Here’s what I consider to be pretty much conclusive evidence that the behavior of creatures is not solely determined by genetics, and that environment has an impact: Caribbean birds. St. Lucia, the southern Caribbean island we are visiting, has many familiar bird species, but the conduct of the birds is definitely different from the conduct of the birds of the Midwest.
This pigeon-like bird rested on the guardrail of our cottage, about a foot away from me, for a long time this morning. Unlike jumpy central Ohio birds, he didn’t flutter off at any movement on my part. Instead, he confidently strutted up and down the railing, eyeing me with apparent disdain because I wasn’t eating anything that would yield a crumb or two for him to seize. His pugnacious attitude reminded me of the tough-guy pigeon gangs you see in New York City, or Paris.
The pigeon’s haughty ‘tude, however, was nothing compared to the sparrow-like birds that hang around the breakfast patio. Those little guys hop closer and closer to the food on the plate, undeterred by repeated shooing, until they finally dare to perch on the side of the plate and take a nibble of a half-eaten pastry. And when guest rise from their table, the birds descend in force and tear away every scrap of food they can get in their beaks like they own the place.
In the Midwest, birds are timid creatures who don’t want any part of interaction with humans. In the Caribbean, birds are aggressive in taking what they want, whether humans are nearby or not. And I have no doubt that if you transported Columbus birds to St. Lucia, they’d get roughed up a bit by the natives at first, but then would quickly learn that if they want to rule the roost, they’d better adopt the Caribbean approach and take what they want.
Scientists have been analyzing happiness for a long time–probably for as long as “science” has existed as a discipline separate from philosophy or religion. The basic questions being explored are straightforward: Why do some people seem to be happier than others? How much personal happiness is genetic, and how much is the product of environment or intentional activity? These age-old questions have taken on added urgency recently, with so many people in the modern world struggling with depression, stress, and anxiety–and COVID isn’t exactly helping, either.
A recent article summarized the current scientific landscape on the analysis of happiness. It notes that the modern framework for the analysis was set by a 2005 article in General Psychology called “Pursuing Happiness: The Structure of Sustainable Change.” The summary of that article describes its analysis as follows: “surprisingly little scientific research has focused on the question of how happiness can be increased and then sustained, probably because of pessimism engendered by the concepts of genetic determinism and hedonic adaptation. Nevertheless, emerging sources of optimism exist regarding the possibility of permanent increases in happiness. Drawing on the past well-being literature, the authors propose that a person’s chronic happiness level is governed by 3 major factors: a genetically determined set point for happiness, happiness-relevant circumstantial factors, and happiness-relevant activities and practices.”
Only scientists would use a phrase like “chronic happiness level.” But stripped of the scientific verbiage, the article posited that some element of individual happiness is determined by genetics and therefore beyond your control, another element is based on your environment, and yet another element is based on activities and practices that affect your happiness–activities and practices that you can control. The 2005 article even attributed percentages to each of the three elements, with 50 percent of the variance in happiness attributed to genetics, 10 percent to environment, and 40 percent to activities and practices. This 50-10-40 hypothesis was seen by some as a “happiness pie.”
As with any scientific hypothesis, the “happiness pie” analysis has been criticized, primarily on the ground that it is pretty hard to distinguish genetic factors from environmental factors. One 2019 article in the Journal of Happiness Studies (yes, there evidently is such a publication) noted: “We conclude that there is little empirical evidence for the variance decomposition suggested by the “happiness pie,” and that even if it were valid, it is not necessarily informative with respect to the question of whether individuals can truly exert substantial infuence over their own chronic happiness level.”
It’s the scientific equivalent of the theological argument about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. But there does seem to be consensus on three basic propositions: (1) genetics play a role, and some people are genetically disposed to be in a happier frame of mind than others; (2) your environment has an impact on happiness; and (3) what you are doing at a particular point in time–such as running through a sprinkler on a hot summer day, like the happy kid in the photo above–can affect your happiness.
In view of that, what’s the point of arguing about what percentage of happiness should be assigned to each of those three factors? You can’t control your genes, and you can’t control how your environment shaped you when you were growing up. But you can identify what you enjoy–whether it is exercising, listening to your favorite music, spending time with friends and loved ones, volunteering, or some other activity–and try to work those activities into your day. And, in big-picture terms, you might be able to change your environment going forward to a place or setting that is more likely to make you happy, too. And part of changing your environment is identifying what makes you unhappy–like jerky behavior on social media, for example–and trying to change or avoid it.
