Elephants Are Eating the Forests!

Somewhere in this is a Dr. Seuss joke. Scientists at South Africa’s Kruger National Park for years have been mystified by the loss of trees and vegetation in the park, blaming everything from rabbits to wildfires. Finally, following some controlled experiments, they were able to determine that elephants were causing all the unwanted destruction. Discovery News reports on the study that found tree loss in park areas with elephant populations is up to six times greater than in parts of the park without elephants. The article even presents a neat video of an elephant being an elephant and knocking over a tree.

The article had this to say about the problems presented by the elephants:

The discovery presents a tough issue: Trees provide food, shelter, shade and more for numerous other species. But elephants are just doing what comes naturally to survive. “Save an Elephant, Kill a Tree” isn’t exactly a catchy conservation phrase.

“Save an Elephant, Kill a Tree?” Some have suggested the opposite approach: “Save the Forests, Kill the Elephants.” What interests me however is this single sentence in the article:

Humans have essentially engineered the problem by relocating, either directly or indirectly, pachyderm populations.

It seems saving elephants and trees might have a different solution: If humans are the agent behind this problem, shouldn’t we deserve more focus in the article? Our role in this mess deserves some examination, even if cursory (it’s a short article after all). Wildlife populations are adapted to specific environments; likewise, these widlife-environment relationships exist in a sort of ecological balance. It appears that we have relocated elephants into areas that are ecologically unsuited to their behavior. This is the problem, as well as the lesson. Relationships in nature are extremely complex and rarely fully understood. Chalking a line across the landscape and calling it a national park is a beautiful idea; to believe that a park can become a refuge for displaced species is not accurate. It seems we may be learning this lesson, at least at Kruger Naional Park.

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Abbey on Nature and Death

Thinking about my son’s experience with the serf perch that died after he gut hooked it, I turned to my trusty copy of “Desert Solitaire,” the Edward Abbey classic, to see what he had to say about the nature of death in, well, nature.

Classic Abbey: While out rangering on foot in Arches National Monument (now a National Park), Abbey observes a cottontail hiding under a Blackbrush  – no doubt escaping the glare of the harsh desert sun – and decides to hold an experiment. “Suppose,” Abbey supposes, “you were out here hungry, starving, no weapon but your bare hands. What would you do? What could you do?” He then picks up a stone and, to his amazement, “knocks the cottontail head over tincups,” killing it instantly. Here’s Abbey, rationalizing his deed:

For a moment I am shocked by my deed; I stare at the quiet rabbit, his glazed eyes, his blood drying in the dust. Something vital is lacking. But shock is succeeded by a mild elation. Leaving my victim to the vultures and maggots, who will appreciate him more than I could – the flesh is probably infected with tularemia – I continue my walk with a new, augmented cheerfulness which is hard to understand but unmistakeable. What the rabbit has lost in energy and spirit seems added, by processes too subtle to fathom, to my own soul. I try but cannot feel any sense of guilt. I examine my soul: white as snow. Check my hands: not a trace of blood. No longer do I feel so isolated from the sparse and furtive life around me, a stranger from another world. I have entered into this one. We are kindred all of us, killer and victim, predator and prey, me and the sly coyote, the soaring buzzard, the elegant gopher snake, the trembling cottontail, the foul worms that feed on our entrails, all of them, all of us. Long live diversity, long live the earth!

Lest one feel too strongly for the rabbit and miss the essential point Abbey is making, consider this passage in which Abey contemplates the outcome of dying of thirst in his beloved desert:

When you reach this point you are doomed. Far better to have stayed at home with the TV and the case of beer. If the happy thought arrives too late, crawl into the shade and contemplate the lonely sky. See those big black scrawny wings far above, waiting? Comfort yourself with the reflection that within a few hours, if all goes as planned, your human flesh will be working its way through the gizzard of a buzzard, your essence transfigured into the fierce greedy eyes and unimaginable consciousness of a turkey vulture. Whereupon you, too, will soar on motionless wings high over the ruck and rack of human suffering.

When Abbey writes – wait, I hate that, ‘writes’. Technically it’s correct, but it’s so much better, more personal and powerful, to use the verb ‘says’, isn’t it? – when Abbey says “No longer do I feel so isolated from the sparse and furtive life around me … I have entered into [their world],”  and in the second passage, “…your essence transfigured into the fierce greedy eyes and unimaginable consciousness of a turkey vulture,” he is describing our true relationship with nature, with the world. He shows it clearly: life and death, the never ending cycle in which all of creation is a part.

