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.
Early in my first year of teaching in northeastern Connecticut, more than two decades ago, I heard a colleague refer to her husband as a “typical Swamp Yankee.” He had acquired numerous lawnmowers in various states of disrepair and was slowly pirating parts from one or another to produce a working machine. It was the first time I had heard the term Swamp Yankee, but it would not be the last. Though it has historically been used largely as a pejorative, albeit a tempered one, I have come to see it as complimentary. In fact, I believe that a Swamp Yankee ethic, as I will try to frame it here, is a potent tool in the fight to mitigate the effects of the environmental crisis with which we are presently beset and likely always will be.
Ruth Schell, in the May 1963 issue of American Speech, published by Duke University, wrote what may be the only scholarly treatise on the term Swamp Yankee. Schell noted that the term appeared to have a limited geographic range in terms of popular use, largely confined to southeastern Massachusetts, northeastern Connecticut, and northwestern Rhode Island, the junction of the three states. In that region she found that a Swamp Yankee was seen as “a rural dweller–one of stubborn, old-fashioned, frugal, English-speaking Yankee stock, of good standing in the rural community, but usually possessing minimal formal education and little desire to augment it.” In communities where the term was most commonly used, she found that the colloquialism “refers very simply to a rural resident of Yankee descent and inclinations, who is of long and, generally, good standing in the area.” The more localized the term, the less focused it seems on education or the lack thereof, and this, for me, is a distinction that matters.
Having lived in northeastern Connecticut for the last 22 years, 14 of which have been spent rehabilitating our 1770 farmhouse, I have come to see myself as a full-fledged Swamp Yankee, a term which, for me, has no pejorative quality. For me, the Swamp Yankee ethic boils down to the practice of fully and wisely using all resources, both material and intellectual, and this, I think, becomes more critical each day as we continue to assess and understand more fully the deleterious effect our societal wastefulness has on the natural world and, ultimately, on ourselves. For my family, the Swamp Yankee ethic manifests itself in living frugally in economic terms so that we can live more fully in terms of living close to the land and to each other. We live only on my teaching salary, which allows for our kids to grow up in their own home. Our frugality manifests itself in buying nearly everything secondhand, doing nearly all home repairs ourselves (learned mostly through books), and, perhaps most significantly, in rehabilitating our 1770 farmhouse, which was being considered for demolition before I bought it. In simple terms, we have worked hard to distinguish between what we might want and what we truly need, and we have modeled that way of life for our children. As I note above, the benefits of our Swamp Yankee ethic extend far beyond the economics. Such an ethic rejects the disposability that defines our society, reducing our environmental impact significantly. For us, it is a kind of living governed both by necessity and by the desire to give to our children, and subsequent generations, a more sustained and sustainable natural world.
Tom Brokaw, in 1998, invoked the term “The Greatest Generation” to recognize the generation of Americans who had lived through the deprivation of The Great Depression and rallied to fight the rising Axis Powers both on the battlefield and through solidarity on the home front. Americans ran scrap metal drives, planted Victory Gardens, rationed basic staples such as sugar and gasoline, and halted commercial automotive production in deference to wartime production; they forewent luxuries in all forms to contribute to a cause on which the survival of civil society as they knew it hinged. In short, they provided an example of sustainable living in a world of limited resources, though their greatest concerns, understandably, did not center on the loss of biodiversity or the changing climate. They demonstrated a selflessness that is largely absent from American culture these days.
Those who challenge the validity of anthropogenic climate change, and even many who acknowledge it, might argue that the present environmental crisis is not comparable to a global war that precipitated the estimated loss of 70 to 80 million combatants and civilians worldwide. I disagree. At present, we are at war with ourselves, pitting consumption-driven self-interest against long-term sustainability. The evidence of this war is all around us, and the casualties are real, though not so easily quantified. According to the World Food Programme, for example, “Some 795 million people in the world do not have enough food to lead a healthy active life.” To what degree is this number directly related to unsustainable agriculture, or to ecosystem changes rooted in anthropogenic climate change, or to government corruption that values self-interest over the environment? Consider, too, the long-term effects of the recent drinking water crisis in Flint, Michigan; or the cascading effects of the loss of polar sea ice due to rising ocean temperatures; or the plastics that comprise the vast majority of oceanic litter; or the widespread, global loss of biodiversity; or the poisoning of groundwater caused by the extraction of natural gas through hydraulic fracturing. How can we quantify the loss of health and life that will occur for generations as a result of these and other manifestations of the environmental crisis we have wrought? How can we fail to see that this is a crisis of unprecedented urgency?
Seven decades after the end of the Second World War, though we lull ourselves daily into thinking otherwise, we stand at precisely such a crossroads faced by Brokaw’s “Greatest Generation.” In fact, the long-term stakes are higher. Climate change is not a brutal dictator whose rise to power can be abruptly halted. Nor can accelerated resource depletion, habitat fragmentation, biodiversity loss, or other dynamics of our present environmental crisis be cast in simple terms. Our assault on the environment, whether conscious or unconscious, is omnipresent. Yet it is also largely invisible to those who cannot or choose not to see it, rendering the threat even more potent. It is not just civil human society at stake, as it was in 1939; it is our long-term survival as a species, and the threat will continue for decades, perhaps centuries, or even millennia. It is easy to decry such a statement as alarmist, of course, but doing so ignores the staggering speed with which we are depleting resources and degrading the environment in ways that neither we nor the Earth itself can reverse.
