Friday, July 27, 2012

What is Biodiversity and Why Does it Matter?

Why Biodiversity Matters, John Muir Quote

John Muir is quoted as saying “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.” 

Biodiversity is the sum of genes, species and ecosystems in a region. Because we live in cities, it's easy to forget how much we depend on the natural world. Our water comes from the tap, our food from the fridge, our environment is human-created. But we are biological creatures who depend on other species and ecosystems for us all to thrive. We're a part of nature and biodiversity is the basis of all our food and water. Here's a nice video by David Suzuki that explains why biodiversity matters.


Thursday, July 26, 2012

Endangered Species for Beginners

endangered species causes
Here is a neat site that gives the lowdown on endangered species for kids of all ages. Just from the graphic alone you can tell that the reasons species are becoming endangered are inter-related.

When you're done clicking through the tabs, I highly recommend playing the Endangered Species game. Once you click on an endangered species -- you have to be quick! --you have to answer a quiz question about why that species is becoming endangered. It's all a clever way to make learning about endangered species fun. See if you can catch all eleven species to win the game!

ASR Search Engine

Saturday, July 21, 2012

The Declaration of Interdependence: A Pledge to Planet Earth

I was looking for videos about biodiversity and found this pretty cool one by David Suzuki and Tara Cullis. It's called A Declaration of Interdependence, and was originally written in 1992 for the Rio Earth Summit. I recently reviewed the three major conventions (climate change, biodiversity and desertification) that came out of the Rio Earth Summit here. There must have been a pretty incredible spirit in the air to produce such far-reaching conventions as well as this declaration at that summit. I wondered what happened to all that enthusiasm?

Anyway, the Declaration became the founding document of the David Suzuki Foundation. Here it is in video, with text below.

This we know

We are the earth, through the plants and animals that nourish us.
We are the rains and the oceans that flow through our veins.
We are the breath of the forests of the land, and the plants of the sea.
We are human animals, related to all other life as descendants of the firstborn cell.
We share with these kin a common history, written in our genes.
We share a common present, filled with uncertainty.
And we share a common future, as yet untold.
We humans are but one of thirty million species weaving the thin layer of life enveloping the world.
The stability of communities of living things depends upon this diversity.
Linked in that web, we are interconnected — using, cleansing, sharing and replenishing the fundamental elements of life.
Our home, planet Earth, is finite; all life shares its resources and the energy from the sun, and therefore has limits to growth.
For the first time, we have touched those limits.
When we compromise the air, the water, the soil and the variety of life, we steal from the endless future to serve the fleeting present.

This we believe

Humans have become so numerous and our tools so powerful that we have driven fellow creatures to extinction, dammed the great rivers, torn down ancient forests, poisoned the earth, rain and wind, and ripped holes in the sky.
Our science has brought pain as well as joy; our comfort is paid for by the suffering of millions.
We are learning from our mistakes, we are mourning our vanished kin, and we now build a new politics of hope.
We respect and uphold the absolute need for clean air, water and soil.
We see that economic activities that benefit the few while shrinking the inheritance of many are wrong.
And since environmental degradation erodes biological capital forever, full ecological and social cost must enter all equations of development.
We are one brief generation in the long march of time; the future is not ours to erase.
So where knowledge is limited, we will remember all those who will walk after us, and err on the side of caution.

This we resolve

All this that we know and believe must now become the foundation of the way we live.
At this turning point in our relationship with Earth, we work for an evolution: from dominance to partnership; from fragmentation to connection; from insecurity, to interdependence.
For another look at interdependence, check out this crowd-sourced short film: 


In the July/August issue of Orion, Derrick Jensen laments that no real environmental legislation with any teeth has a hope of passing today and writes his own Declaration to match the urgency of the moment. It's a hard-hitting and bold document and a reminder for us all to think about what kind of world we really want. 

But that crowd-sourcing idea is sure a good one... I wonder what else we could do with it? 

Friday, July 20, 2012

How water chestnuts are taking over the northeast: a photo-essay

The five main causes of biodiversity loss are habitat destruction, over-exploitation, introduction of invasive species, pollution and climate change. Here we look at invasive species in our own backyard, particularly the water chestnut. Water chestnuts are native to Europe, Asia and tropical Africa; in Asia it is cultivated and the fruit is eaten, though this is NOT the water chestnut of Asian cooking. It was brought to the US in the late 1800s as a showy botanical specimen and later escaped to become a noxious aquatic invader. It is now present in all the northeast coast states as well as the Canadian province of Quebec.

map of water chestnut range in North America
Present range of water chestnuts

water chestnut and seed

It has submerged leaves that are feather-like in appearance, and a hard, barbed nut that will pierce your foot if you happen to step on it with bare feet. 
water chestnut seeds

The plant can produce 15 nuts per season and these sink to the bottom of the river or lake and can remain viable for up to twelve years. Impressive biological engineering there. The plants cluster together forming dense mats that can deplete oxygen levels, effectively starving out the native species, and hinder navigation. 
And we do mean hinder. Here's how water chestnuts have taken over Tonawanda Creek in Buffalo:
water chestnuts on river in Buffalo

