You are currently browsing the tag archive for the ‘ecosystem’ tag.

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Here at Ferrebeekeeper we have delved into giant ancient trees, yet we left out one of the most astonishing and iconic trees of all–the African baobab (Adansonia digitate).  Full grown baobabs are among the most massive flowering plants in the world, and, like the yews, the sequoias, and the great oaks, they can live for an enormously long time—up to 2500 years according to carbon dating.   The African baobabs live on the dry, hot savannas of sub-Saharan Africa.  The trees grow up to 25 m (85 feet) in height, but it is their mass which makes them astonishing: trunks with a diameter of 14 m (46 feet) are not unknown.  Shaped like jugs or squat bottles, these trunks help the trees store precious water during droughts.  Below the ground, the trees are even more astonishing.  The roots grow wider and deeper than the branches which is why enormous baobabs can be found in seemingly parched scrublands.  Their roots seek out secret water basins and find hidden underground rivulets.

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Baobabs are also known as “dead rat trees” because of the appearance of their fruit. Admittedly this does not make the fruit sound super appealing, yet it is edible and nutritious and a market is springing up for baobab fruit smoothies.  In addition to providing fruit for humans, the leaves and bark of the tree is important to wildlife on the great savannas.

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Although the trees are practically synonymous with the landscape, humans know less about them than one might suspect.  Although the trees are fertilized by pollen born by fruit bats and bush babies, the full process of fertilization is not entirely understood.  Indeed, botanists are increasingly unsure whether   Adansonia digitate is actually just one species.  The other baobab trees are largely native to Madagascar (although there is one Australian species, and a species on the Arabian Peninsula) so it seems like the genus originated on the microcontinent and then spread to the great supercontinent.

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As you might imagine, the baobab features heavily in innumerable myths, folktales, and religions of Africa.  It is the magic fairy tree of that land.  My personal favorite story comes from the Zambezi basin, where tribes tell of how the proud baobabs grew so tall and beautiful that they began to rival the gods themselves.  In wrath the gods inverted the trees so that the fat roots now grow into the sky, but the trees were still splendid, till evil spirits put a curse on the strange white flowers.  Now anyone who picks these fantastic blossoms is subject to terrible bad luck…more specifically a lion will kill and eat that person!  That should keep the blossoms safe.

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But, of course, in the Anthropocene world, such made-up curses don’t keep the trees safe at all.  There is one true curse on the great baobabs.  Across Africa they are dying.  Trees which were saplings during the fall of the Roman Empire (the western half!) are swiftly succumbing to an unknown scourge.  To quote a tragic article in the Atlantic, “Of the 13 oldest known baobabs in the world, four have completely died in the last dozen years, and another five are on the way, having lost their oldest stems.” The full truth of what is felling the giants is subject to debate, but botanists and arborists agree that the rapid warming of the world is the most likely culprit.  Trees which lived for two millennia in arid wastelands in the heat of equatorial Africa are suddenly dying from high temperatures.  Some of these trees have been landmarks for countless generations of people.  It is as though a mountain died and withered up

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I am not sure how to properly quantify something so troubling, but the truly ancient past offers some upsetting clues about what might soon become of the Baobabs’ home (which is humankind’s first home too).  Set aside your tears for the great trees and join me, tomorrow.  We are going to take another trip back to the beginning of the Eocene, the “dawn age” which calls to me again and again. In that sweltering summer world of 56 million years ago, there are clues about what will be the fate of baobab trees and of their home ecosystem. The Eocene was a world without ice.  The arctic oceans were warm year-round. Rainforests filled with unknown marsupials covered Antarctica.  I hope you will boldly join me in going back to that bygone age, but I am worried you will not like what we find, and I am worried we are not going to like what we find in the future either.

Baobab Toilet Caprivi

God DAMMIT, humankind, can you not even let me end on a chilling note without making it stupid?

