Tag Archives: nature

Winter song

I love these wintry days in the Central Valley when its dirty brown air has been washed out by the infrequent (but not this winter, gracias El Niño) rain and wrung out to dry with cottonball clouds hanging as if on invisible clotheslines across an impossibly blue sky. Days like this I can even see snow on the mountains of the Sierra Nevada from my office window, pulling my gaze away from the computer screen to wander off daydreaming…

View from my office window, drawing me away from my screen to the snow-frosted mountaintops of the Sierra Nevadas in the distance. This iPhone's camera doesn't do justice to what my eye sees...you may have to squint into the middle distance to glimpse the mountains underneath the floating clouds.

View from my office window, drawing me away from my screen to the snow-frosted mountaintops of the Sierra Nevadas in the distance. This iPhone’s camera doesn’t do justice to what my eye sees…you may have to squint into the middle distance to glimpse the mountains underneath the floating clouds.

Such days I imagine were the norm in this valley a century ago, before our vehicles and agricultural industry started filling up the air with so many of our effluents as to turn this beautiful air into some of the least breathable in the nation, a murky brown veil hiding the mountains on most days of the year. Yet the people keep coming to fill up this valley, remaking it in our own industrial image, flattening the topography and bending the natural and ancient rhythms of this land and atmosphere to our will. Days like this remind me of those rhythms, of what once was, what might have been, and what could be again in this beautiful place, even as the vision of those mountains seems to melt away the grimy sealed glass pane on my office window out of which I goggle at that impossibly blue sky like a goldfish trapped in a bowl.

Urban conifers against that impossibly blue winter sky. There be Great Horned Owls in some of these trees...

Urban conifers against that impossibly blue winter sky. There be Great Horned Owls in some of these trees…

That window glass is not thick enough to keep out the occasional soft hooting of the young Great Horned Owls hidden in the branches of those conifers, where they were raised a summer ago. And this morning, as I stepped out onto the external staircase, I was startled by the liquid burbling notes of a song that is common throughout the spring and summer around here, but shouldn’t be so loud so early in the year. A House Finch was sitting high up in one of the trees singing his heart out against a background humming with the urban noises of building atmospheric devices and traffic in the distance, and roaring with an occasional airplane flying over.

Looking out east from his high perch, I wonder if the House Finch noticed the snow on the mountains, or heard the chirping of the winter migrants in the trees nearby, but even if he did, these weren’t enough to dissuade him from following whatever internal hormonal clock was telling him it was time to start singing to attract a mate. Already, and it isn’t even the middle of January yet. Global warming, is it, or just the local warming effect from the urban heat island? No matter, this boy is already serenading the ladies about the bountiful spring to come.

Meanwhile, the chipping sounds you hear at the end of the sound clip above might well be the mild panic setting into the heart of the migrant Yellow-Rumped Warbler foraging in the branches nearby, perhaps wondering if it was time to leave its winter ground already even though the air felt cold and the clouds spoke of more rain to come.

Its been a topsy turvy winter (or a few) in California, and living in these disconnected urban landscapes beneath the gaze of those parched snow-covered mountains must be discombobulating even to the wild creatures trying to make this ever stranger land their home. I know the feeling well.

Do you know more about ants than a second-grader?

Perhaps not as much as these second graders, who asked some great questions of the good folks over at Your Wild Life who visited their classroom recently:

Over the last couple years, we’ve worked with outstanding K-12 educators on a number of projects, including Belly Button Biodiversity and School of Ants. We enjoy collaborating with teachers on curriculum modules, and then actually visiting students in classrooms when we can. Last week, Lauren Nichols, De Anna Beasley, and Mack Pridgen of Tar Heel Ants joined me on a visit to to the bustling second-grade classroom at the Central Park School for Children in Durham, North Carolina.

