Facts of Life

May 8, 2014 | Uncategorized | Permalink

great sunflower project

“What is citizen science?”  I’m at my desk in San Francisco, on a conference call.  Surrounded by books and papers and a cup of cold coffee, and otherwise writing a book on what some people call “public participation in scientific research.”  Past my computer screen on the deck outside, a hummingbird zips around a passiflora.  I think about going outside to count hummingbirds while I’m on the phone, then figure I’d better wait and do it more carefully.  I have had lots of conversations and written lots of overviews and proposals about citizen science for the group I’m talking to, half of whom are in Arizona and half in Washington State.  So everybody chuckles a little bit at the question, which comes from Kim Vicariu, a long-time conservation warrior who knows very well that citizen science programs related to biodiversity usually involve counting species of one kind or another.  He’s asking big picture.


I’m writing a book about citizen science basically because of these people.  I reported on their work in my previous book, The Spine of the Continent.  While traipsing up and down the Rocky Mountains, pondering the sorry situations of species like pika, wolves, jaguar, sage grouse, and aspen, I asked myself:  what is working here?  Hundreds of millions of dollars are spent on conservation every year but nature is still getting completely shafted.  These people working for scrappy nonprofits that run on shoe strings are dancing as fast as they can, too.  They do the right thing – they get out there and advocate for nature – but there aren’t enough of them.  They are also quite frequently banging their heads against proverbial walls. How can we get more people doing the right thing?  How can we reframe the questions of conservation so that attempts at dialog stop slamming into what Anna Quindlan in another context called “a clash of absolutes”?  Most of all, how can the art and science of saving nature scale to actual effectiveness?


All over the world, citizen science projects are popping up to help address the trouble we find biodiversity in today.  For example, take the Great Sunflower Project.  This is something I participate in right on my small deck in the heart of the city of San Francisco.  I have opted to not plant a sunflower, which is one way to approach the program, but to simply watch for hummingbirds and bees on my deck for a certain period of time each day.  Then I walk back inside and type my data into the website. Yes, anybody can do this.  Gretchen LeBuhn, who runs the Great Sunflower Project out of San Francisco State University, says that school kids and older people are big participants.  “One woman wrote to me that even though she’s in a wheelchair with restricted movement, she can count bees, and it makes her happy to contribute.”  With the data she’s collecting, LeBuhn is able to trace the source of pesticide use that is causing bee die-offs.


One reason I’m writing the book is to help citizen science.  The scientists and educators leading citizen science projects rarely have the time or think to explain to people why they are being asked to do what they are being asked to do.  Sometimes it’s pretty self-evident.  I learned to track wildlife in Mexico for the Sky Island Alliance, which has used citizen-tracked data to get highway overpasses and underpasses built in Arizona.  On another project I helped measure the damage cattle is doing to the forests of Utah, and our leader, Dr. Mary O’Brien, explained with passion how degraded ecosystems lead to extinctions. She presents her data yearly to the Forest Service to get them to revise grazing protocols, and she’s largely successful.  But neither project has the space for explaining the full import of wildlife movement or ecological resilience.


Similarly, LeBuhn’s project is yes about figuring out the sources of the bee die-off, but it’s about much more she doesn’t really have time to explain.  That’s species distribution.  Where species are found in what number is ground zero for figuring out how nature is working and how it’s changing.  It’s also the basic template for understanding biogeography, which is where everything lives and the history of how it got there.  All of which adds up to the biggest concept of them all:  evolution.  Citizen science projects are actually helping to figure out how evolution is unfolding, and to O’Brien’s point, how it is being unnaturally curtailed.


On the conference call I’m discussing all the various ways different citizen science projects are helping and could help achieve the Spine of the Continent.  Wildlands Network focuses on identifying and protecting corridors so species can move, staking their large territories, and finding genetic renewal through other populations of their own kind.  How better to get people interested in this than to have them help identify the corridors, by placing and maintaining motion activated wildlife cameras?  Nonprofits can make great pitches for great causes, but mostly they wind up asking people to write a check to keep their operations going.  What if you could offer people participation in that work, and then ask for money, so that people could actually help to fund their own research?


Technology gives us a big assist in this direction.  With a smartphone, people can make observations as of a bumblebee or a puma track and upload it to iNaturalist, a database that vets the inputs and then uploads scientifically validated entries to the Global Biodiversity Information Facility.  Which scientists use all the time for research – essentially it’s a digital museum. What’s perhaps more cool is that those observations become points on a map.  Technology allows us to look at say the migration of a single bird and map it as it moves across the continental United States.  What if projects collecting that kind of data were networked together, so that a pattern showing ocelot movement from Mexico into Arizona could be shown blending into or overlaid with a migration of raptors in the same area?  What if we could click on a website and see visualizations of all kinds of species movement all over the country?  You and I could look at that living atlas and make our own connections about what’s happening on the landscapes we are watching most closely.  So I could notice that I have more hummingbirds than usual on my deck, and on my computer I could see that whales seem to be sighted more often than usual off Pt. Reyes, and some food web interaction might connect those two phenomena or maybe not.  These are questions we are very close to all being able to ask no matter where we live.


