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.

Aldo Leopold: The Ecologist and the Story of Job

Aldo Leopold. A Sand county Almanac and Essays on Conservation from Round River. Illustrated by Charles W. Schwartz. Oxford University Press. 1966.

Image from Maxpixels.net

One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds. Much of the damage inflicted on land is quite invisible to laymen.”

 – Aldo Leopold, Round River

Reading Aldo Leopold’s ecological classic, A Sand County Almanac, with my college classmates at our 50th reunion this fall, I made an unexpected connection to a much older story that also concerns humans’ relation to the wilderness. In an earlier blog post (https://nearctictraveller.blog/2019/06/26/the-book-of-job-traveler-in-a-strange-land/), I compared Job’s comforters’ understandings and Job’s understanding of God’s creation. Their conventional wisdom cannot satisfy Job, who has directly experienced disaster that he is certain cannot be punishment for any transgressions on his part. Misfortune pushed Job beyond the boundaries of human society, into “the place of the jackal.” When the voice from the whirlwind opens his eyes, Job sees that the world which God’s created works in ways that defy his and his friends’ concepts of right and wrong. 

Aldo Leopold also was forced to give up the comfortable sense humans know best what is right in the natural world and that all is manageable for human benefit. Leopold began his career as an ardent proponent of controlling wildlife for what he viewed as human interest, but also with an openness to a deeper experience of wild things. His revelation came on a mountain, far from human society. As he describes it, the fading of the “fierce green fire” in the eyes of a dying she wolf revealed that his understanding had been too simple. In “Thinking like a Mountain,” he acknowledges that although he once sought to exterminate them, he came to recognize that wolves, mountain lions and grizzly bears, like Behemoth and Leviathan in Job, have a place in the world.  

Unlike the Job of the story’s ending, Leopold is not able to recover what he has lost. On the other hand, his suffering is neither so physical nor so personal. Instead, suffering comes from a growing recognition that the world’s wealth of ecological communities are being lost to human progress.

In the essay on cutting down an old dead oak tree for firewood, he uses the saw’s progress through the annual rings of the tree to recount all that has been destroyed over the century and more since the tree first grew. It’s a history of extirpation of many species, of vast changes in the landscape and of a few uncertain steps to save some of the remainder.

Like Job, Leopold wants to rebuild our human life on a new foundation of knowledge: the way the world works is deeply counter to our conventional wisdom. He makes this especially clear in his essay, “The Land Ethic,” where he calls for a new standard for judging our actions in relation to the ecological community. In the Old Testament, the voice out of the whirlwind commands Job to consider behemoth, “whom I made as I made you.” Behemoth and the other beasts described in that passage are as much a part of the world as Job and his friends. As he came to understand ecology, Leopold was similarly convinced that we are not a separate, privileged species, above the rest of the ecological community, but ordinary members and citizens of it. In other words, we are all in this together. 

Like all living things, we must live by exploiting other lives, at least to some extent. Unlike others, we can ask ourselves whether there are limits to exploiting the natural community beyond which we will be less just and less happy as a human community. Leopold cannot say for certain what those limits should be, though he can see plenty of examples of wanton and careless destruction that we do too little to prevent. What he feels sure of is that we ought to preserve at least some of all the components that make up the ecological community and that we ought to regard ourselves as part of it, not its masters.

The Book of Job wraps up the story neatly, I would say a bit too neatly, in the end. Is that because as some think, the redacted version has been made to fit into a conventional framework of religious piety, however bizarre that seems to make God’s actions? In any case, Leopold can have no such replacements for his losses, because they are not his alone, and it will take generations to stop the losses and begin to recover. For instance, the United States passed The Endangered Species Act, on paper one of our strongest environmental laws. Implementing it, however, has been an uphill battle against both lack of scientific understanding and determined resistance by those who must forego immediate gains. Even as we make incremental progress, habitat destruction, climate change and pollution are endangering ever more species.

The sentiment expressed in Round River is as true today as when Leopold wrote. To learn ecology is to come to realize how extensive the world’s wounds are. Let us hope that they can be healed.

The Book of Job, Traveler in a Strange Land

The Book of Job: a New Translation with In-Depth Commentary by Robert D. Sacks. Kafir Yaroq Books. Green Lion Press. 2016.

