Thursday, March 11, 2010

Extinction--Oklahoma, Flora, Fauna, & Culture

Last night I went to hear a friend / colleague / previous PhD committee member (has it almost been a year since I graduated?) read from his new book, Pieces of the Plains. John Janovy is a biologist, so his perspective on life is much different than mine--microscopic (studies parasites and such) and lots of method. Lots of being in the trenches. He was also born (as was I) and educated in Oklahoma, which is the subject of my next book. But more on that later. 

Janovy was asked about the current extinctions we are beginning to witness of species, and if he saw a curtailing of that being possible. No, he said flat out, no, no way--not with how humans kill each other, not with how we kill for oil and in the name of god. Then he told the college students there that when they reach his age, in about 50 years, they'd be living in a far different world of hunger, lack of water, homelessness, global government chaos--all as oil runs out. I got that from watching a recent episode of World Without Oil on National Geographic (title?). It was frightening and only the tip of the berg.

Back to extinctions. I am still young, I still have some hope, but it's dwindling fast. Janovy said he is in the top 1% of humans who ever lived that have witnessed such natural diversity on earth, and that such diversity will very shortly come to an end, so enjoy it while you can. Species will weaken as the gene pool shrinks.

We've had other significant, 90th percentile global extinctions, but this 6th one as many folks call it--even if overcome--would take millions of years to repair, to evolve back to what we see now on the planet. It took millions of years before, it will again, if it happens.

I wonder if I should spend every waking chance I have to sit on my deck listening to the cardinals, blue jays, finches, sparrows, mourning doves and others before they vanish. 1% of bird species go functionally extinct each year. I wonder if I should sell my house and buy those 100 acres now and live in a tent so I can enjoy and interact more fully with nature while it is still here. I wonder if our natural descriptions today will seem as foreign to someone in a few decades as the pioneer descriptions I read of buffalo and elk wandering through wheat fields.

I wonder if this all has to be so dark. Humans are like my students and procrastinate until the last minute, until they have no choice but to do the work. I wonder if that's genetic, or if it's the same old song and dance of capitalism, of self-preservation, of blah blah blah.

I wonder if my next book will matter, if I should even write it. Last night Janovy quoted Oklahoma historian Angie Debo, whose 1930-ish work slapped the country's collective face as to Indian policy in Oklahoma territory and its early statehood years. Keep in mind, in 1930, many folks who instigated those policies were still very much alive. I quote her:

"Oklahoma is more than just another state. It is a lens in which the long rays of time are focused into the brightest of light. In its magnifying clarity, dim facets of the American character stand more clearly revealed. For in Oklahoma all the experiences that went into the making of the nation have been speeded up. Here all the American traits have been intensified. The one who can interpret Oklahoma can grasp the meaning of America in the modern world."

As I look at the history of my Mennonite family coming over from Germany and Russia in the 1870s, I am caught in an impossible vice: their faith, hope, and work ethic was unique, was incredible, was and is so praise worthy I can't put it into words. And yet, either as government pawns and / or willing paticipants through missionary work in Oklahoma territory, they helped to so efficiently destroy the ecology of native flora and fauna and dozens of Native American cultures within a few decades--if not within one decade.

This very fine line scares the heck out of me, and I have to have faith that as I continue to research books and family stories, it will play itself out in the right way--without guilt, blame, or condemnation, but with honest and direct light, and somehow with the same hope and faith my ancestors had facing a world of incredible uncertainty. Phase 2 begins next week.

P.S. -- It's snowing hard outside. That doesn't help things.


Anonymous said...

You are right to be worried, Benjamin. But don't you, on some level, believe that man has always had these sorts of thoughts? That the end is near? I think it is inherent in our makeup, part of the worry genes that help alert us to dangers. My own take is, the earth will survive very well without us and our interference, it doesn't need us messing up things. Cultures change in unpredictable ways, we cannot foresee the future. But we can protect what we hold dear, people, plants, a way of life. Bottom line, find that oil free renewable energy source NOW! You morons.

wiseacre said...

