Thursday, February 28, 2008

No Way Home

No Way Home: The Decline of the World’s Great Animal Migrations by David Wilcove is a new book about the disruption of animal migration routes. In the introduction, Wilcove lists the four major problems. First is habitat destruction which may be at either end of the journey or at rest points along the route. Second, obstructions such as dams, roads, fences, cell towers. Third, overexploitation (the word makes me question if plain old exploitation is acceptable, but onward) meaning hunting for food by more ‘advanced’ methods than traditionally used, such as miles long drift nets in the ocean.

Most interesting, most unpredictable, and most out of our control, climate change which can affect ecological relationships in many ways as species (plant and animal) which depend on each other for food, pollination, etc. react differently to rapid changes. An example is given involving when oaks leaf out, determining what the tannin (a defense against insects) level of the leaf will be when a moth is ready to lay eggs on it and when those eggs become caterpillars. Will migrating bird species arrive at the proper time to eat some of those eggs or caterpillars? If they get there too late, they’ll not only be going hungry but the forest will be damaged by the larger population of moths.

From the air come the bird migrations of course, and one of those fascinating cases of pulling one strand of the web and finding everything else connected: the rapidly declining population of red knots (a bird which breeds in northern Canada and winters in South America) was discovered to be caused by increased taking of horseshoe crabs by humans in the Delaware Bay area. Eating horseshoe crab eggs was a very important stop on the birds’ migration route.

The author also looks at the migrations of monarch butterflies, grasshoppers, and dragonflies. A few years ago, I walked out the front door and found myself in the midst of a migration which led to first amazement and then a constant grin as I walked down the street surrounded by dragonflies. Here in Duluth, we’re also fortunate to be on a major raptor migration route as they funnel around Lake Superior. Tens of thousands of the birds pass through each fall at Hawk Ridge.

On land, there’s a chapter on Africa which I skipped, and one primarily dealing with bison. This chapter includes discussion of the only remaining wild herd in its native range, which is in Yellowstone. Because many of these bison carry brucellosis, if they dare to leave the park on a seasonal migration due to snow at higher elevations, they are shot to prevent possible infection of local cattle. The irony here is that this disease was first introduced to North America via cattle imported from Europe.

From the water, we get discussions of whales (incidentally, Sea Shepherd has chased away the Japanese whaling fleet again) and salmon and most interestingly to me, sea turtles. Living at sea but laying eggs on beaches, the turtles have to deal with the worst of both worlds—fishing gear and shoreline development. At sea, they’ll also eat plastic, mistaking it for the jellyfish they prefer. Turtles living near areas with large human populations are also developing tumors believed to be related to human pollution. As more humans live by the shore, more raccoons and other turtle egg eaters follow them. For millions of years newly hatched sea turtles have headed for the brightest spot at night—the ocean. Now that brightest spot is often a porch or street light.

Looming ahead for them to deal with are the effects of global warming. Rising sea levels may eliminate the beaches they return to for nesting. The incubation temperature of their eggs determines the sex of the hatchling; in most species, higher temperatures will result in females. This has been observed even within a nest: the warmer central eggs will produce females while the eggs on the cooler edges will become males.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

From Edward Abbey to Zulu War Rituals

I’ve been having a great time browsing through my new copy of the Encyclopedia of Religion and Nature. This year, I didn’t buy a wall calendar for the first time in 25 years because between my own situation and the state of the economy, I know there’s a good chance I won’t have a wall to hang it on before the year is done. I’ve given some thought to what will go in the backpack if that day comes and a 2 volume, 1900 page, 10 lb, specialized encyclopedia isn’t on the list.

So why did I buy this? Even though I got it at almost 75% off, it was still over $100. I’m way beyond broke, have never for a moment believed in God, and think religion has done much more harm than good. GT, you’ve got some ‘splainin’ to do!

First, let’s acknowledge that yes, it’s completely unpractical. I would have liked to have grown up in a time and place where I learned practical living skills, but I’m a civilized (or syphilized, as Ed would say) product of the late 20th century. And I’m too old a cat to want to learn new tricks.

