Things With Feathers: Bringing things back

Hello, dear readers.

So it’s been an intense few weeks! For me, personally, I had a series of deeply unpleasant emotional events, followed shortly by some truly wonderful (but also intense) new spiritual understandings, which collided quite spectacularly just a few days before the election. So that was fun timing. I also started taking an incredible permaculture course, which is full of brilliant people who want to improve the state of our cities and landscapes, and I cannot wait to see how that unfolds (I hope to share some of that here, too). So with all that, my head has hardly had time to stop spinning so that I can process everything. I’m really exhausted, excited to see how the things I’ve been learning will play out, and also terrified about the kind of world they will be playing out in.

I have also been heartened to see the way people are coming together, reaching out to one another, and speaking out against oppression, from my friends and family to state and city governments – and to keep reading news about progress that has already been made.

I don’t post these things to say “gosh don’t look at the bad things, don’t be so ~negative~” but as reminders that things are not all bad, that progress has been made and will be made, to remind myself (and you!) of a tiny sampling of things that are good in the world, that we are working to preserve and improve – and to provide a break from focusing on those things that are exhausting and terrible. It is so important to give yourself time to rest and enjoy something; our minds and emotions and bodies need breaks from stress. I do not want to lose any of you to despair at the immensity of the truly terrible things we are facing.

So! I’ve been filing away a bunch of positive stories to share.

But before I move on to those, here are links to two other essays I’ve written that seem appropriate to bring up again. One is “Life Support Systems,” about hope, joy, and love as forms of resistance and sources of resilience.

Joy is life affirming.

The other is “Why Hope?” – about the value not of “wishful thinking,” but the hope that comes from reminding ourselves of previous victories, and the serious necessity of doing that.

. . . Feeling problems are overwhelming and vast, and no solution has been come up with, creates despair and depression, states in which people feel like taking action is pointless; therefore, remembering similar efforts that have succeeded – and sharing those memories – is a vital antidote to that despair, which provides impetus (hope) to keep going and working towards the specific as-yet unachieved goals.

And now onward to the good news! Here are some things to celebrate, to find joy and new energy in.

From the “Even Walls Fall Down” department:

Taking Down Dams and Letting the Fish Flow. I’ve written previously about the removal of the dams on the Elwha River in Washington; this is about the removal of two of three dams on the Penobscot River in Maine. First erected in the 1830s, they caused populations of migratory fish to nearly collapse. Two of those dams were removed in 2012 and 2013, and despite the massive loss of population and blockage of close to two centuries, the fish are returning in impressive numbers. Along with the fish, of course, come other species, including osprey, eagles, and many less noticeable species. Even wild systems that look severely degraded can turn out to be very resilient.

From the “Rebuilding it Better” department:

Kansas Town Decimated by Tornado Now Runs on 100% Renewable Energy, Should Be Model for Frack-Happy State. In 2007, the town of Greensburg, Kansas, population 1,500, was leveled by an E-5 tornado. Half its population left permanently, but the town has rebuilt itself – and rebuilt itself as a city fully powered by renewable energy sources (Kansas is very rich in wind, for one). Further, the city provides “curbside recycling and conserves water with low flow fixtures and collects rainwater for irrigation and grey water in toilets,” making them a model for other cities to follow.

And closing with two items from the “Cute Animals” department:

Resurrected From Dead, Oryx Returns to the Wild. Thirty years after being driven to extinction in the wild, a small herd of scimitar-horned oryx – the successful results of a captive breeding program – has been released to their native land in Chad. The people behind this program hope to release 500 oryx over the next five years, to create a self-sustaining wild population that will also help restore the ecosystem they live in.
A group of scimitar oryx at Marwell Zoo in Hampshire, Great Britain
A group of scimitar oryx at Marwell Zoo in Hampshire, Great Britain. From Wikipedia; photo by “The Land” CC BY-SA 3.0
Via birdhism on Facebook: The world’s fastest parrot lives in Australia, and is critically endangered. Habitat destruction was part of the problem, but then people learned the population was also being heavily decimated by a predator: the sugar glider. However, the swift parrot is now “having breeding success on Bruny Island where they are free from their introduced predator, the sugar glider.” A campaign to raise money to install nesting boxes for the birds, combined with arborists carving little hollows for them into trees, has helped the birds raise new families by providing ample nesting spaces in the predator-free forest (source).
Swift parrot baby, via birdhism's Facebook page
Swift parrot baby, via birdhism’s Facebook page
 May your days ahead be filled with similar successes.

Fjothr Lokakvan

fyothrFjothr is an environmentalist, Lokean, and bioregional animist living in Cascadia, with a great many Norse Giants present in her life. Her spiritual practices are focused on her relationship with her primary god and building relationships with the local Powers and place. She keeps houseplants, spends almost too much time on Tumblr, and is inordinately fond of birds. She also writes at Rebalancing Acts and is on the board of Gods&Radicals

We’d love to pay our writers, and we’re hoping you can help us do that!

Things With Feathers: Why hope?

Since it’s what came my way, I have something a little different this time. Instead of a collection of articles focused on specific positive things happening, I have two articles discussing the value of hope itself. I highly recommend reading them both in their entirety, both for their examples of victories, and for the more in-depth treatment the authors give their subjects.

One is “The Rise of Ocean Optimism,” by Elin Kelsey, which is written about the importance of sharing successes in ocean conservation – though the concepts are widely applicable. The other, Rebecca Solnit’s “Hope is an embrace of the unknown,” examines the world more broadly, and presents the concept of “hope” in a really interesting way, as a way of acting in times of uncertainty.

They share one major common point: Feeling problems are overwhelming and vast, and no solution has been come up with, creates despair and depression, states in which people feel like taking action is pointless; therefore, remembering similar efforts that have succeeded – and sharing those memories – is a vital antidote to that despair, which provides impetus (hope) to keep going and working towards the specific as-yet unachieved goals.

One of the points raised in “Ocean Optimism” is the importance of educating people about ways to improve bad situations – quite literally, sharing what has worked for people can help others solve their problems. There are many serious problems with the ocean, and scientists were spending more time publishing analyses of problems instead of sharing things that worked, so the field was perceived very strongly as pretty much “doom and gloom.” The problems aren’t imaginary, but too much focus on those without spending enough time on actual solutions, and places where harmed ecosystems are recovering, doesn’t help people keep going with further solutions:

     Those of us who work with marine issues are often reluctant to talk about the environment in hopeful terms, for fear it might be taken as saying it’s okay to continue the appalling degradation of the seas. “Don’t worry about PCBs, my friend. The ocean will heal itself!” That sort of thing. We worry that highlighting species recoveries will play into the hands of climate skeptics, or reduce political pressure for much-needed environmental reforms.

     But what we fail to take into account is the collateral damage of apocalyptic storytelling.

     Hopelessness undermines the very engagement with marine issues we seek to create. According to researchers at Columbia University’s Center for Research on Environmental Decisions, there are limits to the amount of concerns we can deal with at one time. They call it the “finite pool of worry.” Overburdening people’s capacity for worry with too much doom and gloom leads to emotional numbing. When we believe our actions are too small to make a difference, we tend to behave in ways that create the conditions in which those expectations are realized. By bombarding people with bad news about the oceans at scales that feel too large to surmount, we cause them to downplay, tune out, or shut down. Hopelessness is a self-fulfilling prophecy. [emphasis added]

Kelsey also points out that another tactic often brought up – scaring people into doing the right thing – isn’t always appropriate, because “fearmongering isn’t the answer for broad, complex, emotion-laden, societal-level issues,” like environmentalism. Talking about what has been seen to work, showing places where there are solutions, is an alternative to that.