A couple of months ago, Wildlands Network got an incredible opportunity to present its vision to a top philanthropy.  Since the head of the foundation had got the idea from reading my book about the Spine of the Continent, I went along with them to the meetings, and I developed a plan for networking Wildlands Network through citizen science.  Wildlands Network has something citizen science needs – a conservation goal.  It also has a landscape it has worked on for decades, and a grassroots following.  Citizen science projects, even Gretchen LeBuhn’s pollinator project, are not going to save nature unless they can be connected to actual landscapes, to community actions, and networked so that the large patterns that are only discernable by looking at multiple species across multiple spatial and temporal scales can be analyzed.  [No word on funding yet!]


The other big reason I’m writing this book is because “citizen science” also has the potential to do what many kindred souls have wanted for a long time — to reintegrate multiple ways of knowing, including historic, interpersonal and artistic, into what we call “science.”  It reauthorizes regular people to make observations about the natural world that are taken seriously and lead to concrete outcomes.  Science has become a sort of boutique specialty off-limits to the uninitiated.  In this way science has cut off some of its main arteries.  Darwin scholar Dr.  Michael Ghiselin reflects that the greatest scientist of them all was able to think freely because he wasn’t formally trained.  Darwin, our most famous citizen scientist, wrote ‘all that I have learnt of any value has been self-taught.’  Now, this is not to disparage the initiation process and true accomplishment of the PhD.  We need those people and their drill-down knowledge (and most of them are darned smart). Darwin worked hard and methodically.  But he was able to ask questions across disciplines, as it were, to apply what he read about population, for example, to what he saw geologically.  He was above all a creative thinker, something many sciences today constrain to a choking point.


Ultimately, our moment in time demands a breakthrough – one that engages regular people in the discovery process of life.  This is citizen science.  In this book I’m interpreting the phrase thoroughly, and liberally.  Thus interwoven with my own experiences on various landscapes and transects, are tales of expeditions like the 1905-06 California Academy of Sciences trip to the Galapagos, undertaken almost entirely by amateurs.  And the expedition of John Steinbeck and Ed Ricketts that forms the narrative foundation of The Log from the Sea of Cortez.  Ricketts was a dreamer always looking to “break through.”  He was also a seminal marine biologist (without any degree) who first elucidated the zonations of the Pacific intertidal.  Steinbeck learned a great deal from Ricketts and added his own yearning to their quest.  The two of them were looking for knowledge as much from within as from without.


Remarkably, Ricketts was also a huge influence on Joseph Campbell, another amateur with no PhD!  Yet he remains our premier historian of mythology.  In Hero with a Thousand Faces and many other works, Campbell dug deep into the cultural archaeology of our species to formulate a full definition of personal identity.  Towards the end of his life he pointed beyond the Hero Myth to what he called the way of the animal powers, and the way of the seeded earth, hearkening to the cultural practices of peoples who approached life holistically as a matter of course.  He leads us back to people who took up residence on this earth as citizens in a way that Aldo Leopold, the patron saint of conservation, described in A Sand County Almanac: “In short, a land ethic changes the role of Homo sapiens from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it.  It implies respect for his fellow-members, and also respect for the community as such.”

Fake Fights about Big Forces

March 10, 2014 | Uncategorized | Permalink

hippoOh dear, I thought this morning upon reading “Is the Wolf a Real American Hero?,” an op-ed piece in the New York Times by Arthur Middleton, a post-doctoral student.  This is going to make lots of people hopping mad, and for no good reason.  It comes on the heels of another challenge to the trophic cascade theory in Nature, by writer Emma Marris.  Her piece is “Rethinking Predators,” and like Middleton, most of her evidence actually supports the assertion that carnivores at the top of the food chain have a big effect on what comes below.  Yet both Marris and Middleton frame their pieces as take-downs of science done by scores scientists over decades of peer-reviewed research.   

I first learned about trophic cascades while working on my book, The Spine of the Continent.  I hung out with a bunch of researchers on a “science hunt” at a ranch in Colorado.  There is a sentiment among some ranchers that scientists are all against hunting, and this is not the case; so the annual science hunt is something of a public relations event to demonstrate that people with PhDs also shoot large animals.  They don’t usually shoot top predators though – they go for ungulates like elk and deer, and largely profess to shooting only what they will eventually eat.  We’re all part of the food web, after all.

One of the younger researchers on the science hunt told me he had reservations about the idea that the top predator in an ecosystem has such a big effect on all the interactions that go on in it.  Bottom up forces, starting with the plants that photosynthesize sunlight, to him represent a bigger lever in nature.  Fair enough, right?  I for one, am completely able to hold in my mind the concept that both top down and bottom up are at work here.

Recently I interviewed Justin Brashares, a U.C. Berkeley professor who has studied trophic cascades very closely.  Brashares’ most recent research concerns not the top or the bottom but the middle of the trophic connection (‘trophic’ by the way, means ‘food,’ and cascade, of course, means to fall). With other researchers he’s studying the effects of losing hippos in an ecosystem.  Hippos are herbivores and in Brashares’ study site they forage at night and poop in their water in the day.  The aquatic result is thronging with biodiversity that disappears when the hippos go away.  Doesn’t it just make even more common sense that OF COURSE the middle of the food chain is important too?

It’s fine, of course, to look under the hood of received wisdom, to challenge ideas that have become convention.  But why take this big fake pose against decades of science?  In the case of Middleton’s piece, there are simply truckloads of research showing that the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone has restored ecological resilience there.  Middleton says the wolves haven’t restored Yellowstone to what it was before predators were removed. Okay, but does that mean that they’re dispensable?  His challenge implies as much.  He glosses over the very fact he recounts, which is that yes, wolves have had a big effect on the Yellowstone ecosystem.