In her 1940 book The Wave of the Future: A Confession of Faith, Anne Morrow Lindbergh, facing the rise of Nazism, Communism, and Fascism in Europe, wrote the following: “In fact, on the average citizen, even more than on the expert, falls the responsibility of decision, in present issues, and the burden of its consequences.” Seventy-five years later, it would be hard to sum up more eloquently the dynamic of our present environmental crisis; we, as “average citizen[s],” cannot ignore the critical role we can and must play in solving complex environmental problems rather than exacerbating them. There is, though, a darker dimension to Lindbergh’s treatise, one that is especially pertinent now. In the closing pages, she writes, “Because of this tradition and this heritage, many of us hoped that in America, if nowhere else in the world, it should be possible to meet the wave of the future in comparative harmony and peace. It should be possible to change an old life to a new without such terrible bloodshed as we see today in Europe. We have been a nation who looked forward to new ideas, not back to old legends.” Though she seems reticent to state it outright in the 41-page text, it is clear by the end of her Confession that she advocates for an isolationist course. This is not surprising, given that her husband, American aviator Charles Lindbergh, headed one of the most potent isolationist groups in the country, the America First Committee. In the closing pages of her treatise, Anne Morrow Lindbergh argues that, by remaining aloof of the conflict in Europe and by “giving up part of the ease of living and the high material standard we have been noted for […],” i.e. the loss of European luxury imports, America “might gain in spirit, vigor, and in self-reliance.” The hindsight of history bears out the flaws her argument, and the application of that history in the present leads to one inevitable conclusion: such aloofness cannot save us now, just as it could not have done so 75 years ago. We cannot, in our comparative affluence as a society, isolate ourselves from the effects of the present environmental crisis. If we do not face it openly and act on all scales to change course, we are ignorant or willful conspirators in our own demise.
Our affluence as a society allows us in the short-term to keep at a distance many of the direct effects of anthropogenic climate change that others now face head on—desertification, increased vulnerability to catastrophic weather events, and famine, to name only a few—much as geography allowed America, for a time, to isolate itself from the upheaval fomented in Europe by the Axis Powers. But in both cases, the “distance” from the respective problems was and is illusory. We can only buy our way out of the problems of anthropogenic climate change—and of many other manifestations of the present environmental crisis—for a finite time. The sooner we stop trying to do so, the better. On the individual scale, an ethic forged along the lines of the southern New England Swamp Yankee offers a good starting point. On the societal scale, we must look to Brokaw’s “Greatest Generation” and work to emulate their capacity to look away from themselves and toward the greater good. My father was born in 1926 and later served as a Staff Sergeant in the Pacific Theater of the Second World War, so I grew up surrounded by his contemporaries. I think Brokaw got it right. But for us to emulate that generation and to face the environmental crisis with like selflessness and resolve, we must first see the crisis as a crisis. To do so, we must come to terms with a complex and oft-hidden enemy—ourselves.
Featured Image: Atlantic Ghost Crab (Ocypode quadrata). The Latin name Ocypode means “swift-footed.” Ghost crabs actually spend the majority of their time out of water and use fine hairs on the base of their legs to wick up water from sand to wet their gills.
This past summer I visited a part of the North Carolina coast I had yet to explore in spite of being a lifelong resident of the state. My annual week long vacation was spent on Emerald Isle which is one of three communities on one of the southern Outer Banks islands and includes Pine Knolls Shore and Atlantic Beach. There are many historic and educational sites within a brief drive including one of the three North Carolina Aquariums, Fort Macon, the North Carolina Maritime Museum in Beaufort, NC and my most sought after site, The Rachel Carson Reserve.
The Rachel Carson Reserve is located between the mouths of the Newport and North Rivers and directly across Taylor’s Creek from Beaufort. The main part of the site, just south of Beaufort, is a complex of islands which includes Carrot Island, Town Marsh, Bird Shoal, Horse Island and Middle Marsh. In 1977, Beaufort residents, civic organizations and environmental groups came together and prevented the development of a resort on the reserve. The N.C. Chapter of The Nature Conservancy purchased 474 acres of Carrot Island that year. The State of North Carolina acquired Town Marsh, Carrot Island, Horse Island and Bird Shoal in 1985, with the addition of Middle Marshes in 1989. The entire reserve is 2,315 acres.
The reserve is one of 10 sites that make up the North Carolina Coastal Reserve & National Estuarine Research Reserve. The Rachel Carson Reserve is available as a natural outdoor laboratory where scientists, students and the general public can learn about coastal processes, functions and influences that shape and sustain the coastal area. This is in keeping with the reserve’s namesake, who did research at the site in the 1940s.
Twice-daily, tides mix fresh and salt water in the reserve and create a very favorable estuarine environment for juvenile fish and invertebrates. The reserve is rich with coastal ecosystems including tidal flats, salt marshes, ocean beach, soft bottom, shell bottom, dredge spoil areas, sand dunes, shrub thicket, submerged aquatic vegetation, and maritime forest.
The reserve is located within the Atlantic Migratory Flyway and more than 200 species of birds, including rare species, have been observed there. The site is an important feeding area for Wilson’s plovers in the summer and piping plovers in the winter. The shrub thicket of Middle Marsh supports an egret and heron rookery. Wildlife on the island includes river otter, gray fox, marsh rabbit, raccoon, and a herd of feral horses. Atlantic bottlenose dolphins, diamondback terrapins, sea turtles, and many species of fish and invertebrates are found in the estuarine waters surrounding the site.
I accessed the reserve by taking a guided hike with the N.C. Maritime Museum, which included a boat to the trailhead and a pick up later. The hike was led by Benjamin Wunderly, Associate Museum Curator who provided lots of good information and species identification as we moved through the different ecosystems.
