Here we are now

October 24, 2014 | Uncategorized | Permalink

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Into the Wilderness

October 14, 2014 | Uncategorized | Permalink

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

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

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

Carry a Torch

September 24, 2014 | Uncategorized | Permalink

A cultural burn in the Sierra Nevada foothills in February 2013. COURTESY OF JARED DAHL ALDERN.

A cultural burn in the Sierra Nevada foothills in February 2013. COURTESY OF JARED DAHL ALDERN.

“Many Native people would say this needs to be burned.” Rob Cuthrell, having just the weekend before become a newly minted doctor of archaeology, looked down from the edge of the 225-acre Quiroste Valley Cultural Preserve in Año Nuevo State Park north of Santa Cruz. We stood on the site of the ancient village Mitinne, once populated by the strong Quiroste polity who fatefully intersected here with the Spanish nearly 245 years ago. Down below was a familiar expanse of dried grasses interspersed with coyote brush and rimmed by Douglas fir trees. It looked a lot like many other wide-open expanses of California coast protected from development and home to many native species. Untouched land looks natural. But it’s not, really. Nor, perhaps, has it ever been, at least on the terms that we usually define the word “natural.”

Around the hilltop on which we stood, Cuthrell pointed out purple needlegrass, the official California state grass. “This is a main constituent of coastal prairies,” he said. “I was up here recently harvesting seeds with young tribal members.” Cuthrell told me about a native stewardship program instigated by the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band, a local tribe descended from people at Mission Santa Cruz and San Juan Bautista, who are involved in restoring this landscape to a condition close to what it was when the Quiroste lived here. Cuthrell is part of an extensive interdisciplinary collaboration between tribal members, academics (some of whom are also tribal members), and land management agency personnel investigating the deep history of the landscape, how the Quiroste lived on it, and how to best restore and maintain it going forward.

On the hillside, piles of hewn Douglas fir branches turned rust-colored and perfumed the air. “We’ve cut these down because Doug fir grows really fast, and soon these would shade out the native perennial grasses,” Cuthrell said. “These piles will decompose relatively quickly.” In contrast to the native grasses where we stood, the land down below was choked with invasive plants, some of which are native, but still considered invasive. The coyote brush is native, but the Quiroste would have kept it at bay, sustaining this place as wide-open grasslands by periodically burning it. “But there’s too much woody shrub to burn it now,” he said. “It would burn too hot. We have to prepare this land for burning, and it’s going to take time.” It will take more than thinning out the fuels. Invasive plants actually change the microbial structure of the soil and affect the entire suite of ecological interactions on a landscape. Putting fire on the land prematurely could perversely promote invasives rather than quell them.

This landscape was initially recognized for its historical significance by California State Parks archaeologist Mark Hylkema. Logged, ranched, and farmed for decades, the property was donated to the state parks system in the early 1980s. Hylkema had a bee in his bonnet from reading historic documents of Spanish encounters along the coast here. In 1769, Don Gaspar de Portola led an expedition in search of Monterey Bay. “By the time they got up here,” Hylkema told me, “they were in dire straits. Several crew members were dying. The land was all burned, so they couldn’t feed their horses and mules.” Thinking Año Nuevo Point was the northernmost part of Monterey Bay, they camped at what is now called Whitehouse Creek in late October. Troops marched along the beaches and descended down into what they called a “well-sheltered valley” of rolling hills and nut bearing pines. The Spanish came upon what they called Casa Grande, a large settlement dominated by a big structure. Quiroste tribal members met them, hosted them, and restored them. “This is where prehistory becomes history,” Hylkema told me. “Because the Quiroste could have told them to go back.”

With students from Cabrillo College, Hylkema radiocarbon dated remains of shells, plants, and animal bones on the site to determine whether Casa Grande could have originally stood here. Hylkema looked around for researchers to help him dig deeper into the history and implications of Quiroste—and thus turned to Chuck Striplen, an Amah Mutsun tribal member then looking for a site on which to focus his dissertation in Environmental Science, Policy, and Management at UC Berkeley. Eventually, a team of more than fifteen researchers, including Striplen, Hylkema, Cuthrell, Kent Lightfoot, and Valentin Lopez, chairman of the Amah Mutsun Tribe, cohered around the work at Quiroste. The site was classified as a cultural preserve, and recently, the Amah Mutsun Land Trust added nearly 100 acres to the site in the form of a conservation easement.

