Flow (with redwood trees)

September 6, 2016 | Uncategorized | Permalink

Redwood-Watch-mapOn a Sunday in summer 2008, I was sitting in the library at the California Academy of Sciences, alone on the third floor of the brand-new Renzo Piano-designed building. I no longer have this kind of access, but at the time I was able to move at will into the temperature-controlled stacks, to consult a century’s worth of books and periodicals elucidating arguably the most important concept of all time, the theory of evolution by way of natural selection. I was writing a book (Evidence of Evolution), and for me at least, that is never an easy task. Scientific explanations are not good at communicating a visceral, emotional, intuitive understanding of their subject. It was my job to understand the dry science, and to make it warm and whenever possible, juicy. I spent a lot of time in that library that summer, but that day I had before me a stack of books about evolutionary development. This science tracks the development of the bodily expression of an organism – a butterfly, a frog, a human being – from its inception as an embryo. Turns out there is a single code directing the deployment of all body types, called the “hox genes,” and these work in bugs and bears and you and me. Hox genes have been discerned in fossils going back 542 million years, to the Cambrian period in which the variety of body types on Earth exploded – some call this the most significant evolutionary moment in time, after of course, the mysterious inception of life itself. I was reading about this fundamental unity at the base of the bewildering diversity of life forms and I got dizzy. But my pen was moving smoothly, ideas deploying by way of nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs. I was writing like hox genes deploying and shaping a new thing with ancient reference points. Later I would cut out the excess adjectives.

Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi named this sort of engagement, production, and pleasure a “flow” experience, and he is credited with essentially founding the field of positive psychology on it. Ed Ricketts, the amateur marine biologist who famously inspired John Steinbeck and Joseph Campbell, was keen on flow but he called it “breaking through.” It’s a moment when time telescopes and the present is not a limitation but a portal.

A concept I am eager to try to convey is that our personal experiences have a foundation not just in our bodies but in the life of all bodies and their environment over time. Yes, a great big flow is going on here, and it’s called evolution. Grappling after this big idea I got a major assist from John C. Merriam. Merriam was a paleontology professor who in 1917 apprehended the past as it unfolded in the present, while contemplating a redwood forest in California’s Humboldt County. Merriam had been researching the history of the Pacific coast, and he was assigning invertebrate and plant fossils different layers in “a stratified geologic column.” (That’s the life forms of the past lying down on top of each other, deployed as if instructed by Hox genes, to take an artistic liberty.) Merriam had come to see “a forest wall reported to have mystery and charm unique among living works of creation.” He was not disappointed. “In swift panorama the history of these trees…passed before me, stage after stage from the remote past.” Now that’s flow.

Merriam’s student Ralph Chaney eventually articulated the redwoods’ historical progression around the globe, putting his starting point at one hundred million years ago (dinosaurs afoot), when Western Europe, Russia, China and Japan were covered by a redwood forest. From Europe and Asia, the redwoods migrated west. Traveling to investigate, Chaney reported to Merriam: “Sequoia flora of Middle Tertiary Age just received from St. Lawrence Island represents first actual record of land bridge between North America and Asia.” This missing tree link helped establish that humans had also come to America across what had been the Bering Land Bridge.

Redwood forests can provide a comforting sense of permanence and continuity to us harried Homo sapiens, and indeed their story of time is a lot longer than our story of time. Yet in our blind way, of course, we continue to assault the redwood trees. Not only are we reducing our own access to the cooling big picture flow we can experience while wandering among their giant trunks, we are also depleting the planet of their capacity to sequester carbon dioxide and so mitigate climate change impacts. Let your money and time flow to organizations helping support and protect our remaining giants, including Save the Redwoods League and the Sempervirens Fund. And you can help redwoods by making your own observations on Redwood Watch — get your flow on!

Citizen Scientist

July 18, 2016 | Uncategorized | Permalink

book cover jpg citizen scientistGearing up for the September 6 release of my new book, this website is being redesigned at the moment by the wonderful Nancy Freeborn. I’m still in the pupa stage yet feel those unfurling butterfly wings in my stomach. Grateful for very thoughtful pre-publication support from writers and scientists:

“The idea that science is something for a caste of high priests to attend to is simply wrong: Science is all around us, and we each can revel in its pleasures and processes. This is a lovely, empowering narrative.”—Bill McKibben, author of Eaarth

“What an extraordinary book! Mary Ellen Hannibal weaves together natural history, cutting-edge technology, and her own adventures into a story that is certain to inspire.” — Amy Stewart, author of The Drunken Botanist.

