A Line Down The Middle—The Landscape of Garry Winogrand’s Photograph, New Mexico 1957

 

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New Mexico 1957 by Garry Winogrand

By Neva Knott

Preface: each term in my composition classes I assign a photo analysis. I wrote this as an example for my students. The photo and the exercise allowed me to blend two of my loves–black and white photograph and nature, specifically thinking about the relationship between human spaces and landscapes.

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A landscape divided. To the left, the carport and driveway of a small ranch-style house. To the right the flatlands and hills of a desert. A baby stands at the top of the driveway, having just emerged from the dark carport. The child’s tricycle lays abandoned on its side further down the drive. The desert in the foreground is dry and only partially covered in patches with shrubbery. There is one larger tree just to the right of the driveway, as if put there for landscaping decoration. The hills in the distance are also dark, shadowed by clouds that gather above them. A cloudscape covers the mountains and also floats above the roof of the house. There is a sense of anticipation in the photograph. The sharp contrast between the human area and the natural area in this photograph, taken by Garry Winogrand in New Mexico, 1957, suggest that humans might be out of place on this desert.

The baby is the brightest object in the frame. She is dressed in white and is standing in front of an almost solid black opening to a carport. Because of this stark contrast, her spot in the photograph becomes the focal point.  White is universally considered a color of innocent, nascence, and hope. While it may be incidental to this photograph that she is dressed in white, when I consider the baby within the setting of the photograph—in front of a new house in a presumably new development—I can infer she is part of the package of, and symbolizes, the pathos of beginnings for this family.

I begin to explore other aspects of the photograph to gain a sense of context for the baby’s positioning. The house stops at the left edge of the image. It covers most of the left of the frame, from bottom to almost the top.  The driveway runs along about three quarters of the bottom edge of the image and dominates the foreground. It is an upward-sloping drive; my eye is drawn along it to the baby and the faint shadow of another person behind. The house is also positioned in front of the picture, though most of it is cut off. The carport is in full view, but only the corner of the house to which it attaches, the edge of a bank of windows on the front of the house, some stones that seem to mark a planter, a patch of dirt not yet planted with grass, and part of the roof, show.  Bare soil extends from the driveway to what I can surmise is the lot line. The house is simple and sparse in design, suggesting that it is a starter home—the type first purchased when a couple begins their life together.

On the right of the carport there is a partial wall that’s held up by a simple ground-to-roof post. The house number, 208, is attached to the post. This low number designates this house as one of the first in the development and furthers the impression of new beginnings.

The partial wall forms a boundary between the house and the land, yet the desert and hills are visible through the space between the wall and carport roof. Beyond the carport wall, four aspects of the desert are depicted. Closest to the driveway is barren except for a few clumps of weed and one decorative palm. A few yards out, presumably at the lot line, some sort of scrub brush grows, standing just a couple of feet tall. Beyond the scrub, a sand pit comprises the middle distance of the image. More vegetation grows around its edges. Just past the sand pit the mountains rise up and meet the sky—just at the top third of the image. The most defined line of mountain peaks  are darkened by cloud cover. Along the side of the foothills is a U-shaped clearing that looks like a road and cul-de-sacs for a future housing development.  In looking at the vegetation surrounding the house, it is easy to see this is not a place that readily supports life.

The clouds are the only element in the photograph that span both human and natural spaces. They run along the top border of the image, whereas the rest of the image is abruptly divided by the line of the driveway and edge of the carport. There is no transition between the house and landscape except for the partial wall in the carport; furthermore, there is no overlap in use of space—the human side is devoid of anything natural, and except for a child’s wagon off to the right, there are no human elements on the natural side of the image.

Aside from the baby and the shadow figure in the carport, the house itself, the driveway, and the U-shaped clearing, the only human elements in the photograph are a child’s tricycle and wagon—both of which were left tipped over, one in the middle of the drive, and one along the lot line, just at the boundary between home and landscape—and an oil spot on the concrete. These indicate a haphazard regard and lack of care for one’s possessions. Toys are not put away, and cars are not maintained. The house itself is quite plain and appears to be kept tidy, but is obviously low-cost. Might the inhabitants be living beyond their means in taking on home ownership and parenthood? If they don’t care for the child’s toys or their own car, will they care for this delicate landscape upon which they live?

