The Extraordinary Gift of Common Species: Rethinking the Charismatic Species Paradigm

A female Canada Goose (Branta Canadensis) preens herself near her nest located in the tussock at left in the foreground. Copyright: Richard Telford, 2015

A female Canada Goose (Branta canadensis) preens herself near her nest located in the tussock at left in the foreground. Copyright: Richard Telford, 2015

By Richard Telford

Can we view the ubiquitous eastern gray squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis) with the same sense of wonder or spirit of inquiry with which we view more exotic animals—the African elephants (Loxodonta exoptata and adaurora), for example, or the gray wolf (Canis lupus)? This question (paraphrased, here) was posed by Dr. Laird Christensen to our Field Journaling class at Green Mountain College in the summer of 2012, and it is a question upon which I have since often reflected, both on the individual level and on the larger scale. The latter two species in the preceding comparison are largely seen in conservation circles as charismatic or flagship species, which the 1995 United Nations Environment Program’s Global Biodiversity Assessment defined as “popular, charismatic species that serve as symbols and rallying points to stimulate conservation awareness and action.” By stimulating such awareness and action, the reasoning goes, both the charismatic species and the larger systems they inhabit can be preserved, benefitting life at all scales. When done right, it is a win-win approach.

An advertisement by the World Wildlife Fund featuring prominent charismatic species.

An advertisement by the World Wildlife Fund featuring prominent charismatic species.

In many courses in the GMC Environmental Studies graduate program, we analyzed campaigns that featured charismatic species as a kind of holdfast with which to anchor public support for broader conservation efforts. While I came to accept the value of this approach, I often found and still find myself conflicted over it, as it creates a hierarchy in which megafauna are disproportionately valued to the exclusion of virtually all other organisms within staggeringly complex systems of life. Is this a sustainable long-term approach by which to conserve the Earth’s biodiversity? What does such a hierarchical approach say about the way we value life? What does it teach the next generation of conservationists?

While charismatic species can evoke strong response from the public, building support for important conservation actions, the majority of the public will never have any direct interaction with these species except perhaps captive specimens in zoo settings. Thus, support is elicited for a cause from which the general public is largely removed, and that support is often built principally on aesthetic factors, absent a full ecological context. Such support, in my view, is inherently limited in what it can accomplish on a greater scale, and it is likewise potentially short-lived. The reliance on charismatic species to drive conservation efforts may in fact have the potential to undermine those efforts by reducing the public’s personal investment in them to an unintentionally detached, flavor-of-the-month mentality. I do not mean to suggest that charismatic species have no conservation value; on the contrary, their potential to generate both personal and financial investment is well-established. Instead, I am suggesting that such support does little on a larger scale unless it is framed by a more developed set of personal connections to the natural world, connections that are forged by consistent, direct experience framed by a fuller ecological context. It is the common species that inhabit our day to day lives that have the power to forge and meaningfully develop those connections, much more so, I would argue, than exotic species that elicit a strong but potentially fleeting response.

The cover of Rachel Carson's 1955 book The Edge of the Sea.

The cover of Rachel Carson’s 1955 book The Edge of the Sea.

Rachel Carson, in the preface to her 1955 book The Edge of the Sea, writes, “To understand the shore, it is not enough to catalogue its life. Understanding comes only when, standing on a beach, we can sense the long rhythms of earth and sea that sculptured its land forms and produced the rock and sand of which it is composed; when we can sense with the eye and ear of the mind the surge of life beating at its shores—blindly, inexorably pressing for a foothold.” Here, Carson’s “eye and ear of the mind” represent the deepest connections to nature that we can make, but to make those connections of the mind we must first stand on the beach; we must run fine sand between our fingers, gaze upon the complex interactions of tidal pool life, feel the blast of wind that has shaped the land for millennia, hear the roar of the surf breaking on the coast. To fully value natural systems, we must fully immerse ourselves in and interact with those systems. It is the common species, rather than remote and exotic ones, that allow us to do so in the most meaningful and efficacious way for long-term conservation of the Earth’s biodiversity.

This summer, our yard has been the site of a flurry of nesting activity among the common songbirds that spend their summers in our region, particularly the American robin (Turdus migratorius) and the eastern phoebe (Sayornis phoebe). This winter, my six-year-old daughter and I made a robin nesting platform, which we attached this spring to the standing remnant trunk of a once-towering eastern white pine (Pinus strobus) at the edge of our yard. That platform remains vacant, but a pair of robins did in fact nest in the unfinished soffit of an adjacent shed. During early summer, we watched the parent birds harvest worms from our yard and shuttle them to the growing nestlings. Several weeks ago, late in the day, with the nestlings close to fledging, I carried my daughter up on a ladder inside the shed to view them for a moment. We slipped quietly in and out in less than five minutes, but the view of the downy nestlings with mouths stretched upwards has remained and will remain in my daughter’s memory. That image—framed by the coming dusk, the cooling air, the waning buzz of carpenter bees mixed with the rising evening bird chorus—can shape her connection to the natural world in a way that no virtual image of a more exotic species can. In fact, such experiences can potentially provide a transferrable, interpolative context for more exotic species for which a direct experiential context may be less accessible or altogether absent. When we understand the complex interactions of one natural system, we can at least imagine the like processes of another system.

A top view of a female Widow Skimmer(Libellula luctuosa). The complex venation of dragonfly wings can create up to 3,000 isolated

A top view of a female Widow Skimmer(Libellula luctuosa). The complex venation of dragonfly wings can create up to 3,000 isolated “cells” in the membrane of each individual wing, Copyright: Richard Telford, 2014

The North American Association for Environmental Education, defining “Standards of Excellence” for environmental education in 2010, noted, “Providing opportunities for the growth and development of the whole child, opportunities to develop a sense of wonder about nature, and earnest engagement in discovery about the real world are the foundation for learning in early childhood.” For my children this summer, the opportunities to build such a foundation have been manifold, provided by common, readily accessible species: a returning mating pair of nesting Canada geese (Branta canadensis); scores of American toads (Anaxyrus americanus); an eastern garter snake (Thamnophis sirtalis sirtalis) rescued from the center of a country road during our drive to swimming lessons; common whitetail (Plathemis lydia), twelve-spotted skimmer (Libellula pulchella), widow skimmer (Libellula luctuosa), and other dragonflies hunting the overgrown ecotone that separates our cut yard from the surrounding forest; turkey vultures (Cathartes aura) shadowing the ground in soaring, dihedral flight; eastern eyed click beetles (Alaus oculatus) sidling along our garden fence. All of these common summer residents of our region have evoked in our children and in us that sense of wonder that is so crucial to the long-term preservation of the natural world. We have viewed each as an integral part of a marvelous, complex, and unified system to which, in reality, we are adjunct, despite are disproportionate capacity to degrade it. In understanding that system more fully, we cannot help but understand ourselves more fully too.

I have previously written about the complexities of forming and developing a conservation ethic, both in ourselves and in others, and I am fully convinced that such an ethic is shaped primarily by direct, daily actions and interactions. Personal investment in a handful of exotic species, absent these meaningful daily interactions with common species, is not enough to forge and develop that ethic. Such an ethic, which can guide our daily choices in the spheres we influence, can contribute to the conservation of the earth’s biodiversity in a way that remote investment in a handful of compelling species cannot. As Robert Michael Pyle observes in The Thunder Tree, “What is the extinction of the condor to a child who has never known a wren?” The appeal of charismatic species taps a laudable impulse and can be a valuable conservation tool in its own right, but the effectiveness of that tool is inherently limited. When we open ourselves to the charisma of and deep connection to common species, and foster that openness in others, we enrich our lives on the individual scale and optimize the efficacy of conservation efforts on the broader scale. By doing the latter, we can likewise enrich the lives of generations to follow.

