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What Is It About Bears?

October 22, 2018

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

My editor at Natural History Magazine once remarked how, whenever their cover features a bear, sales rise. A koala bear, a young panda, a sunbathing polar bear or a menacing American grizzly; it doesn’t matter. People like bears.

            Occasional attacks on humans and the aversion of many people to any form of wildlife hunting notwithstanding, bears are irresistible. However vulnerable we may be, humans can’t shake our unparalleled attraction to these bulky, really quite graceless creatures.

            We are smitten not only by pictures of bears; we’re enthralled by the sight of live bears. Whether on two legs grabbing berries or bounding across meadows on all fours, bears in the wild are especially mesmerizing; more than deer who, although not necessarily faster than bears, quickly disappear into the foliage. Our ursine creatures seem to prefer open spaces, even during daylight hours. A spectacle for any passerby.

            I’m talking personally only about black bears here; they’re the ones I encounter in my neighborhood.       

            This year we’ve seen more than usual wandering close to our homes. And we don’t live in Montana or Alaska where grizzlies roam. I’m in upstate New York, hardly two hours drive from New York City with its all-night sidewalk cafes and 24-hour home deliveries!

            My Catskill neighborhood proudly identifies itself as trout country. But our bears are not here to catch fish. Fields and forests are their habitant. Our bears are all black, usually not more than 300 pounds (they can go up to 500). And frankly, they’re common. They are often sauntering from yard to yard in search of food; or they’re simply curious, appearing to be in no hurry at all. The wildlife service says our region has abundant natural food sources for bears. But I suspect that the growing number of apiaries cultivated by retirees who moved here from the city draw bears into our villages. Last spring one was shot by a neighbor while it ravaged his dozen beehives.   

            Do you know bears have their very own adjective? Ursine. Cool. And their own candies:--gummy bears. Rather pricey varieties too. Commercial spin-offs exploiting our affection for bears are legendary. And they’ll continue. Nearby in Pennsylvania, for example, bears are a lure for the Milford annual film festival. (No bear films there; only the wooden sculpture outside the theater is as close as a bear gets to that event.) 

            Bear hunting is reportedly important to our economy. It’s part of the state’s tourism pitch, promoted by the Department of Environmental Conservation. The 2018 hunting season is still underway; in 2017 though, 1,420 New York black bears were killed, with the heaviest harvest in counties around me: 151 in Delaware; 147 in Sullivan; and (closer to NYC) 167 in Ulster County. This, out of an estimated state population of 6,000-8,000. Nationwide, black bears number around 900,000, a population that is increasing annually.

            Anecdotally, from sightings around my own neighborhood, black bears seem plentiful. In August a mid-size ursine creature with a long neck trotted casually along the riverfront of four coterminous family lawns; two days later a mother and three cubs had to be chased off a nearby porch. On a morning walk last month I initially took the black, furry creature sauntering down the middle of the road ahead of me to be a lost dog. It seemed unconcerned about whom it might encounter. “His mother mustn’t be far away; keep your distance”, I cautioned myself. Earlier in the season a big adult followed by a smaller bear scampered across the road in front of me towards an open meadow. My most memorable sighting occurred at midday when I was on the highway en route home from the city; I slowed to watch a huge black animal followed by two smaller ones galloping towards me. They crossed two highway lanes, the grass strip between, then two more lanes onto the verge above me. It must have been autumn because their black coats glistened in the sun, and under their fur, their fat-laden shoulders and haunches shook as they leapt along.

            There must be many bears roaming around at nighttime here; I often see fresh bear scat in the grass, easy to distinguish from what deer leave. “A bear’s presence is easy to determine”, a longtime resident instructed; “its droppings emit an overpowering stink”.  

            I am reminded how fondly we regard our bears when I and friends pause in our local library to admire a photo just posted. It’s a family of four bears—local inhabitants. A surge of envy overtook us when the owner of the pictures identified the three cubs as same ones she photographed last May when they were hardly the size of puppies.

