Homegrown National Park

In “Nature’s Best Hope,” entomologist and author, Doug Tallamy brings one of conservation’s best new ideas alive: to connect isolated land reserves via biological or wildlife corridors. And it’s something we can all practice in our front and back yards.

Through much of the 20th century, the dominant idea in conservation was to protect land for its inherent beauty as well as for animals. Despite that, animal populations have continued to dwindle because the protected land is too small and too isolated. The reserves need to be connected so that animals can roam freely, particularly because one of the effects of climate change is to force animals to move from their preferred habitat.

This is the idea behind the Yellowstone to Yukon Initiative, or Y2Y, a protective corridor that will ensure animals can travel freely over its length of 3200 kilometers (2000 miles). In the early 1990’s radio-collar data showed that over two years a wolf roamed over an area ten times the size of Yellowstone and fifteen times the size of Banff National Park. Other animals like lynx, cougars and golden eagles were also found to travel distances as great as 1600 kilometers (1000 miles). Much of that roaming would be outside protected areas.

While most of us will not be safeguarding habitat for wolves and cougars in our yards, we can provide habitat for insects, birds and other small animals. All we have to do is plant native plants.

Plants are the foundation of all food webs, but as Tallamy points out, our gardens tend to emphasize ornamental plants that originated in other ecosystems and are often ignored by local bees, butterflies and birds. So while they look pretty, they are ecologically sterile and don’t contribute to local food webs.

The reason they don’t contribute to local food webs is because plants generate toxins to avoid being eaten. But over millions of years, insects like caterpillars – primary food for birds – have developed ways to circumvent plant defenses and make a meal. Because each plant has its own defenses, each insect restricts its diet to one or just a few lineages.

For example, monarch butterflies have restricted their diet to just a single plant: milkweed. When milkweed declined thanks to the ramped up use of the weedkiller, Roundup, or glyphosate, monarch populations plummeted.

So by restricting our gardens to a handful of exotic ornamentals that local insects have no relationship with, insect populations will continue to decline. Yet insects are how plant energy is transmitted elsewhere in food webs, so this is a decline we can and must reverse.

Further, in the US, turfgrass has replaced native plant communities in more than forty million acres, which is larger than the ten largest national parks combined. By converting half of that turfgrass back to native plants, we could have a new national park – homegrown – that is literally everywhere.

We visit national parks to satisfy our curiosity about places we’ve long heard about, and to experience wonder and awe. Homegrown National Park will be on a totally different scale – right in front of our eyes – and will appeal to our sense of self-discovery. We’ll be able to tune into natural cycles and experience the excitement of seeing living things thrive under our care, in addition to helping local food webs. It will allow us to create an affinity for all kinds of creatures that visit our yards, provide natural stress relief and help us pass our stewardship on to our children. Truly, it’s an idea whose time has come.

The North American Native Plant Society has tips to start gardening with native plants (start small – even with one plant!) here: http://nanps.org/how-to-start-gardening-with-native-plants/

In the US, you can find guides for what to plant in your area at https://www.audubon.org/plantsforbirds
and https://www.nwf.org/nativeplantfinder/

Remembrance Day for Lost Species


Heath Hen sculpture
Todd McGrain’s Heath Hen memorial on Martha’s Vineyard, MA

“Forgetting is another kind of extinction,” artist Todd McGrain said to me when I interviewed him for my blog, Eco-Now, in 2012. For ten years he had been creating larger-than-life sculptures of birds formerly common in North America, such as the passenger pigeon, to memorialize them. “These birds are not commonly known,” he has written elsewhere, “and they ought to be… It’s such a thorough erasing.”

Since the year 1500, nine hundred species have become extinct, yet their stories are not being told. This loss is a crisis in human values, as our relatives on the tree of life are disappearing under our watch and because of our actions. Aside from a few high profile extinctions, like the passenger pigeon and the dodo, most lost species are unknown to the general public, and the danger of forgetting part of our biological heritage is great. There are no historical parallels here. Aldo Leopold said, “For one species to mourn another is a new thing under the sun.”