The Things We Carry: Revisiting Holling Clancy Holling’s Paddle-to-the-Sea

The original 1941 cover for Hollis Clancy Holling's Paddle-to-the-Sea.

The original 1941 cover for Hollis Clancy Holling’s Paddle-to-the-Sea, which was awarded the 1942 Caldecott Medal.

By: Richard Telford

The ratcheting hum of the 16-millimeter projector gave way to the roar of the dark ocean as Paddle-to-the-Sea, a small, one-foot-long canoe carved by the hands of a Nipigon boy in the far north of Canada, rose and fell among thick gray swells dimly lit by a leaden sky. It was during the mid 1970s, in the closing days of an elementary school year, and several classes, including my own, had been packed into a classroom to watch the 1966 National Film Board of Canada production of Holling Clancy Holling’s 1942 Caldecott Honor Book Paddle-to-the-Sea, directed by Bill Mason.  It is a film I never forgot, and I have carried many images from it with me in the decades that followed:  the young boy carving his Paddle-to-the-Sea and pouring a line of molten lead for ballast in a groove cut along the hull; the boy’s hands placing Paddle atop a snow-covered hill, waiting for the spring melt to carry him away; Paddle-to-the-Sea floating through a series of beaver ponds while the surrounding landscape ripples with flame during a forest fire; and, finally, Paddle-to-the-Sea floating along the garbage-strewn surface of one of the Great Lakes, sewage being pumped in from great conduits.  Though the film was, for a child, a magical telling of Paddle-to-the-Sea’s journey to the sea from the deep north woods of Canada, that last image resonated with me as much as the others, though not more.

A film still from the National Film Board of Canada production of Paddle-to-the-Sea, directed by Bill Mason.  Courtesy of the Criterion Collection.

A film still from the 1966 National Film Board of Canada production of Paddle-to-the-Sea, directed by Bill Mason. Janus Films has released a high-definition digital transfer of the film on DVD in The Criterion Collection.

Despite being largely true to the book’s content and intentions, Bill Mason’s film is far more overt in its conservation messaging than Holling’s book, first published in 1941, when war-time industrialism was ramping up and the insecticidal value of DDT had just been discovered two years earlier. While the book clearly aims to foster an appreciation for the North American watershed, the film exceeds the book’s original bounds, reflecting the precipitous rise in concern over water pollution that would set the stage for the passage of the Clean Water Act in 1972, one year before Holling would die due to complications of Parkinson’s disease.  The eco-politicization of the film, though it is not overly obtrusive and does not detract from the magic of Paddle-to-the-Sea’s journey, is a logical outcome of the time in which it was produced.  Rachel Carson, in Silent Spring, published in 1962, had just shocked the public consciousness with the vision of a world in which “only silence lay over the fields and woods and marsh,” a landscape over which a “grim specter has crept upon us almost unnoticed.”

One year later, Stewart Udall, in his seminal 1963 book The Quiet Crisis, warned that “we live in a land of vanishing beauty, of increasing ugliness, of shrinking open space, and of an overall environment that is diminished daily by pollution and noise and blight.” Udall’s book, and more importantly its message, had garnered enough public clout—no doubt in part due to Carson’s efforts—to prompt President John F. Kennedy to write its Introduction less than a year before he would be assassinated by Lee Harvey Oswald.  Thus, Bill Mason’s film emerged in a time of environmental urgency.  He could juxtapose the beauty and magic of the Nipigon boy’s simple act of sending off his Paddle-to-the-Sea against the beauty and complexity of a vast watershed, just as Holling Clancy Holling had done 25 years earlier, but he could likewise frame it with the rising specter of water pollution.  While Holling had written to an American public deeply mired in a global war, in a time when industry reigned, Mason worked in a time when that magnificent and powerful hydrographic system had come to be seen as fragile, threatened, and fleeting.  Thus, his film had the potential both to appeal to children’s natural sense of wonder and, at the same time, to foster conservation-mindedness when it was desperately needed, both in children and adults.

Holling Clancy Holling, through his books and periodical illustrations, was a consummate educator, as was his wife Lucille, who, as an illustrator and writer herself, assisted him on many projects. While Paddle-to-the-Sea is an engaging story of the unlikely travels of the Nipigon boy’s “Paddle Person,” it is likewise rich with information related both to natural history and to modern industry of the 1940s, both of which Holling marvels at and praises.  This information is conveyed not only in the main text of the story, but also in pencil sketches superimposed around the margin of the text.  The book features twenty-seven one-page chapters of text, surrounded by copious pencil illustrations and hand-printed explanations, each facing a full-page watercolor illustration on the opposite page.  Holling teaches geography, for example, through these pencil sketches, showing through a series of drawings that “Lake Superior’s outline makes a wolf’s head” and Lake Huron “makes the outline of a trapper with a pack of furs.”  When Paddle-to-the-Sea passes through a sawmill in Chapter 7, only to be saved from the mill blade by a friendly lumberjack, Holling sketches onto the top margin of the text a complete “Diagram of a Sawmill.”  As Paddle-to-the-Sea makes its way across Lake Erie, Holling incorporates a “Diagram of a Lake Freighter,” breaking down the bulkheads, rudder chain, ballast tanks, and many other elements, facing a watercolor painting of the falls with a minute silhouette of Paddle-to-the-Sea as it tips over edge of the cascading Niagra waters, from which an arcing rainbow rises.

An installment of The World Museum, by Holling Clancy Holling and his wife Lucille, published May 16, 1937.  Courtesy of Wikipedia.

An installment of The World Museum, by Holling Clancy Holling and his wife Lucille, published May 16, 1937. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Paddle-to-the-Sea is but one of many works that Holling created, often with the assistance of his wife Lucille, to captivate the minds and stretch the imaginations of children. One interesting endeavor of the Hollings was a series of newspaper comics published in the late 1930s called The World Museum.  These comics featured a series of illustrations with detailed instructions for cutting them out and assembling their component parts into elaborate dioramas, requiring only “scissors, paste, and wrapping paper.”  Topics included the Grand Canyon, an undersea adventure, covered wagons, and a buffalo hunt.  The latter topic, though perhaps challenging our conservation hindsight, must be seen in the context of the times.  Given that The World Museum was being produced in the heart of the Great Depression, the series was truly visionary, making an elaborate educational tool available to nearly any child whose parents could afford a newspaper.  Among Holling’s other book-length natural history works for children are Minn of the Mississippi (1951), a Newbery Honor Book that follows the movement of a snapping turtle from the headwaters of the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico, and Pagoo (1957), which presents an intricate picture of tide pool life from the vantage point of a hermit crab.

The cover of Hollis Clancy Holling's 1951 children's book Minn of the Mississippi, which one the

The cover of Hollis Clancy Holling’s 1951 children’s book Minn of the Mississippi, which was later awarded the Newbery Medal.

