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Review of Patrik Svensson, The Book of Eels

Riddle me this: What is only a few millimeters long with a transparent body like a gossamer willow leaf, is born in the Sargasso Sea and then floats for three years on the Gulf Stream  until it reaches Europe or America?

Here’s another:  What sea creatures does Rachel Carson describe as looking like “thin glass rods, shorter than a finger”?

Wikepedia Commons

The first is the larval stage of eel development; the second the Glass Eel metamorphosis when they arrive in the estuaries of Europe and America after being borne for as much as three years along ocean currents.  They move up fresh water rivers to become Yellow Eels, a phase which can last thirty or forty years.  Then, in their final or Silver Eel phase, they bulk up with muscle and fat and develop reproductive organs in preparation for their return to the Sargasso Sea.    

Patrick Svensson’s The Book of Eels (New York: HarperCollins 2019) translated from Swedish by Agnes Broomé) is a delightfully engaging volume including scientific details about the European eel (Anguilla Anguilla ), a history of eel science,  eel  gastronomy,  autobiographical chapters about eel fishing with his father, anthropological takes on historic Swedish fishing communities, and an analysis of Rachel Carson’s role in nature writing and environmental action. 

Starting with Aristotle and including a fresh take on Freud’s years of eel research in Trieste, Svensson surveys the hundreds of years that it took scientists to determine the Sargasso Sea as the point of origin.  Even so, no scientist has ever demonstrated where eels go once they arrive and what they do in the depths of the ocean (reproduction is merely a logical assumption from the appearance of the larval eels).  Not a single mature Silver Eel in the reproductive phase has ever been found there.

Svensson’s autobiographical chapters recount the tender (though reserved) bonding between his father and himself on their life-long eeling forays.

My own encounters with eels did not bring me closer to my mother.  Fond of roasted eel, she sent me out to wrestle with the Silver Eels heading out into the Atlantic. I fished for those thrashing horrors, alive with muscle and resistance. from the dock with my drop line, hoping for a flounder or even a blowfish (we ignored their fierce faces and feasted on their tails) instead.  I dreaded finding an eel on my line because they didn’t drown in air like ordinary fish, but kept throwing themselves about on the dock, living breathing nightmares until, consumed by dread and remorse, I bashed them over the head with a hammer.

When I complained, my father came out from behind his pipe and newspaper long enough to explain that eels breathe air while slithering overland; Svensson describes them braiding themselves into balls and rolling over mud flats, breathing for those few minutes. They hibernate by burrowing down in the mud for the winter.   That is why Aristotle, one of the first to analyze eels scientifically, thought they were born through some process of mud metamorphosis. 

The Patuxet caught hibernating eels by wriggling their toes in the mud, a technique, Svensson informs us, that Tisquantum (Squanto) taught the Pilgrims after their first terrible winter.  As my mother’s family were from Plymouth, I have wondered if her appetite for eels derived from that historical tutelage.

Though he recognizes that Rachel Carson’s anthropomorphizing the eel  in Under the Sea-Wind is heretical to her scientific duty as an objective marine biologist, he admires the  leap of imagination she takes to arouse her reader’s sympathy: she “let the eel be an eel, but also something we can to some degree identify with” until it still  “a mystery, but no longer a complete stranger.”  In letting eels tell their own story, she “did manage to reach a kind of understanding that really shouldn’t be possible. Not through reductionism or empiricism or even science’s traditional belief in truth as it appears under the microscope, but by having faith in an ability that may in fact be unique to humans: imagination.”  It is by means of this heretical blending of science and story-telling that Carson galvanized a whole environmental movement.

Glenn Wolff and Jerry Dennis, A Walk in the Animal Kingdom: Essays on Animals Wild and Tame

Svensson finds the eel as so utterly distant from human comprehension as to become a metaphysical conundrum.  He rejects Decartes’ assertions that only humans possess souls and  that all other creatures are automata. He disagrees with the proposition that animals have no consciousness.   Defying scientific empiricism, he apprehends the eel’s place in the complex particularity of nature as a metaphysical conundrum, defining metaphysics as “not necessarily concerned with God” but with the “whole of reality, . . a branch of philosophy that is concerned with what exists outside, or beyond, objective nature, beyond what we can observe and describe with the help of our senses.”  He raises such questions as

  • What is time to the Silver Eel in the ocean depths beneath the Sargasso Sea?  
  • Does time possess a different duration at the bottom of the sea?   
  • Is time the same or different for the eel in each phase of its life?
  • What about bats, whose world consists entirely of echoes and is, therefore, “clearly in a completely different state of consciousness from a human”?  

