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/

The Work That Reconnects

On Saturday I went down to Rhode Island to participate in a 4-hour workshop on “The Work that Reconnects,” inspired by the work of Joanna Macy. It was described as “a perspective-changing, life-affirming workshop designed to help us face and feel our deepest, most healing responses to the world’s crises within a supportive group context.” Ultimately, the goal was to help us take part in what Joanna Macy  calls, The Great Turning – away from an industrial growth society into a life-affirming society. The workshop was led by Karina Lutz and Jim Tull, and was attended by about one hundred participants, which shows how hungry people are for this kind of work.

In a series of meditations and activities, we explored the spiral of the work: gratitude, honoring our pain, seeing with new eyes and going forth, described in the book, “Coming Back to Life,” by Joanna Macy and Molly Brown. The work begins with gratitude to calm us and stimulate our empathy; we all have much to be thankful for and sharing that helps us connect to one another. In honoring our pain, we explore our own compassion for ourselves and others as we acknowledge feelings that accumulate with the drumbeat of bad environmental news; here we begin to see the immensity of our hearts and minds. Seeing with new eyes stems from understanding our relationship to the past and future and helps us shift our perspective from individual events and actions to understanding how systems work – we taste our power to change and to effect change. Finally, we go forth with passion, clarity and compassion, and the spiral begins again.

It’s hard to convey the power of the workshop and I just have a brief summary of a few of the activities that resonated with me.

One of the first meditations was simply to breathe deeply, something that I’ve been practicing to ground myself in the past two months or so. But here, we were reminded that the air we breathe is the same air that the trees breathe and all living things near and far breathe. Of course we’re aware of that in theory, but in practice, honestly, I think of the air I breathe as very much right in front of my nose, so this was a useful reminder!

One exercise that was useful for such a large group followed soon after and that was to mill about the room first of all, as if in a hurry, caught up in our own self-importance, and then to slow down and become aware of others around us. Even in that shift, you could feel the mood in the room immediately warm up. People smiled and acknowledged one another. Then, upon signals for a sequence of encounters, we were to stop and find a partner, take their hand, and recognize the many things they could have done that day but chose instead to be there. In another encounter, we were to recognize what the other person knew about what was happening in the world, and yet they kept their eyes open to it. In other encounters, we were to recognize the chance that the other person might die from toxins in the environment or the important role they might play in bringing about a life-sustaining civilization.

One of the most powerful encounters was when we closed our eyes and explored our partner’s hand as if we were an alien. Such an interesting evolutionary product is a hand! And capable of so much: gathering and preparing food, playing with a ball, comforting and giving pleasure to another person. Here was an intimate way to connect with a stranger.

The whole activity had lots of hand-holding and staring into strangers’ eyes, which pushed me out of my comfort zone, but when I thought about how to recognize them, the strangeness evaporated and they became familiar. We would then chat about what brought us there or simply smile at one another in gratitude.

One of the last exercises was to share in a small group a time when we made a difference. One person in my group related how he gave a poor acquaintance a guitar, and then watched him flourish as a musician. I shared my reasons for writing my book about extinct animals and that many people thanked me for the book. We were then asked to share the qualities that we had heard in the stories. Suddenly, the room was full of “love,” “excitement,” “generosity,” “tenderness,” “selflessness,” “courage,” “independence of thought,” “honesty,” “openness,” “humor,” and much more. So the power within us is what resonated as we made pledges to one another, wrapped up and made to go forth.

Though there are none listed at the moment, I hope there will be more such events in New England soon.

Links: The Work That Reconnects, Work That Reconnects Greater Boston

A Visit to the Great Auk

What do extinct species have to tell us?

A short hike along the coast out of Joe Batt’s Arm on Fogo Island, Newfoundland, stands a five-foot tall bronze sculpture of the Great Auk. The sculpture was created by artist Todd McGrain for his Lost Bird Project in which larger-than-life sculptures for extinct North American birds were placed where they last thrived. On my visit to Fogo Island this past August, I knew I had to visit the sculpture.

The story of the demise of the Great Auk is among the more tragic of the recent animal extinctions. They were flightless birds but strong swimmers that occupied rocky, isolated islands in the North Atlantic for thousands of years for mating and breeding. The largest colony was at Funk Island, about 50 kilometers northeast of Fogo Island. When European fishing vessels came to Newfoundland for the abundant cod stocks in the early 16th century, they seized on the Great Auk as a source for fresh meat as well as oil for lamps. Their feathers were used for pillows and mattresses and their eggs were collected for food.  Eyewitnesses reported seeing the tame, penguin-like birds being guided up gangplanks onto boats. Evidently, it was a wholesale slaughter. As their numbers plummeted through the 1700’s, extinction warnings went unheeded. And when auks replaced eider as the down of choice, their fate was sealed. The last pair of great auks was strangled off Iceland in 1844 while incubating an egg.