It would be impressive enough if Holling Clancy Holling only juxtaposed rich and wondrous visual art with a pedagogically deft text that at times is truly magical, but he transcends even this with writing of great beauty. Of the Nipigon country in Paddle-to-the-Sea, Holling writes, “All this time the world was changing.  The air grew warmer, the birch twigs swelled with new buds.  A moose pawed the snow beside a log, uncovering green moss and arbutus like tiny stars.  And then, one morning, the gray clouds drifted from the sky.  The sun burst out warm and bright above the hills, and under its glare the snow blankets drooped on the fir trees.”  In Minn of the Mississippi, Holling renders the cell division leading to the formation of a snapping turtle embryo into a passage that is lyric and magical: “These cells were not piling themselves for no purpose.  They were adding new chains of cells within their secret ocean because the life in them held a memory.  It remembered patterns laid out when the world was young.  And, as though the Life had been given a definite, detailed task—“THESE CELLS SHALL BUILD TO A CERTAIN PATTERN WITHIN THIS SEA”—all cells were busily obeying this magic, mysterious order.”

Recently, justifiable attention has been paid to the reality that children—and many adults—grow more physically disconnected from the natural world with each passing year. The implications of this disconnection on the conservation movement are ominous, and the most commonly espoused approach of ecological triage is simply to bring children out into nature.  While this is critical, it is a simplistic solution with arguably little benefit in and of itself.  Many children lack a meaningful context with which to frame their experiences in nature.  It is not enough to simply deposit a child in a natural setting and hope for the best.  Works like those of Holling Clancy Holling can provide critical context for those experiences; they can likewise meaningfully frame those experiences after the fact.  They can also spur engagement.  The Internet is full of stories of individuals and school groups who have launched their own incarnations of Paddle-to-the-Sea.

In considering the power of children’s literature to foster conservation-mindedness, the works of Thornton W. Burgess, a staple of my childhood, likewise come to mind. During the early twentieth century, nature study as a national past-time hit its peak, and the national literature of that period reflects this. Much of that literature deserves revisiting, despite some challenges to our modern views, such as Holling’s appreciation for industry or Burgess’s heavy use of anthropomorphism.  There is, of course, modern children’s literature of great value as well; Janet Yolen’s Owl Moon, Natalia Romanova’s Once There Was a Tree, and Debra Frasier’s On the Day You Were Born come to mind, as do a host of books by Jean Craighead George. And there are many others.  Still, in a time when we too must face the unavoidable reality that all natural systems, hydrographic and otherwise, are fragile, threatened, and fleeting, it is critical that we use all available tools, including the full canon of children’s literature, to engage children with and provide them meaningful context for the natural world.  Allowing a child to journey with a Nipigon boy’s Paddle-to-the-Sea “to the Great Salt Water” can accomplish these ends and a great deal more.

Amplifying Life: Macro Photography and Our Vision of Ourselves

An Oriental Beetle (Anomala orientalis) straddles an unknown flower.  Photo by Richard Telford, Copyright 2014.

An Oriental Beetle (Anomala orientalis). Photo by Richard Telford, Copyright 2014.

By:  Richard Telford

The cover of Grassroot Jungles, Edwin Way Teale’s landmark 1937 book of insect photography and natural history.

In 1937, Edwin Way Teale stunned the reading public, both in the United States and abroad, with the publication of Grassroot Jungles, a book that featured 130 photographs macro photographs of insects in both natural and studio settings. New York Times reviewer Anita Moffett, writing in the December 19, 1937 New York Times Book Review, noted that “these pictures combine fact with imaginative power in depicting the beauty and goblinlike [sic] grotesqueness of the fascinating and almost unknown world to which the reader is introduced.”  The book aptly illustrates the power and dynamic value of macro photography—at once a tool for exploration, for documentation, for education, and for engagement.  Through macro photography, we are given a wealth of concrete, visual detail that would otherwise be imperceptible to us; at the same time, we glimpse with heightened clarity the extraordinary functional complexity of both the individual organism and the dynamic world it inhabits.  If we are lucky, we may likewise see our own place in that world.

A close-up view of the thorax of a male Blue Dasher dragonfly  (Pachydiplax longipennis).  The pronotum, the shield-like cover at top, I covered sensory bristles.  Photo by Richard Telford, Copyright 2014.

A close-up view of the thorax of a male Blue Dasher dragonfly (Pachydiplax longipennis). The pronotum, the shield-like cover at top, is covered with fine sensory bristles. Photo by Richard Telford, Copyright 2014.

Through the macro lens, we can see the delicate sensory bristles on the pronotum that shields the dragonfly’s thorax, the unfurled probiscus of the butterfly siphoning nectar from summer blossoms. With this heightened visual knowledge, we may come to see the former as a complex network of sensory appendages that can measure speed and direction of flight, temperature, the nearness of prey.  In the latter we may see a simple, flexible, coiled straw, when in fact it is a complex organ with three muscle types, nerves, sensilla, a central canal through which nectar passes, and a branched trachea.  Intuitively we know that the sophistication of such apparatus reveals the unquantifiable complexity of the creatures that utilize them, of the evolutionary process that gave them rise, and of the infinite permutations of form and function and beauty in the natural world.  It is reminiscent of Walt Whitman’s assertion in part 31 of “Song of Myself” that “a leaf of grass is no less than the journey-work of the stars.”  In the magnification of the small, we are reminded of our smallness.  Thus macro photography, in both the acts of creation and consumption, is dynamic—we can simply see and appreciate the heretofore unseen, or we can, through both intuitive and formal deduction and induction, become explorers of the interplay of process, form, function, and beauty.

A Peck's Skipper butterfly  (Polites peckius) inserts its probiscus to siphon nectar from a red clover blossom (Trifolium pratense) while an American bumble bee  (Bombus pennsylvanicus) works its way up the opposite side of the flower.  Photo by Richard Telford, Copyright 2014.

A Peck’s Skipper butterfly (Polites peckius) inserts its probiscus to siphon nectar from a red clover blossom (Trifolium pratense) while an American bumble bee (Bombus pennsylvanicus) works its way up the opposite side of the flower. Photo by Richard Telford, Copyright 2014.

In a remembrance of Teale written for the Journal of the New York Entomological Society in 1981, fellow entomologist and writer Alexander Klots noted that Teale began his photographic journey “with what today seems a crude and cumbersome apparatus, a big bellows-extension camera and loose flash-powder gun.”  Thirty-three years after the publication of that remembrance, in the time of constantly-evolving digital single reflex cameras, that early equipment seems more prehistoric than crude, a footnote of history rather than a working tool. In his 1962 introduction to Russ Kinne’s The Complete Book of Nature Photography, Roger Tory Peterson aptly summarizes the speed of such changes, writing, “Twenty-five years ago I was rash enough to suggest that nature photography probably couldn’t look forward to more than a 10 or 15 per cent improvement in results.  I believed that this art, craft or sport—call it what you will—had attained near stability.  How incredibly naive!”  Peterson’s realization came amidst the development of cameras “now so sophisticated that they almost think” and “ingenious systems  of synchronization and remote control, fluid tripods, gyroscopic stabilizers and 1,000 other accessories [that] tempt the photographer to mortgage his home.”

How many times has Peterson’s realization of the passage of technological time been reiterated, either spoken or unspoken, amidst the near-complete decline of gelatin emulsion film resulting from digital media’s meteoric rise? It is quite easy to ask rhetorically where we can possibly go from here.  Will some unknown dragon smite digital photography as we know it now?  It seems inevitable, though it is hard to envision precisely how this will happen. Ultimately, does it matter?  Does the process of siezing a time-stopped vision of the natural world fundamentally change as the technology leaps forward?  I don’t think so.

A female Blue Dasher dragonfly (Pachydiplax longipennis).  Photo by Richard Telford, Copyright 2014.

A female Blue Dasher dragonfly (Pachydiplax longipennis). Photo by Richard Telford, Copyright 2014.