Solnit has this to say about focusing on victories and other memories of the past:

     Some activists are afraid that if we acknowledge victory, people will give up the struggle. I have long been more afraid that people will give up and go home or never get started in the first place if they think no victory is possible or fail to recognise the victories already achieved. … A victory is a milestone on the road, evidence that sometimes we win and encouragement to keep going, not to stop.

     Most of us would say, if asked, that we live in a capitalist society, but vast amounts of how we live our everyday lives – our interactions with and commitments to family lives, friendships, avocations, membership in social, spiritual and political organisations – are in essence noncapitalist or even anticapitalist, made up of things we do for free, out of love and on principle.”

     …noncapitalist ways of doing things are much older than free-market economic arrangements. Activists often speak as though the solutions we need have not yet been launched or invented, as though we are starting from scratch, when often the real goal is to amplify the power and reach of existing options. What we dream of is already present in the world.”

     …though hope is about the future, grounds for hope lie in the records and recollections of the past. We can tell of a past that was nothing but defeats, cruelties and injustices, or of a past that was some lovely golden age now irretrievably lost, or we can tell a more complicated and accurate story, one that has room for the best and worst, for atrocities and liberations, for grief and jubilation. A memory commensurate to the complexity of the past and the whole cast of participants, a memory that includes our power, produces that forward-directed energy called hope.

She also spends several paragraphs discussing how what is remembered affects how we feel about things now. “Forgetting” the past can create despair and depression and inaction, because all recollections of victories are ignored, so there is only the (awful) “now,” and if this is how it has “always been,” how can things be different in the future?

     The status quo would like you to believe it is immutable, inevitable and invulnerable, and lack of memory of a dynamically changing world reinforces this view. In other words, when you don’t know how much things have changed, you don’t see that they are changing or that they can change.

One of the things I liked best was the way Solnit defined hope  – a way of acting in times of uncertainty.

Hope locates itself in the premises that we don’t know what will happen and that in the spaciousness of uncertainty is room to act. When you recognise uncertainty, you recognise that you may be able to influence the outcomes – you alone or you in concert with a few dozen or several million others. When you recognise uncertainty, you recognise that you may be able to influence the outcomes – you alone or you in concert with a few dozen or several million others. Hope is an embrace of the unknown and the unknowable, an alternative to the certainty of both optimists and pessimists. — Rebecca Solnit

She mentions several historical examples of sudden change happening after a lot of groundwork had been laid. No one knew what specific trigger point would occur, or when, or that the actions that did occur would end up setting off much larger-scale reactions. And, had the efforts of so many people, and desires for change, not already been in place, the precipitating incidents could not have had the same results. What I take from this is that, even if no specific timeline can be predicted for work to pay off, it is vital to keep doing it, and to be connected with others, to spread the ideas and desires for change to happen, so that when that unpredictable but necessary catalytic moment comes and creates an opening, all that pent-up energy can move.

Another important made by Kelsey is that emotions are contagious – and hope spreads faster on social media than pessimism, which is what you get from news sources. None of this is a call to stop talking about the problems facing the world – if you don’t know something is causing harm, you not only can’t help stop it, you may end up inadvertently perpetuating it – but to not focus solely on the harms. By sharing our stories of past victories, and providing reminders that things have changed, they can change, and they will change, we support each other in working towards our next victories.

And the Bastard grant us . . . in our direst need, the smallest gifts: the nail of the horseshoe, the pin of the axle, the feather at the pivot point, the pebble at the mountain’s peak, the kiss in despair, the one right word. In darkness, understanding. — Lois McMaster Bujold (in Paladin of Souls)

Things with Feathers: “Freedom farming” and Lazarus species

I found a couple articles recently about farmers taking a non-dominating approach to growing crops. Neither article mentioned terms like permaculture or biodynamic farming; these folks are coming from (apparently) different perspectives, or at least not using that terminology to describe their farming practices.

What they have in common is a desire to grow crops in a manner that takes their local ecosystem into consideration, and work within its constraints to deal with weeds, insects, and – in one case – breed crops best suited for the local ecosystem.

One article, Meet This Third-Generation Farmer Who Converted His 1,400 Acres to Growing Organic Food, is about a farming family who switched to organic production primarily for financial reasons, despite experts saying this wasn’t a good idea.

Klaas used to grow monolithic fields of corn. He used to spray. For 20 years, he applied all the “right” chemicals. He put them on properly. He carefully recorded the results. Then in 2000 he and Mary-Howell decided to stop; they decided to go completely organic all at once.

“We weren’t making a good living on our farm,” Klaas said. “Sad to say but quite often my profit was entirely in subsidy money that I was getting. I would plan a crop of corn knowing that it was not likely to be profitable but we were going to get enough subsidy to make up the difference.”

Klaas and Mary-Howell had been toying with organic practices on a few test acres for a few years, intending to gradually convert a little more land each year. Then one day they saw an ad in the newspaper offering $6 a bushel for organic wheat, twice the conventional rate.

They found there were local markets for most crops they wanted to grow, but agriculture experts told them that going organic didn’t make sense for a farm their size. However, Klaas had another reason besides the finances to want to switch: after years of using herbicides, he’d had a terrible reaction, and didn’t want to get sick again, or ask anyone else to on his behalf.

In the course of learning how to grow organically,

. . . Klaas came across a quote by a German agricultural researcher that completely stumped him but completely changed his way of thinking:

Cultural practices form the basis of all weed control. Various other means should be regarded as auxiliary only. — Bernard Rademacher

“Until then, I was used to thinking that whenever you have a problem you react to it,” Klaas admitted. He was used to asking the conventional question: how do I control this? “Well this quote turned that thinking around,” he said. “It asked: What caused this problem? Why is this weed here? And once you start thinking like this, you can derive a holistic plan for what you’re going to do about it.”

The answer was not to fight against the weeds but to understand them. Completely and fully, within the context of everything else around them.

The article describes the natural succession of plants on a plot that has been taken out of agricultural production – how different species come in after others have first prepared the way. So Klaas farms in a way that takes that process into consideration. He grows a variety of crops, and grows them in rotation. Over several years, this practice meant he saw a pest plant become smaller, less and less of a problem, and then get attacked by disease and insects while nothing else was affected. (His neighbors continued to have problems with the same plant.)

“Everything that grows in soil changes the soil,” Klaas said. “It makes the soil the best environment for something else.”

. . .

“The weed that bothered us the most was velvet leaf,” he said. “It seemed unstoppable. But within six years of changing our farm, our rotations and our inputs, velvet leaf started getting smaller and smaller every year. And we started seeing a disease on it.” The velvet leaf was being attacked by fungus and virus and insect. “And yet the crop wasn’t being affected.”

After 15 years, he feels they are “only getting started as an organic farm,” and still have a great deal to learn, including what crops are the right rotation, and how to best bring in nutrients to make up for what is removed when the harvest is sold.

This is the 10,000-year old problem of agriculture that every farmer simultaneously contributes to and contends with: farming changes the environment. It changes the soil. Period. As long as we’re committed to domesticating and growing the food we eat, we’re also committed to altering the very earth that provides it.

This is why we need to be extremely thoughtful about how we feed ourselves. Because the question we automatically ask is: How do we reduce human impact on the Earth? But when it comes to farming, the better question might be: How do we produce the most constructive and sustainable human impact possible?