OK, we're even Mr. Sunshine.

I ruined your lunch and you destroyed any hope I had left.

allanbecker-gardenguru said...

Do not be so harsh on your ancestors. They were not government pawns or willing participants in the destruction of nature. When they arrived in the USA, there was more flora and fauna in the wilderness than humans could imagine or needed. All living things were expendable. What we call destruction they considered survival. It is unfair to hold them responsible.

Eliza said...

Oh goodness (I hope). I'm going to go with fairegarden on this one. And look into 100 acres with a tent... even though it is raining.

Benjamin Vogt said...

Frances--oh my yes, morons! Is there any negative to becoming free from oil? Any? Argh. Thank goodness nature doesn't need us. Too bad we need it in more ways than we realize.
WA--Deal, we're even. But I doubt you've lost hope, looking at your recent images.
Allan--Actually, they were government pawns. The U.S. government gave railroads huge tracts of land, hundreds of miles on both sides of the rails, to carve up Indian lands. Then the government actively sought immigrants from Eruope to help displace Indians--I have tons of books onthe subject. I do not blame my ancestors, that would be unfare and moronic, but I'm having a hard time navigating the complex issues that developed the "bread basket" of the U.S. / world. I do not hold the mennonite immigrants responsible, but indirect or not, we are all responsible for fixing the world and making it better again.
Eliza--They make some pretty good tents I hear. May look into it. :)

Scott said...

Thanks for including my barely literate blog in your list ! Your blog is very enriching, thanks for spending time on us. I go a little crazy browsing all the amazing nature blogs out here, what wealth. I read something on yours recently that you were looking to plant a patch of Carex (sedges) and I want to recommend Carex brevior which is available at Prairie Moon Nursery as seed. I have grown a little (2' x 2'
patch) for a couple years in a pretty dry space on the East side of my house under the rain catching limbs of a 30 foot tall Blue Spruce. It is proof that not all sedges need moist soil to thrive in. And it grew easily from seed. I'm sorry that I can't remember if I stratified the seed or not; I'm inclined to say I didn't, but not sure. It gets over a foot tall and then kind of flops, but with a full head of seed, which I have neglected yet to collect, but am determined this year to harvest. Happy Spring !

Liza said...

[curled in a ball, rocking back and forth.]

Benjamin Vogt said...

Scott--When you do post something, it's something worth reading. You're a quiet student I have who is shy and never speaks up in class, but when he forces himself to so so one a week, wow. Yup, looking for carex--want a new carex / actaea bed out front (goodbye hostas and astilbe and lungwart). I'll look up that sedge, thanks!
Liza--I hope not. Geeze. Uncurl yourself and go garden.

Tatyana@MySecretGarden said...

Hmm, interesting and almost personal: I am Russian, my husband is from Oklahoma... Write your book.

Unknown said...

I did my masters thesis on the late Canadian novelist Timothy Findley, Benjamin. He was concerned about many of the things that you write about here, and wrote about his concerns via his novels, short stories, and plays. His mantra was 'Against Despair,' yet he wrote some darkly probing stories. I'm with Tatyana. Write your book. I can't say 'all will be all right', but if we curl up in a ball, the asshats win. And we can't let that happen. We will keep doing what we can do. Against despair.

debsgarden said...

Of course, write your book! The answers are as complex as the problems, but you do what you can to make your part of the world a better place. Teach a child to love, help a plant to grow, cause somebody to smile. Forgive. And you will have done your part.

Les said...

I saw a similar "after-oil" program and it was not a pretty picture. We have known for decades what the ecological consequences of petroleum are, but unfortunately I think we will only quit oil when it becomes economically unviable. Despite Frances' idiots shouting "drill baby drill", the oil age will end, and we can deal with it now to minimize the pain, or deal with it in the future kicking and screaming

Don't feel quilty about your family. Like all that is humanity, things happen where we exist, some good, some bad. We have the benefit of historical perspective, and what we choose to do with that information is our responsibility or our failing.