“When the idea of our Tribe participating in this study first came to us,” Lopez has written, “we were dubious. . . why would we ever agree to participate in a project that could potentially disturb our ancestors?” Cuthrell proposed using magnetometry, ground penetrating radar, and electrical resistivity—none of which would disturb the ground—to help construct a three-dimensional model of what is underground. These techniques direct the researchers not only where to look further, but where to stop looking if it appears they are coming upon a grave site. The Amah Mutsun “wanted to support member Striplen’s academic goals,” Lopez said. They also “realized that science and archaeology play an important role in helping us restore our indigenous knowledge.”

In a recent special issue of California Archeology, Kent Lightfoot, an archaeologist, and Valentin Lopez, the tribal chairman, were measured in their conclusions: “We do not yet know when people first initiated sustained anthropogenic burning in California or how they may have developed and modified these practices over time. Nor do we know much about the kinds of impacts these landscape management practices had on the scores of biotic communities distributed across the. . . regions of California. Lastly, there has not yet been much research on the social organizational systems, numbers of people, and degree of community coordination involved in various kinds of eco-engineering activities.”

But out in the field, Chuck Striplen is willing to go a little further: “There’s no escaping history. These methods were how these ecosystems were maintained for more than 10,000 years. They didn’t always do it right, but on average, when the Spanish showed up it was to non-endangered condors, non-endangered red-legged frogs, and non-endangered salmon.”

Looking over Quiroste, the takeaway seems clear: It is not that we are here; it is how we are here.

I have a longer piece on Native Californian burning in the current issue of BOOM: A Journal of California, which you can access here:

Wrestling Climate Change to the Ground

August 11, 2014 | Uncategorized | Permalink

This originally appears in the July issue of Bay Nature, which is a fantastic magazine I highly recommend subscribing to! The view east from Pepperwood Preserve to Mount St. Helena highlights the dramatic topography of this protected research site in the Mayacamas Mountains. (Photo by Tom Greco, Pepperwood Preserve)


It’s July 2010, at state-of-the-art Dwight Center for Conservation Science at Pepperwood Preserve in the Mayacamas range east of Santa Rosa. The place is surrounded by some 3,000 acres of iconic Bay Area Coast Range habitat: sunny skies, untrammeled oak woodlands, gorgeous views. Inside, 23 palpably excited scientists introduce themselves and rattle off their disciplines: climate change modeler, spatial ecologist, physicist, soilphysicist, ecologist focused on global carbon cycling and probabilistic vegetation modeling. Uh oh. Is this conference going to be all about graphs, equations, and incomprehensible hypotheses presented with wild enthusiasm? (Yes.) A fire ecologist announces himself as “Discoverer of the Previously Unknown.” Everybody laughs.
“The whole town’s here to paint the fence,” says Lorrie Flint, a hydrologist from the U.S. Geological Survey. “And David’s our Tom Sawyer.” The tall, slim master of ceremonies is Dr. David Ackerly, professor of integrative biology at UC Berkeley. In buoyant terms Ackerly dubs the assembly a “Mensa-style” group and calls on everyone to help figure out what climate change is doing to nature here in the Bay Area, with eyes on the prize beyond. Their goal is to combine the expertise from all of these disciplines to develop a climate change adaptation framework that can actually be used by resource managers.

By the following year, the group had been winnowed down to a still-large corps of scientists christened the Terrestrial Biodiversity Climate Change Collaborative (TBC3). Since then the group, with funding from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, has produced all manner of work that has deepened, widened, and illuminated our knowledge of what’s going on out there, a kind of living map that encompasses not only the tangible signposts of earth, rock, vegetation, and wildlife, but also the interpenetrating elements of sunlight and water in all its myriad forms.

To Keep on Keeping on

It’s not “news” to Bay Nature readers that climate change is in the process of giving a serious thwack to living systems. But what’s less well understood is how plants and animals and the habitats they  inhabit are moving—and being altered—in response to changing temperature and precipitation patterns. The Pepperwood oaks, branches reaching like so many grandmothers‘ arms, may not be here in the future. When will they go, where will they go, and what might be here in their place? Moreover, even if these species are able to move, they won’t all move in lockstep, so the evolutionary relationships among them are likely to be disrupted. How will that further impact the landscape? And how will that affect the way we manage the areas we have protected and the way we target other areas for protection going forward?

There are several big hurdles to figuring out these issues. As academia requires, these scientists are all specialists, virtuosos of the narrow focus. One analyzes fog, another plants, another landscape connectivity. But nature, of course, is made up of all those parts, and more, and functions through interaction. So to understand the whole, the group will need to integrate their individual approaches—not easily done. Further, climate models provided by the authoritative Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) show future temperature and precipitation patterns, but at enormous scales. Natural interactions do add up to big signatures, but for grape growers, for farmers, for ranchers, for water district supervisors—for everyday people who need to make decisions about the landscape—what happens on the small scale is much more important. The group will therefore “downscale” climate models to the level at which we actually live.

