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One of the accounts which I follow on Instagram is “newyorkcitywild” which showcases the flora & fauna (& fungi) of New York City.  While I expected it would be filled with pigeons, trees of heaven (gah!), and cockroaches (and maybe the occasional black wasp with fluorescent orange feelers), it is actually filled with an astonishing proliferation of incredibly beautiful plants and animals like owls, frogs, beaver, snapping turtles, garter snakes, and flowers of every color of the rainbow.  The city is teeming with wildlife that finds space in the parks and abandoned corners.  Imagine what we could do if we tweaked the designs for the future just a little bit!

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However, even though the photos have changed some of my stereotypes about the urban ecosystem,  when I looked at this account the other day, I assumed that the creator had fled the city on a yacht.  The pictures were most certainly not of chimney swifts, or treefrogs, or damselflies, but instead featured 30,000 kilogram (35 ton) humpback whales gulping down entire schools of menhaden.  I couldn’t believe that this was happening just beyond Sheepshead Bay until I recognized the unmistakable city skyline behind one of the giants. I have (very gradually) come to terms with the fact that I live near an ocean, but it is still hard to recognize that it is a working ocean which connects to real ocean things and isn’t just filled with plastic garbage and dodgy Panamanian-flagged super freighters.

I was enormously moved to see that our enormous friends are so near…that I share a home with them in terms which are local rather than planetary, but then, immediately, I was terrified for the poor whales. Humans are BAD neighbors.  Most of the amazing wild animals I have seen in the city have been dead–either smashed by psychotic motorists (whose greatest delight is killing all living things with their evil benzene death chariots), or concussed to death from flying into windows, or poisoned by pesticide or weird chemicals.  And, sure enough, yesterday’s Gothamist featured a harrowing tale of a trapped humpback whale slowly and agonizingly fighting to breathe despite being caught in some nightmarish tangle of cables, fishing lines, and sinister plastic garbage in the Ambrose Channel just off the city coast.  You should read the article [spoiler alert: it has a happy ending when the whale was freed after a multi-day struggle by the Marine Animal Entanglement Response team from the Center for Coastal Studies].  Humankind’s engagement with the greater world ecosystem is improving..in ways. Yet the larger narrative is still one of devastation, peril, and death.

Tomorrow’s New York City could be filled with whales (figuratively or literally...since we live in a world of global warming and a storm is coming) or they could be gone from everywhere.  We humans are the architects of the city and the makers of the deadly cast off fishing nets.  We could make and do things differently.  But can we?

 

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

Guangzhou China

Guangzhou China

I love China. During five millennia of continuous civilization, the Chinese people discovered many of the most fundamental breakthroughs which have propelled humankind forward: today the Chinese government is rapidly pumping money into research (even as our own leaders decide to turn their backs on science and discovery).  Chinese literature and art are hauntingly ineffable—the saddest and most beautiful in the world.  China is huge and gorgeous and bewildering.  It is its own world of peoples, sweeping vistas, and wonders! Today China is rapidly becoming a paramount global superpower—as befits a nation which contains a fifth of humankind.

A scroll painting of an elephant and scholar from the 1920s

A scroll painting of an elephant and scholar from the 1920s

Yet modern China has been a poor neighbor (!) and an absolutely terrible steward of nature and the environment. I will leave out details about local wars, nightmarish buffer states, and wholesale toxic pollution of entire regions to instead concentrate on markets for traditional medicine, cuisine, and craft—where so many of the world’s endangered animals vanish for no good reason.  Chinese leaders are quick to point out the high environmental costs of rapid modernization and point fingers at the western world’s excesses during the industrial revolution and the gilded age (and today).  But what do foolish superstitions and flagrantly useless status symbols have to do with these arguments? If contemporary China wishes to be taken seriously as a conscientious nation, it needs to at least take steps to reduce the endangered animal trade which is needlessly driving so many wonderful creatures extinct.

They are so beautiful--and they are going extinct.

They are so beautiful–and they are going extinct.