Prior to our visit, these curious students submitted some hard-hitting, dare I say philosophical, questions about ants and their biology: “How did ants exist before we did?” and “What is a colony?” We had a blast answering the students’ questions and sharing live ant colonies with them. So much so that we made a little video so you could check out the second-grader-inspired ant Q & A for yourself — Enjoy!

[youtube U_toYDbFOJc]

via Ant Questions Answered!

And here’s a bonus ant doing a kamikaze attack on a spider… FOR THE QUEEN??!!!

For the Queen!



On exploring the familiar and not taking nearby places for granted

Yosemite Tree MilkyWay

The Milky Way fights the rising dawn behind an ancient tree in Yosemite National Park. Photo credit: Shawn Reeder.

Nightfall in Yosemite! One of those images I wish I had made, to go with my recent post riffing off of Meera’s post on Asimov’s Nightfall

This image is one of thousands from Yosemite National Park seen through the lens of Shawn Reeder over a 2-year period, which he has stitched together into a remarkable time-lapse video showcasing that iconic national park in a range of light:

[vimeo 40802206]
Yosemite Range of Light from Shawn Reeder on Vimeo.

Watching videos like this one, or even images similar to ones in the video, I am filled with a mixture of wonder and longing and regret. That last for the fact that I’ve been living within a couple of hours’ drive away from Yosemite, but haven’t managed to really see as much of the place as I would like to, as I really should. For we live close enough to Yosemite that on those rare winter/spring days when rain has washed out the valley’s dirty air and strung it up to dry in the clear morning light, I can even see the tops of the park’s mountains right from our campus.

We go there periodically, of course, Kaberi and I with our girls, and often with friends visiting from out of town, because one of the ways to sell Fresno to outsiders is to tell them how close we are to Yosemite (and Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks too)! So we visit every once in a while, have even camped out for several days on end, loving every minute of every trip there, and always coming back wondering why we don’t go more often! After all, back in college where I was into rock climbing, I dreamt of climbing in Yosemite while poring over pictures of El Capitan and Half Dome in books borrowed from the American Center Library in Bombay. Yet, now that I live so near the place, rock climbing itself has receded into a distant memory! Alas and alack!

So why don’t we go there more often?

Oh, we have our excuses: the exigencies of life on the tenure track at a teaching heavy institution, with young children, children too young at first for serious outdoor outings, then too busy with school and extra-curricular activities to find the time for even day-trips, and also, sometimes, often, the financial constraints of a single-salaried professorial life. Our weekends never seem free enough when school is in session, and we’re always trying to travel to more distant places during breaks, when we are done recovering from the exhaustion of the school year. Because, there is always that other thing, you know, where we keep thinking we can always go to Yosemite/Sequioa/Kings Canyon because they are right here, so nearby that we can go anytime, and therefore of course we end up not going there much at all. Familiarity / proximity breeding not contempt but a certain taking-for-grantedness of the sort which makes us neglect our loved ones until sometimes it is too late, and we are left with nothing but regret at opportunities lost, moments never enjoyed because we were too busy chasing distant mirages to notice the beauty so close to hand.

But really, how well do these mundane earthly excuses hold up against the transcendental magnificence of the mountains and the trees and the stars and the skies so within our reach, almost outside our doorstep? Can we not cut down / skip out occasionally on the seemingly all-weekend-consuming treadmills of grocery shopping/cleaning house/chores/grading papers/writing exams for us academic grownups, and soccer/waterpolo/dance/music/orchestra for our kids? Even as we share the growing lament for childhoods lost and alienated from nature, the so-called Nature Deficit Disorder, amid the over-scheduling of our children’s lives, and the hours they must spend poring over screens (for schoolwork as much as for edutainment), it is hard to free ourselves from the anxieties of modern parenthood, of the dread over their futures if they don’t have so many lines of extra-curricular activities, and leadership, and initiative, and engagement outside the classroom, to fill their little CVs so they can hope to qualify for the college of our dreams! Oh fuss and bother! Will they be OK if they don’t do all these extra things and fill their weekends and every waking moment with different structured activities to round out their broad educations and nurture all their talents?