There are better windmills to be tilting at.  The rest of us don’t need to have absolutes declared about nature.  Is the predator absolutely the big force, or is the vegetation absolutely the big force?  Wait a minute, maybe the hippos are the big force?  The point is all of the players in the ecosystem are important.  It’s a cycle.  It’s an interaction.  It’s a “tangled bank,” as Darwin put it.  We are pulling some of the tangle out at a greater rate than we are pulling out others.  Top predators are under siege.  Usually they are most directly threatened by ignorant, disenfranchised, underemployed white men who have a lot of guns.  Now it seems, journalists and academics are finding them an easy shot too.

Sixth Extinction

February 8, 2014 | Uncategorized | Permalink

kolbert“There is grandeur in this view of life,” concludes Charles Darwin in his opus “On the Origin of Species.” “… From so simple a beginning, endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being evolved.” Darwin was right about many things, including the mechanism by which the plenitude of life we know as biodiversity came to thrive on this planet. Unfortunately for us, his picture of a continuously rich congregation of interacting species has hit a big roadblock.

New Yorker staff writer Elizabeth Kolbert lays out the situation in “The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History.” The activities of Homo sapiens – that’s right, us – are reducing the volume and kinds of other life-forms on the planet at a rate and magnitude that earn our moment in time its own epochal designation. By 2016, it is expected that the inherently conservative Geological Society of London will make it official: We’re living in an Anthropocene of our own devising.

In her elegant and quickly paced book, Kolbert reviews the history of the very concept of extinction, noting that neither Aristotle nor Pliny nor Linnaeus ever guessed there had been life-forms on Earth that no longer exist.

Georges Cuvier, the French naturalist who once compared notes on mastodon teeth withThomas Jefferson, concluded that a variety of unearthed gigantic skeletal remains belonged to a “primitive earth,” and that a succession of catastrophes had caused these former realities to disappear.

With a significant assist from Charles Lyell, who posited that slow geological processes had created the present landscape, Darwin himself helped establish extinction as a fundamental factor in shaping life. His theory of evolution by natural selection pointed to a branching system of new life-forms made possible in part by the exiting of some older ones.

Kolbert’s riveting narrative follows the excitement, the controversies and the long slogs by which theories about how extinction operates have come to be widely accepted.

“What is sometimes labeled neocatastrophism,” she writes, “but is mostly nowadays just regarded as standard geology holds that conditions of life change only very slowly, except when they don’t.” There is slow extinction and there is fast extinction, as with the asteroid event first proposed by UC Berkeley geologist Walter Alvarez to explain the initiating cause of death at the end of the Cretaceous, one of the five major extinctions that have outlined Earth history. Today, Alvarez notes an even more mind-boggling cause for massive loss of life. “We’re seeing right now that a mass extinction can be caused by human beings.”

How do we add this up, how does science today make this claim? “It is estimated that one-third of all reef-building corals, a third of all fresh-water mollusks, a third of sharks and rays, a quarter of all mammals, a fifth of all reptiles, and a sixth of all birds are headed toward oblivion.”

Getting into the details, Kolbert takes her reader on a tour of extinctions around the globe. She covers ocean acidification, which gravely threatens the calcifying creatures that form a foundational part of the marine ecosystem. In the Andes, she accompanies researchers who are tracking species on the move in response to changing temperature and precipitation patterns brought on by the atmospheric effects of fossil fuel emissions. As the trees move, so shift the relationships among species who live with them. Insects and birds that pollinate and disperse seeds are becoming disconnected from the ecological alliances evolution has gradually wrought between them.

In the United States, Kolbert gingerly picks her way through carpets of bat carcasses, casualties of a runaway fungal infection. She points out that habitat fragmentation and invasive species, both the result of human alterations on the landscape, hasten the simplifying of ecosystems.

It is not possible to overstate the importance of Kolbert’s book. Her prose is lucid, accessible and even entertaining as she reveals the dark theater playing out on our globe. It is enough for one book to cover the enormous swaths of scientific territory she does here. Still, I would have liked more reference and explanation of how this accelerated take-down of creatures causes even more negative effects than the immediate one of species loss.

For example, here in North America, the loss of top predators (grizzly bears and wolves) exacerbates our current ecological woes. On the East Coast, superabundant deer are decimating forests and in some communities have to be culled by hunters. These deer also bring us proliferating ticks and Lyme disease. In the West, the lack of big teeth on the landscape actually has an impact on the water system, since the over-browsing deer and elk erode the banks of creeks and rivers, and pave the way for invasive plants to further degrade nature’s operations there.

Finally, while there is probably no hope for many of the Earth’s creatures no matter what we do right now, we certainly can stem this extinction crisis. With any hope, Kolbert’s readers will not be able to sleep until we all do our part to protect habitat for our co-travelers through what Darwin rightly called Earth’s grandeur. As climate change forces species to adjust how and where they live, we can help them by protecting enough natural places for them to do so.

 This review appears in The San Francisco Chronicle Book Review, February 9, 2014.

The Constant Gardener

December 12, 2013 | Uncategorized | Permalink

San Francisco Botanical Garden's Entry Garden. Photo by Saxon Holt

One of the reasons I’m slightly obsessed with botanic gardens is that the earliest impulse to create them integrated science and religion within their leafy bowers. The 16th century monks who planned and planted Europe’s first botanic gardens did so as an act of devotion to God.  They collected seeds and specimens from all over the world in an attempt to recreate the original botanic garden – Eden.

