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Sunday, April 10, 2005

Evolving Perception

Few things cause more environmental damage than nonnative species. They invade an area, use up its resources, kick native species out of their habitats, and throw the entire food chain out of whack. They destroy the harmony of well-established ecosystems, often attacking biodiversity in the process. The Nature Conservancy works tirelessly to educate people on the threat of invasive species and to route the invaders out where possible.

In her essay "Infernal Paradise", which can be found in the delicious book High Tide in Tucson*, Barbara Kingsolver writes about the ecosystem of the Haleakala Crater (in Hawaii) and the danger it faces from invasive species:

Haleakala Crater is fortified against invasion, because of its protected status as a national park, and because its landscape is hostile ground for pineapples
and orchids. The endemics had millennia to adapt to their difficult niche, but the balance of such a fine-tuned ecosystem is precarious, easily thrown into chaos: the plants fall prey to feral pigs and rats, and are rendered infertile by insect invaders like Argentine ants and yellow jacket wasps, which destroy the native pollinators.
But Ms. Kingsolver** writes earlier in the same essay:

To learn about the natural history of Hawaii is to understand a story of unceasing invasion. These islands, when they first lifted their heads out of the waves a million years ago, were naked, defiant rock--the most isolated archipelago in the world. Life, when it landed here, arrived only through powerful stamina or spectacular accident: a fern's spore drifting on the trade wind, a seed in the craw of a bird, the bird itself. [...] Over the course of a million years, hundreds of creatures [...] evolved from the few stray immigrants. Now they are endemic species, living nowhere on earth but here. For many quiet eons they thrived in their sequestered home.

The essay goes on to say that humans settlers brought in nonnative species, and as a result, "More species have now become extinct in Hawaii than in all of North America."

But didn't Ms. Kingsolver say that invasion part of the evolutionary process? Why should we stop further invasion, when it was invasion which created a unique, diverse ecosystem in the first place? I picture conservationists in hardhats stopping wasps at the border of the island: I'm sorry, but we stopped accepting new species after those birds came in 200 years ago. Well, they were spurring evolution in this environment; you will destroy the environment they helped create. It strikes me a short-sighted to weed out nonnative species in the interest of preserving an ecosystem exactly as it is. What about the glaciers that drifted across North America once upon a time, doubtless killing many species while carving out beautiful lakes? What about when they melted, killing snow-loving creatures but giving form to our continent as we now know it? While we must act as stewards to the Earth, treading upon in gently***, we must also trust her to evolve as needed, with a wisdom greater than ours, perhaps creating even greater beauty and diversity.

Lest it seem like I'm picking on one of my favorite authors and one of my favorite nonprofit organizations, let me write about parrots for a while. Last night I viewed a touching, fresh documentary, The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill. Yes, there is a flock of wild parrots in San Francisco! (Wild parrots are roosting in several states, including Connecticut.) Humans captured these tropical birds from South America and brought them to the U.S. to sell as pets. The pets were either too loud and therefore freed, or too wild and therefore escaped, or flew off the boat en route, or...well, the film recounts several urban legends as to how a flock of parrots escaped their confines to nest in the San Francisco wilds. Go see it.

Through the eyes of Mark Bittner, who began feeding the parrots seeds and, with patient observation, learned the tales of the individual parrots in the flock, we meet a cast of distinct bird characters: Sophie, coquettish like a little French girl; her mate, Picasso; Mingus, who dislikes the wild, preferring to live indoors; and Olive, the only mitred conure in this flock of cherry heads. A curious thing happened. Olive mated with two of the cherry heads, Gibson and Pushkin, in different seasons, and they produced little baby hybrid parrots, who were healthy and fertile, and eventually reproduced themselves. In the wild, mitred conures would never encounter cherry heads, their habitat separated by hundreds of miles of jungle. Now, however, there is a unique San Francisco breed of parrot. And, according to Mr. Bittner, many conservationists would be terribly afraid of such a thing, and would rally to destroy it.

Towards the end of this quirky film, the City of San Francisco holds hearings to determine whether any action should be taken in regards to its flock of wild parrots. An official reports that some conservation groups called to request that these nonnative birds be captured and euthanized, a request that seems both cruel and hysterical in regards to this joyful flock of chattering birds.

One last word in favor of nonnative species. I learned from my herbal teacher that a thriving invasive species makes excellent medicine for the people living in its adopted home--clearly, the plant is well-suited for the challenges of its environment, and can teach us to deal with them, too.


*Thanks, Ann!
**Who is an fascinating, thoughtful author and intellectual, heaven help me craft sentences half as well as she does, forthcoming argument notwithstanding.
***For example, we should try not to pave over the whole thing.





7 Comments:

Blogger Emma Goldman said...

There are also wild parrots in Chicago, of all places, on the south side.

3:09 PM  
Blogger kStyle said...

No way. What plucky, adaptable little birds! Have you seen them?

9:00 PM  
Blogger kStyle said...

No way. What plucky, adaptable little birds! Have you seen them?

9:00 PM  
Blogger Emma Goldman said...

Yup--I used to walk through a park in which they live. I also have a friend who adopted a fallen fledgling at one point. Birds take a lot of interaction, though, to stay acclimated to humans (or these do, anyway), and when the woman got brain cancer, she couldn't spend the time with the birds, and her husband (whom I know better) had never spent much time with them, so they got rid of all the birds. But she's still around (knock wood) five years later--the usual prognosis is about six months, and only a vanishingly small number of people make it past a year.

10:49 AM  
Blogger kStyle said...

Three cheers for both parrots and cancer survivors!

9:21 AM  
Blogger Eric said...

Re. your invasion remarks, I think that this phenomenon, in a broader sense, can be seen in a variety of contexts and fields. For example, in the arts you'll find people who say, "Well, THAT book is a classic, sure, but this new one here is experimental and silly." And you point out that THAT book was described the exact same way when it was published, and they say, "Well sure, but now we understand that in fact was good. THIS one, though, is clearly bad."

When Stravinsky premiered "Le Sacre du Printemps" in 1913, people booed and threw things. And now it's a (rightfully) canonized work. Similar, then, to the invasive species you mention here, insofar as it's possible, likely perhaps, that centuries hence, people will note the changed landscape of the area and credit those once thought to be severely unwelcome.

9:36 AM  
Blogger kStyle said...

Excellent point, and one I had not thought of. It's almost as if we humans have an instinct to preserve the tribe and keep out outsiders, and it applies to many areas of existence.

10:38 AM  

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