This past summer, I worked diligently to photograph and identify the host of dragonfly species that frequent the landscape surrounding our 1770 Connecticut farmhouse, a process I documented in an earlier piece I wrote for The Ecotone Exchange.  Through this process, I awakened an impulse in myself that had gone briefly dormant.  Nearly twenty years ago, I purchased a well-worn, heavily-brassed Canon F-1n 35mm film camera, along with a copy of  Henry Horenstein’s excellent Black & White Photography: A Basic Manual.  With these, I taught myself to shoot, develop, and print my own photographs.  I went on to shoot in various formats, including 6×6 centimeter medium format and 4×5 inch sheet film, and worked part-time for several years as a photojournalist in the early 2000s when film was rapidly giving way to digital.

A pair of Dusky Slugs (Arion subfuscus) feeds on the remains of a mushroom at sunrise.

A pair of Dusky Slugs (Arion subfuscus) feeds on the remains of a mushroom at sunrise. Photo by Richard Telford, Copyright 2014.

For the last several years, I had done little photographic work, and all of my serious macro work had been done during what now feels like another lifetime, largely on high-saturation color films like Kodak’s Kodachrome and Fuji’s Velvia. In recent years, sorting through sheaves of old prints, contact sheets, and negatives, I had often wondered in earnest if the feelings of exploration and inquiry and wonder that my early days of shooting film had provided me could likewise be experienced through digital photography.  I wondered if, proverbially speaking, I could go home again.  My work with dragonflies and other subjects this past summer showed me the possibility of doing so, albeit in a different technological context.

While uploading digital images to my computer screen will never capture precisely the feeling of watching a contact sheet of images take visible form in a tray of developer, the gratification of watching one’s vision translate to a physical form is rewarding nontheless. It is likewise hard to ignore the value of photo-imaging software that can facilitate even simple corrections, such as the removal of dust spots, and artistic ones, such as the boosting of an image’s contrast, that take minutes now compared to hours in the darkroom.  Here too, though, there is a duality, as those hours in the darkroom, while often tedious, were often contemplative as well, and they could yield a remarkable intimacy with one’s images—the value of long, close examination, both of film and paper and of oneself.

A late summer White-Faced Meadowhawk dragonfly (Sympetrum obtrusum).  Photo by Richard Telford, Copyright 2014.

A late summer White-Faced Meadowhawk dragonfly (Sympetrum obtrusum). Photo by Richard Telford, Copyright 2014.

Many times this past summer I felt child-like joy as I knelt in deep grass or muck, squinting at the viewfinder to bring a dragonfly’s compound, rainbow eye into sharp focus. I felt the momentary ease of shedding life’s heavier considerations, or at least keeping them distant, intent instead on the image taking shape in the camera’s viewfinder.  Such acts, through photography or otherwise, remind us of what matters, of what is beautiful and complex, of what should inspire awe in us, of what is both transitory and constant.  Too often we are oblivious to such things to our detriment, whether or not we can realize it.

Rachel Carson, in a letter written to Edwin Way Teale on August 16, 1955, expresses precisely this kind of wonder experienced through the photographic process. She thanks him for his “good letter of advice about cameras” and informs him that she “got an Exacta in May.”  She notes, “I am learning by degrees, and am really delighted with the camera, for now even a rank amateur like me can get really lovely results.  Such detail, brilliance, and depth of focus!  The marine subjects are toughest for a beginner, but flowers, mosses, scenes, etc. are more rewarding.  Nevertheless, that camera can look right down through 4 or 5 feet of water and see the bottom—as my eyes can’t.”  Here Carson articulates in plain terms photography’s power—and this is most true of macro photography—to help us see beauty that we otherwise could or, just as often, would not see.

An excerpt from a letter written to Edwin Way Teale by Rachel Carson.  Used by permission of the University of Connecticut Libraries System and the Estate of Edwin Way Teale.

An excerpt from a letter written to Edwin Way Teale by Rachel Carson. Used by permission of the University of Connecticut Libraries System and the Estate of Edwin Way Teale.

Three years later, on May 10th, 1958, Teale would write to Carson to recommend the purchase of a Kilfitt macro lens, the first commercially produced true macro lens available to the general public, capable of producing 1:1 reproduction without the use of extension tubes or bellows.  He explains that it “surely would be of great help getting closeups [sic] of small marine subjects, recording them at full, or a little more than full, life size.”  To place this correspondence in a historical context, less than one month earlier, on April 17th, Carson had written to Teale with what now seems an astonishing level of understatement: “As perhaps you heard, I suddenly find myself writing about insecticides.  I hadn’t meant to, but it seems to me enormously important, and I decided far too many people (including myself only a few months ago!) knew what they should about it.”  Ironically, she adds, “So now I’m into it, but hope to do it quickly and rather briefly.”

In the aforementioned introduction to Russ Kinne’s book, Roger Tory Peterson notes photography’s capacity to create “an exact record of what happened in a particular second.” This capacity has, he notes elsewhere in his essay, both an aesthetic and a documentary value.  In the act of nature photography, macro or otherwise, perhaps what we document most fully is ourselves—our vision of the world  around us and the value we place upon it.  Recording such vision is fraught with aesthetic, moral, and ethical choices.  How much do we intrude on the natural world to capture its beauty?  How do we keep this vision true to its subject?  A quick image search for macro photography in Google yields a host of super-saturated images whose color palettes almost certainly exceed reality.  Do we, as Edwin Way Teale and others have—in great part due to equipment limitations—briefly place insects in the icebox to induce torpor?  Do we bait the wilderness to bring its inhabitants to us?  While these and other choices can define our approach to photography, they also define the ethic with which we approach the natural world.  Thus, the acts of exploration and discovery of the natural world through the camera lens are, first and foremost, acts of self-exploration and self-discovery.  Regardless of the technological era, they always have been and always will be.

The Author wishes to thank the staff of the Thomas J. Dodd Research Center at the University of Connecticut, where the papers of Edwin Way Teale, including his correspondence with Rachel Carson, are permanently housed and generously made available to the public.

Dragonflies, Humility, and the Conservation of Biodiversity

A female Widow Skimmer (Libellula luctuosa).  Copyright: Richard Telford, 2014

A female Widow Skimmer (Libellula luctuosa). Copyright: Richard Telford, 2014

By:  Richard Telford

In 1970, Roger Tory Peterson wrote, “Entomologists fall into two categories:  those who find insects endlessly fascinating and those who would get rid of them.”  Reflecting the controversy at that time over the indiscriminate use of DDT (for which the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency would subsequently issue a cancellation order in 1972) and other pesticides, Peterson suggested that the latter group of entomologists might “eventually wind up working for chemical companies, devising more sophisticated techniques of annihilation.”   The dualism that Peterson notes above, though necessarily oversimplified, is nonetheless reflective of a pattern that extends far beyond the world of entomologists.  Insects have a remarkable capacity to evoke in their human observers both fear (largely irrational and unfounded) and wonder (quite rational and well founded).  In his ground-breaking books on the insect world, Grassroot Jungles (1937) and Near Horizons (1942), Edwin Way Teale extolled the immeasurable value of the latter response; it required, he argued, only the willingness to slow the pace of our hectic lives long enough to observe a complex and remarkable world we largely overlook.