Robert D. Sacks’s new translation of and commentary on the Book of Job is a wonderful contribution to our understanding of this deeply strange and interesting book. In my notes, I want to highlight just a few particularly fascinating points:

The translation includes many extended glosses on words that are used in unfamiliar ways, to unravel the difficult ideas that the poet is trying to convey. For example, Sachs makes an extended comment on the familiar biblical passage(s) about future generations being responsible for the sins of their fathers. He says the word translated as“sins” or ”iniquity” is actually better rendered in English as something like perversion,and he cites several other places where this word appears that make this clearer. Then he refers to a couple modern examples of the sorts of wrongs he thinks are meant to be understood, one of which is slavery in the United States. I find that makes a lot of sense; the whole problem of slavery and its aftermath is a perversion of which Americans are often unconscious or in denial. Furthermore, one can assume this burden simply by becoming a citizen of this country; even recent immigrants, by joining American society, acquire the responsibility. The same, Sacks says, applies to the debt we owe Native Americans. [See my post on Exiles of Florida ]

 A second point, central to the story, is the contrast between Job’s friends’ understanding of his sufferings and his own sense of injustice. The friends connect what has happened to the received wisdom of the tradition, which assures them that a good man cannot be made to suffer unjustly. Job is convinced that he has done no wrong. He has begun to see a world that is, in its workings, quite likely to inflict misery and loss on even those who have done nothing wrong by the traditional standards, and even on those whose conduct has been exemplary. He begins to think that for his suffering to make any kind of sense, he has to exile himself beyond the boundaries set by the tradition of orderly, civilized human life. Beyond lies a wild place, the “place of the jackal” or the “shadow of death.” The fourth speaker, Elihu, urges him not to venture there, because no human can face the raw power of God; Job must simply submit and hide himself from such terrors. Still, Job insists he wants to know what it is he has failed to grasp.

Job gets his answer from the voice out of whirlwind: the marvelous chapters 38-41 lay before him the sublime beauty and terror of the world before and beyond the human. Central to this wonder is the revelation that God caused all this to come to be by allowing things to develop according to their own generating, birthing and nurturing principles. Sacks points out that while there is some reference to God making and measuring out boundaries, there is much more emphasis on things developing by their own internal causes. He says that here we get the idea of nature, working autonomously, giving birth to a vast range of beings that do not conform to man’s needs or sense of what is right, but exist free and for their own ends. Some are untamed versions of domestic animals like asses and oxen; some are wild and fierce even when used by man, like the war horse; some appear to be laughably foolish, like the ostrich, and some, behemoth and leviathan, are simply beyond human power. What is revealed by the voice is a world beyond the human, one that man can never tame and whose sublimity means it would be unjust to do so even if it were possible. In this, Sacks argues for the sacred character of wild nature. We can and must learn from it, but we can’t control it. The poet of Job is the quintessential ecologist.

[As an aside, I have always liked the Revised Standard Version’s identification of Behemoth and Levithan with the hippopotamus and crocodile. Both existed in Israel, the hippo until the Iron Age (https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0005316) and the crocodile until the 20th century, so it seems reasonable to think that they were known to the Job poet. I think that ties in well to the idea that although some these beasts (including the ostrich, according to Sachs) are tamed by humans, there is much that is beyond what humans can manage. Somehow, it seems better to end with something palpably real, if exotic, rather than mythical, as behemoth and leviathan are often depicted. It is surely wrong to imagine leviathan as a whale: whales aren’t covered in plates or scales and don’t sprawl in the mud except if dead or helpless.]

Sachs makes another point here: leviathan, “king over all the sons of pride,” although utterly awe-inspiring, is closed up in his impenetrable armor – nothing gets through to him. He rules this realm by the shear weight of his power. Job is the opposite: he is open and can see and absorb the wonder of the natural. By being open to the beauty and terror, Job comes to understand both the other and himself. He can operate in his human realm through love and understanding. In the end then, Job returns to the human world, where he helps his friends atone for their ignorant advice. He is able to receive condolences for the loss of his children and his suffering, and he can rebuild his fortunes.