In The Rise, Fall, And Almost Rise Of The Caviar Of Cantaloupe, we are introduced to Ken Taylor, a farmer and (now retired) chemistry professor, who practices a low-intervention method of farming, and was asked to see if he could bring back the “Montreal melon” from virtual extinction. The fruit was extremely popular in the late 1800s and early 20th century, but urbanization had a detrimental impact on some of the areas it was grown, and the plant’s needs weren’t a good fit for industrialization:

It wasn’t an easy melon. It required a fair amount of coddling: watering, syringing, ventilating, lifting with a flat stone or shingle to prevent cracking or rot, and turning every few days to ensure uniformity of shape, color, netting, and ripening.

They also didn’t transport well over long distances, and by the mid-1950s, it was no longer offered in Burpee’s widely-sold seed catalogs, the first catalog in which they’d been sold after Burpee’s founder encountered them in 1880.

After a food journalist named Barry Lazar learned about the melons and wrote about them in the Montreal Gazette in 1991, another reporter for the Gazette, Mark Abley, became intrigued.

He wondered how such a popular fruit could have disappeared so completely.

Abley had researched endangered species before. He knew about a stick insect, long thought to be extinct, that had been found clinging to a rock on an island in the South Pacific; a fish that had been known only from its fossil record until 1938, when it was dredged up in the Indian Ocean by an angler; and a bird that was thought to have vanished from Bermuda shortly after British sailors arrived in the 1600s but was rediscovered in 1951 and is now the country’s national bird. “There’s even a particular name for this,” he says. “Lazarus species.”

He thought it was possible someone might have saved some seeds, and if they had, he had an idea who in Montreal might be able to bring the melon back: Ken Taylor, who has a serious interest in crop diversity, and growing crops suited for the local environment.

Though Taylor took on farming simply because he wanted to grow his own food, it has evolved into a mission. He sells seeds, seedlings, and rootstock on the Green Barn Farm website, urging growers to “protect our Canadian genetic heritage.”

. . .

Working with perennial plants, which require minimal upkeep and don’t need to be replanted every year, he has bred and selected varieties of fruits, nuts, and berries that resist the brutal Canadian winters. And he thinks other Canadian farmers ought to be doing the same.

“Planting seeds and pounding the soil and annually preparing it and fertilizing it and watering it and fighting whatever short-term disease you may have so that you can finish everything up in three months is not a very earth-friendly or sustainable food production system,” says Taylor. “But that’s basically all we do in Canada.”

Part of the problem, according to Taylor, is that the country’s agricultural system is designed for exports, not for local markets. In 2012, Canada became the world’s fifth-largest agricultural exporter — and spent $32.3 billion bringing in agricultural and agri-food items from 190 other countries.

“We’re a country of agriculture, but we can’t feed ourselves,” Taylor says. “That’s pathetic.”

The only hope for food security, according to Taylor, is to disrupt the monoculture of modern farming through small-scale diversity. Diversity is important in farming, because planting only one crop, or one variety of a crop, leaves it vulnerable to disease.

His approach, which he calls “freedom farming,” is a very, very low-human-intervention approach, letting the natural systems direct what grows and what does not.

His philosophy is simple: Tread lightly. Let the land do what it wants and outsmart any pests, animals, or diseases that might threaten the yield. He doesn’t try to make his land conform to his desires; he wants to see what the land desires, what will thrive on it. That means interfering with it as little as possible: no effortful weeding, no spraying. No watering, even. If a crop doesn’t grow, well, then, perhaps it shouldn’t. Weeds are not the enemy. They bring rich nutrients to the ground, and they’re useful near vine crops to prevent crows from having a place to land near his fruit.

Freedom farming, he says, is “the ultimate opposite of control.” He’ll do small things — like use plastic mulch to increase the heat when his vine crops are young, personally squash worms that are eating his leaves, or begin his crops indoors if the weather is too cold. But mainly he sees his role as introducing new genetics.

He doesn’t mean “introducing new genetics” in the Monsanto sense of altering an organism’s DNA and creating a new species of tomato or carrot. He means bringing in or crossing existing species with the larger goal of increasing biodiversity and food security. “I aid and abet some of the natural selection that would go on by bringing in new genetics all the time from all over the world. And if nature doesn’t want it there, it doesn’t grow.”

His efforts to get the Montreal melon back have met with mixed success. He did successfully grow it some years, and the seeds are back in circulation among multiple sources, but after enough frustration with it, he stopped working with it to focus on crops that are better suited to the land. Lack of pollinators has been one problem; most of the farmland in the area holds conventional crops that are sprayed. Problems with rain and fungal infection also prevented the melons from growing well.

He knew what he could have done for a better outcome. “I would have had to put a row cover on,” he said. “I would have had to give it some sort of seaweed coating or some intervention of some kind. I have some kale and clay there. I could have sprayed that on, maybe beat back the fungus a bit.” But he didn’t want to do it. He’s a freedom farmer.

“You know, why bang your head against nature? The reason the Montreal melon died out is not just because it’s big and it’s hard to grow. The climate has changed. And I’m sure the climate was changing back 60-70 years ago as well and caused a lot of people to say, ‘The hell, I can grow an easier melon!’ That cantaloupe melon that everybody buys that’s salmon-color flesh? You throw a seed in, and it’ll grow.”

Taylor didn’t come out and say it, but it was obvious what he was thinking: Perhaps the Montreal melon no longer belongs in Montreal.

While the melon may no longer be happy growing in its place of origin, he does consider it a success, as an achievement of one of his primary goals: to increase genetic diversity among crops.

And remember the list of other “Lazarus species” mentioned? This article came my way today, and I almost cried reading it: Six-Legged Giant Finds Secret Hideaway, Hides For 80 Years

That’s the stick insect, “long thought to be extinct, that had been found clinging to a rock on an island in the South Pacific,” that one of the reporters knew about. It’s known as a “tree lobster” (it’s very large for an insect) or the “Lord Howe stick insect,” presumed extinct since 1960 and not sighted since 1920. The insect was named for the only place it was known to exist, “Lord Howe Island.” Rats landed in 1918 after leaving a ship that ran aground, and hunted the insects to extinction. Some people who’d climbed the small, very very steep island called Ball’s Pyramid several miles south reported seeing stick insect corpses in the 1960s, but that was apparently it for the species. Since stick insects are nocturnal, no one felt strongly inclined to go look, because that would require climbing the very very steep mountain in the dark, and so the insect was classified as extinct.

But in 2001, two Australian scientists decided to go looking. They found fresh droppings of some large insect on one bush, went back in the dark, and found a small population of the long-unseen Lord Howe stick insect. A more extensive search later indicated that small population was it for the entire island.

After years of meetings and studies, government officials agreed that a very small number of the insects could be removed from Ball’s Pyramid, to see if they could be bred in captivity. Some of the removed insects died, and after another near-death, a population in the hundreds is established – in captivity.

Whether or not they can ever be reintroduced to their original home is unknown – the rats that wiped out the population on Lord Howe Island have continued to breed and inhabit that place, and the human inhabitants would have to agree to any plan to kill all the rats and bring back the very large insects. The stick insects are harmless, but you know, lots of humans find insects, especially very large insects, kind of creepy. I think they’re pretty adorable, and they have some pair-bonding behavior (unusual for insects) that might help others find them somewhat more charming than the average crawly.

At any rate, where’s there’s life, there’s hope.