“Deeply informed and highly readable, this is as much a soul-search as a book about science. Fortunately for us, Mary Ellen Hannibal locates some luminous souls who, by the light of their knowledge and determination, can lead us out of these dark times for life on Earth.”— Carl Safina, author of Beyond Words; What Animals Think and Feel

“Species are going extinct a thousand times faster than they should, our science tells us. But how do we know which, and where, any why, and above all what we can do about this crisis? No expensive technological machine counts biodiversity. Our knowledge comes globally, across decades, and from every land and sea, from the ‘citizen scientist.’ That’s you and me, our kids, grandkids, and friends, armed with a notebook or perhaps a smartphone, but with those priceless and essential attributes of passion and curiosity. This book tells their story brilliantly.” — Stuart Pimm, Doris Duke Professor of Conservation
Nicholas School of the Environment, Duke University

“One of Hannibal’s themes in this ambitious new book is the ‘double narrative,’ or the contradiction between what we tell ourselves we are doing every day and what is really going on. She explains that empires have been built on a biotic cleansing of species the loss of which now threatens the very foundation of our lives. Hannibal poses citizen science, or the contribution of amateurs to research, as a platform not only for change, but also as a new way of seeing without the old blinders. Invoking literary, historic, and scientific touchstones, and telling a personal story as well, she provides what citizen scientists John Steinbeck and Ed Ricketts called the ‘toto picture.’ We can’t afford to see the Earth any other way.” — Paul Ehrlich, Bing Professor of Population Studies, Stanford University.

“An informative, emotional, and fascinating account of a personal journey to ecological citizen science.” Muki Haklay, Professor of Geographical Information Science, Co-Director of the Extreme Citizen Science Group, University College London

“Hannibal tracks science projects from the bottom up, co-created practical sciences in the hands and souls of lovers – amateurs – who give hope in our urgent times. This is a book full of the stories of those who care and teach others to care for a wounded earth, in real places. It is a collaboration forged in hope and rooted in hard work and hard histories. These are Pacific tides and renewing fires that may yet wash and burn over the land in blessings for still possible futures. The colonial hero may yet become a citizen of this kind of world, where the indigenous continue to refuse extinction and practice renewal. The condor is watching while the throat of the hummingbird flames.” — Donna Haraway, Distinguished Professor Emerita, University of California at Santa Cruz. Author of Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene.

Stand By Me

July 2, 2016 | Uncategorized | Permalink

When-Mountain-Lions-Are-Neighbors_Beth-Pratt-author_300x420Maybe it’s because the word refers to the ultimate oblivion, or maybe it’s because most of us think of polar bears stranded on melting icebergs when we hear about “extinction,” but many of us assume the curtailing of life forever is a remote phenomenon. But local extinction happens in our backyards. Populations of species are diminishing in our counties, our parks, our “open spaces,” our states, the continent, and yes in far off places as well. Stanford researchers adding up where and how much extinction is taking a toll on life rather unpoetically call it ‘Anthropocene defaunation.” The word ‘anthropocene’ puts a sharp point on the human pressures causing extinction of species other than Homo sapiens.

The term also points to the unfolding new normal of how things work here. Extinction is “a primary driver of global environmental change in its own right.” That means it’s not just climate change making things increasingly unpleasant. Loss of other life forms has big impacts. There’s the decrease in food production from pollinator declines; increasing transmission of diseases like Ebola and Zika, which find humans to dwell in once their original animal hosts are gone; degradation of water supplies; and reduction in seed dispersal and decomposition processes. You are getting the picture – animals and plants keep the machinery of life going, and to use Paul Ehrlich’s famous analogy, we are taking rivets off the vehicle willy nilly. Mostly by converting habitat to human use that doesn’t allow for cohabitation with the land’s original tenants.

It’s one thing to say we should figure out how to live with other critters and another thing to do it. Beth Pratt-Bergstrom’s new book, When Mountain Lions Are Neighbors: People and Wildlife Working it Out in California, provides a pretty happy litany of species we do still have around, and positive stories about how folks are getting along with them. The title refers to the heroic journey of one P-22, a male mountain lion who braved multiple lanes of freeway traffic, skulked through the backyards of Beverly Hills, and set up predator shop in Griffith Park, one of the most intensively used urban enclaves in the world. P-22’s sheer gumption, and the joy it gives many of us to welcome wildness into our highly domesticated existences, has inspired an ongoing project to create a highway overpass so others of his own kind can follow suit.

Pratt-Bergstrom’s book is published by Heyday Books, and they do such a fine job with the literary tome. This one is beautifully designed, with plentiful illustrations, and a user-friendly format for perusing the stories of other beings trying to get by in the Golden State. Pratt-Bergstrom introduces the reader to recovered populations of bears, desert tortoises, ringtails, porpoises, beavers and butterflies, among other critters. My favorite quote in Pratt-Bergstrom’s book comes from that icon of biodiversity championing, E.O. Wilson: “It would mean so much for everyone if the idea of restoration would catch fire with the public – the natural world is something to be recovered rather than just protected in pathetic remnants.” Amen, E.O.

