holyoutlaw: (me meh)

The Hidden Half of Nature: The Microbial Roots of Life and Health
David Montgomery and Anne Biklé
WW Norton, 2016

The authors began a journey into examining the role that microbes play in our lives by reconstituting the soil in their yard. They discovered the soil was brought back to life with relatively little effort. This lead to a lot of research into what, exactly what going on, and learning about the rhizosphere, the wealth of bacteria and microbes that surround and enrich the roots of plants. When Biklé contracted cancer, they embarked on a similar journey into the depths of the colon and the microbial life we support and which supports us. Both systems are bewilderingly complex, and there is much more cooperation and symbiosis than we thought. In both cases, a healthy microbial environment provides strength and immunity to the host (either the plant or us).

A few things prevented us from seeing these communities and benefits earlier. Our lab practices were focused on the “germ theory,” that microbes were inherently harmful and needed to be eradicated. This lead to studying only pathogenic microbes that could be easily cultured in labs. DNA sequencing allows us to study microbes that aren’t culturable outside their host environment. Further, relationships between organisms were viewed through the lens of Darwinian competition, which is only recently being challenged by new views on cooperation and symbiosis.

This is leading to a revolution in our approach to both farming and nutrition. For the second half of the 20th century, agribusiness concentrated on ever-higher doses of fertilizers and biocides for the short-term benefits of yield increase, ignoring the long-term problems of soil depletion, adaptation of pests, and destruction of helpful microbes and insects. A similar practice was happening in medicine, with a reliance on antibiotics that provided untold benefits, but which led to a larger problem we now face.

The farming practices, combined with dietary changes (and convenience foods) led to diets filled with nutritionally poor but high calorie foods. Meanwhile, our helpful gut flora were being destroyed by the antibiotics that were otherwise saving our lives. New research indicates that over-use of antibiotics is leading to both an increase in disease-resistant bacteria and chronic auto-immune and inflammation diseases.

“The Hidden Half of Nature” is filled with interesting stories about research into soil health that contradicted the agrichemical practices that was ignored, or research into gut health that went a little past the ability to visualize or quantify why things worked the way they did. One particularly fascinating story is that of Ignasz Semmelweis, who in the late 1840s noticed that the wards in his hospital run by midwives had significantly less mortality than the wards run by doctors. Why? The doctors wore their bloody coats with pride, and went between patients or autopsies and patients without washing their hands. Montgomery and Biklé say that by insisting the doctors wash their hands and change their lab coats, mortality in the doctor-run wards was reduced to the same as the midwife wards. This infuriated the doctors, Semmelweis was fired from that hospital, fired from another for instituting the same changes, and was so hounded by the medical establishment that he died in an asylum. Philosophers of science now use the term “Semmelweis reflex” to describe the autocratic rejection of new knowledge that contradicts established paradigms.

The authors are careful not to ignore the good results of agribusiness or antibiotics, but they fully acknowledge that it is crucial to adapt our practices to new realities. More careful administration of antibiotics, removing antibiotics from use as animal growth promoters, and more attention to prebiotics and foods that improve our gut flora are among their recommendations for human health. They also recommend farming practices that concentrate on soil health, such as returning stubble to the field after harvest, no-till farming, and organic farming. They acknowledge where research is still inconclusive, such as whether organically farmed plants are more nutritious than conventionally farmed plants.

“The Hidden Half of Nature” is informationally dense – the “Sources” section has pages of citations for every chapter – but is so clearly presented that at first I thought it almost felt like it was aimed at a young adult audience. Once they got onto things I didn’t know, however, I was fascinated by their stories. They mix personal experience with research in a way that brings the research into focus. The few notes are amplifications of the text that would have gotten in the way of their main point. There is also a good index.

I think this book makes a good companion to The One-Straw Revolution. Fukuoka’s book is much shorter, and focuses on his personal experience with restoring pre-agribusiness farming practices to his farm in Japan. Montgomery and Biklé present the history of the science of microbes, looking at European research into farming and medicine.

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Indians of the Pacific Northwest From the Coming of the White Man to the Present Day
Vine Deloria, Jr.
Fulcrum, 1977, 2012

The first white people to arrive in the Pacific Northwest were British traders, looking to take advantage of the established trade routes of the Salish peoples for their own ends: The Makah whalers for whale oil, others for salmon or animal skins. They lived in relative peace with Salish peoples, even intermarrying, although they still brought smallpox. The Americans who came later wanted to establish permanent settlements, which resulted in the occasionally violent removal of first peoples from their lands and the establishment of reservations. I thought this book would be a pretty depressing read, but although it told the story of the thefts of Americans without flinching, it also told the many stories of successes that first peoples have had, in re-establishing their fishing rights and keeping parcels of their lands under their own control. I think this book leaves a lot out, as well, particularly the story of the Duwamish. It was first published in 1977, and an afterword provides an update as of 2011, which takes us through casinos and up to the first Elwha Dam removal.

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The One-Straw Revolution: An Introduction to Natural Farming
Masanobu Fukuoka
New York Review Books, 1978

Masanobu Fukuoka proposes a method of farming timed to natural sequences of plants. Cover crops and food crops are sown in sequence such that weeds are kept down. Straw and plant waste is returned to the field after harvest, returning most of the nutrients to the soil. This is a no-till method that builds the soil up year after year with no amendments. The soil is increasingly healthy, which prevents plant disease. The diversity of the crops prevent crop pests from taking over. Not spraying also allows the beneficial insects to live and protect the crops. The plants themselves are more resistant to pests and diseases because they are growing in healthier soil, and are consequently healthier. The healthiness of the soil and the extensive use of straw and plant waste as mulch greatly decreases water use. In general, Fukuoka used a method of farming that had been developed over time by the indigenous farmers of his region, before Western agrichemical practices took over. This method of farming is as productive as Western agrichemical farming, but with healthier soil and stronger, more nutritious plants.