The idea was that after the Fall, Eden had disappeared to some far flung location, and expeditions were sent to go find it. The alternate thinking was that Eden had been flung asunder, its treasures distributed all over the world, and again, explorers were sent to go find those pieces and bring them home.  Planting botanic gardens meant putting the pieces back together again in homage to a Creator. And in collecting plants found in different locations, growing in varying soil types and climates, the puzzles of biogeography began to be addressed.  Who lives where and how they got there continue to be important scientific questions today.

Our world, at least in the United States, is a far more secular place than Europe in the middle ages. But many of us have an intuition that those monks were onto something.

The idea of an original, whole nature, is an abiding desire. We know that global change is having negative and potentially disastrous effects on species and their habitats, but this bad news often feels like it is coming from far away.  We want to help nature by reducing our carbon footprints, but many of us have to get into cars every day, to go to work, to drive our kids to soccer practice.

How can we connect ourselves back to the green heart of life, how can we take direct sustenance from the procreative powers of nature, and how can we help heal the fractures in our imperfect world?

Well, in many American cities, we can start by taking the bus to our botanic gardens.  I live in San Francisco, so for me this means a jaunt to Golden Gate Park, accessible by multiple public transportation options, and abetted by a free shuttle inside the park.  I usually ride my bike, which truth be told, is often just as fast as the bus. Either way, within a half hour I’m ensconced in a truly beautiful collaboration between man and nature.  San Francisco Botanic Garden (SFBG) is organized mostly by geographic region, so a stroll through its various gardens can be a bit of an academic exercise, if you’re so inclined. Our New Zealand, Native Plants, and Chilean Gardens all display the glories of what is known as a mediterranean climate, with cool, dry summers and wet winters.  Other people will preference SFBG’s world-class magnolia collection or redwood forest, but my absolute favorite is the Ancient Plants Garden. Walking among these crazy sci-fi trees and vines, the ancestors of today’s plant life, I feel the sense of a green pathway back into the mists of time.

One way to consider the network of arteries that extend from the Garden’s green heart to points all around the city and beyond is the birds-eye view.  Many of the birds who tarry feasting on the Garden’s perpetual blooms also venture well past its boundaries, carrying nectar and seeds to little patches of greenery all over town.  Even planted meridians on busy roadways provide pieces of habitat connectivity for birds, butterflies, and other bugs looking for food and a place to rest.  San Francisco is on the Pacific flyway, and is a productive stopover for birds on their way North or South, depending on the species and the time of year.  Watching birds come and go I like to think of them stitching up the distances between far-flung geographies and thus creating one continuous fabric of life.  Other locations have their own stories, and one of the great pleasures of living in a place is investigating who else, besides humans, uses it.Because nature is in fact going on everywhere, even across big cities.

Most American botanic gardens have traditionally showcased the glories of plant breeding to create bigger, showier, or more exotic flowers.  Today botanical gardens have become home for many species that are threatened or endangered in the wild.

For more than ten years, scientists have documented species shifting where they live in response to warming temperatures and changing precipitation patterns. Plants and animals that are no longer able to thrive in the climates where we have historically found them are on the move.  But they haven’t settled into new homes yet – and since temperatures keep rising, it is likely that not all of them will ever find suitable dwelling again.   Botanic gardens are important safe houses for many of the world’s most delicate species, providing a comfort zone while the “new normal” asserts itself.

Botanic gardens today are in a position to play a central role in educating people about nature, and in providing access to its beauties.  Botanic gardens are connected with each other through organizations like the American Public Gardens Association, and as an active professional network are perfectly positioned to bring a big, unified message to the public about the centrality of nature in all of our lives.  Botanic gardens already exist, and they already have devoted corps of volunteers who help to keep them running.  What they need is more public support, and more visits from the people who live around them.  The San Francisco Botanic Garden is currently raising funds for a sustainability center that will help involve and educate our populace about how plants grow and how biodiversity works.  And when the learning is done, we’ll be able to step into the Eden at the heart of Golden Gate Park, and enjoy the world as a unified creation once again.

I wrote this piece for Richard Louv’s Childrenandnature.org site, which is rich with thought and material.  The photo above is taken by Saxon Holt at the San Francisco Botanic Garden — he’s likewise a wonderful photographer.


Watering Holes

November 5, 2013 | Uncategorized | Permalink

Climate change provokes not just water rising up over our heads but emotional flooding as well.  If I had heard only William Collins and Chris Field at the 2013 Philomathia Forum on “Water, Climate, and Society,” last week, I would probably have gone out and bought a Barcalounger and tried to develop a taste for beer and whatever is on television.  Because:  Good God!  Collins heads the Climate Science Department at the Berkeley Lab, and Chris Field is founding director of the Carnegie Institution’s Department of Global Ecology.  Both made major contributions to the 2014 International Panel on Climate Change’s upcoming report, which summarizes the state of our knowledge for darned sure about what is happening – I want to say, “out there,” but that doesn’t do it.  Climate change is everywhere:  it’s in the water.

