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Swimming in Complexities: Brazil/Argentina Trip Reflections

Chapter 10 (end) on Brazil/Argentina trip July 2022

My website is called "Cerebrate Nature" because part of what I want to do in my remaining years is to think, philosophically and experientially, about this bio-logical life in which we are enmeshed. This will be my project for writing, and reflecting, starting now and intensifying once all of my history projects are complete and published.

Thus, my reflections on this trip are a preliminary approach to documenting my travels. I came up with a three-folded approach, at least for now. I want to be writing in such a way that 1) my fellow participants can recognize and draw on what I convey for their own recollections (i.e. I was honest in what I said, and it forms a narrative that matches the cohesiveness of the trip), while I also 2) provide some sense of my own objective progress in terms of learning by looking at my entries on iNaturalist, species seen, etc., while 3) cerebrating deeply on what it all means, multidimensionally. Thus these reflections will be subdivided into 1) People; 2) Statistics; and 3) Philosophic Reflections.

1. People

Peggy and I had a splendid trip to Brazil and Argentina with WINGS and Rich Hoyer, and enjoyed making new friends on the tour. Nothing went spectacularly wrong logistically - all problems, even Frank's reaction to the Fire Ants, resolved into solvable episodes-cum-anecdotes. As I've been putting these blog pages together, my respect for Rich's talents, planning, and know-how has increased by the day - and it was already sky-high before we even went on the tour. I swear the man knows so many scientific names that he could list Latin as a language in which he is fluent! His all-around naturalist skills would be intimidating if he wasn't so forthcoming. When Quillen joined us in

Argentina, and we had two such leaders, I was like a kernel in a popcorn kettle - Pop! a bird over here! Pop! a flower over here! Pop! seven species of butterflies here! It was dizzying just turning around with sufficient speed to take it all in.

I will remain forever grateful for all that Rich and Quillen did as guides, as well as the boatmen and other experts who helped us along the way.

Each participant on the trip was, as would be expected, their own individual being, with distinct personality traits, life experiences, and birding know-how. What I liked best, upon reflection, was how each person, regardless of age, had self-knowledge strong enough to be comfortable in who they were. I didn't feel that we were dealing often with other people's mishigas per se. In other words, their quirks were manageable, even endearing at times - and I hope mine were for them as well! And we had fun conversations. Rich imposed a lightly-enforced ban on discussing politics and religion (what else is there to talk about then???), but it wasn't really necessary. We were pretty much all on the same page about those subjects (and I have professional competence in them!).

Peggy and I felt quite close to each other throughout the trip. It was great for us as a couple, reaffirming some things we've learned through the most isolated COVIDian times, but here applied in a happier setting.

This was a focused BIRDING trip. We didn't really get much of a chance to interact with Brazilian or Argentinian people socially, or explore cities and culture. The few times when there were opportunities to do so, I was frankly too exhausted and overwhelmed to take full advantage. But my conversations with Lucas really helped me, as well as what I could manage to communicate with some of the staff at the lodges, our drivers, etc. Each tour is organized differently, but I think that Peggy and I might consider doing as our co-participant Jan did on this trip: arriving a few days early and/or staying a few days on our own at the end.

The latter is likely preferable, since one would be somewhat accustomed to new foods, and be a tad birded-out (if such a thing is possible). We shall see. Our cats implicitly and explicitly disapprove. Lyssa is here saying "Worship of deities is best done at close range. I have the claws to enforce this."


2. Empirical Analysis

One of my favorite books about our current era is the optimistic-internet-philosopher David Weinberger's Everything is Miscellaneous: The Power of the New Digital Disorder (2007).

The community-science projects in which I am so deeply engaged - like eBird, iNaturalist, and the BioBlitz movement - are examples of what Weinberger calls the Third Order of Arranging Information. The First Order is when you just have "the stuff" - like a random pile of trip reports or photos. The Second Order typifies the curation that comes in when experts serve as funnel points for the information - think librarians, archivists, museums, scientists, academics, research institutes, etc. These gate-keepers both sort and control access to the stuff. This control of access is not by itself sinister or evil; it was (and in many cases still is) absolutely necessary. But that same necessity makes it very risky. Consider the great human tragedies of wanton knowledge destruction: the numerous sackings of the Library of Alexandria (and the murder of Hypatia), the siege of Baghdad, the destruction of Aztec codices by the Spanish, the Nazi torching of Magnus Hirschfeld's LGBT library, and the murder of Archeologist Khaled al-Asaad of Palmyra by ISIS - to name just a few.

