Balancing Shock and Optimism in a Time of Declining Attention Span

A pair of brown pelicans (Pelecanus occidentalis) fly in tandem in southern Puerto Rico. Photo by Richard Telford, Copyright 2008.

A pair of brown pelicans (Pelecanus occidentalis) fly in tandem in southern Puerto Rico. Photo by Richard Telford, Copyright 2008.

By Richard Telford

“You can’t leave things like that around for me to see.”

The cover of the Winter 2015-2016 issue of SE Journal. Photo origin: Save-Elephants via Wikimedia commons.

The cover of the Winter 2015-2016 issue of SE Journal. Photo origin: Save-Elephants via Wikimedia commons.

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.

The cover for the January 1976 issue of National Geographic, which featured Dr. David M. Lavigne's article, "Life or Death for the Harp Seal." Lavigne considered the possibility that annual Canadian seal harvest might drive the harp seal (Pagophilus groenlandicus) to extinction.

The cover for the January 1976 issue of National Geographic, which featured Dr. David M. Lavigne’s article, “Life or Death for the Harp Seal.” Lavigne considered the possibility that annual Canadian seal harvest might drive the harp seal (Pagophilus groenlandicus) to extinction.

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.

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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.

People, Wildlife and the Environment by Norman P. Knott, 1969

By Neva Knott

Today, March 11, 2015, would have been my dad’s 98th birthday. My dad, Norm Knott, worked at the Washington State Game Department (now Washington State Fish and Wildlife) for 30 years, starting there right out of college with a Bachelor’s degree in Zoology. After retiring from the Game Department, he worked for the United Trust Territories in Micronesia and then for the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). I have the privilege of owning his desk. There is one drawer of it I cannot bring myself to empty, the drawer that holds files of his that contain artifacts such as the essay below. In it, he expresses the need for human understanding of ecological principles in making the human world. Here are his words, written on August 4, 1969, in honor of his life and in thanks for his teaching me to love the natural world:

In a human society the values are those assigned by the people in relationship to and arising from their needs and desires. Certain of these needs as food, water and shelter, are obvious. Certain of these needs and desires are in-obvious but fully as compelling as those which form a wintering flock of wildfowl into a flighted V, following a chartless path to their summer breeding ground.

The pursuit of the obvious, and the lack of protective recognition of the in-obvious environmental requirements of man has repeatedly placed societies in the position of becoming self-destructive. The prophet Isaiah, in the 19th verse of the 49th chapter of his book, sets forth: “For thy waste and thy desolate places, and the land of thy destruction, shall even now be too narrow by reason of the inhabitants.” If we are to assure that our land not become too narrow by reason of the inhabitants, we must openly and publicly recognize and admit that we, as people, are the end-product of the multi-million-year evolutionary process which caused people to leave their home territories and invade the unfriendly wilderness. To our ancestors and to us, philosophically, nature was and is yet a multi-formed enemy to be conquered and harnessed as a benevolent servant.

We must recognize that in our zeal to master the wilderness, we have developed seemingly endless techniques and mechanical abilities which we have used and still employ with absolutely no thought to, or understanding of, the ecological consequences. We continue seemingly without caring what havoc we wreak.

We must openly admit and bring about open recognition of the fact that the individuals of this society, and hence society as a whole, need and in fact must have, not alone a gross national product, but also an opportunity to hear the spring song of a bird un-caged; water of supply and suitability for toe dabbling or fishing; a deer for seeing or tracking; a beach for the surf to wash; a tall tree for the breeze to whisper in; clean snow for children to put a to tongue.

The sound of the beach wave muted by the burden of used toilet paper and discarded picnic plates may well be the voice of affluence, but even though a muted voice, it calls loudly for us to seek in common endeavor, assurances that this will not become a land of our waste and of desolate places, nor our land of destruction.

When we can stand on the westernmost beaches of this nation, we must know that we cannot follow the creed of Horace Greeley, but rather we must learn to live in balanced harmony and respect with our environment.

Private resource developments are usually of a single-purpose nature and always have a single-purpose goal of financial gain. Government, to properly serve the public it represents, must face the responsibility of formulating and enforcing bold programs of resource management for the retention and enhancement of the human environment. The role of government in resource and environmental management must not be a role of duty.

