Looking for the Logos of Life IX: Entangled Life

Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds, and Shape Our Futures, by Merlin Sheldrake, Random House, 2020, 368 pp. Kindle Edition.

Image: Agaricus bisporus mycelium. Rob Hille. 9 December 2011 from Wikimedia Commons
I would describe this as a tantalizing book. Merlin Sheldrake writes in the mode so common to current popular science books, breathlessly exclaiming that these discoveries change how we think about everything. Boiled down, his message is that fungi created the world we know and continue to underpin its foundations. The case he makes is no better and no worse than most such claims, which I suspect every editor for publishers of nonfiction books tries to attach to every work that crosses his or her desk. Much of what Sheldrake describes is new looks at well known phenomena: the section on psilocybin mushrooms and LSD, for instance. It offers glimpses of a deeper understanding of what the chemicals fungi do to animal nervous systems, but reaches no firm conclusions.

It offers a lot of new information and speculation on the myriad roles that fungi have come to play in the biosphere, and a bunch of interesting potential applications to human problems (you can make, among many other things besides antibiotics, beer, wine and bread, fungal dog biscuits (Mutt-rooms)  and packing foam) He also discusses mycoplasma-remediation as a solution to contaminated sites from oil spills to herbicides. They will even break down discarded cigarette filters.

Interesting as these things are, they are not, in my view going to fundamentally alter our view of life.

Nevertheless, this is an enjoyable book. Sheldrake knows his fungi from intimate experience, and he writes well, except for the occasional hyperbolic outburst or awkward analogy. He explains a lot of exciting new research using DNA sequencing, tracer analysis and ingenious lab experiments to understand the role that fungi play in terrestrial ecosystems as decomposes, parasites and symbiotic partners with plants and each other. He spent many hours himself, doing down and dirty work in the forests of Panama, following the roots of a tiny mycoheterotrophic plant and the mycelial network of its fungal associate. He also talked to a wide range of fungus researchers in fields like anthropology as well as biology and shares their insights into the roles fungi play in nature and culture. Some of the most interesting characters are the fungal enthusiasts – mushroom freaks, one might say, truffle hunters and entrepreneurs working to create products from fungus ranging from ersatz leather to bricks. I like this better than 3D printing, with its inputs of resins, metals etc. Also I doubt you can make a fungal firearm at home.

I wish he had been even more comprehensive: for instance he says little about fungi and human illness. His discussions of fungi and food omit such important staples as tempeh. He talks a little about his own work on mycotrophy, but doesn’t mention the possibility that plants may be able to survive mycotrophically when competitions squeeze them out of the struggle for light. How else is it possible for plants in the New Jersey Pine Barrens, like turkey beard (Xerophyllum asphodeloides) pine barrens reed grass (Calamovilfa brevipilis) pine barrens gentian (Gentiana autumnal) and maybe even scrub oak (Quercus ilicifolis) to appear so quickly after fire, after a long interval since the last fire and no individuals could be seen in the unburned forest? Do their mycorrhizal root systems simply live off their fungal partners until a burn clears the space for them to send up shoots, leaves, flowers and fruits?

What do fungi tell us about life in general, if anything? His theme is interconnectedness. The title echoes Darwin’s image of the “entangled bank.” He frequently repeats the view that life is less about individuals than about networks of interaction and exchange, some mutually beneficial, some exploitative, some switching back and forth depending on circumstances. Like like Lynn Margulis, discoverer of the symbiotic origins of cellular organelles and the authors I discussed in my previous post Looking for the Logos of Life VIII: Organism and Superorganism, Sheldrake questions the reality of individuals.

Why the determination to shatter us into fragments? Whatever I mean by “I” doesn’t include the microbes indigenous to my body. I am not them, and it’s arguable whether I am even the parts of my body that are the result of the form encoded in the DNA I got from my parents. When I think of the Pythagorean theorem, it isn’t a soggy collection of bacteria doing that, or sharing in the contemplation. [??] The scientists want to abolish me entirely or reduce me to an aggregation of trillions of cells, of diverse descent. Meanwhile the social theorists would reduce me to nothing but culturally determined categories: white, male, middle class, straight, cis gendered, etc. But what I think about I’m free to select from a vast web of tradition both ancient and up to the minute, delivered to me in multiple modes. That’s the most relevant entanglement: the mycelium of ideas. It’s in the tangled network that is my brain, but it is there because I chose to attend to those ideas as they came to me and because I made the effort, sometimes racked my brain, to connect them to what was already there. 

Anyway, fungi are amazing enough in their own right: in their chief domain, the soil, they are virtually sovereign, with allies like bacteria and the numerous arthropods, earthworms, nematodes, etc, that shred and stir the vast amounts of dead plant material that enter their realm every year. Constantly grazed by animals, they regenerate at phenomenal rates in every cubic centimeter of dirt. Without them, dead plant material would pile up, as it does in bogs, where lack of oxygen excludes them. Carbon would be locked away and CO2 levels would fall to the point of global cooling, as they did in the  Permian ice ages, which followed the Carboniferous age of coal formation.

In his ecological classic, The Biosphere, V. I. Vernadsky talked about the speed of life – the rate of expansion of a disk of cells, imagined as multiplying to cover the earth. Sheldrake makes an even more startling calculation: according to his reckoning, if all the fungal hyphae that have been produced were laid end to end, they would extend further than the limit of the visible universe, i.e. they would have expanded faster than the speed of light. Even though this is a bit like saying that if one airplane can fly from New York to Los Angeles in five hours, two can make it in two and a half hours, it’s still a remarkable image. It gives some hint just how ubiquitous and prolific fungi are in our world.


Deep History

Prairie Erth by William Least Heat-Moon. Houghton-Mifflin Co. 1991.

This book is deep history of a single locality, Chase County Kansas, a thinly populated, largely rural part of the Flint Hills and the great North American grasslands. The book’s coverage extends far into the geologic past and up to the early 1990s. By then, as in much of rural America a peak of population and development had been passed, and its farms, ranches, villages and towns were becoming depopulated. Heat-Moon spent many months driving and walking about the county, systematically taking up one by one the grid of USGS topographic maps (twelve central ones and thirteen more that cover the edges) that include Chase County. He talked with a great many of the residents and others with connections to the land, the people and the history. He also read extensively, prefacing each of the twelve sections (one for each central topo map) with a series of excerpts from his commonplace book, relating to the themes he follows in that section. The quotations come from hundreds of books, newspapers, journals.