Here's Swan Lake in New York, before last year's restoration efforts: 
water chestnuts on Swan Lake, NY

And here it is on Boston's own Charles River, in the "Lake District" around Newton. 
water chestnuts on the  Charles River

In the late 1990s, the Lakes District of the Charles River faced a water chestnut problem comparable to today's. The state spent over $600,000 over five years and nearly eradicated the problem through a mechanical harvesting program before the money ran out. The few remaining plants rapidly recolonized the region and by 2011 had covered nearly 70 acres. The current restoration plan, spearheaded by the Charles River Watershed Association, is to get a bunch of volunteers together and go out in canoes and pull the water chestnuts by hand. 
invasive species, water chestnuts, charles river
On our way to remove water chestnuts
I participated with a volunteer Meetup tonight (see our group photo!) and I can tell you that that section of the river is spectacularly beautiful. Though interstates I-95 and I-90 are nearby, they are too far away to hear and the placid waters here seem like a world apart, with ducks, frogs and herons all sighted as we paddled to our destination.
a basket of water chestnuts

You grab the rosettes and then pull slowly so that the roots come out without breaking. Sometimes you get enormous clumps. Sometimes the roots break. It's almost a zen thing -- how slowly but firmly can you pull so that the root stays intact? 

Our canoe did pretty good. We hauled in 19 baskets in just over two hours. So far this summer, 19,000 lbs of water chestnuts have been hauled in! Unfortunately, it looks like we barely made a dent and I fear that next year, the channels we canoed through will be matted over with water chestnuts. 

In just over a week's time, the water chestnuts will be dropping their seeds and the removal season will be over, so if you want to help out before then, get in touch with the water chestnut coordinator or call 781-788-0007 x235 to sign up for a date (groups and private events welcome -- everything is provided except your time and energy!)

a volunteer with a handful of water chestnuts
A volunteer with a handful of water chestnuts
You can find out additional information about this invasive weed and the plan to restore the Lakes District here. The CRWA has prepared an informative brochure and the state of Massachusetts has also prepared an information sheet. If you're a boater, you probably know to remove and dispose of all weeds on your propeller. Here's a reminder, just in case: 
                                   a sign for how to stop invasive species

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Six Great Environmental Protest Songs

Do you hear that sound? That's the silence of a environmental movement without a soundtrack. If there are songs about the present biodiversity crisis, I can't think of any. So let's kick it up a notch and celebrate some great environmental songs of the past, whether written as protest songs or as cultural criticism.

1. Bob Dylan -- Masters of War
Unfortunately, there's no Bob Dylan on Youtube, so here's Pearl Jam live from the Bob Dylan 30th Anniversary.

Written in 1962-63 and released on the album The Freewheeling, Masters of War is a broke new ground for Dylan, who said "I've never written anything like that before. I don't sing songs which hope people will die, but I couldn't help it with this one. The song is a sort of striking out... a feeling of what can you do? He later said he wrote it in response to Eisenhower's 1961 speech warning about the military-industrial complex. 

The song has been covered dozens of times, including versions by Cher and Jose Feliciano. Be sure to check out the versions by The Staple Singers and Odetta, an American folk singer who recorded an entire album of Bob Dylan covers in 1965, including this chilling rendition of the song.  

You can find out why it's difficult to push through legislation for education, health care, social or environmental programs when you look at the US military budget

2. Joni Mitchell -- Big Yellow Taxi

Written and first performed in 1970, Big Yellow Taxi is classic Joni Mitchell. With references to DDT and a refrain of "You don't know what you've got till it's gone," Mitchell wrote the song on her first trip to Hawaii when she looked out the window of her hotel and saw mountains in the distance, but then below her, a parking lot as far as she could see. Listen for the lines: They took all the trees/ And put them in a tree museum
Then they charged the people/ A dollar and a half just to see 'em. 

You can also hear a recent version by Counting Crows

3. Bruce Cockburn -- If a Tree Falls

This song could be called Deforestation 101. If a Tree Falls appeared on Cockburn's 1989 album Big Circumstance and here he gives a lesson on the value, and destruction, of the rainforests. Asked in 2010 if anything had changed, he said, "It shifts all the time. When I wrote that song they were cutting down the Amazon rain forest to put in cattle. But that didn’t work out, and the next thing you know they’re planting soybeans. But they’re still cutting down the forests, and they’re still displacing the natives. Corn for the biodiesel trade, that’s the new big thing. You can’t win. You create all this awareness about one aspect of the problem, but as soon as you think you have a foot on top of that, it squeezes out from under and morphs into something else."

Find lyrics for the song here.

4. World Party -- Ship of Fools

Karl Wallinger, formerly of the Waterboys, put this song on his debut album with World Party, Private Revolution. Walllinger was the only member of the band, played all the instruments and on this and later albums he showed his skills at writing catchy pop tunes that also featured great lyrics. Save me, save me from tomorrow, I don't want to sail with this ship of fools. As if we're all in a great big ship driven by avarice and greed. 