[ What Is It About Bears? ]

For Those of Us Who Believe

October 01, 2018

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

For those of us who watched with innocence, then passion, then consternation, the results of the 1991 senate hearing for supreme court nominee Clarence Thomas; for those who championed film stars, then ordinary women daring, finally, to call out Harvey Weinstein and a stream of male predators; for those who watched with confidence the rise of #MeToo; for those of us who wrote poems and songs and opinions hailing a real cultural shift in female-male dynamics; for those of us still unable to admit being sexually abused; for those of us who finally confessed some discomforts to our lovers; for those of us who overcame difficulties to tell our sons and our daughters about those endemic secrets; for those of us who believe openness and dialogue are healthy and transformative--: we now fear we were misguided.

            The misogynist and white culture of privilege in the U.S.A. was again evident during the recent senate hearing to evaluate Brett Kavanaugh for the U.S. Supreme Court.

            The end of Friday’s judiciary committee hearing suggests accommodation was reached by member senators. But to do what? Demonstrate a real solution was found to test the veracity of the parties involved and affirm that senate confirmation is a noble process? The delay (to call in the FBI) may allow more time for Americans to debate and for our infotainment industry to distract us from the urgent, decisive elections just weeks away. (This while a narrowly circumscribed FBI investigation is conducted in secret.)

            Committee senators have cast their vote; the number in Kavanaugh’s (and Trump’s) favor suggests the nominee’s success. Whether confirmation would drive outraged citizens (Democrats and others) on Election Day to determinedly ouster stalwart Republican office-holders remains to be seen. If Kavanaugh is rejected, there will be a lot of satisfied women and men on one side, but maybe many more recalcitrants on the other. Again, how this will manifest on November 6th is uncertain.

            Simply from the way these hearings evolved –a spectacle L.A. Times' Lorraine Ali descrives as unmatched raw politicizing -- I wonder if the process we have witnessed actually reinforces how deeply misogynist and white male-privileged American culture is. From the arrival of nominee-Dad with teenage daughter, his awesome welcome into the hearing, adorned by senate sycophants, proceeding through rumors, press reports, to a face-off-- testimonies by the ‘injured woman’ and the defending nominee—wrapped up with theatrical declarations by the candidate’s partisans and a phony compromise to bring the curtain down on Friday’s performance, America remains far, far from gender equity and open democratic processes. END

 

[ For Those of Us Who Believe ]

How Many More Women Are There?

September 24, 2018

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

How many more women await our discovery?

            My question is not related to ongoing exposés of sexual abuse suffered by women under a culture of male privilege and dominance-- the culture known by the new trope #MeToo. What concerns me here is a seemingly unrelated silence and need for exposure, namely accomplishments of women scientists. This too is being newly addressed, although desultorily.

            Like millions of others I was alerted to the history of women in science after viewing Hidden Figures http://www.historyvshollywood.com/reelfaces/hidden-figures/. This celebrated film features three African American women working in the 1950s U.S. space program. It’s based on the book by Margot Lee Shetterly, herself African American whose parents and neighbors were themselves professionals working in the time and place of that story. So compelling were Shetterly’s revelations, it took just two years from the book’s release to the film’s completion. While this film is making a profound social impact, to grasp the full context of the involvement of African American scientists and women in general in the U.S. government’s pioneering space projects, read Shetterly’s full account. Book or film, Hidden Figures will propel more African Americans into the sciences while it impresses on all women the need to move from the margins into the center of public life.     

            Another “hidden figure” is revealed with the recent award of the Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics to British physicist Jocelyn Bell Burnell. Had the monetary award not been $3. million, her story likely wouldn’t be featured in a major U.S. newspaper. Nevertheless the article is an opportunity to learn, once again, how a brilliant student of physics, somehow, despite adversarial male and institutional attitudes, managed what many of us cannot: she remained at work, applied her genius and pursued her irrepressible love of science. Burnell persisted despite her Cambridge supervisor, not Burnell, winning a Nobel Prize for his research on pulsars, a discovery she had made. (http://www.msn.com/en-us/news/technology/she-made-the-discovery-but-a-man-got-the-nobel-a-half-century-later-she%e2%80%99s-won-a-dollar3-million-prize/ar-BBMZ9PT?li=BBnb7Kz&ocid=LENDHP That interview with provides the all too common narrative of how modesty allowed Burnell to demure to her male colleagues, and be upstaged by her professor. In this account we hear more about her modesty than her professional history and ongoing work at Oxford.