Geology, botany, zoology occupy almost as much of the six hundred pages as the people. A Native American himself, he devotes much space to the aboriginal people, the Kaw, also sometimes called the Kansa (among a host of other names that he cites) By the time he wrote, the few remaining members of that tribe resided on Oklahoma, to which they had been “removed” in the 1870s.

Summarizing this remarkable work of observation, listening and reflection is not possible. I was deeply impressed both by how fascinating a seemingly backwater place can be and by how deeply Heat-Moon engaged with the land and people. Despite often being seen as an eccentric outsider, he showed great respect for the locals and was able to win the confidence of many. His self reflections are often profound and often extremely amusing. The best travel writers often are like that: I think of Bill Bryson.

What I realized reading Prairie Erth was how much I am interested in the deep history of the places I have lived. I think that’s why I am captivated by books that lay out the events that shaped the landscapes I am most familiar with. If you have seen my earlier posts, New World History, Forgotten but not Gone, Ecosystem Lost and Found?, The Journeys of Holling C. Holling, and even Amphibious Reflections, you will have encountered my interest.

I live in the Pine Barrens region of southern New Jersey, on land once part of Gloucester Plantation, which was centered on Gloucester Furnace, an iron foundry. It can be fairly said that the Pine Barrens were one of the industrial centers of the early United States, although now, many people describe them as a “pristine wilderness.” This sort of blindness to the past seems endemic among us, as amply demonstrated in Forgotten Grasslands of the South and Looking for Longleaf.

Fortunately, there have always been some more inquiring minds, who have sought out the past and tried to preserve or at least document it. For my area, there are many books, like Forgotten Towns of Southern New Jersey, that record these past landscapes and communities. Many individuals like Jean Soderland, are researching the history of indigenous people. There is now a periodical devoted to all aspects of the regions history, SoJourn.

I have had at least five colleagues who dedicated their research to understanding the geological and cultural history of the region: a hydrologist, a geographer, a historian, an archaeologist and a geologist. The geologist started out in horticulture, but became so interested in the natural landscapes of the Pine Barrens that he took a PhD in geology to further his collaborations with a noted glacial geologist. He has contributed greatly to our knowledge of the ways that the Ice Ages shaped the topography of the Pine Barrens and indeed the entire North American coastal plain.

The North American Coastal Plain consists of marine of riverine sands and gravels accumulated on the edge of the ocean. From these soils develop that drain rapidly and are prone to severe drought. Fire has been a force in the landscape for millions of years, varying in frequency and intensity with climate and, since a few thousand years ago, with human activity. Groundwater saturates these porous sediments, often nearly to or above the surface. Upland vegetation historically burned often, the extensive lowlands only in severe droughts. 

 The ice age climate was dry, cold and ferociously windy as frigid air flowed off the ice sheets only a short way north. The landscape that developed as the climate warmed included wide but very shallow river channels, with streams too small for their valleys. These were created by melting permafrost. There are numerous shallow ponds in depressions, some nearly circular, created by powerful winds during full glacial periods, others long, winding and narrow, created by blowing sand blocking stream courses. Low, sandy ridges are the remains of ancient fields of dunes created by the same winds that blew out the depressions. 

Early European settlers cut the trees, dammed the streams and began creating mills, cranberry bogs and crop fields. They started many iron plantations in the late eighteenth to early nineteenth centuries, utilizing the local bog iron, the pine forests (for charcoal) and the shell maddens left by the aboriginal inhabitants, the Lenape, to produce iron. As iron industry moved west, paper and glassmaking took over the old water powered mill sites.

Today, the former Gloucester Plantation tract has been through several phases of settlement and resettlement. The land was promoted in a real estate endeavor that became Egg Harbor City. A town was laid out, at first facing Landing Creek and the Mullica River, then reoriented to the railroad that was built in the 1850s from Philadelphia to Atlantic City. The hinterlands were sold as farms, mainly to German-speaking immigrants, most of whom left eastern cities to escape the anti-immigrant Know-nothings (see Before the Storm and Politics and War) Egg Harbor City thrived as an agricultural and small manufacturing town and then gradually faded until the advent of the FAA Technical Center, Stockton College (now University) and the Atlantic City Casinos. These brought in new residents, but not much new commerce, which developed mostly in the central and eastern parts of Atlantic County. The establishment of the Pinelands National Reserve in 1979 restricted commercial and industrial development and even residential development over much of the Gloucester tract.

 Farming continues, mainly commercial blueberries (a crop developed in the Pine Barrens) and, more recently, community supported agriculture. Much of the land, however, reverted to forest. Not the open woodlands of the years before fire suppression became the policy in New Jersey, but dense, closed canopy oak and pine forests, with thick understory of huckleberries. This lowered the groundwater table, drying up ponds and headwater streams. It also caused the native herbaceous plants to become much less frequent and with them their associated insects, especially butterflies and moths. Many are now only found in a few well managed preserves and, ironically, in utility line corridors and airports, which are kept open by mowing in the dormant season.  

The region’s roadsides, once a haven for native herbs, have been converted by mowing and addition of cool season grass, to monotonous and sterile strips. Unpaved roads, trails and open areas are now the domain of off-road vehicle enthusiasts, who flood the Pine Barrens on weekends, destroying habitat. The worst are the “mudders,” who have wiped out hundreds of localities for rare and endangered wetland plants. Species not native to the Pine Barrens are increasingly taking over, especially on recently abandoned cleared land. I am in continual struggle with autumn olive, multiflora rose, Asian barberry, and Eurasian bittersweet.

I pin my hopes on the position of the New Jersey Coastal Plain as the northernmost (excepting Long Island and Cape Cod) part of the great North American Coastal Plain biodiversity hotspot.  As climate change pushes populations northward and sea level rise shrinks the Coastal Plain, southern New Jersey may be a critical refuge for southern species. But who can tell? It could just as well succumb to rampant deregulation and competing interests, like the infernal off-roaders. 

