The Red and the Black, and the Red-and-Black Ant

From The Red and the Black by Stendahl:

A hunter fires a gun shot in the forest, his quarry falls, he hastens forward to seize it. His foot knocks against a two-foot anthill, knocks down the dwelling place of the ants, and scatters the ants and their eggs far and wide. The most philosophic among the ants will never be able to understand that black, gigantic and terrifying body, the hunter’s boot, which suddenly invaded their home with incredible rapidity, preceded by a frightful noise, and accompanied by flashes of reddish fire.

The protagonist of Stendahl’s 1830 novel The Red and the Black speaks these words aloud toward the end of the story. He’s learned that his attempt to inject himself into the upper strata of French society — using deceit, political maneuvering, and coattail relationships to try and hide his poor background — has led to failure and, worse, it’s turned him into a hypocritical, manipulated tool of the aristocracy. His social experiment didn’t end well, in other words; and he’s left with only those kicked-down, empty-husk feelings of being somebody else’s fool.

I read the novel back in the 1990s, when I had just started working toward a degree in philosophy (a degree I later converted to history), and remembered nearly three decades later that the book contained references to ants in a pivotal bit of dialogue. The original context of the quote is cultural, a statement of the character’s failed effort to penetrate the upper crust of a society entrenched in aristocratic concrete. The Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution, and capitalism are alleged to have swept all that concrete away, of course; but it may be more accurate to say that aristocracy has simply changed forms while using revised theories to explain itself. Unintentionally, I suspect, the quotation also expresses human anxieties about our relationship with nature, since we’ve barely progressed from acting as commanders and manipulators of nature to understanding our connections to a complex set of natural environments. Kicking out the ant’s nest — in a moment of indifference — may seem like a single, unsurprising, largely irrelevant act; but its implications (even as a social and cultural metaphor) are consequential. The natural environments we don’t understand and protect will eventually fail and take us down with them.

With the most recent weeks of head-spinning political news in the United States — which I’ve spent way too much distracted time trolling — it’s easy to overlook so many of the other stories that don’t get nearly enough attention, mostly because media coverage of the antics of our highly impeachable president and his cohorts drown them all out. Of interest here — because I like to puzzle about our place in the natural world — are the continued efforts by the current administration to roll back environmental regulations, reduce wildlife protections, and open public lands for private development. I found that the New York Times is tracking the rollback attempts — some successful, many legally challenged multiple times — here…

85 Environmental Rules Being Rolled Back Under Trump

… with links to background articles and frequently-updated information about the rollbacks. The New York Times page also references two other sites…

Harvard Law School’s Regulatory Rollback Tracker

Columbia Law School’s Climate Deregulation Tracker

… both of which provide a lot of detail on individual regulations and the impacts of reducing or eliminating them. I discovered these sites after reading about the administration’s challenge to California’s automobile emissions standards — which got me wondering what other climate and environmental regulations were being targeted for reversal. These sites are good ones to keep tabs on — because someday, somehow, someone will need to begin rolling back some of the rollbacks.

Ants, however, have their own less blatantly political concerns. Almost every late summer or early fall, I’ll see an entire colony relocating from one section of my garden to another. Most typically, the ants move from tunnels underneath a large pot or some barely visible spot in my English ivy to a location they consider more desirable. Earlier this year, I watched, fascinated, while hundreds of ants — most moving triple-file in one direction with many carrying their egg-luggage while a few sentries kept things under linear control — marched away from one side of the garden. They followed the outline of my brick courtyard, past stairs at the back door, along one of the hydrangea beds, up one side of a Japanese Maple, then down the other side of the same tree, to finally disappear beneath a thick section of ivy and into the ground.

Here are three photos of one of the ants, one that broke from the ant-pack and made its way out of the formation and up a wisteria vine:

I tried to find a music video to accompany the ant photos; you know, something like Flight of the Bumblebee, but more like March of the Ants. No luck, unfortunately; but I did find this one, a mesmerizing hour of ant motion and birdsong:


While searching YouTube, I came across this fine interpretation of the fifth movement of Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony, often referred to as the Pastoral Symphony. Beethoven wrote it as a nature study — not intending necessarily to imitate nature with music, but to express his feelings about nature in the framework of a symphony. The fifth movement follows evocation of a thunderstorm in the fourth movement, and musically represents the emergence of sunshine and peaceful feelings following the storm, combined with the appearance of birds and wildlife on the scene as clouds subsided. Even if you aren’t accustomed to listening to symphonies, give this bit a shot, and here are a few thoughts on enjoying it.

