Monday, July 20, 2015

Out here in the sticks

I've been reading a lot of ecology lately, because its hunting season again and after six months of spiteful sulking over my lack of success last year my hunter's heart has lifted with optimism.  Surely last year you learned something useful, it whispers to me, and you won't be left wondering whether you're blind or maybe all the prey animals have just gone on vacation.
One of the most exciting developments in ecology in recent years is the notion of the "trophic cascade."  My introduction to the concept in detail came through Cristina Eisenberg's excellent book The Wolf's Tooth, which I highly recommend.  Eisenberg details the effects of two independent experiments on trophic cascades in the northern Rockies, specifically the Crown of the Continent region, which stretches from south of Banff National Park in Alberta through the US-Canada border to the Bob Marshall Wilderness in Montana.  Its an area I'm extremely familiar with and her details of the histories of some of the wolf packs in the area was a bit like reading a Facebook update from your home town.  

(The book is only a little touchy-feely, which is something I was surprised to discover in a work of actual popular science.  But Eisenberg's sensitivity to social and cultural factors is, I realized, an important trait for a woman doing conservation biology.  She has to put up with the fear-disguised-as-self-righteous-conservative-anger - what bloggers often call "concern trolls" - of ranchers and hunters who's basic worldview is that wolves are terrifying demon-spawn monsters from hell that only God himself can save us from, who eat all the deer and elk and shit the remains on your carefully-manicured front lawn.  The tough guys who work so hard out in the weather and the wilderness to grow your beef are afraid of an 80-pound dog.  She only uses the word "violated" once to describe the feelings these guys have when their cattle are taken by wolves, an infrequent event but one that needs to be legitimately accounted for.  But I highly doubt any of those tough guys would use "violated" to describe their feelings, because "feelings" is a woman's word.  They're not being violated they're having their rights infringed.  That's the vocabulary of white male privilege: women and people of color are violated or offended; white men have their rights taken away.  One is a matter of opinion and the other, obviously, needs a Marine battalion.)

The value of adding dominating predators to an ecosystem seems so obvious I'm wondering whether adding wolves to my garden wouldn't improve the yield on my tomato plants.

But thinking about ecology and the distribution and flow of energy through ecosystems highlighted for me the embedded nature of our species in its environment, and the degree to which the modern perspective is fundamentally blind to the joints of reality.  

Some people think that blindness is Cartesian.  Others think Descartes is a symptom of Christianity.  I tend to think that you find the division between our species and the rest of the natural world way back in the invention of History, with say Homer.  There's a point in the collective consciousness of several different cultures where homo sapiens' gods went from being a diverse mix of species to being made in our image.  At some point, slowly but inexorably, the totemic and symbolic species we interact with stopped being a source of supernatural concern, and all the mysterious forces that affect us became human beings in form, if not in function.

That was probably caused by urbanization and agriculture: when the world comes down to whether the boss likes you and your family, pretty soon your gods all look like your boss.

But however that process happened, we stopped paying attention to the world around us.  And we're not just paying for it in terms of an impoverished viewpoint, but we're paying for it in terms of panic and anxiety.

How so?  When I look at the persistence of life on this planet - in the self-organization and collective action of molecules that exhibit agency in even the harshest parts of this planet - I have dramatically less concern about the long-term affects of global warming, toxic waste and pollution, and our species' blind destruction of much of the speciation geologic time has gifted us with.  There's mold growing everywhere, including probably the space probe we just shot past Pluto into the outer solar system.  At the same time, there's coyotes everywhere else down here on Earth; there's more deer and ducks than possibly at any time since Columbus first sailed, and even before that; there's wolves moving south, bringing their trophic stability with them.  (I once saw a wolf south of Phoenix, two decades ago; at first I thought it was a coyote running across the highway, but it was way too big and lanky for a coyote.  Officially, at the time, there were no wolves south of the Bob Marshall.)  We're losing species constantly to development around the planet, but we're also seeing evolution accelerate.  We're losing diversity on the one hand; on the other, lots of species are adapting to local circumstances, which is what creates new species.  In the past extinctions it was radiation or a lack of it that caused speciation to decline, that caused a net loss of species diversity.  In this extinction its another species directly causing the destruction, but there are animals adapting to the open niches anyway.  In North America coyotes have moved east; wolves have moved south; crows have flown in from everywhere and the deer are living on the lawns.  Let some bison loose and pretty soon no one will even recognize the midwest.

