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.]

The Love that Dare Not Speak its Name

July 23, 2015 | Uncategorized | Permalink

A couple of nights ago my book group met at the home of one of our members, abutting a huge nature reserve in the East Bay. The sun bathed the hills behind us as we discussed Peter De Vries’ 1961 novel, The Blood of the Lamb. DeVries dramatizes a real life event, the death of his young daughter from leukemia. It’s almost too raw; we all agreed he had probably written about this traumatic event too close to its actual occurrence. We all liked the book a lot. As evening descended, the gorgeous hills behind us changed color and so did the sky. We discussed whether California’s assignation as the “golden state” has to do with the hills or the precious metal that was convulsively disgorged from some of them in the mid-1800s.

I mentioned that the vegetation on the hills is full of non-native plants. This was on my mind because I had talked earlier in the week with U.C. Riverside biogeographer and fire ecologist Richard Minnich, whose seminal 2008 book, California’s Fading Wildflowers: Lost Legacy and Biological Invasions, completely repaints the picture of what California looked like before the Spanish “made contact” here in 1769. Ironically, it is through the eyes of the Spaniard’s themselves that Minnich is able to re-see California. Father Juan Crespi in particular kept scrupulous records of everything he saw as he accompanied Gaspar de Portola on their slow way up the coast. In sum, he saw fields and fields of wildflowers. “Oh no!” cried one of our members. “Mary Ellen is bringing up invasive plants!”

I could have insisted on a few more moments of reflection on the actual view. I could have said, hey, you want to “read” texts but refuse to read your own landscape? As Gary Snyder says in The Real Work, North America has yet to be discovered. “People live on it without knowing what it is or where they are. They live on it literally like invaders. You know whether a person knows where he is by whether or not he knows the plants.”

California’s wildflowers are mostly gone now because when the Spanish set up the Mission system they brought in plants from home that had not evolved with any predators here; these outcompeted the locals and took over. There have been waves upon waves of plant invasions both on purpose — for agricultural and ranching reasons — and by accident, as invasive seeds have hitched a ride literally on the heels of the people and animals who have subsequently made California their home.

“But the seeds are still there,” Minnich tells me. “The flowers can come back.” Fire that’s been suppressed since the Spanish got here could help control some of the invasives and activate some of the historic native plants. There is a fair amount of controversy over what kind of fire is acceptable today. Some argue that so much fuel – dead leaves, bark, debris – has piled up that fires will burn too hot and destroy, rather than regenerate, the quiescent life in the soil. A new book, The Ecological Importance of Mixed-Severity Fires: Nature’s Phoenix, argues that even those hot fires do more good than harm.

I guess my fellow book group member thought I was going to bring everybody down with tales of ecological woe. Why don’t we have an acceptable language for talking about the most pressing issue of our time? I felt a great sympathy for Peter DeVries as we all agreed that his narrative was terrific, but flawed by his insufficient emotional distance from its major event. I guess I don’t have sufficient emotional distance from what is going on right now to frame it in a way that is acceptable at a dinner table. Still we are brave literary soldiers vocally outraged regularly about the Holocaust, the historical suppression of homosexuality, we stand tall against slavery and all racial discrimination, we are valiant in support of world-wide women’s rights. Nobody would have dared close me down if I had addressed any of those subjects. Why can’t we even talk about the environment? One guess is that we feel guilty – we know we are part of the problem. It is very easy to take the side of a victim when you haven’t done the hurting yourself. The thing is, those hillsides could throng with wildflowers yet again. The view would be even more beautiful. We actually have the power to help them recuperate from the ills of the last couple hundred years. But of course we can’t do that if we won’t even take a look.


April 8, 2015 | Uncategorized | Permalink

Days of innocence - before disease wiped these out. Photo: Richard Morgenstein

Days of innocence – before disease wiped these out. Photo: Richard Morgenstein

Well I have to be thankful to Jonathan Franzen for one thing – he’s pushed me out of my blog blues. His essay in the New Yorker about why we can ignore climate change so misses all the basic, important points about what is going on in nature that here I am, clicking away again.