A female Eastern Pondhawk (Erythemis simplicicollis), perched on the author's son's tricycle handlebar, consumes an insect taken on the wing.  Note a discarded appendage in the  Copyright 2014, Richard Telford

A female Eastern Pondhawk (Erythemis simplicicollis), perched on the author’s son’s tricycle handlebar, consumes an insect taken on the wing. Note a discarded appendage in the foreground. Copyright: Richard Telford, 2014

Few insects offer a more ready source of wonder than dragonflies, which are grouped with damselflies in the order Odonata.  The name Odonata is derived from the Greek odonto, meaning tooth—a reflection of their powerful, sharp-toothed mandibles and maxillae, the paired upper and lower jaws that facilitate quick, efficient consumption of prey.  Dragonflies, which form the suborder Anisoptera, take prey only in flight, often cupping their six barbed legs in a basket-like shape in order to entrap their target; smaller prey is often consumed without landing.  The maxillae contain a pronged inner piece that James G. Needham described in his classic 1929 A Manual of the Dragonflies of North America as “perfectly shaped for a meat fork, used for holding a captured insect and for turning it as the mandibles cut it up.”  The deftness of this process is readily apparent when observing a perched dragonfly speedily consume its prey.  This is just one of a host of evolutionary adaptions that have shaped the dragonfly into the unrivaled aerial predator of the insect world.

A top view of a female Widow Skimmer(Libellula luctuosa). The complex venation of dragonfly wings  can create up to 3,000 isolated "cells" in the membrane of each individual wing,  Copyright: Richard Telford, 2014

A top view of a female Widow Skimmer(Libellula luctuosa). The complex venation of dragonfly wings can create up to 3,000 isolated “cells” in the membrane of each individual wing. Copyright: Richard Telford, 2014

Dragonflies possess four wings, each of which can move independently of the others and can rotate on a forward and backward axis, yielding a supremely dynamic capacity for flight.  Dragonflies can fly in all geometric planes.  Helicopter-like, they can fly straight up and down or hover in place.  They can fly backward and forward, turn abruptly at acute angles, and repeatedly flip their bodies.  Harvard Biochemist Stacey Combes, leading a team of researchers who have studied dragonfly flight in a specially built enclosure at the Combes Laboratory in Bedford, Massachusetts, has noted that dragonflies can perform hundreds of such flips while hunting, seemingly without significant exertion.  Her team has also documented predation success rates as high as 90 percent in some dragonflies—a truly astonishing figure.  Equally astonishing is the speed with which dragonflies engage in these aerial acrobatics.  Dragonflies routinely fly at speeds of 15 to 30 miles per hour, with some species flying considerably faster.  Credible speed estimates for the Green Darner (Anax junius), for example, range between 35 and 55 miles per hour during straightaway flight.  This prompted Edwin Way Teale, in Grassroots Jungle, to title his dragonfly chapter “Winged Bullets.”

A close-up view of the compound eyes of a female Blue Dasher (Pachydiplax longipennis).  The ommatidia, or individual lenses,  are plainly visible.  Copyright: Richard Telford, 2014

A close-up view of the compound eyes of a female Blue Dasher (Pachydiplax longipennis). The ommatidia, or individual lenses, are plainly visible. Copyright: Richard Telford, 2014

One other adaption deserving special note is the dragonfly’s pair of bulbous compound eyes, each of which can contain up to 30,000 ommatidia, or individual lenses, each with its own cornea.  The extraordinary perceptive sensitivity of such a structure, in conjunction with the size and placement of the dragonfly’s compound eyes, yields a nearly 360-degree field of vision—a critical adaption that facilitates the flight patterns and the predation success rate outlined above.  The dragonfly’s acuity of sight likewise provides a critical defense against predation.  Furthermore, while the human eye contains three opsins, or light-sensing proteins, dragonfly eyes can possess up to five.  So, while we effectively perceive color through the RGB scale (Red, Blue, Green,) dragonflies can additionally perceive ultraviolet light invisible to humans as well as plane-polarized, or reflected, light.  This latter capacity is clearly valuable to a creature that begins its life in water and is destined to return there; both the female and the male return to the water, the former to lay eggs and the latter to protect her during that vulnerable process.

A female Common Whitetail Skimmer (Plathemis lydia) at the day's end.  Unless disturbed, it will remain there until the warmth of the following day revives it.  Copyright: Richard Telford, 2014

A female Common Whitetail (Plathemis lydia) at rest behind the author’s compost pile at the day’s end. Unless disturbed, it will remain there until the warmth of the following day revives it. Copyright: Richard Telford, 2014

Early this summer, toward dusk, I walked out to the compost pile located at the edge of our yard.  Just behind the compost pile, in an overgrown former strawberry garden, I spied a dragonfly suspended by its six legs, wings spread, where it would sleep for the night.  Prior to reading Edwin Way Teale’s Journey Into Summer (1960), I had never thought about the sleep of insects.  In his book, Teale on a number of occasions notes finding insects at rest at twilight or by flashlight during the night.  Teale’s observations of this phenomenon, which had persisted in my mind only in abstract form, took shape before my eyes.  The natural world reminds us that there is so much to learn, or at the least so much to which we can pay attention if we choose to do so.  I stood long at our compost pile, swarmed by mosquitoes and mesmerized by the beautiful symmetry of this extraordinary creature, which I would later identify as a female Common Whitetail (Plathemis lydia); its stillness at rest contrasted sharply with its swift, deliberate, predatory daytime flight.  I hastily fetched a camera and tripod and, with long exposure times, took several photographs.

A female Eastern Pondhawk (Erythemis simplicicollis) perched in a group of bearded irises.  Copyright:  Richard Telford, 2014

A female Eastern Pondhawk (Erythemis simplicicollis) perched in a group of bearded irises. Copyright: Richard Telford, 2014

From that moment, influenced in part by recent time spent reading the correspondence between Rachel Carson and Edwin Way Teale housed at the University of Connecticut’s Dodd Research Center, and in part simply by a sense of wonder and appreciation, I have spent the summer photographing the dragonflies that hunt the cleared half acre of our old farm property.  All of the photographs that accompany this writing are the product of that effort.  As I do summer chores and projects, I keep near at hand a tripod-mounted camera with macro lens affixed.  While I sense that I have seen a greater variety of dragonfly species this summer than I can recall seeing during any of the previous ten summers spent in our 1770 farmhouse, I suspect this is not true.  Instead, this perception may simply result from, in Teale’s words, my choice to “pause like [a] stooping giant to peer down into the grassroot jungle at [my] feet.”

This female Widow Skimmer(Libellula luctuosa) repeatedly return to this perch during a long sequence of hunting flights.  Copyright: Richard Telford, 2014

This female Widow Skimmer(Libellula luctuosa) repeatedly returned to this perch during a long sequence of hunting flights. Copyright: Richard Telford, 2014

Recently, our local state roads have been lined with advertising signs for a regional Mosquito Squad franchise.  The signs promise, “No Bugs. No Bites. No Kidding.”  It is an unfortunate echo of Roger Tory Peterson’s statement above.  Several years ago, Lynne Peeples, writing for the Huffington Post, reported on mounting criticism that Mosquito Squad’s marketing use of a superhero-like cartoon character, Dread Skeeter, targets children and obfuscates both the human health and environmental risks inherent in spraying neurotoxic chemicals for insect control.  At a time when pollinating insect populations are suffering catastrophic declines, so much so that the White House just today issued a press release outlining the problem and proposing a course of mitigating actions, we must rethink our relationship with the insect world.  A world with no bugs and no bites is likewise a world with no biodiversity, and that is a world in which even the human species cannot survive.  In 1937, Edwin Way Teale wrote, “We cannot ignore the insects; we cannot dismiss them as insignificant.”  In 1970, Roger Tory Peterson wrote, “[…] insects, because of their astronomical numbers, are undeniably important in our lives.  They cannot be ignored.”  Still, more than 50 years after the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, we struggle to accept the notion that our co-existence with the rest of the natural world cannot be negotiated on our terms alone.  Where Dread Skeeter succeeds, dragonflies, which rely principally on mosquitos and small gnats for survival, will vanish, and each loss of this kind precipitates a cascade of other such losses—another lesson that we have been slow to learn.