Rachel Weisz as Hypatia in the film Agora (2009) during the attack on the Library of Alexandria. When this film was released, its creators indicated that it was a cautionary tale about where we were headed. I wish they'd been wrong about that. But they weren't.

The risks inherent in The Second Order are greatly reduced by the mass diffusion of information in our now Third Order. The Third Order facilitates all manner of things being digitized. This not only diffuses information, but also opens up access beyond Second Order gatekeepers. We are living in an age of democratization, and therefore “everything touching knowledge and everything knowledge touches is being transformed” (200).

Community science projects on the internet participate in what Weinberger analyzes as a conversation that

becomes part of a lively, significant, public digital knowledge—rather than chatting for one moment with a small group of friends and colleagues, every person potentially has access to a global audience. Taken together, that conversation also creates a mode of knowing we’ve never had before. Like subjectivity, it is rooted in individual standpoints and passions, which endows the bits with authenticity. But at the same time, these diverse viewpoints help us get past the biases of individuals....There has always been a plenitude of personal points of view in our world. Now, though, those POVs are talking with one another, and we can not only listen, we can participate (146-147).

I have watched this process evolve over identifications on iNaturalist, and disputed numbers or locations on eBird. The community can work together towards clarity and precision. In that dynamic process there is a palpable increase in ideas about the observation in question. It is an advanced seminar on whatever you are identifying, available 24/7 in perpetuity. It makes me giddy, because “our task becomes less to discover the one thing that something is than to see what it sort-of, kind-of, 73 percent is. The task of knowing is no longer to see the simple. It is to swim in the complex” (198). Indeed, ambiguity is part of the result.

"Swimming in the complex" can be invigorating, and make us more tolerant of diversity in all dimensions - human as well as natural. Of course, one has to invite, embrace, and desire the complex, the 73%, the ambiguity (that Gloria Anzaldúa had predicted would mark the New Mestiza, Borderlands/La frontera, p. 79). Those who seek a simple world of binaries in thought aren't going to enjoy the swim.

A Greater Moon Jelly (Aurelia labiata)

Ultimately, sharing everything you know and do - which is part of what I am trying to achieve on this website and with this blog - is a 21st century approach. Weinberger states this quite succinctly:

It’s not what you know, and it’s not even who you know. It’s how much knowledge you give away. Hoarding knowledge diminishes your power because it diminishes your presence. (230, emphasis mine).

Withholding your views, withholding information you have, choosing to not be transparent - these are now both self-disempowering and socially selfish behaviors.

With my students, especially in a field of study like Comparative Religion or the Humanities Honors sequence in which I taught, I would say "With this knowledge, you have become part of the Great Conversation about ideas having to do with the meaning, purpose, origin, and fate of humankind. Because even if 100% of the religions are wrong, they asked important questions. Now you can be a responsible participant in discussing those ideas."

Raphael, The School of Athens (1509-1511). It needs massive revising for global diversity, but I still like it

Similarly, when we see what we do in the natural world (or in politics, or in our social lives with human beings), to not share yourself openly is to absent yourself from the conversation. This means that keeping your photos and trip lists in old shoeboxes is selfish and anti-social in the 21st century. Such a course might have been a wise decision in the 20th century. Hoarding knowledge was a good way to protect it then. It is now so fraught with risk of being lost, when it need not be, that a few years ago I offered to upload old lists to eBird for birders who didn't have the time, know-how, or inclination to do so themselves (an offer I am still willing to make).

So here, then, are some numbers from this trip, concerning what I uploaded to iNaturalist

2,114 observations of 859 species (across all taxa)

372 species of birds

243 species of insects

158 species of plants

33 species of fungi

20 species of mammals

12 species of reptiles

4 species of amphibians - 4 species of fish - 4 species of mollusks

plus a few uncategorized ones

a piece of my iNat observations from July 21, 2022

These are good numbers, for sure - and most of those species were new to me, as previously discussed. But the most impressive statistic of all is not my accomplishment. It is the number of people who have identified my sightings. The iNaturalist community in Brazil is small, though expanding. But despite that, TWO-HUNDRED THIRTY-FOUR people so far have identified my sightings - either by confirming my identifications, or correcting them, or suggesting changes and refinements. That's 234 people, of whom I personally know fewer than I can count on the fingers of my hands. That's the power of our era, and of community science. There is no way I could have come to know over 200 naturalists while on this trip - we were on a tour, with a schedule, and a lot of ground to cover. And yet, now I have met them. And they have met me, at some level.