This method of no-till agriculture and crop rotation would work in any location, but would need to be adapted to local growing seasons and crops. He also espouses a philosophy of being in touch with the earth and its cycles. In some ways, his method of farming reminded me of the Bradley method of restoration, in that both of them look to the cycles of plant life and soil health and ecology to accomplish their goals. This book left me wishing I had some land — even a back yard would do — to practice his method and adapt it to PNW climate.

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Sources of the River: Tracking David Thompson Across Western North America
Jack Nisbet
Sasquatch Books, 2007

David Thompson was the first European to explore and map the full reach of the Columbia River from its source in the northern Rocky Mountains in what is now British Columbia. He ranged over the inland upper northwest, setting up trade houses and surveying for the NorthWest Company, a competitor to Hudson’s Bay Company for the fur trade. His sharp eye and meticulous practices lead to such accurate latitude and longitude readings that they stand up to modern techniques. He also observed the social practices of the First Nations he encountered (sometimes as the first white man they’d seen). He was able to record the locations of the tribes he encountered, mineral deposits, forests, and other geographic details. His work was motivated by a curiosity for the land and a desire to do a good job. The stories of his travels — compiled from several remaining notebooks, and a “Narrative” unfinished at the time of his death — are riveting, I can barely imagine the difficulties he and his crews faced as a matter of course. Unfortunately, after retirement, he was unable to get his maps published during his lifetime, and they have languished half forgotten. Nisbet interposes his own travels in the modern day inland NW, on a heavily dammed Columbia River.

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Tristan Donovan
Chicago Review Press, 2015.

An engaging read about the wild animals that live in cities with us — from raccoons in Berlin to leopards in Mumbai, rattlesnakes in Phoenix and African land snails in Miami, to foxes in London and subterranean crabs in Rome.

These animals have come to be in cities in many ways. Raccoons are not native to Berlin, but were escapees after the brief fad for raccoon coats in the early days of automobiles. Foxes in London had the city built up around them – it’s not that they were pushed out of the city and moved back, but they stuck around when new food sources presented themselves. African land snails were imported by accident.

Living in the city affects the animals in many ways, — good, bad, and neutral. Bird song has to change to adapt to city noise, such as getting louder, changing pitch, or both; birds colliding with skyscrapers is a problem for Chicago, which is on the Great Mississippi flyway. In many cases, such as coyotes and foxes, the animals live longer, healthier, and with much smaller ranges than in the wild. The smaller ranges happen because food is more abundant; this results in greater density, which can be a problem if there’s an infectious disease outbreak such as mange. Another change that happens across many species is animals becoming nocturnal in the city, as that helps them avoid humans.

Donovan talks to people doing on the ground research and control of animal species, and examines the issues using references that range from scholarly articles and to general interest books, news articles, and blog posts. In the final chapter (which provides a good, inspiring end to the book), he looks at how we can use cities as conservation agents and not only improve them as homes for the animals that live with us, but bring more animals into the city.

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Across Time and Terrain in the Pacific Northwest
Timothy Egan
Vintage Departures, 1991

This book, written in the late 1980s (and published in the early 1990s) chronicles a journey and all its reflections brought on by a chance thought: while distributing the ashes of his grandfather, Egan becomes curious about how the glacier he visits got its name.

I take Grandpa out of the pack and set him next to a rock. No wind. From below comes a marmot whistle, a high pierce. I think: Winthrop. What is an old Puritan’s name doing up here, on the frozen side of a mountain that wasn’t even spotted by white men until after the Revolutionary War? What cartographer’s trick, or cheap flatter, placed the name Winthrop here, a country of noble Indian names — Tacoma, the original word for this mountain; Sluiskin Falls, named for the native who first led whites to the demon-dwelling pit of fire at the summit; Ohanapecosh, where the rivers meet below. Most of the English names were coined by syphilitic prospectors and timber beasts — the Frying Pan Glacier, Old Scab Mountain, Anvil Rock, Panhandle Gap. Why Winthrop? It’s too genteel for this massive chunk of glacial anarchy….

This leads Egan to discover that Theodore Winthrop named the glacier in 1853, during a summer visit to the Pacific Northwest. He also wrote a book called The Canoe and the Saddle, which Egan buys from a rare books dealer. In 1853, Winthrop traveled from Vancouver Island through Puget Sound and then up the Columbia River. More than 130 years later, Egan makes the same journey, chronicling the differences.

The journey is at times harrowing, amusing, sublime, and tragic. Egan’s writing throughout is beautiful. This beauty makes it painful, at times, as when he’s talking about the extraction industries that have nearly destroyed the Pacific Northwest. Each chapter visits a locale that Winthrop visited in 1853, usually at about the same time of year as Winthrop did. Egan uses the location to focus on a particular aspect of the PNW, examining, for instance, Vancouver’s role in the British Empire, the development of the red delicious apple, or a nearly-forgotten court case that made the first cracks in the Communist with hunts (with tragic long-term aftereffects). Particularly hard for me to read was chapter 10, “Salmon,” which looked at the extent to which the rivers of the NW have been dammed, and what that has cost our our rivers. Hydropower is not “clean” at all. The rivers are shallower, slower, warmer, less alive. Salmon runs that used to number in the millions now number in the thousands, on a good year.