Holy MoliThe story of a life-long dedication to recovering an element of the wild world is told in Hob Osterlund’s book Holy Moli: Albatross and other Ancestors, published by Oregon State University Press. Osterlund is a paragon of citizen science. She logs hours and years helping researchers in less than cozy environs capture, band, and release albatross in an effort to understand how exactly they do what they do. Taking off from their breeding grounds off the Hawaiian Islands, Laysan albatross migrate about 2000 miles to the Aleutian Islands, then turn around and go back to Hawaii. Nobody completely understands exactly how they figure out where their home address is after having been gone for so long, nor do they understand how mating pairs manage to meet up with each other, same time next year. Laysan albatross are today considered ‘near extinction’ because Midway Atoll, where 99 percent of them breed, is due to sink under the rising seas of climate change. Hope for the Laysan lies at nearby Kauai, where breeding conditions and concerned citizens are ready and available to help them.

Osterlund underpins her narrative with a personal story that queues up the hole in her heart to be filled by caring for albatross. Losing her mother at a young age, the bereft child is emotionally unattended by her gentle but stoic family. “It took me decades to stop looking for the hugs that went missing that day,” she writes. What she calls the “eternal longing for a mother’s return” fuels her own engagement with the amazing parenthood feats of albatross, their single-focused dedication to offspring. The huge love Hob Osterlund cultivates in herself despite lacking a human object for it for many years is amply met by the epic narrative provided by this species. While birds migrating such amazing distances are on the one hand knitting up the threads of biodiversity functioning that make life on Earth possible, sometimes I wonder if it isn’t the poetry of their existence that really sustains us. And what do we suppose happens to us, emotionally, if we allow their numbers to dwindle to “pathetic remnants”? What will our own pathetic remnants look like, feel like?

Tally Ho

May 20, 2016 | Uncategorized | Permalink

iNat photo
Since the inception of the National Park Service 100 years ago, individual parks have kept lists of what animals and plants live in them. These records are important to science and to managing the parks, but with relatively few biologists covering millions of acres of land and sea, they have been woefully incomplete. Right now the rest of us are enjoined to help in the 2016 National Park Service Centennial Bioblitz. Two thirds of the 130 parks signed up to do bioblitzes this year are kicking off the counting this weekend, May 21 and 22. Fifteen will take place in Washington, D.C. parks. Two jumbotrons on the National Mall will project real-time results from across the nation.

It’s fitting that the culmination of the Centennial Bioblitz will take place in D.C., since the very first bioblitz was conducted in nearby Kenilworth Aquatic Garden in 1996. USGS scientist Sam Droege was looking for a way to get help in figuring out what species lived in the park, and he hit on the idea of “eventizing” an activity that could putatively be done anytime, and invited amateurs to join in with biologists in a big species hunt. The idea of the bioblitz was Droege’s, but credit for the term itself goes to Susan Purdy, an NPS naturalist who helped Droege set up a one-day rapid inventory using simple protocols. The concept took off, and bioblitz popularity has built steadily every year since. The NPS now teams up with the National Geographic Society to do a significant blitz once a year in a different state, and attendance numbers and species counts have gotten progressively higher.

In 2014, the citizen science platform and online social network of nature lovers called iNaturalist became the official mechanism for making species observations for the NPS bioblitzes. iNaturalist is a free web-based app for mapping and sharing observations of biodiversity across the globe. Co-directors Scott Loarie and Ken-ichi Ueda work from the basement of the California Academy of Sciences in Golden Gate Park, but the reach of iNaturalist is global. When a species observation is logged on iNaturalist, the app associates its photo with a date, a time, a latitude and a longitude. As it scrolls in a feed of nature images like the personal ones we use on Facebook, experts from around the world opine about the observation’s species designation. When there is community agreement that yes, that ursus arctos is indeed a horribilis and not an americanus, the record is sent to the Global Biological Information Facility, a repository of more than 440 million digitized specimens mostly gleaned from natural history collections all over the world. (This represents a fraction of all collected specimens, which are not all digitized.)

Species extinctions are a major driver of how we are altering earth processes Anthropocene-style, but they are elusive. Stuart Pimm, professor at Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke University, and something of an extinction godfather, points out that the lack of key statistics about where species are and in what amounts impedes rescue efforts . We don’t have the necessary information to protect ecologically relevant areas. Pimm says that naming species and putting them on their place in the tree of life—fundamental scientific practices—are more important than ever given the extinction crisis. But then he takes an unusual turn for an evolutionary biologist. He recommends iNaturalist. Since iNaturalist is a citizen science tool available to and in use by many people lacking PhDs, Pimm is stepping over a traditional line dividing pure from applied science. He also goes on to envision the creation of “a public species’ range map” that iNaturalist users can update, amend, and confirm. He proposes combining iNaturalist data with remotely sensed pictures from satellites to zoom in on “metapopulation models of fragmented ranges,” which could pinpoint exactly where and when species are losing their home grounds. Thus we could “assess biodiversity continuously,” and respond quickly where we see changing species distributions. Pimm concludes that this could be just the ticket to preserving biodiversity.

