The Dawn Chorus

Aldo Leopold: “If the land mechanism as a whole is good, then every part of it is good, whether we understand it or not. If the biota in the course of eons has built something we like but do not understand, then who but a fool would discard seemingly useless parts? To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering.”

Aldo Leopold, the 20th century’s most important conservationist, is brought to life in this recent interview on Living on Earth.  Steve Curwood interviews Stanley Temple, Professor Emeritus in Conservation at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who is a Senior Fellow at the Aldo Leopold Foundation. Specifically, Aldo regularly recorded the dawn bird chorus on his farm.  This journal increases in value as a baseline record of bird species on a worn out piece of land which he bought to restore to life.  Over decades the Leopold family replanted trees and native plants—often a disheartening activity as many perished before some “took.”

In this interview, Temple explains how he found an unpublished manuscript from the Leopold papers, archived at the University of Wisconsin.  Leopold used one of the first light meters of his time to coordinate the level of light from night to dawn with the sounds of the first birds—the Dawn Chorus.  What got recorded for all time was an invaluable record of the environment against which today’s environmental elements and biodiversity can be compared.

Unlike what is happening in general to habitats, Leopold’s land has increased in biodiversity due to its restoration of native vegetation and watershed.

Enjoy the recording during the interview, and also, a current recording in which the sounds of the birds are nearly drowned by the noise from a nearby freeway.

The Power of Trees

When I consider that a single man, relying only on his own simple physical and moral resources, was able to transform a desert into this land of Canaan, I am convinced that despite everything, the human condition is truly admirable. ~ The Man Who Planted Trees by Jean Giono.

Each day while he tended his flocks, the shepherd drove a heavy steel rod into the soil on the rolling hills, dropped an acorn, covered and tamped it down. In his day pack the old man carried 100 perfect acorns, sorted through in silence the night before. Tomorrow he would repeat this work—planting trees while his sheep grazed.

Elzéard Bouffier determined the land was ravaged for lack of trees.  Wind whipped across its tortured slopes after years of war and human exploitation.  Throughout WWI and WWII—while the fates of younger men lay in bloody trenches—the elder Frenchman methodically played out his chosen vocation, planting sturdy oaks, a copse of beeches and orchards of apples.

“The Man Who Planted Trees and Grew Happiness” was published in Vogue Magazine in 1957.  Jean Giono—a celebrated French writer—created a story that awakened the American passion for wilderness at a time when environmental degradation burdened the public mind.

About that time a teenager from Kenya travelled to America to study ecology.  Raised in a traditional Kikuyu family in the northern hill country of Kenya, her mother had taught her to never take firewood from the fig tree because it was sacred.  God dwells in the fig tree, her mother cautioned. Wangari never questioned her mother. But, Catholic missionaries later convinced the villagers that God did not live in the fig and to destroy the sacred groves to build new churches which they did.

Ten years later when Wangari Maathai returned to her homeland she finally understood the wisdom of the Kikuyu.  Without the fig groves’ deep root systems, the hill country had eroded, turning clear streams to muddy pools.  Without clean water the community suffered from disease, hunger and poverty—unknown in past times.  The Kikuyu lost an ancient environmental protection policy.

By the time Wangari came to a leadership position in her government, forests that once blanketed Kenya were being harvested on a massive scale.  Her path to Deputy Director of Environment and Natural Resources began humbly in 1977 when she returned to her native country. Wangari realized that the people and land were being harmed by expedient government policies that promoted logging for quick profit in international markets.  Women in particular were impacted by extremes of drought and floods, erosion and loss of the land’s productivity. They were the traditional farmers.

Being a practical woman, Wangari thought, “We can plant trees.” In 1977 she began The Greenbelt Movement through which thousands of women nurtured seedlings to restore the land to healthy functioning.  Wangari broke all the barriers: the first African woman to earn a doctorate degree; the first Kenyan woman elected to parliament.  She challenged the judgment of men in power.  For her efforts she was brutally beaten and imprisoned.  Each time the women of the Greenbelt Movement suffered violence at the hand of government, they planted more trees. They were simply unstoppable.