I haven’t blogged since my father died in December. My father was a novelist and an ad man, and he was always the first to comment on my blogs! So when I have sat down to write, his absence has become a big presence, and I have walked away from the keyboard.

Presence/absence is one of the key paradigms of conservation biology. Much of citizen science is about documenting what species live where, in what amounts and when, and this is “presence data.” With it we can track what’s happening on a given landscape, and help direct conservation. But presence is only half the picture.

Absence is much harder to document. One thing Jonathan Franzen doesn’t know about is how many birds he’s already not seeing because of climate change. He doesn’t understand that while yes, extinction can work via one big meteor strike and has in the past, what is going on now is like a slow blood-letting (ever-accelerating), in which populations are shrinking. He’s still seeing the presence and not comprehending the absence.

Franzen doesn’t understand that the physical system climate change describes is not separate from the biological system conservation addresses. The physical and the biological go together. As E.O. Wilson put it in a recent talk at U.C. Berkeley (#science+parks), we are currently at risk of losing both. Wilson asks how “later generations will somehow find a way to equilibrate the land, sea, and air in the biosphere on which we absolutely depend, in the absence of most of the biosphere that took 3.5 billion years to put together?” Species – plants and animals – create the biosphere.

Right now if Franzen were bird-watching along the California coast, he would have to turn his binoculars to the ground, upon which are piling hundreds of Cassin’s auklet carcasses. This little sea bird is starving to death, as are record numbers of marine mammals also washing up on shore. Cassin’s auklets rely on krill, which is brought to the surface of the water by seasonal cold water upwelling. Right now a big blob of warm water off the coast is preventing upwelling, interfering with storms that would kick up the cold water and also drop precipitation on our parched landscape. Dr. Jaime Jahnke of Point Blue Conservation Science tells me the warm blob could be part of a larger oceanic pattern we have yet to discern. But it could also be part of a global warming horror show.

Speaking of which, recently I sat on a panel in honor of a terrifying and beautiful series on ocean acidification published by the Seattle Times, at Stanford’s Bill Lane Center for the American West. In “Sea Change: The Pacific’s Perilous Turn” reporter Craig Welch and photographer Steve Ringman tell a complicated story through multi-layered narratives, still photography, and video. KQED’s Charla Bear led the discussion. A large part of the audience were Knight-Risser journalism fellows, who were very interested not only in the subject of the series but wanted to know how to get mainstream media to cover these stories more often and with full, responsible information (as the New Yorker neglected to do — shouldn’t the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism investigate how this august publication failed to do the merest due diligence on Franzen’s wacko assertions about climate change?). Dwindling resources for major reporting are part of the problem, but there is also a seeming reluctance on the part of mainstream media to address global change on an appropriate scale.

I was seated next to the Carnegie Institution’s Dr. Ken Caldeira – as Welch put it, Caldeira is “the godfather of ocean acidification.” Ocean acidification is caused by the same thing that causes warming atmospheric temperatures – ratcheting CO2 levels. I asked Caldeira about sea star wasting and ocean acidification. In addition to the Cassin’s auklet and the marine mammals, the biggest marine die-off documented thus far is going on from Alaska to Baja. Sea stars, colloquially known as starfish, have virtually disappeared. Only they didn’t just disappear, they disintegrated, infected by a virus. Because of citizen science and professional monitoring efforts over decades, we know the virus has been present in the water long before it took out the sea stars. Scientists are on the case but have yet to determine what happened to turbo-charge the destructive virus. They do know that the wasting started after a period of warmer waters. They do know that higher CO2 levels in the oceans are warming its temperatures. I turned to Caldeira on the dais. “Why can’t we say ocean acidification is affecting the sea stars?” He said, “We can. Ocean acidification affects echinoderms.” But the whole story is complicated, right? Beginning with the complexity of the system, which is driven by both atmospheric and biological factors that cannot be reduced and separated.