Pimm proposes a global application for iNaturalist, using it to create nothing less than an inventory of the world. One of the beauties of iNaturalist is that as people document species in local places just for the fun of it, or as part of specific projects, their data points become available for analysis at other scales by people anywhere on the globe with internet access. A Saturday morning bioblitz at a local city park, for example, can turn up species nobody knew were living in it, and this can help direct municipal stewardship. At the same time, local occurrences can have regional and even continental implications. At a citizen science conference in San Jose in 2015, Scott Loarie led a group out to the green interstices of the gigantic convention center. After the short foray in San Jose, a snail captured on iNaturalist by a mom with her kids in tow was identified as invasive, the first instance of a potentially destructive newcomer to Silicon Valley.

iNaturalist has the potential to move beyond inventory and monitoring uses to help deploy hypothesis testing, in line with what is usually referred to as “real” science. This requires defining parameters around or a context in which observations are made. For example, the California State Transportation Authority could devise a citizen science project to determine stretches of highway where animals most frequently become road kill. To get usable data, the project would enjoin drivers to document a start time, a finish time, and distance traveled to accompany any observations of dead animals. With this information questions like “where are animals likely to be hit at what time” could start to be addressed.

Director of the Copenhagen-based GBIF Donald Hoburn says that iNaturalist and other platforms like it “represent a step forward in how observations from nature are captured.” “iNaturalist puts the focus more squarely on camera and cell-phone images,” Hoburn explains. “It’s exciting because it provides more of an opportunity for a community to assist each other in designating the species. Globally, expertise in various taxa is scattered. But with iNaturalist, the observation is accessible everywhere.”

Hoburn also explains how iNaturalist and other digital observation data is useful to conservation efforts like those that seek to stem extinction. (May 20 is Endangered Species Day, a good day to get out there and make some observations.) “We have enough data now to address some problems with precision,” Hoburn says. “We can see how bird species change from region to region, for example, and we can track those changes over time.” With thousands of observations of species in national parks being recorded all over the system, this weekend’s multiple bioblitzes are going to provide incomparable information about the natural heritage at the heart of the parks system.

Nature: The Brand

February 7, 2016 | Uncategorized | Permalink

Doug Tompkins took this photo of John Davis and Dave Foreman back in the day.  Tompkins' aesthetic gifts were many.

Doug Tompkins took this photo of John Davis and Dave Foreman back in the day. Tompkins’ aesthetic gifts were many.

Doug Tompkins, prematurely deceased at age 72 by way of a kayaking accident, leaves a cadre of older conservationists behind, many of whom are still on the front lines of nature protection. Still, his passing sounded the note of an era’s end and a changing of the guard. Old time enviros turned out in good form for Tompkins’ memorial service last week, held at Herbst Pavillion in San Francisco’s Fort Mason. Herbst is usually filled to the rafters with antiques, art work, used books, or racks of clothing for sale and at first I was taken aback by the plushly perfect art direction that transformed the space into a gigantic sun-filled aerie. A large cadre of volunteer attendants in uniform green Patagonia vests dispensed mint and Earl Grey tea with Tcho chocolates, almonds, and orange slices ahead of the proceedings. Banks of unobtrusive catering stations lined the walls and after several hours of testimonials to the life and times of Doug Tompkins, wine and food were served. To about 400 people.

Is this the right tone? I wondered, taking my seat and scouting the audience for wilderness celebrities – and sighting among them Terry Tempest Williams and Gary Snyder. A wall-sized photograph of the Andes anchored the stage. It was all simple, and not. The place expressed exactly the kind of understated overstatement that is a hallmark of San Francisco today. But what about Tompkins’ message, that protecting nature is our moral imperative? Among many other initiatives Tompkins founded the Foundation for Deep Ecology, building on the philosopher Arne Naess’ conception that nature exists for its own sake beyond its utility for people. It’s not that loving nature need always be equated with bad granola. Believe me I was very happy to have a cup of tea and a good chocolate (or two), but still, the setting induced some cognitive dissonance.

As those close to Tompkins testified, the perfect surroundings began to cohere with their portraits of the man. With his wife Kris, Tompkins protected more than 2 million acres of Argentina and Chile. As she described living remotely and even arduously in the wilds of South America, the picture of a restless and relentless perfectionist emerged. Susie Tompkins Buell, Tompkins’ former wife and co-founder with him of the North Face and Esprit clothing companies, reminded those gathered that before he was a conservationist, “Doug was a capitalist.” Doug and Susie built their brands the way Doug and Kris protected nature – thinking big, and following beauty.