By omission, present laws and programs of resource management do not reflect recognition of this seeming role. In many respects they serve as a fetter to management rather than permitting administrators to apply their knowledge and experience. In general, resource and environmental legislation is designed to effect the management of single resources for special interest groups. Departmental programs and administrative policies under such legislation are biased for the unilateral approach. There is, usually, only external and defensive interest, purpose and involvement in planning and effecting integrated programs.

When the laws that exist and which have as their purpose the service and protection of the people, are such as to preclude or in some cases make unlawful effective progress toward a common solution of the problems concerning the people, it must be past time to review the concepts which projected society and its laws to this present status. It must be time to review past results and to determine what future values we shall seek.

To approach the goal of better human environment requires both knowledge and understanding. Regrettably, there is probably less knowledge concerning the ecology of man and his environmental requirements than there is concerning cottontail rabbits or pine trees.

Environment has become a popular catch phrase emblazoned on many banners, however, it would appear that there is little understanding of ecological concepts or the reasons for the environmental deterioration of our cities, suburbs, and scenic countrysides.

Fish and wildlife are sensitively adapted products of their environments. If their environments are protected in a manner suitable for their livelihoods, many of the environmental needs of man will simultaneously be met.

Because of the comparative lack of social and artificial interferences, the best way to achieve a basic ecological concept is through the understanding of the relations between wild animals, plants and their environments. Once this understanding is achieved, the relationship of man with his environment is more readily understandable.

It may well be that if the knowledge and skills of the ecologically trained and experienced fish and wildlife personnel of this nation are fully utilized and their recommendations more clearly followed, the benefits to the human environment could become primary. A deliberately accelerated national program of environmental education and wildlife management could possibly gain sufficient time to permit a more detailed analysis and understanding of human habitat requirements.

The Local Yolk–Beer, Backyard Chickens, and the Business of Building a Sustainable Food System

By Neva Knott

When the environmental movement began in the 1970s, the focus was on protecting and honoring nature instead of depleting it for human consumption. While this same protection of nature is still at the core of environmental advocacy, a new environmental perspective has emerged recent years, a more personal movement–that of food sourcing.

I’ve heard that the easiest way to go green is to green your food source. It’s certainly the most immediate and possibly the most effective.

To eat within your foodshed, to eat the 100-mile-meal, to know your farmer are practices that benefit your health and promote a green triple bottom line–people, the planet, and profits. In graduate school at Green Mountain College, I learned that most food on the American table travels 2,000 miles before eaten, a shocking and disheartening statistic. John Emrich’s new book, The Local Yolk–Beer, Backyard Chickens and the Business of Building a Sustainable Food System, tells stories of the good food movement, the alternative to commercial, bland, environmentally exploitive, well-traveled food.

All writers here at The Ecotone Exchange hold Master’s of Science degrees in Environmental Studies from Green Mountain College or similar. John is no exception–he was one of our cohort there. Previously an investment banker, he now runs Backyard Chicken Run, an urban chicken supply business in Chicago, and gathers stories of other entrepreneurs looking join the local food movement.

When I first read The Local Yolk, my heart was warmed by the case studies John had collected, putting faces to the ideal of greening your food source. What most impressed and enthused me, though, was John’s explanations of how to make growing and sourcing good food–sustainable agriculture–a profitable venture. Profitability is story not yet told in, and one that is often easily lost in the check-out line when buying organic, local food. With John’s permission, I give you an excerpt from Chapter 17, Tao Theory: Zen and the Art of Investing in Sustainable Food…

“In my prior life, I had owned shares in one of the publicly traded fertilizer companies, so I understood the “bullish case” for fertilizer from the perspective of the chemical companies: a billion or so people in Asia were moving to the middle class and would switch from a rice diet to a protein diet (i.e., a diet with more meat), generating rising demand for the grains to feed livestock and therefore the inputs of chemical agriculture that made monoculture grain-growing viable on a massive scale. At the time I met with the fertilizer manufacturer, the company was forecasting that the United States would become an exporter of corn to China the following year. The future was bright.

