Animals Like Us, Part II: Bonobo Handshake

I first heard about bonobos when Peter Gabriel started making music with them, to mild ridicule from his peers, back in the early aughts. Then they came up again in the book I read last year, Sex at Dawn by Ryan and Jethá. To me, they're by far the most fascinating (non-human) ape, so I'm always surprised at how many people have never heard of them. Vanessa Woods' 2010 book Bonobo Handshake has hopefully helped somewhat to remedy that.

If you know anything at all about bonobos, it's probably that they have a lot of sex. Sex with relatives, troupe-mates and strangers of every age and gender, in various positions (including missionary, which researchers once thought only humans were "advanced" enough to employ), and in all sorts of contexts. Sex is used to diffuse tense or exciting situations, to greet others, to ease anxiety, and to express affection. It comes as easy as a handshake, hence the title of the book.

All this sex has produced a remarkably egalitarian society. There are no lack of violent chimp stories, but you simply don't find the same among bonobos. Alliances of females, not alpha males, keep the peace. Woods tells of her unwitting role as a guest and researcher at the world's only bonobo sanctuary in the Congo in the midst of that country's endless string of gruesome wars and the bonobos dwindling population.

She makes frequent contrast between the bonobos and the chimps she had previously worked with, but the more searching and central question probes the human capacity for both aggression and empathy in light of the horrific stories of war she hears from the staff at Lola Ya Bonobo.

When we call someone an animal, we believe they're cruel and unfeeling and acting on baser impulses. But by this definition, humans are certainly more animal than bonobos. It's difficult to read the accounts of genocide, greed, global apathy and mass rape and that pepper Woods' account and not come out deeply ambivalent about human cooperation. One need not even look to a place like the Congo for distressing examples. Just last week, a woman jogging on the trail I frequently bike to work on was knocked unconscious and raped in the woods not two miles from my house.

Knowing the book was going to be about war and traumatized baby bonobo orphans, I hesitated to pick it up at first, but Woods' story is still upbeat and entertaining, especially when she describes the personalities and intriguing relationships of all the bonobos and staff at the sanctuary. Her message is also ultimately a hopeful one: bonobos are the living example that apes like us can live harmoniously.

Undoing a Dam

Stopped briefly at Thompson's Boat Center along the Capital Crescent Trail in Georgetown yesterday and admired the powerful, gushing waters of Rock Creek as it met the wide, still Potomac. I stood on a narrow wooden bridge, hypnotized by the strength of the creek as it churned over rocks. Three fisherman cast lines at the mouth. One reeled in a little fish--blue gill?--and tossed it back in. I used to know the names of these fish when I was younger.

It reminded me of this clip I'd see earlier of Condit Dam being removed from the White Salmon River in Washington state last autumn. The river wrestles out of its confinement and practically explodes with energy as the dam is destroyed. Powerful.

Environmental News Roundup: Turkey

The controversial Ilısu Dam, currently under construction.
(Photo: Brandon King)
"Rather than view nature as a pool of resources that exist to be used and exploited by humans, the IEC wants Turkey’s environment to be valued as its own subject, with its own set of “rights”. The group wants the constitutional changes to reflect the truth that the rest of human society is impossible without a healthily functioning ecosystem."   Will Turkey’s New Constitution Include Ecological Protections?

"The regulation, approved in late November by Ankara’s Biosecurity Committee and put into effect at the start of 2012, gives the green light to the importation and sale of 13 genetically modified varieties of corn for livestock feed, a sign to activists and biotech lobbyists alike that Turkey’s once bio-technologies adverse climate may be coming to an end."  Genetically modified corn regulation sows seeds of discontent

"The history of wheat goes back a long way in Anatolia -- 8,000 years or so. In fact, the area that is now Turkey is believed to have been where the grain was first domesticated and developed as a crop. Some modern varieties date back to those long-ago ancestors…"These 8,000 year-old varieties can be destroyed if GMOs are allowed in to Turkey," Defne Koryürek of Slow Food Istanbul told TreeHugger recently."  Celebrating Wheat's 8,000-Year-Old History in Turkey