Sacks ends by pointing out that Job’s acceptance of the importance of the birthing and nurturing power of the womb, expressed in many of the images from chapters 38 to 40, produces a change in how he treats his daughters.  He gives the three an inheritance alongside his sons, in contrast to the prevailing custom that daughters get only dowries. This, I think, is an example of what Sacks means by saying that the voice from the whirlwind has revealed to Job a realm that operates by laws unlike the received human tradition, and Job must remember those lessons as he rebuilds his life in the human world. I like his observation that Job has become aware of a realm in which he is utterly insignificant, which, however, contains possibilities for “love and laughter” that can inform the world in which Job matters very much.

The Journeys of Holling C. Holling

Paddle to the Sea. 1941. Tree in the Trail. 1942. Seabird. 1948. Minn of the Mississippi. 1951

Each of these books tells a story about travelers. Paddle to the Sea is a small wood carving of a Native American in a canoe, placed by its maker into the water north of Lake Superior. Paddle finds his way to the Gulf of St. Lawrence after years of travel through each of the Great Lakes in turn. Seabird follows the career of a boy named Ezra on a New Bedford whaler and his son’s on yankee clippers, accompanied by a carving in walrus ivory of an ivory gull. Father and son grow to manhood in the age of sail, but the story ends with Ezra’s great-grandson still carrying the white bird as he pilots airplanes over the ocean.  Minn is a snapping turtle, who hatches in Lake Itasca, headwaters of the Mississippi, and who travels slowly south, ending up as a moss covered ancient in the deep backwaters of the Delta. Only the tree in the trail stays put; it begins as a young cottonwood sapling by a tributary of the Arkansas River near present day Great Bend, Kansas. It is witness to generations of Native American Buffalo hunters, the arrival of the Spanish and then the Americans – trappers, traders, settlers and all along the Santa Fe Trail. After hundreds of years, the dead tree is carved into an ox yoke and travels the Santa Fe trail at last. All the books are filled from beginning to end with the natural and human history of the places the travelers pass through. These books are about journeys, but even more about the passage of time.

As a child, I loved Holling’s illustrations, both the large color ones on nearly every other page and the monochrome drawings that filled the margins – maps and diagrams of everything from whales to ships to arrowheads and rivers. I’ve never had difficulty picturing the outlines of the Great Lakes, because Holling, in Paddle to the Sea, provided an object to fit each shape: A wolf’s head for Superior, a summer squash fruit with leaves for Michigan, a trapper carrying a pack of furs for Huron, a lump of coal for Erie and a carrot for Ontario. The forms connected to the regional economies: trapping in the north woods around Superior and Huron, farming in  the midwest around Lake Michigan and in the lake plain of central New York, heavy industry from  western Pennsylvania through northern Ohio to Michigan. Even Lake St. Clair, by Detroit, had a shape like a heart: that region was at the time Holling wrote and illustrated, the industrial heart of the continent.

His marginal illustrations include beautiful maps, both historical and contemporary of the regions his travelers pass. He shows how glaciation shaped the upper Mississippi and the Great Lakes. Showing the history of Minn’s evolution, he goes back to the age of dinosaurs, and there are numerous geological diagrams. his painting of the 1811 New Madrid Earthquake in Minn of the Mississippi is unforgettable.

He illustrations and drawings take you back in time through the history of the regions he depicts.  He illustrates whaling ships and steamboats and covered wagons, often in great detail, showing the different types and how they were used. There are diagrams, beautifully lettered, showing the parts of tools and machines, plans for corrals, sawmills, river locks and how pearl buttons were cut from mussel shells.

In his scenes of life, whether aboard ships at sea or in the bayou country of Louisiana, Holling illustrates the people with sympathy and an absence of satire or irony (he studied anthropology as well as art).  He draws plants and animals in great detail (he was a taxidermist at the Field Museum in Chicago when he was young) and with the same sympathy as his people. Landscapes, wild, rural or industrial are usually shown from a human perspective, as if one were in the scene, with dramatic effect when he shows storms, floods or wildfires. Much of what he depicts he had seen firsthand; he and his wife and collaborator, Lucille Webster Holling, were great travelers themselves.

The Hollings left a legacy of beautifully illustrated books for children. While in many respects, the world they show has changed tremendously since they were published in the 1930s to 1950s, they are still wonderful. There is a love of the natural and the human  coming through these pages that is impossible to miss.