At the head of the path out of Joe Batt’s Arm, a handmade sign showed the way for the Great Auk sculpture. It was only an hour’s walk along a grassy trail with a view of the once-molten coastal rocks, the harbor, and the ritzy Shorefast Inn across the small bay.

I was with a friend and soon we climbed a large granite outcropping and made our way to the sculpture.

Waves lapped at the rocks below and a steady but mild breeze blew. A few terns cried as they swooped over the waves. The sculpture stood about five feet tall and faced the direction of another Great Auk sculpture in Iceland. With its smooth lines and elegant curves, I couldn’t help but run my hand over it.

Todd McGrain's Great Auk sculpture
The Great Auk, by Todd McGrain

It was well placed, so solitary among the elements. Perhaps it was too solitary. They were social birds and their colonies like Funk Island must have been incredible gatherings, full of squawking mates protecting their eggs, taking turns splashing and into and out of the water to fish. It would have been great for the sculpture to have companions. I wished I could populate the site with a group of Great Auks, like Errol Fuller’s painting. And I thought about how different the hike would have been completely different if Great Auks were still wandering and swimming about. (See Brandon Ballangee’s “Framework of Absence.”)

Errol Fuller's "A Last Stand"
Errol Fuller’s “A Last Stand”

We took photos then sheltered in the crevice of some boulders and sat with the sculpture for awhile. It felt special to be alone with it, while thinking about why the sculpture was there in the first place.

When we continued the hike further down the coastal trail and stopped to have our sandwiches, a strange feeling gnawed at me. Something was missing from my visit with the Great Auk. I felt like I needed something to signify our visit, some sort of ritual. I said to my friend that I wanted to stop again at the Great Auk on the way back and we set off again to the sculpture.

I remembered the scene in the documentary film, The Lost Bird Project, when after the sculpture is installed, McGrain anoints it with water. Back at the sculpture, I poured some water from my water bottle into my cupped hand and let it drip onto its head. In that moment, the ritual caught me and suddenly felt significant. It was a moment of honoring the memory of the Great Auk and grieving its loss. Thinking about it afterwards, perhaps it wasn’t me blessing the sculpture, but it was the Great Auk blessing me?

As we learn the stories of recently extinct animals, I wonder what they will teach us. It was strange for me to form a sort of bond with a bird that has been extinct for a century and a half. Every animal has its own tale, and as Todd McGrain told me when I interviewed him, it’s up to us to pay attention.

Remembrance Day for Lost Species 2017

The reasons we need Remembrance Day for Lost Species are the same reasons I wrote my book, “Brief Eulogies for Lost Animals: An Extinction Reader.” The introduction to the book follows below. (You can also find audio and video versions.)


“Forgetting is another kind of extinction,” artist Todd McGrain said to me when I interviewed him 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.”

brief eulogies, lost animalsThe 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. But they have disappeared from the Earth due to our actions and without proper recognizance. The beginning of wisdom, the Chinese say, is to call things by their rightful names. In many cases, the names are known by scientists and what little is known of the animal’s habits is hidden away in scientific papers. These details need to be brought to light to make the species come alive, at least in our imagination, to help bring the enormity of what has and is happening within our grasp.

Evidence abounds that the present species extinction rate is more than one thousand times the historical rate measured in the fossil record — an indication that we are in a mass extinction. Life on Earth has seen five mass extinctions, the most recent being sixty-five million years ago when the dinosaurs were wiped out. This sixth extinction is human-caused with habitat alteration, over-exploitation, introduction of invasive species and pollution the major factors.

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 exists now and by memorializing and celebrating what is now gone, we can perhaps keep what we still have.


Three short films about extinct animals

Urania Sloanus
Urania Sloanus — described as the most beautiful moth in the world

How to raise awareness about recently extinct animals? We need to know and see what we’ve lost, both to remember and celebrate them even as we mourn them.

There’s something about an image – a photograph or even a film clip – something that recreates the likeness, that helps to bring the subject alive.

Here are three short films from my book, “Brief Eulogies for Lost Animals: An Extinction Reader” (available at the Pen and Anvil website).

  1. The Song of the O’o. The Kauai O’o was known as one of the finest singers in all of the Hawaiian Islands.
  2. The Laysan Rail. This rail, from the island of Laysan, in the NW Hawaiian Islands, is one of the few extinct birds for which film footage exists.
  3. Urania Sloanus at Sunrise. Urania Sloanus lived in Jamaica and was often described as the most beautiful moth in the world. This film, based on eyewitness reports, hints at why.

More about my book can be found here.

More films to come soon!

Reviews of “Brief Eulogies for Lost Animals”

Two reviews have been published of my book, “Brief Eulogies for Lost Animals: An Extinction Reader,” with more to come.

