Monday, May 28, 2012

New York Missive no 108 - Bronx Zoo

(My camera's broken so till I have it fixed I'm using images from elsewhere. This is from the Wildlife Conservation Society headquartered at Bronx Zoo, used in the book "A Different Nature: The Paradoxical World of Zoos and Their Uncertain Future", in which I found some of the historical details below. It's of the first Director of the zoo William Hornaday, at his desk in 1910.)

Last Sunday we took JNH to the Bronx Zoo, for a second birthday outing. Apparently its first Director William Hornaday wasn’t at all happy with it being described as the “Bronx Zoo.” When it opened in 1899 it was called the New York Zoological Park. He told newspapers that “the nickname ‘Bronx Zoo’ is undignified, offensive, injurious, totally unnecessary, [and] inexcusable.”

But of course the name stuck, to the extent that Bronx Zoo is a powerful brand. When we walked up from the East Tremont Ave subway station, following beneath the rickety iron of the elevated tracks before they curved off to the right, we soon saw the huge sign in block capitals above the Asia Gate entrance ahead of us: “BRONX ZOO.”

The place puts all other zoos I have visited to shame. Most leave you with a lingering feeling of guilt for gawping at animals in cramped enclosures. Not so here, where it almost seemed the other way around. Most of the animals appeared utterly at ease in their environment and in pristine condition, somewhat superior to the clumsy crowds who wove their way between the exhibits clutching their crumpled maps and sipping on sodas. (We timed our visit well, arriving only an hour or so after the zoo opened, and leaving by three. By that time the toddlers and babies who had not yet succumbed to their middle-of-the-day snooze emanated hot grumpiness, their tired parents likewise).

Two words particularly come to mind in thinking about the zoo: proximity and participation. Visitors work their way through the middle of some of the enclosures in tunnels protected by glass, so that you are right up next to the animals. Hornaday had been critical of attempts to place animals in realistic habitats when that meant having to keep them far away from the visitors. When the German zoo pioneer Carl Hagenbeck approached him with a concept for “barless bear dens”, Hornaday said that, “I pointed out to him the great disadvantage that would be entailed by having our bears separated from our visitors by a distance of sixty or seventy feet. We deliberately decided against the Hagenbeck idea [and] we have never regretted it.”

Thanks to technological developments, a later Director of the zoo William Conway could go much further in combining realistic habitats with spectator-proximity. He set up an in-house design team that has approached zoo layout as theater. Epitomizing that approach is the Congo Gorilla Forest, which opened in 1999. It was our first target destination (we purposefully didn’t want to try to cover the whole zoo on one visit, we just had a few things we were keen to see while leaving the rest to random encounter). The route there brought us past camel rides for kids, then African Plains with its gazelle, lions and giraffe – and a “Dora [the Explorer] & Diego’s 4D Adventure”.

Once in Congo Gorilla Forest you work through narrow pathways (strollers are left at the entrance) that feel remarkably like navigating a real forest, without the bugs and heat. First we came across an Okapi, just a few feet away behind glass, grazing on a tree. They’re striking creatures, like a cross between a zebra, a gazelle and an Avatar from the recent film, with black extending tongues. This one was displaying his/hers as it grasped the leaves. Then we found the gorillas, getting on with their business rubbing their tummies and yawning and ambling about the place, at ease with the crowds of captivated humans. Words and photographs worked into parts of the exhibit tell you about how the Congo’s forest is threatened. Then on the way out you’re asked to vote how your contribution (some of the features in the zoo cost extra) should be used for conservation efforts.

That brings me to the second word, “participation.” Everywhere throughout the zoo visitors are educated in simple but effective ways about the animals they are seeing. And they’re told stories of conversation and the need for it. One of our unplanned encounters was with the bison. While a group of bison with their mountain-peak shoulder blades sat in a clearing in front of us, we read that they were the zoo’s first conservation success-story. Hornaday, before Bronx Zoo existed, had led an expedition out West to find some bison for an exhibition. The expedition spent five months searching planes where once herds of millions of bison had roamed, and were able to bring back just 25. The expansion of the Northern Pacific Railroad had led to their mass slaughter, mainly for their hides. When the Bronx Zoo opened, Hornaday acquired bison for it and began to build up the herd. From there, bison were shipped back to some of their former locations in the wild: now many of the bison in the Western USA are descendants of those bred in the Bronx.

Two year-old JNH, of course, saw the zoo in his own unpredictable way. For example at Tiger Mountain it wasn’t the tigers that impressed but the fish. Here again you could get right up close. While two tigers sprawled on their rocks a few meters away, right next to us just behind the glass was their cooling-off pool. The water came up to adult belly-level. So it was perfect for JNH to stand pressed up against the glass watching the fish swim their jazzy ballet on the other side. He followed their movements with his hands, “fish up, down, up-down, there, here, there,” one of the zoo memories he would repeat when we got back home.

I realized as we walked around that I have rarely been to a zoo except when I was a child, or accompanying one. They are a place for children to see in the flesh the animals that they read about so much in books. But what do we do with all that knowledge as adults - all those labeled tapirs and colored-in parrots on clipboards? In the midst of a metropolis where our place in the animal kingdom is so easily forgotten, the Bronx Zoo reminds us of the millions of species we share the planet with. It resuscitates wonder and appreciation, even if only fleetingly.

Monday, May 21, 2012

New York Missive no 107 - "Prolonged exposure may cause irritation"

“Prolonged exposure can cause irritation,” says the label on the bottle of Rite Aid’s lavender bubble bath that I’ve been using from time to time recently. As well as putting me off using it, reading that phrase led me to think it applies to many things.

