Neva Knott is non-fiction writer, interested in environmental topics, nature writing, and personal narrative with a dash of social commentary. She is also a professor of English, a photographer, dog-lover, traveler, and yogi.
Tahlequah dropped her calf the day before I boarded the plane to Maui. Tahlequah, an Orca whale, had birthed the first calf born to her pod in three years, but the calf lived only hours. As the world watched, Tahlequah carried the calf for seventeen days, constantly nudging it to the surface of the water. Finally, she dropped the calf and let it descend to the depths of the Salish Sea.
Whale researchers tagged Tahlequah’s pod as the J-pod, one of three pods of Souther Resident Killer Whales that inhabit the waters offshore of Seattle, Vancouver and Victoria, BC. J, K, and L pods total just 75 whales in membership. They are starving. Experts at the Center for Whale Research estimate these Orcas have just five years to reproduce, to bear enough calves to maintain life. Only 25 percent of the calves birthed in the last 20 years have survived.
Pacific Northwest native tribes consider the Orca relatives. The Lummi tribe of coastal Washington state interpreted Tahlequah’s “tour of grief” as a “wordless warning from whales that, environmentally, time is running out.” It is clear that Orcas are facing extinction, as are the Chinook salmon they depend on for sustenance. The Southern Resident Killer Whales are dependent of the vitality of females, of Tahlequah.
Tahlequah, in translation, means “just two,” derived from the meeting between elders. Though the calf she carried was not an elder in the literal sense, it seems that Tahlequah’s carrying of the calf was a meeting of “just two,” one that symbolized both wisdom and mystery unknown to humans. The mother Orca carried her grief for 17 days and 1,000 miles—an exhibition of grief “beyond what experts have seen.” The symbolism of the fragility of life was not lost on people across the globe watching her.
Tahlequah dropped her calf the day before I boarded a plane to Maui, a trip I planned to relieve my own grief. I had not lost a child, but a lover. A friend. A man who’d influenced my life greatly for thirty years. I, like Tahlequah, had been carrying my loss. I knew that Maui and the ocean there would allow me to drop what I was carrying.
On the plane, I finished reading Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders. Like Tahlequah, Lincoln, in his grief, carried his son. He sat in the mausoleum and wept, holding the small body of his offspring. His tour of grief was private except for the ghosts who narrated the story, explaining, from their side of the veil, what it means to have passed on, what it means to watch the living grieve.
One passage in the book has stayed with me, a narration of the lives the ghosts had lived, had left behind, what they grieved. The ghost narrators explain the contributions they’d made to community, family, the roles they’d held in life, and how their lives were cut short, disallowing them to fulfill their potential in these roles.
Tahlequah knew the death of her calf held this magnitude, that the loss of the calf’s life was a loss of potential, that the calf was the hope of continuance for the species, hope for the relatives and elders of the tribes along the Salish Sea.
What potential will be lost if the life of Orcas as a species is cut short?
What potential was lost when Andrew died?
What potential would be lost if I had kept carrying my grief?
In Hawaiian Native tradition, it is custom to take one last swim with a deceased loved one. Tahlequah took her last swim and I took mine.
“In the sea, you can be a grieving widow. Your tears will be added to the oceans of salty tears that wash in great waves across our planet.” Lisa See, The Island of Sea Women
On my last day on Maui, I stood in the ocean. I spoke to Andrew. I narrated the for him the intertwining of our lives via our long friendship, our sense of “just two.” I reminded him of all that he’d inspired me to do, I thanked him for saving me when I was a lost twenty-something girl looking for a place in an unfamiliar city. I told him how proud I was of him for living his truth, his dream. And I acknowledged what had been lost by his life being cut short.
I dropped my grief and let it descend to the depths of the Pacific.
Shortly after Tahlequah dropped her calf researchers observed her chasing a school of salmon with her pod mates, though she and her pod still struggle to thrive.
Abraham Lincoln went on to command the Civil War and abolish slavery.
Now, I will begin again, to put words to the page, to tell positive stories of the environment.
The bell rang and my students poured out of my classroom. I took a quick break myself. In fact, I pulled myself up short with a life-changing realization while in the faculty bathroom, all in the few precious moments of passing time. As I washed my hands, I looked at myself in the mirror and realized I was going to work another 20 years. I was 47, and we’d all been given our lay-off notices that day. We knew they were coming—it was 2009, and Central Oregon, where I lived and taught, was reportedly the fourth hardest hit place in the nation in the “economic downturn” as this new devastating recession was being called. There had been talk of nothing else at lunch, for weeks.
The International School of the Cascades was housed in an old middle school, a smaller building that a traditional high school, more intimate, and designed for more interaction between teachers, students, and classes. All of us teaching in the program ate lunch together every day, also something different than what happens at regular high schools. For this mid-day meal we gathered in a small room off the health and math hallway and sat at round tables. On Wednesdays one or two of us cooked lunch for the group. This was pre-arranged at the beginning of the year and a nice break to one’s own leftovers. Given that we taught in an international program, the flavors were often inspired by other cultures, places, and the travels of the cook.
Many of us had moved there, to the small town of Redmond Oregon–population 24,000–to teach at the ISC. It was a magnet program for Central Oregon, drawing students from Bend, La Pine, Sisters, Madras, Prineville and all rural points in between. The ISC opened during the 2006/2007 school year, yet here we were, March 2009, talking about lay-offs. Cuts dug deep– into twenty percent of the school district, which meant that any teacher with fewer than four years in the district was fated to the unemployment line. Since most of us had moved there for the opening of the school, that meant the ISC team was all under threat.
I think by the time the actual day came some of us—I know I did—felt sorrow for our supervisor who had the horrible job of actually handing out the individual notices.
So that’s how I found myself washing my hands and talking into the mirror, making a big life decision in the four minutes of passing time. I told my reflection, “You’re going to work another 20 years, you know. And your whole career in teaching has been budget cuts, budget cuts, budget cuts. You have no seniority here—this will only get worse. Just try something different. You can do anything you want.”