5. Johnny Cash -- Don't Go Near the Water

Classic Cash! From the 1974 album Ragged Old Flag, Don't go Near the Water is a tale of once-clean waters, that flows down from hills "cold clear and blue" until it gets to the cities where it turns a dirty grey. There was a time you could eat the fish out of rivers without worry, a time no one had heard of acid rain. We violated nature and our a children have to pay the penalty.

6. Louis Armstrong -- What a Wonderful World -- Live Version

Written by Bob Thiele and George David Weiss, Armstrong recorded it in 1968, though the song was first offered to Tony Bennett, who turned it down. The head of ABC records didn't like it and so he didn't promote it, causing only 1000 records to be sold in the US, while the song became a number one hit in the UK. It's now a jazz standard. Here's the usual version with Armstrong's own introduction, and here's a version by Katie Melua. What a Wonderful World is a love song, a reminder that this wonderful world is what we're fighting for.

What about you? What are your favorite environmental songs? What do we have from the 1990's and 2000's? Leave your faves in the comments below.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

The Story of Change: Writing the Next Chapter

The Story of Change, Annie Leonard, environmental awareness

Newsflash: we're not going to shop our way to a greener planet. We're also not going to get a greener planet by taking a shorter shower or bringing our own bag to the grocery store. These things are a great place to start, says Annie Leonard, who has just produced her latest film The Story of Change, but they are a terrible place to stop.

The Story of Change is out today, available online on Leonard's website "The Story of Stuff" (we featured "The Story of Bottled Water" in our Mini-Eco Film Festival, Part 3). It features Leonard's characteristic charm and humor as well as her motivating gusto: "If we actually want to change the world, we can’t talk only about consumers voting with our dollars. Real change happens when citizens come together to demand rules that work." She goes on tell us that when people have achieved big changes in the past, three things have been present: 
  1. a big idea
  2. people working together
  3. action
She says we've got the cause and commitment. Look at the numbers:   "74% of Americans support tougher laws on toxic chemicals. 83% want clean energy laws. 85% think corporations should have less influence in government." Pretty compelling numbers; now we just need the action. 

The film finishes with a quiz to take to find out what kind of change-maker we are: investigator, builder, networker, nurturer, communicator, and resister (turns out I'm an "investigator"). Once you identify the type of change-maker you are, you're ready to take action. It's a simple recipe. She's right. We don't need tips for greener living. We need strategies to change the system. Help spread the word. It's up to us to write the next chapter of the Story of Change

Friday, July 13, 2012

Living in an age of extinction IV: an interview with Todd McGrain of the Lost Bird Project

Lost Bird Project, extinct species, passenger pigeon
Todd McGrain in his studio. Photo credit: The Lost Bird Project

Todd McGrain is an artist formerly on the faculty of Cornell University. Ten years ago he began creating sculptures of recently extinct birds of North America and placing them where the birds last thrived. Now called “The Lost BirdProject” (previously discussed here), Todd and his efforts are the subject of a new film (reviewed earlier this week – see it!). Recently, Todd kindly answered some questions I sent him over email.

Daniel Hudon. You’ve been working on the Lost Bird Project for the past ten years. How do you think it fits into your previous body of work?

Todd McGrain: I have always been drawn to natural forms and the way natural forms are held in a persistent state of flux.  Through erosion, accretion, growth and decay, natural forms are embedded with the markings of time.  The expression of this flow of time has long been the narrative in my work.  The Lost Bird Memorials are more literally representational than my previous work, and consequently, they have more specific narratives behind them.  Their forms, however, remain connected to my ambition to embody the effects of time in material form.

Memories, like beach stones, are softened and honed by the persistence of time.

Daniel In the film, The Lost Bird Project, we’re shown that your inspiration was from reading Hope is the Thing with Feathers, by Christopher Cokinos. What was it about the book that inspired you?

Todd: Most importantly, it was from this wonderful book that I was first introduced to some of these birds.  While I was familiar with the Passenger Pigeon, the Labrador Duck was completely unknown to me.  I was struck by the fact that the last of this species perished quite close to my childhood home.

I was also moved by Chris’s effort to balance his interest in natural history and extinction stories with his own personal challenge of dealing with the tragedy of extinction.  Reading the book, I felt as though I had been invited along on this exploration of history and heart.

Todd McGrain and the Lost Bird Project looking for birds
Andy Stern, Todd McGrain and a helpful ranger scouting
Photo credit: The Lost Bird Project

Daniel:  In his book, Cokinos travels around the Eastern US and the Maritimes of Canada investigating the histories of several famous – and unknown – extinct birds including the Passenger Pigeon, Heath Hen, Labrador Duck, Great Auk, and Carolina Parakeet, which became the subject of your memorials. You must have had to do the same to investigate where to put your memorials? According to the film, not everyone wants a sculpture as a gift – were you surprised by that?

Todd: The trips we made to find the most appropriate sites to place the memorials were true adventures.  We found places that felt haunted by the loss of the birds and at the same time met remarkable people doing incredible habitat restoration, historical preservation and ecology.  It was an inspiring period.