It’s hard, in our egocentric, anthropocentric view of our place in the world, to succumb to becoming buzzard feed. In honesty, I am in horror at the thought of a loved one dying in such a manner. Better to lie patiently in that hospital bed, with the quiet machines beeping and whirling around you, the florescent lights flickering overhead, waiting the end of a long contented life. But the process does not stop for your neat and tidy death. Whether you are placed in the earth or devoured by the fire or whatever means you may choose you are returned to the earth, to nature, to your kith and kin. Your physical being ultimately is returned to the universe from which it came: we are all made of bits of stars, you know. It’s Abbey, though, who explains it most clearly to me, and that’s how I gently explain the cycle of life and death in nature to my 8 year old son.

Explaining the Web of Life to an 8 Year Old Boy

The rules of nature can be a complicated and cruel to an 8 year old boy. My son loves to fish, as do I, and we fish together often. I try my best to teach him the ethics of fishing and being in nature: leave no trace, pick up after others, respect all creatures, have patience and enjoy the world around you. I teach him to enjoy fishing for its own sake: it is not a contest.

And I teach him about catch and release fishing, and the most effective techniques to ensure that a fish is caught, landed, and released unharmed.

A few weeks ago while fishing the Oregon coast for redtail serfperch – a prolific fish species – we had one of those experience that at the time was horrible, but was a necessary part of growing up in nature. My son gut hooked a perch – the fish had swallowed the hook. A gut hooked fish can go one of two ways: about half the time I can cut the line and the fish will swim off alive, the hook will rust out or the fish will spit it out in a short time and go on living. The other half of the time, the fish dies almost immediately.

On this occasion, the second scenario played out. My son insisted on letting the fish go, returning it to the ocean. I tried to convince him otherwise to no avail, and then I made the mistake of letting the fish go. It was my fault, because I knew better: The fish floated side-up on the surface and my son watched in horror as one of the many sea gulls swooped in and picked up the fish, depositing him on shore and beginning to eat him.

My son was devastated. He was absolutely crushed, knowing he had killed that fish. Seeing the way that fish had died.

These are things we all struggle with as we find our place in the world. I have struggled with it myself. Here’s a passage I wrote in my fishing journal back in 2004, describing my feelings after keeping a couple of nice yellow perch for dinner and finding them full of roe:

Regret now keeping the fish, but while cleaning them I felt that I must kill and eat them to be fair, to reconnect, to understand.

I fish mostly for fun and sport and because I love being outdoors. Difficult to take life, but must to be true  to my belief that we are all part of nature, that we are part of the food chain and the web of life.

I feel sad, but fishing must be about more than mere sport: Why hook a fish, just to let it go? Catch and release is good and noble, but only if it is more than sport, only if more than philosophy and game management. You must be more connected, and killing these two perch is the price I pay to stay connected to reality and to nature. These beautiful fish aren’t here just for my personal amusement, to be caught and released. Now they will be part of me, as I have been part of them. I gave them death, and they gave me nourishment and life.

Still, I am sad.

The next day my son would not fish, but watched me instead. I caught and kept two serfperch for dinner, killing them as I landed them so that they would not suffer in my bait bucket. I explained to my son our place in nature, and I think he felt a little better seeing me take those two fish for dinner, to be caught and cleaned and eaten by us, rather than eating a hamburger at the local dinner joint.

We are going fishing this weekend, and we’ll see how things go. I suspect he’ll put the memory behind him, but I’m also sure that he’s going to want to release his fish unharmed.

To Quote…

… yet I cannot but express my sorrow that the beauty of such landscapes are quickly passing away—the ravages of the axe are daily increasing—the most noble scenes are made desolate, and oftentimes with a wantonness and barbarism scarcely credible in a civilized nation. The wayside is becoming shadeless, desecrated by what is called improvement.

— Essay On American Scenery Thomas Cole, 1835

Missouri River Farmland Flooded by Sand

Yahoo News right now is carrying this story at the top of its list: “Feet of sand leave farms wasteland after flooding.” It’s a horrible story. I grew up in farm country. Say what you will about farm subsidies, many of the farm families I grew up around were some of the most decent, hard working, friendly people I have ever met or known.

I’d like to know the how and why behind this story. The Missouri River is heavily controlled and channelized, and has not run its natural channel for who knows how many decades. My guess is that the sand was trapped behind upstream control dams and was flushed downstream by a river overflowing with flood and snowmelt water. I know that the Missouri once followed a wide, meandering course across massive floodplains. The channel has been constricted and controlled for flood control and barge use for a long, long time. Tomorrow I’ll try and read up a bit on this and see if the natural resource/farm agency experts in the midwest have anything to add about the causes behind this catastrophe for some of our midwestern farmers.