[Here’s another fascinating bit from Wikipedia: “Holling wrote and illustrated a full-page Sunday comic strip titled The World Museum. Each strip included a diorama, which could be cut out and assembled into a 3-D scene of, for example, a buffalo hunt or an undersea panorama.”]

Note: I first found Holling’s books when I was in grade school in the Mary Bailey Pratt Children’s Library in Chapel Hill NC. The library was housed on the upper floor of the elementary school on Franklin Street. It was there, as well as at home, that my love for books developed, thanks to the librarians, especially Mrs Hardee. I worked for her at least one summer, learning how to care for the books. Books with pictures by great American illustrators from N. C. Wyeth to Doctor Seuss, made up a large part of the collection, and two large, framed watercolors, done years before by a student, hung on the wall opposite the desk. One was of Ichabod Crane, walking down the road, reading a book, the other was of Tom Sawyer, heading off to go fishing. After the old school was demolished in the late 1960s, I wondered what had become of those pictures. Years later, I was delighted to find them hanging in the new Chapel Hill Public Library children’s section.

Looking for the Logos of Life VIII: Organism and Superorganism

I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes within us and a Grander View of Life by Ed Yong. Harper Collins. 2016.

IMAGE: Wolbachia inside an insect cell

Who are we really? A question with a thousand answers, one being that we metazoan animals are large collections of cells, descended from a single fertilized egg cell, and organized into tissues, organs and systems, forming an individual. But, like any other object that contains nutrients and and energy ( and we contain a lot of both) we are also a good habitat for other kinds of living things, especially small, unicellular ones. In fact, there are more cells in our body of other kinds, with different DNA and different ancestry, than there are human cells. Most of them live in our intestines, but there are lots in and on every surface exposed to the outside, from our scalp to our toes.

What are they doing? Until 1676, when van Leeuwenhoekdescribed seeing microbes for the first time, we knew nothing of these guests on and within us (nor our own cellular structure) Cell theory did not become a standard tenant of biology until the mid-nineteenth century, and the germ theory of disease followed decades later. For a considerable period after that, microbes enjoyed very bad press, but it gradually emerged that these organisms were in fact mostly benign and possibly even essential to our well being.

We are not alone, of course: microbes are everywhere on and in plants and animals, including in microbes themselves. This book nicely recounts what has been learned about the manifold, complex ways microbes, especially bacteria, are woven into the fabric of the biosphere.

From the way bacteria form the luminescent organs of squid to how the sugars and antibodies in mothers’ milk regulate development of human infants’ digestive and immune systems, nourishing some bacteria and discouraging others, Yong shows the many ways animals depend on symbionts.

With the development of fast and cheap genome sequencing techniques, we can now characterize the microbiome, as it is called, for many organisms in detail. What has emerged is what Darwin described in his famous image of the tangled bank: an intricate network of ever evolving relationships among multitudes of actors, all struggling to survive and replicate under varying circumstances. Since we also know that gene sequences are exchangeable, just like energy and nutrients, from one organism to another, it is not too surprising to read of frequent exchanges among the microbes and sometimes between them and their hosts.

We also know, thanks to Lynn Margulis, that we still carry the highly evolved symbionts that first came together to build our eukaryotic cells from prokaryotic bacterial cells, a billion and more years ago. Our energy transforming mitochondria are the best known example, along with plants’ chloroplasts.

Not all relationships are benign: apart from acute and chronic infections, some fatal, there are lots of suggestive associations between for example, gut microbes and obesity, autoimmune disease and cancer. But at least we aren’t insects or worms, who frequently have their tiny lives disrupted by the almost ubiquitous Wolbachia, a bacterial symbiont that can twist their sex and reproduction in bizarre ways, but in other cases provides essential nutrients the host can’t make or facilitates the bugs’ own parasitic relations to plant or animal victims.

All this has practical implications, of course. If we could understand the workings of our relationships to microbes, we might be able to control some of the pathologies mentioned above. We might be able to provide better alternative nutrition for infants whose mothers can’t or won’t nurse them. We might be able to modify other organisms or build artificial ones to better suit our needs (see the review of Underbug in Science) for chemicals, food, etc. Of course, a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing, as witness the current interest in “probiotics,” whose benefits are largely unproven, or the even grosser move to fecal transplants. I’m not sure we are ready to safely manipulate our own microbiomes yet.