"Turkey’s astonishing amount of biodiversity, especially for a temperate country of its size, is being destroyed rapidly, partially in the past decade during which “Turkey’s Great Leap Forward” has put the country at the risk of “cultural and environmental bankruptcy.”  Turkey’s Conservation Crisis: Global Biodiversity Hotspots Under Threat 

Vietnam, United Arab Emirates, Turkey, and others, are still intent on acquiring civilian nuclear reactors for electricity despite the Fukushima disaster."  Doomsday Clock Ticks Closer to Midnight

"The deputy undersecretary for the Ministry of Environment and Forestry, Sedat Kadıoğlu, evaluated the matter and said, “Turkey is the only member country of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) that doesn’t have a nuclear plant and so we have to explain the details of nuclear power to the public in order to prevent information pollution."  Turkey surprises Russian nuclear firm with new conditions

 "Given the magnitude of the Caspian's oil and gas reserves, many energy firms are planning new production operations in the region, along with the pipelines needed to bring the oil and gas to market. The European Union, for example, hopes to build a new natural gas pipeline called Nabucco from Azerbaijan through Turkey to Austria. Russia has proposed a competing conduit called South Stream. All of these efforts involve the geopolitical interests of major powers, ensuring that the Caspian region will remain a potential source of international crisis and conflict."  Fuel duel: Top three energy conflict hot spots

 "Turkish hydro projects along the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, for example, have dried up large swathes of former marshland in Iraq and Syria as well as dams that desert communities rely on, forcing entire communities to resettle and severely affecting local plant and animal life. Sadly, the UN report seems to have changed little about Turkey’s hydroelectric plans."  Hydroelectric Dam In Turkey May Cause Environmental Catastrophe In Georgia 

"Turkey, through its own means and domestic resources, has reduced its GHG emissions by 20 percent since 1990,” Rende said of Turkey’s progress on the road to drastic reduction in the emissions of GHG, concentrations of which in the atmosphere are believed to be the main trigger of temperature increase on earth. On the other hand, Rende noted, Turkey has also invested $2 billion in forestry over the past few years, and the positive effects of that are not included in the country’s GHG reduction statistics."  Climate negotiator Rende: Turkey ready to do its part on climate change

"The proposed 1,200 MW coal plant is among the first of over 50 coal plants now being pushed in Turkey. It’s already been a 3 year struggle for heroic local residents to block the project. This year they’ve been camping by the hundreds and protesting by the thousands for weeks and months on end. When over 10,000 people took to the streets together in November, one sign in particular caught my eye. It read: "the people of Gerze do not stand alone.""  Support Turkey Climate Activists Fighting Huge Coal Power Plant

"Greece reaffirmed its support for the Turkey-Greece-Italy (ITGI) natural gas pipeline in a joint announcement issued on Friday by the Greek ministries of foreign affairs and environment, energy and climate change. The announcement, as ANA reported, was made in view of decisions due to be made concerning the pipeline that will supply natural gas from Azerbaijan's Shah Deniz gas field." - Energy: Greece reaffirms support for ITGI gas pipeline

"Groups such as the Istanbul Chamber of Urban Planners argue that previous bridges have eventually increased traffic and boosted the city’s urban sprawl – and that the third bridge would endanger the city’s natural habitat, notably the Belgrade Forest to its north."  Turkey: building bridges regardless

"German utility E.ON wants to invest in the energy sector in Turkey, with a particular focus on power generation, and is seeking Turkish partners."  E.ON considering Turkey investment – minister

Quote of the Day: Emily White

"E.O. Wilson... has described ours as the “Age of Loneliness." He's not speaking metaphorically. He means that, as we continue to let species perish, we're inevitably going to feel more isolated and bereft in the world they've left behind. With loneliness conceptualized in this reasonable way--as a state that reflects, at least in part, our ties to the world around us--it's impossible to think that the extinction rate can climb upward while the loneliness rate remains unchanged. Environmental losses will translate into personally felt absences. What's different about environmental loss is its quiet nature. There's no one storming out, no one slamming a door or leaving a hastily written note. Rather, extinction is a gradual, perpetual, and silent good-bye." - Emily White, Lonely: Learning to Live With Solitude