Today, forty-five million trees have taken root in Kenya and forests grow over the stumps of a less enlightened time.  Streams and rivers have returned clear and broad after nearly four decades of diligent action and a simple idea: plant trees.  A wrong was righted.

Jean Giono—a pacifist—wrote about the wanton destruction of life during two world wars.  He, too, was imprisoned.  “The Man Who Planted Trees” was perhaps his way of righting the insanity that swept across Europe.  The Greenbelt Movement became the manifestation of his vision.

Wangari probably did not know about Giono’s story when it was first published.  She was just a practical woman who saw a simple solution to a complex problem much like the shepherd.  Perhaps the stubborn determination to keep dreaming and the stubborn determination to make it true go hand in hand—flip sides of a coin. Yet, we know that diligence can be the handmaiden of either positive or negative action, as history records.  Thank God diligence leverages the greater force when applied to a just action.

Author’s Note:  Chelsea Green published a special edition of The Man Who Planted Trees in 2005.  The introduction was written by none other than Wagari Maathai, 2004 Nobel Laureate.  She passed away on September 25, 2011.


Leap of Faith

When I think of the digital divide that is widening with exponential speed, I wonder how we human beings can make sure the virtual worlds we are creating never replace the real world underneath our feet.  Will some electronic simulation replace a morning’s walk in the woods or time puttering around your backyard garden?  Will children grow up who have never lain upon the warm earth’s breast nor spent time tasting the world around them?

In truth I do not see how the human being can persist without the material world from which it arises and returns.  Like the water that pours from the tap, generations forget its origins and thereby render it invisible.  When we no longer see the earth that provides for our every need, we may unconsciously render it unable to do so.  In fact that is happening now.

The fact that you are reading this blog tells me that you care that we might lose our footing on such an exquisite planet.  Welcome to the tribe that will create the bridge between these two worlds and create a harmonious flow between them.

All it takes is a leap of faith—the belief that the tools are at hand, that the God that created all has equipped every living thing with its own set of instructions.

Biology students learn that the difference between an animate and inanimate thing is that the former is self-regulating:  it grows, moves, and establishes a dynamic balance among its various functions, and it can respond to external stimuli.  That means we are not helpless creatures whose culture, country, or relations control us.  Americans are self-determined citizens.  We exist in the open space of democracy.  To make a life that is grounded in the truth of our circumstance is to embark on a sacred path. What do we need to remember?

Take a Deep Breath

To putter around implies aimless behavior.

In a culture that values goals and outcomes, it’s no wonder we rarely consider puttering around of much value. In fact the noun “putz” is slang for a fool or an idiot. That should have been sobering enough when I set out to write a short essay on a behavior I personally find very rewarding.

Yet, I was horrified to learn, in dictionary after dictionary, how the word connotes a host of derogatory behaviors. Well! That set me back a little until I realized how the discovery of the word’s shady reputation was actually an important clue to why puttering around is so maligned.

When, for example, do you actually take time to wander in the yard or garden for no particular reason? You are not there to weed, hoe, arrange, or plan an addition to it. You are enjoying what is there before you. Maybe you have even had the good sense to bring a mug of steaming coffee or tea outside with you, and now you stand in your crumpled pajamas, a beard glistening on your chin in the sun, watching a solitary bee buzzing in and out of the blooming salvia.

What is on your mind? Nothing … what a profound relief!

After a week of project driven days, worry about keeping your place in the office pecking order, trying to be the ultimate parent and seeing how imperfectly you’ve been able to carry that out when your kid’s obnoxious behavior got the best of you, and tax time is looming and you wonder where in the hell you’ll get the money to pay them … now, this lovely moment suspended above the cacophony of your life.