A desert is classified as such because of limited rainfall, yet a desert is a hardy landscape. Plants and some animals that live in such places have adapted to manage periods of drought, and extreme temperatures both cold and hot. Humans do not have the capacity to adapt so must convert their homes and man-made spaces to accommodate limited water supply, winters and summers. Humans are naturally unequipped to live within the carrying capacity of a desert landscape. The harsh line in the photograph made by the driveway and edge of the carport creates the impression that the people who live in this house intend to keep separate from the life of the desert, yet the clouds that cross over both parts of the photograph remind the viewer that nature surrounds them and its effects are inescapable, regardless of this delineation. The only connection between the house and the surrounding landscape is one of darkness. The carport is dark as is the line of mountain peaks in the cloud’s shadow. While the baby in her white clothes works to symbolize hope from within the darkness, the darkness of the clouds suggests that nature is the controlling force in this place.

Garry Winogrand is one of my favorite photographers. From my study of his work I know that it was not his practice to set up a shot—he took pictures of what he came upon, of what was in front of him. He chose subject matter based on what he felt would make a good photograph. In studying his work, I’ve come to realize that much of it documents some sort of incongruity between people and the places in which he found them. In this photograph, the incongruity draws my attention to the rationale behind suburban development, and begs the question, at what point must a homeowner consider livability of locale? Moreover, I’m analyzing this image 57 years after its making, at a time in human history where issues of water availability are critical. Photographs capture a moment in time, yet exist in the present and into the future; in this way, Winnogrand’s photograph of a starter home in the New Mexico of 1957 can speak to the importance of choosing a place for one’s nascence that can support life.

 

 

Nature Walking around Capitol Lake

 

Polaroid of the Capitol from Across the  Lake

The Capitol from across the Lake

By Neva Knott

The Lake’s bottom has been exposed at low tide since the snow storm. Rocks, muck, and detritus are exposed about six feet out from from the shoreline. Today, Sunday, I saw a pair of Mallards pecking in the muck, duck behavior I’d not seen before. I’ve been watching Mallards since I was a little girl living on a different lake, here in Olympia. They were the first wild species I knew to recognize.

Today, Ted–my little black dog–and I are making our way around Capitol Lake. It’s a man-made lake that sits at the mouth of the Deschutes River as it meets Budd Inlet, part of Puget Sound. Before it was a lake, this waterway was tide flats, an ecosystem of river and brackish water. The path we take extends from the Capitol grounds on the south shore hill, weaves down switchbacks that open to a view of the Olympic Mountains far north, and then circles the lake for about a two-mile walk. We’ve been snowbound for over a week, so today I seem to be walking with renewed awareness of nature and place.

During the storm I pondered the importance of snow. I like how it forces quietude and a slowness of human busy-ness. I like the silent softness of a snowy night. I know the importance of snowpack in the water cycle and health of watersheds. This week, I pondered the importance of snow in the climate cycle and how it might work within the structure of global warming. I researched and learned that the snow’s reflection, its albedo, reflects solar radiation back into the atmosphere, helping to keep the planet cool.

Capitol Lake was built in 1951 as a reflection pool for the grandeur of the Capitol building. The Lake has done its job well. Not only is it a spot of beauty at the city’s center, it has always been a gathering place. Each year, Lake Fair plays out in the shoreline park. As a teenager, I loved the carnival rides as they swung out over the water. When I was a little girl, we swam in the Lake, right from the shore down town.  Boating was allowed then, too. Even on a winter’s day like today, walkers, runners, families, and people with dogs circle the water. I feel a part of my community each day we make the trek.

Today, the ducks whose species name I don’t know, those with the velvet black heads, white shoulders and grey side panels, floated in a battalion, in formation across the lake’s surface. Then, on a mysterious cue, they’d take turns diving down, synchronized like swimmers in a show.

Some days, as the tide turns, the ducks float in a cluster, the whole bunch of them moving in circular motion as the water moves.

I wonder what the cold does to them.

Some days, in the ticket just along the shore at the bottom of the switchbacks, I see a blue heron. Today, as we rounded the edge of the lake near the road, a heron flew by, low to the water, magnificent wing span flapping. I’d had a feeling we would see one today.

What creates the lake is an earthen dam and concrete spillway at the north end. This is also where a bridge crosses the waterway, connecting down town to the west side. In college, in the late 80s, my housemate and I fished the salmon run from the “legal” side of the bridge. We were poor and happy to fill our freezer for winter with each day’s limit.

Many days, I see river otter near the spillway. Just one was there today, having toddled out of the water to nudge around in the bramble along the shore. There’s a bridge on the south end of the lake, too, and almost daily I count on seeing three or four otters there, swimming, playing, and when they notice us, watching Ted.