Twitter among them. At the PEN World Voices festival event “Margaret Atwood on the Writers’ Mind and the Digital Otherworld”, Atwood spoke about her use of the internet, and specifically, Twitter. One of the threads of what she said was that fiction is always changed by the platforms that is has for delivery. For example if Chekov had not had the option of writing short fiction for Russian magazines for money in the nineteenth century, then it’s likely we would not have any Chekov short stories. The internet provides one other platform for delivery. “Make space available and things will move into it very quickly. And if you shut something down, then you cut off that method of expression,” she said.

It’s easy to be overly fearful of the potential effects of new technology. She referred to “bicycle face”, the idea that when the bicycle first came into use, people would develop flat faces given the speed at which they’d be moving. But, she said, while maybe the day will come when we are all in little pods looking at a screen, “that hasn’t happened yet.”

Crucially though, she said she aims to spend just 10-15 minutes a day on Twitter, where she currently has over 300,000 followers. She sees it like having a little “radio station on which you do public service announcements, when you’re not making typos.” I like the radio station analogy. You don’t necessarily know what you’re going to be exposed to when you turn it on and will often be pleasantly surprised by its randomness. Though of course tuning into Twitter is like listening to a radio on which thousands of channels fade in and out in rapid succession. It’s up to you and the present agility or sleepiness of your brain which ones you hone in on.

Using it when I can for work and for my 30th Ave stuff, often I alight on something surprising and relevant that I wouldn’t have found in other ways. And there’s the thrill of raw, emerging, close-to-the-ground yet unverified information, coming from individual people’s perspectives. (Which you could call unreliable, but what information is reliable?). The pace though is also where the irritation comes in. I’ve seen swarms of people interested in a particular cause enter a tweeting and retweeting frenzy about it then as suddenly as the frenzy started attention swerves away and you’re left wondering what it achieved.

The recent attention around the situation of the Bahraini hunger-striking activist Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja is an example. People who had previously little or no knowledge of the situation in Bahrain were suddenly tweeting their concern for him as family members warned he was close to death. A few days later, when the high-profile Formula 1 race was over in the country, the tweets fell off significantly. And this BBC interview with him indicates he is not currently as fragile as many had made out, another reminder that there’s no substitute for face-to-face encounters as reality checks (when possible that is: the Bharani authorities only allowed the BBC journalist 5 minutes with him).

All that is to say, you can be left feeling irritated after prolonged exposure to Twitter – a somewhat deflated and resentful feeling that it has sucked in many minutes of your time yet you have little to show for it.

As for the Rite Aid bubble bath, I’ve not yet got around to investing in a posher bottle that doesn’t have that kind of warning (as if prolonged exposure to the contents of a posher bottle would be much better anyway). And my hesitancy in using it is counterbalanced by wanting to have something – bubbles – to soften the drama of the three big bumps that rise out of the water when I look towards my toes: at 34 weeks pregnant there’s a huge belly and boobs bigger than their usual size.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

New York missive no 106 - Revolution, agency and multiple voices

Image from PEN - World Voices Festival of International Literature, 2012

In a panel called “Understanding Egypt” at the PEN World Voices Festival on Thursday, a recurring point was the way in which the recent revolutions (still in process) in the Middle East revealed a diversity of voices that had previously been ignored.

Mona Eltahawy highlighted how they have changed perceptions particularly in the West, where previously Arabs were seen as a homogenous block, acceptant of their dominant rulers. Within Egypt too, she pointed out, there was a tendency among liberal intellectuals to doubt people’s potential to rise up. That perception has been blown away. Elias Khoury, also speaking on the panel, said how inspiring it was to see movements like the indignados in Spain and the Occupiers on Wall Street drawing inspiration from the protestors in Tahrir Square.

And YET. So quickly the diverse voices of the revolution are being blurred again into sweepingly-defined groups. “The wonderful and beautiful diversity of voices is now being ignored – you’re not hearing it,” Eltahawy said. That’s particularly the case because elections are underway in Egypt. The US administration is not doing much to help matters, she added, as they (like most governments), can only deal with talking to one group at a time.

The dangers of this approach by governments – of just dealing with one “group” at a time and squeezing people into groups accordingly – are driven home in Carne Ross’ wonderful book “The Leaderless Revolution” that I’m in the middle of reading. The events in the Middle East are mentioned, but the book deals far more broadly with the limitations of government in resolving both national and international challenges, and the way in which individual agency has to come into play for any meaningful change to happen. (The subtitle is "How ordinary people will take power and change politics in the 21st century"). Ross is a former UK diplomat. "[M]y experience,” he says, “suggests that states, and their exponents, do not accurately reflect what humans are about, nor what they want.”

The ideas that run through the book to underscore the importance of individual agency include the fact that “one individual can affect the whole system very rapidly"; that “it is action that convinces, not words” (while recognizing the helpful role of the internet he’s rightfully dismissive of the power of online petitions...); the way in which a false dependence on the rule-making and keeping of un-representative governments absolves people of a sense of responsibility; and a reminder that real interaction between people is essential (“decision-making is better when it includes the people most affected”).

Of course that individual agency, multiplied, was instrumental in the massive shifts in the Middle East. It has to continue to be instrumental for the revolutionary wheel to keep turning. (All three of the panelists – Eltahawy, Khoury and also Rula Jebreal – had problems with the term “Arab Spring”. Among them the invitation for it to lead to “Winter”, the fact that “Arab” erases the non-Arabs of the region, and that it reflects fear of the word revolution. And please, no flowers, no colors, no “jasmine” etc., said Eltahawy, just say revolution!).

Khoury pointed out that in the past, revolutions have followed a text. These are revolutions without a text – the text is being written as they are played out. Here’s hoping that the text has multiple authors.