What is before you? Everything: a world that works without your help or intervention. The birds, bees, earthworms, flowers, the breeze and the clouds know perfectly well what to do without you. Isn’t it great?

You take a deep breath and the fragrance of your neighbor’s blooming citrus tree fills your nostrils with a sweet, moist cloud beckoning your attention. Suddenly, you are aware of a loud, humming sound. Hundreds of honey bees are busy gathering nectar and you had not even been aware of them when you first shuffled out of the door.

Little children are masters of puttering and we think it’s cute without realizing they are showing us what humans probably were meant to do most of the time. After all – we descended from hunter-gatherers who spent a lot of time observing, sensing, and wandering. So we come by puttering naturally.

Along comes a culture of rational thinkers, which while very useful for getting things done, maligns puttering, the fertile pile that nourishes the seeds of invention and art.

Decades ago a new method in science education sprouted around the idea that kids needed time to “mess about” (i.e. with materials like wires, batteries, real soil, real bugs—real life.) It was based on the observation that more than just the mind and thoughts create understanding. Researchers discovered that senses are potent, give more information, and spark more ideas than reading alone.

You may say, “What’s the point? What will I gain by puttering? My time is important, every minute counts, doesn’t it?”

Good question, the same one I also ask myself continuously. I think I discovered puttering out of desperation, to be truthful—on a day when I could no longer bear to think another thought. Also, I have a father in his ninetieth year of life who has mastered the art of puttering. In fact, he might be a professor of puttering if he wished to be.

Take the act of loading up his pipe with tobacco. I watch Dad fill the bowl with sweet smelling American Spirit tobacco, soft and auburn colored. He tamps it down and then leans back in his chair, strikes a match, and pulls on the pipe stem with his lips and indrawn breath, then settles back into the recliner and blows smoke rings above his head. There is silence. Only the squeak of the leather chair as he shifts his weight or the in and out swish of air in his rising and falling chest are perceptible. Then, he sets aside his pipe in the glass ashtray by his chair, folds his hands across his ample belly and suddenly, he begins to speak in a deep, gravelly voice,

The quality of mercy is not strained;

It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven

Upon the place beneath: it is twice blest, —

It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:

‘Tis mightiest in the mightiest; it becomes

The thronèd monarch better than his crown:

His scepter shows the force of temporal power,

The attribute to awe and majesty,

Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;

But mercy is above this sceptred sway,—

It is enthroned in the hearts of kings,

It is an attribute to God himself;

And earthly power doth then show likest God’s,

When mercy seasons justice. *from Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice

My breathing is in sync with Dad’s now. He falls asleep for one of many naps throughout his day. He has taken me with him into a sublime moment of puttering.



Lions, Tigers and Bears – Oh, My!

Why we need top carnivores

When Dorothy set off to find the Wizard of Oz, she and her companions encountered a lion in the dark wood – just as they had feared. But, the cowardly beast only drew their disdain for what good is a spineless lion?

Therein lies the dichotomy between our visceral fear of large carnivores and our psychological need for lions, tigers and bears to be wild, fierce and free – a ‘varmit’ or an icon. One gets them killed, the other immortalized. And, neither will help them survive.

Neither perception tells us why lions, tigers and bears are important. Remove the carnivore and prey populations multiply exponentially. Grazers mow down vegetation, producing more young and increasing in number until food sources are used up. Disease and starvation then finish them off.

A wolf pack takes out the weakest of the herd, controlling not only numbers but removing the least adaptive genes from the population’s gene pool. A dynamic balance results between wolves, deer, and vegetation, and countless lives dependent on them benefit, too.

That we do not understand the importance of this relationship was memorably recorded by Aldo Leopold. He wrote about an experience shooting wolves one afternoon – a common practice among Forest Service rangers then – wolves were vermin that needed eradicating. Leopold had watched the “fierce, green fire” in the wolf eyes fade in her death.