Change over millions of years shaped the landscape and the evolution of the Pine Barrens’ characteristic flora and fauna. I tried to impress this on my students in the years I taught ecology. The processes that operate in the lithosphere, hydrosphere, atmosphere and biosphere – energy flow, nutrient cycling, population dynamics, evolution and cultural change – shape what we see around us. And every development leaves traces on the land and in the living organisms that inhabit it. Without an understanding of the history of the place you are in, you cannot understand its present or future.

Cultural DNA

The Wayfinders. Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the Modern World by Wade Davis. House of Anansi Press. Toronto. 2009.

American Gods by Neil Gaiman. Harper Collins. 2001.

The Wayfinders, based on lectures by Davis, forms a counterpoint to Reich’s Who We Are and How We Got Here. They reveal the “cultural DNA” that binds populations of humans together: language, myths, memories and mental maps of the world. This kind of inheritance is what enabled the ancient Polynesians to spread their DNA across the vast expanse of the Pacific Ocean and allows their descendants to replicate their feats of navigation today. It also tells us that all across the world, those chains of inheritance have been and are being broken, as aggressive societies impose their own language and culture on the populations they conquer, enslave, displace or assimilate. This is much like the way conquerors have spread their genes into new territory. In the end only traces of both the biological and the cultural may remain, to be ferreted out by geneticists or anthropologists. Sometimes, though, survivors stubbornly retain their heritage, like the Basques in Spain and many native peoples around the world.

Great empires often produce great and stable cultures – the art, literature, philosophy and mathematics of China, India, Greece, Rome and the still growing body of European science, etc. These become even richer by mutual appropriation. Among the most enduring exchanges are the earliest: agriculture, animal domestication, wheeled transport, boatbuilding and metallurgy. Like the history of ancient DNA, the history of cultures shows patterns of repeated migration and assimilation or displacement over millennia. It seems though, that the asymmetry of power has at least in recent times, produced even more lopsided results for cultures than what Reich finds for genomes. Male conquerors, as I noted in the previous post, have spread a disproportionate share of their genes in the mixing of populations, but often the dominated population persisted through the maternal line. Only rarely did the invaders utterly eliminate the previous occupants of a territory.

More and more cultures are being completely wiped out by modern empires. Military might, coupled with schools to teach the language of the imperial power and religious conversion, forced or voluntary, can drive out languages and traditions. Within the borders of the parent nation states, local dialects and traditions have given way to a homogenized culture. That makes governance and commerce easier, but it destroys the particularity and richness of the land. The advent of compulsory schooling and of mass advertising pushes homogenization even further. Mass media and entertainment smooth out irregularities and quirks. While some people promote the preservation of local tradition, others decry the lack of common values and beliefs in the nation.

Davis tries to show how much is lost when the past is blotted out. Far from being primitive, he argues, these cultures drew on human capacities for learning and memory far beyond the accomplishments of those with modern education. We rely on the collective power of our culture and its embodiment in writing and technology that we don’t become as skilled and knowledgeable as those who lack such aids. We rarely know much about the natural world around us. Almost no “advanced” culture enables a person to survive on just what the land can provide. However productive our economies are, we leave untapped or simply obliterate most of nature’s variety. Witness the fact that a mere three or four species of domestic animals outweigh by an order of magnitude all the rest of the larger land animals on the planet.

Often the natural products do more for these cultures than nourish the body. They provide pathways into spiritual experiences that deepen connections to both the natural and human worlds. The power of the shaman has been a recurrent preoccupation of Davis, whose early popular works on ethnobotany and especially mind-altering plants, The Serpent and the Rainbowand One River, show how they shaped lives for thousands of years. The most important thing that people who still know the power of sacred plants, animals, rocks and places can remind those of us immersed in a globalizing, dominant culture is that we remain dependent on the earth and the functioning of the natural cycles of land, air, water and life. We disrespect and ignore this wisdom at our peril.

Unfortunately, to sustain itself materially, any meaningful culture needs land. We discovered this problem in the nineteenth century, when the reservations set aside for native Americans came under constant pressure from hunters, miners, loggers and farmers. The same is true today in South America, India, Africa.  The result is bloodshed and displacement. Only places that have no resources that the dominant culture wants are left unclaimed. Even here, proselytizing and poaching remain constant issues. Furthermore, given the often stringent demands of traditional ways, there is a continual drain on the population as its members drift away into the dominant milieu.

Mostly the old can exist only with the protection and support of the newer and more powerful, which is almost always accompanied by condescension or ambivalence. Davis tries hard to show why condescension is unjustified, but without the ability to maintain itself in its own territory, it seems to me that almost any culture will begin to seem simply quaint and curious. We may assimilate some music into our popular culture or convert some sacred plants into recreational drugs, even claim to try to follow the spiritual paths laid out by this or that shamanistic tradition. Only anthropologists are going to really study cultures on their own terms, as best they can.

Of course some cultures like Judaism have become integrated into the economic systems of dominant cultures, but with much the same dangers faced by tribal societies elsewhere. Isn’t that why the state of Israel has such fierce supporters? We see ethnic traditions preserved or revived by people long separated from their homelands. Costumes, folk songs, holidays, parades, fairs and so on remind us that there have been many distinct national and local ways of living. But much of this seems like once a year dress up, not a way of life now. Even religious distinctions are blurring as evangelical churches spread a homogenized, flavorless gospel. Their success is driven in part by politics and economics, aided by mass media. Ancient tradition loses out to a uniform set of wants and means of satisfying them.

Neil Gaiman’s American Gods revolves around the slow dying out of the hundreds of local gods brought to the United States by immigrants from all over the world, from 14,000 years ago to the present. In his fantasy, these gods still linger on the fringes of society, fending for themselves as the flow of gifts and sacrifices from humans dries up. They know that if their names are forgotten, they will die. The novel concerns their efforts to recapture some of their old power and of a few humans who become entangled in the mythical struggle. Gaiman is a reader of Davis, I suspect, as well as a serious student of mythic traditions himself. The story, like most of Gaiman’s work, is fast moving, funny, violent and a pleasure to read. I also like the second book in this series, Anansi Boys.