At times, I found his writing to be a little heavy-handed, and there were the occasional missteps such as referring to a woman ranger as a “rangerette.” But overall I found “The Good Rain” to be a fine, if saddening, read about the state of the Pacific Northwest in recent history.

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Alan de Queiroz
Basic Books, 2014

How do species disperse – how do they get from one place to another? This is the kind of question that appears to have a ready answer, but experts can spend a lifetime debating. It’s easy to see birds flying in their migrations, or mammals moving across continents. How did trees get across oceans? How did amphibians get to islands? How did monkeys get to South America? The answer to these questions not only has ramifications to evolution, but to the history of life on Earth. And scientists have been debating them since the beginning of the study of evolution.

Although perplexing and difficult to imagine, before we knew about plate tectonics, ocean crossings were the only possible choice. Darwin did some experiments in seed viability, and a lot of people talked about land bridges that no longer existed.

As we learned more about plate tectonics and the deep past of the Earth, it became obvious that most of the dispersal happened by species being isolated by Gondwana (the supercontinent) breaking up. No ocean crossings necessary. Soon enough, the idea of life as a relic of the Gondwanan break up was pervasive to the point of becoming a truism. Ocean crossings were dismissed as almost magical. The incompleteness of the fossil record was no help: the oldest fossil of a species only tells us how old a species might be; it could have been around for a long time before the unlikely set of events that create fossils happened.

Now, scientists studying the question of dispersal use DNA analysis and the molecular clock to provide new evidence that weighs more strongly in favor of ocean crossings. The molecular clock, despite its limitations, can provide more statistical evidence as to when speciation occurs than the fossil record or any other tool we’ve had to date. This statistical evidence can be combined with improved dating, greater knowledge of the continental positions in deep time, and other evidence to build convincing cases for oceanic dispersal. The hypothesis that monkeys rafted from Africa to South America may not ever be “falsifiable” in the way that mathematics or physics hypotheses are falsifiable, but enough evidence can be built in its favor to show that despite improbability, given enough time, it’s the most likely explanation.

This is the “plot synopsis” version of de Queiroz’s book, and like all plot synopses makes a tapestry into a threadbare towel. In examining the basic question of how life disperses, de Queiroz looks at aspects of the philosophy and history of science, how science is engaged by its practitioners – in the field, in academic journals, and in the realm of personal politics. It looks like there is finally enough agreed-on evidence to provide basis for further research.

This is the kind of science book that I like because it engages me in a subject I had little knowledge of, and thought I had little interest in.

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The Conscientious Gardener: Cultivating a Garden Ethic
Sarah Hayden Reichard
University of California Press, 2011

An important aspect of ecological restoration is the private garden. By adding native plants, decreasing the use of pesticides, more carefully recycling and reusing materials, the home gardener can, in aggregate, have a tremendous impact on the landscape as a whole.

In “The Conscientious Gardener: Cultivating a Garden Ethic,” Sarah Reichard (Director of the University of Washington Botanic Gardens) lays out the principles of the garden ethic as inspired by Aldo Leopold’s “land ethic” – that is, being aware of not just the plants in your garden, but the web of interactions with the soil, the sun, the water, and the other plants and life forms. She describes the problems of the home gardener, such as over watering or over use of fertilizers and pesticides, citing both general and technical literature. She also describes many solutions that can work in all areas of the country.

She is a strong advocate for native plants, of course, but does NOT advocate ripping out your entire garden. Natives can be integrated with general horticultural plants to great effect. Using the same horticultural plants can makes gardens look alike the whole world around, but if everyone were to rip out all exotic plants, we’d be left with PNW filled with the few horticultural workhorses. We’d be left with LESS diversity in our gardens, not more. Integrating the gardens with native and exotic horticultural plants is the way to go.

Being aware of the interconnectedness of all gardens, of how they connect to local watersheds, the wildlife that might come from a nearby park or greenbelt, or even the garden next door, can help guide one’s choices. Maybe use a less water hungry plant, or decrease the VERY resource-hungry lawn. Widen the bloom time of your garden to increase food for pollinators. Add plants that will go to seed and provide food for birds. Leave the seed heads for the birds.

Reichard’s book is valuable because it describes things people can do in their home gardens that will have a definite impact on the environment. It’s an important part of a growing body of literature on how to increase the ecological value of the home garden.

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Jan. 6th, 2014 09:00 am
holyoutlaw: (me meh)

1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created (Vintage)
Charles C. Mann
Alfred A. Knopf, 2011

Before Columbus landed on Hispaniola, China was the most technologically advanced country in the world. Tenochtitlan (now Mexico City) was larger and cleaner than any Spanish city. There were empires and pig iron in Africa, and empires across the Americas. Europeans were malnourished, disease ridden, and living in filth.

But there was no contact. For better or worse, that contact was established by Columbus. That contact set off an exchange of produce, metals, commodities, cultures, and perhaps most important, diseases, that continues to this day. Globalization has been happening for more than 500 years, and only accelerates.

I was stunned repeatedly while reading this book. Particularly intriguing to me were the stories of 16th century Mexico City, the first global city. Silver from South America was counted there and sent to China and Spain. Porcelain and silk came from China before going on to Europe. The trade and peoples of the world flowed through Mexico City.

This is only one chapter in a long book that sets the received stories of the colonization of the Americas on its head. It wasn’t an orderly colonization of a nearly-empty continent. The very first settlers found a populous, healthy land. Smallpox, malaria, and other diseases endemic to Europeans needed to depopulate the continents to make European conquest possible. Even so, it was the 19th Century before there were more Europeans than Africans in the Americas.

Frequently I felt as if no good has come from the Columbian exchange, even though I’m a product of it. So many wars, famines, plagues. It’s brought vast wealth for a few kings and individuals, but complete social destruction for many cultures.