A female Blue Dasher (Pachydiplax longipennis) in the obelisk position.  Some dragonflies assume this position to reduce the percentage of body surface area that is exposed to the sun, effectively cooling them.  Copyright: Richard Telford, 2014

A female Blue Dasher (Pachydiplax longipennis) in the obelisk position. Some dragonflies assume this position to reduce the percentage of body surface area that is exposed to the sun, effectively cooling them. Copyright: Richard Telford, 2014

Recent research on dragonflies has revealed an extraordinary dimension to their hunting.  Rather than pursuing its prey, a dragonfly intercepts it, meaning that it must calculate the distance, speed, and direction of its target, adjusting its own speed and direction accordingly.  In this context, the predatory success rates of dragonflies documented at the Combes Laboratory are even more impressive. While its superb capacities for flight and vision certainly facilitate this action, it is a complex set of neurological functions that makes such sophisticated targeting possible.  This complexity, much of which we do not yet fully understand, should give us pause.  According to the fossil record, dragonflies have existed for nearly 300 million years, a fact which can perhaps begin to give us insight on this complexity.  Teale argued in 1937 that humans have “lived on earth but a single hour in comparison to the long history of the insects.”  The implicit humility of this statement is critical to the long-term preservation of the insect world and of biodiversity itself.

A male Blue Dasher (Pachydiplax longipennis).  Copyright:  Richard Telford, 2014

A male Blue Dasher (Pachydiplax longipennis). Copyright: Richard Telford, 2014

 

Before Rachel Carson

Edwin Way Teale's ground-breaking article published in the March 1945 issue of Nature Magazine, seventeen years before Rachel Carson began serializing Silent Spring in The New Yorker in June of 1962.

Edwin Way Teale’s ground-breaking article published in the March 1945 issue of Nature Magazine, seventeen years before Rachel Carson began serializing Silent Spring in The New Yorker in June of 1962.

By Richard Telford

When Rachel Carson contemplated the writing of Silent Spring, it was naturalist writer Edwin Way Teale to whom she wrote to see if he thought what she later termed “the poison book” was viable; he encouraged her, and their correspondence would continue throughout the writing of the book that would so profoundly change the landscape of American—and global—conservation. Teale was acutely aware of the need for such a book, as he had written a ground-breaking article on DDT published in the March 1945 issue of Nature Magazine, seventeen years before the serialization of Silent Spring would start in The New Yorker in June of 1962. In his article, Teale painted a dire picture of the potentially catastrophic results that indiscriminate DDT use would wreak on the natural world. Even the magazine’s editors dedicated a full page of commentary to Teale’s article, noting, “We commend for serious and mature consideration the leading article in this issue of the magazine. It is, we believe, significant in thought and implication, even beyond the subject it discusses—the new insecticide, DDT.”

In his article, Teale, while acknowledging the critical role of military use of DDT in the European and Pacific Theaters during the Second World War, expressed the fear that “lackwit officials after the war […] will be off with yelps of joy on a crusade against all the insects.” Such a crusade, Teale argued, would produce “effects [that] would be felt for generations to come.” He continued, “A winter stillness would fall over the woods and fields. There would be no katydids, no crickets, no churring grasshoppers or shrilling locusts, no bright-winged and vocal birds. Trout and other gamefish, poisoned by the DDT or starving as the insects disappeared, would die in the lakes and mountain streams. Wildflowers, in all the infinite variety of their forms and shades, would gradually disappear from the openings and the hillsides. The landscape would become drab, clad in grays and greens and browns. […]. No drought, no flood, no hurricane could cause the widespread disaster that would follow in the train of the annihilation of the insects.” The parallels to the opening chapter of Silent Spring, “A Fable for Tomorrow,” are striking.

A northern mockingbird (Mimus polyglottos), one of the "bright-winged and vocal birds" that Edwin Way Teale feared would be silenced by indiscriminate use of DDT.  Rachel Carson likewise feared a "spring without voices." Photo Copyright 2012, Richard Telford.

A northern mockingbird (Mimus polyglottos), one of the “bright-winged and vocal birds” that Edwin Way Teale feared would be silenced by indiscriminate use of DDT. Rachel Carson likewise feared a “spring without voices.” Photo Copyright 2012, Richard Telford.

This is not to suggest that Rachel Carson stole what should have been Edwin Way Teale’s thunder as a prominent crusader against the indiscriminate use of DDT; there is no evidence to suggest that Teale himself ever held that view. On the contrary, their correspondence suggests the opposite. Instead, the object lesson here is that one individual cannot, through his or her own isolated efforts, cause seismic shifts in public thought, policy, and action, environmental or otherwise. Instead, the profound shift in the public’s view of DDT suggests that only a complex bulwark of thought and action, built through the efforts of many “voices in the wilderness,” can allow for one voice to fully articulate, facilitate, and subsequently come to represent such a profound change.  Street photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson’s concept of “the decisive moment” seems aptly applicable here. This does not in any way diminish the work that Rachel Carson did. On the contrary, it illustrates her capacity to capitalize, both consciously and unconsciously, on the opportunity latent in that groundwork laid beforehand. This she did to the great benefit of generations to follow but at great cost to herself personally and, in some circles of thought, to her long-term legacy.

In his 1958 book Darwin’s Century, anthropologist and gifted natural history writer Loren Eiseley argues the presence of just such a pattern in Charles Darwin’s development of his theory of evolution. Eiseley painstakingly elucidates the influence on Darwin of the work of many scientists and great thinkers who preceded him, such as Gregor Mendel, Jean Baptiste Lamarck, James Hutton, Sir Charles Lyell, and others, as well as the work of his contemporaries such as Thomas Huxley and Alfred Russel Wallace. Essentially, Eiseley argues, many components critical to evolutionary theory were already established at the time Darwin set off on the H.M.S. Beagle. However, none of his predecessors or contemporaries “saw, in such a similar manner, the whole vista of life with such sweeping vision.” Because of this, Eiseley concludes, “Darwin’s shadow will run a long way forward into the future.”

It is important to note that, aside from Teale, there were other early, prominent critics of the indiscriminate use of DDT, including American essayist E.B. White, as well as Richard Pough who, among his legion accomplishments in land and bird conservation, served as the Nature Conservancy’s first president. White had written passionately against the indiscriminate use of DDT in the “Talk of the Town” section of The New Yorker in May of 1945, citing both Teale and Pough as sources. Carson would later write to E.B. White in 1958, suggesting that he write an article addressing concerns over the proposed spraying of DDT to control gypsy moth populations on Long Island. He declined to do so but suggested that she might write it herself for The New Yorker, setting the stage for the subsequent serialization of Silent Spring in the magazine four years later.

After Rachel Carson’s death in 1964, E.B. White, in a tribute written in “Talk of the Town,” clearly recognized her role in centralizing and giving prominent voice to the mounting concerns over indiscriminate DDT use. He wrote, “She was not a fanatic or a cultist. She was not against chemicals per se. She was against the indiscriminate use of strong, enduring poisons capable of subtle, long-term damage to plants, animals, and man. No contributor to these pages more effectively combined a warm passion for nature’s mysteries with a cool warning that things can easily go wrong.”  Rachel Carson had captured and later came to represent a decisive moment in the twentieth-century conservation movement.