“As I tried to put a value on the organic farm, the light bulb went on. The chemical companies’ gain was the farmers’ pain. The chemical inputs of nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium were all either directly or indirectly tied to natural resources that would become increasingly scarce and expensive over time, but farmers had to have them to succeed in conventional agriculture. Moreover, industrial farmers buy seed from a monopoly. The two things that an industrial farmer or farm investor could say for sure were that they had no control over their costs, and their costs were going higher. Farm subsidies are often criticized for being a gift to larger corporate farms. They would be more accurately described as a subsidy to the chemical companies and industrial buyers of grain (food processors). The conventional farmer, big or small, is getting little more than his costs reimbursed over a lifetime of work.

“The sustainable farmer doesn’t have the same exposure to cost pressure. After the sun itself, manure is the ultimate renewable resource, replacing the increasingly costly fertilizers. Yet, because I believed in the secular trend towards organic food, the sustainable farmer would continue to benefit from rising market prices for organic crops (for example, organic grains) over time. I was concluding that sustainable farming was a good business investment.”

John writes on to explain the mechanics of Impact Investing and Micro-Lending, and how these strategies can promote the good food movement while providing economic opportunity and promoting environmentally sound agriculture.

The Local Yolk is a smart blend of case stories, anecdotes, background knowledge, and research. You can follow The Local Yolk and Back Yard Chicken Run on Facebook and can learn more about the book at www.thelocalyolkbook.com.

A Greener Thanksgiving

By Christine Harris

Thanksgiving is a day of overindulgence. Americans eat and drink too much. We travel long distances by car or plane. From an environmental perspective, Thanksgiving is not typically a green holiday. However there are many easy ways that you can decrease your emissions and use of resources and still have a meaningful holiday. Here are a few tips to make your Thanksgiving a bit greener:

Grow your own: In most parts of the country fruits and vegetables can be grown well into the fall. With a little planning many of your Thanksgiving favorites can come right from your own backyard or a plot in a community garden. If it’s too cold to keep the garden going into November, harvest earlier and freeze or can.

Check out your local farmer’s market: If you can’t grow it yourself, buy it from someone else who has grown it locally. You may even be able to find a locally raised free-range turkey at a farmer’s market or local farm.

Public market, Seattle. Photo by Christine Harris.

Seattle Pike Place Market. Photograph by Christine Harris.

Limit travel: Thanksgiving is one of the busiest travel days of the year. Millions of us get on the road or in the air to celebrate the holiday with friends and relatives. Consider keeping your Thanksgiving celebration close to home. Technology has given us wonderful ways to connect with loved ones without having to burn tons of fossil fuels. Use face time or Skype to say hi to Grandma instead of making the 300-mile drive. If you are obliged to get on the road, make sure that your tires are well inflated to improve gas mileage. If your family has more than one vehicle take the more fuel-efficient option and carpool with friends and family if possible. Air travel uses far more fossil fuel than driving so if you are flying consider researching options for carbon offsets.

Plan the meal: If you are hosting, have a plan for what you will prepare and what your guests will bring. This will eliminate the possibility of having several of same dish and being left with too many leftovers.

Use what you have: Disposable plates and silverware are convenient, but using dishes you already have saves you money and lessens that amount of waste you produce.

Courtesy of Wiki Commons.

Image courtesy of Wiki Commons.

Use natural decorations: If you like to decorate opt for natural decorations you can make on your own instead of elaborate store-bought centerpieces. Collect brightly colored leaves or cut some of that bothersome bittersweet in the backyard to use for homemade decorations.

Rethink Black Friday: One day of indulgence is often followed by another for those who partake in the retail “holiday” Black Friday on the day after Thanksgiving. If you plan to shop on Black Friday go into it with a plan. Figure out what you need and where you need to go to get it and stick to only those purchases and places. Don’t buy things you don’t need just because they are a good deal. If you can resist the urge to shop on Black Friday you can celebrate the counter-culture holiday of Buy Nothing Day instead. Avoid the crowds and spend a relaxing day with family and friends.

Featured image: American turkeys. Photograph by Christine Harris.

Sugarloaf Trail and a Dune that Proves Nature Can Be Preserved for Thousands of Years

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Text and photographs by Maymie Higgins

Last year, I wrote about a hike on Flytrap Trail which is located in a park that exists on my favorite spot on Earth, Pleasure Island. As promised, this year I hiked another trail at Carolina Beach State Park, Sugarloaf Trail. The park came to be in 1969 when 761 acres were established as a North Carolina State Park in order to preserve the unique ecosystems along the Intracoastal Waterway. Sugarloaf Trail is a three-mile trail that passes through the marsh and enters a pine forest and follows the Cape Fear River edge to a mud flat that serves as habitat for fiddler crab.