So I did. I applied to a graduate program in Environmental Studies at Green Mountain College. I love the out-of-doors, nature. I had an idea of becoming a sustainability consultant and of using writing and photography to help people understand how and why to live sustainably.
I started this blog after graduating from Green Mountain with a Master’s of Science in Environmental Studies, Written Communication. My impetus was the need I heard over and over again in my studies: to communicate the science to the public. When I started the blog, the news cycle rarely included reportage on environmental issues, and those reported were all doom and gloom. I wanted to showcase all of the positive work I saw happening in the environmental world. The core of the content for The Ecotone Exchange has been written by fellow graduates of GMC.
We were all shocked to learn, just about a week ago, that our graduate school will close at the end of Spring term, 2019.
Green Mountain College was founded in 1834. It sits in the small, very small, town of Poultney, Vermont. The town is so small that, the first time I went for residency, the woman at the hotel told me to “turn left at the big rock” and I’d find campus. So small that a few years ago the college President funded a food co-op so the students would have a healthful grocery. So small that the College’s closing will likely wither the economics of the place.
Place-based ideology was a cornerstone of our work at GMC. The master’s program by design was innovative–low residency, conducted through online classes, so each student’s study would be set in the bioregion where he or she lived. Our training was designed to make us experts on our home landscapes.
At the beginning of each year, we attended residency in Poultney, giving us a chance to know our on-screen classmates, take face-to-face workshops from our professors, hike together, and play games at the town’s one pub each night. We all stayed at the Panorama Motel. It was during residency that now long-standing friendships were formed and the idea of this blog was born.
Green Mountain was innovative with other programs, too. The Sustainable Agriculture track had developed nicely by our second residency. The opening reception meal was all grown on site, cooked and served by chefs developing the concept of farm to table.
The campus itself is a place I’d hoped to visit time and again. Old and brick, welcoming and collegiate. Grounds that invite contemplation. But it seems that the days of small liberal arts colleges have waned. What saddens me the most is the suggestion that a niche focus on environmental studies was not enough; issues and ideas about sustainability cannot sustain this old school.
I still teach, and I worry that the value of education–the value of learning from experts for the sake of learning–is no longer a value.
What I do know is that those of us who completed the MSES program did important work there. I know that we carry a sense of scale of place, bioregional living, importance of the connection between humans and nature, advocacy, and science, into all that we do. That alone is legacy.
Sourcing, energy usage, and waste are the core concepts of sustainability, a much tossed around and little understood buzzword of today’s consumer culture. It’s also one of the values that underpins natural resources management. In this post, I’m not talking about “go green” consumerism; rather, about how to take responsibility for your own waste stream–as a global citizen and inhabitant of this beautiful yet ill and overburdened planet.
I grew up during the era of the Give a Hoot, Don’t Pollute campaign. So when I read about Garbage Patches in the oceans, see trash on every dog walk I take, and consider all the disposability designed into our mainstream daily life, I cringe.
This past Fourth of July weekend, I took it upon myself to clean up a stretch of beach in Taft, Oregon the day after the fireworks. I was compelled after getting down there around coffee o’clock to walk my dogs, to find giant driftwood stumps emanating smoke, pillows left on logs, beer bottles, boxes, toys, a child’s shoe, about a billion snack wrappers, broken glass, cigarette butts, chicken bones. I could go on. What really flummoxed me, since–sadly–I am used to seeing trash everywhere I go (I often say it’s not a hike in Oregon if I don’t come across a disposed diaper) was that the trashed area was just about 50 yards from a huge hotel. I guess the guests thought housekeeping services extended to their beach party mess.
The reactions of other people as I filled my trash bag bowled me over. Most acted like I was intruding, one mom thanked me and encouraged her small children to help, and two little girls were sent by their mom to ask for some cardboard to use to start a fire.
The next day the beach was trashed again.
At Thanksgiving this year I was exclaiming to my aunt and uncle about this trash-fest. They live on the Washington coast, on the Long Beach Peninsula. I was horrified by their response to my description of the Taft scene. The Peninsula is a destination on the Fourth. This year, 60,000 pounds of trash were cleaned up after the visitors left. The volume of trash spurred a community uproar–the conflict, though, is that tourists bring much-needed tourist dollars. Even so, my aunt explained shop-owners felt enough was enough.
Where does trash go?
As this video illustrates, we’re creating an enormous amount of trash.
Just a week ago, I attended a TEDx Salon on sustainability here in Portland. The Salon included three TED Talk videos and two live presenters: Marcus Young and Terra Heilman. Topics ranged from waste reduction through better product design, the sustainability of coffee-growing (Marcus Young), food waste, collaborative consumption, and “recycling doesn’t matter” (Terra Heilman). I was overwhelmed by the scenarios of waste described.
Restoring urban watersheds is an important part of developing a city’s green infrastructure. These streams and surrounding landscapes comprise an important ecosystem for wildlife and humans. Urban watersheds are habitat for fish, animals small and large, birds and plants. They also provide important ecosystems services, like filtering rain and groundwater and capturing carbon and other air pollutants. Urban watersheds are landscapes that connect people to nature within the business of city life.
Last Saturday, I donned rubber boots and rain gear and headed out to the Lower Powell Butte Floodplain along Johnson Creek, part of the Johnson Creek Watershed in Portland, Oregon, to lead crews of volunteers for Friends of Trees in planting several species of native trees and shrubs to restore a section of the creek bank.
Project History, provided by Friends of Trees: “In partnership with the Johnson Creek Watershed Council and Portland Parks & Recreation we will be planting native trees and shrubs to improve the creek side native plant community. This project is supported by the East Multnomah Soil & Water Conservation District and Metro. PP & R has been working for a number of years to treat invasive species in the area, primarily Reed Canary Grass, to prepare the site for replanting. This planting will be the second at the site and will expand upon the area planted by Friends of Trees in 2014. FOT has performed summer maintenance and monitoring for the past two seasons to keep invasive species down and help previously planted natives become established. The native trees and shrubs planted here will provide greater wildlife habitat, increase native plant diversity, and enhance water quality by filtering pollutants and assisting with erosion control along Johnson Creek.”