Dawning on his consciousness was the realization of a bigger death, a death of wild things and something greater still: the very foundation of a healthy ecosystem. The wild, beautiful landscapes that inspired Leopold, that support man’s livelihood, were created over centuries among myriad species until the climatic stage in a community was reached and wherein dynamic balance of populations is achieved by an elaborate set of checks and balances.

The wolf he had just killed was one of the key checks and balances where it lived.

Until that moment Leopold lacked the understanding that he later reflected only a mountain could possess. Mountains have the long view, he wrote, whereas humans are newcomers. A mountain has no fear of wolves … only deer – because the deer will mow down its trees and the rains will wash away its topsoil and cause all kinds of havoc on the mountain.

Thinking like a mountain requires that we look down the long road behind us and way ahead to understand the present truth.

The cattleman who compares the life of a wolf against the current market price of his cow misses the much greater value of leaving the wolf wild and free. That “home on the range” where his cattle roam depends on a well functioning natural community to maintain it.

Leopold was writing about this phenomenon in 1949. One would hope that nearly six decades later, we would be a wiser country, wiser for the scientific data that supports the wisdom Leopold gained through patient observation.  We know, for example, that the return of large carnivores to their native habitat can lead to an increase in plant and animal diversity and ecosystem complexity:

“Their removal can unleash a cascade of effects and changes throughout all ecosystem trophic [feeding] levels reducing biological diversity, simplifying ecosystem structure and function, and interfering with ecological processes.  Their return to impoverished ecosystems can reverse the cascade and restore diversity and complexity to ecosystems.

We are witnessing such ecological rebirth in Yellowstone National Park following the return of the wolf to that ecosystem.  Riparian willows and cottonwoods are returning because elk spend more time moving and hiding to avoid becoming wolf scat.  With their table reset, beavers are returning to the streams.

These ‘ecological engineers’ provide homes for myriad critters from aquatic insects to fish to songbirds.  The extent of changes is certainly far more complex than we can observe or document.”   [Dave Parsons, Conservation Biologist, The Rewilding Institute’s Carnivore Program[1]]

Yet even with our increased knowledge wolves are still exterminated as happened in Alaska. The governor of the state supported an illegal aerial hunt on 14 denning adult wolves followed by the point blank murder of fourteen pups. The justification given was to boost caribou populations in Southwest Alaska. Short term solutions will eventually deliver the opposite result if conservation biology is correct.

Ironically, Alaskan wildlife agency personnel were the arbiters of the killings. Over the sixty years since Aldo Leopold’s epiphany, a lot of good science has been conducted, laws put in place as safeguards of keystone species—a species that influences the ecological composition, structure, or functioning of its community far more than its abundance would suggest[2]  In other words, lions, tigers, and bears…

In 1996 I attended a public meeting in Springerville, Arizona convened over the “elk problem.” Present were the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Arizona Game and Fish Commission, White Mountain Apache biologists and tribal officials, ranchers, tourist industry reps, a hunter’s association, residents and students. It became apparent right from the start that a classic show down between conflicting interests was about to happen, and a full airing of our dichotomous American character.

The problem appeared to stem from an exponential increase in elk populations. A ranch owner testified how elk herds of 600 to 1,000 head could be found in her valleys and meadows on just about any given day, leaving in their path a swath of denuded range. She demanded that Game and Fish raise the limits for hunters to help bring the population under control. As she made her plea she turned to the Apache contingent. For they did not kill elk unless they needed meat and entertained the elk herds’ presence within the boundaries of their reservations at night when the animals sought refuse there. The vast reservation stretches as far south as Phoenix encompassing 1.67 million acres. The rancher wanted the Apache Nation to help kill elk and bring the herds under control. They would not, they said, based on ethical principles and the belief that restoring the natural systems would be the only true answer to controlling the population. (I think I caught a twinkle in one tribal elder’s eye as this statement was made.)

