A Statistical Inquiry into Vincent van Gogh

July 21, 2014 | Uncategorized | Permalink

 vegetation map models the climatic water deficit around Pepperwood Preserve over the last 30 years. (Stuart Weiss, TBC3)
This is a blog adding a fillip to a piece I wrote about the TBC3 Initiative and Pepperwood Preserve in the July issue of Bay Nature.
Biodiversity scientists tend to love the outdoors. Ironically, most of their work occurs inside. At the first meeting of the Terrestrial Biodiversity Climate Change Collaborative (TBC3), a three-day workshop held at the Pepperwood Preserve in Sonoma County in July 2010, one of the attending scientists chose not to bunk with the others at nearby lodgings, but instead elected to sleep under the stars. Have sleeping bag, will travel to conferences. At one point during a long discussion about computer models, someone entered the conference room and announced there was a snake outside. Every single person in the room jumped out of their chairs and out the door – to look at the snake, which was kind of hilariously unmoved by the attention (soaking up the sun).

I felt akin to the snake.  Pepperwood is so darn beautiful, and the warm sun, the oak trees with their outstretched craggy branches – I wanted to stay outside too.  But we headed back indoors to discuss “veg models,” which, of course, are not perfect red peppers. When the conversation went too far over my head I utilized wi-fi and searched out some of my sticking points. “Marxan,” if you really want to know, is a software used to inform the design and management of nature reserves. “Raster” has nothing to do with marijuana or reggae: It’s part of a “dot matrix data structure.” “Vector”? Please.

At lunch one day one of the organizers of the workshop, Dr. David Ackerly of UC Berkeley, asked how I was doing. “Fine,” I said. “Why do you like statistics so much?” Ackerly’s kindly face became painfully concerned as he took a moment to translate his thoughts into a language I could understand. “Statistics,” he said, “let me know what story I can tell.” I have thought about this sentence frequently over the four years since he uttered it. (He suggested I read Statistics for Dummies. Thanks David; the truth is I’ve tried and it’s too hard for me.)

The beauty of science is that it really does search for truth. It is easy to follow the tracks and trails of one or several of nature’s patterns and yet be completely lost as to the whole picture.  So statistics are numbers that tell you what, exactly, is where, and in what amount. Scientists use them because they know the human eye is blinkered by biases we so take for granted we can’t possibly see past them. Statistics are a tool in service of the earnest desire to depict a picture of nature that is more accurate than we are yet capable of otherwise defining.

These scientists break down every piece of nature and every natural interaction into a tiny point to which they assign a number. Then they look at a map of all those numbers, and  try to discern patterns in them. As I listened to these people talk about what patterns they are seeing where, and as (I confess) my mind wandered, I looked out the window and thought about how painters similarly express truths of nature. Seurat, for example, is a raster-master, reducing his scenes to little points of color that can be seen discretely like grids. Nature is both flattened and amplified in his technique. Van Gogh can be said to bring vectors to life through color, adding magnitude and direction and creating motion on the flat surface of the canvas. Van Gogh made nature all about color while science takes all the color out (usually). But the resulting pictures are similar in depicting vertiginous, dynamic, seemingly infinitely continuous interactions the whole of which is not just a picture, but a process. Almost makes me want to take a math class. But I think I’ll step outside to the living art gallery instead.

Dig Deeper

June 25, 2014 | Uncategorized | Permalink

9781610915595 (2)Over the past couple of months I’ve been immersed in researching and writing a piece on indigenous burning practices, particularly in California.  My mind is blown! I’ve long kept tabs on the Northern California Prescribed Fire council, which is a very interesting consortium of fire ecologists, state and federal agencies, tribal members and all sorts of people who are trying to get “controlled burning” back on the landscape here.  Right now, because of the drought, every day is a wildfire alert day, so no burning allowed anywhere.  At the same time, not burning the buildup of duff and debris in our forests is adding tinder to any eventual spark, and the resulting inevitable fire is going to be big.  We have a fire problem here.


But under the guidance of Jon Christiansen, my editor at BOOM!:  A Journal of California, I’ve been going farther into the flames.  In sum, California is fire-adapted, meaning the special plants and animals we have here co-adapted with fire on the landscape.  Solid archaeological research conducted by tribal members and researchers from UC Berkeley (the categories overlap) is showing that Native Americans burned the landscape here for at least 1000 years and probably much longer than that.  When you look at a map of Native American presence in the state before European contact, you will see a multitudinous jigsaw of hundreds of small polities or “tribelets.” If you look at a map of microclimates in the state, it looks like a similar mosaic.  Native Americans in California burned small landscapes to promote a succession of growth and habitat for the plants and animals they gathered and consumed.  They maximized the microclimates to cultivate an incredible cornucopia of varied foodstuffs.  In the title of Kat Anderson’s landmark book, they were Tending the Wild, and in many places still do.