A Short Pictorial History of the Human Chain

This Sunday, I'll be heading back to the White House for the next big demonstration with Tar Sands Action calling on Obama to deny the Keystone XL pipeline permit - you know, just in case he didn't get the message the first time around. They're planning to put a human chain around the White House this time (Update: check out photos from the event here and my reflections afterward here). Seems like a good opportunity to visit some notable human chains of recent memory:

One of the largest human chains ever recorded, the "Baltic Way" called for the end of Soviet rule in the Baltic states in August 1989. The chain was over three countries, 600 kilometers and two million people long and foreshadowed the region's eventual independence two years later. Recent echos of this have been felt in the country of Georgia where residents formed a chain of about a million people to protest Russia's attempt to split the country in two.

The Dongria Kondh tribe of Orissa, India were joined by thousands of supporters in 2009 to protest the destruction of their sacred mountain, Niyamgiri, by British mining company Vendata. A documentary on the tribe's continued activism against the bauxite mine has just been released. If you're a fan of human chains, India's definitely your place: school students and others routinely join hands about everything from air pollution and polythene bags to water conservation and industrial pollution in rivers. And that's just the environmental stuff.

Residents of Okinawa have held multiple protests against Futenma, a US Marine base on the Japanese island. Human chains comprised of tens of thousands have been held in 1995, 1998, 2003, 2005 and 2010. That later one brought 17,000 people out. One of many complaints residents have against the base is the pollution caused by air traffic. Protesters made another human chain around a US military base in Guam in 2010 when the Marines suggested turning a historically and biologically significant site - Pagat - into a firing range and training area.

About 5000 people showed up at Nairobi National Park in Kenya in June 2010 to advocate for the park's protection from human impacts like water pollution, trash, land grabbing and encroaching settlements. The organization, called Nairobi Greenline, is also planning to plant nearly a million native trees around the park.

After the Fukushima crisis in March 2011, 40,000 Germans turned out in force to protest nuclear energy, creating a chain nearly 50 kilometers long (seen here at a nuclear power plant in Neckarswestheim). The message must have struck a chord because the German government decided to phase out nuclear power months later (for an interesting contrast, check out this human chain in support of nuclear energy in Iran in 2006 - state approved, of course). Similar protests have been held in France, where nuclear power makes up the bulk of the country's energy supply.

Nearly 1000 people - including many adorable children - participated in a 2 kilometer-long human chain ("No hay dignidad sin Justicia" - There is no Dignity without Justice) in San Salvador this July to call attention to the poverty and poor housing conditions faced by many in the city. Here's a video.

Here's another list that focuses less on environmental issues.

Q&A with Landscape Architecture Graduate Lacey Doucet

So many of the people I met in my college years have gone onto do really interesting things in the environmental field. As a fellow "humanities" environmentalist (we were the ones painting and writing nature while the scientists that made up the bulk of our environmental institute were pulling critters from rivers and looking through microscopes), I was always intrigued by what Lacey was up to. Lacey has lived her long-standing passion for environmentalism and design by working with several advocacy and conservation organizations and earning an MLA in Landscape Architecture (LA) from the University of Minnesota. She took time to reflect on her career, Minnesota's special place in her heart and inspiration she's found from others in the field.

How have your interests evolved over your career?
No matter how my interests have shifted here and there throughout my career (and will no doubt continue to shift as I learn more about the world around me), I’ve always had equal passions for art and design, and for protecting and enhancing the environment. These dual interests have been my compass and center, guiding me from place to place. Right out of undergrad at Albion College I worked with Clean Water Action to raise awareness and connect people to their environments though education and political action. I continued this track with the Ecology Center, where I worked to empower local community members and groups to reduce waste and bring more sustainable living principles into their lives.

As I was doing this kind of work though, I started paying more attention not just to how people were living, but where they were living, and how the very layout and design of a community greatly effects how people are able to live, their choices, and their quality of life. This train of inquiry, and a desire to pursue further education, led me first to look into urban planning, then ultimately landscape architecture for graduate school. Landscape architecture as a field is a kind of perfect marriage between art and design, science, environmental and political issues, and community outreach, depending on your specific job, so it really couldn’t have been a better career path for me once I learned of it.