Tourist agencies pleaded that the presence of elk, seen from the freeways and in the camp or motel areas, drew thousands of families who enjoy seeing wildlife. Tourism brings millions of dollars in revenue to the community they reminded the assembly.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service deferred to the Arizona Game and Fish Commission. But first they made a statement about the traditional range of the Mexican gray wolf, a natural keystone species of the disrupted ecosystem. Reintroduction of the gray wolf in New Mexico’s Gila National Forest and southern Arizona’s Gila River communities was just getting underway.

Mention of the wolf acted like a match on tinder. The auditorium erupted in arguments from the ranchers and tourism folks alike who didn’t welcome wolves in the woods.

Then, a rancher rose to speak. He had the look of one who spends his days in the sun.

“We are victims of our own schemes – me included. First we saw the wolf as our enemy and we systematically exterminated it. We saw it killing too many elk, too many cattle. We feared for our own lives. Once it was gone we began to notice how the elk and deer populations grew each year. Now we watch as they eat the meadows down, even strip the bark. Well, maybe its time we examined our own nature to see how we can control that!”

Back at the end of the Yellow Brick Road, Dorothy got her wish to go home, the tin man a heart, and the lion, courage. Maybe the wolf, the lion, the tiger, the bear, the shark, the grizzly will be restored, too, at some time when our own wizardry returns us to the natural order of things.

When flowers bloom…

Scientists have demonstrated that, in the face of climate change, alpine plant populations may sit at cliffs’ edge in more ways than one. Some plants initially compensate for the physiologically taxing effects of persistent warming with increased growth rates or expanded ranges. But new results from long-term studies show that even a gradual climate change can push a species past its tipping point, leading to a sudden population crash.

Determining where trade-offs and thresholds exist helps scientists better anticipate biological responses to climate change. Studies like this will help them predict which species may be able to adapt to increased temperatures and which may be most vulnerable.


The timing of seasonal events – phenology – is lending evidence of climate change impacts.  In this National Science Foundation report alpine flowers may bloom about two weeks earlier due to both warming and subtle genetic changes.  So what’s the big deal?  That change in flowering may be devastating to insects, birds of animals whose life cycles are in sync with the flowering times of the plant.  The use of phenology to study seasonal changes over time has resulted from the rich records of flowering events by both amateur and professional observers.

Capturing the timing of these seasonal events is the study of phenology. Well-known recorders include Gilbert White who noted events in 18th century Selborne, England and Henry David Thoreau who recorded in Concord, USA in the 19th century. Once, phenological records were perhaps simply considered interesting but of little other value. Now, long-term datasets of seasonal events are widely sought-after for their potential to reveal how the natural world responds to climate change. Historical records have been the subject of recent analysis and several phenological recording networks have been established or revitalized in response to this resurgence of interest.  Read more here.

Truth Be Told – Part II

Last night I watched Earth Days film by Robert Stone with several other friends at our local food coop.  I had viewed the film when it was first shown on American Experience for the 40th Anniversary of Earth Day, established in 1970.  Earth Day heralded a wave of environmental activism which increased the general public’s awareness that we are part of a big natural web of life—not individuals with our own manual of operations.

Rather than leaving us filled with hope, the film documents how American society missed a critical turning point at which we could have charted a different energy future and today would be far less imperiled ecologically.  Beginning with John Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, Jimmy Carter, Richard Nixon, Bill Clinton, and Bush I and II each publicly declared energy independence and ecological protection as values.  Some were sincere, others did what was politically expedient, but all nonetheless kept the nation pointed toward the right goal post.

Jimmy Carter struck a bold path when he created a national policy away from fossil fuels toward solar, wind and other alternatives and for which he was later scorned.  Reagan wasted no time ripping the solar panels off the White House roof.  Hunter Lovins—who founded Natural Capitalism Solutions to educate senior decision-makers to restore and enhance natural and human capital—makes the point that Carter made a critical mistake by portraying the future as restricted by self-imposed restraint to limit growth.  PAY ATTENTION HERE!  This is the crux of our current political divide.