That was my own agenda in reading 1493, though, not Mann’s in writing it. He takes scrupulous care to be evenhanded, to not make judgments to one side or the other, just to show objectively the effects of the Columbian exchange. There’s a lot to talk about, and this long, invigorating book ranges over the centuries and the planet.

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By Lyanda Lynn Haupt
Illustrations by Tracy Noles-Ross
Little, Brown and Company, 2013

Crow Planet introduced me to the idea that nature and the city or built environment are intertwined in a way that we don’t usually acknowledge. Her idea is that we have to acknowledge this twining because the decisions we make here affect the entire world.

She returns to that idea in The Urban Bestiary with a different tack: writing a contemporary bestiary of the common urban creatures, many of them considered pests, which we might see on a daily basis but dismiss due to their familiarity.

The medieval bestiaries included the myth, folklore, and what passed for scientific knowledge of the day. The Urban Bestiary incorporates all those elements in three main sections: The furred, the feathered, and the branching and rooted.

The chapters of the three sections each consider one (sometimes two) subjects, looking at their ancient folklore, current scientific knowledge, and perhaps most important (and no more accurate than medieval science) contemporary folklore. Moles, because the mounds they create are unsightly to gardeners, are considered pests. But they aerate the soil, eat grubs and insects that would eat the plants, and generally improve. A mole in a garden is a sign of a healthy garden, but gardeners will go to great, expensive, and futile lengths to try to eradicate them.

Every chapter has several examples of the facts challenging contemporary folklore about an urban animal, and Haupt frequently has her own preconceptions challenged. The idea is to learn about the lives of the wild life that surrounds us, how we interact with it and how it has adapted to us. But more than just the bare facts, to share their lives – there are sidebars in every chapter on identification of tracks and scat, how to look for an animal and what to do if you find one. As we learn more, we bring these creatures closer to us.

And as we bring these creatures – the neglected, the uncharismatic, the pesty, the unseen – closer to us, we bring ourselves closer to the web that weaves among us all.

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Words by Lynda V. Mapes
Photography by Steve Ringman
Mountaineers Books, 2013

The Elwha River flows out of the Olympic Mountains north to the Strait of Juan de Fuca on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula. It’s wild and steep, and until dammed in the early 20th century was known for its dense fish runs.

This book tells the story of the Elwha, from the time the dams were built until the beginning of their removal. The history of the dams is excellently covered, and the reporting of the efforts to remove the dams – who wanted them removed, who wanted them to stay, how they were to be removed, who did the pre-removal baseline monitoring of the ecosystems, who would do the post-removal restoration – gives I think a fair credence to all sides of the story.

There’s no question that the dam removal was necessary. They were built without even the few safeguards and fish passage required in the early 20th Century, making them basically always illegal. The Olympic National Park boundaries later included the upper dam. In both cases, removal was cheaper than updating and refitting for new licensing compliance.

In the meantime, the power they provided to Pt. Angeles and its lumber mills was replaced by power from the Bonneville Power Administration, so they were not only illegal but irrelevant. There’s a large emotional aspect to dam removal, on all sides of the issue. People like me, who feel “it’s the right thing to do” as strongly as we can point to river warming, blocked fish passage, silt-transport blockage, and so on. Or people who feel “they should stay” as strongly as they can point to power provided, dam maintenance jobs, and even novel ecologies that will be lost when the lakes are drained. I think Mapes, in fact, could have covered the anti-removal side of the story in a little more depth; it might have helped me understand it a little better.

This is a minor lack in otherwise excellent coverage. The writing verges on the poetic when describing the “Niagara of the West,” and just as easily switches to conveying scientific details. The words and pictures unite to tell us just about every aspect of the story: The politicians and activists who worked for and against removal; the people it would benefit; the scientific research being done under sometimes very trying conditions (such as dry-suit snorkeling in shallow tributaries fresh off the glacier).

The Elwha dam was completed in 1910, with no fish passage. The Glines Canyon dam was completed in 1927. The first movements to remove the dam began in 1986. The upper dam is still being removed in 2013. The project, because of obstructionism, became vastly more expensive than originally estimated, and left almost no one satisfied with the process. The restoration is vastly underfunded, partly because the purchase price of the dams became so inflated.

Despite the difficulties of removal, I think it’s a success story: for the environmental and social justice of the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe, for the ecologies of the river and the forest it drains, and the fish that can now swim to their spawning grounds.

The book ends with a moving depiction of the ceremony at the very start of removal (September 2011), and a ritual of the Lower Elwha Klallam to call the fish back to their home. This is an appropriate and optimistic place for the book to end, but the story continues, and will continue, for at least as many generations as it has already.

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Intelligent Tinkering: Bridging the Gap between Science and Practice
Robert J. Cabin
Island Press, Washington, DC, 2011
216 pp., with index and selected bibliography

The tropical dry forests of Hawaii are an extremely endangered environment, threatened by almost everything. They were slow to evolve, because of the dryness and frequent interruption by lava flows. Plants and wild life had evolved together for thousands of years before the Polynesians arrived. There was so little competition in the benign environment that roses had lost their thorns; some birds had lost their flight. The Polynesians began shaping the land to their needs, resulting in the extinction of some local species and introduction of many others.

The catastrophic shocks, though, were felt when the Europeans arrived, and began removing forests for plantations and farms. Today, all four counties in Hawaii are in the top five counties for federally listed endangered and threatened species. Some remnants are so small with no regeneration or succession that they’re considered living dead ecosystems. Hawaii is an ecological disaster.