Some of these people are deeply appreciative of my contributions. One commentator noted that the observation of a Neotropical Stick Grasshopper (Proscopiidae) in the mouth of a Short-crested Flycatcher (Myiarchus ferox), was "a super important record of one of the rare ecological interactions that occur with them; very cool!" Others were more curt, business-like, or made the usual complaint/comments about my photos being less-than-ideal. But ultimately, it was a remarkable effort by hundreds of people with some blend of curiosity, knowledge, and time, who have now participated in my trip too. And it is not over yet. It can keep going on and on and on. It is not limited by time, not even a lifetime.

Political aside: Yes, we know now that this democratization of access to knowledge has also led to an ugly populism that hovers in an unstable wobbly orbit around the meta-availability of misinformation and self-serving opportunistic lies. In Weinberger's defense, that was a lot less clear as a possible trajectory of the web in 2007 than it is now). I also don't believe that it is permanent - if we survive the present moment. Weinberger's internet-optimism, though, is a necessary counter to the constant whining drone of internet skeptics and pessimists, who, while using the very tools they denigrate, seem ill-disposed to imagine what is new in our unprecedented communication situation. To me, that brand of negativity is best as a cautionary nudge than as a set direction. Hence what I appreciate in Weinberger.

3. Philosophy

A few years before he became stricken with the cancer that took him from the world too soon, my friend B.J. Stacey (1970-2022) said to me that he was puzzled by one of the big questions - the kind that vexes the minds of great thinkers in all religious and philosophic systems. He said to me, "Look around at all the animals and plants we study. They all have a biological niche; a specific purpose. Except for us humans. What is our purpose?"

Now I know we can all imagine a myriad of sarcastic, cynical, nihilistic, self-hating, misanthropic answers to that. My friends - and, I presume, any future readers - are clever beings. But one-liner retorts don't answer the question. They merely deflect it. Likewise, there are those who will think, because of their religious or philosophic systems, that the answer to this question is knowable in a finite sense, much as mathematical facts are knowable. But such ready-made answers don't work in the welter of ever-expanding information and perspectives in which we live. So neither clever cynicism, nor pat systems, will work. I knew when B.J. asked me this, that he really meant the question in earnest. I do not mean a humorless earnestness, as I will explain below. But I share what I felt was BJ's sincerity that day - a sense that this really was an important question, deserving of ongoing and deep thought, in both joy and sorrow. I've thought a lot about it since he posed that open-ended rhetorical question.

Given what I teach, people often ask me what my "beliefs" are. The long answer, which I hope to articulate in this blog and my future writings, is that I am an Anti-Racist, Trans-Inclusive Lesbian-Feminist, Marxist-Humanist, Neo-neo-Platonist Immanentalist Monist and Pluralist, a Birdwatcher, budding Lichenologist and Philosopher-with-Music (tinctured with Bergsonian Dynamism, albeit tempered by Nag-Gnosticism).

The short answer, given in terms that don't themselves need explication, is as follows: Whether there is some larger frame of meaning in the universe (e.g. deities or the Force) or whether it is all just a chemical accident that we have life and consciousness, doesn't matter. It doesn't matter because, in either case, I surmise we human beings are meant to be ATTENTIVE. If there is a larger frame, it makes no sense that we humans would be put here in this beautiful, complex life system by whatever is in charge, in order to ignore it, or exploit it, or escape it. Especially when we have the ability to understand it, slowly, bit by bit. Likewise, if there is no external cosmological frame of meaning, then what we have in our human culture constitutes an act of great cooperative creativity - and our innate ability to do this points to it providing a significant sense of purpose for humankind across myriad human cultures.

The older I get, and the more that I study and teach about world cultures, the more awed I am by the accumulation and transmission of human knowledge (by which I mean everything from empirical data to emotional intelligence, embodied knowledge like how to swim or how to be courageous, progressive knowledge like mathematics and the tools of war). It is an immense ongoing project, a veritable sea of complexity - in which we all swim. All of it has been preserved by forms of attention. So my starting point, for answering BJ's question about the function of human beings, is that we should shower attention on where we are, right now. Be attentive to the people around us (all of them), attentive to the beings around us (all of them), attentive to our surroundings (all of it).

Being attentive to each other and other beings and things around us is what we humans do, an innate capacity of our proportionately out-sized brain. It's what we do!

