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Endless forms most beautiful….

At the very end of On the Origin of Species, after a lifetime of nature observation and discovery, Charles Darwin concludes that “there is grandeur in this (evolutionary) view of life….whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”

                  

 

In early June I wandered along the banks of the Betsie River in northern Michigan, suffused with the sweet smell of honeysuckle blooming everywhere,  marveling at the intricately folded lips of the Jack-in-the-Pulpits and at the astute hydrological engineering the Beaver were perpetrating in the wetland.  Among the plentitude of Marsh Marigolds and Wood Anemones I forgot all my worries, entirely absorbed in the way sunlight was dappling the wings of abundant Swallowtail butterflies.

I had been blogging about Red-Bellied Woodpeckers and Carolina Wrens adapting to warmer winters, lizards taking up residence in New York City, Polar Bear numbers holding good in the Arctic and resilient Tardigrades capable of outliving everything, hoping against hope that these adaptions might mean that climate warming  wouldn’t automatically  cause “the death of nature.”

Like every other nature lover in these sad times, I feel dread down to my toenails that climate Armageddon will destroy not only whole species but the natural world itself, and the planet with it. Meanwhile, the presumptuous term “Anthropocene” cropped up everywhere in my environmental reading, filling me with shame that  we homo sapiens  are responsible for this cataclysmic evil.

But then I had a houseguest who sat on the porch with me one evening, as river eddies dazzled beneath the sunset and ravens wheeled across the sky in their enormous dignity, who reminded me these endless “forms most beautiful” do not require human beings to endure:

“Nature can survive, as abundant and changeable as ever,” he remarked. “it might all be very different, perhaps with lots of new species;  it’s just that our particular species might not be here to witness it.”

My anxiety about naturalistic apocalypse drained from my heart at the thought that our beloved planet, with all of its abundant and complex splendor, might survive us after all.

The morning I returned down state the first newspaper I opened bore the headline

EARTH MAY SURVIVE. WE MAY NOT.

“We speak of ‘saving’ the Earth,” writes Adam Frank, “as if it were a little bunny in need of help. …our planet does not need our saving. The biosphere has endured cataclysms far worse than us. . . in the long term, the biosphere will handle anything we throw at it, including climate change. What Earth’s history does make clear, however, is that if we don’t take the right kind of action soon the biosphere will simply move on without us.”

Meanwhile, the same newspaper cheerfully reported that Canadian birders observed 700,000 warblers passing an observatory in Quebec during their spring migration.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.'”

The Hare, the House Finch and the Tardigrade

 

In my recent blog about furry little Pitas  and their trouble coping with rising temperatures,  I wondered whether they might develop thinner coats in time to avoid extirpation.

( Extirpation is the loss of a species population in a particular habitat or, local extinction.  Extinction refers to the loss of the entire species on a world-wide basis)

Since I can be cheered up by even tiny bits of hope from nature  these days, I was pleased to hear that Snowshoe Hares are not only developing cooler winter coats but, in some warming areas, discarding them altogether.

Scientists, examining hares living in Pennsylvania, the Eastern United States, and the Yukon  report  that  “In addition to finding greater numbers of the animals with thinner winter coats in the more southerly population, (they) found a small number of individuals which did not develop a full winter pelt…. Clearly adapting to present climate conditions.”   But,  they ask,  “can the hares change quickly enough to keep up with global warming?”

If so, can a similar flexibility impact the fate of other species?  One way to approach this puzzle is to take  previous periods of climate fluctuation into account. as does Lucas Isakowitz, citing Jonathan Rolland’s research on such periods.

“’You have to imagine that 40 million years ago, global temperatures were much higher, and there were tropical areas in the poles, even in Antarctica,’” said Rolland. “’As the Earth began to cool, some species evolved, while others just moved to warmer climates.’” Birds and mammals proved themselves to be better at evolving than their cold blooded counterparts, which explains why they were able to move into habitats in more northern and southern regions.”

The problem, concludes Isakowitz, is that the present global warming caused by human impact isn’t spread over millions of years,  but has  increased more and more rapidly during the last few centuries.

