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What About Those Whitefish?

WHAT ABOUT THOSE WHITEFISH?

Review of Dan Egan, The Death and Life of the Great Lakes. W.W. Norton: New York, 2017

I don’t know about you, but I have always considered evolution a long, drawn-out process, requiring thousands of years of mutations for genes to adapt.

That was before I got to thinking about recent developments among our Whitefish.

The Great Lakes, chockablock with fresh water fish like Lake Trout, Perch, Whitefish, Walleye and Chub, were landlocked for millennia. Few adaptions were needed in such static conditions. until the St. Lawrence Seaway and its associated locks opened pathways for creatures like the Sea Lamprey, Alewife, Quagga and Zebra Mussels to invade us.

And we all know what happened then.

Dan Egan’s The Death and Life of the Great Lakes (which is also a compellingly readable history of sportfishing)  accounts for the invasions and die-offs that have plagued our fisheries since the 1950s.  First, the dread Sea Lamprey attached itself to the bellies of Lake Trout and Whitefish to suck their blood dry. They were no sooner extirpated by a scientifically produced toxin than the Alewives, their natural predators having been decimated by the lamprey, multiplied exponentially. However, overpopulation,  predation from the newly introduced Chinook and Coho Salmon,  and kidneys inefficient at processing fresh water cut Alewife numbers significantly.

Quagga and Zebra Mussels, flushed into lake waters with ship ballast, went to work on the surviving Alewives’ plankton supply, that also happened to feed the little shrimp-like critters Whitefish need to survive.

Fortunately, there was an ugly little invasive bottom feeder called a Gobie, whose round mouth is ringed with razor sharp teeth to crack mussel shells and get at the flesh inside.

Which brings me back to our Whitefish. Almost overnight, they suddenly adapted to eat not only the invasive mussels but the sharp-toothed Gobie.  Scientists were surprised to find “a paste of crushed mussel shell” in Whitefish excrement, causing them obvious pain from  a kind of fish hemorrhoids.

“But then nature stepped in,” Egan explains; they developed a “stiff ridge on their bellies” to help digest the tough shells.  Not only that, they began to eat the Gobies, sharp teeth and all, creating a whole new food chain.

A traditional Great Lakes Fisherman named Ken Koren, who was one of the first to report these sudden developments, said that he felt like he was “watching evolution at work.”

If evolution works that fast, can other plants and creatures adapt fast enough to maintain abundance despite the ravages of climate change?

The problem is humans. Or, as Pogo puts it, “we have met the enemy, and he is us.”

Egan quotes a fishermen named Hendrickson who insists he is “’absolutely’ convinced the species is evolving before his eyes.

‘What we’re seeing with the whitefish, well, they might be the most adaptable fish in nature…..They’re more adaptable than some people I know.'”

Nature Rising?

My old friend Helen Klebesadel created this vision of “Nature Rising” in watercolor. “In this painting,” she explains, “the flying crow contains the forest trees, representing the interconnection of all parts of nature, including the human element.”

We humans tend to forget that we do not stand above and outside of nature, but are intricately interwoven within it. This winter the northern jet stream weakened to leave us shivering in temperatures that should have remained in the Arctic, and the rest of the country has experienced horrific storms, floods, and wildfires all year long. These disturbing events have left me worried over whether enough species will be able to adapt to climate change for nature itself to survive.

There is a newly popular term, “The Anthropocene,” indicating this epoch (following the Pleistocene) when humans have overwhelmingly influenced the planet. It carries an “aren’t we awful” connotation, casting a  gloomy light upon our culpability and the possible demise of our own species along with all of the others.

Several years ago, I made the (internet) acquaintance of Claude Forthomme, an Eco-Fiction writer, economist, and a retired Regional Director for Europe and Central Asia of Food and Agriculture at the United Nations. She is Senior Editor at Impakter, a European online magazine where she has published several of my articles.

I spend a frozen January writing an Impakter review of three books about nature’s awe-inspiring intricate particulars and a fourth about human culpability and anthropocentric doom .

Here is my review, with my take on whether human beings or nature will be the greatest planetary influence in the years to come:

http://bit.ly/2EWxycs

 

A Very Small Animal Entirely Surrounded by Water

There is a chapter in my (tattered and torn) Winnie the Pooh when it rains and rains and rains until Piglet finds himself stranded in a tree, musing that “It’s a little Anxious to be a Very Small Animal Entirely Surrounded by Water.”