On a sounder footing, there are pilot studies of using Wolbachia to control the spread of dengue fever by mosquitos. Wolbachia prevents mosquitoes from carrying the virus, so releasing Wolbachia infected mosquitoes has been successful in reducing transmission of the disease. On the other hand, using antibiotics to kill symbiotic Wolbachia that enable filariasis worms to attack humans has resulted in the first successful treatment for elephantiasis.

The key thing, as my microbiologist father passed on to me from his idol, Theobald Smith, is to understand the ecology of the symbiotic relationship. In the Wolbachia-filaria relationship, there is a bit of love hate. Specifically, the worm has to have its own ways of stopping Wolbachia from becoming a parasite instead of a mutualist. If we could learn to manipulate those natural controls, we might have a way to trick the worm into eliminating Wolbachia and hence, ending its own ability to survive in its human host. Then even people who can’t take a long course of powerful antibiotics could be cured.

So much for the practical implications, of which these examples are just the tiniest hint. What does this new understanding tell us about the logos of life? Are there profound consequences for our self understanding in the realization that we contain multitudes?

I think that nothing here undermines the basic Darwinian conception of evolution by natural selection. Exponential growth (resulting in a struggle for existence) and genetic variation in populations lead to natural selection within these communities of organisms. The question seems to be what are the units on which selection acts? In the case of symbionts transmitted from parent to offspring and that can’t be expelled, it is likely, as is obvious with mitochondria, that the partnership as a whole must be what is acted on. Where the partners are acquired from the environment and can be lost and replaced, it seems to make more sense to think of coevolution, with each as a component of the environment of the other.

It’s reasonable to think that there must be a spectrum of such relations from purely casual and opportunistic to completely integrated. Is there a tendency for relationships to evolve towards complete integration? Lynn Margulis seemed to think so; she believed that such symbiogenesis was a more significant phenomenon than natural selection. I think that the logic of the process indicates otherwise. Self replication is the fundamental process; integration occurs when divergent lineages converge because of mutual advantage in the struggle for existence.

The accompanying loss of independence doesn’t matter. Very few organisms are totally independent of others, although recent work suggests there may be more than we suppose, at least where symbiotic microbes are concerned. Research suggests that most animals are parasites, if we include plant parasitic herbivores, and so they require a host or hosts to survive. Even scavengers and plants rely extensively on fungi and bacteria to release nutrients. Many fungi, in turn, are dependent on symbiosis with plants. That’s probably the main lesson here: the biosphere is a web of interdependent organisms, and the best way to live is with as much help as possible. As Red Green says, “we’re all in this together.”

Note: Underbug: An Obsessive Tale of Termites and Technology by Lisa Margonelli, Scientific American/Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018, also deals with symbiosis and the lives of some of the most socially integrated of organisms, the termites. Termites provided some of the earliest studied examples of complex symbiotes: the amazing protists in their guts possess a whole array of bacterial symbiotes themselves that enable them, and hence the termites, to digest wood. The so called advanced termites have gone another route, letting gardens of fungi in their giant nests do the work of digestion, just like the equally remarkable leaf cutter ants.

This book deals mostly with the many lines of research inspired by termites, more so than the details of their ecology and evolution. Still, it is a fascinating story about how we humans are expanding our own possibilities by looking closely at complex organisms. For more, see the review in Science.

Discordant Visions

The Wizard and the Prophet : Two Remarkable Scientists and their Dueling Visions to Shape Tomorrow’s World by Charles C. Mann. New York : Alfred A. Knopf, 2018.

I listened to the Audible edition, which was read with a great effort to sound dramatic and to pronounce every foreign name or word with a perfect accent, both of which I found distracting.

What is the right term for the series of issues that came to public attention in the last half of the 20th century? That is, those that involved the increasing human population, economic growth and intensive exploitation of the natural world, climate change, pollution, etc? Collectively, they can be characterized as “environmental,” but to say this was the era of environmentalism doesn’t exactly fit. Many of those involved would reject the label, “environmentalist,” seeing themselves as biologists, economists, social scientists, or ecologists in the narrow, scientific sense. The older label, “conservationist,” would fit some, but not all those involved. I don’t have an answer to the problem of saying in a word what this book is about.