Svensson entrances us with the eel’s life cycle only to horrify us with the extinction he foresees for the very species he has taught us to admire. Like Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring,  the joy in nature evoked in us by The Book of Eels  resolves into anticipatory grief.  Is this an intentional ploy to stir us to environmental activism?  This seems to have been the case for Rachel Carson, who went before Congress with a testimony that led to the eventual banning of DDT.  

But Svensson  has no hope for the eel’s future.  Though the European Union has proposed rules to sustain fisheries, fishing communities fail to comply with them. When he adds shifts in ocean currents caused by global warming to his gloomy predictions, there seems nothing left but the eel’s extinction.

I am a perennially hopeful person, so after finishing The Book of Eels I wondered if eel conservation efforts were really going as badly as Svensson indicates.  I  found some (small) comfort in a few items:

  • In Europe), there is indeed reluctance on the part of European Fisheries to comply with new regulations, and also an uptick in eel smuggling.  The Ecologist reports, however,  that in the twelve years since the European Commission proposed its eel conservation program some progress has been achieved.

“In 2007, the political decision to protect the eel was taken in Brussels; in 2009, the  very first (silver) eels began to be protected; in 2011 (two years of ocean migrations later), the first positive effect occurred.       Since 2011, the thirty-year decline in recruitment of young eel from the ocean halted, turning into a slight increase.”  

Svensson disagrees with this conclusion on the basis that the European Union ban only applies for three months of the year and not to the Glass Eel:  at 2017 rates of compliance, the eel population will continue to decline and, he insists, inevitably become extinct.

“It will take a long time to achieve the full recovery,” the Ecologist article concludes. “The level of protection for the eel is not yet as good as we intended to achieve. Overall, however, the trend is as positive as could have been expected.”

  • What about  Glass Eels?

 The Sustainable Eel Group,  a Europe-wide conservation and science-led organization working  to accelerate the eel’s recovery, reports success in removing  barriers to migration. Norfolk’s Fritton Lake, where businesses and eel sustainability groups have given “the critically endangered European Eel hope for the future,” is an example:  

”Fritton Lake is ideal habitat for eels. It is connected to the sea just south of Great Yarmouth. However, the previous tidal sluice, to keep sea water out, was also stopping baby eels getting in from the sea and adult eels getting out. The new sluice will let baby eels in, to grow in Fritton Lake to become adults, which will then get out again to breed. The eels will grow there for between 5 and 20 years before migrating back to sea to spawn.”

In Cornwall,  similarly,  eel passes have been  built around obstructions: more than 100 juvenile eels travelled 3,000km from the Sargasso Sea before being counted at the Environment Agency’s Brownshill Staunch eel pass, downstream of St Ives.

  • As a final note of hope, significant numbers of Eels have been restored to the Susquehanna river in America, where fish biologists of the Susquehanna River Commission catch eels at a dam that obstructs their route and then transport them upstream.

“The captured eels were measured, counted and shipped north where they were released into Deer Creek and Conestoga Creek. Over the next eight years, fish and wildlife would capture, transport and release more than 800,000 eels into the Susquehanna River or its tributaries….in total, close to a million eels have been re-introduced into the river since the program began. The American Eel is back.”           

In looking through the reviews, I see that conservationists are taking a deep interest in The Book of Eels.  Maybe Svensson’s simultaneously raising our joy in nature only to send us crashing into despair over eel apocalypse will shock us into action, with as significant an impact on the eel as Carson’s DDT studies had on the Osprey?

 I live in hope.

Canticle

Do you ever find yourself longing
For the beginning of the world-
That unimaginable openness
When the earth awoke - all quick, and fresh, and teeming? 