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So…hey…what ever happened to that attempt to repopulate Jamaica Bay with lovable good-hearted, filter-feedin’ oysters? Ummm…well…it turns out that the colony failed.  The poor oysters who made it to adulthood were unable to procreate (or, at least, their offspring were not able to attach to anything in Jamaica Bay).  Fortunately, the oysters’ human friends are not licked yet and have a whole new weird project afoot…but before we get to that, let’s turn back the clock and look at the bigger picture of oysters in our area!

New York was once renowned for its oysters.  By some estimates, up through the 1600s every other oyster in the world lived in New York’s harbors and bays!  During the early 19th century, every other oyster harvested in the world was certainly taken from these waters.  The oysters filtered the entire bay of algae, microbes, and pollutants.  They also prevented the harbor from eroding away—it was like the entire waterway was coated with hard calcium carbonate (in fact it was exactly like that).   Not only did the tough New York oysters prevent underwater erosion, they also stabilized the coastline and bore the brunt of storm surges.  What tremendous mollusks! But alas, we were too hungry and too greedy and too careless…. By the end of the 1800s the population had crashed.  Attempts to revive the poor oysters have consistently failed. (just follow that link up at the top).

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However ecologists, oceanographers, and oyster fanciers have not quit trying.  In fact with the aid of a variety of partners they are mounting the biggest attempt yet to restore Oysters to New York City’s bays and waterways. The New York Times details the agencies which have invested in the project:

The project is funded by a $1 million grant from the United States Interior Department’s Hurricane Sandy Coastal Resiliency Competitive Grant Program. The Environmental Protection Department, which is contributing $375,000, is working with the Billion Oyster Project, an ecosystem restoration and education project that is trying to restore one billion oysters to New York Harbor.

It is good to have money (I have heard), however, there is also a secret ingredient to this project.  New York’s education department has been replacing all of the NY Public School’s bathroom fixtures with environmentally efficient toilets.  The old porcelain toilets are being smashed to bits to form an artificial reef where the young oysters can get started.  Five thousand public school toilets have been broken up and added to the project.  These fixtures have served generations of New York’s humans in a necessary albeit lowly capacity.  Let us hope they can get a couple of generations of oysters up and going in their second career (as smashed detritus on the bottom of Jamaica Bay)!  We’ll report more as we know more so stay tuned.

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Conservationists and biologists often have a hard time explaining their concepts and concerns to politicians and business leaders:  our leaders are frequently motivated by political and economic calculations which seem pretty far removed from the living world.  One of the ideas which environmentalists have invented in order to rectify this communications problem is “ecosystem services” the concept that there is a real and calculable use value of living organisms and systems.  A famous example right now is bees—which pollinate crops and thus provide immediate tangible value to fruit and vegetable farmers.  There are all sorts of fruits, nuts, vegetables, and other crops which would not grow without bees.  Some other current examples are wetlands—which filter water and provide a sort of storm safety zone around coasts—or fisheries which provided delicious fish.  By putting a pricetag on ecosystems and endangered animals, scientists hope to emphasize to leaders how important conservation is.

Eco what?  Yeah, that's great now run along.

Eco what? Yeah, that’s great now run along.

Unfortunately this methodology is prone to all sorts of problems, as was demonstrated by a bee study for Nature Communications which was conducted by a team lead by David Kleijn.  The survey set about assessing to what extent economically useful crops are pollinated by wild bees.  The authors thus hoped to appraise the ultimate value of the native bees.   You can look at the actual paper and draw your own conclusions about their assumptions and methods, but the team concluded that wild bees are immensely valuable—with a worth of about $3,251.00 per hectare of agricultural land.

Thanks, bees!

Thanks, bees!

The team however went further and broke down the economically valuable labor all of the different bees by species.  This led them to conclude that only 2% of bee species were contributing in a meaningful way to crop pollination (and this hard-working 2% of wild bees are from species which are actually doing pretty well, and seem unlikely to go extinct).  All of the remaining bees were deemed worthless shirkers of no economic use to humankind.  The paper seemed to suggest that if they all go extinct it won’t take food off the table or money out of anyone’s pockets.

Hmm...

