Friday, August 2, 2013
Lance Kinseth, “Dusky Seaside Sparrow,” detail, 1997
WINTER, 1968, A VIEW of the whole earth over moonscape: Seeing the biosphere radically transformed our sense of ecology, both as a planetary process rather than a local or regional process and as a personal process that places us inside the landscape. And in this capstone image of the whole earth, there was a complementary sense of the smallness of the earth in interstellar space and it fragility.
Before 1968, our dominant image of the Earth was one given to us by mappists. And if the map was transposed to a classroom globe, it was a flat grid upon which we seemed to stand. And further, it was a cultural image that divided the earth into a patchwork of political states. The mappist Earth was proprietary. It was a divisive and possessive landscape. But with Earthrise, our image of the Earth was of something that was not only integrative but also seemed to be alive or at least dynamic. It was continually changing and starkly beautiful blue and green and brown overlaid with transparent white. There were essentially no visible dividing lines then (until the detail of satellite photography eventually revealed some sharp discrepancies along countries’ borders, where the land might be depleted on one side).
With Earthrise over moonscape, we saw a dramatically new condition of existence. We lived inside a thin membrane of atmosphere rather than lived separable from the landscape. And we lived because we were dwellers inside a sea of atmosphere rather than simply possessors of ground.
Suddenly, local was global. The atmosphere just above our local place today came from around the other side of the globe just days before. And our actions in our local place were doing the same thing, having either minute or dramatic consequences over there. There was no longer any “away,” and we began to comprehend that there never had been, and that they never would be, an “away” or an “outside.” Local environmental degradations or improvements did impact globally as bits and pieces of larger processes such as sulfur and CO2 emissions and degraded water quality. The personal activity of each of us such as either electrical energy consumption produced sulfur expelled into the atmosphere from coal-fired plants or food consumption produced nitrogen in fertilizer washed into the water.
Now, due to increasingly diverse and more sensitive satellites, we understand that local is the result of the global. But the local is interconnected with the far away “local.” For example, daily dust storms in the Central Sahara Bodele basin [an ancient mega-lake of 400,000 square kilometers] lift phosphorous and iron [from the sandy sediment comprised of shells of freshwater diatoms] into in the high atmosphere and transport it to the nutrient-poor Amazon rain forest where it downpours in abundant rainfall. With contemporary climate change, there is the possibility of altering this process.
Winter 1968, an astonishing view of the whole earth over moonscape, but also an inseparable, sour afterimage in summer, 1987: dusky seaside sparrow, extinct. In 1987, the ecological inseparability that continues to be opened was opened by this view of earthrise over moonscape ironically acted in one specific local place to consummate in the extinction of one obscure [by our making] species.
June 16, 1987: The last known purebred dusky seaside sparrow, Orange Band, a captive resident of Discovery Island, Disney World, died. In March 1989, four crossbreds—part Dusky and part Scott’s seaside sparrow—disappeared in a storm. By mid-June 1989, a lengthy search for the crossbreds engendered no response and lead to the official declaration of the extinction of the species.
The view of Earthrise over moonscape—especially the ecological image of the biosphere—was an indirect outcome of a quest to “set foot on the moon” rather than an intended outcome of a quest for a radically new view of the Earth. And the demise of the dusky seaside sparrow was an indirect or unintended consequence of the alternation of everyday life in a local community. Specifically, the quest for the moon resulted in turning Cape Canaveral into a boomtown. This fostered land development of a ten square mile salt marsh near the St. John’s River, in the form of roadways, pesticides, and draining for residential and commercial development. The purchase of a wildlife refuge to protect the species in 1972 came too late.