Many visitors to the reserve are curious about the approximately 30 feral horses living on the island. No one knows exactly how they came to be there and there are many theories. Horses may have been on the islands as early as the mid-eighteenth century when Carrot Island was noted on a 1733 map of Beaufort. Horse Island was noted on an 1851 Sketch of Beaufort Harbor, administered under the US Coast Survey Office, most likely named as such because there were horses there.
The feral horses became the property of North Carolina when the land was purchased in the 1980s. The main food supply for these feral horses is Smooth Cordgrass – Spartina alternaflora and the primary source of fresh water is from holes the horses dig. The Beaufort reserve’s staff oversees the horse management. Individual horses are identified, photographed and maintained. Each horse is tracked for births, general health, social habits and eventually death. Beyond the birth control program, the horse population is treated as a wild herd.
While chatting with Mr. Wunderly about the horses, I expressed my affinity for such mysteries. It does this soul good to know that in my home state there is a reserve where I can visit and spend an unlimited time pondering how something domestic came to be wild. No matter how long I ponder, I will never know the answer but the wild will remain so, thanks to the good efforts of good folks who came together to protect and preserve the Rachel Carson Reserve.
It is shocking. That is the only relevant descriptor—even for someone who has watched the forest turn under the pressure of drought and bark beetles, day by day. The once emerald canopy of spires continues to change, shifting from vibrant green to a pale dusty green-gray and finally to a burnt umber of brown-red. Single trees turn into patches, which turn into ridges or valleys and become full drainages of standing dead Ponderosa pines.
I have watched the Sierra National Forest change day by day, week by week, over the last four years. In 2014, as California’s drought labored on in year three, forest managers and fire agencies delivered the news that we would lose nearly 40 percent of the forest that year. When winter didn’t return again, for the fourth year in a row, the sound of people’s hearts breaking was audible and everyone in the region could feel the pressure mounting. By 2015, the forest along the western slope of the Sierra, and specifically in the foothill communities of Madera and Mariposa Counties, was poised for a massive die-off. Literally, on a daily basis, I watched trees succumb to the lack of water, which leaves them defenseless to burrowing bark beetles.
In a press release, Governor Brown recently stated, “California is facing the worst epidemic of tree mortality in its modern history.” In response, the Governor’s office of California declared a State of Emergency because of the unprecedented die-off. In October of 2015, estimates indicated approximately 22 million dead trees with potential increases as the drought and beetle kill continues.
Bark beetles are opportunistic, able to take advantage of stressed and weakened trees, particularly during drought. They bore into a tree, and if the water pressure within the tree is not adequate and the tree is unable to mount its defenses to force the beetles out, they can then establish themselves, damaging the tree, which can result in its death.
This crisis of lack of water, increased wildland fires and the nearly unstoppable spread of bark beetle infestation, has made me seriously question: what good can come of all this?
California’s drought and the unprecedented tree die-off of the state’s forests may be the environmental issues needed to help people fully understand and engage in proactive and nimble resource management. As pressure increases on limited water resources, and the state’s forests succumb to the perfect storm of environmental pressures resulting in an increase of wildland fire hazards, we need management strategies, skilled professionals and citizens poised and empowered to make decisions that will lead to long-term sustainability of resources.
When Euro-Americans settled in the Sierra Nevada, their suppression of fires dramatically shifted the fire regime and density of biomass within the forest ecosystem. Fire had been a natural occurrence on the landscape, returning in regular intervals, which served to thin the forests and recycle nutrients by burning woody debris that had settled on the forest floor. The local tribes of the Sierra utilized fire as a tool on the landscape; they used fire to manage meadow lands, clear space around important tree species and to manage the health and production of various plants they depended on.
The western slope of the Sierra Nevada ecosystems evolved and are adapted to fire as a natural part of the landscape. Some species of plants and trees possess substances that provide them with fire resistance. In the case of the Ponderosa pine, the tree possesses, several adaptations, which include bark that sheds easily and features a crown structure that prevent them from burning or torching during low intensity fires. Alternatively, others species require fire as a necessary element of their reproduction cycle, needing fire or heat to open their cones or clear the forest floor providing space and nutrients for germinating seeds, such as Giant Sequoias.
When fire is suppressed in these ecosystems, it allows forest debris to build up and create large fuel loads under stands of trees, increasing the risk of large, hot wildland fires such as the Rim Fire or the Rough Fire—as observed in recent years in the Sierra Nevada.
Fire suppression also allows the forests to become overgrown, with large numbers of trees in densely packed areas, forcing them to compete for resources such as light and water. In these densely packed stands, trees become more susceptible to stress and disease—consider the analogy of children with a cold virus all in one classroom—when in contained spaces or areas, it is much easier to spread an illness, or in the case of bark beetles, an infestation.
What the drought and beetle kill is creating, besides anxiety and pressure, is movement. Governor Brown stated, “A crisis of this magnitude demands action on all fronts.” Today, there is significant movement as citizens launch Fire Safe Councils and Firewise Communities, while federal and state agencies proactively address issues, reevaluate management practices and provide funding as well as resources to mitigate hazards, easing the burden of overwhelmed communities and agencies. From grassroots efforts, county participation and state and federal support, work is being done on a daily basis to address the issues, on the ground, at all levels.
So as I look out over the forest from where I write, and see the mix of oaks and pines. A tartan pattern of green and dead, it seems a long stretch to pull some positive parable out of this situation, yet, I honestly believe this has been a critical turning point for California. For people who seemed yet untouched by drought, fire, forest management practices, and climate change, this has been the reality check, reaching into all walks of life and emerging as the situation that is moving the needle.
