June 21, 2024

First, you’ve probably already seen the first images from the James Webb telescope, but I for one am not tired of them yet.

NASA’s Webb Reveals Cosmic Cliffs, Glittering Landscape of Star Birth

This tweet puts the “deep field” image into perspective .

Revenge of the Earthworms” by Moira Donovan

The spread of jumping worms throughout the United States, and now Canada, threatens the health of forests, and may dramatically reduce their ability to sequester carbon, accelerating climate change. The biggest problem is the damage they do to topsoil, and the layer of organic leaf litter immediately above it. The worms consume this and leave behind looser soil that erodes easily and provides less anchorage for plant roots.

“Forests, which seem to be particularly appealing environments for jumping worms, can lose as much as 95 percent of their layer of fallen leaves in a four-month period due to these infestations, according to one study in Wisconsin. This means that the green carpet of forest understory, which includes tree seedlings and wildflowers such as trilliums and lady’s slippers, is quickly transformed into bare dirt.”

As is so often the case when talking about climate, this is part of a vicious cycle: rising temperatures mean that the worms can survive further and further north, where they invade more forest, leading to more carbon in the atmosphere, and so on. The worms’ spread is also being accelerated today by human activity, especially the sale of worms as bait for fishing (and the tendency of fishermen to simply dump out unused worms on the ground, thinking that this is the kind way to dispose of them).

Earthworms, in general, are not necessarily as beneficial as their reputation suggests— particularly in forests. This reputation started largely with Charles Darwin, whose The Formation of Vegetable Mould through the Action of Worms with Observations on their Habits was his best-selling book while he was alive. (And let’s pause for a moment to imagine a world in which this could be true). He detailed the massive impact that worms could have on soil. But Darwin’s analysis was specific to England, where worms were native; in much of the northern United States and Canada, earthworms had died out during the last ice age.
Their (accidental) introduction by colonizing Europeans proved helpful to farmers in the South, but has had a more negative impact on northern soils, especially in forests. (The jumping worms, specifically, are an invasive species from Asia; the first ones in the U.S. are thought to have come with some cherry trees sent by Japan back in the 1890s.)

Poison Pill,” by Michael Solomon

As a child, I had a vague awareness of the 1983 Tylenol poisoning cases, though I was too young to actually remember them. I can remember being told that they were why most medicine and packaged food had tamper-evident seals, and that was about it. The complete story is predictably scary– previously-healthy people would drop into a coma and die for no apparent reason– and surprisingly bizarre. I don’t want to reveal too much in advance, but, among other things, the story involves a three-pulley game hoist for dismembering the bodies of large animals. It is not used for a deer.

The Women Who Built Grunge,” by Lisa Whittington-Hill

I can’t pretend to be surprised at this point that the role of women bands and artists in the Seattle music scene of the 80s and 90s has been downplayed and overlooked. As Whittington-Hill says, it is “not surprising” that when the “British music magazine Q published a special package” celebrating the 25th anniversary of grunge “that included insiders and musicians talking about the scene…the piece feature[d] no women.” Nor is it surprising that the coverage they did receive was almost always framed in terms of “women in music,” tacitly if not explicitly treating “girl band” as a genre. At the same time, some of the specifics are still a bit shocking— for instance, the fact that the band Bam Bam is sometimes described as a three-piece, cutting out lead singer and songwriter Tina Bell entirely. That’s not just overlooking, that is actively re-writing history.

I do have a couple of quibbles with the piece. First, you could argue about whether some of these bands were actually “grunge”—but then, since that label was imposed entirely from outside the scene, maybe that’s pointless. It’s interesting, though, how “riot grrrl” got used as a way to separate female-led bands from “grunge,” even when (like L7 or Babes in Toyland) they clearly had more in common with Nirvana than Bikini Kill. More importantly, though, I wish it were more about the bands and artists per se, and less about how they’ve been ignored. You don’t actually have to do much work, I don’t think, to persuade people that this sidelining took place, and the article could have done more to begin redressing the balance instead. It did however point me to this excellent older article about the label Kill Rock Stars, written for their 30th anniversary. Their early compilations (Kill Rock Stars, Rock Stars Kill, and Stars Kill Rock) were pretty important to me, and it’s a good excuse the revisit some of that.

Side note: when I recently looked up L7’s first album on Spotify, it recommended playlists including “Riot Grrrl,” “Grunge Forever,” and “Women in Rock.” Covering all the bases, I guess?

Wendy Red Star’s Indigenous Gaze,” by Tiffany Midge, with artwork by Red Star

Midge immediately gets at what seems to me the definitive characteristic of Wendy Red Star’s work, which is that it is funny. For sure, the humor exists alongside some brutal truths, but that doesn’t make it secondary to those truths. One thing this approach highlights is the fact that, as offensive and reductive as stereotypical representations of Native Americans are, they are also just ridiculous. That doesn’t mitigate the harm they have done and still do, but it suggests a mode of challenging them that is probably more effective than simply explaining why they are wrong.

The Audubon Photography Awards winners were just announced, and the photos are predictably great. Make sure to watch the video of the sharp-tailed grouse doing its dance.

Robin Sloan’s always-excellent newsletter pointed me to the work of Theodore Kittelsen, a Norwegian illustrator working around the (last) turn of the century. Beautiful, varied, and often eerie stuff.

Finally, watch French musician MB14 perform multiple instrumental and vocal parts, all with his mouth alone. Everything you see about him calls him a “beatboxer,” and that fits to a point, but he’s doing a lot more here than you probably think of when you hear that term.

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