I finished this poem, oddly enough, the same day that I read an article by Margaret Renkl  in the New York Times about how “The Pandemic Shows All is Not Lost.”  “Covid 19,” she writes, “will not reverse the ravages of climate change, and it will not interrupt our progression toward an even more desperate future. But it is allowing us to see with our own eyes how ready the natural world stands to reclaim the planet we have trashed, how eagerly and swiftly it will rebound if we give it a chance.”

This pandemic, this end of our world,
Stifles us in our houses, while the houseless
Cower in abject fear of invisible menace-
Those silent microbes sundering us from each other.

Never mind - did you see the little birds,
Like tiny grace notes, cross the moon last evening?
At dawn, they land to feed along our rivers.
We find joy in their beauty, and  faith in their returning.



When I was a little girl I attended a school where we stood on our feet every morning chanting “Praise him and magnify him forever” as our headmistress read from a wonderfully apochryphal psalm listing all of the glories of creation, one after the other.  “O ye Fire and Heat, O ye Dews and Frosts, O ye Green Things upon the earth, O ye Whales, and all that move in the waters” – on and on she would go about the glories of creation as the voices of children called out our response in the morning of the day and of our lives.  

The beasts of the field are suddenly among us:
Coyote lope along our empty sidewalks,
Foxes drop by for curious backyard visits,
Impertinent skunks on our lawns ignore us entirely.

Kangaroos lollop down streets in the center of Aukland,
Mountain lions walk fearless along the forest verges,
Black Bears loll in abandoned Yosemite campgrounds,
While toads and frogs migrate across empty highways.

The birds and the beasts and all things that move in the water
Rejoice in creation thown open by our absence.

This morning my friend Ashok sent me photos of the sky over the Himalayas, clear and blue for the first time in decades, and told me that the Covid 19 lockdown has brought thousands of flamingos back to Delhi.  Of course we environmental activists don’t want to indulge in a “There, I told you so” attitude, but it is striking how very quickly nature cleanses itself when we bring ourselves to a halt for another reason entirely.  The virus is an aspect of Mother Nature too, and if the only way to refresh the air we need to breathe is to live on a smaller scale, we have shown to ourselves that we can do it

“And so our first task when we emerge from this isolation,” concludes Renkl, “will be to remember to sear into our memories that pure pageantry of wildness, of life in its most insistent persisting.  And then to try in every possible way to save it.”

They say that there are schools of dolphin at play
In the canals of Venice, now that no gondolas
Chockablock with tourists, roil the dazzling waters.
They trill merrily to each other in high-pitched music.

All the rest is true, but there are no dolphins in Venice:
It's just a story, a legend we have invented
Out of our terror, and out of our deep yearning
For a verdant world where we are in tune with the music
Of the beings of the earth, having found our place among them.

The Citizen Scientist in Winter

Are you concerned with our environment but are not a political joiner? Do you love nature and want to learn more about it? Are you curious about the insects, animals, plants and fungi all around you? Have you been keeping lists in little notebooks, texts, and miscellaneous scraps of paper all over the house?

Since I wrote about “How I Became a Citizen Scientist” four years ago, the peril to life on earth has increased, but so have ways to transform your observations into environmentally useful data. A recent project, “Never Home Alone: The Wild Life of Homes,” lets you make your observations of spiders, ants, and other creepy crawlers sharing your home.

American spiders and their spinningwork. V.3 Academy of natural sciences of Philadelphia,1889-93. http://www.biodiversitylibrary.org/item/26146

Here in Detroit, our previously polluted Detroit River has been cleaned up to harbor all kinds of birds, animals (even beaver), and fish stocks; you can see folks fishing for walleye (which they apparently intend to eat) all along the banks. This makes for lots of new opportunities for citizen scientists. In “Reconnecting in Detroit:  The Transformative Potential of Citizen Science,” John Hartig lists “angler surveys, identifying aquatic invertebrates collected from river and lake sediments, counting birds, listening for frogs, spotting salamanders, collecting butterflies of dragonflies, or measuring water quality.”