The trailhead is adjacent to the marina parking lot and is well marked by orange circles that occur frequently and are easy to find. After just a minute or two of hiking, I came upon the Cape Fear River on my right, to the west. Here, the river is bordered by a narrow sandy beach where tall, dense patches of marsh grass occasionally spring up. I paused long enough to ascertain that a couple of young fellows with fishing rods were collecting mussels from the grass to be used as bait.

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From there, the trail is quickly surrounded by marsh swamp. The swamp is frequently bifurcated by downed cypress trees left to decay at their own pace in the rich, sandy muck while providing cover and housing for wildlife until their very last atom of carbon has been released to the ages. As I walked through this part of the trail, I saw no evidence of terrestrial wildlife. No matter, because the bird calls occurred almost more frequently than I could identify them to my husband. Two quick calls, followed by harsh and loud ringing squeaks pierced the silence. “That’s a Blue-Jay,” I said. As I was still speaking, a rapid fire of scratchy, nasal calls rang out in a pattern similar to the firing of a machine gun. “Tufted Titmouse,” I explained. “And none too happy with our presence.” I then spied a Brown-headed Nuthatch flitting between pine trees, foraging the bark for insects. Then occurred the tell tale warning call of a Carolina Chickadee, “chick-a-dee-dee-dee.” I was flattered that the string of “dee-dees” following “chick-a” was short. Studies have shown a direct correlation between the number of “dee-dees” and the severity of perceived threat by chickadees.

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About a mile in, I reached the trail’s namesake, Sugarloaf Dune. The dune rises 25 feet and was named in 1663 by William Hilton, a Barbados landowner, when he observed how sugary-white the sand is, on and around the dune. During the Civil War, about 5,000 Confederate soldiers camped on Sugarloaf Dune while watching over the river as part of the Fort Fisher encampment. Twenty-five years after the war ended, a pier was built at the dune base in order for a steamer from Wilmington to dock and unload up to 5,000 passengers onto railway cars that took them to the beach. The dune is protected by fencing to discourage hikers from climbing on it except in clearly designated areas. This is in an effort to minimize any further erosion of this ancient dune thought to have existed as long as 6,000 or more years ago.

View of the Cape Fear River from the top of Sugarloaf Dune.  I also observed hostile interaction between an osprey and a crow along the tree line.  They parted ways peacefully in the end.

View of the Cape Fear River from the top of Sugarloaf Dune. I also observed hostile interaction between an osprey and a crow along the tree line. They parted ways peacefully in the end.

Along the remaining mile of the trail, there was a Cypress Pond and a breathtakingly beautiful Lily Pond followed by a brief sandy path with animal tracks that made my heart go pitter pat. There were bobcat, raccoon, coyote, and deer tracks in the sand that had to be recently made because heavy rain just a few hours earlier would have flattened older tracks. Were they watching us?

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The last half mile of the trail winds through dense, moist forest with a thick canopy that creates a tranquil setting in which to pause and examine various specimens of lichens on multiple trees. Lichens are not plants. They are made up of two or three completely different kinds of organisms. Every lichen species is part fungus and usually part algae but sometimes cyanobacterium instead, and sometimes lichens include all three. The fungus benefits from the algae’s ability to photosynthesize its chlorophyll and provide them both with energy. The algae and/or cyanobacterium benefit because the fungus is more efficient at water and nutrient absorption. The fungus also provides the overall lichen shape, and the reproductive structures in the mutualistic relationship. Lichens are very sensitive to air pollution so their frequent presence along this part of the trail is a positive indicator of a healthy ecosystem in the park.

The trail ends where it begins, at the marina parking lot. Before leaving, I looked out across the water and imagined myself in a kayak on my next visit to Carolina Beach State Park. Stay tuned.

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Shovels and Shade Provide Healing at the Footprints of Terror

By Maymie Higgins

Recently, I visited New York and New Jersey in order to attend a family reunion. My last visit to Manhattan specifically had been in 1988, when the World Trade Center buildings still cast their tall and defiant forms across the skyline. This recent visit included plans to pay my respects at the 9/11 Memorial and Museum.