The image of Earthrise over moonscape bowled us over. The extinction of dusky seaside sparrows did not. The first image was a news banner and the other was a back page note. And even if we were wise enough to know ahead of time that space exploration might provoke a species’ extinction, the resistance to prevent the extinction would have had little impetus. And even now, having accomplished the quest for the moon and the powerful impetus that the quest gave to technological advancement would likely seemed to have been well worth the tradeoff in one or even several species’ extinction. The side outcome of enhanced satellite monitoring of the whole Earth that did improve our ecological understanding and ongoing monitoring of landscapes might be a justification for the tradeoff.
Big gains seem to offset small losses. Big is more, and small is less. Big and Small: This capacity to trade off one thing for another represents a measure of an important limit in our ecological literacy. However, now in the 21st Century, a continuation of the misunderstanding that small is really big, begins to be at least faintly acknowledged. With the tradeoff visible in bits and pieces, it can delude us into thinking that small is less. By giving up something small to get something bigger can be directly experienced to degrade both the ecological health of the earth and human optimal health for sure, and our sustainability across the long run of existence.
And even within extinction, there are biases with regard to worth. The extinction of a Tasmanian tiger or a Western Black Rhino or a Japanese Sea Lion is lamentable to many. The extinction of a Golden Toad in Costa Rica or a Black Andean Toad is lamentable to a few, and a variety of minnows lamentable to a handful, and sustained only as long as fragile laws prevail. Finally, there is a vary limited effort to initially identify threatened species and ecosystems or even to identify species still unrecognized, so that the growing list of threatened species is only superficial at best.
Still only vaguely glimpsed in our eco-literacy in a now peopled Earth is a growing sense that the little picture is really also a big picture. The “extinction of species” is a phenomenon that occurs simultaneously within a larger pool of “endangered species” that occurs simultaneously within a still larger pool of “threatened species,” and they all occur simultaneously, by anyone’s measures, within a “degraded” global landscape.
When we protect an endangered species, and when we move it out of endangered status and even threatened status, we make real environmental progress that once seemed impossible. It is remarkable that we have been able to stand in the way of our own immediate interests in the form of halting or limiting construction of the built environment. And it is not simply some profiteer’s concern that we have limited with the U. S. Endangered Species Act. We have restricted water to farms to protect a species of minnow. However, defense of endangered species is a defense for just a few of the niches where there happened to be an endangered species present. The prairie skink might be “preserved” in a particular form of prairie, but only for a time if those niches are reduced to remnants that are dispersed and rare in a bioregion where unsettled prairie has largely been eradicated.
The extinction rate may already exceed one species per hour. In the past two decades, one million species of biota may have become extinct. Such numbers can be appropriately debated as inaccurate, but they are reasonable metaphors for a pool of genetic diversity that is unknown.
Even domesticated varieties of animals, currently most evident among species of poultry and pigs, are becoming extinct at an estimated 2 breeds per week, as well as plant varieties such as potatoes and apples, as we rely on fewer varieties that have fit our standard processing. Long French fries at global fast food chains favor a few varieties and drive agricultural production. With fewer options in the face of diseases, both the availability of our food supply as well as the increased need for pesticides places our food supply at risk and concentrates chemicals in the landscape.
One way to get a sense of the loss of a species is to try to research it enough to draw it. While some illustrations of biota, such as Audubon’s, might said to be “ensouled” rather than simply illustrative, it is difficult to take any reproduction and hold it up to a living species and feel that its essence has been captured. If expressive, reproduction might be said to express more our own biases of, for example, wildness.
In winter 1987, I drew images of the Dusky Seaside Sparrow from other reproductions. Being “small” and “drab” and limited in range had resulted in just a few images. I was frustrated by the way that all reproductions from which I worked fell short, like my desk globe’s image of the Earth. They were unclear, where before they had seemed to present more than enough. The discrepancy was recently brought home to me again. My granddaughter and I were observing a Barred Owl. Observing it, she wanted to draw the owl as soon as we returned home. Returning home, I gathered up various guidebooks to make clearer what has seemed somewhat obscured by the night. None of the various guidebooks came close to matching what we saw that night, and, in the case of the Barred owl, still have an opportunity to see.
