Orangutans and the Fires in Indonesia–an Environmental Tipping Point

By Neva Knott

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.

Source: wiki commons.

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.

Orangutans leaving burning forest. Original source unknown.

Orangutans leaving burning forest. Original source unknown.

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.

National Public Radio reported in “As Indonesia’s Annual Fires Rage, Plenty of Blame but No Responsibility” just a few days ago that much of the deforestation for palm oil is conducted illegally:

“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.

From ABC Australia’s article, “Indonesian Fires: Forget the Orangutans, Is the Blaze a Tipping Point for Carbon Emissions?,”:

“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…

In the short term, several animal rescues like International Animal Rescue and Sumatran Orangutan Society are working on the ground in Indonesia to get the animals to safety. Follow this link to a National Geographic photo-essay, “Saving Sumatra’s Orangutans.” 

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.

My father’s legacy is ablaze and I think I’m going to adopt some orangutans as Christmas presents.

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Wildlife Bridges: Safe Passage at Wildlife-Human Crossroads

By Neva Knott

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.

us 97 corridor

Aerial view of Highway 97 underpass. Photograph courtesy of ODOT.

Recently, in a follow-up piece in the Oregon Public Broadcasting’s Field Guide the rationale for the project was explained:

“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.'”

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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.”

The Highway 97 underpass is Oregon’s first wildlife corridor project. Animal Road Crossing–ARC–an agency dedicated to designing and building wildlife passageways, gave it the Exemplary Ecosystem Initiatives Award in 2012. ODOT is planning a second project along Highway 97, an overpass, which is scheduled for completion when funding is secured.

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Illustration courtesy of ODOT.

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.”

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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?

Refuge, Wilderness and Restoration After the Trauma of War

K Bay from Homer SPotocky

Just one of Homer, Alaska’s stunning views. Photo by Shauna Potocky.

By Shauna Potocky

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.”

Alaska Islands and Ocean Visitor Center close up SPotocky

The Alaska Islands and Ocean Visitor Center located in Homer, brings the story of the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge into incredible focus for visitors. Photo by Shauna Potocky.

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.

Fox fur and trap SPotocky

Non-native species, such as foxes, were introduced to the islands, resulting in significant impacts to native species. Foxes were introduced in order to establish and grow fur trading operations and are a significant part of the story on display at the visitor center.  Photo by Shauna Potocky.

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.

War items on exhibit SPotocky

Remants of war on display at the Alaska Islands and Ocean Visitor Center. Photo by Shauna Potocky.

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.

Refuge view in Homer SPotocky

Located at the base of the visitor center is a small wildlife refuge area that allows visitors to see the land-sea connection. Photo by Shauna Potocky.

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.

Exhibit displays SPotocky

Exhibits bring the story, restoration, research and habitats to life for visitors. Photo by Shauna Potocky.

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.

Intertidal display SPotocky

Detail of intertidal display in the Alaska Islands and Ocean Visitor Center. Photo by Shauna Potocky.

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.

A message of Optimism on World Oceans Day

Another blogger taking the positive approach

Kristen Cheri Weiss

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Today is World Oceans Day—a day to recognize the life-giving resources the ocean provides, and a day for all ocean-related organizations to create a united front on social media to bring attention to ocean issues.

In my last post, I discussed my capricious relationship with social media and its ability to both connect us with pressing global issues and to distract us with fluff and humor. Nonetheless, a large portion of my job involves keeping track of and contributing to social media, and I recognize how useful these venues can be for sharing positive stories of change that may even ignite action, whether it be signing a petition or joining an awareness event.

This week, hundreds of organizations are contributing stories and posts to the web-o-sphere via the #OceanOptimism hashtag to spread messages of hope and solutions in the face of daunting environmental challenges. As I’ve written before…

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Reviving John Burroughs’ “Silent Throngs”

The dawn light illuminates the surface of Hampton Brook where it runs through Trail Wood in Hampton Connecticut. Photo by Richard Telford, Copyright 2015

The dawn light illuminates the surface of Hampton Brook where it runs through Trail Wood in Hampton, Connecticut, near the site of Edwin Way Teale’s long-time observation blind. Photo by Richard Telford, Copyright 2015

By Richard Telford

The cover image for Hal Borland's 1979 book Hal Borland's Twelve Moons of the Year.  From the author's collection.