The challenges I faced in negotiating the placement of the memorials were amplified by my ineptitude and inexperience as a promoter.  As I became more committed to the project, more experienced in expressing my conviction, doors began to open.

Much of the resistance we encountered in negotiating the placement of the sculptures was based on legitimate concerns.  We do have to be careful about what we place in our parks and preserves.  Extinction is a difficult topic.  It is a subtle balance to keep the memory of the birds alive without casting blame and the paralysis that can stem from denial or even sorrow.  I can understand how accepting theses gifts would require consideration and thoughtful measure.  My sympathy for these issues may have led me to soften my initial pitch.  In the end, I was convinced that the memorials addressed these issues, in part, because of how well they were received in the communities that were quick to accept them.  I came to truly believe in the value of the work.

Daniel: All the memorials are in bronze – how long should a bronze sculpture last?

Todd: Despite all our advances in material technology, bronze remains one of the most durable materials.  Though forever is a long time, I believe it is fair to say that as long as these memorials are not intentionally destroyed they will remain.

Daniel: What was it like getting to know these extinct birds as you sculpted them? Did you feel any affinities for some more than others?

Todd: I fell in love with each of them in turn. Each bird is unique with a particular natural history and a compelling extinction story.  Though each had a different geographical range they now coexist in the shared habitat of our imagination and memory.

Daniel: There’s a great quote on your site and in the film by Aldo Leopold: “They cannot dive out of a cloud, nor clap their wings in thunderous applause. They know no urge of seasons; they feel no kiss of sun, no lash of wind and weather, they live forever by not living at all.” Elsewhere Leopold writes about grieving for species that we’ve lost, like the Passenger Pigeon. It seems we’ve not only not grieved about their loss, we’ve forgotten about them, something your memorials are trying to address. Could you talk about this idea of grief versus forgetting?

Todd: While forgetting may seem to have a therapeutic value, in the end we are not rewarded for our forgetfulness.  Our bodies carry the burden of loss with or without our recognition of the cause.  Our nameless sorrows continue to weigh us down.  There is, in the end, an unavoidable callousness in forgetting.

Grieving can be productive.  There are lessons to be learned from our feelings of loss.
The experience of grieving can bring focus to the value of what remains.  Collective grieving, our shared compassions hold us together.

Daniel: What do you say to people who ask what extinct species have to tell us?

Todd: Extinct species tell us to pay attention.

Daniel:  Related… Endangered Species Day seems to be confined to zoos and botanical gardens. What do you think it will take to get the problem of species going extinct into the mainstream?

Todd: I think the plight of endangered animals is gaining recognition.  More and more people are aware of the challenges animals are facing but understanding and pursuing the best way forward remains a daunting challenge.  A lone polar bear on an iceberg is heart breaking, but if we don’t understand our role in climate change we will simply be stymied by sorrow.  Education in all forms must address finding and communicating solutions.

Daniel: What sort of response have you had to the memorials?

Installation of the Heath Hen sculpture on Martha's Vineyard
Installation of the Heath Hen, Martha's Vineyard
Photo: The Lost Bird Project

Todd: In general, the response to the sculptures has been positive.  It was reported that the Heath Hen Memorial on the riding path on Martha’s Vineyard spooked a few horse but there is no way to satisfy all critics.

Daniel: On Fogo Island, Newfoundland, the memorial of the Great Auk looks out onto the vast Atlantic from a rocky scrap of land, surveying its former domain alone. As a tribute and memorial, it’s incredibly elegant. But to think of the thousands of Great Auks that once shared that view is sad to the point of heartbreaking. In fact, the film achieves a fine balance of being a sort of light-hearted road movie where we visit places where the birds once thrived and then suddenly the significance of the memorial hits home. Did you make conscious decisions about the sort of tone you wanted ahead of time or did it just evolve?

Todd: The filmmakers Deborah Dickson, Muffie Meyer, Scott Anger and Roger Phenix get full credit for the expressive force of the film.  They collected over one hundred hours of footage to make this one-hour documentary.  We did discuss early on that the film could not be so depressing that no one would want to sit through it, but ultimately it was the filmmakers who found the balance.  One aspect of the project that added significantly to the levity of the film is the fact that my brother-in-law and companion on the project, Andrew Stern, is a truly hilarious person.  His mix of intellect and wit offered countless moments of levity.  The original score by Christopher Tin also plays a central role in the emotional force of the film.  

Daniel: How do you think the project has changed you?

Todd: I find myself reading more, writing more and speaking in public much more.  My sculpture work remains a rather solitary act, but as the project has broadened I have come to understand the necessity of engaging the topic of extinction in as many ways as possible.  I remain a sculptor and cherish the time I spend in the studio.  However, I know I will remain more socially and publicly engaged than I was before these lost birds called me out.
Carolina Parakeet sculpture from the Lost Bird Project
The Carolina Parakeet in Kissimmee, FL
Photo: The Lost Bird Project

Daniel: What’s next for the Lost Bird Project?

Todd: I’m working on a memorial to the Eskimo Curlew.  I’m also working on collaborations with groups that are looking for creative ways to communicate the urgency of our ecological crisis and to help publicize the ongoing efforts to mitigate its impact.

