Its Shirt and Gain Its Soul?Rebecca Solnit
In December, reports surfaced that Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson pushed his Wall Street bailout package by suggesting that, without it, civil unrest in the United States might grow so dangerous that martial law would have to be declared. Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), warned of the same risk of riots, wherever the global economy was hurting. What really worried them wasn't, I suspect, the possibility of a lot of people thronging the streets with demands for social and political change, but that some of those demands might actually be achieved. Take the example of Iceland, the first -- but surely not the last -- country to go bankrupt in the current global crash.
While the United States was inaugurating its first African-American president, Icelanders were besieging their parliament. Youtube video of the scene -- drummers pounding out a tribal beat, the flare and boom of teargas canisters, scores of helmeted police behind transparent plastic shields, a bonfire in front of the stone building that resembles a country house more than a seat of government -- was dramatic, particularly the figures silhouetted against a blaze whose hot light flickered on the gray walls during much of the eighteen-hour-long midwinter night. People beat pots and pans in what was dubbed the Saucepan Revolution. Five days later, the government, dominated by the neoliberal Independent Party, collapsed, as many Icelanders had hoped and demanded it would since the country's economy suddenly melted down in October.
The interim government, built from a coalition of the Left-Green Party and the Social Democrats, is at least as different from the old one as the Obama administration is from the Bush administration. The latest prime minister, Jóhanna Sigurdardóttir, broke new ground in the midst of the crisis: she is now the world's first out lesbian head of state. In power only until elections on April 25th, this caretaker government takes on the formidable task of stabilizing and steering a country that has the dubious honor of being the first to drop in the current global meltdown. Last week, Sigurdardóttir said that the new government would try to change the constitution to "enshrine national ownership of the country's natural resources" and to "open a new chapter in public participation in shaping the structure of government," a 180-degree turn from the neoliberal policies of Iceland's fallen masters.
Iceland is now a country whose currency, the króna, has collapsed, whose debt incurred by banks deregulated in the mid-1990s is 10 times larger than the country's gross domestic product, and whose people have lost most of their savings and face debts and mortgages that can't be paid off. Meanwhile, inflation and unemployment are skyrocketing, and potential solutions to the crisis only pose new problems.
The present government may differ from the old, but not as much as the Icelandic people differ from their pre-October selves. They are now furious and engaged, where they were once acquiescent and uninvolved.
Before the crash, Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson, the figurehead president of Iceland, liked to compare his tiny society -- the island nation has 320,000 people -- to Athens. One of my Icelandic friends jokes darkly that, yes, it's Athens, but not in the age of Socrates and Sophicles; it's Athens now in the age of anti-governmental insurrection. The Iceland of last summer -- I was there for nearly three months -- seemed socially poor but materially rich; the Iceland I read and hear about now seems to be socially rich at last, but terrifying poor materially.
Iceland is a harsh, beautiful rock dangling like a jewel on a pendant from the Arctic Circle. Bereft of mineral resources, too far north for much in the way of agriculture, it had some fish, some sheep, and of late some geothermal and hydropower energy and a few small industries, along with a highly literate human population whose fierceness was apparently only temporarily dormant during the brief era of borrowing to spend. The people I've talked to since are exultant to have reclaimed their country and a little terrified about the stark poverty facing them.
After going hat in hand for bailout funds to Washington, the Bank of England, and the European Central Bank, Iceland turned to Russia and, reluctantly, to the global lender of last resort, the International Monetary Fund, that temple of privatization and globalization. Usually along with money, the IMF imposes its own notions of what makes an economy work -- as it did in Argentina until that country's economy collapsed eight years ago, leading to an extraordinary rebirth of civil society and social upheaval. In Iceland, the process was reversed: first upheaval, then the IMF. Now, you have an insurrectionary public and a new incursion of the forces of neoliberalism that helped topple the country in the first place.
As economic hard times have spread, so have a spate of protests and insurgencies across Europe -- of which Iceland's has only been the most effective so far -- suggesting that a new era of popular power in the streets may be arriving. Iceland's upheaval poses the question of what the collapse of capitalism will bring the rest of us. Last fall, major financial newspapers were already headlining "the end of American capitalism as we knew it,""capitalism in convulsion," "the collapse of finance" and "capitalism at bay." The implication: that something as sweeping as the "collapse of communism" 19 years earlier had taken place.
Since then, the media and others seem to have forgotten that the body in question was declared terminally ill and have focused instead on how to provide very expensive first aid for it. This avoids the question of what the alternatives might be, which this time around are not anything as one-size-fits-all and doctrinaire as old-school socialism, but a host of existing localized, grassroots, and mostly small-scale modes of making goods, providing services, and serving communities -- and remaining accountable.
Sod Houses to Private Jets and Beyond
Iceland is a strange country, as I found out. Situated on the volcanically and seismically active seam between the North American and European tectonic plates, the place seems to belong to both continents, and neither. Usually regarded as part of Scandinavia, it was controlled by Norway, and then Denmark, from the collapse of its proudly independent parliamentary system in the thirteenth century to 1944. That year, while Denmark was occupied by the Nazis, it officially became an independent republic.