We are poised to take a serious compass baring and find a new direction that inspires us to address critical issues collaboratively, engage them in a timely way and manage our resources wisely in order to minimize crises. We are better together, pulling resources and knowledge, leveraging skills and the best we each have to offer to address water use, battle the bark beetle and our old ways of thinking.
It is an unprecedented time and we need to shift the paradigm from crisis management to sustainable management; we have the resources, the knowledge and the people to do it, now we need the resiliency, political systems and backbone to make this shift, because the challenges will keep coming and together we can do better in facing them; the drought, bark beetle and resulting wildland fire hazard might just be what gets us there.
“You can’t leave things like that around for me to see.”
My seven-year-old daughter told me this when I left a copy of SE Journal on the bathroom counter. SE Journal is a publication of the Society of Environmental Journalists, and the issue in question featured an image of a dusty savanna strewn with bloody elephant bones—the aftermath of a March 2013 massacre by poachers of 90 savanna elephants in the central African country of Chad. I felt badly, of course, and flipped the journal over to its innocuous back cover as we spoke, but I did briefly explain the image in simple terms. I thought, and still think, the context mattered. Afterward, I reflected many times on this exchange, as it raised questions for me, both as a parent and as an environmental journalist. Even as I write this now, those questions persist.
Growing up in the late 1970s and early 1980s, one image of human barbarism against the natural world defined the call for environmental policy change more than any other, at least in my memory—the clubbing of baby seals on Canada’s northern ice floes during that nation’s annual, government-regulated seal harvest. Magazine covers and documentary films featured images of seal pups (the primary target of the harvest, then and now) with large, dark eyes staring innocently at the camera. Then, there were the images of slicker-clad sealers wielding hakapiks, the traditional club with a curved or angled pick blade used to drag the dead and dying seals across the ice. The contrast of these two images, the first of moving beauty, the second of appalling barbarism, is reflective of the quandary within which environmental writers, and environmental advocates more broadly, often must work. Too much coverage of the benign and beautiful, and we ignore the realities of the environmental crisis with which we are confronted. We risk luring the reader or viewer into complacency, inaction. Too much coverage of the brutal and the jarring, and we cause the reader or viewer to turn away, out of disgust or hopelessness or both. The greatest danger in that case is that their gaze does not turn our way again. There, too, we end at inaction, and inaction can be deadly. These are two poles of response that we, as environmental journalists, may elicit, and there are many gradients between them, all of which demand our attention and careful navigation.
Text by Shauna Potocky. Photographs courtesy of Jane Kim.
Artist Jane Kim’s hand crafted installation, “From So Simple a Beginning: Celebrating the Diversity and Evolution of Birds,” fills the largest wall of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology Visitor Center in Ithaca, New York. Also known as The Wall of Birds, it is a striking art and education exhibit, unprecedented in its scope and absolutely stunning to see and explore.
The extraordinary hand painted piece blends the realism of scientific illustration with the dramatic character of the birds it represents. Commissioned by Cornell Lab as a celebration of its centennial, the project features 270 species of birds. Each bird is painted to scale and the artwork brings 243 families as well as 27 ancestors and five recently extinct relatives, into focus. The work connects the evolution and diversity of birds while demonstrating their distribution world-wide.
This month, Jane Kim, creator of Ink Dwell, an art studio inspiring people to love and protect the natural world one work of art at a time, took a moment from her schedule to share some of the key highlights of the Cornell project—from its vision, content, and life size scale to Cornell Lab’s dedication and commitment to handcrafted artwork.
Through the commissioning of this one-of-a-kind project, Cornell demonstrated how much it values scientific illustration, the of blending art, science and engagement as a meaningful tool for education. In total, the project scope took two and half years to develop and complete, including 16 months of dedicated painting.
Shauna Potocky: This project is truly inspiring. What do you hope the project work conveys?
Jane Kim: The project is meant to convey the awe of how many birds there are in the world; it also demonstrates how remarkable it is that birds have diversified to such an extraordinary extent. To see two hundred families is remarkable, and they are life size, placed on a world map with relative scale, and viewable in one location.
SP: How can people see and experience the work?
JK: One of the best ways to see it is in person. Since it is featured inside the Cornell Lab Visitor Center, it can be viewed during normal visitor hours. In addition, Cornell is currently building a digital interactive that can be used to experience the wall and will be released in February 2016. The interactive includes high-resolution images of every inch of the wall! This will allow viewers to zoom in to see the images—you will be able to see every brush stroke. It will allow viewers to select a bird, learn about it, and hear its call. One of the great features is that Cornell has the largest collection of sounds in the world.
SP: What was one of the most exciting aspects of the project?
JK: It is unprecedented—completing a hand painted mural of all the birds–it was such a large project and took so much time. Researching, learning the subjects, developing the work and then painting it. Cornell truly demonstrated that they value hand crafted murals and value the time it would take to complete such a piece. From start to finish it took two and half years and required 16 months of on site painting. Now the piece is bringing art and education to people and engaging them.
SP: What was the most challenging aspect of the project?
JK: The balance of art and science because there was a high demand for scientific accuracy. It was working with a high bar for accuracy and creating a portrait that captured the spirit of the bird. In addition, painting it so it can be viewed from all distances and still be viewed beautifully. The work needed to read beautifully in the interactive and from far away.
SP: Were there any species of birds that captured you, that perhaps you had not known previously?
JK: I didn’t know each bird, so every bird was a surprise. I enjoyed discovering fun facts like the Saddle-bill Stork (Ephippiorhynchus senegalensis) with the only difference between male and female being the color of the eye. So I made it a female, with a yellow iris. I tried to depict females as much as I could, since males are often showier and represented.