Diana Studer said...

Because we do what we can. Write your book. Going to add you to my 'blogroll'. We're on the same wavelength. 'All that is needed for evil to prevail, is for good men (and women)to do nothing' Diana

Benjamin Vogt said...

Jodi--And where, do tell, are these asshats? What is an asshat? How does one where an asshat? Are they sold online?
DG--Forgiveness is a tough one. Forgetting I can do, I think. Well, how can you do one without the other. Ack.
Les--I know some family will expect to see 100% glorified ancestors. And while I think one should do some of that, persepctive is a necessary evil in the context of family exploration. I don't know what I'd do if I found out someone was a mass murderer, or slaveholder, or Hitler aide, or....
EE--Well, eveil is prevailing, cuz nothing is getting done. According to our U.S. consitution, the people can, theoretically toss out elected officials, but I think those days are long gone. Democracy is an illusion until one remembers that in order to have it, there must be eternal vigilance.

Meredith said...

Benjamin, such a deep and stirring post. Definitely write your book.

I have to say that I do not think we can transition away from oil to any renewable energy resource that scientists are now aware of and maintain a society of anything like the complexity and advancement we have now. My husband is a physicist who's just finishing his phD with a grant from the Department of Energy, and so I've gotten some nasty shocks in my reality-awareness since I met him. However, I take comfort in the fact that our ability to effectively destroy what remains of the earth's biology will soon be severely curtailed -- although I am terribly concerned about the paths that we will traverse as a species and as a nation in the meantime.

My current fear is that we in the USA will continue on a road of disaster capitalism and empire overextension even in the face of severe food shortages as our supply chain fails, leaving the majority to lash out with our overabundance of weapons and ammo, perhaps in racial or xenophobic manifestations, and/or vote in some form of fascist/theocratic despot in the hopes of some kind of salvation from above. However, I'm not rocking in a corner; I'm doing something about it, trying to build resiliency into the system now!

Anonymous said...

Suffice it to say that you'll be
long gone, Benjamin--by years if not decades-before you need worry about the sparrows and jays

Marci (Missoula)

lostlandscape (James) said...

Really thoughtful and interesting post. Thanks. Your ideas about praising in humans in humans what can ultimately lead to the destruction of so much else of the world are spot-on. And even if we mean well, there are just so blasted many of us that the rest of the world doesn't stand much of a chance.

A few years back I went to some generic historic National Monument in northern Arizona that celebrated the pioneers who crossed the canyons in covered wagons that they had to dissemble to get from one mesa to another. Inside the wagons were cast-iron ovens and similar trappings of city culture. The guides stressed the struggle and heroics of Western expansion. I became immediately unpopular on the tour when I mentioned that it seemed like the travelers were having such a hard time because they were trying to impose some inappropriate system on the world they were about to settle. But in the end maybe I'm a spouting hypocrite--My house has an oven, a double one at that.

Bethany said...

This post reminded me of a piece I read by E.O. Wilson- you can read it here He has more to say on species extinction than anyone I have come across and yet he has a sense of hopefulness that keeps me from living life perched on the brink of despair.

I love your blog image. It is exactly as I imagine Nebraska in my head.

Benjamin Vogt said...

Meredith--I may be naive, blind, egotistical, or all three, but I don't see the U.S. as an empire. Maybe the definition needs revamping for me to say so. There's a fine line between isolationism and empire, and both have destroyed cultures and civilizations, of course.
Anon--Such thinking is what's gotten us in this mess in the first place. I'll be dead, you deal with it. Enjoy. Barf.
James--good for you being unpopular. I wish I had a double oven. No guilt about that wish at all. When I do get them, I hope they'll be plugged into solar panels or wind turbines. Or my own ovwhleming sense of good thoughts. :)
Bethany--Who doesn't love Wilson? I mean, such a likable fellow. As for Nebraska, that pic was taking at Spring Creek Prairie, a never-touch 800 acres 30 minutes southwest of here. I think the state is actually, on average, more flat than the pic shows.