CREATURES GREAT & SMALL…INCLUDING ME
“Look into nature, and then you will understand everything better.” Albert Einstein
For many years as a young child, wading barefoot in a stream on my grandparents’ farm, I spent hours collecting tadpoles and crawdads, watching dragonflies hovering above plants and water striders darting in unpredictable directions. I had no idea what I would witness in the next 80 years in the natural world nor did I think about that. The cool, Spring fed stream was clear and clean. It supported aquatic life and provided water for both wild and domestic animals. I was a bit of both. What I knew in my bones was that I was drawn to the world of nature, and I still am.
I measured time then by seasons, summer being preferred because I could be outdoors almost every day, all day, finding myself at home, immersed in nature. Now, if I need to measure time at all, I do it one day at a time, making the most of each one and getting outdoors often. Back then, I collected a few lightning bugs or fireflies, put them in an old mayonnaise jar with some grass, and holes punched in the lid so they had air. I took great delight in watching their signal lights at night in my bedroom. I learned much later that those were not bugs or flies, but beetles and their flashes were searchlights for mates and greatly varied in their patterns. I thought of it like a morse code for fireflies. I also learned that I should not have punched the holes because that makes the air dry and they need damp air, maybe from a slice of apple put in the jar and they can live there for a day or so without air.
I did not choose a career directly related to the natural environment, although I encouraged numbers of students to move in that direction and one of my sons became a biologist and a science teacher. There are many reasons I feel deeply connected to Nature besides my appreciation for what sustains life as we know it. I have used the image of an organic, dynamic, interdependent, diverse, healthy eco-system as a model for helping both individuals and organizations improve their own systems.
What I have learned about our natural environment is fascinating and I have had the privilege and benefit of living for many years on or very near creeks, rivers, lakes and streams. I have also been the beneficiary of other natural resources including forests, mountains, and deserts. For the past 30 years, our primary location has been the Southwest United States, first by invitation, then deciding to stay on permanently if it can be called that. Except for two, two-year, temporary forays to California and London, we have been residents of New Mexico and Arizona, where being outdoors in any season is a gift to be appreciated and enjoyed. We have also had the good fortune of being able to travel often and widely in our RV, experiencing varied natural environments in many parts of the United States, large sections of eastern Canada and much of Mexico.
In the past 3 decades, I have continued my ongoing relationship to the natural world in three significant and different ways. First is by observing what I see and experience when I am in it and occasionally making a few notes or writing about an experience. Second is reading articles, books and sharing information with others in an informal way. I have no formal science background or training other than what I have picked up on my own and that is barely scratching the surface. Third is realizing our dependency on a shrinking and diminishing eco-system that may be headed for a continuing extinction of species including our own. I won’t be around to see the outcome in the next few decades but I promise you it will be an interesting show to see. Or you could choose to be an active participant in the preservation and restoration efforts underway in many laboratories and field studies.
I think about being one of many creatures in this ongoing story of evolution and wonder what life might be like when my grandchildren are my age. I wonder how their learning, growing and evolving will be very different from mine. Elizabeth Kolbert in “The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History” (2014) argues that the Earth is in the midst of a modern, man-made, sixth extinction. Kolbert chronicles previous mass extinction events, and concludes by saying “Avoiding a true sixth mass extinction will require rapid, greatly intensified efforts to conserve already threatened species, and to alleviate pressures on their populations – notably habitat loss, over-exploitation for economic gain and climate change,” Kolbert’s more recent contribution to the ongoing conversations is another book, “Under a White Sky: The Nature of the Future”, 2022. Whether or not you agree with Kolbert and her conclusions is for you to decide. As I have watched and participated in the natural world, I know what changes I have seen and felt in my connections to nature. One overall observation is that there are fewer species and decreasing populations in those that remain. One notable exception is homo sapiens. When I was born the earth’s population was around 2.2 billion and now it’s up to 7.7 billion which has put ever increasing pressure on the planet in many ways.
Jeff Goodell of Rolling Stone, reviewing Kolbert, who is a science journalist, said this: “….a tribute to Kolbert’s skills as a storyteller that she transforms the quest to deal with the climate crisis into a darkly comic tale of human hubris and imagination that could end in flames or in a new vision of Paradise.”
In my time, I have seen and wondered about so much global change, much of which seems to be in the wrong direction. Deforestation, habitat fragmentation, introduced predators and pathogens, light, air and water pollution, herbicides, insecticides and the list goes on. Over 50% of our land use in the U.S. is for agriculture and seafood is a 50/50 proposition. Wild fisheries are a complex and fascinating natural resource—they are extractive yet renewable, vulnerable yet resilient. They contain unique human dimensions that tie directly to food security, nutrition, and livelihood. About half of the world’s seafood is wild-caught and about half is raised in farms.
I remember scuba diving and snorkeling in the pristine Caribbean in the early 1970’s among amazing coral reefs and canyon walls where colorful sponges lived, attached to their host. I did not know then that coral reefs make up less than 1% of ocean habitat but contain roughly 25% of ocean species, an incredible display of concentrated biodiversity. However, biodiversity is not the same as biomass. One common measure of biodiversity, species richness, is the total number of different species, whereas biomass is the total weight of living things. Coral reefs support high biodiversity: there are tens of thousands of different types of coral reef fish. But the biomass (the total weight of all those fish) is limited by low productivity, stemming from a lack of available nutrients. In highly productive areas like the North Pacific and North Atlantic, there are far more fish (together forming a greater biomass), but relatively few species.
I have learned that greater biodiversity makes for a healthy ecosystem of which we are part. Nearly 70% of people don’t know what biodiversity is, or why it matters. From what I see, about the same percentage of people don’t care and say that they will leave these concerns up to others, that they have other, more pressing priorities. I think often about all of these things and more. I wonder too about the people in the world who do not have enough food to eat, clean water to drink nor a safe and healthy place to live.
In the words of Albert Schweitzer, “Help life where you find it.”
Gary: I’ve seen a number of people over the decades try to address the question of “Why should we preserve _____?
The Lakota People have a saying,” Mitakue oyasin”. We are ALL related. So if you really want an answer to that question, try this: Breathe out. Okay, good. Now, how long can you go without breathing in?
You’re welcome. Now remember that.
Excellent! I agree wholeheartedly that more people need to be reminded of our interdependent nature to be living together. So why can’t we all just get along? We know the answers to that too and I won’t belabor them here.
Thank you for continuing to engage in this ongoing conversation about the essentials as we see and know them.
Hugs right back to both of you on this fine Easter weekend, at least in the Christian tradition that took over the pagan Eostre. G/