Daniel: I see the film is getting screenings at festivals. Any chance of it getting released?

Todd: I hope so.  We are working on it!

Readers can keep up to date with The Lost Bird Project by finding them on Facebook and, appropriately, by following their tweets on Twitter

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Thoughts on World Population Day

world population day, natural resources, 7 billion people
People gather to get water from a well in the Indian state of Gujarat. Population growth is putting pressure on the world’s resources.  Image credit: Reuters

This year, World Population Day, July 11, fell on the same day as Major League Baseball's All-Star Game and it's not hard to figure out which one was "trending" on the Internet. Raising awareness about the All-Star Game, as far as I can tell, has no long-term consequences, while a dialogue about securing reproductive health and family planning options for the world's women affects the entire future well-being of people both in developed and in developing countries.

Last fall, Forbes columnist Erica Gies wrote a column on not having kids, arguing that the 7 billion and counting people in the world are consuming resources at a rate that can't be sustained. She's also sure that her kids' quality of life will be worse than her own so she can't bring them into the world in good conscience. It's easy to see that we live on a finite planet and that our resources are also finite. But we continue to think that population growth and economic growth can be sustained indefinitely. It just doesn't add up.

The projections are for the global population to reach 9 billion by mid-century -- that's 2 billion more people than today. If you think our natural resources are stressed and stretched now, then wait until 2050. Maybe it's better then to move population growth issues to the front burner and not reach 9 billion in the first place. Kudos to the Gates foundation for making family planning part of their strategy. According to their pamphlet, over 200 million women worldwide who want to use contraceptives don't have access to them (see the annual number of abortions below).

At the end of her essay, Gies links to "Worldometers", which gives a running population ticker as well as many other related social, energy and environment tickers. I encourage you to see the tickers spin for yourself but some numbers (rounded, as they change rapidly) are below:

Births this year: 70,000,000
Deaths this year: 30,000,000
Net population growth: 40,000,000
Abortions this year: 22,000,000
Deaths of children under five this year: 4,000,000
People with no safe drinking water source: 900,000,000

Forest loss this year (hectares): 2,800,000 (about the area of Massachusetts)
Desertification this year (hectares): 6,400,000 (about the area of West Virginia)
CO2 emissions this year (tons): 18,000,000,000

Other numbers: more bikes are being produced than cars, there are 50% more overweight people than undernourished people, cellular phones sold today outsold tv sets worldwide 6 to 1, and far too many women (182,000) died in childbirth this year. 

We can reuse and reduce as much as we want, and we should, but if we keep allowing our own numbers to increase then we're going to overwhelm the natural resources and be in a much more difficult place than we are now. And all the All-Star Games in the world won't save us.

So what can you do? Find a way to celebrate World Population Day (it doesn't matter that it was yesterday). Help put population growth and women's reproductive health on the radar of the blogosphere, the mass media, pop culture and ultimately, government and international policy. Here's a positive news item from the good people at the Huffington Post, and some suggestions from the good people at the Feministing community. Dave Gardner, who produced the documentary Growthbusters, has also put together a great resource of videos. Check them out!

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Living in an age of extinction III: The Lost Bird Project Film Review