But, will they be OK if they miss out on building a connection with nature instead? Will it really do them much harm if they give the old football game or orchestra performance a miss to instead go scramble up a boulder or splash through a stream or hug a giant tree? I daresay they will likely be all the better for having the taken the time to commune with this magnificent nature right here at our doorstep. Just as much as they have been better for missing school for an entire semester this year to travel (during my sabbatical) to the magnificently ruggedly austere landscapes of Spiti in the trans-Himalaya, for instance, among other places in India. They loved being in Spiti so much, despite being outside cellphone and internet range, these kids of the iPad age, that they didn’t even notice or mind when we got stuck in them mountain villages for an extra 10 days when roads got blocked after some heavy rains downstream (I wrote about it here and at The Nature of Cities). They were loath to leave Spiti then, and are now torn about returning to Fresno, to their much-missed friends, and the normal routines of school life there after months of travel and living out of suitcases.

This video, and others from Yosemite, though, have me thinking, resolving, that it won’t do for us to keep ignoring those mountains when we get back. My mother used to sneak us out of school occasionally, ostensibly for “family functions”, but really because she wanted to take us to a matinee showing of the latest Bollywood flick. Seems to me it would be well worth remembering that tactic, to pull our girls out of some of their weekend structured activities, and take them to Yosemite, and Sequoia, and Kings Canyon, and places in between, so they can get to know these places intimately, and remember them, and cherish them, and make them their own. I have shown them the milky way high up in the Himalaya. I want them to know that it is well within their reach closer to their home too.

Join us if you can, if you need a reason to visit Fresno: we’re right at the doorstep to Yosemite! And for those of you who are unable to make the trip, I hope the above video gives you enough glimpses of beauty.

And if the night seems to get too dark, here are Yosemite’s night skies:

[youtube ZhgR3zVfo-0]

Instant Noodle Soup and Ecological Enlightenment on the Trans-Himalayan Urban Frontier

KeeGompa panoramic

I haven’t been posting much on this blog lately, and in case you’re wondering why, I had a good excuse. I spent most of June up in the trans-Himalayan desert, in Spiti Valley in Himachal Pradesh, India. I went up with my whole family at the impromptu invitation of old friends who have been working in the region for nearly 2 decades – it was a long-term dream come true for me and Kaberi! We drove up from Delhi, taking three days on the road to get there. Then we were supposed to stay for just about 10days before driving back. As it happened, while we were there, that awful intense monsoon storm hit Uttarakhand and the lower reaches of the Spiti-Sutlej valley. We only received some rain and an inch or two of unseasonal snowfall, with the snow melting away within hours. The larger storm battered the mountains below us quite heavily though, and all our exit roads got blocked. So we got stuck there for another 10 days… but how can anyone complain about being stuck in such a gorgeous landscape, with such lovely creatures for company?

I took the snow day to write one of the longer essays I’ve written lately, pondering the nature of urbanization, and how the global city now seemed to have no limits, having penetrated into the far reaches of the Himalaya, right here at the edge of the roof of the world. Where a monk at an ancient monastery (Kee Gompa, pictured above) offered this tourist a bowl of instant noodle soup! In turn triggering a contemplation of apparent lack of limits to the reach of urbanization on our planet, which is now posted up on The Nature of Cities blog where I am a contributor.

Have a read, and let me know what you think. What is your experience of the limits of urbanization? What is the smallest patch of urban habitat you have ever seen? What makes it urban?