So why debate percentages? If trying to structure your day to maximize the conduct and activities that you really like can make you happier–even if it is only an incremental increase–why not do it? What have you got to lose?
This isn’t of interest to only those people who like to go to paint stores to get those little paint squares and then debate whether their ceilings should be painted in eggshell, or pearl, or alabaster. The whole point of the whitest paint invention process was to try to develop a paint that could actually conserve energy, and thereby address climate change, by making a paint that is as reflective of sunlight as possible. As scientists worked on the problem, they discovered that sunlight reflection and dazzling whiteness went hand in hand.
The new paint is much more reflective than commercially available white paint–bouncing back 98.1 percent of solar radiation–and it also emits infrared heat. As a result, a surface coated with the paint, such as a roof, or the walls of a house, becomes cooler than the surrounding temperature. Using the paint therefore could help to cool buildings and reduce the need for air conditioners and their power consumption, which could relieve the pressure on the nation’s already taxed power grid and the environmental effects associated with generation of electric power.
It’s a pretty ingenious, and painless, way of conserving energy. And who knew? It turns out that inventing a brilliant new white paint is a lot more exciting than watching paint dry.
In recent years I’ve tried to avoid discussing politics in this blog, but Issue 7, which will be on the ballot in the City of Columbus in November, will have to be an exception to that rule of thumb. It’s an egregious example of misuse of the referendum process, misleading ballot language, and a crass attempt to divert City of Columbus funds into unknown pockets, all rolled into one ballot proposition. If you’re registered to vote in the City of Columbus on November 2, I urge you to get to the polls and vote “no” on Issue 7.
And finally, Issue 7 is an example of an increasing problem in the American system, where standard processes in a representative democracy are being bypassed by ballot issues and referenda that have voters set policy and direct the expenditure of public funds, without the public hearings, scrutiny, and other elements of actions taken by our elected representatives that bring transparency and expertise to decision-making and public spending. And when the ballot issues contain language that obscures rather than enlightens, and seems consciously designed to mislead voters, the problem becomes even greater.
The election on November 2 is an off-year election, when turnout is likely to be small. The group behind Issue 7 no doubt hopes that most voters won’t go to the polls, and those that do will be uninformed about Issue 7 and think that the “green energy” and “clean energy” funds that it would create sound like good ideas, without realizing the true impact of the initiative.
Let’s not be fooled, folks! Let’s get to the polls on November 2 and vote “no” on Issue 7.
I’ve spent a few days working over at Russell’s property this summer. He has multiple acres of some lovely, largely wooded property at Cape Rosier on the mainland, and among many other projects he’s been working on creating hiking trails through the property to particularly scenic spots. Earlier this summer Richard, Russell, and I worked for a day on clearing out a path and glade along a cool, stony brook that spills out from a natural spring on Russell’s land, and on Sunday I continued the path along the stream and then turned inland to follow an obvious animal trail and see where it led.
Trailblazing is hard work, but it is also a lot of fun. Basically, the goal is to identify the logical route for a trail and then convert landscape that looks like the photo above into something walkable, like the photo below. That means breaking up and removing rotted logs, gathering up and moving fallen timber that blocks the way, and cutting down scrub trees and dead trees and low hanging branches along the route. Armed with a small saw and limb-cutting shears, I let my pathfinder instincts run free, cutting and chopping and hefting armloads of branches and fallen twigs. As the trail signs turned inland, I followed what looked like a deer trail, shown running through the moss in the photo below, that led to a pretty natural clearing where sunlight dappled the ground under towering trees.
Russell’s property is beautiful and full of surprises—like the brook, the spring, a big round boulder I dubbed Cannonball Rock, and a natural granite promontory that affords a view of Cape Rosier and Castine in the far distance, and others yet to be discovered—and there are lots of ways the trails could run. I’ve finished my trailblazing work for 2021, but I’ll gladly return in 2022 for more scouting, brush cutting, and trail clearing.
That’s a source of significant disagreement between the Maine lobster industry, on one hand, and NOAA and environmentalists on the other. The Mainers say that lobster lines aren’t responsible for a shrinking whale population and that it’s been two decades since a right whale became entangled in a Maine lobster rope. NOAA says, on the other hand, that since 2017 34 right whales have died and 16 were injured by entanglements or ship strikes. NOAA also adds, however, that at least some of those whales were entangled in Canadian gear, and the Maine lobster advocates point out that the NOAA regulations of course won’t affect Canadian lobstermen while the Maine industry is being punished. The Mainers also grind their teeth when regulators say that they use survey data on “predictive density” of whales to close hundreds of square miles of waters to lobster fishing, when the lobster boat captains who are out on the water every day say the practical reality is that whales really aren’t affected.