What fundamental lessons have you learned from working on environmental issues in the past decade?
I think one of the biggest take-away lessons I’ve learned from working as a canvasser, an environmental advocate and educator, as well as a as a design student and citizen, is that you have to meet people where they are in order to enact real chance. Really listening to people with different voices and experiences from yours, and being understanding and empathetic of their life experience and where they’re coming from is crucial when working to improve the environment and creating lasting solutions that everyone has a stake in. It is not good enough to take a page from the partisan playbook that seems to be prevalent in our country’s politics over the past few years, that whoever screams the loudest over and over again will be heard, understood, and get their way. In listening to all parties with honest and open ears, and working together with them on the same ground, you will not only glean insight into why they may behave the way they do towards the environment or environmental issues, you may also figure out more productive ways of fostering positive environmental behaviors in that particular community or place or person.

What inspired your interest in landscape architecture?
Initially, it was canvassing for Clean Water Action that started to get me thinking about the ways communities were laid out and designed. We would drive from our office to the northern suburbs and exurbs of metro Detroit with its row after row of identical subdivisions, no sidewalks, no native plants or natural areas, and no way to effectively walk or bike anywhere. The layout of these places would weigh on me, particularly thinking about how youth were able (or not able) to interact with and learn from their environment or gain any sense of independence through mobility. When there was nowhere to walk or bike to, no infrastructure to encourage walking or biking, and no proximity to places of interest, their school, or natural areas, how would they be able to participate independently in the world around them, separate from a car?

I grew up in an older suburb closer to Detroit, where there was at least some opportunity to walk and bike on my own to a walkable downtown area, where I could participate in the local economy and community, and explore where I lived. More and more I felt like the design of our communities, of our cities, was really at the heart of shaping our values, our way of life, and our quality of life. So this train of thought initially led me to urban planning as a potential discipline, but there didn’t seem to be enough actual artistic design involved for me. Landscape architecture transforms the needs and hopes of people with research, science, and artistic inspiration into reality, by bringing a vision all the way from idea stage to actual, physical completion of a space or community. That seems like a very powerful way to enact positive change and connect people with the world around them, and I wanted to be a part of that.

How do you see LA fitting into the wider environmental movement?
Click for ASLA Case Studies
Landscape architecture is really an amazing and empowering field, in that it has the power to transform an environment for the better. Whether that’s ecological restoration and reclamation, alternative transportation design, green roofs, creating urban parks and schoolyards with agricultural and learning components, or neighborhoods with comprehensive greenway and pedestrian components, you can work with a community or client to meet their needs, to design aesthetically inspiring spaces, and ultimately improve the quality of life for people, animals, and the environment itself. Because there are so many different sub-fields within landscape architecture, every one of our most pressing environmental and health issues, from climate change due to car dependence, natural disasters made worse from the poor placement and management of communities, waterways, and shorelines, pollution from factory farming, obesity and rampant health problems from lack of physical mobility, urban sprawl, and loss of habitat, all can be solved through good design.

What was your masters project on and what did you do/discover?
My capstone project focused on whether existing urban and suburban schools can be retrofitted to foster connects between children, curriculum, natural systems, and the surrounding community. Based on research of childhood affordance theory, experiential learning, and “nature-deficient disorder” (coined by Richard Louv in his book Last Child in the Woods), I sought to enhance student learning experiences outdoors by bringing elements into the landscape that would allow for complex, creative, nature-based learning. The site I was working with had multiple schools, a community education center, and many well-used athletic spaces, but it lacked un-programmed, natural, or more complex spaces for students to learn and play in.

One of the highlights of my design included an interpretative, edible forest trail. I wanted to use the idea of path as a unifying element that could provide adventure, discovery, and storytelling through movement. I was fortunate to discover, while observing how people moved throughout the site, that students would forge "cowpaths" through one of the more topographically interesting parts of the site, where there were no designated paved sidewalks. I used these cowpaths as a template for a unifying interpretive edible forest trail, which reintroduced native vegetation that has been historically used for edible, medicinal, and cultural uses in Minnesota and the Upper Midwest. Now students, whether by themselves or with a class, could learn about native plants, where certain types of foods come from, the historical and cultural importance of humans’ relationships to such plants, and to flesh out their personal relationship to the environment.

