Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Public Relations and Where are the Amphibians?

I have been contemplating the PR problem of amphibians and wondering how they are overlooked so frequently in our classic texts.  In A Sand County Almanac, frogs are mentioned only one time—once!!!  Well, okay, once to be admired by the Aldo Leopold, perhaps that would be sufficient.  But alas, they are merely food (however, I agree, food is important):  “Out on the bog a crane, gulping some luckless frog, springs his ungainly hulk into the air and flails the morning sun with mighty wings.  The tamaracks re-echo with his bugled certitude.  He seems to know.”  A lovely sentence, but our dear beloved frog is luckless and the crane gets all the glory.  Luckless, indeed.  Similarly, in Silent Spring, I found only four references to amphibians and these were rather off-handed (and none interesting enough even to quote).  No laments from Rachel Carson of the potential for contaminants to result in a “Silent Night,” as Tyrone Hayes often puts it.
                It’s all about birds.  If we compared the number of odes to birds versus frogs, I probably would not have to tell you who would win based on my informal survey, but I will:  birds.  Birds, birds, birds.  Well, I am quite fond of birds too, so I get it.  They offer what to the human ears seems an endless cheer.  This morning on my walk on this first day of calendar spring, I was heartened by the busy calling of the cardinals and titmice (and half a dozen other calls I do not know), and the busy sounds of woodpeckers.  It is one of my motivations for getting out of bed, my morning walk with the birds.  I can understand why there are Audubon clubs scattered prodigiously throughout the country.  We are diurnal creatures and pay homage to other diurnals who share our day.  We advocate the protection of birds and worry of their declines, as we should, even though birds are doing better than a great swath of biodiversity (including better than amphibians and a heck of a lot better than mussels--see below).  Better PR often equals better protection. 
Species at Risk from Primack's Essentials of Conservation Biology.

                But it is what we do not often or frequently see or think about that is doing a lot of the work or is at the very least an important part of the ecological machinery.  Think of the detritovores—where would we be without them?  Surrounded by dead bodies for starters.  Amphibians too are doing their bit:  the luckless prey sometimes, the lucky predator at other times.  And if you are lucky enough to hear them through your windows or as you wander the night, their calls will also cheer you and eventually lull you into your temporary, nocturnal sleep.  Wishing you all many lucky frogs in your future and when you write your next book, work in the amphibians, won’t you?  


Monday, March 11, 2013

The Land Ethic in a Modern World of Sequestration

Well, it is spring break here in Miami U of Ohio land, so the students are gone and the town is quiet and I am trying to catch up on work so that I hopefully survive the semester at least as sane as I started it.  I started the “break” Saturday with a visit to Fort Ancient for an outing to look for herps led by Jeff Davis to commemorate Paul Daniels, a former Miami faculty member in the department of zoology who was by all descriptions an inspiration to the students he taught.  Jeff Davis said he remembered “Doc” taking him to Fort Ancient and saying that the salamanders they saw here were the ancestors of those that the American Indians would have seen up to 1200 years ago when they created the walls and, subsequently, the small wetlands behind the barriers that helped keep their enemies out.  Such a great way to think about these animals with a lineage stretching back a thousand years to this very spot, and then hopefully reaching forward for another thousand (plus) years.  This is what conservation is about—preserving the biodiversity we have and leaving it here for future generations to come out and enjoy.
One of the Jefferson salamander (Ambystoma jeffersonianum) descendants at Fort Ancient.  

I finished rereading A Sand County Almanac a couple of weekends ago and have been pondering a few of Leopold’s thoughts as I listened to the government sequestration go down, and with the continual griping about politics that goes on in the papers, on Facebook, and in my own extended family.  Leopold says “The land-relation is still strictly economic, entailing privileges but not obligations.” (p 203) and then “In short, a land ethic changes the role of Homo sapiens from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it.  It implies respect for his fellow-members, and also respect for the community as such.” (p 204)  It seems to me sometimes that the community of people we care about and are willing to help continues to get smaller and smaller, and mimics what goes on in our treatment of the natural world.  The community we care about often does not extend much beyond our own backyard, or maybe our neighbor should s/he do something we do not approve of or that affects our property, then we want someone to step in.  But at the same time there is a demand for lower taxes and smaller government.  It is not to say this is not possible or in some ways desirable, it is just hard for me to imagine how our society will realistically function and how the natural world will have a chance, if what some claim to want comes to pass. 
Leopold goes on to say:  “There is a clear tendency in American conservation to relegate to government all necessary jobs that private landowners fail to perform.  Government ownership, operation, subsidy, or regulation is now widely prevalent in forestry, range management, soil and watershed management, park and wilderness conservation, fisheries management, and migratory bird management, with more to come.  Most of this growth in governmental conservation is proper and logical, some of it is inevitable.  That I imply no disapproval of it is implicit in the fact that I have spent most of my life working for it.  Nevertheless the question arises:  What is the ultimate magnitude of the enterprise?  Will the tax base carry its eventual ramifications?  At what point will governmental conservation, like the mastodon, become handicapped by its own dimensions?  The answer, if there is any, seems to be in a land ethic, or some other force which assigns more obligation to the private landowner.”  (p 213) 
I wonder if Leopold didn’t have the solution to our current political and environmental problems all these years ago (although this should come as no surprise):  to expect more of people who take ownership of land, and who use the land—to expect them to be a respectful member of the social and ecological community around her/him and to make decisions because it’s good for the soil, and the birds, and the spring wildflowers, and the animals downstream in the Gulf of Mexico.  The land ethic though, is clearly not shared by all and economic incentive will promote the ethic of the self (which to a point is necessary) because it will have advantages in the marketplace, especially if corporations are now people and members of the community. 
It is the challenge all of us in the modern world face, being a respectful part of the ecological community around us and thinking about how our actions and decisions influence the ecological systems near and far.  But even if we all mostly act as good “biotic citizens,” a few bad citizens (especially large corporate citizens) can spoil any gains in stewardship.  And that is why we need our government to function in a way that uses the best available science and regulates industry in a way that minimizes its impact on what is left of the natural world—without that, we are lost and those salamander descendants will die out and who will replace them?