Messages From Earth’s Gardeners
1. The Hallmark Card.
In 1995, fourteen Canadian gray wolves were shipped to Yellowstone National Park via truck and Santa-type sleigh. A wolf’s job is to hunt elk, whose mass covered Yellowstone like a rash following the near nation-wide eviction of Canis lupus in the 1800s. Elk devour saplings, which grow and replace aging trees, provide habitat for birds, and serve beavers their food. Beavers gnaw dams that form ponds for succulent plants. Grizzly bears depend on succulents after their hibernation when, emaciated and irritable, the bears are in no mood for a difficult meal.
Elk carcasses also provide a feast for species who would not otherwise dine on venison: bald eagles, golden eagles, coyotes, ravens, magpies, and even grizzly bears scavenge at the leftovers. Nothing else can bring down swift elk herds. Douglas Smith, leader of the Yellowstone Wolf Project has said, “Wolves are to Yellowstone what water is to the Everglades.”
2. First Warning.
By 2014, climate change, the reality first predicted by Swedish chemist Svante Arrhenius in 1895 and then inked by the U.N. with the scientifically thundering word “likely” in 2007, has shown its muscle.
Since the Industrial Revolution we’ve warmed the earth by one degree Celsius. Norwegian lemmings have drowned in their prematurely melting ice burrows. Old growth forests in California are dehydrating and toppling. Coral reefs are bleaching; polar bears are dying.
On a lighter side, Himalayan rhododendrons are blooming forty-five days ahead of schedule. Plants around the world are shifting their ranges towards the poles by an average six kilometers per decade. Animals who live on mountains are marching up their slopes. Some species, like warm-loving jellyfish, are cashing in on the change, their populations burgeoning.
But, to get weepy, up to 52 percent of life is on the fast lane to extinction.
The one certainty for every species is that one day they will wink out. The current projected “life” span of a species is something like one million years. Why then care about other creatures who are, like us all, doomed anyway?
If we see that this planet is every bite of our blueberry bagels, every molecule of tap water, our eyes, our children’s faces, the Great Lakes, the corn in Iowa, the wallabies in Australia, coral reefs and forests, you and me, we know then that to have a planet filled with very few, very keen species like raccoons will vastly deplete our biologic bank, putting all our eggs in one microwave. Life will go on. But what kind of world will this be if too many of the organs that make up our breathing, eating, moving planet cease to function? How sick can a man be before his family no longer recognizes the flash in his eyes, the warmth of his pulse?
Think about removing wolves from Yellowstone, or taking water from the Everglades. Think about flowers without beetles, fish without corral, blueberries without cake, ruminants and ourselves without the life-sustaining, leaf-chomping bacteria in our stomachs and, for all, vice versa. It would seem we have a lot of remodeling to do.
The endangered Quino checkerspot butterfly is an elegant, animated autumn leaf that lives in Baja, California. Rising temperatures lick away its southern niche. Given a chance, the insect would migrate north. The problem is Los Angeles and San Diego sprawl, home of fifteen million people. The butterflies would starve in the city without their flowers.
The Florida torreya, also known as the “stinking cedar” for its smell of hard celery and tomato, a Bloody Mary of a tree, is a meek conifer who is attacked and throttled by fungus and temperatures in the Florida panhandle. Some scientists say the torreya is ill-suited for the swamp, was left behind during the Ice Age. It needs a seasonal home in the North. In any case, torreya is hemmed by the Georgia Department of Transportation — the golf-ball-sized seeds cannot hitchhike.
Task 1: Bag the Quino butterflies and set them loose north of Burbank.
Task 2: Gather torreya seeds and carry them over the Georgia roads and into the Appalachian peaks.
The Torreya Guardians, a “self-organized group of naturalists, botanists, ecologists, and others with a deep concern for biodiversity,” who have no “by-laws, officers, board, staff, overhead costs, dues, formal organizational structure, or physical location,” and who do not “speak or take action as a group,” have, since 2007, planted seventeen trees and thirty-one seedlings in North Carolina and Fed-Ex'ed three hundred harvested Torreya seeds to interested parties around the world, most to Switzerland and the United States, “on behalf of our most endangered conifer tree: Torreya taxifolia.”
In a similar vein, conservation biologist Steven Willis drove through the gentle hills outside of York, England, with a cage full of five hundred marbled white butterflies in the year 2000. The Southern English butterflies made their first appearance north in a wildlife refuge sixty-five miles beyond the marbled whites’ range. Willis set loose one thousand fluttering panes of stained glass over the Wingate meadows. Each year for a decade he has driven back and has documented that the butterflies are doing their job and “holding their own” in their new habitat.
6. Second Warning.
In the 1860s, New Zealand assisted migration committees (composed of self-introduced Anglo-Saxons) decided their duty was to import “[a]ll innocuous animals, birds, fishes, insects, trees, plants, and vegetables, whether useful or ornamental,” including 220 species in total, such as deer, blackbirds, sparrows, grouse, rabbits, black swans, and salmon.
No studies were done on the impact to wildlife. By 2011, over one thousand of New Zealand’s known native species and subspecies have been listed as threatened, and 32 percent of its endemic birds have gone extinct.