Now those who know me know I don't mean this attentiveness in a simply solemn way. Noticing things that are odd coincidences, that make us laugh, that bring delight, even goofiness - that's part of attentiveness too. The ability to laugh is not solely a human characteristic, but it is a human universal. Meaning-making has its quirky dimension. And knowledge expansion happens serendipitously.

Thus, while it might not seem relevant, I need to take a moment to discuss B.J., because he was constantly in my mind while I was in Brazil and Argentina.

I met BJ on a San Diego pelagic, in February of 2010. He seemed at first impression like a good ol' southern boy, but once he started talking with me - wow! A very warm and big-hearted person was revealed! I invited him to go birding with me while I was in San Diego, and he took me up on that. As soon as we discovered our mutual love of Diet Coke, and our penchant for birding non-stop, and eBirding, he became my brother-from-a-different-mother.

Then came the genuine expansion of community science for us as friends. The big moment for iNat happened on a weekend trip with some members of Queer Birders of North America in October of 2012. A bunch of us wanted to seek out the Harris Hawk in Jacumba. My wife Peggy and I were already staying with BJ and his wife Michaeleen. By then, I was deeply into iNaturalist, having joined two months previous. With the zeal of a new convert, I went on and on about the advantages of this new platform. Then there was my own excitement - now that I was on a trip to an area distant from home, I was ready to see everything with new eyes - the plants, bugs, butterflies, and other things I could now catalog. Apparently, despite my relative amateurishness at it, BJ was convinced.

Later on the Jacumba day, we were all hanging out by the cars near the Salton Sea. We were scanning madly, except for BJ, who was minding something on his phone. In his nonchalant manner, he got our attention when he looked up and said "Blue-footed Booby," and had the wherewithal to snap the picture. I can't remember for sure, but I think I said something like "That'd be a great iNat entry." You can now see that entry here on iNaturalist, because four days later, on October 11, 2012, BJ joined iNaturalist.

Somehow, I had the foresight to take a picture (albeit a poor one) of that moment, October 7, 2012, at the Salton Sea. Everyone in this picture is a dear friend. All are still here, except for BJ, one of the youngest. From left to right, Olaf Soltau, Matt Hale, BJ Stacey (in the back), Peggy, Christine Williamson, Doug Santoni (by the car), Michael Retter.

If I never do anything else for the environment, bringing BJ Stacey to iNaturalist would stand as a major contribution - and I mean that. He quickly surpassed me in everything - species, observations, but none of that matters compared to the greatest things of all - curiosity and scope of knowledge. He astounded me in so many ways. He ended up teaching me so much about how to get the most out of iNaturalist. The man has a species of millipede named after him - his proudest achievement - Amplaria staceyi. Here he is, observing the mega-rarity Common Cuckoo in Watsonville in 2012.

<-- Michaeleen, BJ, and me, in 2016

So while I was swimming amidst all the complexity I was seeing in South America, the loss of BJ haunted me. I so wanted him to have had the opportunity I was having, to be in an immersive new environment, day-after-day, because he had lived that philosophy of constant attention - and generously shared that attention (notice all the people who thank him for his gentle manner of teaching and conveying knowledge in this memoriam page on iNat). Because he was gone, and because I now had this opportunity, it imposed on me a sense to live up to his example, to try and gain the focus and breadth that he had.

And his presence with me on this trip was not merely my mourning/celebration of his life. It was also because thinking about BJ, keeping him in my mind, enabled me to address his question, of what niche we humans might occupy. I knew, while on this trip, that staying engaged was the way to take advantage of this life, to fulfill our purpose. Hence while I mourn BJ, I am at peace knowing he did what he could for as long as he did, to be human.

One of my all time favorite quotes comes from Adorno. I have used it in many talks, illustrating it with this poignant picture from James Tanner's work with the doomed Ivory-billed Woodpecker.

DIfferentiation without domination. We recognize difference, and, in the absence of domination, we see the autonomy that comes with difference. We can do more, though, than just celebrate difference. Such celebration is mere quantification. The participation in each other - not just with each other - implies qualities that include but also exceed com-passion (suffering with, etymologically, but in common language meaning to "have sympathy and concern with the sufferings of another") to active participation in the lives of others (both suffering and joy, since "participation" comes etymologically from "partaking" and, unlike "compassion" its roots are neutral as to the positive and negative qualities of that which is being partaken). Participation means "sharing," and most often not merely the sharing of something ephemeral, like a bag of chips (it is rather pompous to say "we participated together in devouring the bag of Cheeze-Its"). It is more common to use "participation" in terms of activities like a game, contest, project, creative venture, construction, and so forth. Participation, in other words, has an ongoing dimension over time, and/or points to a deep engagement of one's whole person. So to return to the Adorno quote, the differentiated participating in one another, for me undergirds my human politics - especially in being an ally, as an anti-racist person, in the struggles of the groups that I am not a part of, and my embrace of those with whom I do share identities even when we differ. Participation is not always easy, even when domination is eschewed: conflicts will and do arise. But that's for a different blog post.

