Solar Idiocy 2013

I’ve entered my period of solar idiocy. It happens every summer. The July sunshine vaporizes any worthwhile thought and all I can do is walk around stupidly, look at things, water the plants, read books, watch movies, drink tea and gin, and sing made-up songs that embarrass my children. I don’t mind it much, but not minding is part of the solar idiocy too. I don’t mind that I don’t mind. I don’t mind that so many people do mind about so many things. I hope they don’t mind about me not minding, but if they do, well, I guess I don’t mind about that either. Let them mind that have a mind. I have none.

A week ago on a beach at Monterey Bay I saw an impossibly vast flock of sooty shearwaters. It’s no exaggeration to say that there were hundreds of thousands of them. I had never witnessed anything like it. A hundred yards out and no more more than twenty feet above the swells, they moved in a thick inky line that stretched for more than a mile and curled out to sea in an arc that came round to bite its own tail, like an ourobouros. The birds were constantly crashing into the water and taking off again, tearing up the sea as they went, herding what I assume must have been a school of fish or krill toward the center of the wheel.

When the solar idiocy is upon me this is how I feel: like someone standing perfectly still while watching the immense chaos of activity which is the world as it swirls around and feeds on itself. But rather than feel a sense of horror or the fear that I’m somehow missing out, I just watch it all a little dumbfounded. Can there really be so much to do? Why all the noise and elbows and hubbub? What’s in the center of the wheel? I can ask the questions but, smothered as I am in dopey satisfaction and complacency, I can’t pretend to care very much about the answers.


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3 responses to “Solar Idiocy 2013

  1. Very nicely done, Ian. Struck by the phrase “solar idiocy,” I dropped it into Google Ngram and into google itself. I find it only here at TNP (though, no surprise, climate change denialists have a form of it to abuse “green energy” with). Anyhow, your clean prose gives me not solar idiocy only but “sooty shearwaters” also. There’s genius in that name; I wonder who coined it. (If I still had a rock & roll band, I’d take it.)

    Another bit of ornithological lore lately came my way: the so-called Sparrow Wars of the late nineteenth century (and early twentieth). In America. (Not to be confused with Chairman Mao’s [much later] Great Sparrow Campaign.) You doubtless know of it. From a June 27, 1883, article in “The Messenger” (Indiana, PA): “The little sparrow has been declared an outlaw by legislative enactment and they can be killed at any time. They were imported into this country from Europe some years ago as a destroyer of insects, but it has been found they are not insectivorous. Besides they drive away all our native song birds and give no equivalent. Let them all be killed.”

    Yet another factor in “the immense chaos of activity which is the world as it swirls around and feeds on itself.”

  2. Ian Wolcott

    I had no idea, Mark. Thanks for sharing that. “Let them all be killed” has an awful sound to it when applied to any bird, even the non-insectivorous and imported kind – terms which apply to most humans in North America too.

    • You’re good here, too, Ian, even as in the short essay above: ‘“Let them all be killed” has an awful sound to it when applied to any bird, even the non-insectivorous and imported kind – terms which apply to most humans in North America too.’ One has to wince, given the turn our political eco-system has taken in debates about immigration reform (on the nativist right).

      I’d never heard of the Sparrow Wars until an ornithological poet friend of mine helped me understand an allusive quip Frost makes in a letter (I’m editing the letters, w/ another scholar, and needed to drop in an explanatory footnote). It will come as no surprise to you that the controversy over the deliberate introduction of the English sparrow into America assumed a literary form: this old-world bird was driving out our “native song birds”; poets took up the matter as exemplifying the difficulty of establishing and cultivating a purely “American” style; our literary independence hung in the balance. The USDA issued pamphlets about the problem. Wily entrepreneurs marketed sparrow traps to householders who wanted to counter the British invasion and reclaim, for American songbirds, their trees; and so on. William Cullen Bryant, as it happens, weighed in on the pro-English sparrow side with a poem called “The Old World Sparrow.” Another advocate busied himself with the task of introducing into America every species of bird named in Shakespeare.

      You’ll find a web-page devoted to the Sparrow Wars here (compiled by E.A. Zimmerman):

      Among the things chronicled there: ‘By 1887, some states had already initiated efforts to eradicate [English sparrows]. States such as Illinois (1891-1895) and Michigan (1887-1895) established bounty programs. According to Keith Kridler, since the bounty on “English” Sparrows was only a few cents per bird in many states, young children killed these birds to earn money for “hard candy.” The children quickly learned to wait for the eggs to hatch and thus quadruple their bounty. County clerks often felt sorry for these children, and paid out the bounty on any species of sparrow. A 3/16/1892 article in an Indiana PA paper stated: “The different county treasurers of Illinois have paid out in round figures $8,000 as bounty money under a law allowing 2 cents for the head of each sparrow killed during December, January and February in that State. This shows that about 450,000 sparrows were killed, but the frisky bird seems more numerous than ever.”

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