            This review regrettably includes a flawed note on other “hidden figures”. It mentions the white scientist Rosalind Franklin and the award-winning recent film but fails to name mathematicians Dorothy Vaughan and Katherine Johnson and engineer Mary Jackson featured there. When will we learn to know, repeat and apply these women’s names? Dorothy Vaughan; Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson; Dorothy Vaughan, Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson; Dorothy Vaughan, Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson. And add Margot Lee Shetterly http://margotleeshetterly.com/ to that deserving list.

            Not long after perusing Shetterly’s highly readable and conscientiously researched book http://margotleeshetterly.com/hidden-figures-nasas-african-american-computers/ , browsing in my local library, I (by chance?) came across The Other Einstein https://www.bookreporter.com/reviews/the-other-einstein . It’s an historical novel based on credible rumors regarding Mileva Marić-Einstein https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mileva_Mari%C4%87, a mathematician herself and first wife of the famous physicist. In The Other Einstein, published in 2016, author Marie Benedict explores rumors of a woman whom history not only marginalized; it denies her any credit as a working scientist.

            A promising student of physics in Zurich, Marić was a close companion of Albert Einstein in university, a member of his circle of aspiring scientists, and mother of his children. Benedict presents a story of Marić that’s debated by others; that is: she was Albert’s indispensable intellectual collaborator —a tantalizing issue that physicist and writer Dennis Overbye mentions but leaves undeveloped in his 2000 biography Einstein in Love  https://www.theguardian.com/books/2001/may/13/biography.scienceandnature  --in Einstein’s work and deserving of equal credit for his (sic) discovery of relativity. (Did he assign his Nobel prize money to her as compensation for denying her scholarly accreditation?) Benedict explores that possibility, offering a convincing portrayal of how Einstein may have exploited Marić’s brilliance and her trust in him, removing her name from publications of their shared scientific discoveries. (A very serious charge which must be thoroughly explored.)

            Albert Einstein is so lionized a figure that it will take much more research to clarify Marić’s real role in the history of physics, but the work of Overbye and Benedict is a start, just as Shetterly’s work is an essential opening act on women in U.S. pioneering research http://margotleeshetterly.com/the-human-computer-project-1/.

            Women everywhere struggle mightily on. In small steps we cut away the deep roots of misogyny in every culture. While progress is slow at the legal level, headway is being made by the slogging research work by our writers. Doubtless many more histories await our attention and when we uncover them we will find our predecessors broke barriers long before this modern era. Knowing women’s early scientific work, even absent of fanfare or awards, is still empowering to our and future generations.  END

[ How Many More Women Are There? ]

I Can't Cast Your Ballot for You, Ma'am

September 10, 2018

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

“The fight of my life…”; ”Republicans take a sledgehammer to Medicare…”; “Triple your impact to STOP…”; “Lowering our chance…”; “What’s at stake? Everything…”; “Last chance…”; “Numbers don't lie…”; “They’re scared we’ll win...”, warns yet another slogan, and on and on. As if to say: “We (the Democratic Party) are scared, and we want you to be scared too”. Each threat is followed by appeals that we’ll win with just a $3. pledge; victory secured if you can manage five dollars. It seems the Dems hired a squad of copy editors blasting out five-word threats in the subject line of my (and hundreds of thousands, millions, of others’) email and twitter accounts.  

            You get the picture. Several times daily these bulletins promise that if I give even the price of a cup-of-coffee to Stacey in Georgia, Fred in Iowa, and Heidi in North Dakota (or is it Oregon?), then the good guys win, the Trump nightmare ends, and Democrats will provide all the nice things intelligent-college-educated-white Americans deserve (something for minorities too):—full employment, free universal healthcare, cancellation of student debt, repeal of the second amendment (gun rights), an end to big pharma’s control of politicians, pre-industrial era clear blue skies, reforested cities, and restoration of Obama’s post-racial America. (No mention of reduced military spending or freeing US foreign policy of Israel’s grip.)  

            Delete, delete, delete; this although I’m not a Republican and never knowingly voted for one, not even when, as often happens at state and district levels, they run unopposed.   