Regardless of your personal musical preferences, your appreciation of music relies, at least partly, on your memory of the melodies and how they evolve as the music progresses. For this piece, note how the melody changes at three minute-markers: 2:10, 4:00, and 7:30. Now listen again, but this time pay attention to how a few seconds of the preceding melody lead to these same three minute markers. On subsequent listenings, you can expand how much of the leading melodies you focus your attention on, resulting in a deeper understanding of what you just heard. Segregating bits of melody to hear how they relate to the rest of the performance becomes more automatic with practice, and can be swapped for following one or more instruments as their melodies travel through the piece — through a single movement, or even across the movements of an entire symphony.

I often use this trick to get accustomed to music I’m not familiar with, and it works equally well with symphonies, other forms of orchestral music, rock music, jazz, or any other kind. With vocal music — a song, a ballad, or an opera — the words tend to pull your mind forward through the music; the approach I describe here simply replaces the momentum you experience hearing the words of a ballad, for example, with focus on a snippet of melody or an instrument. The key to the trick is to let your mind latch onto something you can easily follow, then let your brain’s natural ability to organize concepts over time create an integrated musical experience.

Here is the piece:


Okay, now, just for fun, try this:

Start the first video of the birds and ants at a high volume; then start the video of the symphony — turning the volume down to about half. While playing both at the same time, you won’t hear the ant sounds that much, but — especially in softer moments of the symphony — the bird calls will come through clearly, and they’ll seem to line up with the symphony’s melodies. An audio illusion, possibly; or maybe a reflection of Beethoven’s genius: he constructed a series of melodies and rhythms that so accurately reflected an abstract feeling about nature, that they align indistinguishably with (what we think are random) natural sounds.

So … there you have it. In about a thousand words, we’ve traveled from 19th century literature, to a bit of environmentalism, to a poke at politics, to gardening and insect behavior, to classical music, then to (a version of) music appreciation. I think my work is done here for now, and autumn photo-blogging begins in earnest in a few days. Unlike last fall — when we were soaked by days of rain that quickly stripped away most of the fall color — the trees are full and only about 20% turned in my neighborhood, yet I already have about 500 photos (eeks!) to work through. Urban Atlanta has a reputation for its tree canopy (see Atlanta Tree Canopy by Trees Atlanta for a neat interactive tool), a nice sample of which you can see in this map image covering areas within walking distance of my house….

Imagine this neighborhood now, in the yellow, red, and golden orange colors of autumn!

I’m gonna need more film! πŸ™‚

Thanks for reading!

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Frank McCourt: “They thought I was teaching … I was learning.”

As he put it in β€œTeacher Man,” his third volume of autobiography:
Instead of teaching, I told stories.
Anything to keep them quiet and in their seats.
They thought I was teaching.
I thought I was teaching.
I was learning.

Good words to live by: teaching is learning.

Full story here on Frank McCourt’s teaching (and learning and writing) methods from the New York Times:

McCourt: A Storyteller Even as a Teacher

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Why We Study History

From one of the texts I am using for my Exploring Place: History class — A Place to Remember: Using History to Build Community by Robert R. Archibald — comes as clear an explanation of why we study history as I’ve ever come across:

[Memory] is an ongoing process through which we create usable narratives that explain the world in which we live, stories that inevitably connect us to each other, history that builds community. The community we create is founded in shared remembrance and grounded in place, especially those places that are conducive to the casual associations necessary for emergence of shared memory…. Places, memories, and stories are inextricably connected, and we cannot create a real community without these elements.

So there is a point to history, for history is a process of facilitating conversations in which we consider what we have done well, what we have done poorly, and how we can do better, conversations that are a prelude to action…. As we face the past, we are also facing the future. — pp. 24-25

Come to think of it, these are some of the reasons why we write (and write blogs!) too.

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On Learning

From Marshall McLuhan’s The Medium is the Massage:

We have now become aware of the possibility of arranging the entire human environment as a work of art, as a teaching machine designed to maximize perception and to make everyday learning a process of discovery.