Things with Feathers: Happy seasonal holiday edition

Three things make a post, goes the old wisdom, so I bring you three things:

  1. A small fish native to desert creeks of Southern Oregon and Northern California, called the Modoc sucker, has been taken off the endangered species list, after 30 years of work to keep it from extinction.
  2. Baby tortoises!! Spotted for the first time in 100 years on the Galapogos Island of Pinzon. Not only a positive sign for their species, they are really cute, too.
  3. A lot of awful things happened this past year, but this article lists 11 positive signs of progress, including improvements in education worldwide, polio being nearly eradicated, and child mortality rates continuing to drop.
  4. Bonus article, because ’tis the season for sharing good things, and the gift contains within it another. This is a letter to the editor, about the importance of joy: “Anybody want to start a movement? #YouCantHaveMyJoy.” The poem quoted within is absolutely worth reading in its entirety.

Things with Feathers: Elwha and Keystone XL updates

The Victories of the Keystone XL Effort

So recently, TransCanada asked the US State Department to hold off on making a decision about the Keystone XL pipeline, in a move that was widely viewed as a blatant attempt to avoid being rejected by the current administration, so that TransCanada could just wait a couple years, when perhaps a more fossil fuel friendly President would be in office, and they could quickly get permission to build the rest of the pipeline.

The State Department denied the request, and shortly thereafter, President Obama rejected the project, which has been widely – and rightly – seen as a victory for all those who had been working for years to prevent it being built.

Many pipelines have been built (including a portion of the Keystone XL pipeline that is entirely within the US and was approved by President Obama; see item 6 here), regardless of the protests of environmental activists and people who will be directly impacted by those pipelines. Keystone XL was also assumed to be a project that would just get approved and be built, like all those others. In the past, tarsands oil had a lot of support from the Canadian government, and the previous US administration (under President G. W. Bush) was also very positive towards fossil fuels. In late 2011, after over 1,200 people were arrested protesting the pipeline, the State Department (now under President Obama) issued an environmental impact statement that looked very favorable to the project.

The inside story of how the Keystone fight was won” goes into the background and story of the various people and groups involved in protesting this pipeline, and the various political forces affecting its rejection. What I think makes this a story about victories is not just the victory in halting the pipeline’s progress – and in having the President speak out against it and the problem of climate change – but the victories of having many people from diverse places working together against it.

     In 2011, when, the climate action group that would become widely identified with the anti-KXL campaign, glommed onto the issue, there were two groups of activists already working on it: locals from affected communities along the proposed pipeline route, such as ranchers, farmers, and Native Americans, and environmental wonks in Washington, D.C.

The local people had been working against the pipeline since it was first proposed in 2008, which included tribal councils passing resolutions against it, and then taking their concerns directly to the President in 2011. In 2014, after the State Department issued another impact statement, again looking favorable towards the pipeline, the entire coalition held another protest event in Washington D.C.

     The theme was “Cowboys and Indians,” after the ranchers and Native Americans who both joined in. The Native American groups put up tepees where visitors could stop in and be educated about the issue. The week culminated in a rally and march with real-life cowboys and Indians riding horses. “That was the first time the White House acknowledged our work,” Kleeb wryly remembers. “I got an email from the White House saying, ‘OK, you’ve got our attention.’ They literally said that.”

     The cowboy and Indian alliance was not just cobbled together for that event. It had grown out of a Native American summit about a year earlier. “I was at an event at the casino on the Rosebud reservation [in South Dakota] in early 2013,” Kleeb recalls. “It was a community forum where everyone was sharing information. One of the elders talked about the cowboy and Indian alliance that stopped uranium mining in the ‘80s. So I went to tribal leaders and said we should revive the cowboy and Indian alliance and do events along the pipeline route. We did a concert with Willie Nelson and Neil Young, and ‘Reject and Protect’ on the Mall.”

     The collaboration between historical antagonists, both icons of the American West, gave the opposition to KXL a broader national political appeal. “Those faces are not the image you usually have of the environmental movement,” says Kleeb. “We were helping the White House understand that there was political space [to] reject it.”

The full story is much more complex, and includes delights like the Republicans’ focus on it backfiring, and the importance of it being an issue of climate change, which also gave the President what he needed to reject it. I recommend reading it in full.

Bonus hopeful climate change article: How We’re Winning the Climate Fight, One Community at a Time

Growth in the Elwha River

Here is a photo taken last month at the mouth of the Elwha River, where the new beach and estuary being created by free sediment, and a free-flowing river, continue to expand.

From the Facebook post that contained this image:

     The day after the weekend rain event during which the Elwha flows jumped from 2000 to over 12000 cfs in less than 8 hours. Flows then dropped back to pre-storm cfs overnight. Classic Elwha. The high flow combined with fall high tide and the entire Elwha west estuary (not blocked by a dike) was reactivated. The result? Juvenile steelhead, coho, and Chinook were abundant. Also, (for the first time in over a decade of sampling), we caught a number of large, powerful, adult chum in our sets. Once the second most abundant run in the Elwha chum numbers plummeted to a few hundred fish after the dams went in. We’ve said it before: Large, and packed with marine nutrients, chum are absolutely critical for the restoration of the watershed ecosystem.

     We have many significant challenges left to address in the Elwha nearshore. Today was a heart lifting moment to just experience the forceful hope unfolding in the Elwha, and a clear affirmation of what happens when you restore ecosystem processes.

Chum salmon are not the only fish starting to return and restore overall ecosystem health; some of the forage fish in the area are coming back, too (Source):

     Following complete removal of the last dam from the Elwha River it appears that the nearshore food webs have begun to repair themselves.  During a recent lower river and estuary seining, the Coastal Watershed Institute (CWI) documented, for the first time, hundreds of gravid and spent eulachon Thaleichthys pacificus- a federally listed river spawning smelt (watch a video of the field observation here).

Eulachon are a small, very fatty fish, also known as “candlefish” because they can be dried and then burned like a candle. They’ve been an important food for indigenous peoples as well as the other members of the ecosystem, and the undamming of this river is helping the population by providing the kind of sediment they need. They had been nearly absent for 60 years, and now, about a year after the last dam was removed, they are returning in abundance.

The Coastal Watershed Institute has also documented two kinds of smelt (also forage fish) near the Elwha now that the nearshore environment is being repaired by sediment flowing from the river. All species of forage fish are vital for the overall health of the ecosystems they are a part of, as a very wide range of larger animals – fish, mammals, birds – rely on them as a major part of their diets, so protecting these fishes from overfishing, and ensuring the habitat they need is protected and restored, is critical. It is exciting to see that they can start to return so quickly to an area that had been inhospitable to them for so long.

Bonus tree-on-a-rock image:

Life finds ways. (Tree on sea stack, Rialto Beach. Fjothr Lokakvan, 2015)
Life finds ways. (Tree on sea stack, Rialto Beach. Fjothr Lokakvan, 2015)

Thank you for reading. Thank you for being here.

Things with Feathers: News about amphibians and Shell

I’ve read some exciting news since last month, some of it about the rather small and some (which you’ve probably heard), about much bigger things.

“Extinct” toad rediscovered

The Azuay stubfoot toad of Ecuador, believed to be extinct earlier this century, has been found alive. The toads were once abundant, but were later the first species in Central and South America confirmed to have the chytrid fungus, which has devastated amphibian populations worldwide. It was assumed the fungus lead to their extinction, but the toads found recently show no signs of the infection.