The North Island Giant Moa (Dinornis novaezealandiae) female is also depicted because they are the bigger sex. There was a time when it was thought that they were two species—one being a subspecies because of the size differences. Testing showed that the birds were the same, males were smaller, females were larger.
Fun behaviors are also represented, such as the Long-tailed Manakin (Chiroxiphia linearis) with its fun little mating dance. There are also Gouldian Finches (Erythrura gouldiae), a set of three because they have three different head colors, yellow, black and red, but they are the same species.
SP: How do you hope this work touches people?
JK: I hope it is inspiring to see, and I hope it is statement that demonstrates how Cornell values hand painted creations that can be inspiring and useful tools for education. I hope it also inspires people to ask a lot of questions and sparks a new generation of scientific illustrators—we need that. I hope it allows others to think big, take the time and make the effort.
In many ways “From So Simple A Beginning” is a remarkable gift—it celebrates 100 years of Cornell Lab’s work and endeavors for birds, while providing an unparalleled learning opportunity through quality artwork that also celebrates the profound and quiet power of scientific illustration—a field that is rarely discussed yet touches so many of our lives.
With the recent completion of “From So Simple a Beginning,” Jane Kim already has new projects in the works, including the next addition to the Migrating Mural—so stay tuned as we wait to see what her next projects and remarkable artwork have to teach us.
On October 17, 1959, less than six months after moving to Trail Wood, the beloved private nature sanctuary where he would spend the rest of his life, American naturalist writer Edwin Way Teale wrote the following entry in his private journal:
We are presented with life memberships in the Baldwin Bird Club and given a fine vasculum for collecting plants. So we round out our long association with this nature group—over a period of more than 20 years. Now we ‘have other lives to live.’ We watched them go with thankfulness in our hearts that we could stay.
I first read this passage two summers ago while researching Teale’s early days at Trail Wood with the generous support of the University of Connecticut, where Teale’s papers are permanently housed in the Thomas J. Dodd Research Center. At the time, I was examining the extraordinary transformation that occurred in the lives of Edwin and his wife and collaborator Nellie with their move to Trail Wood, a site Edwin would subsequently declare to be “our Promised Land” (September 8, 1959). Teale chronicled this transformation in The Hampton Journal, 1959-1961, the first of four 500-page unpublished observation journals he kept at Trail Wood over a period of twenty-one years.
Before moving to the next entry in the journal, I completed a quick Google search for “vasculum,” a word with which I was wholly unfamiliar. In this context, I found, it referred to a tin box used to collect plant specimens. A quick image search yielded two predominant groups of vascula: those of a utilitarian kind, painted in various shades of olive drab; and those of a decidedly aesthetic bent, identical in construction but tole-painted with intricate designs or featuring scenes of nature or idealized Victorian children engaged in nature study. Most examples appeared dated to the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, a period when the popularity of amateur nature study was at its apex. Quick searches of eBay and Amazon yielded a handful of antique vascula for sale but no new examples. Even the Carolina Biological Supply Company yielded a dead end. This surprised me. How, I wondered at the time, could the need for some kind of specimen case for botanical collecting have simply evaporated? The question lingered, but, pressed for time to complete my reading of The Hampton Journal, I abandoned this research side trail and returned to the Teales’ early life at Trail Wood.
Recently, however, I felt compelled to revisit this side trail after reading a slew of articles about the precipitous decline of formal botany study at the collegiate level. Allie Bidwell, writing for U.S. News and World Report, for example, cites a study completed by the Chicago Botanic Garden and Botanic Gardens Conservation International, which found that, in 1988, “[…] nearly three-quarters of the nation’s top 50 most funded universities offered advanced degree programs in botany. But by 2009, more than half of those universities eliminated their botany programs.” The study further found that the number of undergraduate and graduate botany degrees conferred during that time declined by 50% and 41% respectively. An article published by Great Britain’s Royal Horticultural Society in its magazine, The Garden, declared in a January 2012 headline, “Death knell sounds for botany degrees.” The article’s author, Sally Nex, noted the planned closing of the botany degree program at the University of Bristol in 2013, the last program of its kind in Great Britain. Has the study of botany nearly vanished from university campuses? Not exactly. It has, however, largely been shifted to a place under the degree umbrella of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, and such a shift necessarily dilutes the study of any highly specialized field to a handful of elective courses at best.
This past summer, while I was orienting a visiting artist to Trail Wood as part of the Edwin Way Teale Artists in Residence Program, I entered Teale’s writing cabin, which was built on the edge of the one-acre Hidden Pond the Teales had drilled in 1959 not long after their arrival. The writing cabin, built to match the dimensions of Thoreau’s cabin at Walden, provided Edwin a place to isolate himself from the stream of visitors, often uninvited, and the telephone. The Connecticut Audubon Society completed a restoration of the cabin last summer so that visiting artists could, as Edwin had, have a place for quiet study and contemplation. As I entered the cabin, I spied an olive drab, semi-cylindrical metal case with a steel strap loop at either end. I knew immediately what I was looking at, and a set of pressed plastic labels on the lid of the case confirmed my suspicion. They read: Edwin and Nellie Teale/The Baldwin Bird Club/1959. It was a deeply moving moment for me, the kind I so often have when reading Teale’s private journals; in this case, the entry I had read the previous summer seemed to materialize before my eyes, and I stood silent for some time.