Forgotten but not gone

Forgotten Grasslands of the South. Natural History and Conservation by Reed F. Noss. Island Press 2013

Walden Warming by Richard Primack. University of Chicago Press 2014

Reading Noss’s work, I recall Faulkner’s words, “The past isn’t gone. It isn’t even past.” Forgotten, neglected, tragically diminished, but not gone. Noss describes his travels to visit what was once a vast archipelago of grass-dominated ecological communities, ranging from endless longleaf pine savannas (see my post on Looking for Longleaf) to tiny rock outcrop barrens. This island landscape stretched across the southeastern United States from Texas to Virginia. In fact, though Noss does not discuss them, these communities are found up into the mid-Atlantic and New England. Today, the remaining islands, in a sea of agriculture, industrial forestry and urbanization  only hint at what has vanished beneath the waves of “progress.” But remarkably, there is enough to form the core of a restored landscape, something that will be a major challenge for 21st century ecologists.

Many types of habitats fit under the term “grassland.” Woodlands have trees, but their crowns cover less than three-fourths of the ground, allowing herbaceous plants, especially grasses, to thrive. Savannas have scattered trees, with less than about fifty percent cover. Meadows, glades, barrens and balds have only isolated patches of trees. Noss also describes plant and animal species endemic to the southeastern grasslands. An endemic is a kind of organism found in a particular type of community or a local area, and nowhere else. Many of these are critically imperiled, occurring today at only one or two places. The book is illustrated with his photos of the communities and the rare plants.

Noss has really interesting things to say about the factors that have maintained open, grass-dominated habitats over ecological and evolutionary time. The main ecological question is: what is preventing tall woody plants from taking over? The climate is warm enough, and rainfall is adequate for trees. It could be lack of a deep, firm soil that roots can penetrate to support tall stems. It could be that the soil stays wet or dry too much of the year. It could be constant disturbance by flood, wind, fire or herbivores. It could be lack of sufficient nutrients to support trees and shrubs. At any particular site, it’s most likely a combination of two or more of these factors.

The evolutionary question is: how have the species that comprise these ecological communities arisen and survived in a dynamic landscape? The answers are tentative and complicated, especially those related to changing climate. The distinctiveness and diversity of the endemic species, especially their adaptations to fire, imply a long evolutionary history. Some of the endemic plant species, such as those in certain rock outcrop barrens, may have evolved recently, while others, like the ones in the longleaf pine savannas, have been around for a very long time. This field of research is called phylogeography because it looks both at phylogenetic (evolutionary) relations among different populations and species and at the geographic patterns of climate (and so, the species’ habitats) now and in the past.

Many authors have stated the grasslands originated only as a result of disturbance by humans, who do not seem to have reached America before 30,000 years ago at the very earliest. If the grasslands originated before the Pleistocene ice ages, how did they survive the periods of peak glaciation and cold? Noss cites pollen data to show that most of the southeast had a cool temperate climate during the ice ages, but evidence from geomorphology suggests that there were periods of boreal conditions with deep seasonal frost or even permafrost. Aeolian landforms, created by strong winds coming off the glaciers, include dune fields, sand sheets and the famous Carolina bays. These indicate that there were periods where there was little vegetation to stabilize the surface. One possibility is that the pollen record is incomplete, because the intervals without vegetation produce essentially no pollen. Another is that, if the Gulf Stream stopped during the coldest intervals, the Gulf of Mexico would have been a tremendous heat reservoir, keeping the coastal areas warm, while inland sites were cold. On maps of the ice age drop in sea level, the additional dry land, just on the west side of peninsular Florida, looks nearly as large as North Carolina. Thus, a lot of grassland species might have retreated there.

Noss’s book and a recent article (Noss, R. F., Platt, W. J., Sorrie, B. A., Weakley, A. S., Means, D. B., Costanza, J. and Peet, R. K. 2015. How global biodiversity hotspots may go unrecognized: lessons from the North American Coastal Plain. Diversity and Distributions 21: 236–244), which includes the coastal plain up to Cape Cod, call the region a biodiversity hotspot. This is based on the great numbers of plant, vertebrate and insect species in the region and the number of those species that are endemic to it.

The article calls for the North American Coastal Plain to be listed as a global biodiversity hotspot. A colleague who studies southern grasshoppers told me that the group behind the effort to achieve listing had several more papers in the pipeline that they expected would be needed to convince the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund to add the NACP as hotspot number 36 They succeeded on the first try, just after the article was published (http://www.cepf.net/news/top_stories/Pages/Announcing-the-Worlds-36th-Biodiversity-Hotspot.aspx) Hooray!

Now the hard work begins: convincing people, especially government officials and private conservation groups, to take action. Here in New Jersey, most conservationists still see the coastal plain as a forest region. Natural enough, since fire suppression for the last eighty years has effectively converted what were once woodlands and savannas into dense forests of pine and oak trees and huckleberry shrubs. “Forest,” has such cultural significance in American environmentalism that it is very difficult to convince anyone that this is not what Nature intends. Add modifiers like “old growth,” “pristine,” “climax,” and you have idols that it is very hard to get environmentalists to stop worshipping.

Most people I know in the Mid-Atlantic region tend to blame “development” for loss of natural habitats. To an extent, this is true for the grasslands of the South, especially the loss in recent times of the smaller glades and barrens, but other factors are historically more important. Noss mentioned drainage and conversion to farmland, but this applies mainly to the wetter, richer grasslands. Dense tree plantations have replaced pine savannas. Another factor is loss of large herbivores, beginning with the extinction of much of North America’s megafauna – mammoths, ground sloths, etc. – around 15,000 years ago. To some degree, cattle, hogs and sheep may have supplied their place in the early post-1492 times of open ranges and even today, but livestock can do more harm than good to natural habitats, and they will never be allowed to recreate the vast network of “buffalo traces,” leading to salt licks and waterholes. These trails provided habitat and dispersal routes for grassland plants, as roadsides do today, if we don’t mow them in the growing season or allow exotic invasives to take over.