Photograph by Alejandro Arteaga, Tropical Herping (via National Geographic)
Photograph by Alejandro Arteaga, Tropical Herping (via National Geographic article)

The article also briefly mentions a number of other amphibian species that have been rediscovered after being declared extinct, including frogs and salamanders in South America, Africa, and Haiti. The other articles about rediscoveries are also great reading!

Royal Dutch Shell leaves Arctic

And the big news: As widely reported last month, Shell has given up on drilling for oil in the Arctic; they didn’t find enough in their test drill to convince them it would be financially feasible to remain (this despite being SO CERTAIN, for YEARS that there was plenty of oil up there).

It’s been interesting reading different news/blogs’ takes on this: the more environmentally-leaning authors/sites paint this as a victory for the environmental activist movement, whereas more “conservative” authors play that down and focus on the economics of it.

Of course, the economics ARE a major factor; there’s no doubt about that. However, it’s been curious to see the “it’s really just about the money” sources not really addressing Shell’s official statement in full, especially the last bit of it:

“Shell will now cease further exploration activity in offshore Alaska for the foreseeable future. This decision reflects both the Burger J well result, the high costs associated with the project, and the challenging and unpredictable federal regulatory environment in offshore Alaska.” (source)

Right, “the challenging and unpredictable federal regulatory environment in offshore Alaska.”

What about that? What happened recently? Neither of the two major Democratic candidates for President are in favor of drilling in the Arctic; if either of them gets elected, that person could end Shell’s (or anyone’s) access. Oregon Senator Merkley introduced a bill back in July that would prevent any future leases to drill in the Arctic, and, in addition, not renew current leases (it is cosponsored by Sen. Sanders, among others); the House bill was introduced in September by Rep. Huffman from California.

While I believe some of these politicians would hold these views regardless of popular opinion, these actions did not just come about in a vacuum. Playing down the role of thousands and thousands of people protesting Arctic drilling, Keystone XL, other fossil fuel extraction efforts, and asking for more ecological conscious alternatives, is slanted journalism.

It’s also worth keeping in mind what Naomi Klein and Avi Lewis say (in a lengthy interview, very worth reading), and particularly about the divestment in fossil fuels, which has become a really big effort (bolding added by me):

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about what just happened in the Arctic—I think, to many people’s shock? You had the kayaktivists, the environmentalists converging along—all through the Northwest to try to stop Shell from drilling. You have President Obama, the first sitting president of the United States to go to the Arctic, giving some of the best climate change speeches ever. And yet, right before he went, he approved drilling in the Arctic. And then Shell announces they won’t be doing it, though he had given them permission?

NAOMI KLEIN: Yeah, and though they had spent, I think, $7 billion on this adventure over the years. You know, it’s remarkable. And one of the things that I think one has to understand is that the fossil fuel industry will go to great lengths not to credit activism as being a contributor to a decision like this, because—

AVI LEWIS: Well, think what they could encourage, if they did.

NAOMI KLEIN: They don’t want to encourage us, yes. But I believe that this is a victory that absolutely should be claimed by this remarkable movement of those daring climbers on bridges, you know, climbing up—also climbing up the rig itself, the Polar Pioneer. I had a wonderful conversation with a 21-year-old named Zoe. When she was at the very top of the Polar Pioneer for seven days, I spoke to her on her satellite phone. But also the millions of people who signed the petition—I think it’s something like 7 million people signed the petition asking Shell not to go to the Arctic. So this was certainly a factor. We know that the price is down for oil, and there were concerns about whether this was even going to be economic. So, I think it was a combination of factors, that the profit margins are going down because the price is down, and this is a very expensive form of drilling, and then the cost to a brand when you have this type of mobilization, obviously, is something that their shareholders are concerned about.

But there’s something else, too, and I was talking about this with a colleague of mine, KC Golden, who’s from Seattle, and he’s the chair of the 350 board of directors. And he was saying, well, it’s something—it’s more than that. And what that is, is that this was always a long-term play. Shell always said, you know, “It’s going to take us a couple of decades before this becomes productive.” And KC’s point, and I think it’s a valid one, is that they’re no longer sure there is a long-term play, because of all of this cumulative impact of divestment, you know, of the fact that this movement is really a movement on a roll, that we are starting to see some significant policies. So, this whole idea of, “Well, we’ll do this in 20, 30 years,” investors are going, “Are you sure we’re going to be around for that long?” And so, I think that, on that level, it should also be claimed as a victory.

I’m going to quote another small bit from that interview, showing that even some of the individuals making their money directly from fossil fuels would prefer an alternative:

AVI LEWIS: It is complicated. And people in Alberta, who live next to that biggest industrial project on Earth, have been very anxious about the pace of development and the costs of that project for a long time. And, you know, the oil and gas industry is a very conformist culture. And if you speak about renewable energy, you really get slapped down. It’s like a—there’s a bit of a locker room thing happening there. But the number of workers who told us off camera that they would rather be building wind turbines and putting up—installing solar panels was remarkable. They wouldn’t say it on camera, except for this one amazing guy in the film who’s a boilermaker named Lliam Hildebrand, who started an organization called Iron and Earth, where he’s organizing tar sands workers in support of renewable energy. And he’s building support fast. And there’s a huge constituency up there, especially now that the oil industry is laying off thousands and thousands of people, of workers in that industry who would rather go home and tell their kids what they did that day and feel proud of it.

Activism matters. Individual actions matter; they add up. Economics does not exist independent of social behavior, and the sources who ignore the activism, and the efforts to change the status quo, are probably pushing an agenda.

Original unedited photograph by Daniella Beccaria/AP; edits by me.

Keep up the good work!




Things with Feathers: A fishy return and a victory for trees

Stories from the United Kingdom and my city this month.

A slithery return after 200 years

From The Guardian; photograph by Handout

Lamprey, a very ancient fish with an eel-like appearance, have returned to multiple places in the UK where, in some cases, conditions were too terrible for them for 200 years. Pollution and blockages across the rivers had kept them away, but with cleaner water, and the removal of dams and other barriers, they are coming back.

“Now that water quality has improved and some of these barriers have been removed we are seeing lampreys return to the upper reaches of rivers such as the Ouse, Trent, and Derwent, where they were absent as recently as 30 years ago.”

An Environment Agency spokeswoman added that the eel-like creatures are returning “to their old slithering grounds”.

. . .

Several objects, such as weirs which block the fish’s passage, have been removed by the Environment Agency in England and innovations have been introduced to help them get past other structures, such as at Buttercrambe Weir on the River Derwent in Yorkshire where special ‘lamprey tiles’ have been laid.

Some species of lamprey are parasitic on other fish as adults, but in their larval form, they live and feed in the muck in the bottom of rivers. In the region I live, they were an important food, along with salmon, for many of the indigenous peoples; in the UK, they also played a traditional role, which may again some day be able to incorporate UK-local fish:

It was traditional for Gloucester to send a Christmas lamprey pie to the English and later the British monarch until 1836 when the practice was discontinued, except for coronations and jubilees. In 2012 a pie was sent to the Queen to mark the Diamond Jubilee but numbers of UK lampreys were so low that they had to be imported from the Great Lakes of North America.

The sequoias in Eastmoreland

There’s a neighborhood a bit south of where I live where two lots were bought earlier this year by a developer, who planned to build a couple of large new homes. On one of those lots were three very tall sequoias that were apparently planted in the mid-1800s.

The city made some changes in code recently that made it easier for developers to cut down trees, including really big, healthy, old trees – and the developer planned to do just that.