On Saturday, the FOT crew and volunteers planted 690 native trees and shrubs–Black Hawthorne, Oregon Ash, Black Twinberry, Pacific Ninebark, Thimbleberry, Swamp Rose, and Snowberry. These species are often used in stream bed restoration because they tolerate wet-to-dry conditions.
My team was in charge of getting the Black Twinberries into the ground. We planted starts–each plant was just about four inches tall, dormant with no leaves or fruit yet, but with vibrant root systems. Thimbleberries grow rapidly though, and form dense thickets up to seven feet tall. The mature shrubs function as habitat in that they provide food for many types of animals, cover from predation for small species, and regulate ground, stream, and air temperature. When our thimbleberries mature, they will bring wildlife to the area–to include several bird species, rabbits, beavers, deer, coyote–helping to create a once-again functioning ecosystem along Johnson Creek.
Teaching volunteers to plant trees is something I enjoy and value because it allows me to help people interact in a very intimate way with the ecosystems we depend on. This past Saturday, I had several seven- to nine-year-old scouts on my team. Planting with children is extra fun; they are so simply in awe of the effects of their own efforts. And, they love finding worms.
Working with Friends of Trees not only allows me to help others connect to nature, understand ecosystems, and find worms, it allows me to learn more about plant species. I am intrigued by ethnobotany–the study of the relationships between plants and people. This cultural value of native plants is another important reason for using them, and is an aspect of plants that can connect the past to the present. A source I regularly look to is The Wild Garden: Hansen’s Northwest Native Plant Database, where I found that First Nations groups harvested thimbleberries for a variety of uses:
The leaves were mixed with those of wild strawberry and wild trailing blackberry to make tea
The sprouts were collected, peeled, and eaten raw as a vegetable
Berries were eaten fresh and dried, sometimes with the addition of clams and pressed into cakes, for winter use
While still pink, they were harvested by some tribes and placed in cedar bark bags, water was sprinkled on top and they would ripen in the bag
The leaves were also used as padding to line baskets
The boiled bark was an ingredient in soap
Dried, crushed leaves were laid on burns to prevent scarring
Native plants are most of the choice in restoration work. They allow for a sense of place and let flourish the botanical uniqueness of the region. They attract and feed native insects, birds, and wildlife. Their genetic design allows them to flourish with other native species in the same environment and in that particular set of conditions. And, native plants require fewer inputs–fertilizers and extra water–because they are attuned to the soil and weather of the region.
One of the goals of the restoration work along Johnson Creek is to improve water quality for the salmon who navigate through the watershed to breed and spawn.
Johnson Creek is unique in that it is the only salmon-bearing stream in the city. This is significant because salmon are a keystone species in the Pacific Northwest, supporting 137 other species. The viability of salmon is an indicator of watershed quality and health. Salmon also holds high cultural value in the region because it is a traditional ceremonial food of the Native tribes and has long been an emblem of Pacific Northwest culture and cuisine. Salmon definitely is a food that connects past to present and it is a fish species that pulls together the peoples of the region across ecological, economic, and cultural boundaries. A regional ecological concern is water quality for salmon.
The ecosystem services watersheds like Johnson Creek provide serve wildlife and humans; more importantly, watersheds connect nature and humans and remind us that much can be gained by looking to nature for solutions to particular problems of urban (and non-urban) environments. Whereas technological structures, such as sewer pipes underground in a city, serve as solutions to many environmental problems, plants can provide cheaper and more readily usable solutions. Green infrastructure is forward-thinking, often more effective, and always less costly that man-made infrastructure.
There’s a lovely walking and bike path along the creek and our planting area, next time you need a break from hectic city life. And, the thimbleberries ripen in late July.
Map of Johnson Creek Watershed: US Geological Survey
Orangutans hold a special place in my heart. My father, Norman P. Knott, was a zoologist. In the early 1970s he worked for the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). We lived in Thailand and often dad would take the family with him to other Asian countries he visited for work. It was on one of these trips I fell in love with the orange Great Ape, as did my little sister. We were at a zoo and the larger male orangutan in captivity there was smoking a cigarette, an indelible image etched into my 11-year-old mind.
He was just he first of many orangutans we’d see while living and traveling in Asia.
In a later conversation between my dad and my older sister–she had asked him what he felt most proud of in his life–he said, “Creating protected habitat for orangutans.” My sister was taken aback, as the family folklore goes; she felt slighted that dad put the orangutan above his four daughters in his pride of accomplishment. When she shared this anecdote with me she said, “I said, but you have children.” My little sister and I somehow approve of dad’s heartfelt championship of the funny-looking orange and fuzzy animals we loved so much in our childhood. Truth be told, both of us still do hold them dear.
I’ve been following the news about the fires in Indonesia since it broke a few weeks ago. After the first few reports, focused on the fires themselves–locations, cause, containment–I began to see pieces about trapped and threatened orangutans. As I planned my next post for The Ecotone Exchange, I decided to write about them, thinking “this is another opportunity to show the power of consumerism and to talk about how we shop matters” (because the fires are a direct result of slash and burn clearing for palm oil plantations). Many of the reports I’d read explained rescue missions to get orangutans out of burning forests and to safety, another positive, I naively thought. Until last night.
My father’s legacy is going up in smoke.
I began my research into the depth of the orangutans’s situation–I always like to go beyond the click-bait information–with a google search of UN-FAO orangutan habitat. I crossed imaginary fingers that dad’s name would pop up, but his work was so long ago, I didn’t expect to see Norman P. Knott in my search results. I did find the recent (2011) report published by the United Nations Environment Programme, “Orangutans and the Economics of Sustainable Forest Management in Sumatra.” The photographs in the report are telling–I hope you click on the link and take them in. Information in these types of reports is always rich fodder, and not the type of information the general public reads, but I’m sure we’d all act and react differently if we had these types details easily in front of us. In fact, sometimes I think my work as a blogger is really that of extraction. The information, based on research, in this report frames the background of the orangutan’s plight in Indonesia:
First and of foremost importance, “With current trends in forest loss, the Sumatran Orangutan (Pongo abelii) may well be the first Great Ape to go extinct in the wild.” In 1900, the population was 85,000. Now, it’s 6,600. This is a decrease of 92 per cent and has landed the species on the Red List. Bornean Orangutans (Pongo pygmaeus) are also rapidly declining in number, down from 54,000, and listed as endangered. Information for the UNEP report was gathered in the Leuser Ecosystem, Aceh, and North Sumatra–areas currently burning.