By far the clearest factor reducing grasslands is fire suppression. Since the advent of motorized firefighting in the mid-twentieth century, the number of fires has changed little, but the area burned annually has greatly decreased (https://www.jstor.org/stable/2484334?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents). This means that fire return intervals have generally become too long to prevent establishment of closed forest canopies. This is fine if you want to grow trees for wood or fiber but terrible for the plants and animals of woodlands, savannas and grasslands.

I have tried for years to convince my friends in the New Jersey Pine Barrens that the greatly increased plant canopy cover since fire suppression began to be effective has caused much of the reported drying out of the landscape. They prefer to blame the loss of wetlands and headwater streams on wells drilled by farmers, developers and casinos sucking water out of the ground. Trees and shrubs are taking just as much water through their roots and evaporating it through leaves, 300-500 pounds of water for every pound of sugar they make in photosynthesis. Some of my conservationist friends and colleagues oppose even moderate thinning of trees in the Pine Barrens. They talk about endangered species’ need for undisturbed habitat, not recognizing that on the coastal plain, far more species are threatened by the loss of open land with herbaceous vegetation – grasslands, woodlands, savannas and meadows. A very experienced botanist I know, however, has become convinced, after seeing species like pine barrens gentian and turkey beard springing up in the wake of forest thinning and reintroduction of fire on managed lands. Too bad the New Jersey Forest Service officials still thinks Smoky the Bear has the last word. They are courting disaster as fuel loads continue to build up in the pines, but they won’t believe that a fire could occur that they could not control. This is incredibly short sighted.

I also wish our environmental community would back off its opposition to natural gas pipelines, which actually create open habitats, and devote more of their resources to stopping the motorized mayhem that’s destroying the last of our native savannas and sand ridge communities all across southern New Jersey. In the Pinelands National Reserve, motorized recreation is not a permitted land use, but pressure from the motorheads has prevented meaningful regulation or enforcement.

Besides these immediate threats, I wonder whether the coastal plain biodiversity hotspot can survive climate change. As shown by Richard Primack in his excellent book, Walden Warming (Chicago 2014) there are already substantial changes in the flora and fauna of New England since Thoreau kept a naturalist’s journal in the 1850’s. Surely, though we lack clear evidence, such changes are occurring in the North American Coastal Plain. For plant populations to persist, they must either acclimate (adjust their flowering and fruiting physiology) adapt locally (through natural selection of individuals that best match the warmer climate) or disperse their seeds northwards. Primack points out that the barriers created by towns, farms and highways make it difficult for native plants to disperse to suitable new habitat.

A look at the map of the coastal plain shows another problem: the northward narrowing of the geologic region, until it peters out at Cape Cod and in the sandy outwash plans of southern New England. Even if species can shift northwards, they will find themselves funneled into increasingly tight confines, reduced even more by sea level rise. Europe’s flora is impoverished compared to its temperate counterparts in North America and Asia, because southward dispersal during the height of the last ice ages ran into the barrier of the Alps. The coastal plain’s denizens may be similarly crushed against the rock ribs of New England.

Noss’s points out that many people feel that preserving nature for its own sake is as important as preserving it for its benefits to us. He recasts Jack Kennedy’s famous dictum as, “ask not just what nature can do for us, but also what we can do for nature.” He estimates that temperate grasslands have the lowest ratio of lands preserved to lands destroyed of any major ecological system on earth. In the North American Coastal Plain this ratio may be even lower, although perhaps with more prospect for restoration than in some areas, because so much has been lost to fire suppression, which is fixable.

Noss is a strong proponent of saving all that we can in whatever ways are effective. He is against any form of ” triage,” writing off of species and communities that we decide in advance can’t be saved. He also criticizes the Nature Conservancy for overemphasizing what they call “working landscapes,” and neglecting the smaller, uneconomical bits, those tiny glades, barrens and rock outcrops that house such amazing numbers of endemic taxa. Noss argues we need to practice preservation on many scales, beginning with a ban on development of any new natural lands. We should be redeveloping abandoned or underutilized sites, close to existing development. I agree, but we need to find some way to effectively transfer development rights, or landowners will block any such policy. He also argues that we need to change the policies and practices of our state and federal agencies and private conservation groups to better manage lands already protected. Too many of the best areas are either over-utilized or neglected.

Both these books are excellent reads, especially the authors’ descriptions of work in the field with their colleagues and collaborators. One gets a sense that there are a lot of very dedicated ecologists working to preserve biodiversity in our changing landscape and changing climate. One of the encouraging developments I have noticed is the great increase in contributions from what are now called, “citizen scientists.” People, who might once have pursued their love of plants, birds or butterflies in isolation, now contribute to both current data collection and preservation of valuable old data (Thoreau’s Journals are a prime example) through projects like iDigBio. More could be done, especially if there were a way to report and then evaluate outliers: unusual sightings, anomalous individuals and things in the wrong place at the wrong time. Where economic interests are involved, we do usually follow up, as with introduced pests, but otherwise many valuable observations in our rapidly changing environment may be written off as misidentifications or just lost. I would like to see more naturalist’s, especially our large crop of butterfly watchers learn when and how to collect proper specimens to verify their unexpected sightings. Scientific collecting is almost never a threat to populations of insects, and a specimen allows positive identification and preservation of a record in a way photographs can’t.

I would strongly recommend these two books to anyone concerned about the future of biodiversity along our Atlantic coast.

The search for Cíbola

Castañeda, Pedro de. The Journey of Coronado, with other accounts of the journey, including Jaramillo, Hernando de Alvarado and Coronado himself, translated from the Spanish by George Parker Winship. Librivox.