In Oakland County, the northwest segment of the Detroit Metropolitan Region, I am astonished at what my nature loving neighbors get up to in the middle of winter. In mid-December, Oakland Audubon members range far and wide collecting data for their Christmas Bird Count. Right now, in the dead end of January, there is a stonefly search going on in the Rouge River. Organized by The Friends of the Rouge, this citizen science project helps volunteers examine cold, soggy samples of river detritus to count stoneflies.   These are “a primitive group of insects named for their habit of crawling on stones in a river. They have high oxygen needs, which limits them to clean, well-oxygenated streams.” Since they hatch in the wintertime, that’s when data must be gathered.

Before it gets warm yet in March, The Friends of the Rouge also train intrepid little bands (some of them in their 80s) to recognize particular species of frogs and toads even when they are all singing together.  

They go out in the dark of spring nights, scrambling around secluded ponds and river inlets to identify which species are singing and to get an estimate of their numbers.

As for me, I am sitting in my warm house counting the birds that come to my feeder, turning my scribbled little lists into useful data in the Michigan Audubon’s Winter Bird Survey. I haven’t reached the stage of collecting data about the spiders who come up my bathtub drain, the mealy bugs that burrow into my cornflakes, or the moths munching on my woolies, but it might come to that yet if cabin fever has its way with me!

Wild Speculations and Ruptured Paradigms

Last summer I wrote an essay about whether climate warming will cause the extinction of the human species, so when I came across an article by Lucy Jakub on “Wild Speculation: Evolution After Humans,” I was interested in her startlingly idiosyncratic take.

I  spend many happy hours facilitating Socrates Cafes, where people ask philosophical questions and examine philosophical premises in an open-minded and open-hearted manner. As I read Jakub’s survey of speculative writing about the end of the species, I found myself querying the writers’ premises about how we got to this pass.

Geologist Dougal Dixon  (who assumes in those innocent years that it is a new Ice Age that will do us in) devotes his 1981 After Man to a scientific study, based on evolutionary genetics, of life forms that might evolve when we are gone.

“Humans go extinct because we lose our evolutionary advantage by adapting our environment to our needs, rather than the other way around.  When the resources needed to maintain our civilizations run out, we are unable to adapt quickly enough to survive. Crucially, nothing takes our place, and the planet reverts to an Edenic state, uncorrupted by knowledge.”

Let’s look at this philosophically: Dixon considers our capacity for adaption the fruit of our advanced cognition, which  isn’t advanced enough to prevent us from depleting our own ecosystem. But if this is so, is it our knowledge that corrupts us or poor choices about how to use it?

We did not all make those choices. Only a small (if powerful) elite of westernized humans – mostly male and mostly industrialists (think of Wordsworth! Think of Dickinson!) propose such a preposterous idea. Their presumption that human beings are separate from and in control of nature serves their bottom line and profit motive, while the rest of us have come to realize that we are more like ruinous genes running amok within it.

Jakubs  describes the “Speculative world-building,” of science fiction as a way to explore solutions to our environmental predicament. But Pierre Boulle, in his 1963  Planet of the Apes, is less worried about what is happening to the environment than what is happening in the pecking order, namely “man’s fall from dominance,” while Brian Aldiss, similarly, frets in his 1962 novel Hothouse that human beings have ceded control to (of all things) vegetation.

Do you see the pattern here? Nature (apes, plants) is a terrifying external force usurping human  power/over everything.

As we move into recent decades, however, Jakub notes that the “bourgeoning environmental movement led to a new genre, Eco-fiction, whose authors -Ursula K. Le Guin, Louise Erdrich, and Barbara Kingsolver- are especially beloved – mourned not the fall or humanity but the degradation of nature and our lost connection to it, and whose utopias didn’t necessarily include humans.”

Is it just a coincidence that the three authors she cites are women?  Or is the premise that nature is a degradable  “other” less  universal than it seems?

When women novelists write about nature there is a significant gender difference in our premises. In the 1980s I analyzed more than 300 novels by women to compare women heroes’ quests to those outlined (for “man”) by Joseph Campbell. What I found was that while his male hero took women as both “other” and embedded in an alien and dangerous realm of nature,” women saw themselves as deeply integrated in and interdependent with the green world around them.

In recent years, both men and women have embraced the Gaia hypothesis that our planet is an organism within which we and all other life-forms live and must maintain a mutually beneficial balance.  Meanwhile, Eco-fiction has become a widespread and popular genre to the extent that Jim Dwyer’s Where the Wild Books Are: A Field Guide to Eco-Fiction lists more than 1000 volumes from all over the world.

