Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Let's talk about insects

Let’s talk about insects

I live in Seattle now.  I consider myself a New Yorker despite not having lived there since right after 9/11 (it’s been a long, strange trip).  And my family farm is in Iowa. 

As a kid I spent weeks there every summer, peeling potatoes, hanging up laundry, picking beans, making pickles, husking corn, going fishing, “helping” Grandpa Channer milk the cows, exploring in the pasture beyond the apple orchard, and taking minute inventory of the astounding variety of insect life.

I was a mini-biologist back then, and the farm was paradise for someone so inclined.  Everywhere, there were insects.  If you couldn’t see them you could hear them, thrumming and whirring and scratching as they went about their business.  Bees crowded the garden, all industry and drive amongst the peonies and bachelor’s button.  Palm-sized garden spiders hung in wait in the long grass at the far side of the driveway, midriffs bright with orange and scarlet coats of arms.  An almost infinite variety of beetles were everywhere to discover – huge ferocious stag beetles, pretty ladybirds, longhorns, and loud, startling click beetles.

There were giant walking sticks and waterbugs to catch and release – katydids and praying mantises to observe – wasps to fear as they buzzed protectively about their immense, bulging nests – fireflies to catch and imprison in Mason jars – and giant red velvet mites astonishing in their tiny perfection.

Clouds of gnats hovered in the cool under the oak trees at the bottom of the lawn, and at the stone quarry in Chickasaw Park there were traffic jams of dragonflies – bright blue skimmers, heavy cruising darning needles, emeralds and petaltails.  In August, any tiny patch of moisture on bare ground attracted cabbage moths, yellow and white, fluttering delicately as they sipped and looking in their numbers as if, when they flew off, they could hoist the Earth with them.

And now?  Now, there isn’t nothing, but there’s not much left.  The full-throated chorus of droning, humming, throbbing insect song is a barely-heard ghost in the distance.  A handful of gnats bother late porch-sitters if the screen door isn’t closed.  The garden spiders are a greatly reduced army, and they are all much, much smaller than before.  A Monarch butterfly in the garden is cause for exclamation, and farmers are importing bees from Australia

A recent study published in Science and led by UCL, Stanford and UCSB found that invertebrate numbers have decreased by 45% on average over the last 40 years.

I can see the decline when I visit the farm each August.  I can hear the silence where once there was an omnipresent roar.  But I had no idea how drastic the change was – and when I saw it quantified, I was astonished.

You might ask, “So what?  I don’t like spiders.  Gnats are nasty and annoying, and butterflies are pretty, but who needs them?”

According to the study,

This decline matters because of the enormous benefits invertebrates such as insects, spiders, crustaceans, slugs and worms bring to our day-to-day lives, including pollination and pest control for crops, decomposition for nutrient cycling, water filtration and human health.

And Dr. Ben Collen, last author of the study, said,

We were shocked to find similar losses in invertebrates as with larger animals, as we previously thought invertebrates to be more resilient. While we don’t fully understand what the long-term impact of these declining numbers will be, currently we are in the potentially dangerous position of losing integral parts of ecosystems without knowing what roles they play within it.

And yes, climate change.  

It’s not the only reason, of course, that insect populations are in decline.  We don’t know what’s happening with the honey bees yet.  In Iowa I suspect that factory farming, so reliant on chemicals, is killing off populations of any number of species.  And monoculture agriculture can’t be conducive to biological diversity, even where insects aren’t bug-bombed into oblivion.

But climate change isn’t helping.  Sure, a species here or there is able to expand its range – but that comes at the expense of other, neighboring species, on whom it must encroach.

Most concerning, I think, is that WE DO NOT KNOW WHAT WE’RE DOING.  We don’t know what’s out there.  We don’t know precisely how these complex ecosystems work.  We don’t know which species can die off with no human repercussions, and which are lynchpins on which our very survival might depend.  We suspect – we think we know – we study feverishly, attempting to limn the outlines of the story before the players change – but we don’t know.  Not for certain.  Not enough.

The issue is not that we act as though insects are pests to be gotten rid of.  The issue is that we are heedless in every way.  Our lumbering, careless, devouring predation and annihilation of ecosystem after ecosystem does not strike us – or at least not many of us – as the amoral violence that it is.  We’re rushing toward the future and we think it’s bright.  We think of planetary prosperity and food for everyone, a never-ending upward rise and expansion, a glorious future of technology and pleasure.

The minatory finger of evidence, however, points in the exactly contrary direction.  The insects are telling the real story.

So listen, will you, when you step outside.  What do you hear?