Of great interest is the fact that the work of the early DDT critics may have gone unnoticed by Carson. In a footnote to her 1997 book Rachel Carson: Witness for Nature, Linda Lear notes that “there is no indication that Carson knew of White’s 1946 editorial when she wrote her 1958 letter to him.” Similarly, Sidney Landon Plum of the University of Connecticut has noted that there is likewise no clear evidence that Carson read Teale’s 1946 article in Nature Magazine. This may be hard to conceive of in 2014 in our highly digitized, instant-access society, but it is not so hard to believe in an American society preoccupied with the violent rise and costly defeat of the Axis Powers. It is also quite possible that Carson did see one or both pieces, especially given the prominence at that time of their respective authors and publications; the evidence of this, if it ever existed, may simply be lost to time. In the end, though, it hardly matters. The lesson is the same. If we wish to advocate for the environment, and by doing so advocate for ourselves and future generations, we must recognize our potential roles in constructing a bulwark for meaningful change. No contribution to that bulwark is too small.

Like Pough and Teale, and to a lesser degree White (who is now remembered largely for his children’s books and selected essays, and little at all for his environmental advocacy), we must realize that we, as contributors to the larger bulwark, will inevitably fall in the shadow of prominent figures like Thoreau or Darwin or Carson. This, however, does not diminish the importance, even the necessity, of the slow, steady, and often forgotten work that precedes meaningful change. Cartier-Bresson coined his phrase from a statement he attributed to seventeenth-century French Cardinal de Retz: “There is nothing in this world that does not have a decisive moment.”  These decisive moments are not flashes of brilliance absent of context.  We can all contribute to them and, to the degree that it is possible, must endeavor to do so.

Why I Write

By:  Richard Telford

Rich- LI Sound 1973

The author as a budding naturalist, Long Island Sound, 1973

 

I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is man with a gun in his hand.  It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what.  You rarely win, but sometimes you do.

Atticus Finch to his son, Jem, in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, 1960

Few literary models of courage are more affecting than Atticus Finch, Harper Lee’s protagonist attorney tasked with defending Tom Robinson, a black man accused of raping Mayella Ewell, a young white woman, in segregated Maycomb, Alabama in 1934.  Atticus knows, of course, that he has lost the case before it has begun, but on principle, and to instill a sense of fairness and justice in his own children, he accepts the case.  On its face, he loses the case, but there are small signs, hopeful signs, that he has effected the beginnings of profound change.  That change will be long in coming, but it must, Atticus knows, begin somewhere.

The racial divisions of segregated America in 1934 offer an apt point of comparison for the current polarization of views on the present environmental crisis.  It goes far beyond the acceptance or non-acceptance of climate change.  It is evident in the burgeoning floor plans of American houses, in the disposable mantra of American consumerism, in the power of large corporations to purchase governmental influence through highly paid lobbyists, in the invocation of terms like “tree hugger” and “liberal” as pejoratives, in the widespread ignorance of or indifference to the crisis’s scope, and in the accelerated and catastrophic loss of biodiversity worldwide that has led Richard Leakey, Richard Lewin, Niles Eldredge, Elizabeth Kolbert, and others to argue that we are, knowingly or unknowingly, perpetrating the sixth extinction.

Just today, in our local paper, a letter writer declared climate change a “political hoax,” admonishing a previous week’s writer who thought otherwise, “Take your head out of the plastic bag it must be in and start breathing…it will do your brain cells a world of good.”  Such ignorance wears me down, but I think too on the fact that in 2014 Tom Robinson’s case would result in acquittal, if it even went to trial, and I am reminded of the human capacity to change for the better, often in spite of ourselves.  Like Atticus Finch, I take courage from the belief that such change is not completely out of reach.

In his 1946 essay “Why I Write,” George Orwell describes how the advent of the 1936 Spanish Civil War gave to his writing and to his life a purpose that had been previously absent.  He writes, “Every line of serious work I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism, as I understand it.  It seems to me nonsense, in a period like our own, to think that one can avoid writing of such subjects.”  It likewise seems nonsense to me that any serious writer of prose in 2014 can ignore the profound and irreversible changes we are imposing on the world’s natural systems; nor can we ignore our growing emotional and intellectual disconnection from those systems.

Just as the direction of Orwell’s writing changed irrevocably in 1936, I find myself unable, these days, to disconnect my writing from the ecological crisis that surrounds me.  How aptly that crisis is reflected in the materialism and waste of our age, in the largely vacuous social media blitz in which we envelop and lose ourselves. Whereas Orwell wrote in the face of Franco and Stalin and Hitler and Mussolini, potential destroyers of all previously known social, political, and moral order, we find ourselves writing in the face of ourselves, a global citizenry that, often without malice or even awareness, directly threatens the Earth’s natural order as it has previously existed for millennia.  We must inevitably write against an enemy who is, in fact, ourselves.

For Christmas in 1975, when I was six years old, my father gave me a copy of Jo Polseno’s 1973 book Secrets of Redding Glen: The Natural History of a Wooded Valley, which, though a children’s book, is extraordinarily rich with insight.  On the flyleaf my father wrote a short inscription: “A guide for our naturalist.”  Polseno’s story of “a glen where the wild geese fly and the salamanders live” fired my curiosity.  His rich prose and Audubon-styled paintings placed me as an observer at the center of a complex, beautiful landscape; it was a role I innately understood, as is evident in the inscription my father wrote.  As Rachel Carson famously noted, how easily a sense of wonder takes hold of the child’s mind, and how easily we willingly forego it in adulthood.  At the age of forty-two, when I contemplated a return to graduate school to pursue a degree in Environmental Studies, I once again thumbed through Polseno’s book, both for its substance that had moved me so much as a child, and for the inscription in it that expressed such foresight.

In “Why I Write,” George Orwell articulates four “great motives” for writing prose: 1) Sheer egoism, 2) Esthetic impulse, 3) Historical impulse, and 4) Political purpose.  Despite his own profound sense of political purpose in writing, Orwell cautions the reader not to incorrectly conclude that his “motives in writing were wholly public-spirited.”  All writers, he notes, are vain; however, when the writer “struggles to efface one’s personality” from the work, he argues, writing of real value can emerge. It is this kind of writing to which I aspire.  As Orwell did in 1946, I offer my own four motives for writing:

1)      Of necessity: I am unable to stand by and watch the systematic, unchecked loss of the world’s biodiversity.  Though at times I feel paralyzed by the enormity of the effort required to help arrest the trajectory of the sixth extinction, I cannot give up hope.  This is as much a selfish attitude as it is an altruistic one, as I do not care to live in a world resigned to its own doom.

2)      For aesthetic reward:  The act of writing allows me a heightened, sharper view of the world.  It forces more intense observation, a slowing down of time that otherwise rushes past.  Writing strains me to find and fashion language that may, if I am persistent, capture at least an iota of the natural beauty that surrounds me.  Even if I cannot capture it for others, I can see it myself.  Here again is the duality of motive so central to Orwell’s argument.

3)      For posterity:  I am convinced that only through the collective small acts of a caring minority can we arrest the present environmental crisis. Meaningful writing is persuasive, and it is needed to convince at least a portion of the unknowing or indifferent citizenry that anthropogenic climate change is no hoax.  Such writing, at its best, can awaken or reawaken curiosity, can provoke empathy, and can inspire advocacy for the natural world.