Mary Woodbury, its most thoroughgoing curator, describes Eco-fiction (as) ecologically oriented fiction, which may be nature-oriented (non-human oriented) or environment-oriented (human impacts on nature). . .Eco-Fiction novels and prose zoom out to beyond the personal narrative and connect us to the commons around us – our natural habitat.”

Ecology deals with the interactions of organisms within a system and takes human beings as one of those organisms. Eco-Fiction. in Woodbury’s definition,  is connective and understands nature as our commons. How we are to do the work of that connection and how we are to take our rightful place within that commons are questions this excitingly speculative new genre raises in our minds and hearts through the deep truths of storytelling.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Red Bees, Blue Bees

Red Bees

Henry David Thoreau felt that he would become “the laughing stock of the scientific community” if he tried to tell them what “branch of science” he pursued, because they would have no use for the philosophical (specifically, transcendental) basis of his observations. He was convinced that humans are not superior to the material world but endowed with the same spirit; his passion for nature had to do with the feeling of wholeness it instilled in him as a participant in rather than an outside observer of natural phenomena:

“I keep out of doors for the sake of the mineral, vegetable, and animal in me,” he wrote on November 4, 1852. “My thought is a part of the meaning of the world, and hence I use a part of the world as a symbol to express my thought.” (The Journal of Henry David Thoreau, 1836-1861 The New York Review Books and Classics).

His refusal to hold himself apart from nature did not prevent Thoreau from using the scientific method in his observations, taking detailed notes on natural objects and devising experiments to understand them better in order to arrive at viable hypotheses. That is what he and some  friends were up to in September of 1852, trying to figure out how honey bees went about their business:

“We were furnished with little boxes of red, blue, green, yellow, and white paint, in dry powder, and with a stick we sprinkled a little of the red powder on the back of one while he was feeding — gave him a little dab,— and it settled down amid the fuzz of his back and gave him a distinct red jacket.

He went off like most of them toward some hives about three quarters of a mile distant, and we observed by the watch the time of his departure. In just twenty-two minutes red jacket came back, with enough of the powder still on his back to mark him plainly.

He may have gone more than three quarters of a mile. At any rate, he had a head wind to contend with while laden. They fly swiftly and surely to their nests, never resting by the way, and I was surprised—though I had been informed of it—at the distance to which the village bees go for flowers.

The rambler in the most remote woods and pastures little thinks that the bees which are humming so industriously on the rare wild flowers he is plucking for his herbarium, in some out-of-the-way nook, are, like himself, ramblers from the village, perhaps from his own yard, come to get their honey for his hives.”

Honey Bee Endangerment

Alas and alack, these are the very bees that human civilization, which Thoreau so distrusted, has endangered under the belief that we can do anything we want to nature without suffering such consequences as the  “colony collapse disorder” now decimating the bees upon which our agricultural depends:  10 million North American bee hives died off between 2007 and 2013 ”from “a combination of agricultural chemicals, diseases, parasites and stress.”

Nonetheless, every time I step out into my modest flower garden on a sunny day there are bees everywhere and of all different sizes,   tiny bees in the tiny flowers, medium sized bees in the medium sized flowers, and bumblebees rummaging around in the hibiscus. Then, being a transcendentalist myself, my ego vanishes into the sunshine and I feel myself, as did Wordsworth, part of “something far more deeply interfused” than my day to day chores.

Although some larger wild bees like the bumble bee are also in distress these days, many smaller wild bees that are native to our countryside seem to be doing quite well, and one of those is the Blue Bee frequenting the blooms of almonds and fruit trees in our national’s orchards.

 
Blue Bees to the Rescue

The United States Department of Agriculture informs us that “In recent years, the blue orchard bee (BOB) has become established as an alternative orchard pollinator in North America. With a strong preference for fruit trees, BOBs are highly efficient pollinators; in fact, just 250-300 females will pollinate an entire acre of apples or cherries.  BOBs forage and pollinate under cloudy skies and at lower temperatures than most other bees.  They are easy to manage and rarely sting.”