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River Otter, Christmas day

The lake has served good purpose in blending the beauty human architecture and natural. Not only has it reflected the values of community here, it also stands to reflect the changes–and challenges–in environmental science from then to now. Several decades ago, the lake was closed to swimming because of fecal matter from storm water. Too-warm water in the summer months increases algae blooms and makes for poor fish habitat. In 2009, New Zealand mud snails were discovered in the lake and it was closed to boating. And, because the river cannot pulse and flow through as it would in an estuary, sediment–the muck my Mallards were pecking in–is taking over the contents of the lake. As environmental science, particularly wetlands science, as advanced, it has become clear that blocking off river flow is detrimental.

In 2016 the State Legislature began drafting a plan for better management of the Lake. One idea is to take apart the actual lake and let the river remake the land as estuary. There is talk of a “hybrid plan.” And there is the option to leave the Lake as it is. Until change comes, Ted and I will circle the shoreline, watching the ducks, heron, and otters and the ebb tide at sundown.

Ted, exploring the shoreline bulkhead

An Ode to Green Mountain College

By Neva Knott

The bell rang and my students poured out of my classroom. I took a quick break myself. In fact, I pulled myself up short with a life-changing realization while in the faculty bathroom, all in the few precious moments of passing time. As I washed my hands, I looked at myself in the mirror and realized I was going to work another 20 years. I was 47, and we’d all been given our lay-off notices that day. We knew they were coming—it was 2009, and Central Oregon, where I lived and taught, was reportedly the fourth hardest hit place in the nation in the “economic downturn” as this new devastating recession was being called. There had been talk of nothing else at lunch, for weeks.

The International School of the Cascades was housed in an old middle school, a smaller building that a traditional high school, more intimate, and designed for more interaction between teachers, students, and classes. All of us teaching in the program ate lunch together every day, also something different than what happens at regular high schools. For this mid-day meal we gathered in a small room off the health and math hallway and sat at round tables. On Wednesdays one or two of us cooked lunch for the group. This was pre-arranged at the beginning of the year and a nice break to one’s own leftovers. Given that we taught in an international program, the flavors were often inspired by other cultures, places, and the travels of the cook.

Many of us had moved there, to the small town of Redmond Oregon–population 24,000–to teach at the ISC. It was a magnet program for Central Oregon, drawing students from Bend, La Pine, Sisters, Madras, Prineville and all rural points in between. The ISC opened during the 2006/2007 school year, yet here we were, March 2009, talking about lay-offs. Cuts dug deep– into twenty percent of the school district, which meant that any teacher with fewer than four years in the district was fated to the unemployment line. Since most of us had moved there for the opening of the school, that meant the ISC team was all under threat.

I think by the time the actual day came some of us—I know I did—felt sorrow for our supervisor who had the horrible job of actually handing out the individual notices.

So that’s how I found myself washing my hands and talking into the mirror, making a big life decision in the four minutes of passing time. I told my reflection, “You’re going to work another 20 years, you know. And your whole career in teaching has been budget cuts, budget cuts, budget cuts. You have no seniority here—this will only get worse. Just try something different. You can do anything you want.”

So I did. I applied to a graduate program in Environmental Studies at Green Mountain College. I love the out-of-doors, nature. I had an idea of becoming a sustainability consultant and of using writing and photography to help people understand how and why to live sustainably.

Entrance to Green Mountain College, Fall 2010

I started this blog after graduating from Green Mountain with a Master’s of Science in Environmental Studies, Written Communication. My impetus was the need I heard over and over again in my studies: to communicate the science to the public. When I started the blog, the news cycle rarely included reportage on environmental issues, and those reported were all doom and gloom. I wanted to showcase all of the positive work I saw happening in the environmental world.

We have had some guest contributors, but the core of the content for The Ecotone Exchange has been written by fellow graduates of GMC.

We were all shocked to learn, just about a week ago, that our graduate school will close at the end of Spring term.

Green Mountain College was founded in 1834. It sits in the small, very small, town of Poultney, Vermont. The town is so small that, the first time I went for residency, the woman at the hotel told me to “turn left at the big rock” and I’d find campus. So small that a few years ago the college President funded a food co-op so the students would have a healthful grocery. So small that the College’s closing will likely wither the economics of the place.

Place-based ideology was a cornerstone of our work at GMC. The master’s program by design was innovative–low residency, conducted through online classes, so each student’s study would be set in the bioregion where he or she lived. Our training was designed to make us experts on our home landscapes.

Panorama Motel

At the beginning of each year, we attended residency in Poultney, giving us a chance to know our on-screen classmates, take face-to-face workshops from our professors, hike together, and play games at the town’s one pub each night. We all stayed at the Panorama Motel. It was during residency that now long-standing friendships were formed and the idea of this blog was born.

Green Mountain was innovative with other programs, too. The Sustainable Agriculture track had developed nicely by our second residency. The opening reception meal was all grown on site, cooked and served by chefs developing the concept of farm to table.