So, my father is not there to read this blog. It seems impossible that this once very strong presence is now an absence. I know there are those who will say, “oh, he’s still reading your blog.” I don’t believe that. He’s gone. But I can’t believe that either. I guess I thought he would always be there. The thing is, I thought that as previous generations have been able to do, I could find consolation for my personal losses in nature. I still turn to nature, but increasingly, it’s not there.

Sense of (dis)Place

November 19, 2014 | Uncategorized | Permalink

ishi by byron wolfe
Jon Christensen threw the bomb and plenty of people registered the blast. “Muir’s a dead end,” he told L.A. Times reporter Louis Sahagun last week. “It’s time to bury his legacy and move on.” More than 170 comments on the piece include “I hope these two guys aren’t actually teaching our children,” referring also to Glen MacDonald, John Muir chair in geography at UCLA. I got to take part in MacDonald’s November 13 symposium considering the legacy of John Muir as we come up on the centennial of his death in 1914. To my delight, MacDonald pointed out that among other things, Muir was a citizen scientist. Muir didn’t have a college degree but “He was right about glaciation and the origin of some Yosemite mountains,” despite the countervailing theory put forth by Josiah Whitney, then head of the California Geological Survey, that an earthquake had done the job.

Christensen edits BOOM!: A Journal of California, and many of my fellow speakers contributed to its current issue, “Thinking with Nature.” I started my career in the magazine world and I still love the form, especially when an issue opens like a bouquet of varied yet related ideas, which this one does. Byron Wolfe showed us panoramic photographs with historic images stitched in to reveal cultural layers of how a single landscape has been conveyed over time. Ruth Askevold from the San Francisco Estuary Institute (SFEI) does something similar from a scientific perspective, and her work reveals layers of truth rather than interpretation. She is an historical ecologist and helps figure out what targeted landscapes looked like at various times in the past. Change over time is the stock in trade of understanding nature and in grappling with how to take care of it. Askevold shows what was in a place and what is still there now – and as in Wolfe’s photographs, some features persist, many of them geological and hydrological. These “nodes” where nature hasn’t budged are both emotionally reassuring and useful for focusing restoration efforts. (SFEI could make art objects out of its reports and sell them, just saying.)

There was much casual brilliance tossed about all day. Leading a panel on the New Nature of California, UCLA professor Ursula Heisse commented that her panelists had each in their own way refocused our attention by confessing their own experiences of nature. I liked this a lot because there is a downside, for me anyway, to academic slicing and dicing of “what are we seeing and what does it mean,” which is that urgent and palpable realities, like the disastrous downward spiral of nature today, end up translated into words and basically disembodied.

So John Muir embodies nature for many people. Has nature been buried with him? Richard White, brilliant Stanford historian, posits that Muir’s worldview left us with a tripartite concept of nature. There is the pristine wilderness, there is the ‘working’ landscape that includes ranches, mines, and agriculture, and there are the cities where we live. This is not good. Nature is not separate, even in the dense metropolis.

For me Muir is not a point of origin on nature, he’s a persistent node like the physical ones Askevold discerns. I was on a panel considering the Native American lens on California, and Muir would seem to have a dismal record here. He came upon bedraggled natives and he felt they didn’t fit into the pretty picture around them. What Muir did not see is still not completely recognized by us today. Those people would of course look depressed – they were survivors of a genocide well underway in California at the time, when the Gold Rush and subsequent logging fever gave license to white European newcomers to kill them and appropriate their land. These people had become strangers in their Eden, kicked out not by their own sin but by somebody else’s. As horrendous as this instance of it is, radical dislocation is not unusual. It is shared by many people around world, historically and today. Diaspora is a common denominator of human experience.

John Muir moved to Wisconsin from Scotland when he was 11 – losing his homeland – and suffered a violent father who beat him. In wilderness, Muir found a place to recuperate. Perhaps he did not see the Native Californians’ trauma because he hadn’t recognized his own. Christensen provoked a dialog about whether our image of the bearded bard of “whole” wilderness is an adequate talisman for the challenges nature is facing today. I say yes it is, but we need to look deeper into Muir’s eyes. They are not just reflecting gorgeous mountains, they are revealing stores of loss and pain. It’s premature to depart from John Muir before we have more fully visited with him. We take it for granted that he saved places like Yosemite just because they were beautiful. There’s more to it.
(Photo of Ishi copyright Byron Wolfe.)