great auk, extinction, heath hen, passenger pigeon, memorial, carolina parakeet

Quick, how many extinct birds of North America can you name?
Most of us could probably name the Passenger Pigeon, famous for flocking across the sky so thickly that they would eclipse the sun, and the Great Auk, a flightless bird in the puffin family that once thrived in the North Atlantic. Beyond those two, few of us would know about the Heath Hen, the Labrador Duck or the Carolina Parakeet, three other birds that have gone extinct in modern times. “Forgetting is another kind of extinction,” says Todd McGrain, the artist whose work is profiled in The Lost Bird Project, a fascinating documentary film and project that aims to rescue the birds from cultural extinction.
According to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN)
since the year 1500, human activity is known to have forced 869 species to extinction. In his excellent book, Hope is the Thing with Feathers, Christopher Cokinos frames it for us for the future: “within the span of my life up to one-fifth of species will be gone,” an extinction rate that is more than 1000 times the normal rate.
            Inspired by Cokinos’ book, The Lost Bird Project (also discussed in this post), directed by Deborah Dickson, is a light-hearted film about a serious subject: how can we memorialize extinct species? McGrain’s answer, and an answer that is long, long overdue, has been to create larger-than-life bronze sculptures of these five birds and install them in places significant to where the birds last thrived. “We can’t allow these extinctions to be thought of as a natural process,” McGrain says. “Memorializing them helps keep their memory alive.”
Todd McGrain with his sculpture of the Passenger Pigeon
Photo: The Lost Bird Project
            In the film, McGrain, and his brother-in-law Andy Stern, go on a wild goose chase around the Eastern US and Canada to properly situate the memorials. The film opens with a large crate being brought by helicopter to barren and rocky Fogo Island, Newfoundland. Inside the crate, we find out in the next scene as McGrain puts his hands into buckets of clay and begins forming shapes, is the story of the five extinct birds, a mix of the known and unknown, lost to biology and now on the verge of being lost to history.  
It is the compelling nature of these birds’ stories as much as the effort to situate the memorials that drives the film. The Heath Hen is portrayed as a dancer, a singer, and a fighter. Footage of the closely related prairie chicken’s elaborate courtship display shows males booming and thrusting out their chests to win the attentions of the females. Though they once thrived on the coast from Maine to Virginia, by 1870, overexploitation had wiped out the coastal population leaving only a few hundred survivors on Martha’s Vineyard. The state of Massachusetts did enact measures to save the population, but numbers continued to dwindle. By 1929, there was just one left, famously known as Booming Ben and he was once seen calling out repeatedly from the top of a tree. No answer came.
McGrain quotes a Samuel Beckett line that most writers and artists know, “Fail better,” and this becomes the subtext for the film and the entire Lost Bird Project. McGrain’s first pitch for a memorial to the Heath Hen in a state park on Martha’s Vineyard is turned down. Stunned by the denial, he resolves to “fail better” in order to appropriately honor the bird. Evidently, this involves much behind the scenes courting of bureaucrats and this story is teased out over the course of the film. The sculpture is not some random memorial, instead it is “something that digs deeply and will add meaning to the place.” Having already seen the care that goes into making the sculptures, and been shown the Heath Hen’s remarkable story, we’re already onboard and rooting for McGrain to succeed. 
Labrador Duck, extinction, memorial, sixth extinction, anthropocene
Labrador Duck
Photo: The Lost Bird Project
On the road, McGrain and Stern track down bird enthusiasts and conservation biologists who might know anything about these lost birds. One of the tragedies exposed in the film is that we only see the Carolina Parakeet, a striking bird with brilliant green plumage and North America’s only parrot, in a drawer instead of chattering among the trees in one of its homes near Kissimmee, Florida. The demise of the Passenger Pigeon, described as a biological storm, is linked to the new rail transport, which could transport millions of hunted birds across states in a day or two, where they could be sold at market. The Labrador Duck -- presented in McGrain’s memorial as a form that elegantly folds back in on itself -- gets little screen time, because little is known about it, a victim of industrialization and habitat loss. Indeed, we barely know how much we’ve lost and the film evokes a sense of a former glory of sound and color in the thickets, among tree tops and along the coasts.

With an upbeat, eclectic score provided by Grammy-award-winning composer Christopher Tin, and Stern's comic relief to McGrain's dedicated mission, the tone of the film tightropes between quirky road trip and a deeper elegy.  As the two men successfully negotiate the installation of the memorials, the stories all gather strength so that by the time we visit Fogo Island, Newfoundland, to hear the tale of the Great Auk, with its “Chaplin-like appeal,” the film takes on real gravity. The indigenous people of Newfoundland buried their dead with Great Auk beaks and these spectacular sea birds allowed the survival of the first settlers – just as Fogo Island itself was a refuge for the birds to come ashore and lay their eggs. Ungainly on land, they were easy to kill and were hunted for their down. But before we start thinking this is all history of a century ago and that we know better now, a Newfoundland woman reminds us of how the same market forces that decimated the Great Auk also decimated the cod and drove it to the brink of oblivion.
            At the unveiling of the Great Auk, locals clamber over barren rocks for the christening ceremony. Like the other memorials, the Great Auk sculpture is big enough to make a statement, with smooth curves that long to be touched, for touch, McGrain says, “is literally how we come in contact with the world.” After ceremonial flares are lit, a few people line up to kiss its beak. One gets the sense that at last, the Great Auk has come home. 
           The importance of the film, now making the rounds at film festivals but deserving of a much wider audience, is not just to honor these lost birds but to help us to understand these birds better, to grieve for their loss by “opening a portal into learning their stories”. Forgetting is a kind of extinction. Ultimately, the Lost Bird Project is a hopeful film. The memorials are triumphs of personal perseverance and totems for our cultural memory. Now there are five places in North America where people who knew nothing about these lost birds can delve into their stories. By learning their stories perhaps we can indeed fail better and turn these past failures into future successes. 

Stay tuned for an interview with Todd McGrain, coming soon.
More information about The Lost Bird Project, including a film-trailer, can be found at their website.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Getting to Know your Endangered Species

I recently wrote about the Endangered Species Act's success stories. The main finding was that out of 110 species sampled, 91% were recovering at the rate projected by their federal recovery plans. Good news. Now the US Fish and Wildlife Service has produced an interactive map so that you can check up on endangered species in your state. This is a great way to tour the biodiversity present in the fifty states as well as the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico.

In Massachusetts, you can hear about what's being done to protect the adorable little shore bird, the Atlantic piping plover, pictured below.
piping plover, endangered species, USFWS

You can also read about what's being done for the New England cottontail.

In Texas, you can read and hear about one of the most endangered bird in North America, the whooping crane, whose recovery efforts have now gone on for decades. 

In Puerto Rico, check out what's being done for the Puerto Rican parrot, one of the world's most endangered parrots: 

Awareness and education is the first step to saving endangered species. Just click on the map and find out about endangered species in your state, next door, or across the country. 