Didn’t we all feel that way during the September hurricanes in Texas and Florida,  the Caribbean Islands and Puerto Rico?  Television coverage alternated between graphics of one vast storm after another whirling down upon us and close ups of towns and villages, highways and shoreline communities entirely surrounded by floods.

Everyone down there must have felt just like Piglet:  “Here I am, surrounded by water, and I can’t do anything.”.

I attended a Paul Hawken webinar this week. He pointed out that when we puny humans hear about overwhelming natural disasters, we tend to ward off anxiety by freezing emotionally. The way the news is presented impacts us too.  “Battle” language about “fighting climate change” or “going to war with global warming”  convinces us that we are in a win/lose situation. Faced with such  a vast, existential threat to earth’s and humanity’s future, we feel like very small animals indeed; if somebody is going to “lose,.” and it will probably be us.

But Piglet is not without resources. He concocts a survival plan of putting a  message in a bottle. “IT’S ME PIGLET, HELP HELP!” Pooh finds it, and, though “a bear of very little brain” he is  is clever enough to cork up a big jar and float on (and below) it  to find Christopher Robin to read it. Christopher realizes that he and Pooh can go to Piglet’s rescue in his umbrella. (Considering that Pooh has acted very cleverly indeed, he christens their craft “The Brain of Pooh.”)

Paul Hawken’s Drawdown describes the many clever ways we can bring the time  when greenhouse gasses diminish closer.  It is basically a list of 100 technological and social solutions, a short chapter for each. They are all quite doable, things like refrigerant management (the top of the list as most effective), onshore and offshore wind towers, rooftop solar, managing food waste and production, the education of girls, planned parenting, etc.

Piglet is rescued from an overwhelming threat by his ability to formulate a plan, by Pooh’s little bit of  smarts and by Christopher Robin’s literacy and resourcefulness, none of which would do them any good were each not impelled by a will to action on behalf of the others.

As we watched the 24/7 coverage of hurricane flooding, our anxious hearts were lifted by all those people rushing around to rescue each other; white people wading out carrying black people on their backs and vice-versa, Cajun folks organizing flotillas of rescue boats, all impelled into action by community feeling.

And so we learn that global warming can be mitigated if we

1. Don’t just sit up there in our tree frozen with terror and anxiety

2.  Use our smarts.

3.   Brainstorm practical ideas

4.  And then, altogether, PADDLE!

 

 


 

Review: Nina Munteanu, Water Is…:The Meaning of Water

Water Is…The Meaning of Water by Nina Munteanu. Pixel Press 2016

Are you fascinated by what goes on in the physical world? Are you curious about the inner workings of natural phenomena? For anyone like me who is fascinated by water, Nina Munteanu’s Water Is…:The Meaning of Water  offers wonderful analyses from minutia like the construction of a single drop to the way whirlpools and eddies form in the flow of a river and more macro issues like the relationship between the “stable chaos” of turbulence and quantum physics.

Water Is provides delightful explanations of things you thought you knew –

  • That “water occupies over 98% of a human cell molecule,”
  • That “what we do to water we do to ourselves.”
  • How water’s negative charge benefits the health
  • How water arrived in earth from the cosmos
  • What are we drinking, e.g. In various bottled waters?
  • Issues of sustainability at various locals- the Arab Sea, the Empire of Angkor

Though a practicing limnologist and water scientist, Munteanu considers herself “one of the mavericks of the scientific community,” attentive to what her colleagues term “weird water” – aspects of the way water behaves for which traditional science has not (yet) found formulas. The result is a trove of disparate treasures, like how Galileo understood water flow, the Chinese character for water,  Leonardo da Vinci’s water drawings, the Gaia Hypothesis, and David Bohm’s theory of flux

 

 

This is less a sit-down-all-in-sequence read than a quirkily diverse compendium of disparate wonders which I dipped in and out of, sitting on my cabin dock as the river babbled and eddied by me, all summer long.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Welcome to The Worlds We Long For

Welcome to my new blog! I will be posting every week about the themes, folklore details, games and dances, environmental philosophy, and early modern history that I adapt in my Eco-fiction novels series, Infinite Games.

Have you, like me, longed for a utopian community where we live together in amity, following laws we work out for ourselves and valuing each other for our contribution to common good? I have yearned for a world like that all my life – have you too?

Read more… →