But the United States military had arrived three years earlier and would stay on another 62 years, until 2006, at its huge air base in Keflavik. Before the collapse last fall, some of the biggest protests in the republic's history were about the occupying army, which broadcast its own television shows and brought a host of Americanizations and some prosperity to the island. More recently, Iceland became a place of wild neoliberal ambitions and Scandinavian welfare-state underpinnings. Ordinary people worked too many hours, like Americans, and took on too much debt to buy big cars, new condos, and suburban houses.
Poverty was not very far behind just about everyone in Iceland: person after person told me that his or her grandparents or parents had lived in a sod house, built out of the most available material in a country with scarce small trees, and that they themselves or their parents had worked in the fish-processing factories. The country's best-known artist showed me, with a deft flick of his wrist, how his grandmother could fillet a cod "like that," and added that most of the island's fish was processed offshore now. Until recently Reykjavik, the capital, was just a small town, and Iceland a rural society of coastal farms and fishermen.
The boom in this once fairly egalitarian nation created a new class of the super-wealthy whose private jets landed in the airport in downtown Reykjavik and whose yachts, mansions, and other excesses sometimes made the news, as did charges of corruption in business and in the government that countenanced that business. It wasn't corruption, however, that did in the Icelandic economy. It was government-led recklessness and deregulation. I had expected to find that, in such a small country, democracy would work beautifully, that the people would be able to hold their government accountable, and that its workings would be transparent. None of those things were faintly true, as I noted in a cheerless pre-collapse report I wrote for Harper's Magazine on "Iceland's Polite Dystopia."
A lot of people muttered then, in hapless dismay, about what the government was doing -- notably destroying the country's extraordinary wilderness to create hydropower to run the energy-intensive aluminum smelters of transnational corporations. A small group of dedicated people protested, but their sparks never seemed to catch public fire or do much to slow down the destruction. Icelanders generally seemed to tolerate privatizations and giveaways of everything from their medical histories and DNA to their fishing industry and wilderness, and a host of subsidiary indignities that went with this process.
Take, for example, the transnational retail empire of the Baugur Group (as of last week essentially bankrupt and owing Icelandic banks about two billion dollars), run by father and son team Jón Ásgeir Jóhannesson and Jóhannes Jónsson. Their Bónus stores, with a distinctive hot-pink piggybank logo, had managed to create a near-monopoly on supermarkets in Iceland. They provided cheap avocados from South Africa and mangos from Brazil, but they'd apparently decided that selling fresh fish was impractical; so, in the fishing capital of the Atlantic, most people outside the center of the capital had no choice but to eat frozen fish.
Icelanders also ate a lot of American-style arguments in favor of deregulation and privatization, or looked the other way while their leaders did. Kolbrún Halldórsdóttir, then an opposition Left-Green parliamentarian, now Minister of the Environment in the new government, didn't. She told me last summer, "The nation was not asked if the nation wanted to privatize the banks." They were not asked, but they did not ask enough either.
Fortune magazine blamed one man, David Oddsson, prime minister from 1991 to 2004, for much of this privatization.
"It was Oddsson who engineered Iceland's biggest move since [joining] NATO: its 1994 membership in a free-trade zone called the European Economic Area. Oddsson then put in place a comprehensive economic-transformation program that included tax cuts, large-scale privatization, and a big leap into international finance He deregulated the state-dominated banking sector in the mid-1990s, and in 2001 he changed currency policy to allow the krona to float freely rather than have it fixed against a basket of currencies including the dollar. In 2002 he privatized the banks."
In 2004, he was replaced as Prime Minister, but in 2005 he took over the Central Bank. By the mid-1990s Iceland had, through dicey financing and lots of debt, launched itself on a journey to become one of the world's most affluent societies. Fortune continues:
"But the principal fuel for Iceland's boom was finance and, above all, leverage. The country became a giant hedge fund, and once-restrained Icelandic households amassed debts exceeding 220% of disposable income -- almost twice the proportion of American consumers."
Throwing Eggs at the Bank
The first of the hedge-fund-cum-nation's three main banks, Glitnir, collapsed on September 29, 2008. A week later, the value of the króna fell by nearly a third. Landsbanki and Kaupthing, the other two banking giants, collapsed later that week. Britain snarled when Landsbanki froze the massive Internet savings accounts of British citizens and turned to anti-terrorism laws to seize the Icelandic bank's assets, incidentally reclassifying the island as a terrorist nation and pushing its economy into a faster tailspin.
Not so surprisingly, Icelanders began to get angry -- at Britain, but even more at their own government. The crashing country, however, developed one growth industry: bodyguards for politicians in a country where every pop star and prime minister had once roamed freely in public. An Icelandic friend wrote me, "Eggs were being thrown at the Central Bank. Such emotional protests have not been seen since the early part of the twentieth century, although then people were too poor to throw eggs." Soon eggs were also being heaved at Prime Minister Geir Haarde, whose policies were an extension of Oddsson's.
