Saturday, March 17, 2012

Ode to Monarchs

Review of "Wings in the meadow", by Jo Brewer.

A friend sent us the classic 1967 book about Monarch butterflies "Wings in the meadow", by Jo Brewer. It is beautifully written, with shameless advocacy for her subject and equally shameless anthropomorphism. As I have noted before, anthropomorphism in biology has more going for it than scientists traditionally allow, since feelings and intuition are the fundamental currency that animals use to guide their lives.
"During these three days, Danaeus the son had doubled in size. In his first twenty-four hours he had chewed four small holes in his leaf and consumed an amount of milkweed equal to his own weight. Parts of his skin had darkened until his body was encircled by nine chocolate-colored bands. Now his skin was stretched so tightly about him that he could eat no more and his black face mask, which had once covered his whole head, had become a tight black glass button pinching his mouth. The time had come to shed his first skin. With his two anal prolegs, he grasped a bit of the silk which he had spun, and summoning all his little stength, pushed his head forwrad until, splitting his skin at the thorax, he was able to wriggle his way out of it. This herculean task, which taxed his every muscle, required nearly three hours of his life."
I found it completely captivating, and ask- why is this book not in print, and read in every school in the land? It would be such a positive answer to Catcher in the rye and other cynical staples of middle school.
"He was free of the earth at last. The long desperate struggle was over, and the long night past. Red of the firebrand and gold of the sun were fused in the fiery wings he presented to the noonday sun, and a delicious fragrance- sweet and spicy and erotic- was diffused across his back. His wings and his body were filled with power and he was free. He leapt high in the air and encircled the field, fliding, dipping, soaring, surveying from his place in the sky a world of leaves which he had already forgotten."

Brewer combines a detailed and dramatic description of the life cycle of Monarchs with copious scenes of other animals around the meadow. Even a human shows up, in the form of Mr. Stevens, whose heart is in the right place, preserving the peace of this meadow that he owns, but only seeing its true magic late in the book as the Monarch life cycle comes back to roost, ever so briefly, in his trees.
"He found the flashlight he kept in his jeep and walked slowly toward the tree. In the beam of light which he cast upon it there was again that same sudden motion- an evanescent flash of golden-bronze: a warning flash that come and went in the fraction of a second, leaving nothing in its wake but the surprise of the beholder- and the congregation of Monarchs which had gathered there for the night become once more invisible. But this time Mr. Stevens had seem them open and close their wings, and he could make them out, hidden and small in the shadows. There were perhaps three or four hundred of them. It was a sight so unexpected and unusual that he looked upon it with a kind of awe. The butterflies were just out of his reach, but he would not have touched them anyway. For the moment, the tree was theirs not his, and he was filled with a sensation of very great pleasure. He did not know that scarcely one person in a thousand ever sees a little butterfly tree like the one in his meadow."

"It is in the nature of living creatures to cling to life with the greatest tenacity when the promise life holds is least. When the cup is full, the precious liquid is spilled with reckless joy- when nearly drained, the last few drops become a priceless treasure."

  • Wings today... at the Xerces society.
  • Haidt on spirituality, religious experience, modernity, and group selection.
  • What moral decay do we suffer from especially?
  • Pay for failure.. brought to you by the free enterprise, private market!
  • What is banking like today- I?
  • What is banking like today- II? The management/agency model is deeply flawed.
  • Some men seem to suffer from hysteria.
  • Programming is ... not so easy.
  • Medieval economics- more bleeding, please.
  • The Augean stable of MERS ... requires total reworking of property title in the US.
  • Economics quote of the week: Bill Mitchell provides the most concise summary of the financial crisis I know of, with a little editing help from me.
"In the past, the dilemma of capitalism was that the firms had to keep real wages growing in line with productivity to ensure that the consumptions goods produced were sold. But in the recent period, capital found a new way to accomplish this which allowed for the suppression of real wages and increasing shares of the national income produced to emerge as profits.
The trick was found in the rise of “financial engineering” which pushed ever increasing debt onto the household sector. The capitalists found that they could sustain purchasing power and receive a bonus along the way in the form of interest payments. This seemed to be a much better strategy than paying higher real wages.
The combination of a hollowing out of the state, an out of control deregulated financial sector, and the rising fragility of non-government balance sheets thus set up the world economy for the crisis.
The crisis represents a fundamental rejection of the neo-liberal vision that self-regulating markets will operate to advance the best interests of all of us. The neo-liberal paradigm fails on every dimension."
"Most people do not consider the irretrievable nature of these losses. Every day that unemployment remains above the full employment level (allowing for a small unemployment rate arising from frictions – people moving in-between jobs) the economy is foregoing billions in lost output and national income that is never recovered.

The magnitude of these losses and the fact that most commentators and policy makers prefer unemployment to direct job creation, shows the powerful hold that neo-liberal thinking has had on policy makers. How is it rational to tolerate these massive losses which span generations?

As noted, to some extent these losses are a mystery to society in general. While the unemployed and their families are certainly aware of them, the remainder of the society are less aware. For example, we might notice rising crime rates in our neighbourhoods but do not associate it with unemployment."


  1. Thanks for recommending this book.

    Was happily transported into the complicated life of a monarch while learning, at a species level, how they function and thrive - given the right environmental variables.