There were many highlights, fine words from fine people, and music. One friend talked amusingly about Tompkins’ fastidious attention to art. For me, however, the most moving depiction of Tompkins came from his daughter Quincy Tompkins Imhoff, who managed to portray her father’s strengths with appreciation and to indicate his failings with depth but not rancor. In Imhoff’s description Tompkins at last sounded like a real person. Imhoff recalled the heady days of growing up with the Esprit brand in full fettle, traveling to its stores all over the world in corporate gangs, with great energy and purpose. “We were a tribe,” she said. Imhoff talked about a period in her life when she wondered about organized religion, not present in her upbringing. It wasn’t until quite recently, she said, that she realized just how much “spirit” she had been raised with. “Espirit de Corps” suddenly meant something bigger than a line of youthful clothing.

Doug Tompkins eventually shifted his retail ardor to the natural world but he couldn’t have done the enormous things he did without big capital. He wanted man-made things to be beautiful and available to a lot of people. He wanted natural beauty to remain so and also available to a lot of people. But we’re all still stuck with the problem of how to protect more nature without depleting big swaths of it to finance the project. Somewhere in all this there lurks a potential to tap brilliant branding to promote saving nature so that it’s as compelling as consuming it. This was my thought as I bit into some sort of smoked cheese potato frittata. The vision is generous, and the food is very, very good. But we’re still eating beauty.

Time’s Flaming Arrow

November 12, 2015 | Uncategorized | Permalink

Famous Yosemite Char, photo by MEH

Famous Yosemite Char, photo by MEH


A little more than a week ago I drove into Yosemite National Park for a week-long, California Master Naturalist immersion course. I was euphoric, about to sequester in beauty to study deeper levels of what Shakespeare called “nature’s infinite book.” Heading in from Oakdale, mile upon mile of mountainous hillside was covered in rusty brown dead trees. I was shocked at the blatant evidence for why Governor Jerry Brown had just declared a statewide dead tree emergency. In persistent human fashion I emotionally push off the effects of global change to some future date. But the moment has come. What we think of as Yosemite is in large measure already history.

About 20 people from all over the state joined me for instruction mostly by Pete Devine, the Resident Naturalist of the Yosemite Conservancy, a nonprofit that supports many vital park programs. Devine seemed to know every sparrow, jay, and scorpion personally, and to have at least passing acquaintance with a pair of peregrine falcons that one day seemed to scrape right by our eyeballs. We gathered for classroom-style learning and traipsed around many of the park’s iconic locations. One of our party had never seen a giant sequoia – it was fun to join him in gawking at the evidence of the very long view. Fellow nature nerds are fine company. On one lunch break I sat balanced on a hillside among an intent group with binoculars stuck to our faces, silently watching as a pileated woodpecker proceeded with OCD to remove every last bit of bark from a halfway stripped tree. In addition to the sequoia, Yosemite’s mixed conifer forest includes ponderosa pine, incense-cedar, and white fir, among other tree species, and that famous geology creates a variety of elevations further increasing habitat diversity. The resulting niches support nine species of woodpecker, more than any other national park. The black backed woodpecker is adapted to meld in with smoky char after a fire.

We had a variety of guest lecturers during the week, including CalFire forester Len Nielson. “What’s going to happen to all those dead trees?” we asked him, and he told us they would eventually fall down, or perhaps burn. Perversely, our historic tree mortality has as much to do with lack of heat as with too much of it. The California landscape evolved with lightning-strike fires, and Native Californians used fire to manage their food sources, both animal and vegetable. We have been suppressing fire and battling fire on the landscape for more than a hundred years, with the idea that it is a destructive force to contain. We have stopped a natural cycle from turning – for the moment.

The Ecological Importance of Mixed-Severity Fires: Nature’s Phoenix explains it all to you. Edited by fire gurus Dominick DellaSala and Chad Hanson, the science papers gathered therein summarize what fire actually does, as opposed to what we assume it does. Destroy? Well, yes, for the moment. As DellaSala puts it in the preface, “most people view a burned area as a single event in time,” right after their favorite trees have been torched. Fire is nature’s great shape shifter, and it transforms one landscape into another. Even so-called megafires, which some will tell you burn too hot to do any good, actually reboot the ecosystem. They take out the old and make way for the new. Seeds that have lain dormant for decades find expression at last. Species adapted to what looks like a wasteland seem to magically appear and begin the transformation. We have wanted the pretty picture to stay the same. But the whole mechanism of the scene is built on change. (For a quicker take on the subject, check out DellaSala and Hanson’s New York Times op-ed: “More Logging Won’t Stop Wildfires.”)

Len Nielson told us that the miles of rusty red dead trees would be replaced perhaps with another species in about 150 years. “The forest will continue,” he said. “We just won’t be here to see it.” I felt heartened by this. It’s one thing to look upon devastation and say “here is the end.” It’s another thing to understand the future is coming and it may actually be green. “We can co-exist with fire,” Nielson said. The next day the gang of us sat down in a sunny vale for lunch. There came a gigantic crash: a dead tree, falling in the forest. And yes, it was heard.