Mann tries to sum up the tensions and perplexities of this broad historical phenomenon by following the lives and careers of William Vogt and Norman Borlaug. The first was a conservationist in the old sense, involved with groups like Audubon and author of an influential book in the late 1940s, Road to Survival, a neo-Malthusian polemic on population growth exceeding the carrying capacity of the Earth. He was a major influence on Rachael Carson’s Silent Spring, the book often cited as the major impetus behind Earth Day 1970. The second was a midwestern born and educated plant breeder who developed wheat resistant to stem rust and then added further improvements that greatly increased yields. First in Mexico, then in other developing countries, supported by the Rockefeller Foundation, this work became the basis of the green revolution, and Borlaug received a Nobel prize.

Mann treats these contrasting stories as exemplars of the familiar dilemma: can science and technology allow us to keep expanding human demand, or do we need to reduce demand, primarily by stopping population growth and cutting our per capita consumption? He considers this in relation to four domains that he labels earth, air, fire and water, that is, food and agriculture, climate change, energy generation and water supply. For each he describes the “wizard,” approach – Borlaug – and the “prophet,” approach – Vogt. He takes us through technological solutions being developed by modern day wizards, and then tells us the views of modern day prophets, who say these solutions won’t work and who propose “greener,” more “sustainable” solutions of their own. At the end, he attempts a synthesis, but it is not clear whether there is a way to reconcile such starkly contrasted views. What I found interesting was not so much the contrast as the similarity between their conceptions of the way through the difficulties, or even catastrophes, they envisioned. Both saw the critical decisions as coming from the top, through national or international governing bodies, staffed by experts, although the experts in the two cases would be applying very different principles.

The trouble with this is that such solutions quickly lose sight of human values like equity and freedom. The green revolution greatly increased food supplies, but also largely destroyed small farmers’ lives and led to the growth of the developing world’s mega cities, with their sprawling shanty towns. Attempts to rein in growth often seem to place the heaviest burdens on the poorest people, while protecting the lifestyles of the already well off. At best, affluent folk get a steady bombardment of guilt-inducing environmental propaganda, along with promotions for exotic ecotourism destinations.

Economic liberalism and the global market economy have no use for restraint, so if there are limits to growth, it’s hard to see how the free market society can avoid hitting up against them. If there aren’t any limits, as many still insist, at least in the immediate future, does that mean we should continue to allow things to develop? In an earlier post, Climate Change, Equity and Security, I considered how a sustainable future might be possible, if more attention were given to equity in development, through the imposition of clear and simple limits (on speed, on emissions, etc.) to restrain the growth of inequity and waste, while leaving room for individual freedom and innovation. Likewise, efforts to constrain the growth of economic inequality could also ease some of the current threats to the global environment. Poverty seems to me to be a major driver of population growth, because it delays the demographic transition that rich countries have gone through.

People certainly need the vision, knowledge and advice of scientists like Borlaug and Vogt, but I’m not sure that they alone can offer solutions to the complicated collection of problems that result from human flourishing on Earth. The economic miracle of the green revolution, coupled with humanity’s incredible endurance, has enabled us to escape the catastrophe that Vogt foresaw, but it seems very clear to me that sooner or later we will exhaust nature’s resilience and human patience. Whether it is grain, meat, cars or human souls, more can’t always be better. We need to think more deeply about what we really need from the Earth and how, as free people, we can sustain our life together.

Despite the limitations of his either/or framework, Mann makes the stories of these two men interesting enough for a good read. You can enjoy those parts of the book, and skip the earth, air, fire and water, if you like.

