Conversations worth having

We’ve got a library on Squatch. These are books that Tim selected before we left. It’s a good selection that should go well with the theme of our trip. When I finished a John Muir book I picked Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. I wanted a female author and the book is so famous in it’s tale. I knew it’d be heavy but I wasn’t prepared for just how wounded I would feel when reading about the effects of DDT and other broad spectrum organochlorides. At first glance it might seem that it should be a read of how we learned from our mistakes and in a way it is. On the other hand when we look at the list of herbicides and insecticides currently in play it’s easy to see that we really really didn’t.

And I’m getting double dose. We’ve been listening to a podcast called Best of Natural History Radio from BBC radio. They did a series where a man named Brent Westwood reads from his diaries that he’s kept for the last 40 years about wildlife he’s seen and recorded in his local patch (of land). This patch is in North Worcestershire and he’s lived near it his whole life. The series is broken down in the different sections of the patch and it usually goes something like this; he reads from his diary an early passage and then perhaps a second time later in life and then follows up with what he’s seeing most recently. Sadly they all almost play out the same way. He sees several of a kind of bird is excited about it and then over the course of the last 40 years they disappear. He often states that he doesn’t expect to ever see that particular bird ever again. I’m not one to shy away from heavy topics but this double whammy is a bit much, even for me. I don’t plan to cover heavy topics here too often however, I can’t help but think about how if the US stopped using DDT in 1972 and we have all these good stories to tell because of it (pelicans, bald eagles, peregrine falcons, robins etc) then why has this man recorded massive declines in birds at his local patch in the last 15 years? Nine times out of ten you can look no farther than habitat loss. But what is habitat? Or rather what three things make a “habitat”? We were recently asked this very question on a birding van tour on Padre Island National Seashore. I answered correctly when I said “food, water, shelter” but I hadn’t actually thought of habitat as three things until that very moment. I always thought in terms of shelter. Loss of chaparral, rain forest, open desert, coral reefs. These are places. They are three dimensional places though. They go up and down. From the fungus on the roots to the bears up above they create a chain of creatures. Creatures that all rely on each other for food, water and sometimes shelter. Growing up we were taught the “food chain” and now they call it more accurately the “food web”. I call it ecological Jenga. It’s easy to say well we’re cutting out habitat to build homes and have more land to farm but what of the land around the home and the farms themselves? What are we farming now that wasn’t as much of an issue when Brent started his data diary? Neonicotinoids. Specifically seeds that are coated with them before planting. The whole plant from roots to pollen is a toxic buffet for anything that tries to eat it. The problem is that birds eating the insects that ate the poisoned plant then suffer. As do the bees that visit these plants with pollens. Even worse for birds is when they eat the seeds directly. Study after study is showing that this is becoming a huge problem. Like I said I’m not afraid to read and talk about these heavy issues.

20150221_Pelican_PtAransasHowever, this time I needed a lift and I got one this last weekend at the Whooping Crane Festival in Port Aransas. In Silent Spring Rachel Carson refers to different people who contacted her about the effects of DDT. They weren’t scientists or farmers or birders or any kind of specialist. These were just folks who noticed that the birds from their backyards were gone. They didn’t sing the song of spring and the silence was deafening. I’m mean we all kind of notice birds don’t we? From herons and seagulls to hawks and doves. People notice birds whether or not they are “into” birds. So when they’re gone something seems amiss.

At the Whooping Crane Festival people come from all over the world. It’s not a giant turn out but it’s good. Here is a bird that was down to just 15 birds in 1960 and now there are almost 600. It’s been a big effort between two countries and a whole migratory path. We were able to volunteer in a very small way for the festival   sure that folks made it to their van tour for two morning tours. We had also toured the trade show. It was during this time that I was reminded that there is not just a conversation going but there is action because of these conversations. One table at the trade show I stopped to chat with a fellow from Texas forestry who has a passion for helping Port Aransas deal with the Brazilian Pepper tree invasions. They’ve come up with a plan to try and eradicate them from Port Aransas (and hopefully beyond) that will be a lot of work but should be easy to implement. Before I chatted with him he was talking to a woman from Michigan who listed off a few of her local invasives. Our first volunteer opportunity on the trip was pulling the invasive bufflegrass from Saguaro National Park and before that Tim and I put our backs into pulling invasives out of San Francisco. Invasives are a hot topic and people are working hard (sweat and all) to deal with them as best we can. In between van tours we talked with a woman who works at the Chamber of Commerce who has gone through Texas Naturalist Program. We chatted briefly on how nice the wildlife viewing is in Port Aransas and the National Sea shore further south. It was nice to be reminded that eco tourism is not just for Chile and Costa Rica but right here in the states we still have good patches of land that people come from all over to partake in. And folks seem to be really understanding that we need to keep patches connected or try to reconnect them through corridors that help maintain healthy populations. And I know that there is some talk about pesticides and that the Neonicotinoids are not just being used on big Ag but that we can buy them at our local hardware store and may not even realize how harmful they are to the very things we’re probably trying to attract to our yards. It may take a law to get these harmful pesticides off farms but, we have choices in our yards and in our neighborhoods to avoid pesticides, herbicides and invasives. Keeping these things out of our yards creates (keeps?) habitat. There are whole migration paths where folks have planted specific plants for birds and butterflies that have kept these creatures from extinction. We can work with our local communities and figure out ways to grow our towns and cities in efforts that work with the natural areas in and around them. And while my thoughts on us being on the verge of an ecological revolution might be a bit too hopeful it does seem possible if we keep these topics, and how we can help, on the tips of our tongues.

Pier Sunset

4 thoughts on “Conversations worth having

  1. Rachael,
    I’m reading The Sixth Extinction. I’ll save it for you. It is very readable and amazing. Although I don’t feel too optimistic, it is nice to have an explanation that makes sense.

    I’m enjoying reading about your travels and insights.


    • Nancy,

      This made me even more excited to see you. I’m sure we’ll have many topics to cover when we’re there.
      Glad you’re enjoying the blog.



  2. Rachael – Just finished reading your thoughtful post of 2/26 this Sunday morning. Yes there are frightening trends in our future. Every day I look up to see the thin Sierra snowpack and wonder what the future will bring. However, two very different themes are on my mind this morning so let me share them.

    As I read emails this sunny Sunday morning I keep noticing the lively loud birdsong outside our house, notes that pierce even our new argon-filled double-paned windows. I recall that when I moved to Sacramento in 1975 I was struck by how little birdsong there was in the mornings compared to the Northeast where I’d lived previously. Sacramento seemed oddly silent. But something has changed and now birds are everywhere and outspoken about it……big chunky robins (one just thudded into the window next to near me, shook himself off, and flew away), raucous stellar jays, mourning doves, and lots of “little brown jobs” as our birder son Tom jokingly calls them. So something is going right for the birds around here. What changed?

    A second thought is prompted by the February edition of the California Naturalist Program Update. Hopefully, you are getting this e-newsletter, too. It lists an impressive number of things on the 2015 Calendar of Advanced Trainings for Naturalists. Two that caught my eye are about regeneration after fire — one at Pt. Reyes will be looking at recovery after the Vision Fire of several years ago, and one is at the Blodgett Experimenal Forest in the Sierra Nevada and will be studying changes since the King Fire of 2014. This is a worthy topic given our perennial issues with both water and fire in California.

    Keep the posts coming! It’s always great to hear from you! If on your way home you wish to stop by Sacramento, we would love to have you stay with us any time. We have extra bedrooms and bathrooms now that the kids have moved out, and love to have guests. –Kitty

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s