So that's a good thing, but we don't really notice it.  We're concerned for example because the deer herd is "unhealthy" because hunters only take older adult males.  That's certainly true, that hunting is radically altering the composition of ungulate herds; but its also true that there's nothing about deer that makes them genetically incapable of adapting to those predation patterns.  Many years ago, only a couple of years after I saw the wolf in southern Arizona, someone in southern Oregon told me there were tons of wolves hanging around but that they'd stopped howling.  And it makes perfect sense: it wouldn't take many generations for howl-less wolves to proliferate.  The primary marker ranchers use for determining whether their missing calves have just died in a random accident or were slaughtered by the aforementioned hell-beast is whether they hear said hell-beast howling.  If they do, they poison the surrounding countryside in a scorched-earth campaign that kills everything that might touch a carcass, which is to say everything from wolves to waxwings to worms, and start shrieking that their livelihoods and children are in danger.  If they don't hear a howl, they shrug and say "stupid calves" and call the insurance company.  If you're a wolf that doesn't howl - and you can still figure out how to muster your pack - you've pretty much got it made.

Deer are a little bit different.  Historically does have twins because fawn mortality is so high, usually close to 3 in 4 from year-to-year (or even higher).  Those fawns die from predation, disease, malnutrition, weather exposure, rock falls, all sorts of things.  At the moment, and for much of the last fifty years, many jurisdictions in the US have restricted hunting of "antlerless" or female deer.  But in much the same way that one generation of non-verbose wolves can turn over the genetic makeup of the species, one adaptation by deer can change the game for deer.  It may have already happened and we didn't notice it, and given the current population it probably already has.

A world without howling wolves is worse than a world without wolves, but I'd rather keep the wolves if its a choice between them or their howls.  The world is figuring out how to live around, through, and without us, and that will continue.  We may be inexhaustibly arrogant and ignorant, but the world spins on regardless.  We may poison our environment but something will come along and quite literally eat our lunch.  Its a foregone conclusion.  Survival isn't apocalyptic or catastrophic or even heroic.  In the case of non-howling wolves, they've beaten us with a simple trick. 

And that's something to marvel at.  We're concerned, as a species, that we've done irreparable damage to life on Earth.  We believe that because of our own hubris; but all we've really done is damage to our own possibilities, although even there I expect my kids and yours to figure out how to fix this bullshit our Dominionist elders got us into.  They will need to evolve out of this mess, or we didn't deserve it.

So that's very comforting.

But its also comforting to consider our neighborhood.  Our solar system sits out in this quiet part of the galaxy.  The nearest stars are at least four or five light years away, and even if we see those stars explode tomorrow in real time - which is highly unlikely - we have decades before the shrapnel hits us.  This gives us lots of time to get out of the way: Nothing focuses the mind like seeing a punch coming.

But there are globular clusters in our galaxy - gigantic and very old conglomerations of stars tightly orbiting each other in a ball - where 300,000 stars are packed into a space 150 light years across.  Which is to say there are 2000 stars per light year on average (so there could be more).  Between us and Alpha Centauri there's nothing but dust and rocks, which is still pretty scary because some of those rocks are pretty big.  Were we in M22 there'd be more stars, in that direction, than are frankly visible in our entire night sky: 8000 stars just between us and Alpha Centauri, for example, when on a good night out here in the Orion arm we might see 4000 objects when its really really dark, and that includes neighboring galaxies.  Its doubtful you'd even be able to do astronomy on a planet in the middle of a globular like that.  There would be no darkness, for one, and for another you'd never see anything outside of your immediate neighborhood.  Astronomy in that environment would be very much about the mechanics of stellar evolution, because either you figured out when something was going to blow so you could get out of the way, or you just never figured it out and died.  Its inner-city survival in a place like that, and you just may not have time or opportunity to see outside the galaxy the way you do out here in the sticks.

Consider what would happen, though, if we lived way out in 3C 279, linked to at the beginning of this post.  That entire galaxy got irradiated catastrophically by its central black hole.  A blasar is to a galaxy as a supernova is to a star, roughly speaking.  The entire galaxy got sprayed with lethal radiation, went kerblooie.

It might be possible for black mold to survive something like that.  But probably not wolves or coyotes or the sort of species capable of writing blog posts.

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