Here we are now

October 24, 2014 | Uncategorized | Permalink

HWGTN-Mock-Up-Preview-Header-960I’m old enough to not quite take it for granted that as I type this on a laptop, eventually to hit “send,” I am thus speeding written words to what could be a nearly limitless distribution. I once used “carbon paper” to make a single copy of work that was smudged with corrected typos. But until now I haven’t sufficiently grasped that the definitive innovation behind the computer is glass — the same stuff through which I look out my window.

It is the cerebral fun of Steven Johnson’s new book, “How We Got to Now” (companion to a PBS series starting this week) that he peels back layer after layer of subsequent applications of original breakthroughs to reveal surprising invention trails. In addition to glass, he traces the wonders of today’s myriad magics to the development of technologies around cold, sound, cleanliness, time and light.

Glass might reach farthest back in human history (the use of fire goes back earlier, but we didn’t invent it). Roman empire glassmakers produced ornaments and windows. Fleeing the 1204 siege of Constantinople, a small group of Turkish glassmakers settled in Venice. The super hot fires they used to make beautiful glass — which soon became a luxury item and important to trade — also tended to combust the mostly wooden structures of the city, so they were convened on the island of Murano.

Johnson points out that this concentration of people working on the same essential project caused “information spillover,” something economists identify as happening today in places like Silicon Valley (which owes its existence to glass). The resulting cognitive surplus, to use another techno-utopian term, produced super-clear glass called crystal. “This,” Johnson says, “was the birth of modern glass.”

Monks transcribing religious manuscripts in the 12th and 13th centuries began using pieces of crystal the better to see their work with, and so spectacles were born. And then came Gutenberg, whose printed books created a bigger market for them. In 1610, Galileo used a crystal lens to make the telescope, through which he observed moons orbiting Jupiter, and from there came the doctrine-shattering revelation that the Earth is not the center of the universe.

The discovery had a reverberating impact that is still being absorbed today. Not only did it reveal a truth about the physical world, it reflected back on the human sense of our place in time and space. The innovation that allowed us to “see things that transcended the natural limits of human vision” also made glass mirrors possible. In these we saw not only our likenesses, but were nudged into reflection on our inner selves. In the words of historian Lewis Mumford, “Self-consciousness, introspection, mirror-conversation developed with the new object itself.”

And glass was just getting started. Glass has allowed us to look into the small as well as out at the large. Science focusing on cells, viruses, bacteria and genes all depend on glass. And from the development of fiber optics unfolds the world of phones and computers we now conduct so much of our lives through. As Johnson writes, “we take pictures through glass lenses, store and manipulate them on circuit boards made of fiberglass, transmit them around the world via glass cables, and enjoy them on screens made of glass.”

One of Johnson’s stories on the cold front is that of Clarence Birdseye. Birdseye had spent some winters in the “remote tundra of Labrador,” where he started a fur company. Out with Inuits, he observed that within seconds fish pulled out of a hole cut from thick ice over a lake froze solid. Frozen food was available in the early 1900s, but it didn’t taste good, because it wasn’t frozen at a low enough temperature. Birdseye took his idea for flash-freezing food and added to it an inspiration from another industry altogether — the assembly line of the nascent automobile business.

On the cusp of the market crash in 1929, Birdseye’s General Seafood company was acquired by Postum Cereal Co., which shortly changed its name to General Foods. You can still find Birdseye’s name in the freezer aisles of supermarkets today.

The ability to control and direct coldness has had enormous impacts not only on how and what we eat but on where we live and how we work. Johnson points out that the advent of air conditioning induced a mass migration to Florida, Texas and Southern California, shifting the demographic of the electoral college toward the Sunbelt.

Without air and humidity control, we wouldn’t be working in tall office buildings year-round in highly dense cities. Johnson covers the unfolding permutations of sound technologies as well, and points out that if we didn’t have telephones, office buildings wouldn’t work, either. To get someone a message on the 48th floor would take a lot more time and a lot more manpower than it does now to either pick up the phone or send an e-mail.