The complexity of a whole Earth, of a contiguous biosphere, is contrived of the complexity of local places. Diminish the complexity of the local place and it is impossible to not diminish the complexity of the whole Earth. Small extinctions are the pinnacle of large degradation. And this degradation that was once lamentable for its impact on other species is increasingly experienced as impacting directly on human health. It is apparent that space exploration, especially that of local surveys of the Earth, markedly enhance our monitoring of the Earth. But it does not, in itself, make us do things differently. For all of our astronomical and cybernetic sophistication, the bridge of ecological literacy between the local place and the global is still poorly contrived, if present at all.
In a peopled Earth, there is a popular sense that nature is receding away from local places. However, in the post-industrial era, we are actually moving more deeply inside the natural order. Efforts have been made to box attention to wholes and to small nuances as either faulty avant-garde, New Age postmodernism that aspires to “deconstruct” our view of the world or a Romantic nod to age-old Zen or Taoism or First Nation ethics. But this attention to wholes is really a rational, practical, “eco-literate” transformational shift in economics and health.
Now, in a peopled Earth, both vastness and smallness are gradually coming to be understood as one contiguous terrain viewed from different-sized windows. It is now easier to understand that a whole ocean can be in jeopardy as well as a sparrow. But this understanding is still effusive because our eco-literacy has barely emerged. We are likely more intuitively aware than cognitively aware. And now our intuitive responses, while less conscious, are responses to direct loss of quality and no longer Romantic escapism. And yet, our conscious actions tend to be less rational, and lag behind our gut sensibilities.
To ponder the fact that we will never hear the songs of the dusky seaside sparrow—its cut-a-zheeeeee—still seems to be no more than a frivolous Romantic lament in a global ecosystem that is always changing and redesigning.
Now in the 21st Century, in a fragile Earth rather than in previous centuries when Earth seemed to be overflowing with vast stored capitol, the renascent task for our age is one of integration with the larger Earth ecosystem rather than either exploitation or some Romantic technological escape. As was the consequence of the large view of Earthrise, the small view might also become a provocation more than a lament. And if we begin to focus on what is not wrong, we might being to invest in the adaptive ecological features of both unsettled and settled landscapes.
At our highest development of our eco-literacy, we might begin to encounter ourselves as an expression of the Earth, and still young and wild. And we might begin to amplify our eco-literacy. We might begin to recognize an enduring shamanic vision of, for example, the objectified “tree” as a channel of energy, as aliveness, and as sensitivity and, therefore, conscious. Such visions would transform how we interact with trees—how we use trees—perhaps with more usufruct and design sensitivity. What if trees were a living field of something like “sensitivity”? Energy channel, aliveness, sensitivity are subtle, knowable dimensions rather than effusive, esoteric presumptions that will be a strong measure of our advanced eco-literacy that lead to profound, practical design. Such perceptiveness will be akin to the imaginal (i.e., deeply intuitive rather than imaginary fantasy) reaches of Einstein that have provoked profound leaps in technology and our understanding of landscape.
Small and large—civilization that has seemed to have swollen to be larger than the Earth as a result of peopling the Earth also seems to shrink in our age of astronauts to something small and fragile. Our own numbers are vast and yet we are still small.
The local and the global: There is no longer any conversation about the “environment” that is not local and global, that is not “sparrow and Earthrise.”
And in this modern era, so what is perception that most blocks our movement forward?
In our eco-literacy, we are willing to include our activity as a contributor to environmental degradation, but as an intruder. We imagine ourselves to be destroying the adaptive features of the larger Earth ecosystem. While there is a sense of truth in this observation, it is narrow. We miss how we have always been on the inside of the larger Earth ecosystem and primarily adaptive. We design for separation and miss the ecologically adaptive features in our own activity that we can optimize for our own benefit and for the larger Earth ecosystem. Our global urbanization that appears to be the antithesis of nature might be envisioned as the adaptive, intuitive ecological process that it is. Our effort to try to sustain a net of landscapes by believing that we can cease intruding has always been a delusion. Our health lies in the net of landscapes that sustain us more than we can ever sustain them.