This was the famous expedition in search of Cíbola, the “seven cities of gold.” The search was prompted by reports from Cabeza de Vaca and his companions, when they returned to Mexico in 1535, after their eight-year odyssey from the Gulf Coast (Cabeza’s account is also available on Librivox – I may write about it later). One of his companions, the African Estevan, made it to Zuni pueblo in 1539, as part of a scouting party led by Friar Marcos de Niza. There he was killed or perhaps simply dropped out of sight. The reports of de Niza convinced Coronado and Viceroy Antonio de Mendoza to mount an expedition. In three years of exploring the southwest of what is now the United States, various parties of the expedition reached as far as the southern end of the Grand Canyon of the Colorado and its South Rim, Zuni Pueblo, the pueblos of the Rio Grande valley, Blanco Canyon in the Texas Panhandle and the Arkansas River, east of present day Dodge City, Kansas. None of these places yielded any gold or other valuables. Either de Niza had a bad case of giving the answer wanted rather than the truth, or his zeal to spread the gospel made him try to see how far he could convince the army go among these unconverted peoples. The native communities could not even feed the expedition without being reduced to near starvation themselves. Some of the Rio Grande pueblos resisted and were overcome by force in bloody assaults. The difficulties of maintaining an army in the field in that country, with only horses and humans for transport, are hard to imagine (they did have a supply flotilla sail up the Gulf of California into the Colorado, but it could not enter the Grand Canyon, and at any rate, was much too far west to help). Once they were out on the plains, east of the Rio Grande and the mountains, they found it impossible even to keep track of where they were. Hunting parties wandered lost for days in the featureless landscape of grass and shrubs, with only the occasional river canyon as a landmark.

Castañeda gives dramatic accounts of the buffalo (which the translation renders as “cows,” presumably for the Spanish, “vacas”) and the natives who hunted them, living in tents on the open plains. His other botanical and ethnographic accounts are interesting but colored by his outlook as a Spaniard: The natives in the pueblos, camps and villages are described as to dress and customs, with frequent specifics on sexual matters, as “they do not practice sodomy,” in one place or “they are very great sodomites,” in another. One peculiar topic was the deadly poisoned arrows made by some of the natives the expedition fought with, which apparently included poison from the same plant that yields Mexican jumping-beans (Sebastiania bilocularis S. Watson, arrow poision plant, according to the USDA plants database). Even more interesting was the antidote: quinces, which Castañeda notes growing in many places the expedition passed through. The quince (genus Cydonia) is native to Asia, but could have been introduced to Mexico early in the 16th century. Northern Mexico is a minor quince producing region today, according to the Wikipedia article. Perhaps it was spread by the natives ahead of the Spanish themselves, or possibly Castañeda was just confused about the identity of a native fruit, as he seems to have been about the “cows.”

Overall, this is more of a reading for the historian or ethnographer than the naturalist. To give account of the landscape you are passing through, so that it can be recognized later, you have to be interested in more than gold.

The Librivox readers were outstanding as usual.

Death Valley Days

Land of Little Rain by Mary Hunter Austin, first publication 1903 by Houghton Mifflin.

The Librivox recording of this wonderful book from the first decade of the twentieth century is a pleasure to listen to. Mary Austin’s descriptions of the desert country east of the southern Sierra Nevada are beautifully clear, evoking the harsh land, the hardy plants and animals and the various humans who live among them. My favorite was the pocket hunter, a prospector traveling with his burros and a gold pan that is cleaner than his cooking pots, and who dreams of finding a strike rich enough to allow him to set up as a middle class Londoner. Twice, he made enough to visit England, but each time he returned, with only a pair of elegant green canvas traveling bags to show for the trips. He told how once in a blinding snowstorm he sought shelter with what he thought were a flock of domestic sheep. Looking about in the morning, he saw he had slept among wild mountain bighorns. They bounded away through the drifts like God’s own flock. Breathtaking.

Whether it is the denizens of a mining town or the native Paiute, among them the blind basket weaver and the Shoshone exile medicine man, who must be killed when he can’t prevent an epidemic of pneumonia from taking away a third of the band, Austin tells the stories simply and with evident deep compassion.

She has a soft spot for the coyote, that butt of Warner Brothers cartoons, but in her view far from a fool. She gives loving descriptions of the numerous desert rodents and the jackrabbits whose tracks lead to the waterholes like the spokes of giant wheels, along with their enemies the birds of prey and the scavengers who watch all that goes on from far above, waiting for the predator’s kill or the dying gasp of the starving.

Plants get just as careful attention, some of the best botanical description I’ve read. Whether in her neighbor’s field or on the mesa, she evokes the marvels of the California desert flora with its tough shrubs and delicate ephemerals that blossom only in years when enough rain falls to waken the seeds out of dormancy.

Everything about this book makes me want to visit this land.

Naturalists Abroad: Three on the Amazon

Hemming, John. 2015. Naturalists in Paradise: Wallace, Bates and Spruce in the Amazon. Thames & Hudson. [I read the Kindle edition]

There was not a lot paradisiacal about the Amazon basin when three young, lower middle class Englishmen arrived there in the late 1840’s. It was a backwater of the Empire of Brazil, still recovering from a bloody civil war and not yet experiencing the rubber boom. Travel was difficult, often impossible, and living conditions ranged from merely hot and humid to nearly intolerable. No motorboats, no canned food, no bug repellents. Yet the three naturalists, the first from Great Britain to travel extensively and for many years in the Amazon region, could live cheaply and enjoyed the help of both Brazilian and foreign residents. They lived by the sale of the specimens they collected, something not commonly done today, at least by academic scientists, but then it was quite respectable. This was possible, in Henry Walter Bates and Alfred Russel Wallace’s case, because they had a reliable and energetic agent in London, Samuel Stevens, who marketed the exotic animals and plants they supplied to an eager and growing circle of collectors. Thomas Spruce enjoyed the support of George Bentham and William Hooker, director of Kew Gardens. They also accumulated personal collections of great value and volumes of notes, drawings, sketches, and accounts of the rivers, forests and the native peoples, of whose languages and cultures they learned much, to their great advantage, and ours. They relied on the skill of native boatmen and hunters, and procuring their services was a constant preoccupation for all three.

They generally worked alone, each going his own way and following different styles of exploration. Bates was mainly an entomologist and the most sedentary, working intensively in one area for months at a time. Wallace and Spruce ranged more widely, Wallace after birds and all other animals, as well as plants. He also accumulated extensive geological and ethnographic information. Spruce hunted new species of plants, including his favorites, mosses and liverworts. Wallace was accompanied at times by his brother, but Bates and Spruce were out of contact with their own countrymen for long periods.