During my college years, I visited with my paternal uncle in New York many times, and I would accompany him on his commute from Staten Island to Manhattan’s Financial District where he had a seat at the New York Stock Exchange. Uncle Bill had parking privileges at City Pier A on the Hudson River at Battery Park. From 1960 to 1992, the pier was used by the New York City Fire Department as a fireboat station. Uncle Bill was awarded the parking privileges for his role during a city blackout in coordinating and providing alternative communication through Amateur Ham Radio. It was quite the treat to spend the day exploring the city with my aunt and then simply meet Uncle Bill back at the car at the end of the work day.

On one of my visits, Aunt Beth and I rode the high speed elevator in the World Trade Center South tower and toured the roof observation deck. For many reasons, September 11, 2001 was not just an attack on “those tall buildings in New York and the Pentagon.” It was personal. Even though Uncle Bill had retired by that time, he still lived in the region and it was possible for him to have been in Manhattan. Much of my family still resides in the region and I am grateful none of them perished on 9/11. However, many of them lost friends and still feel an acute sense of trauma and grief.

World Trade Center photo taken by author in 1986 with Kodak Disc Camera.

World Trade Center photograph taken by author in 1986 with Kodak Disc Camera.

On this recent trip, I was eager to see if I still had my skills to navigate the big city. I drove my husband and myself from New Jersey to the Staten Island Ferry, successfully parked and hitched the free ferry ride across New York Harbor. We disembarked and made a beeline up Greenwich Street. No sauntering like a tourist for this gal, at least not until a surprising sight caught the corner of my eye. To my left was a huge garden in a place I had remembered as being mostly paved pathways and park benches. Now it was an eruption of green foliage full of activity as people hoed, raked, dug and harvested vegetables….in Lower Manhattan! Though my schedule did not allow me to linger very long, I made a mental note to research Battery Urban Farm, which had sprouted in the footprints of tragedy. Here is a video explaining the story:

We made our way to the 9/11 Memorial plaza, where massive pools with fountains flow in the footprints of the World Trade Center towers. Each fountain is surrounded by parapets that have inscribed in bronze the nearly 3,000 names of the men, women, and children killed in the attacks of September 11, 2001 and February 26, 1993. The contrast in stimulation of the senses within the plaza and that in the periphery of the plaza was palpable. In the periphery there were the sounds of jackhammers, cranes, sirens, car horns, and vehicle back up beepers. All this was suppressed and muted within the plaza, done so by the sound of massive waterfalls and rustling of leaves in the more than 250 swamp white oak trees. In fact, I felt cradled and shielded by their canopy. For more about the story of the trees chosen for the Memorial plaza, watch this video:

The Memorial plaza is one of the most sustainable, green plazas ever constructed, with irrigation, storm water and pest management systems that conserve energy, water and other resources. Rainwater is collected in storage tanks, meeting a majority of the daily and monthly irrigation requirements.

E.O. Wilson coined the term biophilia, which literally means “love of life.” Humans often seek to nurture life in various ways in an effort to soothe their grief, but it was surprising to see so much plant life in a concrete jungle. However, surprise was not my most overwhelming reaction. What concerned me that my heart might burst from my chest was an enormous sense of pride in the human race. Most humans innately know that, although individual lives may end, life itself goes on. Those who are still alive will see to it. No terrorist will ever destroy that rule of the universe.

Featured image: 9/11 Memorial Plaza shaded by swamp white oak trees courtesy of Silverstein Properties, Inc.

Bringing Back the Dead: Using Cloning to Resurrect Extinct Species

 

 

 

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By Frances Hall

Though the word “crisis” is thrown around casually and commonly applied to regrettable haircuts and any and all acts of partisanship in Congress, it can appropriately applied to the current rate of biodiversity loss. Biodiversity, a word meant to convey the huge idea of all the different species in the word and all the differences within those species as well, is being lost at an extraordinary rate. Estimates vary wildly, but scientists generally agree that in the time it takes you to watch your favorite show on Netflix at least one and as many as ten species are gone from this Earth, never to be seen again.

Is extinction the final nail-in-the-coffin death sentence its etymology implies? If you’re willing to ignore or navigate the ethical, financial, and logistical minefield that is the attempt to reverse extinction via genetic cloning, the answer is no.