Here’s one mind-blower.  California Native Americans don’t fit into the traditional “hunter gatherer” category nor do they fit into the “farmer” category.  Kent Lightfoot (Berkeley prof.) and Otis Parrish put it this way in their encyclopedic drill down on the subject, California Indians and Their Environment:  “They Are Not Farmers.”  Since anthropology traditionally puts hunter gathers on the primitive-ish scale and then posits the emergence of agriculture as the first step towards modern culture, this step-out by California Natives is of profound import.  Let’s just fast-forward to the Anthropocene, our dubious moment in time characterized by our over-use of natural resources, which we are using up faster than they can be renewed.  In general surmise the birth of agriculture led us down this path.  There are many dimensions to the story (I turned in about 6000 words when Christiansen only asked for 3000.  Oops. Get out the red pencil).  But one important part of it is that California Natives did not subsist on domesticated plants and animals.  They kept the wild wild.  One thing that means is that historical ecological relationships between species – like between pollinators and plants – were not disrupted.  Diversity of species was not reduced under their stewardship; contemporary agriculture has by contrast reduced diversity to the point of extinction for many species.


So I press “send” on my tome-in-progress and pick up a book:  Keeping the Wild:  Against the Domestication of Earth, published by the Foundation for Deep Ecology in conjunction with Island Press.  It’s a collection of essays mostly targeting the pernicious and cynical arguments of what some of its authors call, tongue in cheek, “the new environmentalists.”  These are a handful of people who have gotten a lot of press with their swaggering claims that degraded nature is A-Okay. Eileen Crist’s solid essay, “Ptolemaic Environmentalism” takes on the practically unconscious consensus that seems to be going on here that puts Homo sapiens in a special place above other life forms.   She says this started with the Greek concept of oecumene, “one of the first human imperialist concepts,” which describes the inhabited world.  The world inhabited by people has become the “real” world to many; this anthropomorphism “constructs an existential apartheid between humans…and…all other life forms regarded, more or less, as the usable or displaceable ‘merely living.’” This fateful separation provides justification for increasing human numbers at the expense of most other life forms.


Harvey Locke, one of the founders of Yellowstone to Yukon, did me a big favor by writing “Green Postmodernisms and the Attempted Highjacking of Conservation.”  I struggle with ‘what on Earth is post modernism anyway?’ and Locke explains that after the paroxysm of the world wars and all the “isms” that had fed the maw of mass destruction, intellectuals decided that any codified body of thinking calling itself special knowledge was suspect.  So, baby out with the bathwater.  All is relative. Locke reviews the infiltration of postmodern thinking into conservation and puts a marker at William Cronon’s book Changes in the Land.  The way Locke puts it Cronon’s book “suggested that aboriginal people were farming everywhere and that there was no wilderness when the pilgrims arrived in New England.”  Therefore, Locke implies, Cronon was calling wilderness a relative concept.


Locke’s essay is well worth reading and makes much clear.  He’s a warrior of conservation and has been a participant in its major conversations for decades.  But on the Cronon front and on the Native American front he needs to look a bit deeper.  In documenting Native American land use practices, Cronon is not de facto arguing that every piece of landscape from sea to shining sea was thus cultivated, and certainly not arguing that this kind of historic precedent provides some sort of justification for “domesticating” every inch of land today.  Cronon’s 1982 book opened academia’s eyes to the fact that humans don’t have a history separate from that of nature.  He practically invented the discipline of “environmental history.”  Locke falls into the trap of eliding reference and asserting partially-sourced generalizations here – the very faults of the “new environmentalists” he is avowedly countering.


Additionally, there’s this little old thing called “colonialism” that Locke steps up to in the postmodern definition but then steps away from too quickly.  Back to Crist’s thesis, humans in general have taken up the colonial modus operandi, and we are all the colonists now.  The deconstructing tools developed by postmodernism are still useful for assailing the original enemy.  Colonial expansion was predicated on the assumption that one race was better than other races.  Now we’re on a different page; we know all races are equal.  But the problem has mushroomed onto the species level.


It is at the species level that the Native Californians had it right and still have it right.  Frank Lake, of tribal descent, a research ecologist with the USDA Forest Service, shared with me a perspective about tribal world view.  “Every tribe has a creation account, the premise of which is that people came to this world, and they learned the First Teaching,” Lake said.  “They learned that the natural laws are learned from animals and from place.  And people have a reciprocal obligation to conduct themselves in a particular way with place, with how they use fire, water and other resources and the way they interact with their relations with nature.  And nature is everything out there:  rocks, trees, insects, plants and animals. They have this deep cultural stewardship responsibility to the environment, and that comes first. And only then are you responsible to your culture and your people.” This philosophy is much older than the Greek “oecumene.”  Why don’t any of the authors in Keeping the Wild investigate or even acknowledge it?