Hmm…

What?  Are David Kleijn and his team dangerous hyper-rationalists who belong in an Ayn Rand book?  Regular readers of this blog will already be wondering about these conclusions.  Aren’t parasitoid wasps critical to protecting crops?  What ecological niche do the allegedly valueless species take up?  What happens if they die off and there are horrifying consequences which the ecologists, agricultural scientists, and theorists never anticipated?  Indeed we have seem such things happen again and again—like Australia’s rabbits or these accursed crown-of-thorns starfish.  Life is a web and when you start removing strands the entire edifice begins to flip around and malfunction in unexpected ways.

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In fact I believe the paper might be designed to poke some critical holes in the irrational nature of purely economic cost/benefit calculations.  The introductory paragraphs seem calculated to stir up the media into asking some important questions about this kind of thinking (and, of course, the paper is also designed to give a PR boost to David Kleijn and co.). However, the fact that the results may have been designed to stir up controversy does not make the fundamental questions less valid.  The fundamental calculus behind ecosystem services as a policy tool is inadequate.  But what else can we use in a world of ever-growing population and ever-diminishing resources?

The WISSARD borehole operation on the Ross Ice Shelf

The WISSARD borehole operation on the Ross Ice Shelf

Outside my window, New York City is experiencing a blizzard. The city is on high alert: the mayor is issuing all sorts of proclamations while, at the grocery store, a horde was stripping the shelves bare. Meteorologists and weather scryers warn that the city could be in for up to 36 inches of snow!

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Being forced to live under 3 feet of snow is an alarming prospect to me, but it is nothing for the life forms which were just discovered by a team of scientists exploring the extreme ecosystems of Antarctica. The Whillans Ice Stream Subglacial Access Research Drilling (WISSARD) project has just drilled through the Ross Ice Shelf—a gigantic sheet of ancient ice which covers an area approximately the size of France. The amazing (albeit stupidly named) WISSARD team drilled through 740 meters (2,430 feet) of shelf ice by means of a specialized hot water drill in order to lower a cylindrical robot submarine into this hidden sea. The insertion point for the probe was near where the ice sheet, the ocean, and the long-buried lands of Antarctica all meet–nearly 850 kilometers (530 miles) from the open ocean. At the converging point of ice, rock, and water, there are vast “grounding lines” of ice which attach the glaciers to the floating Ross sheet. Below the ice, a constant rain of rocks ranging in size from microscopic dust to house size boulders fall upon the sea floor. The temperature of the sea water is 28 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 2 degrees Celsius).

An ice fish and the robot submarine looking at each other

An ice fish and the robot submarine looking at each other

The scientists had speculated that fresh melt water from inland would create an estuarial environment beneath the ice. They found no evidence of that, but they did find all sorts of strange lifeforms. The barrage of rocks keep any sessile lifeforms from finding a home in these waters, but hardy motile sea creatures live there including fish, jellyfish, and amphipods (hardy crustaceans which thrive in extreme environments). The newly discovered Ross fish (which yet lack a name) are the southernmost known fish of the world. They are translucent and pink and measure about 20 centimeters (8 inches) long. As with the crazy underground catfish of South America (which live below the water table), the existence of these ice fish raises an immediate question: what do they live on? The sun shines little through half a mile of solid ice, so what do microorganisms as the base of the food chain use for energy? These organisms do not rely on “cold seeps” (which we explored in a previous post), but the answer is not entirely unrelated.  Scientists speculate that the geological upheaval releases nutrients in the form of carbon. It seems that an ancient fossilized ecosystem eroding away into the ocean. The strange fish and sundry invertebrates of the Ross Ice shelf may ultimately be reliant on fossil fuels—which makes them our spiritual brothers for, in this era of cheap frack-gas humankind is more tied to fossil fuels than ever [looks at snow outside and turns up heat].

