Earlier this week, Carol and I walked on a beach in Maine where we saw two endangered bird species, Piping Plovers (Charadrius melodus) and Least Terns (Sternula antillarum).
Both these species nest on the beach above the high water mark. Nesting in the sand was a useful evolutionary adaptation for most of these birds’ existence. However, in the last hundred years as humans have used beaches more and more heavily. Many former nesting sites have either been eradicated. Other nesting sites see such heavy human use that nesting success has dropped precipitously.
Take the Piping Plover. The main strategy they use to evade predators is their cryptic coloration — when threatened, they squat down in the sand and are almost invisible. But this adaptation is counterproductive when the birds encounter over-sand vehicles (the birds and their nests get smushed), or off-leash dogs (the birds are found by smell, not sight) or oblivious humans playing on the beach (again, the birds get smushed). Then when some humans try to enact regulations to protect the birds — like restricting dog-walkers’ access to nesting areas, or prohibiting over-sand vehicles near nesting areas — many humans don’t comply with the regulations. So at another location in Maine this week, I saw a human with an unleashed dog standing right next to a marked nesting area where a few hours I had earlier seen a Piping Plover.
This is an example of how land use change and human overpopulation have caused rapid species decline over the past several decades. Now we can add another threat to these two species. Global climate change is already causing rising sea levels. If sea level rise continues, the preferred nesting locations for these birds is going to disappear.
It’s easy to sink into despair and imagine that these two species will be extinct in the next couple of decades. But while I’m not optimistic, there is still hope. Because even though humans are pushing these species to extinction, it’s also possible that they can be saved from extinction by careful human management. For that reason, I’ve decided that “management” is my new synonym for “hope.”
“I’m going to suggest that American automobile culture is fundamentally toxic and aggressively hegemonizing and evangelical towards other cultures, and needs to be heavily regulated and rolled back.”
Not to belabor the point, but while electric cars may help us address climate change, they still emit toxic substances (tires spewing microplastics into the environment, for example), and they also enable habitat destruction. Even when it comes to climate change, their carbon footprint is not zero.
(Why mention that Stross is a Scottish nationalist? Because that means he apparently hasn’t bought into the American mythos.)
I got up early to attend an online session of the Religious Education Association (REA) annual conference. The presentationby Heesung Hwang of Chicago Theological Seminary, on how religious education could address burnout, was thought-provoking, to say the least. I’ll try to summarize her presentation in a later post.
Then it was time to hit the road for another dreary drive. The roadway of Interstate 80/90 through Indiana and Ohio is dominated by tractor-trailer rigs; at times, I estimated that half the vehicles on the road were big rigs. We drove through an industrial landscape. The industrial landscape continued on either side of the highway. Weary Midwest industrial landscapes alternated with industrial agriculture of soybeans and corn. An industrial corn field is green, and at first it looks pretty, but up close it is as bleak as a mall parking lot.
We checked into our motel in Conneaut, on the Ohio-Pennsylvania border, at 3:30, just in time for me to attend another online session of the REA annual conference. This session, titled Sacred Pedagogic Texts in Dialogue, looked at non-Western religious educational philosophies by means of reading non-Western sacred texts (Analects, Bhagavad Gita, Guru Granth Sahib, Dao de Jing, and a Buddhist text.
It was an interesting presentation, but at the end of it I was ready to get outside. I started walking down the road next to our motel, saw a dirt road heading off to the left — no “No Trespassing” signs — and walked into the woods.
None of the trees looked older than 50-75 years old, so presumably this land was either farmed or logged off in the mid-twentieth century. Under the older trees there was a fair amount of coppice growth, and on the ground growing in the shade were non-woody plants ranging from ferns to skunk cabbage to poison ivy to plants I wasn’t able to identify.
I wanted to stay in the woods longer, but I was scheduled to attend a session titled “Educating of Ecological Awareness” at the REA online conference. Carl Procario-Foley presented based on his paper “Good Ancestors Practicing a Holistic Vision for Ecological Conversion, and Vaughan Nelson presented on his paper “How Food Teaches and Why It Matters for Religious Education.”Again, two thought-provoking sessions — and again, I’ll try to summarize these presentations in another post.
It’s late now. There’s an REA conference session at 7 a.m. tomorrow morning. I better get to sleep.
After a good visit with Ed and Nancy, it was time to start heading east again. Which meant getting through Chicago. The traffic started getting heavier north of the Illinois border, then was heavy and slow through most of Chicago. Eventually the skyscrapers of downtown Chicago rose up out of the hot, humid summer air.
The traffic got even worse south of Chicago, where Interstate 80, 90, and 94 merge together. This stretch of road always has heavy traffic. Maybe half the vehicles on the road were tractor-trailer rigs. It didn’t matter that we were driving in the middle of the day on a summer weekday, the traffic was still bad.