Friday, July 6, 2012

Stunning footage of the endangered Cross River Gorilla

camera trap, Cross River gorilla, what are endangered species, Wildlife Conservation Society
Chest-Thumping Cross River gorilla, caught by hidden camera trap. 

Now that cameras have gone digital, one of the greatest boons has been for wildlife camera traps. Like a hidden camera, these "traps" can unobtrusively photograph or video whichever the creatures happen to walk by. Last year, Jeremy Hance reported for the Guardian about the impact these cameras were having on conservation efforts.

In May, the video camera trap scored one of its greatest victories. Placed in Cameroon's Kagwene Gorilla Sanctuary, the trap picked up eight Cross River gorillas making their way along a forest path. The sanctuary was established in 2008 for the sole purpose of protecting these gorillas, among our closest living relatives, rarely seen by humans and never videotaped, until now. There are only about 250 Cross River gorillas left due to habitat loss and hunting for bushmeat. The footage was captured by the Wildlife Conservation Society and gives us a rare glimpse of a hidden world. Kudos to them for this spectacular footage.

You can read more about conservation efforts for the Cross River Gorilla here.


Technorati claim token: AANC4R88CA6W

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Living in an age of extinction II: Creating a Life Cairn

Life Cairn, extinction, Sixth Extinction, biodiversity crisis, grief

Why do no church bells ring when animals go extinct?

This was one of the questions that came up when Andreas Kornevall met with Reverend Peter Owen-Jones over a cup of tea and a plate of Indian curry. Kornevall had recently been to a workshop where a Guatemalan man related how he had lost his land and his culture and in relating his story the man became overcome with sorrow. Kornevall realized the men in the room were not accustomed to this public display of sorrow from another man and came to see how important it was, that grief was a way into thinking about the environment and change.

I caught up with Kornevall over Skype to ask him about the Life Cairn (previously mentioned here), which was begun over a year ago on Mount Caburn in East Sussex, England.

Daniel Hudon: Here in North America, we mostly see cairns as ways to guide hikers on mountain paths, but in England I understand they have an additional meaning.

Andreas Kornevall: That’s right, we also use them as markers, but for thousands of years, people here have been using them also as burial chambers. Around here (in East Sussex, England), there are many tumuli, which are mounds of graves, and they might have begun as cairns. Reverend Peter Owen-Jones has hosted a show in the BBC called 80 Faiths Around the World, and during our discussion we hit upon the idea of a cairn, a Life Cairn, as a way to mark the passings and address the passings of species that were going extinct. It began as a way to express our grief.

DH: How did you pitch the idea of the Life Cairn to the community?

AK: We held a meeting and about fifty people came – really a good amount of interest from a wide variety of people. People liked the idea. We’re just one stone; we hoped others would come and build on it.

DH: The Life Cairn was founded on May 22, 2011. What was the mood like that day?

AK: It’s hard to say what goes on in the minds of people. The first to lay stones were the youngest and the oldest who were present. According to tradition, water was put in the cairn. People came from all around to place their stones -- it’s on the eastern shoulder of Mt. Caburn, with a great view of the landscape and the sea. Though the whole project came from a place of grief and sorrow, there were songs and poems. It became festive. We were all wind-blown. Maybe it was something in our DNA, something from our burial customs – that go back thousands of years – when we were gathered around like that it felt like it needed to be done, this showing respect. It has been missing; at earlier times and in other cultures we showed more respect for animals – it’s been practiced before but it’s been forgotten now. Some say animal tracks are how we first learned to read – a debt we have forgotten. But yes, it became a happy event. People felt it was important to have paid tribute.

DH: What has happened since the Life Cairn was founded?

AK: People continue to come and lay stones. There are now about 3000 stones at the Life Cairn. There are no signs, no markings. It’s all word of mouth.

Since the opening, there have been spontaneous gatherings and poetry events, we’ve brought school groups up there for educational events about extinct species.
Life Cairn, extinction, Sixth Extinction, biodiversity, grief

DH: Are you planning other Life Cairns?

AK: We just put one in the middle of Stockholm. We started one in Ecuador [which has more endangered species than any other country]. We have one planned with Catholic and Protestant priests in Northern Ireland. That’s on September 15. It’s like a water hole, a shared sense of responsibility. You’re there as a human being. It will be an open ceremony. Anyone can come.

Beyond that, I’d love to get one in every country. I’d love to set one up in front of the White House! (laughter)

DH: Setting one up in front of the White House would be something. How do you see the Life Cairn now? How are people treating it?

AK: Practically, as I said, as a place where we can gather to express our grief. It’s not an activist project. If it was an activist project, we would have put it in the center of  London. It’s a place for quiet reflection, for sanctuary. We lost two subspecies of rhino last year. When the Yangtze dolphin – the “Goddess of the River” – went extinct in 2006, there was no news. Same with the Pyrenean Ibex. We’re in the silent phase of the Sixth Extinction. But just as there’s an external climate change, we hope this will help create an inner climate change on how we relate to our environment, to overcome our feeling of being detached and blasé.

DH: An “inner climate change” is quite provocative.