A fish seen at the Ross Ice Shelf grounding (Deep-SCINI UNL, WISSARD)

A fish seen at the Ross Ice Shelf grounding (Deep-SCINI UNL, WISSARD)

earth-globeSo it’s Earth Day again. I would like to express my very best wishes for our beautiful home planet! I wish the brightest and healthiest future for Earth and Earth life! I am sure all sane people feel the same way. Frustratingly, however, Earth Day is tinged with all sorts of political controversy and antagonism–because different people have very different ideas about exactly what constitutes a bright future for Earth and its inhabitants.

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People whose politics incline to the right are broadly guilty of ignoring the deleterious effect which billions of people constantly running engines and throwing away rubbish are having on the poor oceans and skies. Many religious folks are also seemingly inclined to think that animals have no souls and are meant to all be driven to extinction for humankind’s amusement and profit. The extremely devout laugh outright at the idea of conservation: saving the planet is unimportant to them since some messiah, or demon, or god is going to show up any minute to save/end everything (all while lifting the few faithful up into a parochial paradise filled with virgins or harps or whatever and throwing everyone else down to hell).

 

Albrecht Durer, 1498, woodblock print

Albrecht Durer, 1498, woodblock print

These ideas are bad—morally, scientifically, and philosophically. Yet I also find the environmentalists who created earth day to be a bit smug. People on the left can be just as antiscientific—for similarly nonsensical reasons. Every day on the internet or on the subway, I hear people despise genetically modified organisms or voice paranoid suspicions about vaccines—vaccines for goodness sake! Some of my dear friends fight against bioengineering and geoengineering while advocating organic everything. Some people on the left belittle those on the right for being anti-science while stridently opposing new energy technologies—especially new nuclear technologies. It makes me want to knock the damn-fool kombucha out of people’s hands and explain the actual nature of the world’s energy economy in greater detail.

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All of this illustrates that I have some serious prejudices and preconceived inclinations myself. I’m sorry. It’s a problem I’m working on. In fact we all need to look harder for solutions while being more respectful of other people’s differing viewpoints. Those religious people whom I so thoroughly disparaged are (mostly) good people and we need their steadfastness, bravery, and compassion. Likewise we need the dreamers who wish for a gentler world of sustainable farming and mining. The people who are afraid of vaccines are afraid for their children: too often they have heard self-serving megacorporations speak as if with the weight of science when those corporations were just spouting more misleading advertising (even if that is not at all what is happening with vaccines). The people who steadfastly deny anthropocentric climate change presumably realize how central hydrocarbon energy is to every aspect of economic, defense, and agricultural activity. Society simply can not transition away from consumer culture and fossil fuels. Not without some big breakthroughs.

No Future World

The answers are hard to find and even harder to understand…and it’s all about to get even harder as the human population expands further and competes more intently for resources. Only through understanding math and, above all, science can we move forward. No god has given me reason to believe in any divine rescue. Likewise the raw economic data indicate that organic farming and windmills will not be enough to provide basic sustenance—much less a livelihood– for everyone. Humankind’s gawky and protracted adolescence will need to end and we’ll all have to get smarter if we hope to build a worthwhile future for all living things.

Or maybe some competition is necessary for everything to work...

Or maybe some competition is necessary for everything to work…

It will involve studying harder and taking science much more seriously—despite all of its fraught ambiguities and uncertain answers. It will also involve everyone setting aside some of our fears, prejudices and certainties and reaching out to understand the scariest big animals that live on Planet Earth—our fellow people.

...then and again maybe there is an unanticipated tech solution out there...

…then and again maybe there is an unanticipated tech solution out there…

Okapi (Walton Ford, watercolor on paper)

Okapi (Walton Ford, watercolor on paper)

Walton Ford is a contemporary artist who paints realistic large-scale watercolor paintings of mammals and birds.  The creatures are often placed in anthropomorphic contexts (where they dress or act like people). Because the paintings are so large, the artist tends to annotate them in beautiful copperpoint longhand (although it is a bit hard to see in this example).  In this painting, a shy okapi, the wraith of the African jungle is trying to purloin a piece of honeycomb from a dangerous gun trap.  The okapi’s face is filled with purpose but the ominous fire on the horizon and the hunting paraphernalia in the foreground hints at a dark outcome.

