Dispatches from Abroad: Reflections on the 2016 Election (I)—An Elegy for my Home

I’ve been traveling and working outside of the US since the beginning of August, and watched the evolution, media/twitter/blog coverage, and eventual vote count of the US presidential election unfold from abroad—passing through degrees of disbelief, astonishment, and horror—but also seeing it with the perspectives of physical distance and those gained through the eyes of citizens of other countries. During the two weeks leading up to the election, I was simultaneously engrossed in developing new mathematical statistics and depressed by what I could clearly see, from an overseas vantage point, was going to go down on November 8. And although I voted in Massachusetts (the first person on the first day of early voting in my small rural town—which, contra the Commonwealth overall, went for Trump by a small margin ) while I was in transit between Tokyo and Valparaiso, I suffered no illusion that my vote for Hillary would make a difference, either statewide (Massachusetts is, of course, the bluest of the blue states, notable for being the only state to vote for McGovern against Nixon in 1972) or nationally (the writing was on the wall for anyone who could read it).

As I expect many travelers and ex-pats also did, I stayed up all of election night watching the returns, until the election was called for Trump at close to 2am Valparaiso time. The next day, I watched the sunrise over the docks of Valparaiso harbor, did my daily 45-minute walk up (northeast) the esplanade, past the omnipresent graffiti, murals, stray dogs, seagulls, sea lions, and pelicans, paused to dip my feet in the icy-cold Pacific Ocean, climbed up the daily 108 stairs to the mathematics quad, and then walked up the last three flights of stairs to my temporary office at the Universidad Técnica Federico Santa María (USM), where I skyped my fiancée and had a good cry – for my country, for my family and loved ones, for myself, and for the future.

I spent a lot of that day talking about the election with Flossie and with my three friends—Ronny Vallejos, a statistician at USM, and Hannah Buckley and Brad Case, ecologists from Lincoln University in New Zealand—with whom I was working at USM for the two weeks I was there. And I thought it would be worth setting down here the common themes and ideas that emerged in those conversations, filtered through another few days of reading, thinking, walking, and flying.

These reflections come in two parts. This one, entitled “An Elegy for my Home”, and the next one, entitled “The Politics of Identity and the Destructiveness of Identity Politics”. I emphasize that these are personal reflections and opinions set down as stream-of-consciousness with little editing. The writing is rough and the ideas incomplete. But I needed to start somewhere, as the run-up to the election, the election itself, and the few days aftermath have made it hard to focus coherently. I welcome constructive engagement, discussion, and dialogue about them; please post comments here, on Twitter, or send me email.

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The unBalanced ecoLOGist: Science meets Art at ESA 2017 (II)

Last month, I wrote about a session Carri LeRoy (Evergreen State College) and I are organizing for next summer’s meeting of the Ecological Society of America in Portland, Oregon.

The clock is running, and slots are filling, so if you’re interested in talking about how making art/music/creative writing has influenced your science, seeing art/listening to music/reading creative writing has changed your science, or how a collaboration with an artist has influenced your science, now’s the time to volunteer to present (and since it will be an ignite session, the talk doesn’t count towards the one-talk limit at the meeting!).

Join the fun! Contact us today: Twitter @AMaxEll17 or @CarriLeRoy or email: aellison@fas.harvard.edu or leroyc@evergreen.edu

Dispatches from Abroad: The unBalanced ecoLOGist Noshes in Nanjing

On Sunday (that’s right, Sunday), Eryuan Liang and I took the morning high-speed train 1200 km in under 4 hours, and on time to the minute, from Beijing to Nanjing to give afternoon seminars at Nanjing Forestry University (established 1902). I was on tap to talk about forest foundation species, while Eryuan was set to talk about dresses (actually alpine treelines, but without any sense or irony, the “p” was lost in translation). Sundays are great days to give seminars; attendance is always good because the students don’t have classes and the faculty don’t have meetings. The seminars were fine, but the banquet afterwards …

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The unBalanced ecoLOGist: On the Silk Road

Silk Road

 The 千里1 concrete ribbon slashes the Gobi,

a stale cliché whose 皕公尺2 pullouts double as rest stops sans picnic tables,
but where still-damp tissues mound amply in crevices,

white cumuli cocooning empty bottles tossed haphazardly
by the wind fanning the coals of a smoldering ashcan,

while the selfsame wind,
on the steel strings crossing the ranks of high-voltage towers,
strums a dirge for the lost camel trains.


15/16 September 2016
Poem and photographs © Aaron M. Ellison, all rights reserved

1Read: qiān lĭ (idiomatically: a long distance, lit: 1000 miles or 500 km)
2Read: bì gōng chĭ (200 meters)

Dispatches from Abroad: Two Feasts and a Biang-biang

There is so much good food in Xi’an, it’s hard to resist yet another posting on its delicacies. Today’s foodie-fest reviews two celebratory dinners and a noodle interlude. The first feast occurred just over a week ago, when the students and post-docs in Professor Chen Yi-ping’s lab took me out for a fish grill the night before I left for the panda road trip (summarized in the previous three-part post on Walking in the Footsteps of the Giant Panda [I, II, III]). The second feast was Monday night, when the whole lab took me out for a farewell lamb barbecue at a local farm-to-table restaurant. In between, I finally encountered the mythical biang-biang noodle.

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