The cover image for Hal Borland’s 1979 book Hal Borland’s Twelve Moons of the Year. From the author’s collection.

At a recent library sale held at my daughter’s school, I bought a discarded copy of Hal Borland’s Twelve Moons of the Year.  The 1979 book, a posthumously published selection of Borland’s natural history editorials printed in the Sunday New York Times from 1941 until his death in 1978, brims with keen observations rendered in concise, poetic language.  Twelve Moons is organized in almanac format, with 365 dated entries that follow the course of one year.  It is reminiscent of Donald Culross Peattie’s An Almanac for Moderns (1935) and Edwin Way Teale’s A Walk Through the Year (1978).  On January 1st, Borland writes of “The glint and glitter of frost crystals in the air, dancing like motes of diamond dust in the sunlight.”  On June 1st, he tells us how “The wonder of new beginnings is everywhere, in the dew-wet grass, in the breeze-shaken leaves, in the shimmering spider web and the night-washed faces of buttercup and wild geranium.”  He adds, “The world is hushed and waiting.”  The start of September, Borland confides, “is August ended, October inevitable, summer’s ripeness and richness fulfilled […].”  When the year ends on December 31st, Borland notes that “the seasons overlap the arbitrary divisions we make, and year’s end is neither an end nor a beginning but a part of the infinite whole.”  The relegation of this poignant volume to the discard table reminded me that authors, too, have their seasons.

John Burroughs, in his 1902 book Literary Values and Other Papers, offers a moving assessment of the effects of time’s passage on the authors of any generation:

The day inevitably comes to every writer when he must take his place amid the silent throngs of the past, when no new work from his pen can call attention to him afresh, when the partiality of his friends no longer counts, when his friends and admirers are themselves gathered to the same silent throng, and the spirit of the day in which he wrote has given place to the spirit of another and a different day. How, oh, how will it fare with him then? […]. The new times will have new soul maladies and need other soul doctors. The fashions of this world pass away—fashions in thought, in style, in humor, in morals, as well as in anything else.

Holding Borland’s book in my hands on that early May morning, I thought of this passage by Burroughs.  It is a passage I have often reflected upon while researching and writing about the life of Edwin Way Teale, who, like Borland, has passed largely into obscurity.  When Burroughs published the passage above, he was a national figure whose circle of friends included Theodore Roosevelt, Thomas Edison, and Henry Ford.  Still, it seems impossible that one who could pen the lines above could believe that he himself might avoid his own passage into the “silent throngs of the past.”  I have reflected regularly on this inevitable passage during the last several years, both in the context of my research on Teale and in my reading of other time-shrunken giants of natural history writing: Sally Carragher, Loren Eiseley, Donald Culross Peattie, and Franklin Russell, to name a few.  I have thought less on how or why these authors and others have faded, agreeing with Burroughs that it is inevitable, and have instead considered whether some of these individuals might, even in a limited way, be revived in the public consciousness.

The title page for Donald Culross Peattie's 1935 book An Almanac for Moderns.  From the author's collection.

The title page for Donald Culross Peattie’s 1935 book An Almanac for Moderns. From the author’s collection.

The greatest natural history writers of any generation teach us the power of observation, the capacity to look outside of ourselves before looking inward, to see that, in the context of a complex and extraordinary world, we are very small.  It is this awareness, I believe, that allows us to turn inward and truly see ourselves.  All of us, writers or not, will pass into “the silent throngs of the past.”  Framing their observations in geologic time, natural history writers often see this more keenly than most, and they help us both to see and to contextualize it as well.  They do so not to devalue the lives we live as insignificant but to encourage us to see those lives in the greater context of the natural world, thus deepening our appreciation for the life we are given and the life that surrounds us.  They encourage us to be keen observers of the natural world, to be teachers of an environmental ethic, to be stewards of the Earth that we can come to love so deeply.  We are, however, especially challenged to be observers in a time when our gaze, both by obligation and by choice, is largely transfixed on a variety of electronic screens, a time when our collective quest for an illusory self-worth blurs our ethical standards and undermines our stewardship, a time when our children experience the natural world firsthand less than any previous generation did. There is still a place for Hal Borland in our daily lives, as there is for Edwin Way Teale or Donald Culross Peattie, but can they fill that role once more?  Can we revive them in the public consciousness?  Can we bring them back from Burroughs’ “silent throngs”?