I  take heart, nonetheless, from  the adaptability of the Snowshoe Hare, and from  those indefatigable House Finches that have not only spread far and wide over American in recent decades but have developed mutations for  new habitats.  When they decided to nest in cities, for example, their beaks changed shape to be more useful for cracking  bird feeder seeds, while urban finch males developed  new city songs that they realized were  appealing to newly urbanized females.

Then, too, there is the lowly and  Tardigrade:

“MICROSCOPIC BUG THAT’LL SURVIVE UNTIL THE SUN DIES DISCOVERED IN PARKING LOT IN JAPAN,” reads a header in my local newspaper, touting the Tardigrade as “The world’s most indestructible species, … an eight-legged micro-animal (that) will survive until the sun dies.”

 

 

 

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

 

FOG

I have always loved the fog, especially after bright hot August days in Maine when it rolled in from the Atlantic and the horn at Seguin began its plaintiff chant. Fog has often been a welcome  presence for me, soothing the bright edges of life that cut so sharply.

These days, I like to watch fog roll across Lake Michigan, or sit by the Betsie River as the mists dissolve.


 

Even here at home,  foggy mornings  soothe my spirit.

 

 

 

 

Toward the end of the first volume in my Infinite Games series, my characters are entirely dependent upon the fog to escape  enslavement  and exploitation in the early industrial city of Brent:

But where was the fog? The winter days remained relentlessly bright and sunny. Clare and Bess at the loom, the Fisher folk by their boats, the Marshlanders in their huts and the little spinners in the weaving house all prayed long and hard for the Gray Mother to come to their succor. But January wore on, and no help came.

Late one dark afternoon in early February, when the sun had already set, Rivelin was taking his turn at watch near the jetty. The two boats had been ready since midwinter: sails unfolded under the hatches, oarlocks wrapped in felt for silence. But the winter nights remained clear and moonlit, pricked with a thousand stars. Rivelin was watching for one of these stars because when it appeared he would be relieved for his dinner. It was Sirius, the Dog Star, and it emerged twinkling and blinking as it rose from the southern horizon but then, suddenly, disappeared. Rivelin became alert, sniffing in every direction. His sensitive nostrils picked up a damp, greenish smell. Out in the marshes of the bay, first one reed and then another acquired a wispy skirting. As the grey tendrils crept inland, one watcher after another passed along the signal that the time for escape had come.”  

The Marshlanders.

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Midsummer, and the Living is Exciting

By this time most summers, I expect my living to be easy – keeping up with my correspondence, a blog here and there, short pieces of nature writing to accompany lots of time out of doors – but this summer, things are more exciting than usual.

With the help of my (very) patient publisher, Mary Woodbury of Moon Willow Press in Canada, I am doing the final proofreading of The Battle For the Black Fen, the last novel of my eco-fiction series.  Our publication date is August, so I have kept my eyes on my computer screen to find every lost comma, confusing bit of dialogue, and typo.

A couple of tips I have picked up while proofing: in dialogue, always state who is speaking.  Silly me, I figured that if I know who it was, my reader must get it too; similarly, if I start with “Clare thought” and have her musing away about other characters besides herself I had better bring her name in again, even in the same paragraph. And those pesky quotation marks that seem to have vanished into thin air, not to mention the commas and periods before the ends of the quotations…..needless to say, my eyes have been glued to the page.

I never like to dwell in my brain for days on end,   so I have been to my Betsie River cabin a couple of times, and every visit the temperature has plunged to 50 degrees or lower during the (summer?) nights. The wood turtle laid her eggs in mid June; now that other people appreciate my nature observations,  I did my duty as a “citizen scientist”  by reporting her to the Michigan turtle authorities.

By the end of June, tiny fry have hatched and flit about in the warmer shallows, and les becs scies, saw-toothed ducks (mergansers) that give the river its name, are busy and active.

And so are the beaver. Last winter they didn’t fell whole stands of slender trees but were hungry enough to chew completely around the trunk of a sturdy hardwood:


 

This circular gnawing serves two purposes:  the beaver get to eat the inner bark that they can reach and, at the same time, fell the tree so that they can eat the rest. I have never seen them drag a tree this heavy into a dam. It might be possible, but I think mine are bank beaver, only stripping such larger trees for nourishment.