A dormant civil society erupted into weekly protests that didn't stop even when the government collapsed, since Icelanders were also demanding that the board of governors at the central bank be suspended. One of Prime Minister Jóhanna Sigurdardóttir's first acts was to ask for their resignations. So far they have not cooperated.
Andri Snaer Magnason, whose scathingly funny critique of his country's politics and society, Dreamland: A Self-Help Guide for a Frightened Nation, was a huge bestseller in this bookish country a few years back, told me this week:
"In economics, they talk about the invisible hand that regulates the market. In Iceland, the free market became so wild that it was not fixed by an invisible hand, but an invisible guillotine. So, in one weekend, the whole class of our newly rich masters of the universe lost their heads (reputation, power, and money), and all the power and debt of the newly privatized companies fell into the hands of the people again.
"So we have a very uncertain feeling about the future. At the same time, there is power in all the political debate and lots of political and social energy -- endless [political] parties popping up, Facebook groups, cells and idealists, and possibly a new constitution (not that we have read the old one), and people are speaking up. So, economic fear, political courage, shaking economy, and search for new values -- we need profound change… Now, businesspeople are losing their jobs, and they are scratching their heads and thinking that maybe politics do affect one's life. We need less professional politics and more participation of the people. I hope people will not give up now just because one government fell."
The economic fate of Iceland is uncertain and troubling. One friend there tells me that the already bankrupted banks may go bankrupt again, because their debt is so colossal. The billions in new loans from abroad are terrifying large for a country whose population is a thousandth the size of ours, and the Icelandic currency, the króna, is probably doomed.
The obvious solution is for Iceland to join the European Union (EU), and the April elections include a referendum on that question. Doing so, however, would involve letting the EU manage the country's fishing waters, its traditional and genuine source of wealth. That, in turn, would presumably open those waters up to all European fishermen and to a bureaucracy whose interests and ability to manage Icelandic fisheries is dubious. Iceland fought the Cod Wars with England in the 1970s to protect just those waters from outside fishing, and even in the years when everyone seemed focused on technology and finance, fish still accounted for about 40% of the country's exports.
Argentina and Iceland
A recent headline in the British Guardian read: "Governments across Europe tremble as angry people take to the streets." From the perspective of those governments, a fully engaged citizenry is a terrifying prospect. From my perspective, it's what disasters often bring on, and it's civil society at its best. I'm hoping Iceland's going the way of Argentina.
In mid-December 2001, the Argentinean economy collapsed. In its day, Argentina had been the poster child for neoliberalism, with its privatized economy guided by International Monetary Fund policy. The economy's managers, foreign and domestic, were proud of what they'd done, until it turned out that it didn't work. Then, the government tried to freeze its citizens' bank accounts to keep them from turning their plummeting pesos into foreign currency and breaking the banks.
The poor had already been politically engaged, and the unions had called a one-day general strike (just as French unions last week called more than one million people into the streets to protest job losses in the latest economic crisis). When the banks were frozen, however, middle-class Argentineans woke up broke -- and angry.
On December 19th, 20th and 21st of 2001, they took to the streets of Buenos Aires in record numbers, banging pots and pans and shouting "all of them out." In the next few weeks, they forced a series of governments to collapse. For many people, those insurrectionary days were not just a revolt against the disaster that unfettered capitalism had brought them, but the time when they recovered from the years of silence and withdrawal imposed on the country in the 1980s by a military dictatorship via terror and torture.
After the crash of 2001, Argentineans found their voice, found each other, found a new sense of power and possibility, and began to engage in political experiments so new they required a new vocabulary. One of the most important of these experiments would be neighborhood assemblies throughout Buenos Aires, which provided for some of the practical needs of a now-cashless community, and also became lively forums where strangers became compañeros.
Such incandescent moments when people find their voices and power as part of civil society are epiphanies, not solutions, but Argentina was never the same country again, even after its economy recovered. Like much of the rest of Latin America in this decade, it swung left in its political leadership, but far more important, Argentineans developed social alternatives and found a new boldness that had previously been lacking. Some of what arose from the crisis, including workplaces taken over by workers and run as collectives, still exists.
Argentina is big in land, resources, and population with a very different culture and history than Iceland. Where Iceland goes from here is hard to foresee. But as Icelandic writer Haukar Már Helgason put it in the London Review of Books last November:
"There is an enormous sense of relief. After a claustrophobic decade, anger and resentment are possible again. It's official: capitalism is monstrous. Try talking about the benefits of free markets and you will be treated like someone promoting the benefits of rape. Honest resentment opens a space for the hope that one day language might regain some of its critical capacity, that it could even begin to describe social realities again."
The big question may be whether the rest of us, in our own potential Argentinas and Icelands, picking up the check for decades of recklessness by the captains of industry, will be resentful enough and hopeful enough to say that unfettered capitalism has been monstrous, not just when it failed, but when it succeeded. Let's hope that we're imaginative enough to concoct real alternatives. Iceland has no choice but to lead the way.