I’m putting together resources for a research paper on the cultural and social impact of photography. McLuhan’s Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man is one of my sources, but I also picked upΒ The Medium is the Massage, because it looked interesting (and, for a change, SHORT).

McLuhan’s books are full of gems like this. I just started browsing through them and didn’t know what to expect when I started; but nearly every page strikes me in some way or another. This particular quote leads a short piece that expresses admiration for the potential of technology, but simultaneously contains the warning that we aren’t good at grasping the effects of technological transitions. We lock ourselves in psychological and intellectual straightjackets, McLuhan suggests, because “the interplay between the old and the new … creates many problems and confusions.” McLuhan’s remedy:

The main obstacle to a clear understanding of the effects of … new media is our deeply embedded habit of regarding all phenomena from a fixed point of view….

The method of our time is to use not a single but multiple models for exploration….

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A Non-Linear Coincidence

For my Science and Technology in Western Culture class, I’m reading Society and Technological Change by Rudi Volti. One of the assignments for the current module was to read Volti’s chapter on the development of printing technologies. Volti has a short discussion in this chapter on the psychological effects of printing; that is, on psychological changes that might have occurred as print technology improved and publishing began to flourish.

Volti briefly writes about Marshall McLuhan, and about some of McLuhan’s ideas on the fundamental social changes that occurred in conjunction with the expansion of print publishing and other media. Says Volti:

Some fascinating possibilities … have been suggested by Marshall McLuhan, for whom media such as print and television had consequences that far outweigh the overt messages they carry. Printed books fundamentally changed civilization not because of the information they transmitted; the greatest consequence of printing lay in the different modes of thought and perception that it fostered. In McLuhan’s analysis, each medium engenders a distinctive way of looking at the world; as his famous aphorism has it, “the medium is the message.” The reading of the printed word makes readers think in sequence, just as a sentence is sequentially read from left to right. – pg. 190

I’ve haven’t read much McLuhan, so I don’t really know how well this represents his views. But this is perhaps what Tim Lacy is asking about, in his post What is Linear Thinking?Β It would seem reasonable that McLuhan – or at least Volti in his interpretation of McLuhan – is highlighting a significant change in the technology of thought that came about in conjunction with the increased availability of the printed word. While I think there’s much to be said for this dramatic change in thought processes, I’m not convinced that linear thinking of this type adequately encompasses what happens in our minds when we read.

Obviously, we tend to read sequentially, at least in the sense that we typically read both books and other materials from beginning to end, and, further, we expect some logical relationship between the ideas presented at the beginning and those presented at the end. So the activity of reading does strike me as a linear process. However, reading and learning from what we read are two different things entirely. For sure, I can read something from the first page to the last page, absorbing what I read in the sequential order the author provides – but that isn’t necessarily how I learn from it. If the reading offers me anything at all, then the linear process combines with other mental processes where I make associations, form concepts, supplement prior knowledge, absorb and relate details to others I’m already aware of, and (hopefully!) emerge from the reading with either a more solid understanding of something I already know or at least a beginning understanding of something entirely new. Reading – at least reading to learn – is a much more iterative and hierarchical process than it is a sequential process. If this might be described as “non-linear thinking” (and I suppose it might), I would think that non-linear thinking is not the same as illogical thinking – since illogical thinking suggests an inability to build on prior knowledge when attempting to learn something new (or to think about anything else, for that matter).

Continuing the quotation above, Volti goes on to say:

Reading also produces an egocentric view of the world, for the reader’s involvement with the printed word is solitary and private. – pg. 190

This was actually the part that made me suspicious of the “linear thinking” statements about reading. While it is undoubtedly true that reading is a solitary and private activity, I don’t think that adequately describes the personal, cultural, or social significance of reading (or of writing, for that matter). As Benedict Anderson describes so well in Imagined Communities (I swear, I’ll be referring to that book for the rest of my life), one of the true revolutions that occurred through the explosion of printing was a new awareness among human beings of the simultaneous existence of other human beings. At minimum, my reading of a book implies an awareness of one other person – the book’s author – and in all likelihood embraces some sense that other people have read – have experienced – the book in ways similar to mine. If I spun that theory out to one other logical conclusion, I might even say that the reason so many people write, and so many more want to write, is that the sense of existing in a world simultaneously with other people has become an endemic part of the way modern men and women perceive (the significance of?) their existence.

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