AK: Well you know it’s true. The language of environmentalism is leaving us inert. Extinction is abstract. CO2 is abstract. But biodiversity is not abstract. We grew up playing in trees, running around in the woods, chasing rabbits. This is not abstract. Look at things like “parts per million” and the statistics, these are facts that freeze us to death. Language is not communicating the depth of the problem. And certainly after Rio we see that language is not communicating enough – nations are not taking responsibility.

The vitality of the problem is missing and that’s how getting in touch with grief can help. There are no historical parallels here. As Aldo Leopold said, “For one species to mourn for another is a new thing under the sun.”
Life Cairn, extinction, biodiversity, Sixth Extinction, grief

DH: Reverend Owen-Jones has a nice quote to summarize the project. Can you share that with us?

AK: It goes like this: “All life to carry one life, one life to carry all life.”

DH: Thanks for your Life Cairn. It’s a new way for us to consider the biodiversity crisis and to respond to it in a meaningful way.

AK: Thanks for giving me the chance to talk about it. 

Readers can visit the Life Cairn's Facebook page for more information, photos and videos. And if you're heading to East Sussex, bring a white stone for the Life Cairn. 

Find out about Andreas Kornevall's other projects, like the Earth Restoration Service, involved in proactive ecosystem restoration worldwide and Restore the Earth, which asks, "Will you leave a positive handprint on the Earth?"

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Learn about biodiversity -- and practice your Spanish

biodiversidad, biodiversity, Emmett Duffy, Seamonster, Learn Spanish

Ready to learn some Spanish? You get two for one here, a chance to learn Spanish and about biodiversity.

I take this verbatim from Emmett Duffy over at the SeaMonster, mostly because he uses the word flummoxed and it's such a good word to indicate, well, a state of flummoxedness:

 "Have you ever been flummoxed trying to understand — or explain — the concept and importance of biodiversity? Your prayers have been answered. This short video is an absolute gem of intuitive, attractive, concision (en español, with subtitles):"

If you want some other goodies, go to Duffy's Facebook page and check out his Wall photos -- great collection!

Monday, July 2, 2012

Endangered Species Act Success Stories

piping plover, Endangered Species Act, Doc Hastings, Center for Biological Diversity
The Atlantic Piping Plover: one of the many species
recovering thanks to the Endangered Species Act.

Last year, The Endangered Species Act (ESA) took a high profile criticism from Doc Hastings, chairman of the Committee on Natural Resources of the US House of Representatives. Hastings asserted that the act is a failure because relatively few species have been removed from the endangered list:

“The purpose of the ESA is to recover endangered species — yet this is where the current law is failing — and failing badly. Of the species listed under the ESA in the past 38 years, only 20 have been declared recovered. That’s a 1 percent recovery rate.” [The 1% figure can still be found on the Congressman’s website.]

Is that so? What should the recovery rate be?

In response to criticisms like this, this past May, the Center for Biological Diversity produced a 16-page report, On Time, On Target: How the Endangered Species Act is Saving America’s Wildlife. Authors Kieran Suckling, Noah Greenwald and Tierra Curry compared the actual recovery rate of 110 species on the list with the projected rate specified in their federal recovery plans. They found that the ESA has a strong success rate: 91% of species are recovering at the rate specified by their federal plans. Further, recovery takes time. The majority of species have not been listed long enough to warrant an expectation of recovery. Eighty percent of species have not yet reached their expected recovery year. On average, these species have been listed for just 32 years, while their recovery plans required 46 years of listing. For example, the Florida panther has been listed for 38 years but its expected recovery time is 113 years, so it’s not project for delisting until 2085.

Another important success is that 21 species have recorded population boosts of more than 1000 percent in time periods ranging from seven to forty-four years. These include El Segundo blue butterfly (population increase of 22,000% in 27 years), Kemp’s ridley sea turtle (19,800% increase in 32 years), California least tern (2819% increase in 40 years), American crocodile (1290% increase in 32 years) and the Whooping crane (1009% increase in 44 years). Sounds pretty good to me.

piping plover, Center for Biological Diversity, Endangered Species Act, Doc Hastings 
Many other species have increased to populations near the recovery goals established in their recovery plans, such as the Atlantic piping plover (though strangely, the Canadian population is not seeing the same increase in nesting pairs). Piping plover populations plummeted due to over-hunting and the millinery trade in the 19th century. When these were eliminated, their numbers began to rise early in the 20th century, only to take another hit due to development and increased beach use by humans. Even if piping plovers are delisted in the next couple of years, they will still need our vigilance and protection on coastal beaches and nesting sites to make sure the population remains healthy.

An additional success is that 12 species are in the process of being downlisted (e.g. from critically endangered to threatened) or delisted altogether in the next five years. These include the Steller sea lion, Grizzly bear, Virgin Islands tree boa, Wood stork and California least tern.

So, the criticism is completely without scientific basis. Find out more about the many Endangered Species Act successes here. The site also contains other goodies where you can browse regions and find out more about endangered species around the country. You can also search by species groups (taxa) or from an alphabetical list. Look at the data. Get to know these species.