Rebecca Solnit is a contributing editor to Harper's Magazine and a regular. Her book on disaster and civil society, A Paradise Built in Hell, will be out later this year.
Copyright 2009 Rebecca Solnit

Thursday, February 05, 2009

MSPCA Closing Three Sites, Cutting 46 Staff

Sad news from today's Boston Globe.

By Globe Staff
The Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals announced today that it would close three animal care and adoption centers and cut 46 positions, saying its finances had been hammered by the recession and collapsing stock markets.
The animal welfare agency said it was closing centers in Brockton, Martha's Vineyard, and Springfield. The centers took in a total of more than 11,000 animals last year. The agency said it would also downsize several programs and departments at its Boston offices.
Four care and adoption centers will remain open, as will the organization's hospitals in Boston and Nantucket.
Carter Luke, the MSPCA president, said the organization had seen "devastating" endowment losses of 25.7 percent, or more than $11 million, in 2008.
"This puts us in a position where we must now take action to ensure our long term financial health and stability," Luke said in a statement.
The Springfield center will close March 31, the Martha's Vineyard center will close May 1, and the Brockton center will close Sept. 30, with operations beginning to phase down in March.
The Springfield center took in 6,600 animals last year, the Brockton center 4,200, and the Martha's Vineyard Center 470, said MSPCA spokesman Brian Adams.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Dramatic Rescue of Dolphins and Whale