In sum, in addition to the usual flooding and droughts you’ve heard about, we can look forward to massive starvation in undeveloped countries, increased violence (people fight more when it’s hotter, and they will have more basic things to fight about, like water) and widespread forced migrations.  Subsequent speakers laid out the big water problems we have closer to home, mainly that our water capture and delivery systems were developed for a hydrological cycle that warming temperatures has irrevocably altered. Here in San Francisco, we’re going to have to figure out another way to turn on the tap, because the snowmelt we depend on from the Sierras is not going to be there anymore.

The moderator asked his own question of Field and Collins:  “is there such a thing as too much information”?  This got a sort of laugh, but I knew what he meant.  How do we sort through this fire hose barrage of bad causes and bad effects to formulate an actionable intention?

Luckily, we also heard from Antonio Villaraigosa, Mayor of Los Angeles from 2005 to 2013 who told us how he set his intention to clean up Los Angeles water and air and the Port of Los Angeles, and how he did it: with multiple partnerships, and “not without push back.”  Lisa Jackson, until recently the Administrator of EPA (she’s come west to Apple) addressed a current debate about the usefulness of a humanities-oriented education when there’s so much practical work to be done.  An engineer by training, Jackson said “one of the most important things about being an engineer is that you learn to state the problem.  That’s huge.”  But she boosted the softer subjects as well, like social sciences, “because we have to understand how people make decisions and do things if we are going to fix these problems.”

Claire Kremens from UC Berkeley gave a pithy drill-down on the bass-ackwards way we do agriculture, recounting the perverse returns of 1.3 billion chronically hungry people and 800 million obese people at opposite ends of a falsely propped up food system.  Which incidentally also wreaks environmental degradation.  Like the vested interests Villaraigosa referenced, industrial agriculture is holding fast to the methods of its poisonous assault.  But these are issues we can choose to fight at the supermarket.  Or at the farmer’s market.

A very useful addendum to this forum was its concluding panel, a group of journalism grad students from Berkeley, who both suggested story ideas they had gleaned from the day, and also gave the scientists some feedback on their presentations.  My favorite:  “Your power points are horrible.  If people have to think about what they mean, they don’t work.”  As one who often stares bewildered at scientists’ power points, I was gratified.

On another water note, Kenyon Fields, executive director of the Western Landowners Alliance, was telling me that water issues are serving a really useful purpose in the ranching precincts of the west where the phrase “climate change” gets you a kick out the door.  “They won’t talk about the whole thing, but they will talk about water, because they are feeling the change already.  In their lifetimes, they have never seen anything like what’s happening to their land.”  Since ranchers need to adapt to stay in business, they are confronting truths about perverse water incentives and the other layers of encrusted bureaucracy that get in the way of reforming our relationship with water.  Since healthy grazing practices, as enumerated by Kremens, naturally conserve water, ranchers can turn themselves into everybody’s best friend.  And they’d better, because as was reiterated several times at the forum, we can replace fossil fuels, but there is no replacement for water.

Yes, despair that our federal government is doing nothing about the greatest threat to mankind’s physical and moral well-being since Satan tempted a certain savior in the desert.  But rejoice, cities are on the case.  For example, San Francisco, which likes to turn a bad trip into a good party:  http://www.sfenvironment.org/event/san-francisco-green-festival

Eyes Wide Shutdown

October 16, 2013 | Uncategorized | Permalink

I hated that Kubrick movie but I love the title.  It’s pretty apt for what this government paroxysm is doing to science all over the world.  Take stalled scientific expeditions to Antarctica, where expensive instruments tuned to the pulses of melting ice caps stand in danger of going unmonitored this year.  This doesn’t represent just the waste of hundreds of hours of preparation and analysis.  If the instruments aren’t repaired and tended to this year, they are likely to be lost in the snowy depths and rendered useless.  Because the research is federally funded, it’s on ice, as it were.

In Point Reyes, California, researchers from world-renowned Point Blue Conservation Science are caught at an ornithological impasse.  Formerly known as the Point Reyes Bird Observatory, this organization has been collecting data on songbirds since 1966.  That’s 46 years of how many of which species are tweeting when and where, how well they are reproducing and how well they are surviving.  In the world of natural science, long data sets are extremely rare.  Until relatively recently, even if researchers had the ambition to collect the painstaking records that reveal the life histories of species, they weren’t able to easily collect it.  Mobile technology, sophisticated statistical programming, and massive computing power have put Big Data at center stage in biodiversity studies.

Point Blue has been at the forefront of this revolution and this year is the second they have deployed sophisticated miniature geolocator tabs to track birds that pass through Point Reyes.  “It’s pretty much changed our lives,” says Tom Gardali of Point Blue’s Palomarin Field Station.  “Before the geolocators, we didn’t really know where the birds went.  Now we do.”  Monitoring Swainson’s thrushes, Gardali and his team have discovered that after wintering here they go to western Mexico near Puerta Vallarta (of course they do).  “This is incredibly important to conservation,” he explains.  “Now we know that this landscape is connected to that landscape.”

On the other hand, Golden Crowned sparrows that find Point Reyes to be their idea of a winter vacation go to Alaska to breed.  “The amazing thing is that they spread out rather drastically,” Gardali says, the wonder of it all evident in his voice.  “They break up and go to different spots along a 1300 km stretch of Alaskan coast. That ties our little West Marin place here with a vast geography.” Most of the shore line of North America is connected through these birds, conjoined at the special locus of Point Reyes.