When Worlds Collide


The Conquest of Tenochtitlan  And when we saw all those cities and villages built in the water, and other great towns on dry land, and that straight and level causeway leading to Mexico [i.e. Tenochtitlán], we were astounded. These great towns and cues [i.e., temples] and buildings rising from the water, all made of stone, seemed like an enchanted vision from the tale of Amadis. Indeed, some of our soldiers asked whether it was not all a dream. It is not surprising therefore that I should write in this vein. It was all so wonderful that I do not know how to describe this first glimpse of things never heard of, seen or dreamed of before. . . .I say again that I stood looking at it, and thought that no land like it would ever be discovered in the whole world…. But today all that I then saw is overthrown and destroyed; nothing is left standing. True History of the Conquest of New Spain by Bernal Díaz del Castillo (1492-1580)

1491 (Second Edition): New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus. Audible recorded edition, original publication 2006 by Charles C. Mann

1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created. Audible recorded edition, original publication 2011 by Charles C. Mann

These two books form a pair of inquiries, first into what the New World, comprising the nearctic and neotropical biogeographic realms, were like prior to the coming of Europeans (and Africans) after 1492 and second into what the resulting “Columbian exchange,” wrought in biological and cultural terms across the world.

Mann collected the latest scientific and historical evidence from a wide range of first hand sources, mostly working archaeologists, anthropologists, demographers, historians and others. He traveled through North, Central and South America to see the discoveries that are changing our notions about the human population of the Americas from the end of the ice ages to the present. He revisited the first hand accounts of the earliest European explorers, who often reported densities of human settlements that were disbelieved by those who followed just a couple of generations later, after European diseases had depopulated vast regions. He recounts the epic battles of the scientific past: how new discoveries were often flatly denied by the powerful authorities of the time, even in the face of hard evidence. Some academic scientists took all the credit for discoveries which were originally made by amateurs and lay people. The history of Native Americans has been contested ground for centuries, and now the Native Americans themselves are becoming more deeply involved, not always, as far as I can see, on the side of the best science. This may partly be blamed on postmodern and post colonialist concepts of truth, but a lot is simply the difficulty of making sense of the evidence. Betty Meggars, author of Amazonia: Nature and Culture in a Counterfeit Paradise, which I greatly admired as a young ecologist, is an example of someone who, at the time 1491 was published, opposed the idea that humans could have lived in the Amazon Basin in large settlements with permanent, as opposed to shifting agriculture. I think her basic ideas about ecological limitations are sound, but it seems as if she was refusing to see that the ecology of the Amazon forest was more complex than was understood in the 1970s. Since those early days of the save the rainforest movement, we have learned a lot about the Amazon and other forests that contradicts ideas about primeval forests, undisturbed for centuries, being what Europeans encountered as they ventured to Africa, Asia and the Americas. Many environmentalists are reluctant to accept these findings, because they rightly fear that they could be used to justify unregulated exploitation by destructive modern methods. Still, I see no use in denying hard won understanding. I, for one, accept the idea that across the earth, humans have played a much greater role in  shaping the landscape and for a longer time than we previously believed. Mann’s detailed accounts of the latest understanding of life of Native Americans prior to 1492 point to just how much was lost in the collision between the peoples, plants, animals and diseases of two formerly isolated realms.

Mann’s second book, 1493, takes up the story to try to see how this fatal, but pregnant, collision transformed the rest of the planet. Central to this was trade: the rapid exchange of all sorts of goods, including new crops, new livestock and unfortunately, new pests and diseases across the globe. The trade was facilitated by the new sea routes opened up, especially the Spanish route from Mexico to Manila, made possible by the vast deposits of silver and gold in the new Spanish colonies. Chinese silks and porcelin flowed east to New Spain and then Europe, while silver, especially, flowed to China. Along with the coin went crops like maize, chili pepper and sweet potato, whose conquest of Asian diets Mann details. Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, sugar, tobacco and later, cotton began to flow to Europe, made possible by the labor of enslaved Africans. Transplanted Europeans, their crops and their livestock began to replace the native populations from Argentina to Quebec, remaking the landscape in a melded version of the old and new. Escaped slaves formed a crucial part of the ecological and cultural heritage of areas like Brazil and the southeastern US (see my post on Exiles of Florida).

All this history and ecology, so different from what I learned in school, and even as a graduate student forty years ago, is a reminder that very little of our understanding of ourselves and the world we inhabit can be taken as fixed and certain. Perhaps my favorite bit of revisionist history in either book is the notion that the famous passenger pigeon did not darken the skies in vast flocks containing billions of birds back before Columbus. Instead, it rocketed to huge numbers when the demographic collapse of Native Americans led to a regrowth of deciduous forest across formerly densely inhabited landscapes in eastern North America. How do we know they were not so abundant back in the day? Because passenger pigeon bones are scarce in archeological sites from pre-Columbian times, despite the historical fact that the birds were good to eat and easy to obtain in the early 19th century.