Farmers trying to manage Blue Bees quickly learned that they are much more Thoreauvian in their love of autonomy than the more social imported Honey Bees. Here is they are instructed on:modernfarmer.com:

“Blue orchard bees might be efficient pollinators, but they’re terrible employees.

What makes blue orchard bees enticing to farmers, aside from the fact that they’re inherently cool and native to this country, is that they’re actually much more efficient pollinators than honey bees. This is partly as a result of their solitary nature and partly a result of the fact that they collect pollen with their abdomens, rather than their legs, which is what honey bees do; BOBs perform this goofy sort of swimming motion within the flower to get pollen to stick to them. This swimming motion is really great for spreading pollen from one plant to another, if not quite as great for actually collecting pollen to give to their broods”

If, like Thoreau, the farmers had painted their Blue Bees red, they would not have observed them returning to village hives but, as he to his beloved Walden, to autonomous little dwellings – holes in the ground, actually – more suitable to their distaste for bee socialization and theirlove of solitude

And so it is that modern farmers have learned to poke Blue Bee larvae into the ground near their orchards or to bury carefully measured little tubes here and there where mother bees can lay their eggs in the solitude they so cherish.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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On the Joy of Natural Curiosity

You would think that when I am at my river cottage in Northern Michigan I would sit back, close my eyes, and relax.  I have the most comfortable deck chair you can imagine, fitted out with the most sybaritic of cushions, but I keep leaping up to see what is splashing in the river or to examine a flower I have suddenly noticed growing on the bank.

This summer I have read three books, dipping into each as the whim possesses me: The Journal of Henry David Thoreau, 1837-1861, Walter Isaacson’s   Leonardo Da Vinci, and Robin Wall Kimmerer’s, Gathering Moss: A Natural and Cultural History of Mosses.

“How sweet is the perception of a new natural fact! Suggesting what worlds remain to be unveiled,” exclaims Thoreau on April 18, 1852. “That phenomenon of the Andromeda  seen against the sun cheers me exceedingly.

I think that no one ever takes an original or detects a principle, without experiencing an inexpressible, as quite infinite and sane, pleasure, which advertises him of the dignity of that truth he has perceived.”

Leonardo Da Vinci’s “curiosity,” notes Isaacson, “like that of Einstein, often was about phenomena that people over the age of  ten no longer puzzle about.”

Leonardo’s puzzlings are scribbled over 7,200 pages of notebooks that Isaacson deftly organizes by topics. “My favorite gems in his notebooks,” he acknowledges, “are his To-Do lists, which sparkle with curiosity.”

From Leonardo Da Vinci’s To Do Lists:

 “Observe the goose’s foot: if it were always open or always closed the creature would not be able to make any kind of movement.”

“Why is the fish in the water swifter than the bird in the air when it ought to be the contrary since the water is heaver and thicker than the air?”

“Describe the tongue of the woodpecker.”

“Why is the sky blue?”

“Why can our eyes see only in a straight line?”

“What is yawning?”

I am way over the age of ten, but I retain a ten year old’s curiosity. I am always trying to figure out what is going on in nature – slogging through the wetlands to see what the beaver are up to, chasing up and down the river after sandpipers, or lying flat on my belly trying to figure out what Kimmerer means about the structure of mosses.

And what a joy I feel to see my sixteen year old grandaughter and thirteen year old grandson  bent over their nets and collecting jars, closely examining crawfish, dragonfly nymphs, minnows, and tiny river lampreys – curious as ever about the diverse and fascinating abundance of river life.

There is a lovely swathe of emerald, velvety moss right in front of my cottage that brings joy to our bare feet as we race down to swim in the river. After reading my book on mosses, it has revealed an eternity in itself.

Biologist Kimmerer and her assistant crouch on the forest floor, devising multiple experiments to figure out why Dictanum Flagellare shares space with Tetraphis pellucida  rather than compete with each other, as might ordinarily be expected of different moss species. Is it the wind? Is it slugs, they ask themselves, and create a sticky surface to see what might be crawling around. The answer, after two long summers of mosquitoes, sore backs, and discarded  hypotheses?  Chipmunks!