Seeing the Teales’ vasculum that midsummer afternoon, I thought back to my research side trail of the previous summer; to the absence of new vascula for sale; to the decline of botany; and finally to Edwin Way Teale’s declined legacy, which I have written a good deal about over the last two years. All of these phenomena, and a host of others, are linked by a common thread: our epidemic disengagement from the natural world, and our immersion in a virtual and often vacuous and unsatisfying one. While the decline in collegiate botany study may in part be explained by the greater financial earning power of other specializations, a factor cited in some articles on the decline, this answer simply is not adequate. A study completed by Kathleen Wallace of Washington and Lee University found that, during the same period that botany study precipitously declined, the number of students declaring philosophy and religious studies majors increased by 153%, exceeded notably by declared visual and performing arts majors, a group which increased by 293%. These latter fields are hardly seen as having high earning potential, yet they have experienced significant growth. Thus, the financial argument against botany study, with its high earning potential in the pharmaceutical and agricultural sectors, among others, seems dubious.
I am convinced, instead, that we have largely lost the capacity to appreciate exhaustive hours of patient observation, to find wonder in complex and always-evolving taxonomical systems and the larger contexts they inhabit, to see ourselves as just one component in a marvelously complex system of life, and to understand that our wellbeing is inextricably linked to the wellbeing of that system as a whole, with no part of that whole being insignificant. It is to these lost capacities, in my view, that botany study is succumbing, as the field of natural history did before it, only the pace seems accelerated, just as the pace of the world around us, speaking societally, likewise does. In his 1948 book Days Without Time, Edwin Way Teale writes, “The centrifugal force of civilized life draws us out thin, stretches us to the ultimate of our resiliency. Days out-of-doors give us release. They permit us to contract back to the center of life.” More and more we feel drawn thin, but do we, societally, still have the capacity to seek out that “center of life,” or even to realize how desperately we need to do so?
For a variety of reasons, the loss of botany study, and, for that matter, the loss of any area of specialized scientific study, should ring alarm bells for us. In practical terms, botany study, in light of the accelerated pace of anthropogenic climate change, grows more critical daily, as we seek, for example, to address food scarcity while trying to mitigate the environmental impact of industrial agriculture. Botanical knowledge is likewise an essential component of land and resource conservation, as well as ecological restoration. Mapping botanical changes in the coming years will help us to understand and, hopefully, respond effectively to climate change, but who will be equipped to do this if the current trend continues? Finally, the pharmacological applications of botanical sources, even in the present time, are staggering in scope and number, and their collective effect on public health cannot be fully quantified here. We must consider, as well, that the sheer volume of these applications is likely exceeded by those we have not yet discovered, but, if the pipeline of future botanists is slowed to a trickle, who will make these discoveries? Who will suffer in their absence?
As part of the bequeathal of Trail Wood to the Connecticut Audubon Society, Nellie Teale, who outlived Edwin by thirteen years, requested that Edwin’s study in the main house be preserved exactly as it was at the time of his death in 1980, and CAS has honored this request. In a corner of the study, at the intersection of two bookshelves, there is a large, bound stack of plant pressings done by the Teales, presumably at Trail Wood. These have not been examined, out of concern over their fragility and the fear that poor handling could destroy a wealth of botanical knowledge of the site. Still, in ten to twenty years, who will have the training to handle these specimens or the knowledge to understand their significance? Amplify the concerns for the long-term preservation and use of this small, site-specific collection to the challenges faced by large-scale, institutional herbaria, and it further highlights the dire implications of a wide-scale loss of formal botanical study. It is a crisis on many levels, but it is not an irreversible one.
The single most critical step needed to avert the full demise of botany as a specialized branch of study at the collegiate level is the incorporation of more substantive botany curricula from the earliest days of primary schooling through the final days of secondary schooling. This curricula should follow best practices in environmental education, many of which revolve around direct engagement of the learner with the study subject. Children need to get outside, loupe and field notebook in hand. It is not enough, however, to simply drop them into a lush botanical landscape. Instead, they must be immersed in age-appropriate field work that connects them to their subject. As children grow older, this field work can and should be aimed at identifying problems and positing solutions. It might involve ecological restoration or the completion of a flora survey with a specific goal. It must, at all levels and in all tasks, contextualize the study subject to the greater whole of the natural world and to the individual learner as well.
We can likewise engage our own children in botany study, filling the inevitable gaps of a public education system burdened with manifold demands from as many parties. Should we consciously drive them toward careers in botany? Not necessarily. However, we can and must instill in them the value, the wonder, and the joy of close study of natural phenomena. We must aim to show them, firsthand, the interconnectedness and the interdependency of the complex life system of which we are only a small, though disproportionately influential, part. Though the potential demise of formal botany study has garnered much recent attention, it is only a symptom of a larger ailment rooted in a set of societal norms that value speed over deliberateness, gratification over patience, answers over inquiry. It seems inevitable that other fields of study are following or will follow a similar trajectory, driven by like forces. However, we can change that trajectory through the actions outlined above and others. Doing so will require a significant shift in thinking, but that shift can be driven by the realities of anthropogenic climate change that demand it. That shift, while helping to address those harsh realities, can also reawaken in us the joy and wonder that we so easily lose in the flurry of our days. And thus we win on two counts, neither of which can we afford to lose.
The author wishes to thank the staff of the Thomas J. Dodd Research Center at the University of Connecticut, where the papers of Edwin Way Teale, including his private journals kept at Trail Wood, are permanently housed and generously made available to the public.The author likewise wishes to thank the staff of the Northeast Programs office of the Connecticut Audubon Society for providing full access to Edwin Way Teale’s home and writing cabin.
Volcanoes rise out of the mist and gray mirror of the Alaskan sea as the arrival of Fall storms bring rain and cold winds. Born out of the Ring of Fire, islands form the volcanic chain of mountains and ridges that define the West Coast of Alaska and make up the Aleutian Islands, which provide remote habitat for an impressive number of birds and marine mammals.