And the lobster boat captains also note that the alternative fishing method allowed by the regulations–called “ropeless gear”–uses technology that is admittedly “not mature” and would be enormously expensive for individual lobstermen to implement. In all, the NOAA says that it expects the regulations will cost the lobster industry between $9.8 million and $20 million in the first year, and there is no federal money available to help them. That’s a lot of money for an industry where the front-line fishermen who bait and set the traps, deposit the buoys, and hope for a good catch, are primarily independent businessmen who own and man their own boats. That’s why Stonington’s assistant harbormaster, quoted in the first article linked above, says bleakly: “This will sink a lot of people.”
It’s a classic example of the push-and-pull between industry and environmentalism, except this time the “industry” being affected isn’t faceless corporations, but individual, blue-collar lobstermen, many of whom are from families that have engaged in lobster fishing, using the traditional rope-and-buoy approach, for generations. If the new regulations, which are expected to be challenged in court, stay in place, and those independent boat captains can’t afford to comply with the new requirements, it will take away a huge source of both jobs and year-round revenue that hundreds of families count on. It’s not hard to understand why the locals are concerned that the regulations will dramatically change the Stonington community.
In the spring, everyone loves apple trees. Their delicate blossoms scent the warming breezes, and their pretty bright flowers foretell the growing season to come.
But in the fall, no one is very excited to have apple trees around. Once, perhaps, people actually tended the trees and carefully harvested the apples for consumption, but those days are long since past. Nobody picks the fruit anymore. Instead, the overripe apples fall to the ground, rot on the pavement, and eventually are smashed and ground into the asphalt by passing pickups and pedestrians who want to indulge their destructive impulses. And when the apples get obliterated, they coat the roadway with slime and emit an overpowering, cloying smell like applesauce gone bad, on steroids.
It’s not pleasant.
We’ve got a few of the smashed apple zones in Stonington that I pass on my morning walks. As bad as the smell is for a passerby, at least the unpleasantness is fleeting. Imagine living within one of the zones and smelling that smell constantly. It’s something for everyone to keep in mind the next time they are tempted to play Johnny Appleseed.
On my walk this morning I noticed a few dozen seagulls circling one of the piers near the mailboat dock, with more gulls joining every minute. They were raising an unholy racket and clearly had spotted some potential food that they might grab off the pier. It was either that, or a reenactment of a scene from Hitchcock’s The Birds.
The gulls looked very picturesque, silhouetted against the sunrise, but the harsh reality is a different story. Seagulls are trash birds that will try to eat just about anything and will fly off with the disgusting items you can imagine. We know this because we’ve found items dropped by seagulls on our deck. This summer’s seagull gifts have included a large, rotting, eyeless fish head and a gross bait bag with fish guts that probably was snatched from a lobster boat.
It’s just part of the price you pay for living in a seaside community.
On Sunday we headed off the island to the nearby Holbrook Sanctuary for a hike. The Sanctuary has a lot of trail options that we haven’t tried yet, and the middle of a three-day weekend was a good time to experience a new one. We chose the Mountain Loop trail, which promised to offer what we like about hikes: a pleasant ramble through the cathedral of trees, where you can enjoy surroundings so peaceful and quiet that even a whisper seems like a shout.
It quickly became clear that, at this time of year at least, the Mountain Loop trail could also be called the Mushroom trail. We saw lots of mushrooms of all shapes, sizes and colors, from a bone white that stood out sharply against the prevailing browns and greens, to a bright orange shooting up from the moss, and finally a harvest gold to brighten the side of the trail.
When we started our hike we wondered if any of the leaves on the trees would be starting to turn. They really weren’t, although some of the ferns in the forest were showing some colors along the edges of their fronds. But who needs fall foliage when you’ve got mushrooms to brighten the forest floor?
If, like me, you’ve been troubled by news articles over the past few years about declining bee populations, here’s some good news: the bees are back, in Stonington at least. We’ve had lots of bee activity by the little guy shown above and a number of his hive mates in our flowerbeds and have seen bees buzzing around flowers and plants along the roadways and even in the downtown area. In contrast, bee sightings last year were a rarity. Fellow gardeners in our neighborhood also report that their flowers are attracting many more bees than they saw last year.
It’s great to see the bees out, being “busy as a bee.” Even better, I haven’t heard of any bee stings.