Detail

Detail

Flowers on a Tree Trunk (Rachel Ruysch,

Flowers on a Tree Trunk (Rachel Ruysch, ca. first half of 18th century)

Every once in a while, things go right for artists: Rachel Ruysch (1664-1750) lived a long prosperous life and found international success as a still life painter in an era when there were few women in the arts.  Her father, Frederik Ruysch, was a famous professor of anatomy and botany who was renowned for his highly informative yet artistic anatomy displays (somewhat in the manner of famous contemporary body displays by the anatomist Gunther von Hagens).  Professor Ruysch built strange and delicate landscapes out of preserved human organs and dissected bodies—particularly those of infants. He was renowned for his skill with various preservative regents and his secret liquor balsamicum was one of the wonders of the day—as were the novel human specimens he preserved within this embalming fluid. Rachel was expected to help by creating lace for the pieces and then arranging the bodies, limbs, appendages, and organs in an artistic fashion along with seashells and flowers (you’ll have to look that stuff up on your own, because it is the stuff of nightmares).

Because she worked closely with her father, interacted with famous artists of Holland’s golden age, and drew and organized the objects in her family’s famous curiosity cabinet, Rachel was well positioned to launch her own art career.  She usually painted in the “dark background” still life style of de Heem and Willem Kalf, however many of her works demonstrated her background in the natural sciences.  For example in “Flowers on a Tree Trunk” she boldly moves her composition from the parlor to the forest.  A highly artificial flower bouquet of cabbage-roses, lilies, and irises dominates the composition—however, since this flower arrangement is located on the ground floor of a forest, the meaning is extremely different from more conventional vase paintings.  Surrounded by wild creatures the bouquet invites the viewer to contrast the artificial beauty of flower arranging (or indeed of cultivated flowers themselves) with the chaotic beauty of a wild ecosystem of snakes, lizards, snails and butterflies.

Portrait of Rachel Ruysch (Godfried Schalcken, ca. 1706)

Portrait of Rachel Ruysch (Godfried Schalcken, ca. 1706)

Life around a Cold Seep

This week Ferrebeekeeper has been concentrating on the theme of discovering new life—a search which is very much ongoing even in today’s used-up overpopulated Anthropocene world.  This concept has taken us to the mid levels of the ocean and the mountain jungles of Thailand and Vietnam to encounter species unknown (like this mystery sea slug, the tiny parasitoid wasp, and even a large hoofed mammal). However what is even more shocking is that our world features entire ecosystems rich with life that have only just been discovered.

A photograph of a pool of brine on the bottom of the ocean

A cold seep is an ecosystem on the bottom of the ocean formed around hydrocarbon-rich fluids which seep out of the earth and either “bubble up” or pool at the bottom of the ocean.  The geography of such areas is alien to our perceptions: black pools of asphalt, barite chimneys, and undersea lakes of dense brine (which traps hydrocarbons and sulfites) are surrounded by otherworldly “reefs” of tube worms and benthic mollusks.  The tube worms symbiotically partner with bacteria capable of “feeding” off the hydrocarbons while the mollusks filter feed on the archaeobacteria.   Whole communities of grazers, scavengers, and predators then form around this base.  Such communities are remarkable because they do not rely on photosynthesis as a source of energy and nutrients (much like more famous “black-smoker” ecosystems which are also chemotrophic ecosystems—but which form around hot volcanic vents).  Cold seeps themselves were only discovered in 1983! Now that oceanographers know what to look for, cold seeps are being discovered in locations where we would never have looked for large complicated webs of life.