Is it even possible to restore these endangered ecosystems? Is it “worth it”? There are about 12,000 species that exist nowhere else in the world. More new species are being discovered, and supposedly extinct species rediscovered, regularly. 90% of the flowering plants and 80% of the birds are endemic to the islands. Most of the climates and ecosystems of the world exist somewhere in the Hawaiian Islands. Hawaii is also one of the most racially diverse places in the world – and also, unfortunately, one of the most economically stratified.

Cabin spent several years in Hawaii, performing both the science of restoration ecology and the practice of ecological restoration on the tropical dry forests, an ecosystem so endangered you might not have heard of it. An early experience with a restoration work party had a strong resonance with me:

As the morning progressed, I couldn’t help noticing how different we all were. In almost any other situation, most of us would have little if anything to say to one another, and if for some reason we did strike up a substantive conversation, we probably would have discovered that we had radically different opinions about such things as politics and religion. Yet here we were, donating our time on a beautiful Saturday morning and working harmoniously together.

That is exactly my experience, right down to the Saturday morning. Volunteer-driven restoration brings people together in a way that rarely exists in the United States any more. I frequently think that we’re restoring the idea of community built through shared work (as in quilting bees or barn raising) as much as we’re restoring ecological functions.

But a problem with volunteer-driven projects is we are, to some degree, amateurs. On the other hand – on the other side of the wall, to some degree – there are all the scientists doing research into restoration ecology. Cabin asks the question, what can we do to bridge the science and practice gap?

This is a big and important question, but frankly, I was more taken with his stories of the on-the-ground restoration: the physical details of working in a tropical climate to eradicate, even over a few hundred square feet, something as pernicious as fountain grass (Pennisetum setaceum). How much political effort it took to build a six acre exclosure. The reward when you return to a spot after a couple years and are surprised and gratified at how well it’s doing. And the disappointment when you return to a spot and nothing has established, or it’s not doing nearly as well as you’d hoped.

The practice of ecological restoration is holistic; you have to be aware of many of the influences – the water, the soil, the aspect of slopes, the surrounding mosaic of land uses – that can affect your project. The science of restoration ecology is necessarily reductive, with its need for clearly delineated experimental design, replicability, awareness of control factors, and a falsifiable hypothesis. There is also the short-term cycle of much scientific research. A grant might only be for a couple years, a master’s or doctoral research project will only last for a few years. Ecological processes can take decades .

Despite these differences, I think research in the science of restoration ecology can have a positive effect on the practice of ecological restoration. For instance, it was a Master’s thesis at the UW that provided a lot of the background for GSP to institute its target forest types. Other research can settle the “obvious” questions that might otherwise be a source for endless debate. Which is best for a cedar seedling: mulch, irrigation, or irrigation gel? (Mulch.)

I think my own practice could benefit from a much more methodical approach, and better record keeping. The truly successful projects, the restoration work that has been going on for ten years and more, are all methodical in their plans and record keeping. (Well, the ones that I know of, at least).

Cabin suggests a model that he calls “intelligent tinkering,” a phrase from Aldo Leopold. It relates to keeping all the cogs and gears of a car as you take it apart. You don’t know what’s essential to the machine, what’s sacrificeable. Your first actions are small and cautious, but as you learn more about the machine, you can take bolder actions.

I think this is happening all over Seattle, in all the different parks and nature areas being stewarded by GSP volunteers. Some of the parks are large, with many different habitat types (Carkeek, Golden Gardens, Discovery). Some are very small, less than two acres (John C. Little). North Beach Park, at 9 acres, is about mid-sized.

It may not be the case that a restoration ecologist could come into one of those parks, and do a specific experiment that has immediate results. But I think it is the case that the general work being done, in all environments and look at many different questions asked by the science of restoration ecology, can have a positive effect on the practice of ecological restoration.

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James Barilla
Yale University Press, 2013

When most people think about creating backyard habitat, they probably imagine an almost Disneyfied picture of inter-species harmony and cooperation. The reality is much messier. On the one hand, the human desire to live with animals is strong; that’s why we have pets. On the other, we would like the boundaries to be distinct.

This messiness is what Barilla explores. So you want to create a backyard that’s welcoming to squirrels. What about when they’re eating your peaches? What about when rats and opossums come into this big hollow tree that’s warm and full of great nooks and crannies? You want animals close, but not too close.

Barilla looks at many different cities and how they’re coping with the encroachment of supposedly wild animals. Vervet monkeys in Dania, FL; rhesus macaques in New Delhi, India; black bears in Northampton, MA; and tamarins in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Dealing with the animals is hindered by many factors. The tamarins of Rio are an invasive pest where they are — but endangered in their home range. It would seem simple to just capture them in Rio and transport them to their home range. But they’re separated by thousands of miles. Have the urban tamarins picked up new parasites or diseases that will affect the wilderness tamarins? How has their genotype altered in response to city living over the generations? Can they still survive in the wilderness? One of the reasons they do so well is the prevalence of jackfruit trees, which are themselves an invasive species.

Another reason they do so well is because people feed them. Barilla feeds a vervet monkey in Florida, and describes the experience in great detail. It’s much different than putting out a feeder for birds, or kibble for a dog. He feels a transcendent connection to the wild, to the “us and not us” of a primate.

Barilla’s depiction of his personal experiences in his research is one of the strengths of the book. I wish he’d taken a little more time to talk about the process of building a backyard habitat, but there are plenty of books on that subject. This book, as I said, explores the messier territory. The animals we invite into our backyards have their own agency, their own desires, which do not always neatly align with ours.