This is from today's Boston Globe

By Beth Daley, Globe Staff
In the middle of blizzard-like conditions on Cape Cod yesterday, The International Fund for Animal Welfare got a distress call: Four disorientated common dolphins were entering a narrow creek off Wellfleet Harbor. Then this morning, there was another call: A minke whale was also swimming nearby - and appeared trapped in the shallow water.
It was all but certain they would be stranded on oyster beds when the tide went out – often a death knell for dolphins and whales on Cape Cod.
But in a happy ending to one of the hundreds of marine mammal strandings that take place on Cape Cod every winter, all the animals appear to have safely made it to open water.<. Warming up the dolphins At daybreak today, Wellfleet Harbormaster Michael Flanagan steered a small boat behind the minke whale, which prompted the animal to swim to open water. While it’s illegal for boaters to do this, IFAW marine mammal manager Katie Touhy said that Flanagan has great experience with strandings and probably saved the minke’s life because the tide was going out. Also at daybreak, volunteers had gathered at the Creek to monitor the dolphins until IFAW’s Marine Mammal Rescue and Research team could get there. (The weather was too severe to go out yesterday). When the team arrived, one dolphin was stranded in the creek and the three others stranded within minutes in Chipman’s Cove across from the town pier. “We had a lot of volunteers out there but the animals were super cold,’’ said Touhy. The dolphins body temperature was dipping so quickly, the rescue team couldn’t draw blood (needed to see if they were healthy enough to be released) because the blood flow to their fins and flukes had slowed so dramatically. The group of rescuers carefully carried the dolphins on stretchers to a warm IFAW trailer where they spent several hours warming them up. Then, they drove the trailer to Herring Cove in Provincetown to let the dolphins out. In the trailer, the workers could hear the dolphins whistling – a good sign. After carefully placing the dolphins on foam at the waters’ edge together so the social animals could communicate, each one was brought into the water until it was deep enough for them to could swim. One was able to be outfitted with a satellite tag from the New England Aquarium.
“It was fantastic,’’ said Touhy. “It was great that it happened in the daylight – this often takes place at night – and we could see them visually swimming away.”

Monday, February 02, 2009

Ten New Species of Amphibians Discovered in Colombia

WASHINGTON - Ten new species of amphibians -- including three kinds of poisonous frogs and three transparent-skinned glass frogs -- have been discovered in the mountains of Colombia, conservationists said Monday.
With amphibians under threat around the globe, the discovery was an encouraging sign and reason to protect the area where they were found, said Robin Moore, an amphibian expert at the environmental group Conservation International.
The nine frog species and one salamander species were found in the mountainous Tacarcuna area of the Darien region near Colombia's border with Panama.
Because amphibians have permeable skin, they are exposed directly to the elements and can offer early warnings about the impact of environmental degradation and climate change, Moore said. As much as one-third of all amphibians in the world are threatened with extinction, he said.
"Amphibians are very sensitive to changes ... in the environment," Moore said in a telephone interview. "Amphibians are kind of a barometer in terms of responding to those changes and are likely to be the first to respond, so climate change ... impacts on amphibians heavily."
Amphibians also help control the spread of diseases like malaria and dengue fever, because they eat the insects that transmit these ailments to people.
The new species discovered in Colombia include three poison frogs, three glass frogs, one harlequin frog, two kinds of rain frogs and one salamander.

The expedition that turned up the new amphibians also recorded the presence of large mammals like Baird's tapir, which is considered endangered in Colombia, four species of monkeys and a population of white-lipped peccary, a pig-like creature.
"Without a doubt this region is a true Noah's Ark," said Jose Vicente Rodriguez-Mahecha, the conservation group's scientific director in Colombia.
"The high number of new amphibian species found is a sign of hope, even with the serious threat of extinction that this animal group faces in many other regions of the country and the world," Rodriguez said in a statement.
The area where the new species were found has traditionally served as a place where plants and animals move between North and South America. While the terrain is relatively undisturbed now, its landscape faces threats from selective logging, cattle ranching, hunting, mining and habitat fragmentation.
Between 25 and 30 percent of the natural vegetation there is being deforested.
Moore said protecting the Tacarcuna area where these amphibians were found could also benefit local people by preserving an important watershed.
"We don't go in there and try and tell them to protect the forest for frogs," Moore said. "It's more a case of working with them to find more sustainable long-term solutions that will protect these resources that are ultimately benefiting them."