The recent animal extinctions include twenty-eight reptiles, thirty-four amphibians, sixty-three fish, sixty-three insects, ninety-two mammals, one hundred and sixty-six birds and more than three hundred mollusks. Who are these animals? Where did they live? What do we know of their biology and natural history? Each animal had its own evolutionary history, ecological niche and characteristics that made it a unique form of life. In the long history of life, they were survivors, winners. But they have disappeared from the Earth due to our actions and without proper recognizance.

A marsupial is over-hunted in Australia. A tree frog disappears in Panama. An ibex vanishes from the Pyrenees, a river dolphin from the Yangtze, a pigeon from the skies of North America. The wildness of the Earth, its beauty and bounty, is diminishing. Because our present attitude is still to dominate nature and extract its resources for our personal welfare — we tend to ignore what we’re losing in favor of jobs and economic gain — these lost species become sacrifices for so-called progress. Seeing ourselves as apart from nature, rather than a part of nature, leaves us ill-equipped to see an extinction as an impoverishment of our world, a lost opportunity for us to wonder at something unique and beautiful.

This makes November 30: Remembrance Day for Lost Species all the more important. In her essay, “Working Through Environmental Despair,” Joanna Macy argues for the importance of expressing grief in the face of environmental degradation and loss. Because the changes we observe are subtle and we don’t see how they are related, we may deny their importance and live as if nothing has changed. This denial is a strategy that we employ to allay our various fears, such as fear of pain, fear of appearing morbid (we don’t want to be seen as doom and gloom), fear of appearing stupid (we want to express concerns but don’t have an immediate solution), fear of guilt (can we say anything about it without being implicated), fear of causing distress (we don’t want to be a killjoy), fear of appearing unpatriotic (aren’t our concerns contrary to our country’s dominant paradigm), fear of appearing too emotional (rationality is favored over display of feelings), and fear of feeling powerless (we shrink our sphere of attention to areas where we can be in charge). The result of all this is to narrow our awareness and consequently dull our response to the world.

Until we acknowledge the environmental loss and the pain we feel for the world through grief, Macy contends, our creative response will be crippled. Experiencing the pain is a measure of our care for the world, and expressing and sharing it opens the way to knowing our belonging and to our power.

Grief is one of our most private actions. And one of our most vital. Though I’ve been thinking about recently extinct species for several years now, I don’t yet have a ritual for their remembrance. Perhaps I will listen to a recording of the song of the o’o, or search the Internet for other recordings of endlings, like Toughie, or Benjamin, or peruse the incredible archive of sounds collected by Bernie Krause. Maybe I’ll try my hand at sketching once again, and sketch a few extinct animals. And perhaps I’ll listen to Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, written as a memorial for a friend. I want to hear the bells at the Great Gate of Kiev ring loud, loud.

(Parts of this were adapted from an unpublished essay and the introduction to my book, Brief Eulogies for Lost Animals, published in 2017 by Pen and Anvil.)


The planet is permanently changed

Rabb's Fringe-Limbed Tree Frog

On Dec. 15th, 2015, Toughie, the last Rabb’s Fringe-Limbed Tree Frog sang out from his home in the Atlanta Botanical Gardens. After several years in captivity, he was advertising his presence to a mate who wasn’t there. The call, of course, went unanswered.

A captive breeding program a few years ago had failed and when another male died at the Atlanta Zoo, the species line of Rabb’s Fringe-Limbed Tree Frogs, one of almost 7600 amphibian species that have been diversifying over the last 300 million years, came down to just Toughie.

Toughie passed away a month ago, on September 26.

Toughie was an endling, the last survivor of his species. Extinction is usually so silent and remote that it’s always a surprise, if not a pleasant one, to encounter an endling. He joins Martha, the last passenger pigeon, Incas, the last Carolina parakeet, Booming Ben, the last heath hen, and Benjamin, the last thylacine as the handful of endlings who became famous. Toughie has his own Wikipedia page. He was featured in the film Racing Extinction. His image was projected onto St. Peter’s Basilica during the Paris climate talks.

The story of another endling haunted me into writing a book about recently extinct species, to be launched this fall . The golden toad was a spectacular amphibian from Costa Rica’s cloud forest in Monteverde. Against the luscious greens and dull browns of the cloud forest floor, its coat was a brilliant orange, as if dipped in enamel paint. Only discovered in the 1960’s, the golden toad was rarely seen, except in the spring when they would gather and mate in the temporary pools. In the 1980’s the population crashed and year by year fewer were seen until just one was recorded in 1989. None have been seen since.