Precarious Ark

October 16, 2015 | Uncategorized | Permalink

Franz Lanting

Fritz Lanting

The title is a bit of a sledgehammer. Would you guess that The Annihilation of Nature: Human Extinction of Birds and Mammals is a beautiful thing? Anne and Paul Ehrlich’s latest book (co-authored with Gerardo Ceballos) invites the reader to linger over mesmerizing photographs and to slowly absorb intricately crafted captions illuminating the life and times of Earth’s most fascinating denizens. The Sumatran orangutan, the scarlet macaw, the Asian elephant — black-tailed prairie dogs! Some books you like to hold in your hands and keep on holding, and this is one of them. That’s partly because the point-blank text makes it very clear that the gorgeous and beguiling subjects of its alarm soon may not exist much longer here or anywhere ever again.

The sixth extinction taking out species at a rate and magnitude rivaling the event that took out the dinosaurs presents a conceptual logjam. You and I are checking devices on our wrists that tell us how many calories those last three steps burned up; oops, we’ve got many more to go if we want to lose that extra pudge. There’s the registration sticker to put on the car; the kid to goad into getting higher SAT scores; the earnest desire to achieve more at work; the dream to have an exotic and profound vacation. We consider that the ultimate “reality check” is encapsulated on our tax returns. We are constantly in motion and it is very hard to stop and reconsider that all the boxes we routinely check to measure our forward ho! progress in this world is having a contrary result. We think we are achieving but we are taking away. We think we are creating but we are destroying.

The Annihilation of Nature explains what’s really going on. The virtues of the book go well beyond the beauty of its design and photographs, though those are enough reason to own and enjoy it. The text focuses on bird and mammal extinctions underway because these are the animals we Homo sapiens tend to identify with; many more species of all taxa are also blinking out all over the place.

In very clear prose it lays out the processes by which species extinctions are occurring, summarizing ecological principles like coevolution and trophic cascades in a way that makes them easy to understand. From this more focused attention on underlying mechanisms, the book goes to the larger vision of what’s out of whack here. In keeping with the Ehrlichs’ long focus on the subject, it’s the over-population of the Earth by one species, Homo sapiens.

Just a week ago I sat down with an evolutionary biologist friend who is in his late 70s. I wailed that I did not understand how all this could be happening – aren’t humans smart? Haven’t we figured out ways to do things more quickly and efficiently, haven’t we worked hard to achieve human rights for more people than historically one might have thought possible? How is it that we could allow our population to mushroom beyond the capacity of our resources to sustain us? Don’t other species ratchet down their breeding when conditions aren’t favorable to support their progeny? Surely we at least have some sort of equivalent instinct to keep our population at a sustainable level. My scientist friend very quietly, very patiently, told me that the way evolution works does not provide any reassurance that a “best” outcome is what happens. The most optimal outcome for all participants could unfold, or — things could go another way.

Essentially, the responsibility for a good or at least tolerable Earthly result is a matter of choice. Our choice. And of course the will and commitment to stick with that choice and see it through. We all know what the problem is – we constitute too much of the Earth’s biomass, and we consume too much. Between all of us and our domesticated livestock, we use up so much photosynthesis there isn’t enough left over to power other species through their days and lives. We use up other creatures directly to make the goods and services we adore, like sushi. We take away habitat from other plants and animals both to house ourselves and to stage the mercenary activity that fuels our economy. We are crowding other critters off the very planet. Paging slowly through this beautiful and profound book, gazing at the gorgeous creatures every moment becoming more memory than reality, one has to ask – is this a planet worth living on without them?

Here and Now

September 29, 2015 | Uncategorized | Permalink

19917237010_6ec07d06ce_n“Here and Now” would seem to direct one’s attention to the present, but the past is not far behind in this inspiring film made by the Bay Area Open Space Council. (You can watch it here: https://vimeo.com/139467688) The past isn’t even past, to paraphrase William Faulkner. The film profiles progressive partnerships between the Amah Mutsun tribal band and the Kashia Band of the Pomo Indians and various land trusts. Basically the idea is to return traditional land holdings to tribal people who are yes, still here, despite centuries of disruption and dislocation.

Not just indigenous people have been under assault for hundreds of years — so has the ecological functioning they tended and supported. Human-caused climate change is one way to describe the result – to the extent that staid geophysicists have named our epoch the Anthropocene. Environmental theorist Timothy Morton has declared that “the end of the world has already occurred,” dating the apocalypse: “It was April 1784, when James Watt patented the steam engine, an act that commenced the depositing of carbon in Earth’s crust—namely, the inception of humanity as a geophysical force on a planetary scale.”

But up on the Santa Cruz Mountains, on land now owned by the Amah Mutsun Land Trust, you might think as I have, that no, the “end of the world” happened right here, when the Spanish made first contact with the Indians in 1769. Looking out at the water between the trees, it is easy to imagine Portola appearing on the horizon, bringing the end of the local indigenous way of life with him.Thus began an unravelling that yes encompasses the great transfer of carbon from ground to atmosphere, but includes the more fundamental disruption of the place of the human in nature.