The Christian Science Monitor recently reported that Trinity University Press in San Antonio, Texas has undertaken efforts to “advanc[e] a Peattie revival” by reissuing nine of his books.  The available titles, many of which have been out of print for decades, can be viewed here.  Edwin Way Teale is likewise the subject of similar revival efforts.  I have previously written about Connecticut Audubon Society’s efforts to revitalize Teale’s long-time Connecticut home and private sanctuary, Trail Wood.  This summer, CAS will welcome five accomplished writers and visual artists to Trail Wood for week-long residencies through the Edwin Way Teale Artists-in-Residence at Trail Wood program.  These efforts to revitalize the important legacies of both Peattie and Teale are significant. They are born, I think, of the realization that, despite the legitimate gains we have made through ongoing modernization, we have likewise lost a great deal.  These efforts, and others like them, represent an acknowledgment that many writers relegated to “the silent throngs of the past” still have much to teach us.

A copy of Edwin Way Teale's A Walk Through the Year inscribed by Teale to his doctor, Jack Woodworth.  At the time of the inscription, Teale had been diagnosed with terminal cancer.  From the collection of the author.

The endpaper of a copy of Edwin Way Teale’s A Walk Through the Year inscribed by Teale to his doctor and friend, Jack Woodworth. At the time of the inscription, Teale had been diagnosed with terminal cancer. From the collection of the author.

Borland, Peattie, Teale, and many other twentieth-century natural history writers forged their careers during the Great Depression and, subsequently, the rise of Nazism and Fascism in Europe during World War II.  Teale lost his only child, David, to a U.S. Army reconnaissance mission along the Moselle River in Germany in 1945. This was a period that poet W.H. Auden famously termed The Age of Anxiety in his book-length poem of that title.  The natural history writers of that age found respite from the weight of that anxiety through immersion in the natural world.  Perhaps now, fifteen years into the twenty-first century, we might characterize ours as an “age of distraction.”  Borland, Peattie, Teale, and others were terribly distracted as well, given the world events during their formative years as writers, but therein lies the difference—a malady in need of cure.  Largely, our distraction lies with ourselves.  We have turned inward, not in self-reflection but to shape ourselves to meet an external and often arbitrary set of expectations defined largely by social media in its various forms.  We construct an illusory life to combat our inner emptiness, but doing so inevitably fails, both individually and societally.  The great natural history writers of preceding generations likewise turned inward and encouraged their readers to do the same, but, in that inner place anchored by outward observation of the natural world, they shaped themselves in the context of its complex and wondrous order, an order of which they felt a part.  We need such a connection now more than ever if we wish to preserve both ourselves and the natural world itself.  Reviving voices from the “silent throngs” can help us forge that connection

Rethinking Wilderness After The Wilderness Act

Dear Readers, I am moving this week, so instead of writing for you, I’m sharing this excellent article with you from another blog I really enjoy and admire. Neva

Peeling Back the Bark

Have you ever been in an urban forest and had the feeling that you were off in the wild because you could no longer hear any cars? Did you find yourself on a river trail and felt as Emerson did when he wrote, “In the woods, is perpetual youth”? Or have you been in state park, turned on a trail and thought, “Geez, I’m in the wilderness!”? I can answer “yes” to all three of those questions. Here in the Durham area we have Duke Forest, the Eno River, and Umstead State Park, respectively, to explore and escape to. I find being in the forest—and what feels like wilderness in this increasingly urbanized region—is often restorative, if not transformative.

Scholars will tell you there are both legal and cultural constructs of wilderness. While Duke Forest, Eno River, and Umstead State Park are not, by legal definition, wilderness, such places do…

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7 things to know about California’s drought

Grist

This story was originally published by Mother Jones and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

There’s been a lot of talk lately about the drought in California, especially since this past week, when Gov. Jerry Brown introduced mandatory water cuts for the first time in the state’s history. So what exactly makes this drought so bad? And what are people doing about it? Here are a few important points to keep in mind:

Drought is the norm in California. How bad is this one? There are always wet years and dry years, but the past three years have been among the driest on record — and state officials worry that 2015 will be even drier. Last week, for the first time in the state’s history, Brown imposed mandatory water restrictions, requiring all cities and towns to cut their water usage by 25 percent. Though agriculture…

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