“Part of the fascination of working with mosses,” writes Kimmerer, “is the chance to see if and when the ecological rules of the large transcend the boundaries of scale and will illuminate the behavior of the smallest beings. It is a search for order, a desire for a glimpse of the threads that hold the world together.” P. 58

All three of the authors I read this summer – a nineteenth century New England naturalist, a Renaissance genius, and a Potawatomi scientist –   focus on minute particulars, tiny details like how a curl of hair resembles a river eddy (Leonardo), the motions a great blue heron’s wings make as it takes off (Thoreau), and the tiny sharp outgrowths that allow dried out moss to conduct raindrops to its ovules (Kimmerer). They possess an intense curiosity, an eye for the details of minute particulars, and a tendency to joy in  nature.

May it be so, and blessed be.

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Climate Change and the Conundrum of Human Survival

I have discovered that many creatures have already adapted to climate warming  – I just read about a bird population in an area documented 100 years ago are now so smart now that a whole variety of species lay their eggs  “almost exactly counterbalancing the two-degree rise in average temperatures recorded over the last century.”

Which leaves me with the inevitable, haunting question: but what about humans? How far does global warming have to rise for us to become extinct?

So I spend the summer writing an article for Impakter, an international on-line magazine where I am a columnist, about whether we can learn anything from our history on earth that will help us survive global warming.

Here it is

 

Why Is that Seagull Hanging Out with the Pelicans?

 

I had a break on Florida’s Sanibel Island from our Michigan snow, sleet, and polar cold  early this April . It was over 80 degrees every day, sunny and warm, so I  wandered along the Gulf Coast beach in utter bliss with my toes in the waves.

All day long  Brown Pelicans flew close to the shore, suddenly turning as if on a hinge to dive bomb schools of fish, sieving them up in their bills and  throwing their heads back to swallow.  There was a little pod of three pelicans  accompanied by a small seagull, which flew over after every dive to join them.

I wondered, somewhat sentimentally, if this was a bird/bird friendship, like the companionship of cats with parrots and goats with baby hippos you sometime see on YouTube? I asked  a fisherman what was going on, and he explained that the pelican’s explosive dive stuns schools of fish, leaving plenty to bob confusedly about for the gull to feed on.

Gulls are well-known scavengers – there were crowds of them circling and screaming around fishing boats returning to harbor, riding low with the day’s catch.  The fishermen don’t get anything out of this gull companionship; neither, apparently, do the pelicans.

I have a handy-dandy Birder’s Handbook, which includes quirky informational essays. When I got home I consulted it, to learn that the pelican/gull relationship is not bird/bird friendliness but  “commensal feeding.” A  “follower bird” associates with a “beater species”  which “stirs up the waters” like the pelican or flushes hidden food advantageously.

Birds don’t just follow other birds: the Cattle Egrets I saw along Florida highways follow tractors as well as cows, gleaning the stirred furrows; the tractors don’t seem to get  anything from the relationship.

Birds of different species sometimes flock together for mutual protection,  to  “increase the number of eyes and ears available to detect predators and [confuse] them as many individuals flee at once.”   Great Egrets hang around White Ibises not only for fish that the deep-delving Ibises stir up, but also,  being taller, they detect and warn of approaching danger.  Downy woodpeckers feed with Titmice and Chickadees to “use them as sentinels,” while  Blue Jays alert my whole back yard until (including its squirrels) they are all yelling together about a menacing hawk.

Which explains a curious intermingling of species on the Sanibel Island beach:  a flock of Sanderlings, tiny sandpipers scuttling in and out of the surf to probe for mollusks, crustaceans, and horseshoe crab eggs, will have a Plover with them; or a Willet that signals danger with a fluting warble will hang out with a group of  Ruddy Turnstones.

sanderlings (small with white bellies mid-background) in a mixed flock

Another strange thing on those beaches is how tame the shore birds are, standing around totally unperturbed by human approach. One day while I was swimming a Snowy Egret trotted from the tideline to my towel and seemed to be waiting there for me. My father, a professed pagan and ocean-lover, told us before he died that he might come back to see us some day as a big white bird, so, thinking it  was him, I  pulled my grandson from his swim to introduce them to each other.