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By Richard Louv
Workman Publishing, New York, 2011

I must admit, I had a defensive reaction to the idea of “nature deficit disorder” when I first encountered it. I grew up in Chicago, and was much more likely to take the el downtown than to ride my bike to Columbus Park.

It was when a teacher at Antioch assigned The Geography of Childhood (Concord Library) that I began to get a clue: free roaming time is important in childhood development. The child learns some independence, learns to get along with others, and develops an internal map and sense of spatial awareness. The value of having this free roaming happen in nature, as opposed to a built environment, is the roughness and unpredictability of the terrain. Even a fairly well-groomed park has more unpredictability than an arrow-straight el line.

“Nature-deficit disorder” is the lack of experience with nature. Not just wilderness, but even the mundane nature we can create or recreate in our cities. Louv introduced the concept in “Last Child in the Woods” and it resonated strongly enough to make that book an international best seller. He continues with this book, focusing on adults and communities and what they (we) can do to reduce nature-deficit disorder in ourselves and everyone.

“The Nature Principle” described experiences I’ve had, which lead me further into its ideas.

“Plant blindness,” for instance: the inability to distinguish or identify plants. When I first went into North Beach Park, I figured it was all weeds. After 18 years of living in Seattle, I had no idea what was a native plant or not. It wasn’t just the apartment living, it was also the way gardens are so strongly organized around the same commercially available plants. As I’ve learned about native plants, their uses by Native Americans, their seasons, the forest has opened up to me. Now the skunk cabbage and osoberry are early signs of spring; the Pacific waterleaf and water parsley dying back are early signs of fall. A deeper experience of the nature around us leads to a deeper understanding of the natural (and in the Americas, pre-Columbian) history of our region, and a deeper connection to place (another point Louv makes in this book).

The idea of the “nearby nature trust.” This is what we’re creating when we volunteer in a park. I’ve seen a Stellar’s Jay and pileated woodpeckers in North Beach Park, and it has supported a heron rookery in the past. For animals that can cross the intervening mosaic, North Beach Park provides an important patch between Carkeek and Golden Gardens. Because it’s always ten degrees cooler in the ravine, it can provide a refuge for native plants and smaller animals and birds as the planet warms.

The Nature Principle is to me a very empowering book, because it shows examples of what we can do to heal the world, and that small things are worth doing because they can have big effects.

Mirrored from Nature Intrudes. Please comment over there.

holyoutlaw: (me meh)

by Russell Link

One thing I didn’t mention when talking about Bringing Nature Home is the production. The book is illustrated throughout with hundreds of full-color photographs by the author, all illustrating important points from the text. The pages are thick, opaque, and glossy, which makes the photos really pop out. This makes it a great reference book as well as an interesting read.

If “Bringing Nature Home” is a reference book, then Landscaping for Wildlife in the Pacific Northwest is a workbook. This is a book made for marginal notes, comments, post-its, multiple bookmarks, working in the field, cross-referencing, and all-in-all giving it the provenance of a book that shows it’s well-loved by being well-used. Most of the pages (except for a color photograph section) are newsprint. There are line illustrations throughout, of plants, water flows, landscape designs, and more.

There are five parts to the book, each at least four chapters long: habitat design and maintenance, pacific northwest wildlife, special features of a wildlife habitat, and co-existing with wildlife. Part five is a long section of appendices that includes information on PNW habitats; plant lists, tables and maps; wildlife information for specific plants; and construction plans. The last appendix is a list of resources for each specific topic (ie, birds, wildlife maintenance, reptiles and amphibians, etc.). This book was published in 1999, with a third printing in 2002, and to my knowledge hasn’t been updated. The organizations and books listed in the resource section are still around, but the list of native plant nurseries in particular should be double checked. If anything, there are likely to be more specialized native plant nurseries supporting the restoration industry.

But that slight caveat aside, this is a book that belongs in the work room or greenhouse of anyone interested in landscaping for wildlife. As “Bringing Nature Home” demonstrates, landscaping with native plants in home gardens can go a long way towards restoring some of the imbalances and destruction of nature our sprawl is creating. “Landscaping for Wildlife in the Pacific Northwest” gives you the specific tools and resources to do that in our region.

Mirrored from Nature Intrudes. Please comment over there.

holyoutlaw: (me meh)

Douglas W. Tallamy

Note: I read a library copy of the hardcover published in 2007. The link above is to a revised trade paperback edition, with an expanded resource section and updated photographs.

“Bringing Nature Home” thoroughly covers all aspects of how and why to use native plants in a home garden. The problem with alien plants is simple: they disrupt the food web by being inedible to insect herbivores. Insects have specialized gut bacteria and enzymes that neutralize (or even utilize) the defenses of their native plants. Some can only eat a single type of plant. When supplies of native plants are replaced by alien plants, the insects starve. This ripples through the food web, as most birds feed their nestlings insects, which have the highest dose of fat and protein and provide the best energy resource.

With no insects eating native plants, there are no insects for the birds to eat, resulting in fewer birds. The larval forms of many butterflies and moths need native plants for survival as well. Their adult form may be generalist enough to get pollen from nonnative species, but if their larval forms have no food, there will be no adults.

Tallamy provides a table towards the end of the book showing that even if an alien plant was introduced a couple hundred years ago, it still provides little or no food or resources to native insects. A few species might have made a transition to the new plant, but the native will host dozens more. In a few cases, an alien plant is close enough to a native that the insects can eat with no problem. But again, insects get more benefit from the native plant, and not all species hosted by the native can transition to the alien.

By reintroducing native plants into the home garden, we provide food for the insects and the birds that eat them. The chapter “What Should I Plant?” addresses this. Because this book is written for a national audience, the advice has to be very general. Tallamy focuses on trees of especial benefit to Lepidoptera because butterflies and moths are charismatic and attractive to people.