Orangutans are extremely vulnerable to extinction due to a combination of factors. They have an exceptionally slow reproductive rate–Sumatran orangutan females give birth to just one infant at a time, only every eight or nine years. Indeed, the loss of as little as 1 per cent of females each year can place a population on an irreversible trajectory to extinction; they require vast areas of contiguous rainforest to live in; they are very much restricted to lowland forest areas.
Orangutans are most threatened by fragmented habitat–an issue similar to the one I wrote about last week in my post about Wildlife Bridges. The orangutan’s habitat fragmentation is due to forest loss which results from a combination of road development, expansion of large- scale agriculture, logging concessions, mining and small-scale encroachment. To illustrate the magnitude of forest loss–between 1985 and 2007, 49 per cent of all forests on the island were destroyed. Road development is tied to economic development, but the problem for the ecosystem in general and orangutans specifically is that roads are not planned to maintain habitat. The authors of the report state, “These threats can be directly attributed to in- adequate cross-sectoral land use planning, reflecting needs for short-term economic growth, and a lack of environmental law enforcement.”
Of these, the rapid expansion of oil palm plantations in recent years probably represents the greatest single agricultural threat to orangutan survival in the region. The establishment of many of these plantations has resulted in significant losses in orangutan habitat, since they have been created by converting forests instead of making use of already deforested areas, such as existing agricultural or low current use value land. Of note, one of the drivers of this rapid expansion that exists outside of the consumer market is population increase in Indonesia. In this report, the UNEP explains that 50 per cent of Indonesians rely on agriculture for income, and theirs is a population growing rapidly, so the actual number of persons represented by that percentage is much greater than it was even a few years ago–more people to support washes out as more cleared land.
As I read on into the report, I gained a little hope. I was bolstered by the fact that orangutans have been protected since 1931. Most of their habitat is in protected areas on Sumatra the rest of Indonesia. New regulations–as of the publication of the report–are in effect to make the spatial planning process one that is habitat-friendly. The government seems to want to work for orangutans, “The Government of Indonesia has ratified and integrated into national law many international environmental treaties and conventions (e.g. the Convention on Biological Diversity, Convention on International Trade in En- dangered Species, the Convention on Wetlands of International Importance, the UNESCO World Heritage Convention). Most of these support orangutan conservation at the national and international level. In 2007, the Indonesian government also released its own Indonesian National Orangutan Conservation Strategy and Action Plan (2007-2017, Ministry of Forestry 2009) to protect orangutans and their habitat, which was subsequently signed into law and officially launched by the president.”
Yet, the slash and burn deforestation–a cheap and dirty way to clear land–continues.
“Indonesia’s government has blamed both big palm oil companies and small freeholders. Poynton says the culprits are often mid-sized companies with strong ties to local politicians. He describes them as lawless middlemen who pay local farmers to burn forests and plant oil palms, often on other companies’ concessions.
“There are these sort of low-level, Mafioso-type guys that basically say, ‘You get in there and clear the land, and I’ll then finance you to establish a palm oil plantation,’ ” he says.
The problem is exacerbated by ingrained government corruption, in which politicians grant land use permits for forests and peat lands to agribusiness in exchange for financial and political support.
“The disaster is not in the fires,” says independent Jakarta-based commentator Wimar Witoelar. ‘It’s in the way that past Indonesian governments have colluded with big palm oil businesses to make the peat lands a recipe for disaster.’ Wimar notes that previous administrations are partly to blame for nearly two decades of annual fires.”
All that said, NPR cites Indonesia’s current and fairly new president, Joko Widodo, referred to as Jokowi, to be a man willing to take proactive measure to combat this issue, “The president has deployed thousands of firefighters and accepted international assistance. He has ordered a moratorium on new licenses to use peat land and ordered law enforcers to prosecute people and companies who clear land by burning forests.”
I find it horrific that these land-clearing fires have been part of Business As Usual for so long. The fires in 1997, according to the UNEP report, cost Indonesia 10 billion dollars; this year’s fires, according to the New York Times, cost 14 billion. I’ve read several news reports that the carbon emissions from this year’s are more than what the US in it’s entirety emits. These figures easily refute the economic feasibility argument in favor of clearing forest for palm oil.
“The fires in Indonesia are more than just a threat to endangered orangutans. They have shortened by up to two years the window to reduce carbon emissions and avoid runaway climate change, according to one of the CSIRO’s leading climate scientists.
The head of the Global Carbon Project at the CSIRO, Pep Canadell, said the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere may have exceeded 400 parts per million for the first time in 2 million years, because of the 1 billion tonnes of carbon released by the fires in a two-month period.
Dr Canadell said the daily emissions of the Indonesian fires had been equal to the daily emissions of the US, accelerating humanity’s progress along the upward line of global emissions by about one to two years.”
As Take Part reports, there are some ugly outcomes of the orangutans having to flee their habitat because of the fires, “Orangutans have more to fear than just the fire. The flames and smoke are pushing them out of their already reduced habitats and closer to human villages, where the adults are killed and the young apes are sold into the pet trade. In the past week, International Animal Rescue saved one such young orangutan, Gito, who had been kept in a cardboard box and left in the sun to die.”
By now these sorts of events should be taken as a death knell ringing across the globe. It seems humans have come so far from living in caves that we’ve forgotten we are part of nature and its patterns. These fires and the plight of the orangutans is emblematic that we cannot succeed by pulling apart ecosystems, using one part that is economically beneficially and saying to hell with the rest. These fires and the plight of orangutans is another example that large-scale mono-cropping is the days-gone-by way of agriculture; it does not work with such a densely populated planet as we live on today. The UNEP put these words to the root cause of the problem, “The current economic system, which is based on the assumption that most of what is taken from the environment is a public good, or, in other words, that it is “free,” is leading humanity to either overexploit what nature provides or to destroy it completely. This has created an economic system in which one service has been maximized, usually productivity–[such as quick, low-cost slash and burn clearing], at the expense of others.”