In America, most of us have seen YouTube videos of Asian carp leaping en masse up to fifteen feet in the air from rivers at the sound of a motor. They slap boaterists’ faces, breaking noses and jaws. Imported from China in the 1970s to clean catfish ponds, they have left their shit work to spread throughout the Mississippi River system. They make up to 90 percent of the ecological biomass in some river sections. They have no stomachs and Hoover-vac phytoplankton. They are threatening to enter the Great Lakes and wipe out seven billion dollars of fishing industries. They abandoned their jobs and gave us another.
7. The Butterfly Effect Postcard.
Species can evolve rapidly when thrust into a new environment. Think of the small-town kid stepping off the bus in Manhattan. Most don’t make it, but every now and then you get an outlier, a John Denver, Shirley Jones. A new environment can be a catalyst for natural selection.
There is no reliable model predicting which species will prove invasive. There are many factors that influence a species’ success, and taking one animal, plant, fungi, bacteria, or singer/songwriter from a given environment and predicting its life in another without the same latitude, elevation, competition, soil nutrition, water availability, weather, and myriad human impacts is like gambling on porcupine races.
The deepest part of me lights up like a torch at the thought of a square tract of land without a pipeline or footprint. “Wilderness” such as the half-a-million-acre, aspen-rich Weminueche Wilderness in Southern Colorado is where I feel at home in a soul-squeezing way. Yet demarcating wilderness as something non-human ignores our animal nature. What is wild if not us, with our territories, our dams, our fall-migrating seniors, our strip clubs, our militaries, our camouflage, our Vibram Toe Shoes? Gardening is as instinctive as crawling for survival. By labeling wilderness, we are still hoeing. What would happen if we resisted the knee-jerk against our handiwork?
The classic means of conservation is to leave a landscape as it is or restore it to what it was. Given that global warming is going to overhaul the globe, it isn’t a viable idea to take a Polaroid of wilderness and paint it the same fifty years hence. Hence will never be thence.
But it’s not the specific assembly of species that’s important, rather the assembly of our thoughts. It’s the processes, the water, air, fire, feces, soil, food, and tacit agreements and how they connect to the life forms and other life-employment systems around us. And it’s these networks as they respond to climate change, to the ideas we have about the world. Despite all its overwhelming potential for error, assisted migration could be one strategy to assist with this response, maybe not with every species or even many, but with a few key ones. And it may help us understand how we’ve been, and are, gardening the globe.
9. Employment Application.
Assisted migration could be the way humans become evolution’s day laborers. Given that we’ve put up the dams, cities, farms, roads, cynicism, and agendas that block migration, it would be felicitous if we become, in effect, the endangered-species postal delivery.
Without San Diego, the Quino checkerspot butterflies would migrate north; without Georgia’s six-lane highways, torreya trees would begin the slow slog, seed-by-seed reverse of General Sherman’s armies. Our work would have cause.
But the bagging, packaging, and tranquilizing species for their own benefit, the interaction with the leafier, sometimes furrier, species on this planet, would be its own paycheck, what 56 percent of the U.S. population that owns pets, and the 40 percent of citizens who garden, already know.
Before we start systemically kidnapping species, maybe we should discuss who pays. Because, let’s face it, this will cost a lot of money.
Imagine moving your family overseas. Now imagine your family is twenty thousand polar bears. You have to capture them without killing them or getting killed (because, like most people, they like their homes and don’t trust strangers with guns and rope). You will lift their sleeping, dozing, half-ton bodies on board a boat or cargo plane bound for the Antarctic. Imagine feeding them for the voyage, holding them in transit as they pace along the decks or fuselage over or through international waters. Imagine cleaning up their slop, their vomit when they get air- or seasick. Imagine keeping them cool over the equator, giving them water, medicine, allowing them to stretch their legs, or, conversely, tranquilizing the bears the whole way, but not too much so that their hearts stop, their breath turned to ice. Imagine releasing them, these bears, their eyes blinking in a new polar sun, familiar, but somewhat as if it were a new planet, and in a way it is — the Antarctic does not crack up in the summer the way the North does. There are no Inuits. The ringed and bearded seals of the North will be traded out for emperor and Adélie penguins, which the bears may or may not develop a taste for. And if they don’t, you will be responsible for feeding them for as long as they survive.
11. Action Plan.
Assisted migration isn’t the climate change antidote. But when I first heard the chattering about the relocation of species, the guffaws while people imagined butterflies flapping amok, the conversation seemed a boon in a frustrated, politically scuttled climate change debate. If people (activists, journalists, grandmothers with pairs of nimble gloves) press forward, past the non-debate, and start coming up with functioning visions, then maybe we can leap forward and prop up our flickering biosphere.
Maybe we can change with the change. If we pick the lock on our handcuffs to ideals and realize that humans are already behind the curtain, maybe stonewallers and anti-scientists will turn their heads. Or if they don’t, then maybe those who own gardens and those who care for pets will. Maybe they will realize that these particular members of world-kind, these human animals with their oh, so wild ideas, all of us, we’re aboard a continent-sized tractor, and we’re, fast or slow, already moving.about the author