A Map of the collapsing Larsen Ice Sheet

In 2005, an oceanographic research team studying the seas once covered by the Larsen ice shelf (a melting shelf of ice located off the eastern side of the Antarctic Peninsula) discovered a cold seep community thriving in a glacial trough 850 meters (2,800 feet) beneath the ocean’s surface.  The scientists found great mats of bacteria living on methane.  These bacterial mats were in turn grazed on by strange bivalve mollusks and brittle sea stars.  To quote EOS (a journal of the American Geophysics Union):

These results have implications for the discovery of life in extreme environments, including those found beneath the enormous extent of existing ice shelves and large lakes that lie beneath the Antarctic Ice Sheet. Because of its restricted conditions, the seafloor beneath ice shelves may provide a suitable, widespread habitat for chemotrophic systems; given this, there may be many more such habitats waiting to be discovered beneath existing ice shelves….The seafloor beneath Antarctica’s floatingice shelves covers more than 1.54 million square km [Drewry, 1983], an area of the same order of magnitude as the Amazon basin of Brazil or the Sahara desert.

So science is only just beginning to apprehend the sorts of biomes which are found across huge swaths of Earth.  There are even more remote areas which are wholly unknown—like Lake Vostok, a subglacial lake wholly isolated from the rest of Earth (including the atmosphere) for 15 to 25 million years.  As continental drift and the Antarctic Circumpolar Current froze Antarctica, Lake Vostok was trapped beneath 4,000 m (13,100 ft) of ice, and it has remained so until this year (when an intriguing but sloppy Russian drilling expedition means to pierce the lake).   What scientists discover beneath the other ice dwindling shelves, and what the Russians find beneath the East Antarctic Ice Sheet will have broader implications for how we conceive of life on Earth–and beyond.

A watercolor painting by of chemotrophic life by Karen Jacobsen, an artist who has traveled to the bottom of the ocean via bathysphere to record her impressions!

Yesterday’s post—which featured a gory painting of medieval deer hunting—makes one feel sorry for the poor beleaguered deer, which are surely among the most beautiful and graceful of all animals.  And those painted deer were being pursued by crossbow hunters—imagine how much worse things would be with high-powered rifles.  Well actually you don’t have to imagine–here in North America, the dominant cervid, the magnificent white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) was severely overhunted in the 1800’s as hunters shot wild deer and sold the venison at the market.  Deer populations crashed down below 400,000.  Entire regions of the country lost the white-tailed deer completely.  The sacred animal of Artemis was in deep trouble across the United States.

Deer hunting in 1916

To rectify this situation, the Lacy Act, the first federal wildlife law, was passed in 1900.  The law banned the interstate trafficking of venison (along with other wild game).  Then the Great Depression and the Second World War came along and everything changed again.  During the Depression, rural landholders were forced to move into cities to make a living and land which had been under the plough began to grow back into forest.  When World War II broke out a generation of hunters went abroad to shoot at the Axis instead of whitetails.  After the war, in the 1950s, a clever biologist named Crockford invented a dart-gun system for capturing white-tailed deer and releasing them into habitats where they had died out. So deer made a comeback but their predators did not.  Wolves, grizzlies, cougars, jaguars, alligators, and lynxes were relegated to the deep forest and swamp of protected national parks.

So by the end of the twentieth century, white-tailed deer populations were spiking out of control (heading to well above 30 million) and this in turn had a terrible effect on the forests.  When a forest is partially or wholly timbered (or when it is denuded by some natural means such as a tornado) there is a succession of plant growth which after decades leads back to a mature hardwood forest.  The first plants to grow back are meadow plants–short-lived annual herbs and meter-tall woody plants. Over the course of years these weeds give way to hardwood seedlings like oak and maple which can tolerate the shade created by the provisional meadow growth.  However, in areas overpopulated by deer, the woody meadow plants are nipped up by starving deer and other tree seedlings which can out-compete the great forest trees for nutrient gathering (but which are not shade-tolerant to survive the meadow plants) then flourish.  Beeches, wild cherries, or exotic invaders grow up and the trees of the great forest take lifetimes to supplant them (if they do at all).  In the meantime the overpopulated deer begin to starve and suffer diseases even as they damage the forests.  A strange truth of ecosystems is that predators are nearly as necessary as their prey—even hardy generalists like the white-tailed deer which can live almost anywhere need population controls for their own good (as well as that of the forest).  Perhaps the ancient Greeks were wise to decide that their goddess of the wilderness was both a hunter and a protector of animals and trees.

