Sunday, February 24, 2013

Sketches Here and There: All that Can Be Lost

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                In “Sketches Here and There” Aldo Leopold takes us from an elegy of a marsh drained for farmland to a monument/gravestone of a species, the passenger pigeons, to place after natural place facing the threat of humans and often succumbing to a homogenized fate.  One of the most heart-breaking lines was at the beginning of “The Green Lagoons”:  “It is the part of wisdom never to revisit a wilderness, for the more golden the lily, the more certain that someone has gilded it.  To return not only spoils a trip, but tarnishes a memory.”  Earlier in “On Top” Leopold offers a similar sentiment:  “Despite several opportunities to do so, I have never returned to the White Mountains.  I prefer not to see what tourists, roads, sawmills, and logging railroads have done for it, or to it.  I hear young people, not yet born when I first rode out ‘on top,’ exclaim about it as a wonderful place.  To this, with an unspoken mental reservation, I agree.” 
                I went into science because I was concerned about conservation issues, but I do wonder if science can do enough fast enough if people have neither an appreciation nor passion for the natural world.  But, then, in those circumstances, I have no solution either.  It is sad to think that Leopold feared going back to a place he had known at an earlier time, having learned no doubt repeatedly, that nature is not universally valued or protected.  Leopold makes us feel this loss poignantly. 
                Although despite this loss, often brought about by guns, as well as saws, we frequently find Leopold hunting.  I cannot decide if that is the optimist in him or the human instinct that he often rails against.  (He shows no optimism regarding returning to wild places he had loved, if that offers any clue.) I have a healthy respect for hunters, and appreciate that through them we gain many natural areas and wild life.  But, it is hard for me to reconcile the hunter in Leopold who is able to take such pleasure in the woodcocks dance, yet still bag one or two of them; and, surely there is nothing wrong in that, but it still surprises me.  In “Clandeboye,” a marsh where Leopold spends time trying to catch a close look of the ever-wary grebe, one finally appears and then another with two young on her back.  In the margins I wrote “Please don’t shoot!” because I can never tell with him.  Fortunately, he listened this time.  We all must partake of the food web in some way, and it seems to grow more challenging by the year to discern how to make a minimal global impact (and local hunting may be one of the very best strategies when it is all said and done).
                These passages have had me thinking about the first species I saw in my bird guide that would have lived within my range, if it had not gone extinct:  the Carolina parakeet ( knew that was no Wisconsin bird, didn't you?), the only North American parakeet.  I remember feeling that new knowledge in my stomach.  Still printed in the bird guide then, but why?  To remind us of our own nature?  Of how much more there is to lose?  Or perhaps the writer of the field guide still held a hope that it would turn up somewhere and a birder with his guide would be there to witness its return.  If hope is the thing with feathers, then perhaps that is the best explanation.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Downton Abbey and Modernization

If you, like me, have been enjoying the ups and downs of the Crawley family for the last couple of years, then this humble abode and its well-manicured grounds have become somewhat familiar to you. 

Many people out there are mourning the loss of Matthew Crawley who died in the very last minutes at the end of Season 3 so that his actor (Dan Stevens) might live on to explore other adventures in his career (can’t blame him…his character was a bit of a goody two shoes).  But before his death, Matthew had started in motion the modernization of Downton to save the family home and fortune.  It all seems good and fine, doesn’t it?  They weren’t generating enough money with their management of the land—we loyal viewers heard that it was being “improperly managed” more than once.  Weren’t we all on Matthew’s side?  Modernization…it is so…modern, who can resist?  Poor Lord Grantham with his grand ways and his lack of proper management skills; it did take him a while to see sense.  He certainly could not articulate any reason for his past management and he did not try to argue that he properly managed at all, although I think he could have. 
                Perhaps if Lord Grantham had been friends with a youngish Aldo Leopold, together they could have made an argument for improper management, which might have even included letting the grass grow or some native vegetation.  The modernization that Matthew spoke of included greater efficiencies in farming with machinery and working more of the land to generate profits great enough to keep Downton solvent in the near future.  Solvency is good, but is the cost always paid by natural things?  Leopold talks of Kublai Khan planting millet and other grains so that the cranes would not want, and then of the farmers who drained marshes so that their farms might not only surround, but invade the marsh.  This too in the name of modernization and efficiency (if only a short-term efficiency). 
                Maybe our future modernization will involve minimizing impact and maximizing wildness.  Leopold says that “Our ability to perceive quality in nature begins, as in art, with the pretty.  It expands through successive stages of the beautiful to values as yet uncaptured by language.  The quality of cranes lies, I think, in this higher gamut, as yet beyond the reach of words.”  Maybe in Season four, modernization will collide with nature and Lord Grantham will find a voice for the improperly managed, who do quite well in managing themselves.  