The adventures described in this account are exciting, inspiring, and frequently hair-raising. The rivers and their falls and rapids were the greatest danger to the explorers and their precious collections, but the everyday toll of hunger and sickness on the men and of wet, mold and insects on their specimens probably did the most damage. Wallace’s brother died of yellow fever before he could return to England. All three had malaria, sometimes very severe, and in 1858 Spruce suffered an unexplained illness that left him crippled for life.

Catastrophe dogged Wallace: heading home in 1852, a shipboard fire destroyed almost all his personal specimens and records, except for the few he managed to grab as he abandoned ship. Still he went on to a successful voyage to the Malay Archipelago (modern Indonesia) during which he worked out the theory of natural selection, which he and Darwin jointly announced in 1858. In the second half of the 1850s, Spruce pushed far into the Andes, where he learned much about the hallucinogenic plants used by the natives, a topic later investigated by Richard Schultes and Wade Davis. He also made vital collections of Chinchona, the source of the antimalarial quinine, contributing to the establishment of plantations in India and the East Indies. He did this despite the hardships of the country, a civil war and his own prostration by that mysterious illness.

Hemming’s account is consistently lively and an excellent companion to reading the naturalists’ own work, like Bates’s wonderful Naturalist on the River Amazons. It has the advantage of weaving their travels together and providing the background of Brazilian history and the development of natural science in Great Britain. Hemming is an anthropologist, historian and geographer, whose own extensive travels in the region add much to the story.

The work accomplished by these three men in their time in the field was phenomenal: thousands of new species of animals and plants along with detailed descriptions of a country largely unknown to the learned world. They are deservedly members of the pantheon of the greatest naturalists in history.

Thoreau’s Maine Woods

Thoreau, Henry David. The Maine Woods. I listened to the excellent Librivox recording by “Expatriate.”

This is the posthumously published account of three trips Thoreau took between 1846 and 1857 to the vicinity of Mount Katahdin, all by canoe or bateau, on two of which he employed native guides. The land he saw was thinly settled, but it had already been greatly changed by cutting of the white pine and the construction of numerous dams to facilitate floating the large logs down to the sawmills. They frequently visited or slept at vacant lumber camps. The descriptions match very closely the reconstructed one I visited years ago near London, Ontario.

Thoreau was of course, an unmatched observer of nature, whose journals are still a valuable resource for modern ecologists seeking to understand the New England landscape as it existed in the first half of the nineteenth century. He gives many detailed descriptions of the landscape, from the forbidding slopes of Mount Katahdin to the falls and rapids of the Penobscot River. He gives the scientific names of the plants he saw, most of which were familiar to me, like jack pine, Pinus banksiana, and Lilium canadense. He mentions many birds, including the shelduck, which I take to mean the common merganser, Mergus merganser, the cat owl (probably the great horned owl) and bald eagles along the rivers. He has some excellent descriptions of the geology of the routes, such as Mount Kineo, in Moosehead Lake, whose flint-like rhyolite was sought by the natives for toolmaking. His accounts of the difficulties of walking along the rocky, timber strewn banks of the streams and through the boggy ground at the divide between the major drainages evoke memories of similar hikes. The photo by KD Swan, river driving in 1937 in  Kaniksu National Forest, from the US Forest Service Northern Region, gives an idea of the challenge.

Thoreau the transcendentalist’s belief in the spirit lodged in every person is evident in his narrative of these trips. Some of the best descriptive passages are of the the solitary hunters and the timber scouts, who spent months in the wilderness, searching out the uncut stands and the routes for bringing logs to the mills, or the ones engaged in piling up hay and other stores in the camps, to feed men and beasts over the winter of timber cutting. His descriptions of camping out, under simple cotton tents, next to roaring fires, cowering under veils and blankets from mosquitoes and black flies, fishing, hunting and skinning moose and dressing the huge, heavy hides are vivid. Best are his accounts of his native Penobscot guides, particularly Joe Polis, who accompanied him on the third trip to the St. John’s and Penobscot. His interest in Native American language and woodcraft is evident in his careful accounts of Joe and his ways. He gives a detailed and nuanced description of this man, who had travelled to Washington D.C. To pay his respects to Daniel Webster and who had led the pro-education faction of his village against the Catholic priest, who wanted to tear down their “liberty pole” and shut the school. This struggle included a simulated attack on the priest and his party, as they tried to lay hands on the pole, by a gang of painted, naked young men. Despite his tendency to keep his communication minimal and to refuse to answer a question more than once, Joe was a superb teller of tales. He was also a superb handler of his canoe, shooting dangerous falls and rapids, handling the heavily laden craft on stormy lakes and portaging over rough trails. Thoreau tells how Joe taught him the techniques of paddling, which sounded very similar to what I practiced when I earned canoeing merit badge. Joe Polis knew the properties of most plants, could make numerous varieties of tea from them, and yet he was not as familiar as Thoreau with the arrowheads and other flint tools that Thoreau found and showed to him. Overall, Thoreau’s portrait is of a man successfully bridging two cultures.

The Maine Woods joins books by Ruben Gold Thwaites, Mark Twain, Richard Bissel, and, continents away, Eric Newby, on my short but growing list of great river narratives. I’m about to post on a fine account of three British naturalists, Bates, Wallace and Spruce on the Amazon.

Along the Ohio

Ruben Gold Thwaites. Afloat on the Ohio: An Historical Pilgrimage of a Thousand Miles in a Skiff, from Redstone to Cairo.