Here at The Ecotone Exchange our moniker is Positive Stories of the Environment. Is there anything positive in this mess? I don’t know, but I was compelled to write about it anyway…
There are models for better forestry practices (about which I’ve written extensively), and as the UNEP suggests, there’s much already deforested land available to palm oil growers–some in Indonesia, some elsewhere–and realistically, orangutans take up very little space on this planet, yet palm oil can grow many places.
One thing that’s got to change is environmental standards everywhere. Much of what we consume in America is made elsewhere–to a large degree because companies don’t want to adhere to the environmental, non-pollution, standards here. So we outsource our pollution.
Indonesia is home to the Sustainable Palm Oil Platform, an advocacy that trains and certifies sustainably grown palm oil. Another agency, Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, offers similar certification. And several non-profits publish lists of palm oil free products. But palm oil is in everything–I don’t think we can responsibly-shop our way out of this one. Yesterday I thought it might be an option, because so many environmental problems are market-driven (as is this one).
Nor is this a simple issue of saving a charismatic species. Contrastingly, I am looking at the plight of the orangutans as an indicator, I’m looking at them as an indicator of human outcomes. Humans and orangutans share 97 per cent of our DNA. If these Great Apes face extinction from this level of habitat destruction, might not we be next?
This is truly “the horror, the horror.” In Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, this is all the character Kurtz can say after living alongside the atrocities of European colonization in Africa, after seeing how the “natives” are treated by his countrymen. In the movie adaptation of Conrad’s book, Apocalypse Now, the story is set during the Vietnam War and Kurtz’s last words are the same, “the horror, the horror.”
So I don’t know what the positive is in this story–maybe it is the awareness raised around the world. Maybe it’s that the ideas in the UNEP report can now become reality under the leadership of Indonesian President Widodo. Maybe it’s that the connection between a perceived human need for a product–palm oil, and the natural world–the burning forests and fleeing orangutans, and human welfare–health problems caused by smoke and smog from the fires, and economic ruin are made plain so that future disasters will be avoided by better planning.
In my recent post, “Losing Hope,” I gave the analogy of deer encroaching on yards, specifically in the town of Ashland, Oregon, as a way to talk about common sense and living in harmony with nature even when planning human spaces and endeavors.
As populations increase–those of human and other species–and natural resources decrease, co-habitation becomes more of an issue. Human development constantly destroys and fragments non-human habitat. Then what? Where do the animals go? How do they traverse landscapes to find food, water, shelter, and mates?
In the extreme, other species die because of this.
In another version of the extreme, or possibly the common sense to wildlife scenario, non-human species–deer, bear, cougar, coyotes, and wolves, to name the Oregon/Western states usual suspects–come on to territory now considered human, continuing to look for the resources they previously found there. In the case of Oregon’s wolves, this is the rub…ranchers don’t want wolves near livestock, but when wolves are forced out of their native feeding areas or have to travel fragmented landscapes, often crossing open range, they intersect with these human spaces. Though the livestock kill, or depredation, rate is very low, it’s a heated issue and one that governs wolf management.
Deer, bear, cougar, coyotes also make their way onto human landscapes, looking for food and water–because their foraging habitat has been destroyed or replaced with ranches, houses, shopping malls. The saddest example I’ve witnessed was a family of mule deer standing between Wal-Mart and the gym in Redmond, Oregon, train tracks behind them and pretty much surrounded by parking lots.
As these animals, and other species like marmot, field mice, frogs, birds, bats…move around to forage, they need cover for safety. Imagine a field mouse trying to make it across a large lawn with no shrubbery to hide under and with all sorts of predators above. This is the issue with habitat fragmentation.
Roads are one of the biggest threats to wildlife movement. In fact, I’ve heard it said that deer are the most dangerous animal in Oregon because so many of them cause car accidents when crossing roads.
Recently, wildlife managers/agencies in a handful of places have installed wildlife bridges as a way to provide habitat corridors, giving safe passage to our wildlife friends, and even providing habitat as part of their construction.
This video from Conservation Northwest explains the concept and shows construction on the I-90 corridor project in Washington State:
In 2012, Oregon Department of Transportation build the state’s first wildlife underpass along a high-collision stretch of Highway 97, a bit south of Redmond where I saw those poor stranded deer.
Aerial view of Highway 97 underpass. Photograph courtesy of ODOT.
“Mule deer west of the Cascades typically migrate between the mountains in the summer and the lower elevation lands in the winter. Highway 97 presents a stark barrier in that journey…When deer need to get where they’re going, they often must conquer an obstacle course of fences and roads. Miles upon miles of human made barriers snake across even the most wide-open landscape.The deadliest obstacles they confront are dangerous, virtual walls of flying metal: highways full of high-speed traffic: ‘You have stranded herds of animals,’ says Kevin Halesworth, a biologist with the Oregon Department of Transportation. ‘As the traffic level increases, the deer are less able to cross the highway until it gets to a point where from studies, the deer just won’t cross at all any more.'”
Mule deer using the underpass. Photograph courtesy of ODOT.
The underpass created a connected habitat–or as it is often termed, habitat connectivity, for the mule deer, and created safe passage for both wildlife and motorists along the shared deer migration and Highway 97 corridor.
In a recent project status update published in The Bend Bulletin, state scientists reported an average of 95 deer per year were killed by car collisions before the underpass. Now that animals are using the underpass, the number of car-collision deaths has dropped “drastically.” In the same article, a scientist for Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife explained, “hundreds of similar projects around the country have shown an 85 percent or better decrease in the number of animal-versus-vehicle collisions.”
Mule deer aren’t the only travelers through the underpass. Cameras track usage. ODOT told Oregon Public Broadcasting bobcat, raccoon, turkey, weasel, badger, coyotes, bears and more use the crossing: “We also had a bobcat that was not only using the structure to cross the highway, he was actively hunting in here and we have pictures of him capturing prey.”