Hamsadhwani: an inner dialogue contemplating humanity’s swansong on earth

Anirban Mahapatra (aka Bhalomanush, a good man I have come to know on Twitter) recently (well, a month ago) shared with me a thought-provoking essay he had written contemplating some of the deepest questions in conservation: where do humans fit into the rest of life on our planet? Is it hubris on our part to think we can save the planet or that we are even superior to other species when we have all evolved from a common ancestor? What does it matter if species go extinct, when we know that most species that have ever evolved are already extinct, and everything must die eventually? Questions that certainly haunt me as I try to find meaning in my own research and educational efforts aimed at conserving biological diversity on this little blue dot we inhabit. The essay, written in the form of an inner dialogue in the author’s mind, resonated with me immediately. Yet Bhalomanush said it was among the least read of his blog posts! Surely, this contemplation deserves more attention, so I offered to share it here to try to reach a broader audience interested in reconciliation ecology. He was kind enough to send it to me as a guest post! The essay is titled after a well-known “raga” from Indian classical music, the name of which literally translates as “Swansong” – an appropriate title, I think. I hope you like it – and if you do, please pay the author’s own blog a visit and let him know.


An almost apocalyptic image of the fiery sky at dusk earlier this week at Morro Bay beach in California. via flickr.com



by Anirban Mahapatra

I cannot recall when I first heard someone say that humans should try to save the earth from imminent destruction. It may have been written on a sign, or I may have read it in column. It is a common argument: humans need to act now to save the earth or we might propel the planet toward destruction.

The possibility that one day we will inflict the full force of our ruthlessness on the earth is quite real. At some point in our history, we may succeed in pushing the climate to a point of no return, we may annihilate ourselves through a cold and dark nuclear winter, or we may generate a grave pestilence against which we have no defense. But can we really destroy the earth?

No. The earth needs no saving.

But how can you say that humans are not capable of destroying the earth? That our planet needs no saving? In a very short span of time, humans have put a physical mark on the landscape like no other species before us. We’ve lit up the night sky and etched wonderworks which are visible from space. We’ve climbed the tops of mountains and dived into the depths of the oceans. 

For the earth is not just any planet. It is the only one we know which teems with life. The myriad life forms on earth are as much a part of the planet as the oceans, ice-shelves, and canyons. And we’re killing these life forms off at an alarming rate. If we continue to impact the environment, won’t that threaten living organisms which are a constant part of this earth? As for anthropogenic climate change and nuclear war – wouldn’t events such as these be cataclysmic for the planet?   

The earth does need saving.

Here is a hypothetical scenario: if someday the technology that aliens in science-fiction novels use to pulverize the earth becomes a reality for our descendants, would they contemplate using it? There is not an iota of doubt in my mind that they would. For all of our skills, we are still capable of extremely short-sighted suicidal tendencies. We don’t lack the impudence to think about destroying the planet: we lack the technical ability. The earth will survive because we can’t destroy it, regardless of how hard we try. At worst, we are a  pesky comet or a supervolcano. We are not a heating sun or a supernova. Life, as it exists on our planet is supported by the alignments of the planets, the precise temperature of the sun, the gravitational pull of the moon, and other planetary and geological wonders which we cannot violate.

Speaking of extinctions, most species that existed on this planet – by some estimates, 99% or more – became extinct before we could contemplate our place here. We helped death along by precipitating the demise of the passenger pigeon and the dodo. Before we become extinct, we will continue to kill off other species. Perhaps, in our final dying moments, the number of species which are wiped out will spike. But the earth will survive as it has in the past. We are in a hurry to modify our surroundings because our lifetimes are short, but evolution does not follow human timetables. With time, traces of the ugly abominations we erected will vanish and new life forms will develop and cherish this wonderful planet. Maybe they will be wiser than us? We will never know. When our time comes, we will go. The earth will still survive.

Are you saying that if the earth is physically destroyed that would be a tragedy, but that the extinction of life around us is inevitable? If the earth changes because of us, then we have failed to save it. You can’t deny that humans have modified the planet like no other single species before us. If we don’t save the wondrous life around us, wouldn’t that be a tragedy? Don’t you feel a pang of sorrow when you see a polar bear stranded on shrinking ice knowing that it might be too late to save the species? When you know that there are plants in the Amazon River basin that are dying because of massive deforestation to feed our so-called progress? We can do something about it. We should do something about it. We’re an advanced species with the gift of conscious thought and the power to make decisions that impact our planet.