The neighborhood was upset. They tried to work out a deal with the developer, to buy the property from him – he asked for $900,000, $250,000 more than he’d paid for the properties. The neighborhood tried to come up with it, or at least some of it, but things weren’t looking so great.

Last week, it looked like the trees were finally going to be taken down, but people showed up, and police to “control the crowd” if necessary, and news trucks showed up, and then things calmed down, and then started up again when the developer fenced off the whole lot . . . and then a guy climbed one of the trees, with supplies and support to stay a while (I swear this really happened, this was not an episode of “Portlandia”), and so of course lots of police, along with private security, showed up, and one of the co-creators of “South Park” helped out financially, and there was lots of news and etc. and then finally the mayor (who lives in Eastmoreland) got the developer and some neighborhood people together to work out a deal that would stick. Here’s a decent summary (I’ve been following it via various media for the last week or two including a busy FB page).

Found on the "Save the Portland Redwoods" Facebook group; (c) Rhianna Lakin
Found on the “Save the Portland Redwoods” Facebook group; (c) Rhianna Lakin

So the current plan as I understand it is the trees are safe, though the neighborhood is working to raise money to pay off loans people are taking out to save them; the trees’ lot will become a park, and a different developer is going to build something on the other lot.

I weighed whether or not to write about this here – it is, after all, only 3 trees, in one of Portland’s wealthier neighborhoods, and it felt self-indulgent to write about something so local to me – but then I reread this article by one of the neighbors of the trees, written earlier this summer, and was reminded of a few things (emphasis added):

A friend who runs a portable sawmill heard about our fundraising efforts and said, “Spending that much money on saving three trees sounds nuts to me.” He pointed out that giant sequoias aren’t even native to this area. “Think of how many acres of native oak forest that money could save.”

I had struggled with this myself. Imagine all the other things one could do with that kind of money? But I give money to any number of causes about which the same criticism could be leveled—Kickstarter campaigns for films, animal rescue, etc. It would be a pretty self-defeating world if we didn’t try to solve smaller problems just because bigger ones are more deserving of our attention.

Still, what kind of solution was this? Who were we to try to pay off this developer? A story on was littered with disparaging remarks about wealthy Eastmoreland residents throwing their money away. I could honestly see both sides. Why did these trees matter so much anyway? Their previous owners, who lived on the property for more than 60 years, didn’t seem to mind seeing them cut down, so who were we to complain?

But hold on, have you seen these frickin’ trees? Come take a look at them, please. Come over and tell me we’d all be better off if they were cut down to make room for a maximum-sized, Tudor-style house.

And it’s true: the “small” local victories are important, especially for the people most immediately affected by them, but I also find encouragement in them, as indications that people DO care, and care A LOT about their immediate environment, and the beings they share that space with, and I figure those folks are also probably involved in other, bigger-picture things, not just small, super-local actions that are easy for people to criticize (to say nothing of the local children who know and love these trees, who will grow up having seen a place saved).

(An interesting thing about the giant sequoias, and their not being native to Portland, is that in their native habitat, biologists are concerned they might not do well with climate change making things warmer and drier. Some conservationists have suggested that to save the species, it might be necessary to start intentionally planting them farther north than where they are in California, to places that will be more likely to provide them the moisture they need. So Portland might be a good place . . .)

Near the end of the article, the author writes:

In the middle of all this, Everett Custom Homes proudly announced it had received a “2015 Green Home Builder Award” from Earth Advantage Institute. At what point can we no longer greenwash away our footprints? What if those three giant sequoias represent a line in the sand in this rapidly transforming city?

The last question may be answered in part by the reaction of some people in city government:

City Commissioner Amanda Fritz, who oversees the Office of Neighborhood Involvement and the Bureau of Parks and Recreation, said the city’s tree ordinance is broken and needs to be fixed.

On Monday, Fritz said she has asked city staff to propose an emergency fix to halt what she considers an urgent problem. The tree code adopted in January after years of deliberation made it easier to cut trees, rather than preserving them as city officials intended, she said.

During one of the weeks the protest over the sequoias was happening, another was happening elsewhere in town over three old Douglas-firs being cut/threatened with cutting by the same developer involved (I don’t know where things are with those trees).

So it appears that these two very local actions (and, I am certain, calls and letters to the city from people in other neighborhoods) helped draw attention to problems with the new code, which Commissioner Fritz says she would like to see a longer-term fix for, which will help other neighborhoods throughout the city, some of which have already seen big old trees cut this year due to the “broken” new code (some by the same developer).

“She was unstoppable. Not because she did not have failures or doubts, but because she continued on despite them.”
Beau Taplin

Things with Feathers: Sometimes hope is green

Tree cutting
Tree cutting (credit: Gary Howe, from Scientific American article)

I have just one topic to cover this month, because it is a big one – well, it is about big things, some of the biggest living things there are.

The Archangel Ancient Tree Archive has a mission to clone trees and plant them, to help restore forests with these cloned trees, and to maintain a genetic archive. The trees they are making the clones from are what they consider “champion trees,” being among the largest, and sometimes oldest, members of their species.

The man who started this project, David Milarch, grew up as the son of a nurseryman, and became one himself as an adult. His focus on cloning the big, old trees, however, came after a near-death experience in which he was told he had to come back, because he had work to do – and another, later visitation by beings who told him that this, cloning the champion trees, was what he had to do.

Many plants can be propagated – cloned – by taking cuttings. Many houseplants can be grown this way, a stem cut and placed in a glass of water, to develop new roots and become an entirely new plant that is a genetic clone of the original. Many trees can be cloned, too. Some plants need the cut end of the stem dipped in something that stimulates root growth, as water alone, or damp growth media won’t be quite enough (if you are DIYing, try adding a freshly cut willow branch to the water – willows are readily clonable with cuttings, and they produce root growth hormones that stimulate other plants, too).

However, while many biologists believed that cloning these trees was a good idea for genetic reasons, they also felt the big OLD trees were so difficult to clone it wasn’t practical: while they may still flower and produce fruit, old trees are very difficult to clone through cuttings.

Milarch set out to try anyway, because the power of the vision/encounter he had was so profound (he came out of the “visit” with 10 pages of hand-written notes and a powerful sense that this was the right thing to do) and over the years he and collaborators have had enough success to keep going, with 1,000s of saplings resulting.

Some of the logic is this: the really old trees are survivors. They have lived through hundreds, even thousands, of years on this planet. They did not succumb to insects, virus or fungal infection, or any previous climate fluctuation. And in the past 200 years, we have cut down absolutely MASSIVE numbers of old growth trees, reducing genetics that had survived for centuries, and had been contributing to the regrowth of the forests around them.

There is a very great deal we do not understand about trees or forests, and if these last old growth trees died, we would lose the ability to learn from their genetics – as well as their ability to keep contributing to the genetic pool. So in addition to making clones to help rebuild forests, by adding more sources of these genes back in, the project also functions as a living archive of genetic material.

I have lost track of what got me pointed toward this work originally, but at any rate, Jim Robbins, who writes for the New York Times, wrote an article on Milarch’s work in 2001, and then later found out the unusual back story motivating him. This later led to a book, The Man Who Planted Trees (Amazon link).

There’s a little Q&A with Robbins at the Amazon page, which includes this:

Q Why are trees important?
Milarch has often said that trees are more important than we know. And as I talked to scientists and read papers they confirmed that notion: we have underestimated the trees, vastly. They are a kind of eco-technology that sustains our lives here on the planet and that humans can’t duplicate. There is a whole range of ecosystem services provided by trees and forests that many people don’t know about. They filter our water and can clean up the nastiest kinds of toxic wastes. They soak up greenhouse gasses to mitigate climate change, protect us from harsh UV rays, and are a heat shield and natural air-conditioner for cities and suburbs. David Milarch talks about them as the filters of the planet. As we all know, when you take the filter out of your aquarium, the fish die.