Obama knows that he cannot use that language—the language of limited growth—in the body-politic because it is the deathnell of any American President.  Thus both candidates for the next leader of our nation are talking economic growth and prosperity without the mention of the natural capital that fuels our wealth.  Environmentalists have been more than frustrated with Obama for not leading on climate change, including me.  Yet if he did so, he can kiss the Presidency good-bye.

This is the moral and political quagmire of our times.

At the end of the film which takes us to a time of massive climate change from the burning of fossil fuels, viewers are left to wonder.  One person asked out loud:  What happened to all those electric cars that were produced in the 70’s?  I did not know we had started to produce those then!  What happened?

And another person said, “This film is dark. What can we do now?”  The film suggests its too late.  That we missed the critical juncture in our nation’s historic path as the world leader…a place of power and dominance that is ever waning.

Look for Stone’s next film, Pandora’s Promise, which explores the resurgence of interest in nuclear power as a way to fuel civilization’s growth and development.


Visualizing a Plenitude Economy – Judith Schor

Juliet B. Schor is Professor of Sociology at Boston College. Her recent book: True Wealth: How and Why Millions of Americans are Creating a Time-Rich, Ecologically Light, Small-Scale, High-Satisfaction Economy (Penguin, 2011, previously published as Plenitude).  Go here, to the Center for Nature and Humans to read more about her work and other books.

Truth Be Told – Part I

Deregulate! From the mouths of Republicans this call resounds across the land fueled by a growing national appetite for development starved by the recession.

Truth be told this nation is in decline—decline in its once visionary goals, perhaps present only briefly, imperfectly rendered, but THERE among men in power.  For it took only a Presidency or two before capitalism replaced democracy.  Since Hamilton America’s path is measured by the gross national product (GDP).  America’s physical body, the great continent of wilderness and abundance, has declined in direct relationship to the GDP as unhindered greed unravels the vast web of life that was once our greatest promise.

Deregulate! From the mouths of Republicans this call resounds across the land fueled by a growing national appetite for development starved by the recession.  Jobs, jobs, jobs yell the politic…jobs at any cost.  Perhaps our starved brains forget what is before us:  specifically because of regulation the Gulf coast states are now receiving millions of dollars to repair ecosystems, food webs, and economies damaged by the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill in one of the nation’s most productive oceans.

The Clean Water Act imposed penalties upon British Petroleum Oil for damage to watersheds, marshes, bays and oceans along states from Texas to Florida.  The Restore Act, just passed by Congress, will bring from $500m (lowest estimate) to $2.3 billion (highest estimate) to Florida alone through application of the CWA.  Our Republican Governor Rick Scott and republican leaders in the state legislature are only too happy to receive this money.  So why then do these same leaders and their national counterparts in Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan espouse deregulation, even dismantling the Environmental Protection Agency?  Isn’t this “throwing out the baby with the bath water?”

The Clean Water Act (CWA) is a legal structure for regulating discharges of pollutants into the waters of the United States and regulating quality standards for surface waters. It was first called the Federal Water Pollution Control Act (1948) but it was reorganized in 1972 when the public became concerned about widespread point source pollution. It came to be called the “Clean Water Act” with use.

Signs of America’s decline include the following:’

  • Participation in wars that were originally to seek revenge;
  • Documented descent into use of torture with war prisoners;
  • Decline in tradition of open-mindedness and inclusion:
    • Mean immigration policies
    • Hatred of gays
    • Roll back of women’s right to control over their body
    • Religious intolerance.
  • No serious response, leadership in regard to climate change;
  • Deterioration in public education:
    • Federal dollars to charter and religious-run schools
    • Teaching to arbitrary tests set by politicians
    • Relegation of education to workforce objectives
  • Loss of the space program and underfunding science and technology in general except for workforce innovation and economic development;
  • Citizen’s United Supreme Court ruling that gives corporations the same right to political speech as individuals (rise of super PACs).