If this book were made into a film, its musical score should be Antonin Dvorak’s New World Symphony. The varied settings and historical reflections match up well with its varied musical themes. This narrative is similar to his Historic Waterways, but this is a longer trip, with his friend the doctor and his wife and 10 year old son together the whole time. It is historic in that much of the text concerns events that occurred in the previous two and a half centuries. The Ohio Valley is also where the battle to expand the colonies and later the United States beyond the Eastern seaboard took place: the accounts he gives of the conquest and settlement of the region sent me to Wikipedia to learn about the beaver wars, the Northwest War and other conflicts that my school history classes and U.S. stamp collection only left me with a few names like Fallen Timbers and General Braddock. The voyage takes Thwaites and his companions past the sites of Native American towns, forts, trading posts, ambushes, battles and settlements. George Washington spent much time before the Revolutionary War in the Ohio country, both as a military officer and as a surveyor, marking out lands both for his own speculations and for others. The struggles of the colonists from Virginia and Pennsylvania to drive out first the French and then the British from the Ohio had effects on the larger global struggles of these two nations. These were among the bloodiest conflicts in our history, although the later wars with the plains Indians have garnered more attention, along with those in the Hudson Valley and central New York, thanks to James Fenimore Cooper

The other part of the story is of the valley as it appeared in the late nineteenth century: The country they passed through was much more heavily settled and industrialized than the rural regions of Wisconsin described in Historic Waterways. Beginning at Redstone on the Monongahela, the banks were lined with coal tipples, oil and gas wells, mills and factories as well as river towns large and small, and farms that range from prosperous to squalid. There is more river traffic, including a steady procession of steamboats making waves that threaten to swamp their skiff or flood their tent on the bank. These are not bucolic streams but busy waterways in what was, in 1897, the industrial heart of America. The resources of the country were being rapidly converted into goods to be floated up or downriver or loaded onto railcars, which were already displacing the steamboats. Everywhere the waste from mills, mines and wells was being dumped on the banks or poured into the river itself. Thousands of Eastern Europeans were coming to the factories to earn a fortune that they could take back to the homeland, according to Thwaites’s informants, and already there were complaints about the downward pressure on Americans’ wages.

Below Cincinnati and Louisville, though, the river flowed through less developed country, and the rural poverty on both sides made it hard to find the supplies they needed for daily sustenance. Still, there were many well-kept farms and moderately prosperous towns. There was also a stark reminder that this was during the successful counter-reconstruction period, when the hopes of freed slaves were being overturned by southern whites. Thwaites reports, without comment, an exchange between a group of blacks working on an island on the Kentucky side and a black man on the Ohio shore. Their taunts are silenced when the Ohio man points out that at least he has not been put to work doing gang labor on an island that he can’t leave.

As in Historic Waterways, there is rich detail about the river, the weather, the people they meet along the way. The rivermen especially, have that independence of mind, along with a penchant for repartee, that is found in Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi or Richard Bissel’s wonderful A Stretch on the River. There is less of natural history, although his wife avidly botanized at every opportunity and he describes the wildflowers they find. So much of the country had been emptied of wildlife a hundred years of uncontrolled exploitation, and the air and water so polluted by slag, mine tailings, coal smoke and oil that fish and birds were becoming scarcer all the time. A more recent account of the devastating changes wrought upon the fish of the Ohio River (and the Great Lakes) by development, channelization and drainage can be found (if you can locate a copy) in the introduction to The Fishes of Ohio by Milton Bernhard Trautman. Ohio State University Press, 1957.

Throughout, Thwaites makes reference to the early narratives of travel in the Ohio Valley, which he himself played a major role in editing and publishing. I think I may want to read some of those myself.

Ecosystem lost and found?

Looking for Longleaf. The Fall and Rise of an American Forest by Lawrence S. Earley (2004) Chapel Hill. University of North Carolina Press. 322pp.

When I was a teenager, my grandfather recalled for me how the longleaf pine forests in eastern North Carolina looked when he was young, some seventy to eighty years before. It was like being in a cathedral, he said, with the trunks of the trees like columns and the forest floor clear as far as you could see. This book gives an introduction to the character and extent of the longleaf pine ecosystem, once dominant over a vast region of the Atlantic and Gulf Coastal Plain, introducing the plant, Pinus palustris, the diversity of associated plants (sometimes hundreds of species in a square kilometer and as many as 40-60 in a square meter) and several of the more distinctive animals, like gopher tortoise and red-cockaded woodpecker.

Earley explains the critical role of fire and soil in establishing the diversity of types within the overall longleaf ecosystem.

The middle part of the book is a historical account of the European encounter with the forest, its exploitation by the naval stores industry and its eventual destruction by that industry and the railroad based loggers. Some of these descriptions fit closely with what I heard from my grandfather and from a friend in North Carolina (whom Earley interviewed for the section on turpentining). He talks about rafting logs down the coastal rivers (as my grandfather, born in 1869, did as a boy) and shipping naval stores (my grandfather also described how the cooper made the barrels for turpentine). He explains that what preserved so much of the forest were the limitation of cutting timber to areas close to usable streams, that is until the railroads came. My father (born 1913) recalled how the railroad was brought in to log some of the most remore and inaccessible places when he was growing up. Some time around 1970, before the railroad was finally abandoned, I saw carloads of longleaf pine stumps waiting to be hauled off to extract the valuable resins or to make fatwood kindling, sold by L.L. Bean, among others. Earley also mentions the continued interest in salvaging sunken logs and getting lumber from old buildings.

The final chapters are on the development of forest management ideas, from failed attempts at replanting to replacement by loblolly and slash pine and the gradual development of methods to regenerate longleaf, first as even aged stands but now moving towards uneven age management and overall ecosystem restoration. Red-cockaded woodpecker played a key role in several changes in policy, driven by court decisions under the Endangered Species Act. Many of the agencies involved, like the US forest Service have serious problems dealing with the steady increase in scientific and ecological understanding of the forests. Institutional change is difficult, especially when institutional memory is impaired by frequent reassignment of key people and political pressures. The US Forest Service has had an especially hard time admitting it has been wrong about fire suppression and even-aged management.

He talks about the role of national and state forests and of large and small private landholders (currently there is increasing longleaf acgeage on federal and maybe state land and on large private conservation holdings, but continued losses on timber company lands and small private holdings) and what the trends may mean for the future of the ecosystem and many of its species. New incentives under the Conservation Reserve Program may be changing the minds of some private owners. It is possible to derive a pretty steady income from restored longleaf, partly through sale of raked needles in the 10th to 15th years after replanting. Poles are much in demand, using middle aged trees. The author seems most impressed by adaptive management approaches using small group-selection cuts and frequent growing season fire. Several interesting examples are described in the next to last chapter on restoration. Some of these areas sound like they would be worth seeing, and there are some groups that can help with restoration, a topic that is on my mind lately, as I and my brothers and sisters still hold a small remnant of thousands of acres of longleaf land owned by my great-great grandfather in the early 1800s. We will soon be clearing the stand of loblolly pine, planted decades ago, to make way for longleaf again.