The campus itself is a place I’d hoped to visit time and again. Old and brick, welcoming and collegiate. Grounds that invite contemplation. But it seems, as articulated in this InsiderHigerEd article, that the days of small liberal arts colleges have waned. What saddens me the most is the suggestion that a niche focus on environmental studies was not enough; issues and ideas about sustainability cannot sustain this old school.

Campus Labyrinth

I still teach, and I worry that the value of education–the value of learning from experts for the sake of learning–is no longer a value.

What I do know is that those of us who completed the MSES program, in both branches–Conservation Biology and Written Communication–did important work there. I know that we carry a sense of scale of place, bioregional living, importance of the connection between humans and nature, advocacy, and science, into all that we do. That alone is legacy.

Me at the pub in Poultney

When Recycling Isn’t Enough–Managing Your Waste Stream for Sustainablity

By Neva Knott

Sourcing, energy usage, and waste are the core concepts of sustainability, a much tossed around and little understood buzzword of today’s consumer culture. It’s also one of the values that underpins natural resources management. In this post, I’m not talking about “go green” consumerism; rather, about how to take responsibility for your own waste stream–as a global citizen and inhabitant of this beautiful yet ill and overburdened planet.

Trash collected on a twenty-minute dog walk in my neighborhood. Photograph by Neva Knott.

Trash collected on a twenty-minute dog walk in my neighborhood. Photograph by Neva Knott.

I grew up during the era of the Give a Hoot, Don’t Pollute campaign. So when I read about Garbage Patches in the oceans, see trash on every dog walk I take, and consider all the disposability designed into our mainstream daily life, I cringe.

This past Fourth of July weekend, I took it upon myself to clean up a stretch of beach in Taft, Oregon the day after the fireworks. I was compelled after getting down there around coffee o’clock to walk my dogs, to find giant driftwood stumps emanating smoke, pillows left on logs, beer bottles, boxes, toys, a child’s shoe, about a billion snack wrappers, broken glass, cigarette butts, chicken bones. I could go on. What really flummoxed me, since–sadly–I am used to seeing trash everywhere I go (I often say it’s not a hike in Oregon if I don’t come across a disposed diaper) was that the trashed area was just about 50 yards from a huge hotel. I guess the guests thought housekeeping services extended to their beach party mess.

The reactions of other people as I filled my trash bag bowled me over. Most acted like I was intruding, one mom thanked me and encouraged her small children to help, and two little girls were sent by their mom to ask for some cardboard to use to start a fire.

The next day the beach was trashed again.

At Thanksgiving this year I was exclaiming to my aunt and uncle about this trash-fest. They live on the Washington coast, on the Long Beach Peninsula. I was horrified by their response to my description of the Taft scene.  The Peninsula is a destination on the Fourth. This year, 60,000 pounds of trash were cleaned up after the visitors left. The volume of trash spurred a community uproar–the conflict, though, is that tourists bring much-needed tourist dollars. Even so, my aunt explained shop-owners felt enough was enough.

Where does trash go?

As this video illustrates, we’re creating an enormous amount of trash.

Just a week ago, I attended a TEDx Salon on sustainability here in Portland. The Salon included three TED Talk videos and two live presenters: Marcus Young and Terra Heilman. Topics ranged from waste reduction through better product design, the sustainability of coffee-growing (Marcus Young), food waste, collaborative consumption, and “recycling doesn’t matter” (Terra Heilman). I was overwhelmed by the scenarios of waste described.

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Restoring the Johnson Creek Watershed with Native Plants

By Neva Knott

Restoring urban watersheds is an important part of developing a city’s green infrastructure. These streams and surrounding landscapes comprise an important ecosystem for wildlife and humans. Urban watersheds are habitat for fish, animals small and large, birds and plants. They also provide important ecosystems services, like filtering rain and groundwater and capturing carbon and other air pollutants. Urban watersheds are landscapes that connect people to nature within the business of city life.

Last Saturday, I donned rubber boots and rain gear and headed out to the Lower Powell Butte Floodplain along Johnson Creek, part of the Johnson Creek Watershed in Portland, Oregon, to lead crews of volunteers for Friends of Trees in planting several species of native trees and shrubs to restore a section of the creek bank.