The birds are following an ancient schedule that operates regardless of the bullies holding fast to their pulpit.  Because Point Reyes is a National Seashore, Gardali and his team are forbidden from counting up the Crowned sparrows that are currently migrating here.  If they fly through without being noted, the expense in both time and dollars of the fancy geolocators will be wasted.  The loss of this year’s data degrades the effort and achievement of the 46 years of data that come before it.  The utility of long term monitoring is that it shows change happening at the scale at which it occurs – at a huge scale over many years and many miles.  Take an arbitrary bite out of that and you thwack the big picture.

As if the insult to the vital increase of basic knowledge weren’t enough, consider the repercussions of the shut down on volunteers.  Not only are the government researchers prevented from doing their work, so are scores of volunteers who help them do it.  The Gulf of the Farallones Marine Sanctuary has for 20 years run a Beach Watch monitoring program.  Since 1993 more than 100 highly trained citizen scientists have helped notify the Office of Spill Prevention and Response about signs that an oil pollution event is underway.  Beach Watch volunteers undergo a rigorous 80-hour training before being assigned one of 41 beach segments in the Bay Area to inventory every two to four weeks, taking meticulous note of both live and dead birds and mammals, and documenting oil tarballs.  Beach Watch volunteers are amazingly dedicated and consistent.  This January, assuming we have a functioning government, 15 Beach Watch veterans who have been on the job for 20 years each will be honored by the Sanctuary.

Although they don’t get paid, Beach Watch volunteers are covered by worker’s compensation insurance provided by the federal government – and of course, that is suspended at the moment.  Volunteers have been enjoined to not go out to monitor transects. What this means is that 20 years of consistent data on the state and health of our beaches – which reflect the status of seabirds and marine mammals – will have a big lacuna in it.  This could have a negative impact on future litigation and settlements regarding oil spills and the damage they do to our wildlife, to the health of our ecosystems, to our commercial and recreational experiences on the shore.

The shut-down of Beach Watch also comes at the time of year known informally as “oil spill season.”  Annual current changes bring tarballs from naturally occurring oil seeps along the shores of central and southern California up North.  Winter storms jar the sunken ships that liberally populate our sea floor – many of these went down with fuel aboard.  And of course, there’s the stormy challenge to the constant shipping traffic through San Francisco Bay.  It’s not if there will be another oil event here, it’s when.  But without Beach Watch volunteers monitoring the shores for signs of stressed wildlife and tarballs, knowledge of these events will be delayed, and so will the subsequent response.

Timing is everything in nature, and the monitoring of sea life is particularly important now, at the end of the breeding season.  A high level of bird mortality this time of year reflects the huge effort it takes older birds to fledge the next generation.  Young birds that don’t make it through the ultimate hazing of survival, the challenges faced by their species for millennia, also die in higher numbers this time of year.  The least we owe these sojourners is to witness and note the termination of their existence, intimately tied with our own.  And without full information documented in standardized surveys, we can’t know whether the dead birds on the beach are part of the average fall-out in the struggle for existence, or if they indicate a larger pollution or other human-caused event.

Citizen scientists in general don’t have PhDs.  What they do have is the status, the responsibilities, and the rights that define members of our body politic.  The government shut-down perversely prevents people from fulfilling their roles as citizens?  It voids the heroic commitment of regular people who devote thousands upon thousands of hours each year to helping safeguard our natural capital.  It erases critical links in irreplaceable data sets going back into time.  Stanley Kubrick was trying to get at a lie of the mind Homo sapiens are all too good at telling.  Self-interest occludes what is right, even what is desperately, vitally right.  We wring our hands; the birds fly overhead.  Or die on the beach.


Flying on the Umwelt

September 6, 2013 | Uncategorized | Permalink

On Wednesday Allen Fish and I talk umwelt up at Hawk Hill.  Fish is the director of the Golden Gate Raptor Observatory and commandante of its annual hawk watch – in which more than 300 volunteers cycle through shifts to daily count raptors commuting across the Golden Gate Bridge on their Southern migration.  While Fish takes passionate exception to anyone who might characterize hawks as mystical, regal, majestic, transcendent, and so forth – “that’s all about us,” he says, “and thinking about the birds that way has never done them any good” – he nevertheless has quite the poetic side and it’s fun to muse on life’s big questions with him.

We didn’t exactly use the term umwelt, which has some pretty specific connotations in the world of semiotics, but which is also colloquially useful to describe the felt thisness of the world.   Fish and I discuss how every generation has a sense of what nature is based on what’s there when they look at it.  “Think about what this place looked like before the city was built, a couple of hundred years ago,” Fish says.  We don’t know what’s been lost because we didn’t watch it go.  “If we knew we’d probably weep.”

I started with Fish’s hawk watch last year as part of my research for a book I’m tentatively calling Citizen Scientist. (I may call it Citizen Science.  Or maybe some variation of The Snake, the Seeker and the Smartphone, which Ken-Ichi Ueda came up with.  Kibbitzing on this subject is most welcome.)  So – although I’m watching for hawks, I’m also watching the watchers.  With raptors, this gets deep, because these “birds of prey” are also constantly watching.  In fact, one of my favorite sights is a gliding hawk with its head at a 90-degree angle to its body – a model of absolute focus on the ground and what little critter might be moving across it.

Hawkwatching is a crazy, cosmic, exhilarating, and exhausting activity.  Wednesday we count more than 250 birds over about a six and a half hour period.  Long stretches of time go by with no birds.  Then someone calls out, “juvenile red-tail North,” and then there are four birds and then suddenly you are choosing to keep your binoculars on just one because sun is refracting through its wings and you can really see its thisness, the fact that it is yes a juvenile red-tail and not an adult red-shouldered, for example.