I never condoned inaction. We’re currently in the middle of a mass extinction, no doubt. This worries me immensely and I wince to think about how many forms of life we are destroying each moment, some perhaps, without our knowledge. The fact remains that the earth is the only planet I will ever know. I wish I had many lifetimes to study it, to observe it, and to simply be filled with wonder. I’ll do whatever I can to save the polar bear, the panda, and the tiger, even though for some species it may be too late. I do not attempt to explain why I feel this way logically, but I consider this part of what makes me human. Our descendants deserve to enrich their own lives by knowing the life we have around us; by killing it off, we’re failing both our ancestors and our descendants.

On a human scale, the plants we farm and the animals we’ve domesticated have changed irreversibly already. As natural surroundings change, so do organisms. Plants and animals should live unaltered according to my own convenient whim. But this is an anthropocentric view. My curiosity, my sorrow, my acknowledgement of the scale of tragedy of death has no bearing on what happened billions of years on this planet and what will happen for billions of years after my infinitely short life. What I can do is to try to prevent destruction in my own lifetime.

I’ve heard the argument that humans are an advanced species, but why do we take that at face value? How are we superior? There are other organisms which exceed us in numbers: there are many more tiny bacteria in the human body than “human” cells.  There are organisms which can live in more extreme environments like the boiling cauldrons of sulfurous springs. Many species of bacteria can replicate in the span of minutes. Tortoises live longer than us by decades.

And species we consider primitive? If all living organisms trace their roots back to common ancestors that arose several billion years ago, if we all evolved over the same billions of years in a constant struggle to survive in our changing niches, how are any more advanced or primitive than others? The dodo was no less suited for its environment than the monstrously-oversized chicken is in an assembly line farm where it thrives. We precipitated its demise. Who is to say that someday some other organism doesn’t precipitate our own? Neither is the sloth lazy nor the snake vile, in an absolute sense. For all of our superiority, a minor change in atmospheric temperature might wipe us out, without causing the least discomfort to a unicellular bacterium.

That is not to say that humans are not unique. We possess intellect. We can manipulate tools. We can record our histories and archive our collective thoughts. We have certain skills which no other organism possesses. We can analyze and learn from our mistakes, when we choose to do so. To be able to express emotions, record abstract thoughts, and attempt to understand surroundings are both collectively and individually a blessing. I am grateful for the written words on this screen, longevity due to modern medicine, notes of Hamsadhwani, the frescoes of Ajanta, bitter dark-chocolate, and comfortable walking shoes, among countless other gifts.

But, quintessentially, in our minds humans are the most advanced species on the planet because we are human. Perhaps, since I am a member of the species, I find nothing wrong with this prismatic viewpoint. But, increasingly I believe that the earth was not created for us and will not perish with us. There is nothing divine about us. We are not the Chosen Ones.

If this world is all we have- and there is no compelling reason in my mind to believe otherwise- there is nothing more spiritual than trying to preserve it. Especially with the sobering knowledge that ultimately it is an impossible feat.

In reality that is what saving the earth is about. It is about saving ourselves and the life we know and value.



A ray of sunlight illuminates Half Dome, as an essay reminds conservationists of Yosemite’s history