Pyrenean Ibex

Capra pyrenaica pyrenaica, its lyrical species name, is lovely and lilting to say - as is its Spanish common name, 'bucardo.'  And the beasts themselves were magnificent, with thick, ridged horns in elegant back-swept curves and a long, graceful muzzle.

They lived in the Iberian Peninsula - most commonly in the Cantabrian Mountains, Southern France, and the northern Pyrenees.

We hunted them to death over the course of about 200 years.  Celia, the last member of her species, was killed by a falling tree and found dead on January 6, 2000.

In a typically modern and Frankenstein-esque twist, in 2003 scientists cloned a Pyrenean ibex.  While the cloning process was “successful,” inasmuch as a clone survived for 10 minutes after being delivered by its surrogate mother, there are still no Pyrenean ibex left alive.

Beast by beast, final death by final death, we are making the world a smaller, poorer place.

Friday, July 24, 2015

The Anthropocene Book of the Dead

So what exactly have we killed? What havoc have we wrought? What damage have we done that cannot be undone? What has the Anthropocene meant to our fellow travelers – the animals we’ve driven to the brink (or over the edge of) extinction, the ecosystems we’ve destroyed or rendered unrecognizable, and the communities, traditions, and ways of human life that have been cut down by the scythe of progress?

This blog is my small attempt to tell some of the stories of the creatures and things we have lost.  Already it’s proving difficult.  

I’ve started researching. I’ve begun looking up the names of the dead that were written down, and finding that not only are they gone, but for many the trail is already going cold.  A stub of a Wiki entry here, a short paper from the 1930s there, a mention in popular culture. There’s so much we’ll never know about what we’ve devastated.

As for what cannot be researched – the countless extinct beetles, nematodes, and fungi… the myriad ruined vernal ponds and drained wetlands… the clear-cut mountaintops that once were islands of stupendous diversity… the close-knit bands of nomads who walked out of what remained of the forest and into annihilation… the long lost tribes of folk with ancient, unique stories, their songs now silent – all those things brutally blotted out on our 8,000 year long path of destruction and not recorded? Most will surely remain nameless forever.

Why is it important? I’m not sure yet. Perhaps this is an attempt at atonement. Perhaps it’s an exercise in silly mawkishness. Maybe it’s something else.

I want it to be interesting and science-y and full of intriguing bits and bobs about the amazing forms life takes, and has taken, on this planet. I want it to make you holler, "How could we do that?!"

But I also want it to be a tone poem, and a history. A bearing of witness, and a warning. A shot across the bow to those in power who still believe they can pretend that nothing is happening, and that they will not be held accountable.

Tomorrow, I think I’ll start with the story of the last thylacine. It’s better known than most, easy to research, and there’s a recent viral internet hook to get me started. Please stay tuned – and let me know in the comments if you think I am off the mark.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

The Poetry of Extinction

The Formosan clouded leopard. 

The atlas bear and the piopio.

The tarpan.  The thylacine. The stout legged wren and the North Island snipe.

The Carpathian wisent and the sea mink.  The Danish clouded Apollo butterfly.

The Chatham bellbird.  The upland moa.  The crested shell duck.

The polydamas swallowtail and the aurochs.

The Cebu warty pig.  

The bushwren, the dusky seaside sparrow, and the Xerxes blue.

The quagga, and the Pyrenean Ibex.

The litany of their names is a kind of bitter poem. These and thousands more of our fellow creatures are gone.    

The Center for Biological Diversity reports that in the past 500 years, approximately 1,000 species have gone extinct as a direct result of human activity.  It’s of note that this number does not – it cannot – include those species that disappeared before science was able to discover and name them.

Through habitat loss, by over-hunting and over-fishing, by poisoning and poaching, we’ve increased the current extinction rate to up to 1,000 times than it would be without us. 

We have wiped out species that teemed by their millions like the passenger pigeon.  We have destroyed populations that were small, and special, and specialized, by erasing their homes.  We have lusted after furs and feathers and used them indiscriminately for our personal adornment until the lovely creatures that were sacrificed for our vanity are gone. 

We have greedily devoured animals that we found tasty, without even a passing thought that a wiser course might have been to conserve some for a future feast.  We have poisoned wetlands and rivers and streams, causing untold numbers of deaths.  We have marched across the landscape like behemoths, building our mills and mines and factories, laying our endless miles of road, destroying the perfection of the upland prairie to install monoculture crops that deplete the soil and provide no home or respite for the native birds that used to nest there.

The death toll is stunning.  The loss is almost unbearable.  Our heedless avarice and blind cupidity has swept them all away – and every day our plunder and pillage of what is left of the wild is wiping more species off the face of the Earth.

This blog will seek to memorialize those creatures in some small way, by telling just a bit of what is known about their stories.

I’m calling it The Anthropocene Book of the Dead.