Whose work are you inspired by?
Stoss Landscape Urbanism's "SafeZone Playground"
Stoss Landscape Urbanism’s “SafeZone Playground” inspired and influenced a playscape within my capstone design. The work was a temporary garden installation that executed the idea of “third nature”, or a non-traditional combination of the man-made and the natural to create a new form of the traditional “pleasure ground” parks and play spaces of the past. They achieved this innovation by taking mundane rubber materials usually made for averting dangerous situations (athletic floor mats, goal post bumpers), and reformed them to create a flowing, organic, colorful rubber topography beneath beneath a stand of conifers.

I’m also incredibly inspired by Jones and Jones, an amazing LA firm in Seattle. They are one of the top zoological design firms in the world, and were forerunners of the modern zoo design principles that are used today. Their broader work consists of elegant solutions for environmental reclamation, non-motorized transportation trail designs, conservation-based development, environmentally and culturally-focused education centers, and habitat and wildlife conservation. I deeply admire their commitment to design that preserves ecological and cultural integrity, and that encourages others to learn from and connect with the world around them.

What's your favorite book on LA and why?
A book I’ve found to be really useful in terms of producing images for designs has been Digital Drawing for Landscape Architecture by Bradley Cantrell and Wes Michaels. It contains lots of helpful tips and methods for creating great layouts, combining analog and digital media to produce rich perspectives, sections, and master plan drawings, and how to create desired visual effects with different types of design software programs. Since so much of what we do is about communicating an effective and evocative message visually, it is important to learn new tips and tricks for creating better imagery.

While not strictly about landscape architecture, I also really enjoyed Last Child in the Woods by Richard Louv. It was not only an inspiration for my capstone, but serves as a reminder of how important it is for everyone to connect with the natural world on a daily basis, no matter how small that connection may be. This and his newer book, The Nature Principle, make a great case for connecting to nature through our designed environments, and serve as a call to action for looking at more creative ways of fostering such connections.

What's your favorite natural spot in Minneapolis?
Cedar Lake in the 1890s
That’s a hard thing to pick, but these days it would have to be Cedar Lake. Minneapolis has the great fortune to have had really forward-thinking planners, landscape architects, and advocates that preserved land as the city was developing and growing, based upon the ideal that people of all kinds and creeds deserve qualitative, restorative natural spaces within the very heart of a city. As a result, more than 100 years later, we still have a world-class urban park system centered around the “Grand Rounds”, a system of linear parks and trails that encompasses parts of the Mississippi River, a chain of five lakes, a waterfall, creeks, and numerous parks and natural spaces. Cedar Lake is one of the “Chain of Lakes”, and is a one of the more secluded, natural-looking lakes. From my house I can ride my bike a couple miles, completely on bike-only trails to get there to swim, lay on a beach, canoe, wander wooded trails, and watch for loons, all within sight of the city’s downtown skyline. Just north of lake is a bike and pedestrian-only trail that runs through a beautiful restored tall grass prairie, right into the heart of downtown, and connects up with the Mississippi River. Even after living here for three years, I am still astounded on a daily basis by how lucky I am to live in a city with such amazing access to natural areas.

What are you up to these days?
As a recent graduate in a still down economy, I am searching for that first full-time, career-path position, either in a private firm, a non-profit, or a municipality. I am keeping busy with a couple part-time jobs as I look: one working with the Minneapolis Parks and Recreation Board as a horticulture intern at a historic wildflower natural preserve, and one as a map-making assistant with Hedburg Maps, a small company in Minneapolis that designs maps of all kinds both for local and national clients. Recently I’ve become involved in a new, local “Women in Landscape Architecture” professional group, whose focus is on creating connections, mentoring, and supporting women in the field. I also spend a lot of time exploring the city, metro, and state by bicycle with my husband.