To the “wilderness” concept or idea – the point is not that humans have no place in part of the biosphere.  We are agents of creation and destruction in the biological hurly burly no less than other species.  We are not specially more than other species, nor are we specially less.  It is not that we are here or have been here, it is how we are here.




Sleeping with the Enemy

May 31, 2014 | Uncategorized | Permalink

seven deadly sinsIt’s strange to see a subject you know a lot about treated by another journalist.  “Green is Good,” T.D. Max’s story mostly about The Nature Conservancy (TNC) in the May 12 New Yorker, starts out covering TNC’s current strategy to partner with big polluters to get them to mitigate in the interest of their own bottom lines.  But a big part of Max’s narrative focuses on the philosophical kerfuffle TNC scientist Peter Kareiva set off a couple of years ago when with Michelle Marvier and Robert Lalasz he published “Conservation in the Anthropocene” in Breakthrough Journal.  In sum, Kareiva et al. said that conservation strategies to protect parks and other discrete areas is essentially misguided.  They trace the idea that wilderness is a special place to Henry David Thoreau and Edward Abbey among other writers; crowing that Thoreau’s mother did his laundry and that Abbey was actually lonely out in the desert, they claim the very foundation of a special wilderness idea to be dishonest.  They go on to say that things are not really so bad.  Even the polar bear might have a bright future, because seals might be  driven northward by climate change and so into the polar bear’s jaws, and because the polar bear can always interbreed with brown bears to save some scrap of its genetic lineage.  Finally, they resolve that conservation should not be focused on species or landscape protection but instead on “economic development for all.”  The idea is that nature belongs to everyone; what’s left should be purposed to help the poor and underserved get a better life.


Yup.  There’s a ton wrong with every single thing they say.  Kareiva et al. employ an ad hoc, scattershot attack.  They glide over ecological realities and it seems willfully misread great writers. To the idea that we should give the last remnants of intact nature to poor people – can we just think about that for a second?  As climate change and continued ecological degradation make clean air, clean water, and beautiful landscapes scarce, do we really think that the wealthy people who have the best access to such are going to voluntarily share it somehow with the underserved?  The reality we see on the ground is that even right this minute, those of us in the so-called First World are having something of a sanguine response to climate change, because it’s quite clear that the biggest and worst impacts are going to continue to be felt by the Global South.  Those are other people over there, so what if they suffer?  If we were inclined to be fair and generous with the rest of the world, we would be doing much more to stop climate change now.


So why does Max spill valuable New Yorker ink on the subject?  There are so many bigger fish to fry.  TNC’s experiment with Dow Chemical, for example.  Max might have dug into the history of Big Green attempts to make peace with the devil.  “We can’t beat them so we’ve got to join them” is not a new idea in conservation.  Sociologist Douglas Bevington’s 2009 book The Rebirth of Environmentalism:  Grassroots Activism from the Spotted Owl to the Polar Bear, researches and analyzes deals made between large conservation outfits and industry in this spirit of “partnership.”  Bevington’s data makes it clear that big industry plays around with earnest conservationists in a proverbial cat and mouse in which the mouse is always eaten in the end.  Big Green ends up giving away more protection than it secures.  By contrast, small nonprofits that challenge industry have continuously racked up legislative protection for nature.  Bevington singles out the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD), which basically sues the states and federal government to protect species on the Endangered Species List. CBD has been nearly 100 percent successful in preventing species from going extinct.  TNC has protected 119 million acres – this is fantastic, this is great – but CBD has protected 233 million acres designated as special habitat when species are listed as threatened or endangered.


Max seems to fall into a false dichotomy set up by publicity-seekers like Kareiva in which passionate, long-time advocates for nature are painted as self-deluded wilderness-hoarders.  Why doesn’t Max look into the spotty and haphazard ecology upon which Kareiva bases his bromides?  It just disappoints me that Max paints Michael Soule, whom I profiled in depth in my book, The Spine of the Continent, as some kind of Old Testament crank, still railing on behalf of nature after all these years.  Soule is one of the foremost scientists who have defined conservation biology as we understand it today (Kareiva also made valuable contributions to this science). Max says Soule is working on a book about “human wickedness and its impact on nature.”  It’s worth clarifying that Soule’s project is an investigation into the “seven deadly sins” and how they prevent us from seeing what we are doing to nature.  Ever the evolutionary biologist, Soule is constructing a phylogeny that combines religious, cultural, and physiological traits.  Soule may periodically take a sonorous tone, but he is motivated by anguish and compassion, not just for one species, Homo sapiens, but for all species.  As he has said on more than one occasion, “it’s all one system.”  The context for his work, for TNC’s and CBD’s work, for all our work, is the current vastly accelerated rate of species extinctions brought on by the activities of just one of nature’s denizens, us.  That Soule persists in reminding us that there are other fates involved here is heroic and worthy.

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.