Over at Neon Books, writer and publisher Krishan Coupland lauds the “sheer poetry” of the writing and “the power of these vignettes… to render these animals real.”

Read the whole review at neonbooks.org.uk, and while you’re there, check out the other cool things that Krishan is up to at Neon Books.

A second review was written by biologist and writer, Mike Shanahan, who asks, “Can eulogies for lost species help prevent future extinctions?” Read Shanahan’s thoughtful response at his e-home Under the Banyan.

Other reviews are forthcoming. Get in touch if you would also like to review my book.

The Tree on My Block — Films

I didn’t notice the tree right away. I’d lived on the block for several years and it took me awhile to tune into it. But once I did it became my favorite tree. It took its time with its autumnal leaf changing, a month or even six weeks. In 2015, I was able to record the transition, though my photos were haphazard. I vowed the next year to be more consistent, get the photos from the same location, the same time of day and so on. But I never got a chance. The tree died in September 2016, when it dropped its leaves suddenly several weeks before it usually did. I didn’t know it was dead until I saw that it didn’t bud again in the spring. It stood dormant on my block for another year and was removed in April 2017.

I wrote several short prose pieces between the time the tree last dropped its leaves and when it was removed and have now made films out of them. They’re collected in the album on my Vimeo page, a memorial to a great tree. Still some tweaks to do here or there, but let me know in the comments what you think, which one is your favorite and so on. Thanks for watching.

The Tree on My Block — A Cycle

2013_trees_sue_patti 092

Responding to Loss in Nature

How do we as citizens and writers respond to loss in the natural world? Since I began to write my book, Brief Eulogies for Lost Animals (now available), several years ago, loss in nature has been frequently on my mind. I gave my first-ever poetry workshop on this theme at the Massachusetts Poetry Festival last weekend, and judging by how early the session filled up (soon after the schedule was announced, back in April), people are hungry to engage the topic.

Responding to Loss in the Natural World: An Ecopoetry Workshop at the Massachusetts Poetry Festival, May 2017

What have we lost? I asked the participants at the beginning of the session.

They answered:

  • fireflies
  • honeybees
  • the flight of the monarch
  • coral reefs
  • clean water
  • the night sky
  • the sounds of nature

and more.

A formidable list, which I supplemented with elephants, tigers, rhinos, pangolins, sharks, orangutans, bluefin tuna, songbirds, amphibians, mangroves, wetlands, neighborhood trees, sea grass beds, glaciers, mountain tops, and diversity in nature (see the work of Bernard Krause).

Our task as writers is to engage challenging issues and I would love to see poets take on loss in nature more frequently. Whether to grieve and lament, honor and eulogize, forewarn and remind (not to mention rant and rave!), our responses in poetry can help others process their own feelings regarding environmental change. Look at Mary Oliver’s poem, Lead . After the two inciting incidents (the loons dying over the winter and the friend’s description of one in its death throes) she folds in all the things she loves about loons – the things we all love, including its wild and uncanny call. Her response is our inspiration, a heartbreak that reminds us not to withdraw but to engage.  “Here is a story/ to break your heart”  she begins. And she ends the poem with:

I tell you this
to break your heart,
by which I mean only
that it break open and never close again
to the rest of the world.

Without this frame, the poem would be incomplete.

Historically, loons nested in Massachusetts but were extirpated in the late 19th century. In 1975, a pair of loons was discovered nesting at Quabbin Reservoir. Today, there are approximately 32 nesting pairs of loons on 14 different lakes, ponds and reservoirs in the Commonwealth. Loons are listed on the Massachusetts Endangered Species Act list as a Species of Special Concern. In general they require 1000 acres of water per nesting pair, islands for nesting and limited human disturbance, which makes the Quabbin Reservoir ideal.

However, loons are being poisoned by ingesting lead fishing gear – hence the title of Mary Oliver’s poem – this is the leading cause of mortality of loons in New England. They do this either by eating the minnows used as bait, then swallowing the hook, line, and sinker or by scooping lead sinkers off the bottom when they ingest small pebbles. Lead sinkers and lead weights less than one ounce are now banned in all inland lakes in Massachusetts in an attempt to curb the problem.

We had a lively discussion about the poem and it seems I could have based my entire session on it. But we also looked at a handful of other poems, chosen from Earth Shattering , a terrific anthology of ecopoems edited by Neil Astley, The Dire Elegies: 59 Poets on Endangered Species of North America, the Amsterdam Quarterly, The Lost Species Day website and Canary: A Literary Journal of the Environmental Crisis.

While journalists and scientists have to tell stories and present evidence when they write about loss in nature, poets have an advantage in being able to draw from seemingly unrelated events – or from their own experience — in order to evoke particular feelings.

One of the shortest poems we looked at was Condor from The Dire Elegies, by Massachusetts poet Susan Edwards Richmond:

When there is no sky left
big enough
to hold that bird,
let it die.