The reader of “How We Got to Now” cannot fail to be impressed by human ingenuity, including Johnson’s, in determining these often labyrinthine but staggeringly powerful developments of one thing to the next. One quibble is that Johnson calls the triggering of change upon change “coevolution,” which he renames “the hummingbird effect.” Coevolution is the development of traits in one organism in relationship with another organism, and that goes both ways, back and forth between the hummingbird’s long beak, for example, and the equally long spur of a flower it pollinates. But coevolution ties organisms more and more deeply together — its innovations are narrowing rather than expanding. He is really talking about another thing that nature does, which is riff on forms, retaining useful ones and mostly getting rid of those that no longer serve a purpose.

And a dark cloud hangs over the techno-exuberance on display in these pages and in our world. Johnson points out that millions of lives have been saved from death and disease by innovations he explains in his chapter on “Clean.”

“And yet today,” he writes, “there are more than three billion people around the world who lack access to clean drinking water and basic sanitation systems. In absolute numbers, we have gone backward as a species. (There were only a billion people alive in 1850.)” Hopefully, the abundant human creativity his book celebrates will find another way.
Mary Ellen Hannibal is the author of “The Spine of the Continent: The Race to Save America’s Last, Best Wilderness.” I wrote this for the San Francisco Chronicle Book Review E-mail: books@sfchronicle.com

Into the Wilderness

October 14, 2014 | Uncategorized | Permalink

Barnosky jacketLast night I wrangled a Litquake event in honor of the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act made great by the writers who joined me and by a smart, engaged audience. As with the best conversations, there was some friction. I had an inkling of this when I was briefing Ken Brower on the other panelists. Ken Brower is the son of one of nature’s most effective protectors, David Brower, for whom the fabulous Brower Center in Berkeley is named, and a long-time, accomplished journalist. His most recent book Hetch Hetchy: Undoing a Great American Mistake deconstructs the dam in a literary way that Brower advocates making literal. I mentioned to Brower that Nathan Sayre, another panelist, is author of Working Wilderness, which is about the breakthrough collaboration among the famed Malpai Borderlands ranchers in Arizona to put ecologically sustainable practices on their land, especially fire. Brower said to me, “I’m sure what they’re doing is worthy but there’s no such thing as ‘working wilderness.’”

Peter Algona, author of After the Grizzly: Endangered Species and the Politics of Place in California, pointed out that the human terms by which we define any piece of land (or water) reflects a value that we put on it, or not. Brower held to the position that pristine wilderness is sacrosanct. I know Brower’s position well because it is shared by Michael Soule, the “father of conservation biology,” who I profile in The Spine of the Continent. Soule’s solution is to protect “mega linkages” where we still have nature working at historic scales, which E.O. Wilson echoes in the September issue of Smithsonian Magazine. Wilson points out that “nature needs half” in order for us to stay within planetary boundaries for safe operations here. Both Soule and Wilson lay out the prescription to yes keep wilderness wild, but also to integrate higher ecological functioning into landscapes that don’t have that designation.

Algona’s human-centric observation has even more resonance thanks to the frightening dimensions of the anthropomorphic footprint limned by Anthony Barnosky is his book Dodging Extinction. This book should be a community read for our entire democracy. Barnosky’s a paleontologist and takes the long view. He adds up the numbers to conclude that humans currently use up more energy per diem than is made available through photosynthesis. Thus we overdraw our energy budget by way of fossil fuels. Not only are we creating the poisonous feedback loop called climate change by doing this, we are depriving other life forms of photosynthesis! This is an occult driver of extinction, invisibly constricting the available life space for creatures who we are also depriving of habitat. Sayre pointed out several times that call it wilderness or open space, the enemy is the profit motive plied expertly by developers. What we are engaged in here is a self-consuming system. We are Saturn engorging ourselves on our children. It is not impossible to face up to this and deal with it. Barnosky lays out 1-2-3 how to do that.