So I let the babble and ripple of the river rest my mind for a while, strengthening my spirit for one last edit of my novel.

Every day of this daunting political year, my fictional battle between a self-sustaining nature-loving people and cruel enemies greedy for wealth and self-aggrandizement seems less a fictional plot than a grim reality. We are trapped in a finite game of victory and defeat; only if we give up on this hoary and outdated paradigm will any of us – enemies and friends alike –  survive. Are we strong enough, smart enough, open-minded enough, resilient enough to abandon the utter destruction of win/lose, you-or-me thinking for an infinite victory where everyone wins, nobody loses, so that we can enter at last the worlds we long for?

 

 

 

 

Rabbit Nests

Now comes that time of year, midsummer approaching, when my sights turn from Niebuhrian incongruities, the capitalism/commons paradox and even my favorite poems to what pops up in front of my eyes, to startle and amaze, from the world of nature .

I wanted to grow in my whole back lawn, which, I learned, was illegal.  I could, however, “landscape” a “wild flower meadow” in part of my yard, so demarked a crescent with a little green wire fence and now all kinds of things are growing there – gill-over-the-ground, little blue heal-all blossoms, and delicately fluffy pink daisies among the timothy grasses:

And also, startlingly, rabbits.

A rabbit or two has always appeared on my lawn in the summer dusk, nibbling quietly. But when my “wild flower meadow” was all grown in a rabbit left the shelter of the back copse to wriggle out a shallow patch in it, all of the way down to the dirt:

This really piqued my curiosity, so I had recourse to that all-time great compendium of nature lore, our friend Google.

What I learned is that a cottontail rabbit likes to make an oval nest in the meadow grass. I thought maybe she laid eggs there but – silly me – of course that’s where she has her babies. My house being in a much lawned-over suburb, she must have found the sudden appearance of my genuine meadow entrancing, but, as it turned out, too exposed to human beings.

The mother rabbit doesn’t stay in the nest with her babies but leaves them alone all day and night, only nursing at dawn and dusk to protect them from predators. Instead, she weaves a lid composed of grasses and her own soft belly fur and places it over her litter for camouflage and warmth.

My own rabbit never used her meadow nest, probably sensing my entranced presence on my porch, far too near for comfort.  A couple of weeks later however,  I found this interwoven lid near the undergrowth at the back of my yard:

My back yard rabbits are our common Eastern Cottontail variety, but there has always been something quite uncommon – even magic –  about rabbits to the human mind. I thought mine would lay eggs because her nesting reminded me of the giant rabbit Goddess Eostre, from whom Easter derives its name, and she is only one of the March Hares and Moon Rabbits, sacred receptacles for our awe and wonder at nature, down through the ages.

 

 

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Spring Poem

I have always loved poetry, and I have always loved spring. Far and away my favorite poem in the world is Gerard Manley Hopkins’ “Spring”:

Nothing is so beautiful as spring –

When weeds, in wheels, shoot long and lovely and lush,

Thrush’s eggs look little low heavens, and thrush

Through the echoling timber does so rinse and wring

The ear, it strikes like lightening to hear him sing.

Try reading it out loud.

Did you notice something about the sounds?

It is written in a Welsh poetic tradition full of alliteration (words starting with the same letter) and “internal” rhymes that occur within the lines as well as at the ends. And the words sound just like what they are describing – anyone who has heard our American Wood Thrush, a relative of the English variety, knows how its song really does “rinse and ring” through the forest canopy.

I was so in love with Hopkins’ Welsh prosody (Dylan Thomas’s as well) that I wrote my own poetry in it. Fame-wise, that was one big mistake:  in the sixties and seventies, when terse verbal minimalism was in fashion, I was often dismissed as “Tennysonian,”  too “nineteenth century.”

Oh well,  my poems sounded terrific when I read them out loud; I was quite popular on the poetry reading circuit and was once known as a “Georgia” and, later on, a “Wisconsin” poet.  sic transit gloria mundi.