4)      For my children:  Gazing at a group of turkey vultures circling in dihedral flight, or a magnificent specimen poplar, or a dew-soaked orb-weaver web stretched between saplings and lit by early morning light, I cannot help but want for my children to be able to see these things too, both with me in the present and long after I have returned to the earth.  Here, I suppose, my motives are once again dual in nature, selfish in that they are framed around my determination  to give to my children a biodiverse and sustainable world, and unselfish in that I would wish these things for all children, and for all people generally.

Alan Paton, in his deeply moving 1948 novel of South Africa, Cry, The Beloved Country, argues that moral conviction is the only foundation upon which we can build a purposeful life and meaningfully address the world’s most grave crises, of which our present environmental crisis is a stark example.  At one point, Paton writes in the voice of Arthur Jarvis, a young, white South African man who cannot morally accept the segregationist polices that would officially become Apartheid shortly after Paton published his novel.  Paton writes, “I shall no longer ask myself if this or that is expedient, but only what is right.  I shall do this, not because I am noble or unselfish, but because life slips away, and because I need for the rest of my journey a star that will not play false to me, a compass that will not lie.”  The belief that the preservation of biodiversity must trump our individual wants is just such a star, and I anchor myself to the conviction that writing with purpose is one way in which that star can be followed.

Naturalist writer Edwin Way Teale, in the final pages of his 1978 book A Walk Through the Year—the last book he would publish in his lifetime—wondered “if the time will ever come when such a book as this will seem like a letter from another world.”  At present, it is hard to ignore the feeling that we are hurtling toward just such a time, but we can mitigate that feeling through deliberate, collective action, through the written word and otherwise.  Such action may not be expedient, but it is right.  In an age of such ecological uncertainty, what other compass can we follow?

Lessons from Species at the Brink

A group of African White-backed vultures (Gyps africanus) at a carcass in the Sahel of Senegal, West Africa.  The large vulture arriving in the foreground may be a Ruppell's Vulture (Gyps rueppellii).  Photo copyright Richard Telford, 2004.

A group of African White-backed vultures (Gyps africanus) at a carcass in the Sahel of Senegal, West Africa. The large vulture arriving in the foreground may be a Ruppell’s Vulture (Gyps rueppellii). Photo copyright Richard Telford, 2004.

By Richard Telford

In the eighth chapter of her landmark 1962 book Silent Spring, Rachel Carson imagines a world in which no birds sing.  She invokes the catastrophic declines of two iconic birds in American culture to deliver a passionate rebuke of the indiscriminate use of DDT and other insecticides.  She documents precipitous American Robin (Turdus migratorius) and Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) declines, attributing both to the consumption of prey containing bioaccumulated toxins (earthworms for the robins, fish for the eagles), lowering reproductive capacity, inhibiting embryonic development, and reducing nestling survival.  It is an object lesson in our capacity to alter natural systems, bringing species forcefully to the brink of extinction.  It is an object lesson from which we need to learn more fully:  to react more decisively to such crises and to act more proactively to avoid them when possible.  The response to recent catastrophic Afrotropical (Old World) vulture declines in Asia suggests that such learning is possible.

The long-term implications of vulture population declines in South Asia, as well as Africa, are manifold and complex, and, if they continue at their present rate, the imminent extinctions that follow will produce an equally catastrophic cascade of far-reaching effects, some of which are already evident in areas suffering the worst vulture declines.  A study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science in 2012 noted that in 1997 “>30,000 of the world’s 35,000-50,000 rabies deaths took place in India where feral dog and rat populations have exploded after the decline of vultures.”  While the potential extinction of any species should ring alarm bells, vultures are not simply any species.

While the two groups are phylogenetically and biogeographically distinct, Afrotropical (Old World) and Neotropical (New World) vultures serve an equally critical role in the systems they inhabit.  This parallel role, along with morphological and behavioral similarities, has contributed to the two vulture groups being viewed as the textbook example or classic case of convergent evolution.  The fact that these two groups have evolved to fill precisely the same niche role in distinct natural systems serves to emphasize the unique and critical nature of that role. Vultures are the only known vertebrate terrestrial obligate scavengers.  Such specialization, while providing benefits to a species, likewise makes it highly vulnerable to extinction.  The Gyps genus of vultures, comprised of eight of the sixteen Afrotropical vultures, offers a stark illustration of this vulnerability.

Between 1992 and 2007, the Indian White-rumped Vulture (Gyps bengalensis) experienced a staggering 99.9% population drop in India, a decline directly linked to the veterinary use of the nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug diclofenac in livestock treatment, a practice that began in India in 1993.  G. bengalensis likewise experienced a 91% population drop in Nepal between 1995 and 2011, due principally to diclofenac poisoning, and the 1998 introduction of diclofenac in Pakistan caused similarly rapid, massive vulture declines.  The effects of diclofenac on many Afrotropical vultures have subsequently been well documented.  The consumption of diclofenac-tainted carrion leads to rapid renal failure and visceral gout in at least five Gyps species, causing death in as little as 48 hours.  As of this writing, the IUCN lists three Gyps species as critically endangered:  the Indian White-rumped Vulture (G. bengalensis), the Slender-billed Vulture (G. tenuirostris), and the Long-billed Vulture (G. indicus).  All three declines have been causally linked to diclofenac poisoning, and this link, in conjunction with the realization of the potentially catastrophic effects of local vulture population extinctions, has prompted four South Asian countries to ban veterinary use of diclofenac since 2006, a decision lauded by the World Conservation Congress, which noted that “these massive declines of vultures are unequivocally caused primarily by a single human activity and could be reversed.”

The ban on veterinary use of diclofenac instituted by the governments of India, Nepal, and Pakistan in 2006, and Bangladesh in 2010, in conjunction with conservation efforts undertaken by the SAVE (Saving Asian Vultures from Extinction) consortium as well as a large number of NGOs including The Peregrine Fund, The Darwin Initiative, WWF Pakistan, and others, has yielded clear, though modest, success in helping affected vulture populations to recover.  This success has been most notable in Pakistan.  However, much work remains.  The lessons here are many.  Definitive evidence can, for example, prompt decisive action, though no one decisive action can wholly address a complex conservation problem.  This is well illustrated in India where, at the present time, there is concern that diclofenac packaged for human consumption is illicitly being used in veterinary applications, prompting calls for stricter regulation.  Vulture conservation efforts in South Asia also demonstrate the potentially greater efficacy of regional approaches.  Such efforts, however, require significant coordination among governmental agencies, NGOs, and, perhaps most importantly, local constituencies.  Vulture conservation efforts in Africa, for example, have lagged behind those in Asia in part due to the lack of such a coordinated effort.  Additionally, vulture declines in Africa, unlike those in Asia, have not been linked principally to one central cause, making the path to decisive action less clear.

Finally, perhaps the most important lesson of the vulture crisis in Asia is one with which we are too familiar, but it bears repeating.  We have a tremendous capacity to catastrophically disrupt natural systems through fairly isolated actions, such as the introduction of a single non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug into a bioregional food web.  It is precisely this power that Rachel Carson wrote about in 1962.  The inherent danger in successfully bringing a species back from the brink of extinction in such circumstances lies in the false sense of confidence that such an action can produce:  the belief that, with our technology and know-how, we will always succeed in doing so.  The object lesson here is that failure in some of these efforts is inevitable.  The greater efficacy in conservation efforts lies in being proactive rather than reactive.  As a result of the vulture crisis, there are efforts underway in South Asia to require more thorough testing of all veterinary medicines for their potential ecological effects before being put into use.  Here, too, is reason for hope.  If, as Rachel Carson stated, “the beauty and the ordered world of nature still have a meaning that is deep and imperative,” we must shift our thinking and our actions accordingly.