By Richard Telford
This past summer, my five-year-old daughter and I discovered a small nestling on the ground beneath a venerable eastern white pine at the front edge of our yard. We spent the next few weeks driving sticks into the ground to mark off a safe perimeter around this fragile creature. Each day it would drag itself in one direction or another, maybe three to four feet, and we would move the perimeter accordingly to make sure we didn’t inadvertently crush it. All the while, the parent birds, white-throated sparrows, delivered a steady flow of summer insects, growing less wary of us as the days went on. Day by day the fledging process unfolded before our eyes until one day the nestling was gone. The absence of the parent birds suggested that the young bird had fully fledged or had gained enough strength to work its way back to the nest.
Why do we sometimes feel compelled to disrupt natural processes through the imposition of human values upon them? It is a question that most of us consider at one point or another in our interactions with the natural world, especially when we act or react emotionally to natural phenomena in ways that defy, or seem to defy, rational, scientific thinking. Often, we are aware of this dissonance but feel compelled to act despite our inner conflict. We free the ensnared butterfly though we know the spider must eat. The navigation of this dissonance, I contend, forms a central and necessary foundation upon which to build, maintain, and advance an effective conservation movement. Our emotional response is a needed counterpart to our scientific knowledge. As David Sobel notes in Beyond Ecophobia, we must let children “love the Earth before we ask them to save it.” If we are to succeed in conserving the Earth’s biodiversity to the greatest degree possible, we cannot leave that love behind in childhood, even if it sometimes renders us conflicted.
In his 1960 book Journey Into Summer, the second of his four-book American Seasons chronicle, Edwin Way Teale writes about a visit with his wife Nellie to the western basin of Lake Erie in late June of 1957. Teale notes that Lake Erie, the second smallest of the Great Lakes, provides “a vast incubator for mayfly life.” The Teales traveled to Lake Erie hoping to see a “mayfly storm,” and they were not disappointed. They arrived when “the insects, gauzy-winged and trailing thread-like tails, were emerging in numbers beyond counting.” The Teales traveled by ferry to Kelleys Island, in the southern part of the basin, and Edwin offers a moving account of an act framed by the dissonance discussed above:
I remember once we stopped and freed a mayfly entangled in the grass. It flew hurriedly away to join the dancers. Its progeny may live, may owe their lives to this act of ours. Why did we do it? We could hardly say. Here life was abundant, life was cheap. One more among so many—what could it matter? Perhaps our reason was that we were on the side of life and in so small a degree we had altered the balance of the world.
Though Teale acknowledges the biological frivolity of setting free one entangled mayfly among millions, he affirms the larger value of such a seemingly inconsequential act. He places himself, and Nellie, “on the side of life,” and this placement of oneself on that side cannot be selectively turned on and off. The fundamental impulse to preserve life is not contingent on reason. Further, though we can certainly discern to some degree which conservation actions are supported by reason and which are not, i.e. setting one mayfly among millions free versus setting free a net-entangled right whale, that discernment is inherently subjective and may not be borne out by on-the-ground facts. Here, Teale’s “mayfly storm” provides an apt example in two dimensions.
The first dimension of Teale’s apt example is hypothetical. He notes in Journey Into Summer that a single fertilized female mayfly will eject roughly 1500 eggs into the water, and these will promptly sink to the lake bottom. The eggs will later hatch nymphs that will burrow into the lake floor mud and remain there for one to two years before they swim to the surface, molt the last in a series of nymphal exoskeletons, emerge in imago (sub-adult) form, and take flight moments later. In the next 24 hours, they will molt one last time to take their imago (adult) form and mate. The females will deposit their eggs, and a whole generation of mayflies will die, having spent only one day above water. For the sake of argument, let’s accept that the single mayfly freed by the Teales was a fertilized female. If 5 per cent of her fertilized eggs produced surviving young, and half of those were female, only half of whom were then fertilized and survived long enough to deposit eggs, those eggs would total 28,125. With that generation of eggs, presuming a 5 per cent survival rate, with half being female, half of whom were fertilized and survived long enough to deposit eggs, those eggs would total 527, 344. These figures are, of course, terribly oversimplified, but they are sufficiently representative of the potential long-term effect of one more surviving fertilized female mayfly. Perhaps Teale was not far off when he suggested that his and Nellie’s momentary act might in some small degree change the balance of the world.
The Second dimension of Teale’s apt example is grounded in fact. Dr. Kenneth Krieger of Heidelberg University, writing for the Ohio Sea Grant Extension, notes that, by the mid 1960s, the once-abundant mayfly populations of the western basin of Lake Erie had completely vanished, a casualty of eutrophication. Algal blooms and increased vegetation, a product of anthropogenic run-off, such as fertilizers and phosphate-heavy detergents, produced dissolved oxygen levels far below the critical thresholds for the survival of mayfly nymphs and other bottom-dwelling invertebrates. Five years after the publication of Journey Into Summer, the fifth chapter, “Mayfly Island,” transmuted from a contemporary account to a footnote in history. The lessons here are cogent: 1) abundance, in the face of significant anthropogenic change, is ephemeral, and 2) no life is cheap, and no act to preserve it entirely insignificant.
Only one sparrow in my home state of Connecticut, the grasshopper sparrow, is classified as endangered, and none are classified as threatened. Worldwide, the IUCN lists the white-throated sparrow as a species of least concern. So, one might question the conservation value of the “sparrow watch” in which my daughter and I engaged. Biologically speaking, our actions were almost certainly inconsequential, but their long-term conservation value is immense, despite the apparent dissonance. For those few weeks of summer, we chose, like the Teales, to be on the side of life. What better impulse could there be to underpin the movement to conserve and sustain both the resources and the biodiversity of our world? What better impulse could there be to foster in the next generation?
As an interesting footnote, mayflies began repopulating the western basin of Lake Erie in the early 1990s and by 2000 had grown to sizeable populations. The repopulation, according to Kenneth Krieger and others, is likely due in part to the long-term effects of the passage and enforcement of environmental legislation, including the Great Lakes Quality Agreement and the Clean Water Act, both passed in 1972. The passage of these acts, no matter how grounded in science it might have been, likewise represented a choice to be on the side of life. While there is no possible empirical measure of the long-term effects of our individual conservation actions, those actions, no matter how small their scale, necessarily alter the balance of the world in some measure. Perhaps it is truly a question of scales, which, when elongated both spatially and temporally, beyond the range of our immediate and individual view, may shift dissonance to accord.