Several US states and many places in Canada have installed wildlife bridges. You can see pictures of some of them here in this publication from Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife and on the website for ARC. The Center for Large Landscape Conservation published a reader-friendly report on the science of and need for wildlife connectivity, citing climate change as a key factor to consider in keeping wildlife habitat intact.
The issue of wildlife corridors is an aspect of defining critical habitat during the land use planning process, one the Western Governors’ Association is taking to task. The Association, in December 2013, launched the “Crucial Habitat Assessment Tool (CHAT), a cooperative effort of 16 Western states to provide the public and industry a high-level overview of “crucial habitat” across the West.”
One of my favorite connectivity projects is Yellowstone to Yukon, an organization with the stated vision of, “An interconnected system of wild lands and waters stretching from Yellowstone to Yukon, harmonizing the needs of people with those of nature.”
The Y2Y area is outlined in white. Image courtesy of Yellowstone to Yukon.
The organization also calls their project “The Geography of Hope,” in that, “Stretching some 2,000 miles in length (3,218 km), the Yellowstone to Yukon region is one of the last intact mountain ecosystems left on Earth. It is home to the full suite of wildlife species that existed when European explorers first arrived and it is the source of clean, safe drinking water to 15 million North Americans.”
Wildlife bridges are common sense, don’t you think?
We’ve driven, shopped, and eaten our way into disaster. I am on the brink of loss of hope, ready to give up. None of my beliefs seem strong enough to put into action and my voice sounds miniscule in the drowning cacophony of corporate greed and single-purpose endeavors and snack packaging.
I cannot understand how so many humans deny that we are in a mess. Our life support system is failing. Call it what you want–climate change, ecological disaster, overpopulation, water wars…sum total, the natural processes that allow humans to stay alive on this planet are ruined, and at our own hand, by our getting and having.
I cannot understand the arguments to keep going in this way–to keep waging age-old wars that poison water and destroy the arability of land. To keep chopping down trees that control heat and air quality and groundwater retention. To keep paving ground that filters the water cycle, thereby controls flooding. To keep destroying food source after food source through poisoning with chemical pesticides and mono-cropping and over-harvesting. To keep driving as a right rather than a luxury so that high-risk drilling is the norm.
And here’s the rub–what we get for all that quickly goes into a landfill. The stuff garnered by all of that destruction is stuff, not sustenance.
I have come to the point where I find it hard to write about the positive, because my brain shuts down at constantly being bombarded by the negative. Not so much that it exists, but by the human stupidity behind the destruction. I understand how the media works, how a news cycle takes over rational, critical thinking, and how we all live in a culture of embeddedness. I understand that socio-political change, which is the driver of climate resilience, only comes though a constant push on many fronts to fill the gaps left in the mainstream master narrative. But I also see a lot of hypocrisy and a lack of common sense.
For example, the morning I began working on this essay, I ran across a news story about getting rid of deer in Ashland, Oregon. Too many of them–overpopulation, and they are bothering the humans. The controversy is to shoot them or not. That’s a moot point. These are the real solutions:
1. Conduct urban planning that includes habitat needs of non-human species. When the new housing development happens in what was previously home to deer… Ashland is a small town, and one that has thoughtfully built a unique destination for itself, and a human lifestyle that embraces certain qualities, those we now call make local habit. In the early planning, to protect local businesses, the town had the foresight to say no chains in downtown…it’s that same foresight that must extend to dealing with wildlife. Essentially, Ashland businesses said hey, this invasive species will ruin us if we let it set up shop here–franchises controlled by outside interests will take down our habit…deer now face the same issue.
2. The second issue with deer here in Oregon is due to eradication of predators, wolves in particular. I’ve written a series of essays on the history and science of wolves in Oregon. Let me simplify the issue–they do more good than harm when on a landscape where they belong. They are not a direct threat to humans unless humans go looking for a fight with them. In the whole history of Oregon as a state, there is no documented case of a wolf attack on a human.
The reality is, if we cut down all the places animals live in their natural states, they will come hang out in our yards and ruin our flower beds.
Even when measures are in place with the intent of co-existing with wildlife or at least easing human displacement of them, animals are there as part of the make-up of the planet, as are humans. By design. If we reach back and look at indigenous cultures, there’s much to learn about living in accordance, species to species.
But I’m not writing here today about deer overpopulation. I went on that tangent as an example of lack of simple common sense and the ability of humans to apply a concept (keep the invaders out so we can have a livelihood) to our own needs will using the other edge of that sword (we’re the invaders and now deer are displaced in their sense of livelihood) for all other species.
Common sense in this day and age and in terms of where we are as a species on this planet is this simple: Do my actions add to the problems or are they part of the solution?
Here’s a juncture where I my head begins to explode–there are so many aspects to consider–plastics in the ocean; melting Arctic ice; illegal poaching of rhinos and elephants for their horns and tusks; polluted rivers and decreasing fish runs; GMO foods and Monsanto… But not really. There is one game-changer problem and everything else is a sub-set of it–climate change.
Image courtesy of Australia.gov.
This week, when reading around online, I was reminded of the key word in the climate debate–abashedly, I’d forgotten this word as the new level of the bar, even after having heard the lead climate scientist for National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) speak last spring.
This is the word used by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in its 2014 report–covered here in the Washington Post.
Our Earth is warming. Earth’s average temperature has risen by 1.5°F over the past century, and is projected to rise another 0.5 to 8.6°F over the next hundred years. Small changes in the average temperature of the planet can translate to large and potentially dangerous shifts in climate and weather.
The evidence is clear. Rising global temperatures have been accompanied by changes in weather and climate. Many places have seen changes in rainfall, resulting in more floods, droughts, or intense rain, as well as more frequent and severe heat waves. The planet’s oceans and glaciers have also experienced some big changes – oceans are warming and becoming more acidic, ice caps are melting, and sea levels are rising. As these and other changes become more pronounced in the coming decades, they will likely present challenges to our society and our environment.