Adorno's maxim, though, equally undergirds my philosophy in and with nature. One of the ironic gifts of iNaturalist is how I almost instantly conquered my previous fears of insects and spiders. I love them now! This is because I can do the human/humane thing and give them attention, to bring them into my world by learning their names and functions, by using the outsized human brain to understand them within my terms, but never to abandon the fact of difference, to judge them in a way that would exclude them from the world we mutually occupy. I can have the compassion to rue the destruction of the earth and atmosphere that we share, but I can also share in their joys and quirks.

In August of 2021, with less than a year to live, B.J. took a sequence of photos of a spider in the genus Phidippus - a type of Jumping Spider (Salticidae). These spiders are among the most confiding arthropods in the world, and often give the impression of being interested in looking at humans looking at them! They have become small-time famous, even sporting their own Facebook page with 79.3K members! But rather than worry about sentimentalizing or anthropomorphizing, I am concerned with how to get people to recognize difference, eschew domination, and participate with that which is different. And so we can, through the community-science he embodied, re-experience this moment that BJ had, at his home, with this spider that stared back at him:

All Jumping Spiders have four sets of eyes. They are always participating in multiple locations that they can see with this form of vision. Frankly, BJ seemed to have more than two eyes himself - the camera was like a third eye, or maybe an exponential intensification of the two he had.

I don't think that BJ and I ever talked about Jumping Spiders. But I had an encounter with a different species of Jumping Spider while in Argentina, that brought out something other than their curious eyes. This time it was their relatively inconspicuous presence and size that caught me off guard. I was riding in a tram, engaged in a conversation about philosophy and religion, high metaphysical ground. The tram had stopped for a moment. I looked over at a nearby bush, saw nothing. Then I looked again and saw this tiny spider, which could see me, since Jumping Spiders have eyes in the back of their heads. I could see only its minute size, not its stare. Its sudden presence brought me back to the immanent realm, reminding me that whatever the biggest ideas were that we humans can conceive, that Jumping Spiders had to be a part of them too. Its presence served as an invitation into its world - an invitation that only this human life of embodiment (and consciousness) enables me to accept. For a moment, I could participate with the spider in perceiving its world - setting traps for its prey, living in an edge habitat along the tram line of a national park. My focus shifted rapidly from metaphysics to a world as intricate as my own, on a most minute scale.

There is no final answer, or perhaps there are multiple trajectories towards answers to BJ's question about what the role of human beings is in the world. But part of what this trip taught me - including this encounter with the jumping spider in Argentina - is that the path of attention-appreciation-knowledge-participation-alliance is the best direction. It does not depend on a pre-existing belief system, nor does it render belief systems or scientific systems null. It just serves as a constant reminder that if your overarching system of philosophy, religion, science, skepticism - if that system lacks room for the reality of a Jumping Spider, and our participation in their world, then it will not be adequate - not adequate for why we are here with this human conscience, nor adequate to our historic moment, when the future of life itself on this planet is at Red Alert, when entire indigenous peoples are still disappearing from our human fabric, when selfishness and the urge to dominate foment war and invite necrophilic games with nuclear power plants. If our vision of what it means to be human doesn't reach into the peoples and natural systems around us, then we reject participation in favor of domination. And we are doomed.

Social media has given us an opportunity to participate with each other - and, currently, as a species and on the whole, we are failing at it. Online, we snipe at each other instead. Social media is used as an instrument of control, whether through cyber-bullying or in government censorship or in harvesting our opinions for commercial gain. But there are pockets - and community-science is one - where we can practice something better suited to our human potential and the possibilities of the age.

It was BJ's birthday earlier this month. His observations continue to generate awe, to elicit identifications, to chart species ranges. I miss him, but I am grateful he lives on. His question is being answered even now, though never finally. I am grateful that his spirit tagged me throughout my South American trip. Peace to you, friend - may it be restlessly questing but without domination, wherever you may be.


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