All last year I watched and wondered, why hawks?  There are so many gorgeous birds out there, and no lack of bird-lovers, but the group at Hawk Hill are raptor-bent.  Wednesday I slap myself on the head for ever asking this ridiculous question.  Hawks most beautifully dart and glide and swoop and then shudder a moment, wings gathered then extended again.  Ravens and crows do a fun dance but it isn’t as pretty.  Hawks appear to be darning up the sky and making its fabric.  That’s no mystical, regal, transcendent thought – it’s a biological observation.  Hawks are top predators so have an outsized impact on the rest of the food chain.  Most obviously, they keep rodent populations in check.  They are sky-dwellers but their impact extends to the geological carbon cycle, which is created partly through food-web interactions, partly through the abiotic cycle of uplift and erosion that gives us ground.  Hawks stitch earth and air together.

There’s a lot to see from Hawk Hill, including the peregrinations of fog over the water.  Sunlight reflecting striated on the bay momentarily assumes a pattern that looks just like the orderly mottle of the hawk’s wings.  “We have no trouble understanding that plants, animals, insects, birds, are all products of and reflect the environment,” Fish notes.  “But we keep ourselves separate from that.”  He laughs at the absurd disconnect.  “We don’t understand that we look like we do and even think like we do because we’re part of the world, its evolution.”  That’s umwelt for you.

If you are around tomorrow I’ll be giving a presentation on The Spine of the Continent at Book Passage in Corte Madera, California.  Saturday, September 7 at 4 p.m.  Free.

The Snake, the Seeker and the Smartphone

August 8, 2013 | Uncategorized | Permalink


Effective communication about the environment, check.  Inspiration to address threats to Earth processes, check.  Community of like-minded people who want to help, check check check check. 

The subtitle was:  can tech save biodiversity? The members of the panel I moderated last night at the Commonwealth Club of California were Ken-ichi Ueda and Scott Loarie from iNaturalist.org, and Tanya Birch from Google Earth.  With his black hair flopping around a yellow bandana, Ueda set the tone for the evening by talking about how he came to invent iNaturalist.  A self-described nature nerd and computer geek, Ueda put two of his passions together to help connect people with the denizens of the great outdoors, and with each other.  Utilizing a smartphone or combining a camera with a gps device, users make “observations” of insects, amphibians, reptiles, mammals, plants, birds, and fungi and associate these with a latitude and longitude, a date and a time.  Uploaded to iNaturalist, they become part of a great inventory of nature.  He described the satisfaction of looking for, and finding, creatures, and sharing these instances of attention, noticing, and communion with other nature lovers.  He talked about the wonder of seeing three species of bird on a stretch of Market Street, then noticing a lone hawk perched above on an office tower; this vision, he said, gave him “solace.”

Of course I’m singing (or screaming) in the choir but I felt Ueda’s testimony was just the right sort of precursor to evoke receptivity in folks who otherwise may turn away from nature’s dire problems.  (In upcoming weeks and months, expect even more terrible news about what’s happening to our planet – the 5th International Panel on Climate Change will start publishing reports, and well you know.  It’s not good news.)  Loarie pointed out that species are going extinct at a rate that is about 100 percent faster than the background extinction that is a part of time’s arrow.  He mentioned that human beings use up 60 percent of the energy yielded by the sun – we are gobbling up far more than our share. Loarie is a scientist among whose relevant publications include The Velocity of Climate Change, and he knows a thing or two about why and how scientists use data about species to help figure out how to help them.  iNaturalist is a tool the rest of us can use for fun, but when iNat’s expert verification system gives an observation its imprimatur, it gets uploaded to the Global Biodiversity Information Facility, a vast database in use by scientists all over the world.  An example of how iNaturalist can be used to more local effect is the Vermont Atlas of Life.  What we need is for every region and state to establish similar projects.

Perhaps the central utility of technology is its ability to help reconcile the local and the global.  Thus tribespeople in Brazil, armed with smartphones provided by Google Earth, are measuring the carbon sequestered in their ancestral forest to be valued in a carbon market.  Illegal logging can be instantly reported and dealt with in short order.  The story of the Surui was one inspiration from Tanya Birch; another was a project in Jane Goodall’s neck of the woods, where African chimpanzees are threatened with loss of their habitat.  Birch talked about turning poachers into citizen scientists.

Many of us walk around knowing that our cushy Western life-style is a distinct part of the problem here.  But it can feel impossible to do anything consequential about it.  If you have to drive to work, you have to drive to work.  Here’s something you can do:  get an iNaturalist account (free).  Go outside.  Look for critters.  And if you happen to be in the Bay Area, check out the rest of this month’s biodiversity programming at the Commonwealth Club, including my own presentation August 29.  I have a nifty slide show.


Core of the Core

July 22, 2013 | Uncategorized | Permalink

Looking out over Coyote Valley, the built environment of San Jose is visible.  I can see the literal outlines of “Silicon Valley”: buildings and “campuses” housing Genentech, IBM, AMD, Yahoo, etc. Measured by the billions of people who are virtually linked through just two of these behemoths, Google and Facebook, it’s fair to say this is the center of the world as we know it.  The anthropocentric world, that is.