On the all too rare mornings when the Central Valley’s dirty air has been cleansed by a winter storm—and before the Tule fog has set in—I find myself fortunate enough to be gazing out upon the snow-topped peaks of the Sierra Nevada mountains from my office window, my view bracketed by two amazing National Parks: King’s Canyon (with Mount Whitney, the highest peak in the lower 48 states of the US) at the southern edge, and Yosemite to the north. As a hiker and rock-climber in my youth, I spent many hours poring over photographs of these places in books checked out of the American Center Library in Bombay. I dreamt of visiting Yosemite, a mecca for rock-climbers, imagined myself walking through the fantastic landscapes captured on film by Ansel Adams, feeling the granite under my fingers. Rock-climbing gave way to bird-watching as I grew into an ecologist and a conservation biologist, and Yosemite assumed even more significance as one of the holiest places in any conservation pilgrimage of the US, indeed the world. What a model for nature conservation this National Park was, is. How wonderful the wilderness I could picture in these places in the writings of John Muir and others. And how lucky I am now to be living so close to such places. When I gaze out at the mountains, or visit Yosemite as part of the throngs of millions that flood its beautiful valley every year, I try to imagine what the place might have looked like a century or two ago—a fantasy we all share, those of us who despair over the state of the natural world. In my dreams now, though, I don’t see it as a “pristine” wilderness untouched by humans, but a home to a community of native people, the Ahwahneechee who once thrived there, but whose existence has been sought to be erased from our collective memory and imagination, as a centerpiece of the still prevailing notion of a National Park as pristine wilderness, a place where human beings don’t belong (and therefore never did), except as visitors who may be allowed to look and to listen, but scarcely to touch anything.

This week, I am pleased to share with you an evocative essay by Eric Michael Johnson, reminding us of the human history of Yosemite, and of what we in the conservation community have lost in seeking to airbrush humans out of our imagination of what Nature is supposed to look like, “unspoilt”. We must reclaim that history too if we are to reconcile our existence on this planet—not apart from, but as active participants in, Nature. Eric’s guest post on my Reconciliation Ecology blog is part of  his Primate Diaries in Exile blog tour. You can follow other stops on this tour through his RSS feed or by following Eric on Twitter.


Is the Red v Blue / Country v City political divide in the US about how we relate to Nature?

Yes, argues immigrant author Jonathan Raban in the BBC, starting with an analysis that is not really all that novel, i.e., that in the US, urban areas tend to lean Democratic while the rural hinterland votes Republican. What’s intriguing is his argument that the divide stems from differences in how rural vs. urban people relate with nature! Here’s an excerpt where he presents the case for the Seattle / Washington area:

At issue is the fundamental question of mankind’s relationship with nature.

To many country dwellers, the mountains, plains, forests, and rivers of the state are a limitless resource of arable and grazing land, precious metals, timber and hydroelectricity – and some of the pious among them like to quote the Book of Genesis, in which God is said to give man “dominion” over “all the earth”.

To environmental activists (usually described by the ruralists as “Seattle liberals”), the magnificent geography of Washington state is a sacred space, a wilderness to be lovingly preserved and restored, as closely as possible, to its original “pristine” state.

And Seattleites have been inclined to treat the rest of their state as a giant park, a recreational facility for hikers, fly-fishermen, climbers, mountain-bikers, birders, and the like, for whom the traditional occupations of the countryside appear simply as rude blots on the landscape.

Pitched battles have been fought between the city and the countryside over such bones of contention as the habitat of the spotted owl (that battle resulted in the end of logging on National Forest land), gold mines, cattle grazing, dams on rivers (which block the passage of the declining runs of Pacific salmon to their spawning grounds), brush-cutting and wetlands setbacks.

In the course of this long and continuing conflict about land-use, rich, liberal, green, high-tech Seattle, with its high proportion of college graduates, has emerged as a post-regional city, deeply resented for its political power by people who live beyond the metro area, who once thought of Seattle as their own.

While I think the relationship to nature is an important element of someone’s political views – and one that doesn’t get nearly as much attention as it should – I’m not convinced that it splits so neatly between urban/rural :: liberal/conservative. What do you think? And, as Janaki Lenin (who led me to this article) wonders, how does this play out in other parts of the world, especially now that more than half of humanity lives in cities? Why aren’t we seeing “liberals” or “environmentalists” gain more political power anywhere, given the urbanization of our species, if Raban’s argument about the relationship with nature holds?