Silly me: the next day I saw the Egret, with his big yellow feet and his wispy feathers blowing in the wind, sitting by another towel to await  commensal feeding.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Polar Bear Conundrum

 It is spring again, and I am slinging my binoculars around my neck to look for warbler “fall outs,” when dozens of colorful little bundles of pluck and determination pause to feed along our Michigan rivers in their migration from as far away as Mexico and South America. Sadly, these days it is more of a trickle  than the cascade of birds I used to see, a fact that undercuts my springtime élan with a strain of dread.

We nature lovers know that environmental despair can paralyze our wills, keeping us from working on behalf of our beloved planet. That is why I have been writing about Snow Shoe Hares and Leaping Lizards, House Finches and microscopic Tardigrades, cheering myself up with evidence of new adaptions and instances of abundance that might lessen both the extirpation and extinction of species.

Polar Bears

There is a depressing video of an emaciated Polar Bear going the rounds of social media to illustrate species depletion by thinning sea ice, so you can imagine how encouraged I was by an article in the British Guardian explaining that the decline of polar bears in Alaska’s Beaufort Sea is overridden by significant numbers elsewhere in the Arctic. Polar Bears are divided into “stocks,” or populations living in different areas; the stock in one place may decrease due to local conditions while others are stable or actually increasing,  Fact checking around, I found the total count at 26,000, up from 12,000 in 1970. Since this does not include stocks inf the vast area under Russian control (for which no data has been made available) it looks like cause for hope.

Polar Bear Counts as a Political Weapon

The problem with getting all hopeful about these statistics is that climate deniers use the rise in polar bear population to pooh-pooh “being hit over the head” by environmentalists. Here is Susan Crockford, for example, in Canada’s Financial Post: “Polar bears are flourishing, making them phony icons, and false idols, for global warming alarmists.” The article  insists that it is thickening sea ice in the Beaufort Sea that is leading to Polar Bear depletion: “There are also strong indications that thick spring-ice conditions happened again in 2014–16, with the impacts on polar bears being similarly portrayed as effects of global warming.”

Unfortunately, the Financial Post is looking at present Polar Bear populations, not future ones, which are predicted to decline as global warming advances.  Their numbers have recently increased, but the endangered designation is derived from calculations like those of Polar Bears International. which predict that the species will be extinct by 2050 because of global warming.

Where Does This Leave Us?

It seems clear that some (though not all) members of the business community will continue to deny the seriousness of climate change, using whatever rhetorical weapons they can muster.

 

They are preaching, however, to their own choir, folks whose greed for profit makes them deny proven scientific findings.

For the rest of us, facts about the loss of abundance and diversity must be faced if we are to keep on fighting for the natural world we love so much. But how can keep our spirits up amid so much evidence of species decline and natural disaster?

For me, the answer is hope, which I understand as the opposite of conviction or certainty; I am neither convinced nor certain that global warming can be mitigated,  but I hope like mad that  nature can rebound someday to its onetime glorious diversity and enormous abundance. Hope helps me take heart from good news about what is being done both at home and around the world,  but I must find ways to strengthen my heart so that I can absorb the bad news as well.

Taking heart, “dwelling in possibility” as Emily Dickinson put it, involves a summoning of strength from each other, taking courage from companionship in action, but also from an inner strengthening,  finding ways to build up my personal courage.

John Seed, director of the Rainforest Information Center in Australia, deals with the despair of his daily dealings with the lumber industry by remembering

“… that it’s not me, John Seed, trying to protect the rain forest. Rather, I am part of the rain forest protecting itself. I am that part of the rain forest recently emerged into human thinking.”

Joanna Macy, proponent of eco-philosophy and a self-strengthening ecological depth psychology, suggests each of us build up an “ecological self”:

“This greening of the self.. . involves a combining of the mystical with the pragmatic, transcending separateness, alienation, and fragmentation. It is . . .‘a spiritual change,’ generating a sense of profound interconnectedness with all life. . . .Thus the greening of the self helps us to reinhabit time and our own story as life on Earth. … the story of a deep kinship with all life, bringing strengths that we never imagined. When we claim this story as our innermost sense of who we are, a gladness comes that will help us to survive.”

I live in hope

 

 

 

 

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.”