On Sunday Kish and I took one of our favorite walks on Deer Isle, on the Dunham Point Road. It’s a circular route that starts at the shoreline and the grounds of the Deer Isle Yacht Club, skirts the sweep of a stony beach, then heads inland through towering forest, where the air is heavy with the scent of pine. After a ramble through the trees the road emerges in a farm area with a view of the Eggemoggin Reach in the far distance, and passes a house on a hill that looks like it could have been the setting for the Andrew Wyeth painting Christina’s World. Then we turn right onto Perez Road and head uphill to my favorite stretch of road, where we might encounter a cyclist or two on the rolling hills, and just before we turn down toward the shore again we find this perfect little lily pond, peaceful and quiet, with its floating pink flowers and lily pads and unruffled water that gives a mirror-like reflection of the scenery above.
In short, in a walk of a few miles, the Dunham Point Road gives a glimpse of just about every form of topography our island has to offer.
It’s been a busy year on Deer Isle, with lots of tourists downtown and on the trails and at the parks. But the Dunham Point Road trek is off the beaten path even by Deer Isle standards, and we usually have it pretty much to ourselves. That’s one reason why it’s a favorite.
It was a beautiful day today—bright and sunny and about 70 degrees—so we decided to take Betty on a lunchtime walk down Indian Point Road to the beaver pond. When we arrived we noticed this baby turtle (in the lower right hand corner of the photo above) sunning itself on a lily pad, without a care in the world.
I hope the turtle enjoyed its prime pad position, because it won’t be able to do so much longer. When the turtle reaches its full-grown size the lily pad won’t support its weight, and it will have to crowd with the adults onto sturdier logs or rocks when it wants to sunbathe.
Some Mainers say their state is like “America’s tailpipe.” With prevailing winds blowing from the west, the exhaust fumes from daily life in other states head east and often find their way to the skies above Maine before spilling out over the Atlantic.
We had evidence of the “tailpipe” experience last night, when photo above was taken. We suspect that some of the smoke billowing from the enormous Bootleg wildfires in California, Oregon, and Washington has been blown to our neck of the woods in coastal Maine, creating a dense layer of haze that shrouded the sun. The sun was like an orange pumpkin in the sky; you could look directly at it, and it cast an orange shimmer on the ocean waters below. The haze was so thick that at the horizon, where the filter of haze was the greatest, the sunset was entirely blocked from view.
“America’s tailpipe” is subject to an air advisory today, with an AQI of 101, which means the air is unsafe for specific sensitive groups. Our experience with haze shows how we are all connected by virtue of the environment, and why wildfire problems out west should concern us all.
Recently I’ve started trying different routes on my morning walk, just to mix things up a bit. One new route takes me away from the shoreline and downtown Stonington and instead follows Route 15 up the hill to Cemetery Road, then across the interior of the island, and then back down the hill toward home on the Greenhead Peninsula. That inland, tree-lined route gives a decidedly different perspective on our little town.
On foggy mornings, like this morning, the mist rolls up the hillside and encases the countryside in a blurry, moist white blanket. It gives the landscape a kind of mystical look that makes for a very pleasant, and very quiet, walk. Earlier this week, on a similarly misty morning, I saw a large herd of deer that included a few youngsters that hadn’t lost their spots nosing around in this same spot. I surprised them as I walked past, and they looked up, startled, and then bolted gracefully into the tree line and vanished into the mist.
One of the great incidental benefits of living in a seaside community is driftwood.
I like pretty much everything about driftwood—starting with its name. It’s not “washed-up wood,” it’s driftwood—as if it has been out for a pleasant journey, leaving the forest behind, taking its time and seeing the sights, without a care in the world. And the physical characteristics of driftwood reflect its ocean journey. Driftwood has a special feel. Its bark has been washed away, and the water and salt and sun and wind exposure somehow have left the driftwood with a smooth, silky feel. It’s warm to the touch, but also feels lighter than branches of similar size, as if its waterborne experience has sucked the weight away, leaving just the essential sturdiness behind. It’s one reason why gnarled pieces of driftwood make great walking sticks.
And the other great thing about driftwood is its innate air of mystery. Where did it come from, and how far has it traveled, and how long did it take for it to reach its destination on a rocky beach? Consider this huge piece of driftwood, below, that we saw on the beach at Barred Island this past weekend. From the notching, it’s clear it has been shaped by human hands for some purpose—but what? We’ll never know for sure, which makes it all the more interesting.