Eventually we got free of Chicagoland, and got off the interstate to take a walk in Indiana Dunes National Park. It was about a mile and a half walk to the lakeshore. We crossed a wetland area on a boardwalk and continued through some oak savannah. Carol pointed out a Red-headed Woodpecker in an oak tree. We crossed the narrow part of a pond on a foot bridge. I saw some Bluegills swimming in the water below us.
We continued to follow the path over some dunes, and there was Lake Michigan. The clouds had burned away by this time, and it was a bright sunny day. We both began to feel the heat, so we headed back to the car. I noticed some prickly-pear cactus growing on the sand dunes. I was beginning to get a bit of a head ache from the heat. Carol walked quickly ahead, under the theory that the quicker she got back to the car the better. I walked more slowly on the theory that there was no need to overheat myself. I plucked a sassafras twig and chewed on the sweet-tasting slightly narcotic inner bark. I found two or three huckleberries that were ripe, and ate them. I stopped to photograph the small delicate pink flowers of a hedgenettle (Stachys sp.).
When I got back to the trail head, Carol was sitting in the car drinking water. The car thermometer said it was 95 degrees. My shirt was soaked through with sweat. But even with the high temperature and humidity, walking through a bio-diverse landscape was better than driving through Chicagoland traffic.
We left Chamberlain at about 9:30, and headed to Yankton, South Dakota, to see Carol’s Aunt Rose. Our route took us off the interstate highway and onto a two-lane state highway. We passed through one or two small towns (with populations of a few hundred people), but mostly we drove through an agricultural landscape. We still saw cattle being grazed, but we also began to see vast fields of soybeans.
This is not an idyllic pastoral landscape, as it may first appear, but rather an industrial landscape. Monocultural agriculture requires large inputs of chemicals: fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides. Self-sufficient family farms raising a variety of crops have mostly disappeared — as evidenced by the many abandoned barns and farm houses in the landscape — replaced by impersonal agribusiness devoted to commodity crops like soybeans. This is the culmination of a trend noticed by Henry Thoreau back in the 1840s. Thoreau noted that the emergence of agriculture and farming in his day replaced the old values of “husbandry”; the former devoted to extracting the maximum dollar value of crops from the land, the latter devoted to stewardship of the land. Implied in this distinction is a vast difference in ethics: the ethics of agriculture and farming prioritize the maximizing of immediate profit for the individual landowner; the ethics of husbandry has a much broader understanding of the value of the land.
We arrived in Yankton in time for brunch. Aunt Rose cooked a lovely brunch for us. While we ate, Carol and her aunt talked about family. It was the highlight of our day. As we left, we apologized for taking Aunt Rose away from church, but she said she didn’t mind because everyone was busy planning her church’s vacation Bible school that starts tomorrow.
Soon after leaving Yankton, we crossed the border into Minnesota. We stopped at Blue Mounds State Park in Luverne, Minn., for a hike. The park includes an escarpment of red Sioux quartzite that’s as tall as a hundred feet in places, as well as over a thousand acres of tallgrass prairie. A small herd of bison lives in a fenced-in area of several hundred acres of prairie. We did see the bison, but they were so far away that they appeared as little more than dark splotches.
A thousand acres of prairie sounds like a lot. But seeing the little herd of bison stuck in that patch of prairie gives another perspective.Two hundreds years ago there would have been millions of bison roaming over millions of acres. From that perspective, the park seems small. Only about 1-4% of the original tallgrass prairie still survives in North America; the rest of the land has been turned to agriculture.
But I enjoyed myself in Blue Mounds State Park. Pricklypear cactus (Opuntia sp.) were in bloom, as were native roses (Rosa sp.) and sumac (Rhus sp.). Western Meadowlarks sang throughout the grasslands; this could be the last time I see and hear Western Meadowlarks on this trip, for soon we’ll be in the range of Eastern Meadowlarks. In fact, we’re already seeing the transition to eastern North American species: Stellar’s Jays have been replaced by Blue Jays; Poison Oak (Toxicodendron diversilobum) has been replaced by Poison Ivy (Toxicodendron radicans rydbergii — turns out this was Western Poison Ivy, which does grow in the east, and in fact interbreeds with Eastern Poison Ivy, T. radicans).
We spent a couple of hours walking through the park. Maybe that was too long, because it was after ten when we arrived at our motel in Albert Lea, Minn. But we both felt we needed a long walk after all the hours we’ve spent driving in the past week.