As far as the end of the world goes, there’s lots of evidence for it. In the ocean in front of us at Santa Cruz, the biggest marine die-off in recorded history is underway, with sea stars dying from Alaska to Baja, and this summer thousands of Cassin’s Auklets fell out of the sky, the tiny sea bird starving in record numbers from megadrought impacts exacerbated by climate change. We aren’t taking care of nature. But how to do it right?

“What we’re really talking about here is stewardship,” Valentine Lopez has told me. “We’re restoring an ancient covenant with the land, fulfilling our responsibility to take care of it.” The Amah Mutsun are helping to establish that cultural burning practices here resulted in a way of life definable not as hunting and gathering nor as agriculture. The California Indians lived on the land without depleting it. Precontact Native Californians pruned, tilled, coppiced, and burned the landscape; everybody got fed. Populations of wild species were enhanced and their numbers increased.

“In 2005 the elders came to me and said, we have to get back to taking care of the land. The Creator never rescinded our obligation to it.” He laughed. “Can you imagine, these people with minimum wage jobs if they have one at all, who don’t own any land themselves, saying we have to steward it? Now where were we going to do that?” The Sempervirens Fund has been instrumental in setting up the land trust. Among the partners helping the Amah Mutsun restore traditional knowledge and practices is Pie Ranch, near Pescadero, where a garden of traditional plants is being cultivated by younger Amah Mutsun tribal members, including Abran Lopez. In “Here and Now,” Lopez gently comments that in the past, tribal partnerships with European-Americans “went the other way,” but “this is a new era.” Lopez puts his hand on his heart to express what his work on the land here feels like. Nancy Vail from Pie Ranch says for her, the partnership helps express “values rooted in love and justice.” Amah Mutsun tribal member Nathan Vasquez says, “this is about people and nature, beyond skin color.” He adds that “It is a blessing to come here and gather.”

The Kashia Band of Pomo Indians were also among the first indigenous people on this coast to interact with white people from far away, at the Russian-held Fort Ross. Today the Trust for Public Land is helping get 700 acres of redwood forest back into tribal hands. Chairman Reno Franklin calls the partnership “healing for us.” Franklin points out that we’ve culturally paid a lot of attention to endangered plants and animals, but not to the equally “endangered Indians.” “Here and Now” is a bright and hopeful film, and points the way forward to healing strategies for the whole of nature, including the Homo sapiens who often forget we are part of it.

Moving Masses

September 25, 2015 | Uncategorized | Permalink

intense panda
Last week my 15-year old son and I did a “fast raft” whale watch in Monterey Bay. It was wild! At one point our boat was surrounded by more than two dozen humpbacked whales. There was constant breaching, sometimes two whales leaping up in tandem as if they were doing a star turn in an Esther Williams production. Similarly they frequently “tailed” together — two double-heart shaped tales almost languidly arising up out of the water and then sliding back down into it. The whales are in the midst of a feeding frenzy, gorging on anchovies. Our skipper explained that when the anchovies are swimming in deep waters, the whale action is all diving and rising. Sometimes the fish are closer to the surface and then the sight is of gigantic whale mouths shoveling in shiny slivers of fish. We didn’t see any of that, though we got several distinct whiffs of stinky whale breath.

Nobody quite knows why the anchovies are massing in such numbers here; they are known to like cold water and ours is warmer than ever right now. Like all whales, humpbacks were hunted to near extinction and today, at 10 percent of their historic population level, their numbers are actually recovering. But the ocean news is overall not good. The World Wildlife Fund recently published dire findings that aqueous extinctions are at record levels. The loss of any and all of the affected species has major impacts, but big-bodied animals have a special place in the ecosystem.

That includes Homo sapiens. People are animals too, and we behave in similar patterns. Elizabeth Hadly and Anthony Barnosky, the Mr. and Mrs. Smith of global change science and coauthors of the forthcoming Tipping Point for Planet Earth: How Close Are We to the Edge? point out that the millions fleeing Syria today are fulfilling a population ecology paradigm.

In sum, when population numbers exceed the capacity of a landscape to provide basic resources for all, species light out for the territory. Writing recently on Consensus for Action, Hadly and Barnosky point out that too-rapid population growth intensifies competition for resources, which leads to war and eventually migration. Climate change makes matters worse. “Already, unusual climate events have contributed to the refugee-producing crises in Southeast Asia, northeast Africa, and to the Arab Spring uprising,” and the poorest, most densely populated regions of the world will be “hit hardest…as the world tips into a new climate regime.” Let me just add on a soupcon of grim. Historian Timothy Snyder makes the case in his book Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning that most genocides, including that inflicted by Hitler on Jews, can be traced to conflict over basic resources within a context of shifting global order. He argues that the depredations of climate change are going to reverberate well into what we Westerners take for granted as some kind of wall protecting us from the worst conflicts. Because – it’s all one world now.