Behind me, the Santa Cruz Mountains.  Over on the other side of the Valley, the Diablo Range.  All is green right here but not exactly quiet.  A fluttering curtain of birds accompanies a tractor as it churns the Earth.  The birds are after the rousted insects.  Bigger birds – more raptors hang out right here than anywhere else in California – make stealth forays after the smaller passerines.

Coyote Valley is recognized by many as essential to the continued health of the greater San Jose area, to Santa Clara County, indeed, to the health of central inland as well as coastal California.  This one little piece of land, 7000 acres, is virtually the last relatively wild connection between mountain ranges.  Much of it is agriculturally-purposed, but as the birds attest, the wildlife have made use of that.  In turn, the birds of course keep pest populations in check, which benefits the farmers.

Walking along Coyote Creek, hawks fly overhead; animals without wing power have to find a way to get across bifurcating Highway 101, and indeed they do, using an underpass.  Their treks have been captured by cameras operated by wildlife corridor technicians from nearby DeAnza Community College.  Not only is this territory prime for allowing critters to keep on keeping on, it also provides an outdoor lab for students learning how nature works.

One of the reasons Silicon Valley has become such a popular locus for the technology revolution is that it is darn beautiful here.  The weather is salubrious, perhaps too hot in the most intense part of summer, but mostly temperate.  This is a place people want to live.  It is one of the main tenants of conservation biology that keeping natural areas connected keeps all the works in motion.  That means that the wilderness left here in Coyote Valley performs an outsized service in keeping San Jose/Sunnyvale/Santa Clara the highest performing metropolitan area in the United States (according to the Milken Institute). You would think armed guards would be on sentry to make sure a mountain lions passing from one range to another can do so without getting hit by a car.

The Santa Clara Open Space Authority, in purchasing about 350 acres of Coyote Valley, have protected a bit of it.  Coyote Ridge, visible across Bailey Avenue, is doubly spared from development because it is too hard to build on, and because it is habitat for endangered species including the Bay checkerspot butterfly.  Various municipal habitat plans protect Coyote Valley at least through 2040 – hopefully by that time, we will have learned to look at the landscape differently.  Instead of seeing acres upon which to put housing development, we will see our own circulatory system, and we will understand our own role in helping it to flow.

If You Mow It, They Will Come

June 7, 2013 | Uncategorized | Permalink

Stu Weiss and I are strolling at Edgewood Park and Preserve, a bucolic swath of greenery just south of San Francisco in San Mateo County, California.  Here, Weiss and his fellow scientists from the Creekside Center for Earth Observation aid and abet the citizenry in helping to resuscitate populations of the Bay Checkerspot Butterfly and the San Mateo Thornmint, both endangered species.  Weiss’s team has laid out a transect in which they are counting up thornmint stalks.  Their focus on the sparse plants is so close, they look like surgeons at a green operating table.

Weiss and I walk over to a hillside facing Interstate 280, the very road by which I had travelled to meet him.  Cars wing endlessly past.  I used to commute along what some call the most beautiful highway in America, with the Santa Cruz Mountains on the one side and the golden hills on the other.   But listening to Weiss tell me about his work here, I realize I have never quite seen this place before.

Weiss points out that behind us the hillside getting full sun “could be Southern California.”  There is a tangle of chaparral, sage, chemise and deer wood.  Beyond the highway, the mountains are full of oak woodlands and Doug fir.  It’s a different microclimate over there.  Weiss points out a small smudge of lighter vegetation in the dark green tangles.  “There’s a stand of chaparral,” he says.  “Ready to take off.”

What I might describe as ample purview for a traditional California landscape painting Weiss sees perhaps as Seurat or Van Gogh would have done.  One pretty scene to me is to Weiss a mosaic of geology, vegetation type, aspect in relation to the sun and rainfall, and atmosphere  – not only full of too much CO2 but thanks to the steadily streaming cars, too much nitrogen.

And not only does Weiss see the invisible gases, he sees into the future.  Weiss and other scientists studying what global change is doing to biodiversity wrangle over the concept of “climate space.”  When he says the chaparral are ready to take off, he means that as temperatures rise and the landscape gets drier, much of the mixed hardwood forests we are looking at could disappear, and plants like chaparral could take over.  Microclimates result from a myriad of inputs, and these are being reshuffled.  The future will be a different picture altogether.

Weiss reminds me that the highway is built along the San Andreas fault line, the result of the two converging tectonic plates, the Farallon and the North American.  Some of the resulting rocks from the mash-up of the plates between 35 and 165 million years ago are serpentine – California’s official state rock.  Serpentine is why we are standing here.  Nutrient-poor, the limitations of serpentine soil have created a refugia for endemic plants and animals, including Plantago erecta, upon which the Bay Checkerspot depends.

The trouble for the Bay Checkerspot right here is the traffic.  Nitrogen in the cars’ exhaust actually fertilizes the soil, making it hospitable to the invasive Italian rye grass that grows up higher than the Plantago erecta.  Eventually the grass thatches over and suffocates the natives beneath.  The butterfly can’t get to its favorite food and perishes.

Oh the world and our woes! But there is a solution, here, and Weiss figured it out.  “Grazing and mowing,” he says, simply.  In other beleaguered Bay Checkerspot habitat Weiss has successfully argued for cattle grazing to keep the rye grass low enough that the native flowers can get some space.  This piece of habitat is too small for cattle so the county mows it once a year.  “It’s really like gardening,” says Weiss.  “You have to take care of each piece of land.”  And then the butterflies will come.