The original publication of this book in 2007 sparked a great conversation about gardening with natives. There is now a website, plantanative.com, that provides links to native plant societies, suggestions about what to plant, and more. Nowadays there are numerous books, organizations, and websites about using native plants. This interest was sparked in part by the earlier publication of “Bringing Nature Home.” There is still a long way to go, but progress is being made.

Two good resources for this area are the Washington Native Plant Society, and Landscaping for Wildlife in the Pacific Northwest, which I’ll look at soon.

Mirrored from Nature Intrudes. Please comment over there.

holyoutlaw: (picture icon iv)

Jon R. Luoma
foreword by Jerry Franklin
© 1999, Jon R. Luoma
Oregon State University Press, Corvallis, 2006

The Hidden Forest, originally published in 1999, shows that everything we thought we knew about forests – how they grow, how they could be best managed for wood, how they work, etc. – is wrong. Although much of what is discussed here has become common knowledge since 1999, none of it would have become common knowledge without the Andrews Forest Long-Term Ecological Research Station in the Andrews Forest, OR. Beginning as a small venture with a brief flash of opportunistic funding from the International Biological Program, the research station has grown to produce numerous studies that shook forestry to its very basis.

It was a literal case of being unable to see the forest for the trees. The trees that produce our wood – yes, we see them and harvest them. The forest – that is, the web of life at the roots and canopies of the trees – happens at timescales that some ecologists call “the invisible present” – that is, within our lifespans, but long enough that the changes can only be shown by collecting data carefully for decades. The other end of the scale is the brief lives of the almost-invisible mites that live on the needles and in the roots.

These long-term processes require long term research. How does the warming planet affect budding of plants in the spring? How does that interact with the lifecycles of over-wintering insects and migratory birds? To answer these questions – even to propose them in an answerable form – you need decades of observation. This goes against the grain of the short-term focus of most research, the three to five year grant cycles (if that long), and the demand for publishable results.

And yet, even in the relatively short time the Andrews research base has existed, it’s completely changed the way forestry is practiced. Not just the maintenance of national lands, but the corporate-owned lands as well.

The story here is not just the patient research: the political struggles, particularly around the spotted owl, have their share of cliffhangers, false hopes, and final resolutions. And if the “once in a lifetime” storm shows up on your watch, then by gum you get out in it.

The story here is also the evolution of techniques, using canopy cranes to explore the canopy (and discover the importance of Lobaria oregana, a nitrogen-fixing moss that lives in the canopies. And the development of remote sensing techniques using LIDAR (laser interferometry) and GIS (Geographic Information Systems) to gather data about otherwise nearly-inaccessible locations without having to build roads.

And the story is also one of the great, continuing stories of science, whatever branch or method it follows: The stories of people being intensely curious about something, and trying to learn as much about is as they possibly can – as excited by their ignorance as what they know, because the ignorance gives them opportunities to learn more.

All in all, this was a great book to read. I’d like to see a follow up. How did the Andrews research base survive the Bush years? How is it doing today? What new has it learned? This kind of long-term research is needed not only for commercial forestry, but for restoration and conservation as well.

Mirrored from Nature Intrudes. Please comment over there.

holyoutlaw: (picture icon iv)

One of the attractions of urban restoration to me is the way it breaks down the false dichotomy separating nature and the city. It forces us to connect with nature where we are, immediately. Nature is not something we drive to visit, not something remote photographed for the BBC or PBS, it’s right here. Ungainly, degraded perhaps, but still cracking through the cement, still living.

Thierry Cohen photographs cities and their night sky in a very meticulous fashion. He photographs a city during the day; nine so far, all cities large enough that we can recognize them at a glance — Sao Paulo, Paris, New York, Hong Kong. He then eliminates all signs of human activity, as if we had vanished completely.

He records the exact latitude of his position, the angle and direction of the camera, and then travels to a flat place free of light pollution at the exact same latitude. In the case of Hong Kong, that’s the Western Sahara, a distance of 7,800 miles. For New York City, it was the Black Rock Desert. He photographs the exact same night sky that would be visible over the city, even to the camera angle and direction.

He then carefully superimposes that exact sky over the earlier photograph of the cityscape. I’d have no idea if he used the right sky or not, but his meticulousness pays off, particularly when looking at several images in a row or different shots of the same city. We know the variation in climate and location of the cities, these photographs show us the night sky varies over them as well. Sometimes drastically different skies in the same city, depending on where you’re looking. He even works in the shadows of the cityscape, a detail that if missing would hardly be noticed, but when added is stunning.

There are several lessons I get from these photos. One is the distortions of maps and the world: I would never have guessed that New York and the Black Rock Desert, or Hong Kong and the Western Sahara, were the same latitude.

Another is the awesome majesty of the night sky that we’re missing. I grew up in Chicago, and there was so much light pollution that at best you’d see a few stars; the moon itself, if old or new enough, disappeared in the haze. I was 18 before I saw my first deep sky unscreened by urban light. I thought, if we live on spaceship earth, let’s build a few space canoes. And, if we could see this where we lived, if everyone in the world could see the night sky, there would be no question of directing our energies to going there.

A third lesson is that if humans did vanish magically, the world would abide. It would continue getting warmer for a while, but probably sooner than we think it would start healing itself and cooling off. I find that last reassuring.

I also find the photographs very aesthetically appealing. The oily darkness of the cities, the only color coming from the sky itself. The detail in both sky and cityscape. I could become entranced by these photos, look at them for hours.