Alaska’s coastline, including the Aleutian Islands, provides an impressive array of opportunity for a diverse range of species. From mudflats to rugged rocky outcroppings, sandy beaches or cobbled shores, the diversity of landscapes are as engaging as the animals found upon them. Some of these areas are easy to visit while others are incredibly remote, yet all of it comes to life through the story of its conservation.
As recognizable as this landscape is on the map, and as remote as much of it may be, what might be more elusive is the story of its protection. Much of the Aleutian Islands as well as significant amounts of Alaskan coastline are protected and designated as the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge. Its story steeped in lore, history and war comes to life at the Alaska Islands and Ocean Visitor Center and Refuge headquarters in Homer, Alaska—a town famously known for being “at the end of the road.”
It seems timely to revisit the story of the refuge, particularly the Aleutian Islands, because as the world faces war and human displacement today. This story serves as an important reminder of what war does, and how in the face of conflict wildlife and the environment become remarkably vulnerable and often go unprotected. The story of the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge demonstrates what can be accomplished once all the turmoil ends.
The great islands that make up the Aleutian chain and other areas of the current refuge were first utilized and inhabited by people for what is estimated to be over 11,000 years ago. Today, a rich diversity of first peoples, including the Inupiat, Yup’ik, Unangan, Aleut, Dena’ina Athabascans, Alutiiq Koniag, Haida and Tlingit, continue to be deeply connected to this landscape. Their lives are filled with the knowledge of specialized skills, culture, and stories of this unique place.
Beginning in the late 1700s, expanding into the 1800s, these people were affected or displaced by an insurgence of Russian fur hunters. Russian settlements were focused on resource extraction and, once established, their skills and appetite, fed by the fur trade, depleted the area of several marine mammal species, resulting in an awaking.
Due to the decline of sea otters and other marine mammals, Russians began restricting areas for hunting, essentially setting up refuge areas in order to assure the survival of species they depended on.
In 1867, Alaska was purchased from Russia by the United States. American hunting, development and extraction ensued. Over the course of generations, Alaska was opened for exploration, hunting, fur trade and adventure.
Then something unbelievable unfolded—an event that would mark a moment in time and the world’s history.
In 1942, during World War II, the Japanese began a campaign to take the Attu and Kiska Islands of the Aleutian chain. This followed actions in defiance of a fur hunting treaty and escalating tensions. Once the insurgence began it displaced island populations and included taking a number of native people hostage. This conflict launched the Aleutian Campaign in which Allied troops and military operations ensued on the islands and in the surrounding areas. The islands were horribly affected. Island populations were displaced, communities destroyed, bombs and ammunition rounds unleashed, military operations and encampments established, while contaminants and military waste were discarded and left behind after the war effort.
In the end, the landscape and islands were left ravaged and damaged, scarred with the remnants of bombshells and littered with abandoned waste. They stood in disarray; masses of twisted metal, discarded ammunition, contaminants and a newly raw history of war lay in its wake.
In Alaska the tides are dramatic—a deep pulling out and heaving in, over great distances and heights, similar to a great pendulum swing. Just as remarkable as the tide and its swift sweeping change, the future of this landscape began to emerge into something new, something with wider protections and a future. In the end, something positive is emerging out of the turmoil.
Wildlife refuges and wilderness areas protected significant tracks of land and habitat along the coastline of Alaska. In 1980, via the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA), signed by President Jimmy Carter, astounding areas of Alaska’s protected lands, along with newly protected areas, including the Aleutian Islands, were consolidated and established as part of the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge.
In total the refuge encompasses approximately three million acres, with a mission to conserve habitats and species, manage international treaties related to the habitats and species, as well as provide for local subsistence. The refuge is also used to conduct scientific research and maintain water quality in ways that support the primary role of the refuge.
Today, people carrying out the mission of the refuge are working to repair the damage, specifically on islands that have been touched by fur trade or war. There is significant work being done to remove invasive species, such as rats and foxes, that were introduced to the islands. These introduced species out-compete, destroy and kill native species by eating the eggs of nesting birds, killing young and upsetting the balance of an ecosystem that initially developed without the presence of land-based predators.
In addition, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service is focused on removing contaminants as well as accumulations of waste and debris that were left on the islands during wartime.
Today, the incredible acreage of the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge protects diverse habitat for millions of seabirds and an wide array of marine mammals, while doing something even bigger. With respect to the Aleutian Islands, it serves as an example of what protection, restoration and conservation can look like after truly troubling times. It proves that war is not the end.
What the refuge represents to me is that after the conflict is over, when the heartbreak and battles are done, we can choose to pick up the pieces and do something bigger, do something positive. We can take all that seemed broken and left behind, the battle scars, the waste, the heartbreak of war and repair it. Collectively and carefully, damaged landscapes can once again become incredible habitat or a place people can feel comfortable calling home.
The powerful forces of forest succession threaten always to engulf the 18th-century stonewalls that surround our 1770 center-chimney farmhouse. During the restoration of the house, we largely gave up trying to stem the encroachment of the surrounding forest. However, several years ago, we began in earnest to work to control that encroachment, in great part due to an alarming increase in the number of Lyme ticks in our yard, which resulted in two of our three children being positively diagnosed with Lyme disease. Reducing moist, shaded areas along the edge of a yard through tree cutting, in conjunction with short-cropping the grass and the removal of leaf litter and other detritus, is a critical component in the war on Lyme ticks (Ixodes scapularis) that has become critical to country living in the northeastern United States. I have previously written about the Lyme disease crisis—a word I don’t use lightly.