The debate of what about it happened at Kyoto in 1997. The deniers are behind the times, stuck someplace with the cavemen who didn’t believe in fire or the wheel, with the people who doubted air flight or the moon walk. Climate change is all around us… it is the biological state of being of planet Earth. What the world’s climate scientists want us to know is that there is no turning back, no escape.
Image courtesy of CDC.gov.
Every action every person takes every day affects how this thing is going to go. What we’re really dealing with is climate resilience, a concept agencies have been working on and running models to study for some time now–about since Kyoto. NOAA has developed a toolkit to guide Americans in this change of thinking and lifestyle. It’s time for that concept to become the mechanism of socio-political change that might save humans from extinction.
More overwhelm. (Keep in mind, it can be assuaged by common sense and working through some simple biology lessons…)
I have pretty good sustainable living habits, some born of frugality way back in college, some born of awareness and my liberal arts educational experiences, some born of my embeddedness in a “subvert the dominant paradigm” counter-culture, some born of travelling third-world countries as a child, some born of what I learned about the natural world from my father, some born of the waste-not, want-not mentality of my grandparents who lived through the Depression, some born of common sense and my innate understanding of right action.
Lately, though, I have changed or refocused my thinking about my own getting and having. I’ve re-oriented everything I do so that I now look at it through the lens of climate change.
If my actions to get my needs met now require me not to contribute climate change, I have to think about my getting and having of food, shelter, livelihood, social needs, and the kind of work I do. What can I do in my daily life to eliminate carbon, methane, and nitrogen emissions–the main greenhouse gases that cause global warming–in production of what it takes to run my life?
To date, I’ve made these changes:
I drive a car that runs on biodeisel and use fuel produced in Oregon where I live and I drive as little as possible; I eat only organic food and as much of it locally grown as possible; I don’t eat much meat at all, and I what I do eat I make sure is sustainably grown or fished; I avoid plastic and work to minimized disposable stuff, mainly packaging and single-use what-not; I use only eco-friendly home and personal care products and as few of them as possible. These actions have become habits.
What’s new for me is thinking about the clothing I purchase and how much I travel.
Sustainability practices measure sourcing, energy of production, and waste…take these factors into account when thinking about the goods and services you consume and work to reduce harmful sourcing, wasteful energy in production, and wastefulness (disposability) in the life of the product, and you’ll be making great strides minimize your impact and creating climate resilience.
The message from scientists and climate activists is loud–it’s here and it’s real but we can work to slow the progress. The planet has warmed just a degree and a half–I can’t imagine it at the 6.3 F degree increase that is the projection. It’s time to act.
I saw more honu, Hawaiian Green Sea Turtles, this trip to Maui than I did during the whole year I lived there. Maybe because I snorkeled more. One day, I swam about 10 feet above a small specimen, following him on his morning tour of the coral reef in Ahihi Bay. The next day, while snorkeling at Five Graves, I saw two turtles napping in small caves along the reef. Later that day, while body-boarding and swimming at Kamaole Beach Park, a sand-covered turtle swam right past, making his way down the shoreline. He came from a black lava outcropping where two more bobbed in and out of the waves. There were a few little boys playing in the waves, local boys, who kept yelling “shark” with nine-year-old boy abandon each time they’d see the turtle. When he swam past, one boy said to another, “Ride him.” I looked at him, knowing he knew better, and said, “No ride ’em” in my best pidgin, my way of letting him know I knew he knew better.
The last full day of vacation, my friends and I ventured to the North Shore, to Baldwin Beach. While the beaches along the south shore where I’d seen the other turtles are along the protected side of the island, Baldwin runs along the open ocean. As I walked down that mile-long stretch, I came across a large turtle out of the water. A young woman was standing, watching. She explained to me that this same turtle had been basking in this same spot for a week or more, a spot just out of a little calm pool created by lava rock. People were concerned, and someone had called the wildlife agency. Nothing seemed to be wrong with the turtle; she seemed to need time out of the water, possibly in anticipation of laying eggs, I thought, having seen a turtle lay her eggs once, in Mexico.
I sat and watched her bask for awhile. The combination of the trade winds, the lapping of the blue water on the black rocks, the sand on my feet, and the expression of life given by the turtle seemed to be all that existed. As I watched, another turtle swam ashore and nuzzled the one basking. He’d nudge her and she’d move closer to the water. Then the second turtle put his head upon that of the first. I don’t know if this was a sexual act or one of comfort, but it was universal in depth of emotion.
The Hawaiian Green Sea Turtle (Chelonia mydas) is listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. According to literature published by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), honu populations were in severe decline in the 1960s and 1970s, due to over-harvest. Since protection was granted for the species, it has made an incredible recovery, increasing over 53 percent in the last 25 years. Not only are honu part of island lore and culture, an emblem of the islands, this recovery makes them an icon of successful conservation efforts. All it took was a change in human behavior. Now that harvesting turtles and turtle eggs is illegal, honu surround the islands.
Even though the Hawaiian Green Sea Turtle populations are increasing, both the US Fish and Wildlife Service and NOAA recently published a report on the Federal Register stating, ” we do not find delisting warranted.”
Honu are part of the beauty of the islands, and their presence is a reminder that the natural world and the human world only work in balance.
To watch the sun rise over Haleakala, Maui’s dormant volcano, is to watch the world begin. Simultaneously, darkness lifts across the island and silhouettes become palms, hibiscus and plumeria. The birdsong begins and the ocean’s surface turns from a black void to rippled water. By the time the sun is above the volcano, Maui is alive.
Each morning on my recent trip, I arose in the pre-dawn darkness to walk. It’s the best way to get a sense of the place. The first morning, I found a shore bird nesting sanctuary just near the Kihei boat ramp. According to Andrew Engilis, Jr. and Maura Naughton, authors of the U.S. Pacific Island Regional Shorebird Conservation Plan, “The USPI [United States Pacific Islands] are home to one endemic shorebird,the endangered Hawaiian Stilt, and are important wintering areas for three species of Holarctic- Nearctic breeders: the Bristle-thighed Curlew, Pacific Golden-Plover, and Wandering Tattler. The majority of these species’ populations overwinter in the Pacific Islands, and these islands are critical to the maintenance of these birds.”