            Do people who run these campaigns really think fear tactics are effective? In 2016 the vote-Hillary-or-else strategy didn’t work; I doubt if it’s a winner this time. It’s a hollow, misguided device. As many concerned analysts evidence, the Party is simply out of touch.      

            At ground level Democratic Party managers claim the algorithms they employ guarantee victory. Formulae based on data amassed from social media posts, phone records and past balloting (adopted perhaps from Mercer’s Cambridge Analytica, initially exposed by Observer writer Carole Cadwalladr, a scheme Trump’s campaign reportedly used) inform Democratic campaign chiefs.

            So a bouquet of lists is presented to me and other volunteer fieldworkers; we’re mainly retirees, not the under 30s who prefer spectacles with celebrities offering graphic encounters to share on instagram. (Young people’s voting record is in fact shoddy.) I’m a sucker for joining local campaigns though. Toiling naively through a summer afternoon, I learn that few in my ‘registered voter list’ know whose running in upcoming (NY) state primaries or who’s challenging the incumbent congressman.

            And these lists? My paid teenage supervisor firmly believes that personally reaching out to algorithm-generated lists is a winning strategy. (Like scare tactics?) I’m presented with lists, and more lists: a register of under 50s; a list of anyone who may have voted across party lines; a list of over 70s, folks more likely to be home in the morning (no cell phones?); independents who usually don’t vote; dependable Democrats we will solicit to volunteer with us; those we’ll phone a month before; those we’ll phone a week before; those who are first time voters. Doubtless there are lists of Blacks, Latinos, South Asians, Evangelical Christians, maybe Jews too. Lists likely come in degrees of education as well.

            My Sunday morning was productive, sort of: 25% of voters I call respond in person: 40% of them disconnect abruptly, hearing the name of the candidate I represent; 25% are uncertain; one snaps “We don’t get involved in politics”, another asks “Who’s he running against?” The 20% who say “We support him; he’s got our vote” sustain me. Too many registered Dems really are unsure of which candidate is running in which race; it doesn’t help that lawn signs littering our roadsides don’t indicate if the name printed represents a Democrat, Republican, or Conservative. New York State registered Democrats are notoriously negligent in the primaries. Barely 25% cast ballots in any primary election.

            Voter ignorance about candidates, even if they peruse all their emails in what we call midterm elections, is common. Midterm (off season or non-president) elections somehow can’t attract voters; primaries seem inconsequential, like midterm exams or penalty shots in football. Nothing much happens in midterms, we suppose.

            Yet this semi-annual ballot determines all congressional seats. In November—435 seats are up for re-election. (63 of these, held by Republicans, are said to be vulnerable, and Democrats need to win 23 of those to take control of the House.) Primary wins like those by Ocasio-Cortez in New York and Tlaib in Michigan are generating excitement and optimism among some Dems. Yes, national media highlight even the most marginal state primary win, but for a day or two only.

            It seems our US public—voters, would-be voters, and those who “don’t get involved in politics”-- prefers to devote its time to the president and presidency. My neighbors and colleagues, following the media’s obsession with the leadership, spend hours gasping, chortling, quoting—they repeat his tweets; they shudder at his braggadocio; they weep over his legal proclamations; they opine on White House personalities. This compared to blank stares and ambiguity regarding the women and men they actually can vote in (or out) at their neighborhood polling station September 13th (NY primary day) and November 6th .

 

 

[ I Can't Cast Your Ballot for You, Ma'am ]

Literature Can Displace Anthropology-- A New Look

August 29, 2018

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

When I found myself well into my career as an anthropologist specializing in Himalayan peoples, I came across an historical episode concerning two no-longer living but obviously brilliant women who had performed remarkable political feats in the early 20th century. I undertook to uncover their stories, determined first because inspired by feminist revelations, I myself was in search of women heroes, and second because I had had enough of anthropology’s imperialist claims of scientific impartiality. This meant my breaking from both traditional research methodologies and from academic writing conventions.

            I’d been a social anthropologist, (ethnographer, of the British School) relying on intensive interviews, and, as we claimed, ‘objective participation observation’. (Ethnography is in fact more akin to journalism than academics will acknowledge.)