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

A Blog for Valentine's Day

In my conservation biology class, we have been considering the different values that can be placed on nature.  Your favorite species of tree perhaps, can be assigned a value preceded by a dollar sign—should it blow down, your insurance company for one will be able to tell you exactly how much it was worth even though you could never pick up a 50 year old tree from the store.  If you cut your tulip poplar down, you could burn it next year or sell the wood, direct use values.  But then you would lose the value, the sheer enjoyment of looking at it out the window, or swinging your child from one of its branches, or sitting beneath its shade on a warm summer afternoon while reading something like A Sand County Almanac.  And all the while you spent admiring it, or forgetting it, it would be busy sequestering carbon, soaking up water from the soil, producing oxygen, letting a bird nest in its branches so that each morning you could hear it calling out the business of the day.  We can put dollar signs on it all (even the dollar bills themselves will have come from trees).    
Aldo Leopold is a lover of trees and there are many pages devoted to his debates over which tree to cut down and whether or not he’s wrong to favor the white pine he planted over the red birch that sprung up on its own.  His determination, “The only conclusion I have ever reached is that I love all trees, but I am in love with pines,” has me thinking about the trees I love and those that changed my life, something I have not tried to assign a dollar value to, even if I have assigned value nonetheless. 
My first research internship with the US Forest Service had me climbing towers (see an example below) with a graduate student measuring photosynthetic activity of the leaves of trees at different points in the canopy.  Climbing up the tower, I remember seeing all of the tulip poplar flowers sitting on branches like cups of tea. That is a tree I fell in love with…it was such a surprise and the flowers looked like something out of Willie Wonka’s factory.  The graduate student was a quiet man down on the ground, but a little chattier up in the tops of trees.  Really, he has a lot in common with trees, I have come to know these last 20 years:  He is steady and reliable, patient and kind (if you will allow trees some kindness), a man with a soft heart who wears a suit of bark (really, some of his clothes are intolerable); he leafs out in a predictable fashion and where those leaves fall will be far and wide, and should you nag a tree, it will pay you no heed.  My husband and I have “a tree” (the tulip poplar, Liriodendron tulipifera) the way other people have “a song.”  Yet, ironically, we do not actually have a tulip poplar tree and I realize it would have been better than a box of chocolates (the reality is, I will eat them all anyway).  I must stop now to find a piece of paper to write my valentine an IOU for a certain tree to remind us when we forget why it is we are both in love with tulip poplars. 

Friday, February 8, 2013

Woodcock or Woodpecker

“The woodcock is a living refutation of the theory that the utility of a game bird is to serve as a target, or to pose gracefully on a slice of toast.  No one would rather hunt woodcock in October than I, but since learning of the sky dance I find myself calling one or two birds enough.  I must be sure that, come April, there be no dearth of dancers in the sunset sky.”  --Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac 1949

I have been pondering the short-sightedness of our kind, realizing that I am no different in most respects, despite our plans for the future and exploration beyond our current realm to space and beyond, whatever that might ultimately mean.  We read of prehistoric woman and man, who may have contributed to the extinction of the megafauna of their time.  The arrival of humans on each continent preceded extinction of many large mammals. Although attributing these extinctions to humans is debatable since those times also coincided with large climatic shifts that may also have played a role or have been solely responsible, one only has to look our actions today and wonder if that doesn’t indicate our capacity in times past, even if unwittingly.  Wild turkeys, the first animal I did research on, were extirpated from large parts of North America, as were the currently abundant white tailed deer.  Without external control initiated by the forward thinking few, we could have lost these now common animals as we have lost so many of the top predators.  Although I ultimately choose optimism, I do wonder if we can overcome our tendency to take now from the sea and from the earth with the expectation that these resources are without end, as generously supplied as the sunshine that we expect without fail, although that too will one day end. 
Aldo Leopold may have had the answer over 60 years ago.  Watching the sky dance of the woodcocks on many evenings and mornings seemed to have diminished his thrill for the hunt.  We love what we know, and we protect what we love.  It is an argument for getting us all outside, even if only into our own backyards to see the world that still moves around us.  It is getting outside early for my morning walks that I have come to see the hairy woodpecker that frequents our feeders crawl into a hole in a dying tree that we had considered cutting down this spring.  And now, what was dying has new life and will stand for as long as it stands. We will be the tenants beneath the woodpeckers’ homey lookout, happy that our eyes have learned to see.


Friday, February 1, 2013

“Rest! Cries the chief sawyer, and we pause for breath.”

Yesterday my conservation biology class had an environmental ethics debate on two topics—reintroducing the wolf into Ohio and prioritizing species known to benefit humans in conservation ethics.  It was interesting to listen to the arguments that they made and subsequently think about how such arguments play out in our society, in our politics.  The arguments based on the intrinsic value of species preservation is one that many of us inherently accept, while still recognizing the challenges and the need to balance conflicting demands between protecting biodiversity and humans being able to have a high or acceptable standard of living.  We can argue how these two factors are not at odds with one another, but that a high standard of living will always require maintaining the ecosystem life support system that sustains us.  We can also make economic arguments for protecting biodiversity, realizing that they will ultimately fall short for species that do not appear to offer any direct or indirect benefits to humans—that we need a multifaceted argument that highlights our reliance on nature for living a high-quality, meaningful life, while also appreciating our moral obligation to our fellow humans and our fellow species that we share this planet with. 
But, morals are tricky and instilling an appreciation of nature is not something everyone grows up with or understands, although I’d like to think we could all stand before nature and be reawakened into amazement.  Reading (really, rereading, but I’ve forgotten so much it might as well be hot of the press and news to me) Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac with my class, reminds me how removed we all are from the survival we ultimately reap from nature, while thinking subconsciously (if knowing consciously otherwise) that it comes from Kroger or Walmart.  It is a speedy world where having more stuff and having tools that allow us to do things more quickly seems to make us move through our day in a frenzy squeezing in more than would have seemed possible 100 years ago, or even 20 years ago.  Look at Leopold describing a tree struck by lightning and weathered a year before the day he cut it down to warm their home lovingly called “the shack.”  My home is warmed by flipping a switch, and I only occasionally give thought about the coal used to generate the electricity that flows into my house.  Leopold contemplates the tree, the world around the tree when it first rooted itself into the ground and as it grew.  The labor of felling the tree is enough that they often cry “Rest!” to catch their breath, a process that causes at least that one man to ponder the oak that will keep him warm as it is turned to ash, and to appreciate his connection to the living world.  Perhaps a little more labor for our warmth or the clothes upon our back or the food on our table would serve all of the natural world well and remind us daily that our own survival is related to ground below our feet and the sky above.