Cohen’s photographs show us what we’re missing with light pollution. They provide another way of breaking down the city/nature lie. They show us another connection to the universe.


Mirrored from Nature Intrudes. Please comment over there.

holyoutlaw: (picture icon iv)

Emma Marris

I’ve read this book twice.

The first time, I thought it was going to affect my approach to restoration as deeply as Crow Planet had (which was my first encounter with a critique of the false dichotomy of the urban/nature divide). I even said to myself (rather embarrassing to admit) “How shall we tend the rambunctious garden of this crow planet?” Everything felt like a revelation, this was a manifesto that was going to crumble the walls of the prison and free all within.

The second time, I did get a deeper understanding of the ideas of the book, and why the author presented them.

One important challenge is the idea of the “baseline.” How far back do we reach? The problem of “the baseline” is a difficult one. In North America, it appears easy: first European contact. But “first contact” might be after smallpox had wiped out most of the population; Europeans making first contact were already finding degraded cultures with most of their practices reduced or even lost. First contact might have included some botanic experts, but as often as not, it was fur trappers. If the first attempts at scientifically describing the landscape occurred after fur trapping wiped out the beavers, the hydrology has already been severely disrupted. Between smallpox and beaver extirpation, we have two layers of disruption before our supposed baseline.

Let’s not forget the racist implications of thinking that pre-European contact the Americas existed in a state of nature. Increasing evidence indicates that, in fact, in North America lands were settled soon after glacier retreat and were managed right from the start. One of the habitats that people are putting a lot of effort into restoring, Garry Oak savannah, is completely anthropogenic. The idea that the Americas, before Europeans, were “pristine” and unmanaged excludes the roles that Native Americans and First Nations peoples played in managing the environment.

The baseline for park restoration efforts is 1850. This is after smallpox and beaver extirpation, true; but it’s between botanizing and settlement. It’s a useful fiction because it gives us a target, but it’s not an absolute truth.

Once we realize that the “baseline” is a useful fiction, then we need to think about novel or hybrid ecosystems – that is, ecosystems based on combinations of native and introduced species, or completely new assemblages. What if a tree is a weed in one ecosystem but endangered in its native range? What about plants that have no native range as such? Is there value to the increasing expense of fighting back the increasing list of invasive species?

These are only some of the questions that Marris raises in “Rambunctious Garden.” Each chapter looks at a different aspect of restoration – restoring to a baseline; natives vs. introduced; pristine vs. modified – looking at what people are doing, what the challenges are, how problems might be approached differently.

For my own part, all I can say is “the journey continues.” I’m more interested in getting ivy, blackberry, and other monocultural weeds out than I am in meeting a “baseline” community or replicating an historical example.

Mirrored from Nature Intrudes. Please comment over there.

holyoutlaw: (picture icon iv)

by Oliver Burkeman

This book is off-topic for this blog, but (a) I wanted to write and think about it and (b) this is where the link to Powell’s lives, so here you are.

As soon as I heard about The Antidote, I figured it would be of interest to me. And I was right. I also thought it would make a nice intellectual pairing with “Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking Is Undermining America“, and I was right in that regard as well: Burkeman quotes Ehrenreich extensively in his first chapter.

You could say that Bright-Sided outlines the problem: That positive thinking is corrosive, that it places too much value fixating on one emotional state to the expense on all the others, and that it makes circumstance a personal responsibility. Ehrenreich first began her research into the insidiousness of the positive thinking movement when she was diagnosed with breast cancer, and looks at how it affects everything from major illnesses to dieting to business practices.

In that sense, The Antidote outlines some tactics that an individual can take to find, if not the shallow happiness of positive thinking and affirmativism (“Because I’m bright enough, and smart enough, and gosh darn it, people like me!”), at least a deeper peace.

The first chapter outlines some of the problems of false positivism. One of the main problems is that by reciting affirmations, or by striking the word impossible from your vocabulary (as self-help gurus advise), you’re setting yourself up with a “don’t think about the white elephant” type of problem: by stating one thing, you’re also creating the opposite in your head.

Subsequent chapters look at different ways of finding happiness or peace, examining ideas from as far back as the Stoic philosophers and Buddhism, or as contemporary as Eckhard Tolle and the Museum of Failed Products.

The chapters that resonated most with me were “Who’s There? How to Get Over Yourself” and “The Safety Catch: The Hidden Benefits of Insecurity.”

In “Who’s There?” Burkeman looks at what Buddhists call the monkey mind, the “I”; one of the questions he asks is who is it you can’t stand when you say you can’t stand yourself? What is the source of those thoughts constantly running through your mind?

I have a very strong internal narrator; sometimes it’s right at the surface, and I’m talking to myself so deep into imagined conversations I am making gestures. Sometimes it helps me work out a problem, but most often it just takes me away from the moment I’m in. These thoughts are never here now; now is beyond articulation, you can only think about the past or the future.

“The Safety Catch” resonated with me because I’ve only recently appreciated the value of the struggle to learn, the difficulty of not knowing while you attempt to figure something out. I’ve avoided that wherever I’ve encountered it, whether schooling or in art forms such as physical theater or writing science fiction.

And I see now that I’ve used the internal voice as a wall against insecurity, not knowing. The voice wasn’t helping me “plan out the story” as much as it helped me avoid writing. And the voice wasn’t preparing me for various scenarios as much as it walled me off from them when I was in the moment.

The Antidote is a book that can bear thinking about and reconsidering. Burkeman himself has an epilogue chapter looking at how his life has been affected by what he learned while writing this book.

If there are brambles in the path, it is enough to step out of their way.

Mirrored from Nature Intrudes. Please comment over there.


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