There were surely be further developments in this fascinating field of inquiry, but for now, these two books are not a bad place to begin.

Life with Lepidoptera

Peter Marren. Rainbow Dust: Three Centuries of Butterfly Delight. University of Chicago Press. 2016.

This was subtitled “Three Centuries of Delight in British Butterflies,” when it was first published in the UK in 2014. The Chicago edition has a preface for American readers, making some comparisons between the American and European faunas. He briefly mentions the great American collectors of the nineteenth century (see my post from February 2015) and introduces his favorite butterfly lover, Vladimir Nabokov, to whom he will return  throughout.

Marren begins with personal recollection and reflection on his early days as a butterfly collector: the joys of pursuit and capture, the thrill of discovering a new species to add to his collection and the less easily expressed delight of simply being alive and out in a world inhabited by beautiful, delicate beings.

In discussing this aesthetic joy and recounting the history of the long fascination that butterflies have exerted on the minds of human beings, Marren does a great job of presenting the collectors, artists and writers who left behind a record of their pursuits. Among those he most admires are the Rothschilds, who have probably done more for entomology than any of the other great families of England. Nine different members are listed in his index. His account of the lives and works of the many notable painters and engravers of butterflies, from the late Renaissance to the 21st century, reminds us of the enormous labor involved and the many disappointments and financial failures that dogged their efforts. It is very helpful to have a computer or tablet handy while reading this chapter, so you can search out examples of work by Moses Harris (see example above) Henry Noel Humphries, F.W. Frohawk, Richard Lewington and David Measures. The book itself has only monochrome illustrations of butterflies in the chapter headings.

I was rather less taken by Marren’s attempt to write a literary, cultural and psychological history of the passion for butterflies. The familiar identification of the soul (psyche) with a butterfly and the various ways butterflies appear in poetry do not seem to add up to much in terms of understanding human responses to the natural world. Nor do his forays into mythology make compelling reading for me. His accounts of the people who established our understanding of the lives of butterflies are much more interesting. The tribulations of women who shared the passion are especially telling: from Lady Glanville whose interest in butterflies was grounds for suspecting her sanity and thus contesting her will, to her successors in the eighteenth and especially the nineteenth century, who contributed much to entomology, despite a “men only” attitude among most organizations and institutions.

One of the best features of this book is Marren’s fascination with the names that people have given to butterflies over the centuries and in different parts of the world. Here, I think his cultural reflections are on firmer ground. Besides, the names are just amazing and fun to wonder about. Why is a beautiful flying insect called a red admiral or a golden hog? He also comments on how names and naming conventions have changed over the centuries. Luckily, we have the Linnean system to impose a more or less uniform system so serious students can keep things straight.

Marren also does a fine job of describing the butterflies themselves and their habitats all across England and Scotland. He talks about the plants they rely on and the plant communities they inhabit, with much attention to how changing ecology, driven by modernizing agriculture and the rise of suburbs, have affected species, some for the better, but more for the worse. His 12th chapter on butterfly monitoring and preservation efforts is one of the best reflections on the dilemmas of trying to maintain and protect natural habitats that I have read in a popular work.

Marren chronicles the decline of butterfly collecting as a hobby and even as a scientific endeavor in Great Britain. More and more areas prohibit collecting, and more and more of the public is openly hostile to the idea of killing and preserving butterflies. Marren’s own collection from his youth in the 1950’s and 60’s was accepted by the Natural History Museum, because well-documented specimens from the latter part of the 20th century are scarce and valuable records of the state of the fauna, which help scientists today understand how things have changed. The anti-collecting bias of many current environmentalists and natural history enthusiasts is understandable, given the decline of so many species, but largely misguided, at least if they care as they claim to, about protecting these natural wonders. We need more solid documentation, not less, for butterfly populations, and although photographs and even unvouchered reports can be helpful, serious conservation needs specimens to verify what it is that is there and to enable us to trace the shifting makeup of populations. As Marren makes clear in his chapter on efforts to save England’s butterflies, simply trying to freeze things in place is a sure route to failure. Too many organizations and agencies, at least here in my home state, still seem to think that way, though.



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.