            Since my subjects were no longer alive I could not apply face-to-face interviews or behavioral observation-- they were already becoming mythical characters-- and the few people alive who’d known them were quite elderly. Moreover, those leaders had been political activists at a time when criticism of Nepal’s monarch, its officials and the powerful Hindu priest class was prohibited; any resurgence of interest would be stifled for another decade after my arrival at the site of the early protests.

            Those women’s fantastic careers happened on the steamy shore of the roaring Arun Kola deep in the Himalayas. It was possible to imagine past glories there, however isolated and overlooked it now seemed. So I pressed on determinedly.

            I was dealing with individuals wildly unrepresentative of their culture. Both were outrageous, atypical characters. A sociological approach was out of the question. And, although the women died only four decades earlier, there was no written record I could find, not initially. My determination proved rewarding because at the time (1980-85) I was welcomed by a small community of ascetics, all women, who’d known both of those radicals. Now quite elderly, they felt impervious to any government retaliation for assisting me.

            These ladies enthusiastically spoke about Shakti Yogmaya and Durga Devi—the first a revolutionary, the second a reformer-- who they‘d once followed. Recluses, now in their 70s and 80s, they vividly remembered how fifty and sixty years earlier, they’d been filled with fervor and faith in social reform.

            Based on their accounts I managed two academic reports. But these stories needed a more creative approach and I began my first attempts at biography. I was aided by the contemporary Nepali poet Parijat who introduced me to the perilous political work she herself was engaged in. She and I worked on translating the provocative quadrants of the long dead Shakti Yogmaya which in turn initiated me into Nepal’s political history.

            Nepal was still a dictatorship in the 1980s and attention to events surrounding Yogmaya were risky. A known dissident across Nepal, Parijat was not to be intimidated and she encouraged me to persist.

            My book Heir to a Silent Song appeared 17 years ago, published in English in Nepal. That effort propelled me out of the academic world and set me on my career in journalism. Meanwhile more revelations about Yogmaya, the most radical woman who Nepal had ever produced, attracted a new generation of capable, dedicated Nepali scholars.

            Some historical characters, like this Nepali rebel of the early 20th century, are too wild and unwieldy for normal history to grasp. And today, we have a wonderful example of where literature can overtake and outshine scholarly efforts. Shakti Yogmaya, the subject of the eponymous novel published early this year, has just won The Madan Puraskar, Nepal’s most prestigious prize in literature. It’s authored by the US-based Nepali writer Neelam Niharika who writes in Nepali language and is already known for her ambitious historical novels.

            Of course I am thrilled that this novel builds on my and other scholars’ efforts starting almost forty years earlier. (It was a colleague of Niharika at Radio Nepal four years ago, who reading those histories, suggested she turn her creative energy to Yogmaya.)

            Niharika had no obligation to remain within the boundaries of our accounts. Yet, she undertook more research. In a recent conversation she explained how she interviewed whomever she could in the very hills where Yogmaya’s political campaign occurred almost a hundred years ago. Not herself from the Arun River valley region, Niharika launched a visit there to know more about where Yogmaya was born. (This, after she’d reached locals through social media and phone, to schedule onsite meetings.) The area is much changed but this novelist still conducted her own fieldwork, using modern communications to her advantage. Not only this; she made a video of her arrival in the area, its ecology, recording conversations with local notables of what they remembered of that history.

            The novel “Yogmaya” begins with an imaginary conversation between me and the novelist Parijat, thus emphasizing a line of women who helped shape Niharika’s own historical inquiry.

            “Yogamaya”’s recognition by the nation’s highest literary prize rewards not only a skilled young author. The subject itself—a local woman warrior—will gain wider traction, inspiring a following which no amount of scholarly articles might. At a time when Nepal is sodden with questionable gender development projects that dwell on the ‘poor and vulnerable victim’ and where many educated urban women, following western feminists, express hardly more than institutional sympathy for their ‘deprived’ rural sisters, this novel offers a fresh look at what a village woman can do.

             Perhaps anthropologists too may learn how to honor the natives they study with the creation of quality biographies they deserve.  

[ Literature Can Displace Anthropology-- A New Look ]


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