The white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus)

Biologists, foresters, rangers, and sportsmen are all trying to unscramble the secrets to ecosystem equilibrium, but there might not be any real long-term balance.  The tropical swamps and forests of the Eocene gave way to the temperate woodlands of the Oligocene (where the first tiny deer developed in Europe) which in turn led to the savannahs of the Miocene which allowed artiodactyl grazers to radiate out across the world.  But it is hard to think in such big terms and it is uncomfortable to think about what will come next.  Something within me longs for homeostasis—for the right number of lovely deer beneath the tall native oaks and tulip poplars forever and ever.

Manifest Destiny (Alexis Rockman, 2004)

As we have seen, the gothic aesthetic is reborn every generation with a different dark twist.  Today’s art world is no exception: there is a contemporary art movement calling itself “New Gothic Art” dedicated to creating works which emphasizes darkness and horror. Many of the artists involved are weak (particularly the self-obsessed photographers and the hackneyed photo-collagists) and the movement does not always live up to the harrowing tradition started by medieval painters–however I do admire the bio-apocalyptic future visions of Alexis Rockwell.  Rockwell collaborates with scientists and ecologists to imagine a near future world where climate change and genetic engineering have radically reshaped the planet.  To paint these visions of the post-anthropocene world he relies on bravura photo-realistic painting.  His inspiration comes from the remarkable paintings of former geological eras gracing natural history museums. Indeed, Rockman’s work is evocative of the great natural history muralists Heinrich Harder, Charles Knight, and Bob Hynes. Like those science-inspired artists, Rockwell strives to paint organisms as a part of a total ecosystem.  In doing so he produces immense and operatic landscape artworks.   His 8-by-24-foot oil-on-wood mural, “Manifest Destiny” shows Brooklyn in 5004 AD, long after the ocean has reclaimed it.  Familiar landmarks are subsumed by marine ecosystems.  Catfish, triggerfish, and cormorants sweep through a landscape rich with life but lacking humans.  His agricultural-themed painting “The Farm” shows a left to right progression of animals transforming from wild ancestors to today’s selectively bred farm animals to tomorrow’s transgenic mutants.

The Farm (Alexis Rockman, 2000, oil & acrylic on wood pane)

Rockman could easily be called a science fiction artist (if the art world did not look upon that term as a pejorative).  Indeed if his work were not so preachy some of it could slip into the campy risibility of the comic book store! However Rockman does think big: he avoids the facile political demagoguery of most ecological art by painting with skill, passion, and above all, with ambiguity.  There is something horrifying about the future farm animals but there is something beguiling too.  The genetically modified creatures might be meant as a warning against future dystopia, but I personally am looking forward to the human organs grown from that transgenic pig!  The picture isn’t a simple nay-saying parable.  It captures some of the promise and excitement of biotech as well as the danger.

Fishing (Alexis Rockman 2000, oil & acrylic on wood pane)

That same duality is found in Rockman’s paintings of current ecosystems.  The tension between humankind and the natural world is as surely reflected in the dramatic catfish-centric perspective of the painting “Fishing” as it is in a vision of the post-human future such as “Manifest Destiny”.  Likewise the lugubrious boat wrecks surrounded by sealife in “Hudson Estuary” speak to human society’s strange mixture of strength and weakness.  Humankind is a strange problematic part of the natural world, but we are still part of it.

The Hudson Estuary (Alexis Rockman, 2011)

Is Rockman’s art gothic?  I believe so—in the same way that Ray Bradbury or George Orwell are gothic. When he is at his best Alexis Rockman manages to convey a palpable sense of the sadness of living systems which burgeon and then ineluctably fail.  There is a similarity between the catfish contemplating the hook and the farmer contemplating biotech.  I notice that a catfish nearly identical to the beleaguered specimen from “Fishing” is lingering in the future underworld of “Manifest Destiny”.  Life endures and adapts even as the world changes.  Perhaps humankind’s tragic grandeur is not incompatible with nature,  but we will need to grow quickly!

Seaworld (Alexis Rockman, 2000)

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