I picked up the book recently, and it was really a remarkable read. There is a lot of really fascinating information in there about trees and forests – and a LOT of really incredible mystical goings-on and lucky meetings and synchronicities as well, not just with Milarch, but a number of people he has met and worked with on this work.

One of the things that struck me most were the sections talking about the chemicals trees (and other plants) emit into the air, and what the many impacts of those are, which includes the above-mentioned UV-protection. The tiny tiny particles of these vapors are sufficient to help block sunlight. The other impacts this mix of chemicals has on the rest of the ecosystem is little understood – but keeping in mind for how long we and everything else evolved in a rich mix of plant-emitted vapors, and how much of that has been changed so quickly, and it is a little frightening.

A lot of work in this field has been done by a botanist named Diana Beresford-Kroeger, who believes the role of the chemicals emitted by trees is overlooked and poorly understood. One of her books came to the attention of David Milarch’s wife, Kerry, who then passed it to him; they later met and she joined his project. One of Beresford-Kroeger’s beliefs is that the clouds of aerosols emitted by forests help to disinfect the air, in addition to passing on protective benefits to wildlife that come into contact with them. We know a small amount about how plants communicate to each other via airborne chemicals, but almost nothing about the impacts on us of these chemicals.

The impact trees have on water quality, and the creatures living in the water, is also important. Their importance for shading water, and filtering it through taking it up from theirs roots, is relatively well-known, but what trees put into the water can also be very important. From the book:

. . . Experiments have proven that [phytoplankton’s] numbers are greatly enhanced when iron is added to the ocean.

The importance of iron led one path-breaking scientist to make a unique connection. The Erimo Peninsula on the north coast of Japan saw its forests clear-cut and its hills turned into pasture long ago. The change drove off the schools of fish that once teemed there, and caused a decline in oyster populations. Katsuhiko Matsunaga, a Japanese marine chemist, spent years studying the relationships between forests and oceans. His key finding is that even where iron is abundant in parts of the ocean, it is oxygenated, which means it is not readily available for the tiny creatures. What can make iron available to phytoplankton to perform photosynthesis, however, is fulvic acid, one of several humic acids that comes from the decay of leaves and other organic matter. The ongoing, natural decomposition of centuries of tree leaves and other material on the forest floor, and the leaking, leaching, and washing of this chemical stew into the ocean, is vital to increasing coastal phytoplankton, and thus the things that eat them, and those that eat them, from oysters all the way to whales.

And forest restoration projects in this and other areas of Japan did lead to significant restoration of fish populations (here is a scientific paper about some of that work).

There are many great examples throughout the book about how trees can and are being used to help clean up waste and restore ecosystems, but what I found most incredible were the tree-saving stories. Among the more emotionally powerful things I read about, here are two.

In the old growth forests in California and Oregon, there are some massive stumps. The biggest trees white settlers found were highly targeted for lumber. Or to cut and take around and show people as a novelty. Some of those stumps were once extraordinarily large redwoods. Many trees, including redwoods, will clone themselves by sending up “suckers” from their bases. While the cut trees will never regain their previous size or strength, these stumps are not actually dead. Collaborating with a man who is really into finding big trees, some of the Archangel crew went to the Fieldbrook Stump, the remains of the oldest coastal redwood ever known, took cuttings, and were able to successfully clone it, along with several other redwoods – trees that were cut down in the 1890s, with diameters of 30 feet or more.

Sequoias are another species under threat; there are only about 10,000 trees, in not very many places. Sequoias like to be in moist conditions. Increasing drought, like we are likely to see more of due to global warming, is a threat to their species. In this book and in other places, I’ve read about about the debate about what to do about (and for) them in the future: Water them? Start planting them other places? Or leave them alone to adapt or die, because we may have to make tough choices like that?

There is a subdivision in California that was once a logging operation; it started in the 1940s, and the family cut pine, fir, and cedar. However, they never touched a sequoia on those 670 acres. (When Robbins asked the son of the original owner why, “he just smiled and said he didn’t know.”)

The Rouch family still owns over five hundred acres of the land, though, including a man-made lake that Sonny built himself and what David Milarch referred to as the Lost Grove of sequoias, which is right where it shouldn’t be, not below the tree line but at the very top of the mountain. . .

This grove is critical to the Ancient Tree Archive mission. “Sequoias like moist feet,” says Milarch, “but these trees are high and dry. They have adapted to dry conditions without much moisture and at the southern end of their range.” In other words, they could be a critical genotype for life on a hotter and drier planet.

So they took cuttings here, and from the Waterfall Tree, the 3,000 year old largest-diameter single-stem tree in the world and fifth-largest (by volume) sequoia, and after three months of careful work and prayer, got some of their clones to sprout.

The original old growth forests are effectively gone from many parts of the world; in the United States, they have been reduced to about 2% of their original size. But we can stop cutting them – and their family lines can keep going.

Milarch’s work started in the United States, but now collections of big tree genetics are occurring in Ireland (which has also seen massive destruction of its old growth forest), and there are plans to collect genetics from big old trees in many other places as well.

This effort is, to me, one of the most incredible examples of hope I have come across. It is a huge undertaking, with a lot of uncertainty involved (cloning success for the old trees is about 4%), and the results will not be truly understood for many, many decades, if not centuries. In the meantime, it is encouraging a deepening understanding of our biosphere and the intricacies of the ecosystems we live in, preserving life that could otherwise have been lost, and helping to provide for a better future for those who come after us.

(Want more? Here’s an article that is largely an interview with Milarch.)

Things with Feathers: Living with our winged urban neighbors

I’ve been finding this series difficult to write in a way I hadn’t expected. Finding information to write about is fairly easy. Being excited about it is also easy. But I have to restrain myself from writing it up and adding “but” statements to it all. The thoughts come up: “Here is this awesome thing BUT isn’t it awful how we came to a state where this needs to be done” or “here is this thing which is great BUT so much still needs to be done” and/or “BUT here are ways in which these aspects of it could go wrong.”

And I want to focus on just the positive aspects of what some people are doing to make the world a better place. It is really hard. Due to a combination of learned social behavior, my own critical tendencies, and a desire to present a full picture of a situation, it is really hard to JUST be happy about things instead of downplaying them; it is hard to focus on just the potential in them and recognize them as indications that things can be even better than they are. Finding the not-so-great among the good is really tiring. I can prevent myself from writing the critical statements; I wish I could convince my mental habits to let it go, too.

Well. With that out of the way (this kind of hope is hard), here are this month’s examples of positive trends in the world.

Fastest animal in the world making a comeback – in cities, no less

Early last week, during a lunchtime walk, I heard some rapid, high-pitched chirping sounds, begging sounds, and trying to locate the bird, saw what I hoped might be a falcon. It was too far off for me to be quite certain, but . . . it could be. The flight pattern didn’t match other birds I know I’ve seen here. There were two of them, near the big bridge carrying the interstate across the river. Could it be a peregrine falcon youngster and a parent? Oh, I hoped! Peregrines have nested on the bridges here in Portland since the 1990s; I’ve known this for a while, but (frustratingly) never sighted any.