Second, though not religious, I’ve also never been interested in the mainstream materialistic world of house car things career. I recently saw the first episode of The Office in which Pam says little girls don’t dream of being a receptionist and speaks haltingly of her art. Along with office jobs, few people dream of working in retail, manufacturing, or most of the other jobs in our society. As a teenager, some of the music which mattered most to me came from people like George Harrison and Cat Stevens singing about living in the material world and being on the road to find out.

I’ve always been drawn to the idea of the struggle of Good vs. Evil, and from Robin Hood to Carnivale, the Good has never come from the respected members of society in power and control. I’ve never owned a bumper, but have a bumper sticker: “I am a mystic, a transcendentalist, and a natural philosopher to boot.”--Henry D. Thoreau. Though I have a very strong interest in and respect for nature for its own sake, it’s the differences in how I feel, how I am, when in the natural world and the manmade world (and this one is very much a man made world) which interest me even more. The question of where humans should fit in the big picture intrigues me. So yes, this encyclopedia is far more important to me than anything that happens on Wall Street.

The encyclopedia has about 1000 entries, most of which include a related reading list. This is not just a standard what does a religion think of the world kind of book, but a very wide-ranging look at related topics, people, and places. To give you an idea of the focus of the encyclopedia, following the Introduction, the Reader’s Guide suggests reading five entries first: Environmental Ethics, Religious Studies and Environmental Concern, Ecology and Religion, Ecological Anthropology, and Social Science on Religion and Nature. You can also read a couple dozen sample entries here. Among those available are: Animism, Bioregionalism, Conservation Biology, Deep Ecology, Primate Spirituality, and Yoga and Ecology. Very important related current issues which seem to be missing on my first glances are biotechnology and energy, but perhaps they’re discussed within other entries.

Continuing my annoying habit of adding an unrelated paragraph to the end of these entries, there’s an unfortunate story of thousands of bats in New York and western Massachusetts dying from an unknown disease which, because many of them grow a fungus, is being referred to as “white nose syndrome”. I don’t at all wish to make light of the deaths of my furry flying friends, but can’t stop myself from observing that I knew many humans suffering from a similar problem in eastern Massachusetts in the 1980s.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Arctic Bears

Enjoyed tonight's edition of Nature focused on polar and brown bears in the rapidly changing Arctic. Well, enjoyed along with the usual great sadness of what my species has done to the world. Some great photography such as looking up through ice at a polar bear walking, and all that beautiful white snow and ice and space.

Around this time of year, I hear people talking about how they like winter but they're ready for it to be over. I'm easily ready for months more of it, and think I would be completely content to live in a year round winter climate. In part it's simply because I love snow and the cold, but I also love that it reduces the human population on my walks.

On these cold and peaceful days, I can walk a couple miles along the Lake and often encounter no one. I'm alone to quietly contemplate today's Lake, which is almost always very different from yesterday's Lake; to see the steam rising from open water or hear the thump of waves under ice; to imagine the night journey of the mink who left tracks in the new snow; to appreciate the art of the plates of ice piling up near the shoreline by the smoothly glazed boulders. In summer, the solitude is replaced with hordes of walkers, joggers, bicyclists, rollerbladers, skateboarders, and tourists in pedal-powered carriages. Ahh, for a world with more polar bears and fewer people.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

All the World's a Stage...

...and all the men and women merely players. But we’ve chosen to ignore the ‘merely’ and act like out of control divas and egomaniacs rather than being part of the ensemble which would allow the entire performance to work smoothly. We think we have the right to have everything as we like it.

We see the world as a backdrop to whatever we want to do, instead of acting with humility as a part of something bigger and more important than ourselves or the moment. Anything can be destroyed if it suits our whim. Considering a piece of land we’ve parceled off from the land surrounding it because we want to “develop” it, we deal with abstractions such as zoning and ownership but the actual life that’s already there is given no thought at all. It has no dollar value in our system and therefore is irrelevant.

Previous cultures showed more respect for the world they lived in. I believe that how we relate to the natural world and other species is the most important factor in determining who we are as individuals and a culture. Since our culture is obviously an unnatural disaster on the subject, it’s up to us as individuals to do the best we can.