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Animal cloning is a fairly established practice. The first successful attempt was in 1997. A sheep was born in Scotland, jokingly dubbed Dolly because she had been cloned from a mammary cell. However, even when your methods sound like they’re straight out of Jurassic park, things get a lot more complicated when you’re trying to apply these methods to species that are already gone. There are several methods of cloning. One involves injecting a body cell containing a complete set of DNA is injected into an egg that had its original DNA specially removed. Then, in an ideal world, the two cells fused together into an embryo which is implanted into a uterus. If the animal is already extinct, then a scientist will find as similar a uterus as possible and hope it works out. For example, due to a complete dearth of female woolly mammoths, any cloned fetuses would have to be grown in female elephants while dozens of researchers with their fingers crossed watched on.

Cloning of extinct species is far from a sure bet. An attempt to bring back the Pyrenean ibex involved 57 implantations into various species and hybrids of goats and ibex. All this effort culminated in a single clone that lived for ten minutes. If the extinct species  hatches from eggs or has an incomplete genome, success becomes an even more distant goal.

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Opponents of this type of cloning, or de-extinction, have some solid points. Bringing the animal back from extinction does not address the underlying issue–often habitat loss or poaching–that drove it to extinction in the first place. So it would be possible to sink in years and a small fortune into recovering an animal only to have it go extinct again shortly thereafter. Many other experts argue that de-extinction diverts resources that would be better put towards conserving the swiftly declining diversity we still have. Furthermore, an ecosystem is a vast thing: reintroducing a species that’s been gone for decades could have effects that no one predicted.

Still, the idea that a mistake you thought was permanent can be unwritten, that we could meet mammoths and dodo birds and frogs that brood in their stomachs, has its own beauty. Even if we are eons away from being creatures without flaws, knowing that we don’t need to be perfect right now is something between a curse and a comfort. As the debate continues and cloning techniques grow more elegant and advanced, this only hope for the already-gone could become an increasingly viable possibility.

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Image Credits:

Passenger Pigeon. Chester A. Reed “The Bird Book” 1915.

Dolly the Sheep. Mike Pennington.

Pyrenean Ibex. Richard Lydekker. 1898.

Tasmanian Tiger. Photographer unknown, pre-1921.

Dirt: What Is It Good For?

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By Natalie Parker Lawrence

People often want to smell the forsythia and the buttercups, perhaps a waft of bee pollen. They yearn to catch the scatter of the tight white witch-hazel blooms, not the paleness of the drooping white hyacinths, the color of dirty snow. They desire to follow the siren call of the seed catalogs, the come-hither whistle of the garden departments of home improvement stores. But alas.

People sit in the bleachers. They see the manicured grass of the infield. It is Opening Day, a day some believe should be a national holiday reserved for heroes, right up there with presidents and religious leaders and independence.

A cold wind blows instead. It should be too cold for gloves, scarves, serious uncute hats, but it is not. There is a breeze, though, a hint of spring. It is not warm enough for the short shorts that just walked by. Honey, your parents must be so proud.

A plowed-over field, this baseball diamond will never again be a field of dreamy wildflowers, blooms that are misunderstood, according to my mother whose allergies prohibit her from bringing them inside. They do rake, however, the pitcher’s mound. They have replaced the loam with playground dirt. They used to lay down white lines of limestone chalk (calcium carbonate, not lime which is calcium oxide), but now those lines are painted with biodegradable spray.

I always wonder what is underneath first base or the dugout or the bench of the opposing team. I do this when I travel, too. What is underneath the steel labyrinth that is the conglomeration at every intersection of highways and byways?  What kinds of land do we cover and how much? When we go out to play or go for a drive, how much land has been devoted to the infrastructure of sport and travel?

Many immigrants have asked if they could have the land on the median strip to grow crops, probably a legal nightmare, but the dilemma speaks to the concern about many of the empty places in many cities, in and around the asphalt.  What can neighborhoods do with unclaimed and undeveloped land? They can notify government authorities about neglected spaces who will in turn try to find the owners to see if and how quickly changes can be made.

Habitat for Humanity buys abandoned houses and lots at the cost of their unpaid property taxes. They raze condemned homes, dilapidated crack houses, clean up the lots, and build again for new families. My students and I have dug up many tree roots, rocks, nails, roof shingles, bricks, and boards on these lots before trucks arrive with the cement, the volunteers come with their hammers and saws, and the Master Gardeners arrive with their flower pots.

