A Postcard World
The naturalist sees the wounds
By Mary OBrien
Years ago, Australian Sen. Bob Brown was driving me to a speaking engagement when I spotted a wombat about 25 yards from the road. Wow. I had read books with wombat characters to my children. I loved the name "wombat,” their teddy bear shape; and their slowness (they take 14 days to digest their food). Bob stopped the car as I exclaimed about how lucky I was to see one.
"Well, you're seeing one because its got mange,” Bob said. "They arent usually out in the open on a sunny day. Its probably blind.”
I remembered that moment as I listened last week to a radio interview with Alun Anderson, author of After the Ice: Life, Death, and Geopolitics in the New Arctic. He was visiting the Arctic for the first time when he saw a polar bear walking along the ice. He recalled thinking how confident the bear looked as it ignored the ship and concentrated on its travels; how comfortable it was in its world of ice; how much larger and longer it was than he had imagined.
Just then a naturalist on the ship walked up to him saying that the bear was starving; that shed never make it through the winter, because the summer ice didnt extend far out enough to sea for her to catch seals.
Through his binoculars now, Alun could see how the bears skin was sagging. He was about to learn that scientists agree that Arctic summer ice (and the polar bear on that ice) inevitably will be gone by the end of the century, if not by 2050. (The polar bear may eventually hybridize with the land-bound brown bear from which it once evolved.).
Another memory was jogged. I was sitting on the floor of a large room one evening years ago, enjoying a music group after a long day of meetings on pesticides. The music was a relief. A nearby tall poster prepared by Patagonia showed a black-and-white photograph of a young, fluffy inland shorebird from the cotton-growing central valley of California. I stared at the photo, again taking relief from the days meeting. But I suddenly realized why that shorebird was in that poster. Among its baby fluffiness, it had no eyes. Thats one of the wildlife birth defects that can be caused by certain pesticides. That one small shorebird is burned into my memory.
Over the years a Forest Service hydrologist in Eastern Oregon has bought picture postcards as she travels through the West. The postcards she chooses are those of idyllic streambank scenes. Their most common feature is a large, old riparian tree (for instance, a cottonwood) and an open, green, grassy slope down to the water. It makes you want to take a nap or a book or a fishing pole there. Their other common feature is that these idyllic scenes are of highly damaged streams. The grassy slopes are open because young cottonwood now have trouble rooting above the incised stream or sprouting amid a dense lawn of Kentucky bluegrass or other exotic grass.
A healthy riparian area, truth be told, is generally heck to try to travel through: tangled thickets of all size willows and trees and downed wood; soggy meadows; branches that grab your hat or your hair or poke you in the face. The birds and the bees love it, though.
Ecological knowledge can be disheartening. As wildlife and lands conservation researcher and writer Aldo Leopold wrote in A Sand County Almanac:
One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds Ä. An ecologist must either harden his shell and make believe that the consequences of science are none of his business, or he must be the doctor who sees the marks of death in a community that believes itself well and does not want to be told otherwise.
No one wants to listen to a voice calling from a world of wounds. Anyone agreeing to help must bring hope along with the bad news; a way forward along with a report of dire consequences of past choices; a motivation to care that is larger than the motivation to deny. Daunting. Essential.
Mary OBrien has worked as a public interest scientist since 1981. She is currently dividing her time between Eugene and Castle Valley, Utah.