Studies show declining numbers of Americans hunt and fish which I’m happy about. Attendance at National Parks is also down which isn’t necessarily a bad thing since most visits amount to a drive-by shooting from the window of a vehicle. The problem is that with the lack of even a minimal connection with and interest in the natural world will come less willingness to preserve any of it. I don’t really think this is anything new; there’s never been any doubt in my mind that if this society staggers on long enough, it will destroy any remaining natural area which might hold any kind of fuel or other resource to keep things going another year, another month. Who’ll get the honor of cutting down the last tree in your area?

Most children grow up with no nearby wild area they could walk or ride their bikes to and explore, assuming their parents would allow it anyway. Everyone’s out to kill and abuse you these days, you know. We hear about it all the time in the news so it must be true. No wild animals to stare at in wonder, no long slow summer evenings with their buddies away from their parents, no clear creeks to wade in or tall trees to climb which somebody doesn’t own, no danger, no growth, no confidence. Plug ‘em in, to the tv, the computer, the video game, the i-everything. Teach them how to make money.

As global warming gains mainstream acceptance as if it were the only problem caused by our way of life, the idea of creating hundreds of years worth of nuclear waste begins to seem acceptable to some. McCain is pro nuclear energy, Clinton and Obama are not willing to mention the word nuclear on the energy and environment pages of their websites. I emailed both asking for their position without revealing my own. I received automated responses which don’t address the issue at all (because my email wasn’t actually read, just mined for a return address) and say that’s all I’ll get. But if I’d like to give them my time or money, that’s fine with them. Polls indicate that I won’t even be giving any of them my vote.

The new global warming specialists don’t concern themselves with overpopulation or consumerism or questioning the basic wasteful habits and lifestyles which make up our culture. They don’t want you to actually consider the consequences of your behavior; they just want to find a new way for everyone to continue behaving the same way. The effects of greenhouse gases are all their world revolves around now. Well, maybe if it’s caused by an automobile or coal. Gotta drive those hybrids, people! Nuclear plants will save us! But they somehow don’t bother to mention that it’s the animal agriculture industry which is the biggest single contributor to the problem. Would you prefer your ground-up cow burned or still dripping, ma’am?

A couple news items:

Following the arrests which began in 2005, the first ELF trial is underway in Tacoma. Others have made deals with the government rather than risk ridiculously long sentences, but Briana Waters maintained her innocence.

Sea Shepherd has taken on more fuel and some new crew and is heading back out to confront and hopefully stop the whalers. The vastly larger and richer Greenpeace has completed their anti-whaling appearance for the year and headed home to send out more requests for donations.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Harps for Holsteins

The following mention of Cassie the cow and the sanctuary I visited in October comes from this article about the effect of harp music on animals.

Cassie, a black and white cow, lives at the Maple Farm Sanctuary in Mendon, Mass., with about 80 other unwanted livestock. She arrived there last year after jumping a 7-foot-high fence to escape from a slaughter house, said volunteer Tracie Russell.

Even though the cow is now living the good life, it has demonstrated anxiety-related behavior issues. On a recent morning, for example, Russell walked into the barn to find the 1,500 pound Holstein snorting and stomping.

“I was little bit afraid for my safety, I have to say, for the first time,” said Russell. She’s not sure what upset Cassie but decided to try calming her by playing a CD of harp songs. Within 20 minutes, Russell said, the bovine dozed off.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

The Douc


Text from The Bestiary by Nicholas Christopher:

"It's called the douc. One of the most sociable primates. Very intelligent, with a musical voice. It used to thrive in the rainforests of Laos and Vietnam. Maybe you saw one over there. You wouldn't see it today. Ninety-five percent of the doucs were killed by Agent Orange and napalm. It used to group in families of twelve. Now, to avoid hunters, it travels in pairs. Some hunters eat it, others kill it for its fur, but most shoot it for target practice and leave the carcasses to rot." His voice was rising. "It's no different over here. Cowards who pick off grizzlies from helicopters or pay to shoot a penned tiger--or even a giraffe. You can fight pollution and sprawl, but killing for pleasure--how do you deal with that?" He smiled crookedly. "Maybe we need another Flood. When life began, the earth was entirely ocean--a chemical soup, bombarded with ultraviolet light. Shift a few molecules and everything could evolve differently. Maybe you end up with a planet of insects, or worms. Maybe that's an improvement."