TBC3 co-leaders David Ackerly and Lisa Micheli inspect the project's master fog and weather monitoring station in the grasslands of Pepperwood Preserve. (Photo by Tom Greco, Pepperwood Preserve)

TBC3 co-leaders David Ackerly and Lisa Micheli inspect the project’s master fog and weather monitoring station in the grasslands of Pepperwood Preserve. (Photo by Tom Greco, Pepperwood Preserve)

Multitudes and Multivariates

Looking up close and personal at California means taking into account both our Mediterranean climate—warm, dry summers and cool, wet winters—and our beautifully varied landscape of hills, mountains, rivers, creeks, and marshlands, with the myriad microclimates this topographic diversity produces. As species are having their habitats pulled out from underneath them, the good news is that our heterogeneous landscape means a cooler or wetter spot might exist for a species just a bit to the left or the right or up or down from where it is now. Where exactly those climate refugia are likely to emerge is a big question for conservation, since we need to make sure we protect—and connect—these places, to give time and space to plants and animals to rejigger their relationships and adapt. But where will they be? Even as the ensuing years of nose-to-the-grindstone research and analysis go forward, TBC3 retains a palpable sense of questioning, of poring over the complexities and dynamics of nature with an attitude, yes, of discovering the previously unknown.

Solid as a Rock

“As much as we are all interested in the biological effects of this, there was a broad consensus to start with the abiotic,” explains Dr. Lisa Micheli, referring to the primary products delivered by TBC3 thus far. The star so far is a set of “high-resolution climate hydrology scenarios” for the San Francisco Bay Area. Micheli is the executive director of Pepperwood Preserve, the co-leader of TBC3 with Dr. Ackerly, and more. She is both a scientist contributing to the research and a land manager keenly interested in applying it to the landscape for which she is responsible. Micheli is a geomorphologist, so while strolling the grounds of Pepperwood, she is likely to point out a rift in the terrain and tell you how old it is. By “abiotic” she’s mostly talking hydrology—that is, how water moves through the precipitation cycle and also through the landscape. Other big abiotic factors include soil and sunlight, and putting those two together with water, we arrive at the piece of the puzzle that has absorbed these scientists for four years, “the climatic water deficit.” It turns out to be a central signal in understanding the effects of climate change on biodiversity.

Rogers Creek

Pepperwood Preserve technician Joel Cervantes and volunteer Sam Herniman measure water levels and stream flow on Rogers Creek on the preserve’s Stream Flow Monitoring Project. (Photo by Dennis Fujita, Pepperwood Preserve)

I’m Thirsty

Lorrie and Alan Flint are U.S. Geological Survey scientists. Married for 38 years, they’ve worked together nearly as long, and they don’t so much finish each other’s sentences as toss the conversational baton back and forth between them. The Flints developed a model that is exciting because it produces a value representing the amount of water available for use by a plant, discernible not by making big generalizations from space, but by measuring the capacity of the soil to hold water, right where the plant grows, and also measuring the amount of that water the atmosphere sucks away from it (evapotranspiration). Because of this tension between the soil’s ability to hold water and the atmosphere’s ability to evaporate it, even if we get more rain in the future (the IPCC models differ on this), we will still experience more drought due to the increased heat in the system, which will evaporate the water at a higher rate. The plant winds up with a debt—the amount of water it would have used for growth and reproduction had the water been available.

“Instead of a blanket look at the Mediterannean climate,” Lorrie says, “we can characterize [the landscape] right down to the level of creeks at Pepperwood.” At one meeting she demonstrated by showing graphs of the lower Laguna de Santa Rosa and Franz Creek.  Pepperwood contains the headwaters for both. “They have different soil and storage capacities,” she notes. “The Laguna can hold water longer and thus has less accumulated deficit. Franz Creek gets more rain but experiences a longer deficit anyway.”  Flint counsels land managers to “know your watershed! You may not have to worry so much about some parts of your lands.” She emphasizes that the models don’t tell managers exactly what will happen on their land, but present a framework within which they can ask themselves if it will make sense in the future to continue to manage their land as they are now.

On the Watchtower

The climatic water deficit at Pepperwood is measured partly by soil probes the Flints have strategically placed across the landscape. The long metal spears stuck in the ground are joined by weather stations, fog sensors, and wildlife cameras arrayed to capture animal movement. In addition, David Ackerly has demarcated 50 plots of oak trees to capture physiological and life-cycle responses over time. All these data points collated together will create a “biophysical knowledge base” from which to track how species respond to climate change as it unfolds. Micheli and Ackerly will watch keenly to discern where and when a vegetation “transition” might occur—for example, where Pepperwood’s oaks may be at the edge of their range and so more likely to disappear from it as temperatures ratchet higher and soils get drier. Many other complexities are at play, and one sunny spring day I tagged along while Ackerly showed a group of plant ecologist colleagues “some crazy hybrids.”