The next day, I again saw a bird shaped much like those, flying much closer – smaller than I expected, but with the right shape to be a falcon; it headed off towards the bridge and seemed to fly under it and then slightly upwards. After that sighting, I felt more confident believing I had finally seen one of the inhabitants of the local bridges.

Peregrines  – which are relatively small, about the size of a crow – can reach 200 mph when they dive on prey, making them the fastest animal in the world. Like many other predatory birds, their populations were devastated by DDT – which lingers in the environment, and still causes eggshell thinning and other problems. By the 1970s, they were all but gone in the United States.

The banning of DDT and captive breeding programs, to boost the wild populations, started to pay off in the 1980s, when wild pairs were seen nesting successfully in Oregon. They ignored nest boxes, however, but in the 1990s, they started rearing young on bridges in Portland. They’ve been quite successful – on average, more successful than parents out in the wild: “Portland’s nests appear to be more productive than average nests statewide and nationwide, with an average of 2.3 chicks a season. Elsewhere, nests produce 1.6 to 1.8 chicks on average. ” (Read the source of the quote for more great Portland peregrine facts.)

They do face hazards that birds outside the city do not: falls from a bridge nest can land a juvenile in the river, or on a busy street, or onto railroad tracks, or in front of a bicyclist. Human activity of various kinds can also upset nesting parents enough that they’ll abandon a nest. Audubon and the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife started a program called the Portland Peregrine Watch Program. Members of the program not only monitored the nest activity, but helped keep people from disturbing the nesting falcons (which might cause them to abandon it), protected just fledged young when they are on the ground learning to fly, and provided rescues for birds in need. Many fledglings have ended up needing medical care and rehabilitation, before being released. (For more, see Audubon’s pages on Portland peregrines.)

Look at that face!! (Peregrine Falcon on Interstate Bridge - Bob Sallinger, via Audubon Society of Portland)
Look at that cute face!! (Peregrine Falcon on Interstate Bridge – Bob Sallinger, via Audubon Society of Portland)

Since 1999, the peregrines are no longer on the Federal endangered species list in 1999; they were removed from the State of Oregon’s list in 2007. Last week, officials in Illinois announced they had removed the birds from their state list, too. In Chicago, peregrines have found success nesting on high-rises and bridges, and dining on the ample supply of pigeons.

Aid for butterflies and bees

Another winged creature that was thought gone for good in Portland is the monarch butterfly. With little to no source of their larval food, milkweed, there have been few if any sightings for long enough that the common wisdom was that you shouldn’t even bother planting it, since the butterflies won’t come.

Last month, I found an article that disproves that common wisdom: Monarchs reappear in Portland, reinforce need for milkweed

Experts say Portlanders shouldn’t bother planting milkweed – the monarch butterflies won’t come. But one woman found 30 eggs on her two plants this month, and she’s urging others: “If you plant it, they will come.”

. . .

Patti Farris, 58, incorporated milkweeds in front of her house three years ago. She hoped monarchs would appear, but didn’t exactly expect it.

On June 4, she noticed a butterfly circling her plants. Generally a monarch will lay one or two eggs per plant. This one laid 30 between two.

Tom Landis, a retired nursery specialist from the U.S. Forest Service, called this unusual.

. . .

Using his knowledge of native plants, the Medford resident said he began growing milkweed and raising monarch caterpillars. He now travels all over the region and gives workshops on caring for the plants and bugs.

Landis said he considered leading a workshop in Portland, but local experts told him it was a lost cause.

Farris found Landis online, and taking Landis’ warning about the low survival rate of eggs to adult (5%), Farris took in the leaves with eggs, raising the caterpillars in an enclosure (and keeping them well-supplied with milkweed) to keep them from becoming dinner for something else. As of the article’s publication, the caterpillars were pupating, possibly to return next year to the milkweed they grew up on.

There have been several other monarch sightings in the northwest recently, which has surprised a number of people, due to general loss of milkweed in the region. But apparently it doesn’t take much to encourage them to show up after all! (Plant more native milkweed! The Xerces Society can help you determine what species is best for your area.)

On the other side of the world, the city of Oslo is taking a city-sized approach to helping out bees, by creating a series of green spaces filled with habitat and food (via Oslo creates world’s first ‘highway’ to protect endangered bees.):

“We are constantly reshaping our environment to meet our needs, forgetting that other species also live in it,” Agnes Lyche Melvaer, head of the Bybi, an environmental group supporting urban bees, which is leading the project.

“To correct that we need to return places to them to live and feed,” she explained, sitting on a bench in a lush city centre square bursting with early Nordic summer growth.

. . .

Oslo’s “bee highway” aims to give the insects a safe passage through the city, lined with relays providing food and shelter – the first such system in the world, according to the organisers.

Government groups, private companies, and individuals are among the people working to create the bee highway, which includes replacing some areas of grass with flowers, increasing green roofs, as well as adding bee hives in some areas.

The mass destruction of bee populations around the world has already forced farmers in the Chinese province of Sichuan to pollinate plants by hand, and in the US some farmers are left with no choice but to rent hives transported cross-country by truck to pollinate crops.

But in Abel’s Garden in Oslo, Agnes Lyche Melvaer says she has faith in the “butterfly effect”.

“If we manage to solve a global problem locally it’s conceivable that this local solution will work elsewhere too.”

That about wraps it up for this month, evidence that with some careful thought, and with intentions of care, wecan have cities that are good habitat for other animals, too.

Bonus feature: Biodiversity in cities

This isn’t so much “look at how we’re doing things to make the world better” as “LOOK AT THIS COOL THING,” but it’s also about insects in cities, soooo I’m going to stuff it in here.

Via the awesome BiodiverSeed blog, a quote from Stephen Fry (QI, G-series, Episode 1 “Gardens”):

Now where’s the best place in the world to discover an entirely new species?

Basically, your own garden. You may say, “Ah ha, there won’t be anything in my garden that hasn’t been discovered.” You would be amazed. In 1971, Jennifer Owen, a biologist, did a very long-term study of her ordinary garden in a suburban house in Leicester. She discovered 533 species of ichneumon wasp, just that family of parasitic wasp. Fifteen of these had never been recorded in Britain; four of them were completely new to science. In a suburban garden. So, in your garden, if you have a garden, there will be things.

Gilbert White, the naturalist, said that nature is so full and so varied that if you want to find the place with the most variety, it’s the place you most study. It almost doesn’t matter: Just take a piece of land and look at it hard enough.

This one’s much more recent:

In 2013, Brian Brown, the curator of entomology at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, told one of the museum’s trustees that he could find a new species of insect practically anywhere he looked. Her cynical response was, “Can you find one in my back yard?” Brown accepted the challenge, setting up a large, tent-like Malaise trap—named not for the emotion on which certain bugs seem to thrive but for the Swede who invented it—in the trustee’s Brentwood garden. After a few weeks, he brought his haul back to the museum, where he began by examining the phorids, a large family of tiny, humpbacked flies that he has spent much of his career studying. The very first one that Brown put under a microscope turned out to be previously unknown to science.

Since then, with a larger and more organized effort, they’ve found another 30 suspected new species of phorids. (That’s what they were focused on – what if they broadened their search??!?!?)

It seems to me like most of the talk about biodiversity talks about remote forests – how much more is out there to discover and get to know? And much closer to what is home for most of us? A lot! And it’s so exciting!

Because the world is so full of death and horror, I try again and again to console my heart and pick the flowers that grow in the midst of hell. –Herman Hesse, from Narcissus and Goldmund