Many neighborhood associations and historic districts in the United States are going green. By using fields and other nearby places to plant fruits and vegetables, community organizations provide for their inner-city neighbors who live in food deserts, stores without access to reasonably priced and plentiful fresh food.

I do not want to tear down ball fields or expressway interchanges. His dad and I love a certain catcher who plays behind home plate, and he would be sad without his glove, no matter what the weather portends. Before he chokes up, he wipes dirt on his hands. He digs the ball out of the dirt to keep from getting a passed ball. A cloud of dirt floats up as the pitch sticks in his glove.   He brings home the dirt of the baseball field on his pants. We wash it out. All dirt is not beloved.

While we can’t do everything to preserve the earth, we can do what we can to maintain and improve our part, but we need to notice the empty spaces. We need to dig them up and plant something to share with people who notice what is missing but who might be missing the tools to dig for answers.

Saving the World One Less Pickle at a Time

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By Neva Knott

I teach Freshman Composition. Recently, I assigned Charles Fishman’s “The Squeeze,” a chapter from his book, The Wal-Mart Effect. Fishman’s book was published in 2006–it’s been around awhile, and it is not my story here. Nor is Wal-Mart. I want to talk about another effect, an environmental effect exemplified by Fishman’s story of the gallon jar of pickles.

“The Squeeze” begins:

“A gallon-sized jar of whole pickles is something to behold. The jar itself is the size of a small aquarium. The fat green pickles, floating in swampy juice, look reptilian, their shapes exaggerated by the glass of the jar. The jar weighs twelve pounds, too big to carry with one hand.

“The gallon jar of pickles is a display of abundance and excess. It is entrancing, and also vaguely unsettling. Wal-Mart fell in love with Vlasic’s gallon jar of pickles.

“Wal-Mart priced it at $2.97…”.

This low price created an unbalanced demand for a gallon jar of pickles. As Fishman explains in his essay, families bought the gigantic jar rather than one of more practical size because of the price, “200,000 gallons of pickles, just in gallon jars…every week. Whole fields of cucumbers were heading out the door.” Families would “eat a quarter of a jar and throw the thing away when it got moldy.” In turn, cucumber growers were unable to fill the demand to Vlasic, and here in lies the environmental problem that is my story.

Every time a consumer–any one of us–spends a dollar,  he or she is creating an environmental impact. Here’s how the waste of pickles ripples through the environment:

  • All those gallon jars were trucked to Wal-Mart, so there’s fuel source and expenditure and carbon emissions to consider;
  • All that fuel was drilled for somewhere, and that process affects water and air quality;
  • Processing all those cucumbers into pickles took large amounts of water and energy;
  • Manufacturing the glass gallon jars also took large amounts of water and energy;
  • Growing cucumbers is water-intensive, so all the water used to grow the thrown-out extras went to waste;
  • Growing cucumbers is also fertilizer and pesticide-intensive (those Vlasic pickles aren’t from organically grown vegetables), and that fertilizer poisons water and creates green-house gases;
  • Chemical run-off from major agricultural regions causes dead zones in the ocean;
  • Farming involves fossil fuel, so more carbon emissions and fuel expenditure;
  • Agriculture requires that land be cleared to make fields, so deforestation occurs. No trees means no carbon storage, so more is emitted into the atmosphere as a greenhouse gas;
  • Deforestation causes habitat loss which contributes to endangerment of species;
  • And I bet most of those moldy glass jars went into the landfill rather than the recycling bin.

When families chose to buy that jar, symbolic of “abundance and excess,” they also chose to add to these environmental problems. As consumers we have, embedded in our daily habits, more power than we realize in terms of environmental solutions.

Wal-Mart’s use of the gallon jar of pickles is not much different than the recent free shipping gimmick employed by companies like Zappos and Amazon. This past holiday season, NPR covered the effects of free shipping on working conditions at both of these companies (actually, Zappos is now owned by Amazon). I know working conditions is not an environmental concern, but it’s a similar consumer issue. By paying $5 for having my shoes sent to my home instead of expecting them to arrive at no cost to me, I can promote fair treatment of workers in those supply warehouses. Same with the pickles–by purchasing only a usable amount, the consumer takes strain off the environment being used to produce the wasted excess.

By wasting pickles, we’re wasting land, water, air, fuel, and putting at risk the vitality of other species.