We got up early, and kept working from six thirty to twelve thirty. We put a few last items in the moving container, tied the canoe on the car, did some more last minute cleaning, loaded up the car, argued about little things, did a walk-through of the house with Kathy the cemetery superintendent and Joe from the cemetery’s board of trustees. The truck came by at about 9:30 to pick up the moving containers — what a relief that was. The car was packed by noon. It was a “Spare the Air” day, and the smog was unpleasant. We were ready to go.
Thank goodness it was a holiday, the new federal holiday to commemorate Juneteenth. A holiday reduced the traffic from intensely unpleasant to merely horrible. We drove out through the inner Coast Range and into the Central Valley. We stopped at Dixon Fruit Stand, but they had mediocre fruit and durly clerks. We kept driving. Just past Davis, I said, “Let’s get off at Yolo Bypass.” “Where?” said Carol. “Right here, this exit,” I said. Carol zipped off the freeway at the last minute, saying she was willing to do something I wanted to do; meaning I should be nice to her when there was something she wanted to do later in the trip.
We drove to Parking Lot B, three quarters of a mile into Yolo Bypass Wildlife Management Area. Carol stayed in the car to take care of some business on her phone. I got out into the Central Valley heat, into the intense sunlight. I walked down a road. Yellow Star Thistle (Centaurea solstitialis) lined the road, but just a yard or two from the road, there was a band of tall Bisnaga (Visnaga daucoides), the white umbrels of flowers waving above the feathery green foliage. Beyond that, bulrushes (Schoenoplectus sp.?) grew where the road dropped off into marshlands. Off to my right, green rice fields stretched into the distance. A large flock of White-faced Ibis circled overhead, then settled into the rice fields.
After this stop, I felt different. I felt sane. Packing up and emptying out the house had felt strange, not completely moored in reality. The first two hours driving in the car still felt a little detached from reality. But the brilliant sunlight, the flowers, the pollinators, the birds, the jackrabbit loping lazily across the road — it felt like I was reconnecting with reality.
While I was photographing a flower, a man pulled up in his car, and spoke through the open window. “Um, I was just curious what you’re doing there. Not that you have to tell me, but…”
“Do you know this social media app iNaturalist?” I said. He didn’t. I explained that you could take a photo of a plant or animal, upload it, and get an identification. “I got into flowers recently,” I said, “and that’s how I’m learning them.” He asked me a few questions, then got ready to move on. “I’m Thomas, by the way,” he said. I introduced myself, then he drove off.
I walked slowly back to the car. Carol got out to take a short walk with me, but we agreed it was too hot, so we started riving again.
We stopped again at the Donner Pass rest area, and walked the little half mile loop next to the parking lot. It was already summer in the Central Valley, but it was still spring in the High Sierras. I saw a manzanita (Arctostaphylos sp.) still in bloom. We came to a small pond, and on the opposite shore there was still some unmelted snow.
Then down the eastern slope of the Sierras into Nevada. Now we were in the dramatic landscape of the Great Basin. I noticed the canoe on top of the car cast an odd shadow as we drove.
As sublime and awe-inspiring as the landscape was, it had been permanently marked by humankind. The philosopher Martin Heidegger, Nazi sympathizer though he was, had a useful insight with his concept of “Enframing”: part of the logic of modern human technology is to exclude all other ways of thinking about the world.
That sublime Nevada landscape is completely surveyed, marked out with roads and power lines, dotted with trash and effluvia; the habitats of plants and territories of birds must fit into the interstices of that human framework.
We drove on under the awe-full evening sky, and checked into our motel in Fernley, Nev.
“Chemical pollution has officially crossed “a planetary boundary”, threatening the Earth’s systems just as climate change and habitat loss are known to do. A recent study by scientists from Sweden, the UK, Canada, Denmark and Switzerland highlights the urgent need to turn off the tap at source. Many toxic chemicals, known as persistent organic pollutants, or POPs, don’t easily degrade. They can linger in the environment and inside us – mostly in our blood and fatty tissues – for many years.”
A couple of years ago, I heard a talk by Dr. Stuart Weiss, a field biologist in the San Francisco Bay Area. He identified five major threats to the life-supporting systems of planet Earth:
1. Global climate change 2. Land use change (including deforestation and habitat destruction) 3. Invasive organisms 4. Toxication (including solids, like plastics, as well as chemicals) 5. Overpopulation
I would add one more — nuclear war — for a total of six major threats to earth’s life-supporting systems.
Upper middle class Americans have focused on climate change as the major environmental threat. But even if we solve the climate change problem, any combination of the other five threats would also lead to a “great extinction.” This is why having everyone buy an electric car is not going to fix looming environmental disaster. My guess is that major systemic change is needed, probably involving replacing capitalism with an economic system that is not a-moral (or immoral).