This past spring, I began cutting back saplings, creating a ten- to twenty-foot buffer along the outer edges of our stonewalls. At the same time, I began clearing and grass-seeding the inner buffer of the wall that separates our front yard from the road. When I first bought the house in 2003, I had noticed a small stand of trees along that wall that looked to be some kind of tropical ornamental that could survive New England winters. This seemed likely, given the line of Japanese maple trees (Acer palmatum) that lined the eastern edge of the yard. The stand on the south road-edge featured alternate broad leaves as long as sixteen inches stem to tip. They seemed conspicuously out of place amidst the maples, hickories, oaks, birches and elms that, along with eastern white pines and hemlocks, define the surrounding forest. Though I had often intended to identify this tropical oddity, I had not done so by this past spring. In the effort to clear the front wall, I began to cut the stand down, and, at the same time, began limbing an adjacent venerable eastern white pine, also a major shade source.
In the spring of 2014, to celebrate the arrival of our third child, a friend had given us a gift certificate for the annual native plant sale offered by the Eastern Connecticut Conservation District. As we mulled over the catalog choices, a particular fruit tree caught our attention, the North American pawpaw (Asimina triloba), which was purported to produce a fruit similar in appearance to bananas but with a flavor and texture more akin to mango. We were intrigued and initially decided to buy a bucket sapling. We reconsidered, however, for two reasons. First, owing to years of successional encroachment, we lacked a light-sufficient, open space in which to plant it. Second, the catalog noted that pawpaw flowers produce an odor similar to that of rotting meat. With conjured visions of a tree that mimicked, albeit on a smaller scale, the most famous of the “carrion flowers,” Titan arum (Amorphophallus titanum), we were reticent to plant one too close to our house and opted instead for a group of native butterfly attractors.
Fast forward to the early summer of 2015. Having cut about half the trees of the unidentified exotic stand along our front wall, I began to rake out the carpet of leafy detritus and natural mulch that had built up beneath them over decades, unearthing the fragmentary evidence of former property owners: assorted canning jar fragments and several rusted lids, old nails, an 80s-vintage orange foam Big Mac box, assorted hardware encrusted in rust, and, most interesting of all, a faded but still-legible plastic plant nursery tag that offered the life history of and planting tips for the pawpaw tree. The light went on. Gathering a handful of brown, nickel-sized seeds scattered among the leafy debris—mystery seeds that I had noticed every fall but never investigated—I went in the house and completed a quick Google image search for “pawpaw seeds.” With that first search confirming what I expected to see, I completed subsequent searches: “pawpaw leaf,” “pawpaw flower,” “pawpaw bark,” each subsequent search adding additional confirmation. We were the proud owners of a substantial pawpaw stand, more commonly referred to as a pawpaw patch, half of which I had just cut down.
Despite my own ignorance of the pawpaw as a native North American tree, according to an article by José I. Hormaza, published by the Arnold Arboretum at Harvard University, its presence in North America was documented as early as 1541 by a member of the De Soto expedition. Hormaza likewise notes that members of the Lewis and Clark expedition relied almost entirely on wild pawpaw fruit for subsistence over several days in September of 1806. In his book Pawpaw: In Search of America’s Forgotten Fruit, Andrew Moore writes of the cultivation of pawpaw trees by several Native American tribes in the pre-Columbian era, noting that tribe members “carrying seeds in satchels rather than their stomachs” likely replaced the traditional dispersal of pawpaw seeds by then-extinct prehistoric megafauna. John James Audubon, in The Birds of America (1827-1838), features the yellow-billed cuckoo (Coccyzus americanus) in the context of a detailed rendering of an insect-damaged pawpaw tree with a cluster of overripe fruit. Hormaza likewise notes that Thomas Jefferson cultivated pawpaw trees at Monticello and even sent both seeds and plants as official ambassadorial gifts to France in the late 18th century. Still, the pawpaw, as suggested by Andrew Moore’s book title, seems largely to have fallen victim to obscurity in the American public consciousness. So perhaps it should not be surprising that I could step out my front door for thirteen years, look directly at our pawpaw patch, even admire its downward-facing crimson flowers in spring, and remain ignorant of its natural history. Still, I am a bit surprised given my predilection to wanting to be able to identify the species of all kinds that occupy our woods.
This summer, with our pawpaw patch thinned and the pine boughs that once shaded it cut back, the more mature of our trees have produced a respectable fruit crop. As I write this, it is still too early to harvest them, but we are eager to do so in mid to late October. They certainly produced fruit in other years, as evidenced by the seeds we would turn up in our fall raking, yet never once did we notice the fruit that followed the spring flowering. This is certainly due in part to the color of the fruit being, at least in our specimens, nearly identical to their leaf color. Even now, with our new awareness, it takes careful looking to see most of the fruit. Still, our failure to see the fruit of previous summers is also just as certainly a product of the fact that we as human beings, collectively speaking, often simply do not see what we are not looking for. And I am reminded in all of this that our minds can always be more open, our senses keener, our curiosity stronger. Natural history writer Edwin Way Teale, in his 1937 book Grassroot Jungles, notes, “Among the tangled weeds of the roadside or in the grassroot jungles of your own back yard, you encounter strange and incredible forms of life.” He later notes, “The more we know, the more we see; our adventures increase with knowledge.” When we are suddenly struck by our lack of such knowledge, as I was with my “discovery” of our pawpaw patch, we can be critical of our own ignorance, or, instead, we can be grateful for the rich and unquantifiable range of knowledge that is offered to us by the natural world. I choose the latter.