Then dig my grave close by. 


So terse, and yet so evocative at the same time. I love the prophetic voice she adopts in the first section of the poem. My hunch is that she took a simple detail like the ability of condors to soar, a detail that she loved, and turned it inside out to make it sound fresh and authoritative. Her real response follows in the last line  Then dig my grave close by. As one of the workshop participants said, the success of the condor is our success, and its failure, should that occur, will be our failure too.

In a writing exercise, we tried to get at the prophetic voice she uses in the first section, but we didn’t have time to share responses. Still, I feel we accomplished a lot in that one hour frame. My blurb on the festival website promised, “By challenging ourselves to engage important environmental problems, you’ll come away both with new material and with renewed connection to the natural world.” Ambitious, to be sure. But if only it were that easy to connect with nature!

Nevertheless, given the engagement and energy of the participants and the response to the theme, I’m looking forward to doing more such workshops soon.

The Maple Tree on My Block

2013_trees_sue_patti 092
The maple tree in the fall of 2014.

Every autumn, the maple tree on my block put on a terrific show of color. These displays lasted for several weeks. It was a beautiful tree and through the summer, I would look forward to the brilliance coming in the fall. But at the end of the summer of 2015, my anticipation turned to sadness when the tree’s leaves suddenly turned yellow and dropped. I waited anxiously all winter to see if it would bud again in the spring, but it did not.

It has been standing barren since then and today I made a short video about the tree that I loved so much. This week it is being taken down.


It’s not everyday that one loses a favorite tree so I’ve written a fair bit about it. These writings will be published soon and with accompanying photos and video.

Artists and Extinction V: Brandon Ballengee

How can artists convey the idea of disappearance and extinction of species?

This has long been a question for Brandon Ballengee, a visual artist, biologist and environmental educator based in Louisiana, whose many art installations have been inspired by his ecological field and laboratory work.

Initially, Ballengee wanted to use silhouettes to show something as there but disappearing. But while experimenting with blacking out extinct animals in old nature magazines, he recalled that Robert Rauschenberg once created a work that was an erased de Kooning drawing. So, rather than erase extinct animals from books, he began to cut them out with an Exacto knife (as long as there were multiple copies of the book).

This led to the creation of his installation, “Framework of Absence.” Ballengee created the works from real historic artifacts that were around while the animal was fading into extinction. After the animal was excised from its source, the depiction was burned and the ashes were placed into black glass funerary urns etched with the names of the lost species.

At installations, viewers were asked to scatter the ashes, an act that Ballengee hoped would connect participants to the lost species and help prevent further extinctions.

A few examples show the power of the exhibit. Here is the Great Auk, missing from the North Atlantic:

2008Ð9. Extinct by the late 19th Century. Artist-cut print from the Bowen Editions Royal Octavo Birds (1840Ð71). Eighth edition printed and hand-colored in 1871 (just prior to plates being burned in warehouse fire). 6 3/4 x 10 3/8 inches. Photography by David W. Coulter.
Extinct by the late 19th Century.
Artist-cut print from the Bowen Editions Royal Octavo Birds (1840Ð71).
Eighth edition printed and hand-colored in 1871 (just prior to plates being burned in warehouse fire).
6 3/4 x 10 3/8 inches.
Photography by David W. Coulter.

Here is the Spectacled Cormorant, missing from the Kamchatka Peninsula:

1869/2014. Artist cut and burnt hand-colored stone lithograph, etched glass urn, and ashes. 30 5/8 x 74 5/8 inches. Species last observed 1850s. Photo by Casey Dorobek.
1869/2014. Artist cut and burnt hand-colored stone lithograph, etched glass urn, and ashes. 30 5/8 x 74 5/8 inches. Species last observed 1850s.
Photo by Casey Dorobek.

Here is the Guadalupe Caracara, missing from Guadalupe Island:

1860/2014. Artist cut and burnt wood engraving, etched glass urn, and ashes. 9 1/8 x 11 1/8 inches. Species last observed 1860s. Photo by Casey Dorobek.
1860/2014. Artist cut and burnt wood engraving, etched glass urn, and ashes. 9 1/8 x 11 1/8 inches. Species last observed 1860s.
Photo by Casey Dorobek.

And here is the Sea Mink, missing from the rocky coasts of New England and Atlantic Canada.

1849/2014. Artist cut and burnt print hand-colored stone lithograph, etched glass urn, and ashes. 13 5/8 x 16 inches. Species last observed 1870s. Photo by Casey Dorobek.
1849/2014. Artist cut and burnt print hand-colored stone lithograph, etched glass urn, and ashes. 13 5/8 x 16 inches. Species last observed 1870s.
Photo by Casey Dorobek.

More of Brandon Bellengee’s work can be found at his website.

Previous entries for my series on artists and extinction can be found starting here.