Map of Johnson Creek

Map of Johnson Creek Watershed

Project History, provided by Friends of Trees: “In partnership with the Johnson Creek Watershed Council and Portland Parks & Recreation we will be planting native trees and shrubs to improve the creek side native plant community.  This project is supported by the East Multnomah Soil & Water Conservation District and Metro. PP & R has been working for a number of years to treat invasive species in the area, primarily Reed Canary Grass, to prepare the site for replanting. This planting will be the second at the site and will expand upon the area planted by Friends of Trees in 2014. FOT has performed summer maintenance and monitoring for the past two seasons to keep invasive species down and help previously planted natives become established. The native trees and shrubs planted here will provide greater wildlife habitat, increase native plant diversity, and enhance water quality by filtering pollutants and assisting with erosion control along Johnson Creek.”

On Saturday, the FOT crew and volunteers planted 690 native trees and shrubs–Black Hawthorne, Oregon Ash, Black Twinberry, Pacific Ninebark, Thimbleberry, Swamp Rose, and Snowberry. These species are often used in stream bed restoration because they tolerate wet-to-dry conditions.

Plant Flags

Each flag identifies where a shrub or tree was planted

My team was in charge of getting the Black Twinberries into the ground. We planted starts–each plant was just about four inches tall, dormant with no leaves or fruit yet, but with vibrant root systems. Thimbleberries grow rapidly though, and form dense thickets up to seven feet tall. The mature shrubs function as habitat in that they provide food for many types of animals, cover from predation for small species, and regulate ground, stream, and air temperature. When our thimbleberries mature, they will bring wildlife to the area–to include several bird species, rabbits, beavers, deer, coyote–helping to create a once-again functioning ecosystem along Johnson Creek.

Teaching volunteers to plant trees is something I enjoy and value because it allows me to help people interact in a very intimate way with the ecosystems we depend on. This past Saturday, I had several seven- to nine-year-old scouts on my team. Planting with children is extra fun; they are so simply in awe of the effects of their own efforts. And, they love finding worms.

Working with Friends of Trees not only allows me to help others connect to nature, understand ecosystems, and find worms, it allows me to learn more about plant species. I am intrigued by ethnobotany–the study of the relationships between plants and people. This cultural value of native plants is another important reason for using them, and is an aspect of plants that can connect the past to the present. A source I regularly look to is The Wild Garden: Hansen’s Northwest Native Plant Database, where I found that First Nations groups harvested thimbleberries for a variety of uses:

  • The leaves were mixed with those of wild strawberry and wild trailing blackberry to make tea
  • The sprouts were collected, peeled, and eaten raw as a vegetable
  • Berries were eaten fresh and dried, sometimes with the addition of clams and pressed into cakes, for winter use
  • While still pink, they were harvested by some tribes and placed in cedar bark bags, water was sprinkled on top and they would ripen in the bag
  • The leaves were also used as padding to line baskets
  • The boiled bark was an ingredient in soap
  • Dried, crushed leaves were laid on burns to prevent scarring

Native plants are most of the choice in restoration work. They allow for a sense of place and let flourish the botanical uniqueness of the region. They attract and feed native insects, birds, and wildlife. Their genetic design allows them to flourish with other native species in the same environment and in that particular set of conditions. And, native plants require fewer inputs–fertilizers and extra water–because they are attuned to the soil and weather of the region.

One of the goals of the restoration work along Johnson Creek is to improve water quality for the salmon who navigate through the watershed to breed and spawn.

Muddy Johnson Creek

Muddy Johnson Creek with clean rainwater in adjacent gully

Johnson Creek is unique in that it is the only salmon-bearing stream in the city. This is significant because salmon are a keystone species in the Pacific Northwest, supporting 137 other species. The viability of salmon is an indicator of watershed quality and health. Salmon also holds high cultural value in the region because it is a traditional ceremonial food of the Native tribes and has long been an emblem of Pacific Northwest culture and cuisine. Salmon definitely is a food that connects past to present and it is a fish species that pulls together the peoples of the region across ecological, economic, and cultural boundaries. A regional ecological concern is water quality for salmon.

Salmon

Salmon in stream

The ecosystem services watersheds like Johnson Creek provide serve wildlife and humans; more importantly, watersheds connect nature and humans and remind us that much can be gained by looking to nature for solutions to particular problems of urban (and non-urban) environments. Whereas technological structures, such as sewer pipes underground in a city, serve as solutions to many environmental problems, plants can provide cheaper and more readily usable solutions. Green infrastructure is forward-thinking, often more effective, and always less costly that man-made infrastructure.

There’s a lovely walking and bike path along the creek and our planting area, next time you need a break from hectic city life. And, the thimbleberries ripen in late July.

Media Credits

  • Map of Johnson Creek Watershed: US Geological Survey
  • Thimbleberries: The Wild Garden
  • Salmon in Stream: US Fish and Wildlife
  • All other photographs by Neva Knott

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

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.

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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?