These are people obsessed with the minutiae of green growing things, so we don’t move very far very fast. Micheli explains that oaks are rampant interbreeders and the genetic resilience of hybrids poses an interesting question vis-à-vis-climate change. The hybrids seem to capitalize on the best of two sets of genes, but as ecology has unfolded thus far, their flashy dominance is short term. Over the long haul it has been the purebreds that have persisted, based partly on the power of conserved traits, the genetic raw materials that old lineages have passed on for millennia. But with climate change, the evident flexibility of hybrids to adapt to novel conditions in relatively short order may trump other survival strategies.

The group stops. “I love this spot,” says Ackerly. Appreciative growls concur but I’m flummoxed. It’s all beautiful to me. “You see these grasses?” says a postdoc along for the tour. “These are native perennials. This is a snapshot of pre-Mission California, before cattle grazing and imported European grasses disturbed the environment.” He draws my attention to the delicately hued tips of purple needlegrass (Stipa pulchra, the state grass of California). Its long root systems hold water in the soil, which creates drought resilience and specifically supports the oak forest around us, keeping oak seedlings hydrated. We are looking at an ancient relationship that’s still functioning.

climatic water deficit

The TBC3 team has augmented online vegetation maps produced by the Conservation Lands Network to show the impacts of climate change on key landscape characteristics. The above maps show the projected increase in the climatic water deficit (the amount of dry-season water stress on the vegetation) in the region around Pepperwood Preserve from “recent” (1981-2010) to “end of century” (2070-2099), based on the “hottest, driest” model from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The changes projected at Pepperwood are 100-150 mm (4-6 inches) of water, which will drive transitions to more arid vegetation types through fire and drought. (Image courtesy Stuart Weiss, TBC3)

Bringing Adaptation Home

Change on this landscape is not new, after all.  The question going forward is, how well will the ecosystem continue to function, and to what purpose? In the end, it is people who will have to adapt to the resulting changes.  From its inception, TBC3has been about developing cutting-edge science not just for its own sake, but with the express purpose of making it useful for people. Micheli sees her task is “to not just give land managers this climate future information, but to work with them to integrate it in actual places.” On this score, conversations are just beginning.

In November 2013, a subset of the TBC3 group presented initial findings to local North Bay land managers. “Today we are here to get feedback,” Ackerly began. “Things are fresh out of the oven here.” Offerings include high-resolution data sets from the past 100 years that make it possible to project scenarios for the next century, given a doubling of atmospheric CO2. Dr. Stuart Weiss, of the Menlo Park–based Creekside Center for Earth Observation, presented his integration of the Flints’ climatic water deficit data into a comprehensive interactive mapping model called the Conservation Lands Network (CLN). What in other hands might have remained academic models are thus provided through TBC3 for virtually anyone who wants to use them to help grapple with climate change impacts on the ground.

Pepperwood itself, all wired up with probes, sensors, and transects, has become a “sentinel site” through which regional climate change impacts can be glimpsed in microcosm. Micheli envisions a Bay Area network of such sites, including related work being done by uc Berkeley and the Nature Conservancy on Mount Hamilton and Stanford researchers at Jasper Ridge Preserve. At the rollout to land managers, participants take mini field trips to various habitats on Pepperwood. I follow a group led by Stu Weiss. Weiss points out a clump of invasive grass; a rancher opines that he loves the stuff because it’s rich fodder for his cattle. A conversation ensues about the juggling act of applying generalities on specific landscapes. Although TBC3 has provided new tools for grappling with nature, the road map for what lies ahead is of necessity a collaborative work-in-progress. Rich Burns, field manager of the Ukiah office of the Bureau of Land Management, tells me, “Lisa’s group just stands out as a community-based tie-in to academia that you can’t find in many places. Pepperwood and TBC3 are an incubator, bringing people together and guiding creative thinking.” He pauses and adds, “I guess I’d call that leadership.”

You can find a subset of TBC3 findings on the Climate Commons, hosted by the California Landscape Conservation Cooperative: The
Conservation Lands Network map-based tool is at

Mary Ellen Hannibal is an award-winning environmental journalist and author of The Spine of the Continent: The Race to Save America’s Last, Best Wilderness (Lyons Press, 2012). Her forthcoming book on citizen science will be published in 2015

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.