By the time I visited Monteverde in 2001, the golden toad was long gone. But that’s where I first heard its story and it has stayed with me. While the biological diversity of the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve is something to behold, from epiphytes and orchids to exotic birds, including the resplendent quetzal, I kept thinking about that last toad who was never to find a mate.

In an op-ed for the New York Times, Joseph Mendelson, a leader of the team that discovered Toughie’s species and the director of Zoo Atlanta wrote: “The planet is permanently changed. This frog’s ecological role among the animals and plants with which it evolved has been lost, along with whatever other secrets it carried.”

Toughie was one of many frogs collected from Panama in 2005 as the lethal chytrid fungus was sweeping through. Scientists likened the effort to rescuing belongings from a burning house. The species was unusual because of their large webbed hands that helped them glide safely from the trees to the ground, and for the male’s habit of letting tadpoles feed off the skin on its back.

In a 2015 paper in PNAS, Australian biologist John Alroy estimates that extinction rates are four orders of magnitude higher than normal and warns of the “runaway train of extinction” that will ultimately produce a global mass extinction not just on human times scales but on geological time scales. Humans are now the driving force in environmental change. Most species extinctions in the past few centuries have been due to habitat loss and modification, or to the introduction of invasive species. For frogs, humans have acted as agents to help move the chytrid fungus to places where it previously didn’t exist through the global trade of amphibians for food, for use as laboratory animals or for use as pets or display animals.

Whenever I visit a national park or some kind of nature reserve, I admire the foresight of previous generations who decided to set aside the land for enjoyment by all. What a legacy! I hope our legacy will be something so worthy. It would be grand if our legacy is that we did whatever we could to stop the extinction crisis from worsening.

Naturalist William Beebe wrote in 1906 that, “when the last individual of a race of living beings breathes no more, another heaven and another earth must pass before such a one can be again.”  Our heaven is now and it is passing through our fingers. With Toughie’s passing, the planet is indeed permanently changed. There is still much worth saving, but we must engage the problems first. Time is short.

In forty, eighty and one hundred years, I hope we can leave future generations more than just images and recordings of the wild.


Some Biodiversity Infographics

The fourth and last US election debate has come and gone with scarcely any attention paid to important issues like biodiversity loss and climate change. They only become issues if we make them so. While most of us appreciate the effects of climate change, the threats to biodiversity and why it should be preserved are still not considered headline news.

Here are some useful infographics to help raise awareness of the problem of biodiversity loss:

  • Here’s a nice collection of infographics by Matthew Taylor at Boise State on how we can protect biodiversity — great for classroom use;
  • Norway’s GRID-Arendal Center, which is collaborating with the UNEP, has a great series of infographics about some specific biodiversity threats around the world;
  • BlueStem Communications has a large-scale infographic on visualizing biodiversity loss;
  • And here’s a top ten list of biodiversity infographics put out by the good people of Saving Species. I’ve only been reading about the magnificent but troubled Phillippine hornbills recently.
  • biodiversity-infographic9-philippine-hornbills
  • If you know of some cool biodiversity infographics, please share in the comments below.


Interviews with Eco-Artists

A few years ago, I interviewed several eco-artists about their work. They include:

  • Randy Laist, Associate Professor of English at Goodwin College who recorded an alphabet’s worth of songs about recently extinct species on Youtube;
  • Jenny Kendler, who together with Molly Schafer founded the Endangered Species Print Project;
  • Todd McGrain, a sculptor who created five larger-than-life bronze sculptures of recently extinct birds and installed them at places where the birds once thrived. Check out his film, The Lost Bird Project;
  • Xavier Cortada, a Miami-based artist who created eco-art installations at both the North and South Poles. His website is cortada.com;
  • Andreas Kornevall,  a storyteller, writer and rewilder who was one of the founders of the Life Cairn movement, which seeks to memorialize recently extinct species. Andreas has a Tumblr page;
  • Joanna Barnum, a painter who has created an evocative series of recently extinct species portraits. Her internet home is at joannabarnum.com.

Stay tuned for more cool interviews in the near future!