Today, in a peopled Earth with few remaining physical frontiers, the hero’s journey is, paradoxically, just beginning. For all of our advancement, we are still so very young in the history of the Earth. The hero’s activism is not as much an outbound quest as it is the capacity to find the universe(s) where we stand. In this age, the terrors are no longer wild, fearful six-headed Scylla and its counterpart Charybdis. The terror is not in the living, vibrant, healthy things that have never been out to get us, that sustain us by their presence. The monster in our hero’s journey is our blindness, our sleepwalking about in ongoing creation. The terror is always where it has been, in our fear of standing alone against the universe.
We are only just beginning to imagine ourselves as a landscape, as small eco-niches that are expressions of Earth. Even though we have imagined ourselves to be more than the Earth, our personal force will continue to emanate from self-as-place.
Small and large: In a world of problems, we can awaken, as Ranier Maria Rilke wrote, “little things that hardly anyone sees, that so unexpectedly become big beyond measuring.” Our personal force becomes wise and indomitable when it is ultimately larger than our own lives. This personal force is not unlike Gandhi’s satyagraha—“soul force” or “truth force.” To optimize our health, we attune to and express the same indomitable force that expresses the Earth.
Looking at the small can touch vastness. The complexity of a wild grass remnant that seems so locally fitted so as to be limited on the Earth to a few square miles or at least to a region of a specific continent or part of the ocean is not local. You cannot have a prairie without a mountain range rain shield, and you cannot have rain without a relationship to oceans. And none of these things—mountains, oceans, prairies, or the miniscule events within any terrain—occur without interaction with a star. Each “thing” is more an event, requiring a complex global process and processes beyond the Earth to simply come into being and sustain. Each blossom expresses the tilt of the whole earth that tilts as an aspect of its spiraling roll in the tail of a star flowing in relation to other stars and galaxies and a beyond that know one will ever fully comprehend.
Earthrise over moonscape has seeded a transformation in self-perception. Since 1970, seeing a photograph of earth’s biosphere abruptly expanded our identity as having a larger reach than culture so that earth was no longer a surrounding stage-set. Human life was deep inside, inseparable. But the term is still infantile and effusive. Like a fish in the ocean, we did not really “feel” the ocean or have a gut sense of being an expression of it. We inspired more efforts toward caretaking as if we were stewards somehow inside yet still apart. Having peopled the earth by 2000, the direct experience of degrading environmental quality further challenged out vision of apartness and added new terms such as sustainability. And now, ecology has enlarged from a nostalgic term to a practical quest.
In a now peopled Earth, this transformation in self-perception is an economic and health sense of life as inseparable from environmental care. “Ecology” directly affects our health and determines our economy. And attention to it is akin to real work that needs to be done rather than an esoteric side pursuit. To sustain, we need to look for health and act from a posture of health. And yet our problem solving tends to bypass health and focus on illness or disease. “Where is health” and “what is healthy” are questions that we answer poorly. We are good at taking things apart, but health is a process of putting things together—a design process of integration. In our traditional approach to environmental care, we try to keep things apart, and we make wild and tame, natural and artificial, culture and nature. A longstanding rational sense of differences as either-ors is becoming the new erroneous Romanticism to which we try to cling.
SPARROW AND EARTHRISE have value for us as eoliths—as markers that enjoin large and small and, especially, enjoin events that can wear the appearance of being opposites. A wild grass remnant and a city are like sparrow and Earthrise. The city impacts on the remnant as Earthrise impacted the sparrow. Surprisingly, but becoming more evident, both are ecological forces, different and yet not opposites. And so, a strategy of aspiring to make them more alike rather than separate is the ecological way forward.