Protecting and increasing the number of big bodied mammals is a critical tool in dealing with all this. Whales sequester carbon in their big bodies and they move it around the ocean through their eating and their pooping. When they die naturally they fall to the bottom of the ocean and their carcasses become habitat hotels to myriad species. The big guys provide for the smaller guys. This is called sustaining biodiversity, and for one thing, it keeps the food supply for Homo sapiens healthy. On land, the solution is essentially habitat protection. Recent research by extinction guru Stuart Pimm and colleague Binbin Li shows that protecting giant pandas in China also protects a host of smaller animals that live within what Pimm and Li call a “protective umbrella.”Panda bears happen to live side by side with “70% of forest bird species, 70% of forest mammals, and 31% of forest amphibian species” that are endemic to mainland China. That means they are very special species indeed, and keeping the panda protected is a shorthand way to protect its co-travelers. Including, of course, us, because – in the global world, everything that goes around, comes around.

Shh…don’t tell my book group

August 30, 2015 | Uncategorized | Permalink

Okay it’s still summer so a lot of reading and attention to my book group going on here. Also, a month ago I turned in a major revision of my book about citizen science, the researching of which has been preoccupying my reading life for a good four years. I have been looking forward to this moment, when I can roam Friends of the San Francisco Library’s Book Bay Bookstore and hunt through the Marina Branch of the library itself in search of masterpieces my book group has somehow not gotten to yet. This isn’t easy, since we been convening since the mid-1980s, and have read 226 books together. It’s my turn to make suggestions for the next book.

Our last title was Out of the Dark, by Nobel Prize –winner Patrick Modiano. Oh, it’s fine! It’s a good book. It’s about anguish and identity. Fairly recently we read The Map and the Territory and the Modiano is like a short-cut through an alley in Michel Houellebecq’s bigger, more ambitious tome. But as with My Struggle, Karl Ove Knusgaard’s multi-volume opus, these books take place in supra human worlds of some ghostly historical context, but have almost entirely to do with an amplified Homo sapiens. Their anti-heroes are trapped in their own heads without much imagination, because there isn’t much around them to observe and interact with, aside from other people. There’s no nature, that’s for sure. I’m sick of this sort of thing.

On my list of books to maybe read is Giant, by Edna Ferber. Sheesh, whatever happened to her? She won the Pulitzer Prize for So Big, and her canvas is the lower 48 — capital U, capital S, capital A. Giant is about the wresting of Texas from the Mexicans and the colonization of its drylands by cattle. It’s a soap opera about ecological and imperial conversion – it’s fabulous.

Another title: Memel, My Hawk, by Yashar Kemal, a beloved Turkish author who died this past February, and perennially nominated for the Nobel. He should have got it. Here are some observations from his 2005 introduction to the reissued 1961 book:

“If I consider myself something of a writer, that is because I have knowingly integrated the myth and the dream within human reality. And yet I’m afraid that the way things are, we may have to take refuge in ancient myths. Confronted with the massacre of nature, that great scourge of our age, the dangers of which we have not yet been able to adequately understand, we will create myths of fear as our ancestors did.” And: “For years now…I have been insisting on this: in nature, each object has its own identity…the smallest particle of nature has…a peculiar personality…. If I seem to be groping, if I seem confused, it is because I cannot find the right name for this. One day, humanity, scientists, writers, will find it.”

I’m on his ride! The book is beautiful, swift, primal.

Another possibility is The 42nd Parallel, by John Dos Passos. As with the rest of the contemporary literary world, my book group has overlooked this vaunted American voice. The book is beautifully written.

Dos Passos also largely ignores nature, though conquering it is a major part of the American creation story. On an airplane last week, I chatted across the aisle with a PhD student in English lit, Sarah Papazoglakis, who subsequently e-mailed me a reflection from Fredric Jameson in re: the USA Trilogy of which The 42nd Parallel is the first volume. Jameson says that the trilogy represents a “democractic aesthetic form because ‘secondary characters move forward and eclipse the relationships of the main characters.’” Papazoglakis explains “the structure of the novel itself reflects democratic ideals of participation and pluralism that aren’t represented in the typical Bildungsroman. I thought you might be interested in that perspective given your interest in citizen science as a democratic space.”

Wow Sarah Papazoglakis, I have never actually put it that way but now I will: citizen science yes creates a democratic space! Maybe I’ll get the gang to at least read Manhattan Transfer, which is shorter Dos Passos and about everybody’s favorite city. I bet there ain’t a green thing in it, however, nor sentience except the mostly hairless kind walking upright on two legs.

[The group ended up picking Black Robe, by Brian Moore. It’s about the fateful intersection of a Jesuit missionary with Huron and Algonquin tribal people in what is now Canada in the 17th century, during the “Beaver wars.” This is the era in which nature was wrested out of cultural reciprocity and the rest is sorry ecological history – I’m into it! The novel was made into a very fine film by Bruce Beresford.]