As Engilis and Naughton mention, the Hawaiian Stilt is an endemic species. Endemic species are those only found in the region they inhabit, and no where else in the world. Island biogeography and islands as ecosystems are interesting in that they are closed systems, microcosms of larger landmasses; endemic species add a layer to what scientists can know about a particular ecosystem and it’s health.
I love awakening to a new day on Maui. It feels pure. It feels like all life is interconnected. I feel alive there, and part of the web of life created by the sunrise and birdsong. I feel privy to the ancient truths embodied by the mountains.
Later that first day, I snorkeled at Ahihi-Kinau Natural Area Reserve, a bay created by Haleakala’s lava flow. I watched species of fish feed and swim, and I knew that they were as important to the day as any other species, just as important as any one of us. Because fish do what they do, humans exist. In the ocean that day, I witnessed the mystery of life.
Islands can teach humans much about keeping the environment healthy. Just as each island species adds value and continuity to the web of life, it is easy to see on an island how each act of depletion causes irreparable harm. On an island, each piece of trash matters–will it blow into the ocean? Will it make it into a land fill? Where will it go when the land fill is full?
When I exited the ocean after my snorkel, the island was doubly alive–alive with the natural web of life and alive with consumeristic tourists, all of whom were excited about the fish and coral and the blue of the water; none of whom seemed concerned about their part in the web.
Today, March 11, 2015, would have been my dad’s 98th birthday. My dad, Norm Knott, worked at the Washington State Game Department (now Washington State Fish and Wildlife) for 30 years, starting there right out of college with a Bachelor’s degree in Zoology. After retiring from the Game Department, he worked for the United Trust Territories in Micronesia and then for the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). I have the privilege of owning his desk. There is one drawer of it I cannot bring myself to empty, the drawer that holds files of his that contain artifacts such as the essay below. In it, he expresses the need for human understanding of ecological principles in making the human world. Here are his words, written on August 4, 1969, in honor of his life and in thanks for his teaching me to love the natural world:
In a human society the values are those assigned by the people in relationship to and arising from their needs and desires. Certain of these needs as food, water and shelter, are obvious. Certain of these needs and desires are in-obvious but fully as compelling as those which form a wintering flock of wildfowl into a flighted V, following a chartless path to their summer breeding ground.
The pursuit of the obvious, and the lack of protective recognition of the in-obvious environmental requirements of man has repeatedly placed societies in the position of becoming self-destructive. The prophet Isaiah, in the 19th verse of the 49th chapter of his book, sets forth: “For thy waste and thy desolate places, and the land of thy destruction, shall even now be too narrow by reason of the inhabitants.” If we are to assure that our land not become too narrow by reason of the inhabitants, we must openly and publicly recognize and admit that we, as people, are the end-product of the multi-million-year evolutionary process which caused people to leave their home territories and invade the unfriendly wilderness. To our ancestors and to us, philosophically, nature was and is yet a multi-formed enemy to be conquered and harnessed as a benevolent servant.
We must recognize that in our zeal to master the wilderness, we have developed seemingly endless techniques and mechanical abilities which we have used and still employ with absolutely no thought to, or understanding of, the ecological consequences. We continue seemingly without caring what havoc we wreak.
We must openly admit and bring about open recognition of the fact that the individuals of this society, and hence society as a whole, need and in fact must have, not alone a gross national product, but also an opportunity to hear the spring song of a bird un-caged; water of supply and suitability for toe dabbling or fishing; a deer for seeing or tracking; a beach for the surf to wash; a tall tree for the breeze to whisper in; clean snow for children to put a to tongue.
The sound of the beach wave muted by the burden of used toilet paper and discarded picnic plates may well be the voice of affluence, but even though a muted voice, it calls loudly for us to seek in common endeavor, assurances that this will not become a land of our waste and of desolate places, nor our land of destruction.
When we can stand on the westernmost beaches of this nation, we must know that we cannot follow the creed of Horace Greeley, but rather we must learn to live in balanced harmony and respect with our environment.
Private resource developments are usually of a single-purpose nature and always have a single-purpose goal of financial gain. Government, to properly serve the public it represents, must face the responsibility of formulating and enforcing bold programs of resource management for the retention and enhancement of the human environment. The role of government in resource and environmental management must not be a role of duty.
By omission, present laws and programs of resource management do not reflect recognition of this seeming role. In many respects they serve as a fetter to management rather than permitting administrators to apply their knowledge and experience. In general, resource and environmental legislation is designed to effect the management of single resources for special interest groups. Departmental programs and administrative policies under such legislation are biased for the unilateral approach. There is, usually, only external and defensive interest, purpose and involvement in planning and effecting integrated programs.
When the laws that exist and which have as their purpose the service and protection of the people, are such as to preclude or in some cases make unlawful effective progress toward a common solution of the problems concerning the people, it must be past time to review the concepts which projected society and its laws to this present status. It must be time to review past results and to determine what future values we shall seek.
To approach the goal of better human environment requires both knowledge and understanding. Regrettably, there is probably less knowledge concerning the ecology of man and his environmental requirements than there is concerning cottontail rabbits or pine trees.
Environment has become a popular catch phrase emblazoned on many banners, however, it would appear that there is little understanding of ecological concepts or the reasons for the environmental deterioration of our cities, suburbs, and scenic countrysides.
Fish and wildlife are sensitively adapted products of their environments. If their environments are protected in a manner suitable for their livelihoods, many of the environmental needs of man will simultaneously be met.
Because of the comparative lack of social and artificial interferences, the best way to achieve a basic ecological concept is through the understanding of the relations between wild animals, plants and their environments. Once this understanding is achieved, the relationship of man with his environment is more readily understandable.
It may well be that if the knowledge and skills of the ecologically trained and experienced fish and wildlife personnel of this nation are fully utilized and their recommendations more clearly followed, the benefits to the human environment could become primary. A deliberately accelerated national program of environmental education and wildlife management could possibly gain sufficient time to permit a more detailed analysis and understanding of human habitat requirements.