That actually happened today (also known as yesterday on the Chinese side of the globe)!  China is the world’s largest consumer of ivory.  As tens of millions of consumers become middle class (or affluent…or rich) the demand for intricately carved elephant tusks has risen meteorically.  Africa of course has its own troubles and a small amount of money can seem like a great deal there.  In practice this means that the last great herds of elephants are swiftly being poisoned or shot so that their tusks can fetch a premium in the rising cities of China. It is a heartbreaking tragedy that an animal which lives as long as a person (and seems to feel emotions just as deeply) should be killed for two of its teeth. How absolutely horrifying it is to imagine the extinction of all elephants for petty vanity. What would be the purpose of a world with no elephants?

Yao Ming--hero to elephant lovers (even though he is very small compared to the great animals)

Yao Ming–hero to elephant lovers (even though he is very small compared to the great animals)

The Chinese are not monolithic and educational quirks (excesses?) of the Cultural Revolution generation have meant that many people are ignorant of elephants’ magnificent nature (and slow reproduction).Yao Ming who played basketball or something in America has unexpectedly become one of my greatest heroes by spearheading a public awareness campaign to teach people about elephants and to prevent their extinction. Other pachyderm crusaders have also taken up the cause (along with international NGOs) and the central government has finally taken notice.  Authorities crushed six tons of confiscated ivory into powder in Dongguan, China, on January 6, 2014.

Authorities in Guangzhou with the captured ivory (which equals one fifth of the illegal ivory taken last year)

Authorities in Guangzhou with the captured ivory (which equals one fifth of the illegal ivory taken last year)

Of course it is a bit of an easy question: should the world’s other great order of immensely intelligent social land mammal be killed for stupid ornamental knickknacks? But China has answered it properly (finally) and I offer them my unreserved respect and admiration.  With their growing space program, their rapidly improving universities, and their new environmental awareness, China truly is improving and growing very quickly. Hopefully it isn’t too late for the poor elephants which are still left alive.

elephant-178574698-192534

I can’t believe how quickly the year has flown past.  It is already November. Although that means the coldest darkest part of the year is quickly approaching, there is one bright side to the turn of the season–namely the fact that this month is dedicated to my favorite domestic bird, the magnificent turkey!  I have been trying to think of how to reintroduce the long absent turkeys back to ferrebeekeeper. Although it would be good to write more about the birds’ astonishing capacity for virgin birth, or to recount more personal anecdotes concerning pet turkeys, I have decided to start with a picture of the turkey’s native environment—the mixed deciduous forests of the east coast.  To provide such a picture, it is necessary to turn once again to the astonishing artist John Dawson, who painted an idealized picture of New York forest which was mass-produced as a sheet of US Postal Service stamps (released March 3, 2005).

Northeast Deciduous Forest (Artwork by John D. Dawson for the USPS "Nature of America" Stamp Series)

The sequence of stamp sheets is called the Nature of America—a series of twelve stamp sheets detailing the different ecosystems from around the nation.  When I first started this blog, I wrote about Dawson’s second painting for this series–which showed a pacific Northwest Rainforest. The above picture of hardwood forests is even more exciting to me since I grew up in this eco-region. Unfortunately I could not find a picture of the original work before it was formatted as a sheet of stamps, however (despite the little stamp cut-outs) the viewer can still become lost in the artist’s sweeping landscape of deciduous trees and familiar forest creatures. If you carefully cast your eyes around the picture you will perceive many small details such as fungi, wild flowers, birds, salamanders, and bats.  A beaver is just barely visible swimming out to her lodge (which takes up the center right), while a lovely white-tailed deer anxiously eyes a foraging black bear.  Despite the many wonders visible in the composition, Dawson has wisely centered the composition on the wild turkey strutting proudly through the paper birch trees.  It is a fitting image with which to commence the Thanksgiving season and a magnificent piece of bravura wildlife art.

Detail

Białowieża Forest

Long ago Eastern Europe was covered by vast virgin forests.  Almost all of these woodlands have long ago been cut down to make way for agriculture, roads, or towns, but in the northeast corner of Poland one of these ancient forests still survives.

Until late in the 14th century, Białowieża forest located at the junction of the Baltic Sea watershed and the Black Sea watershed was a primeval forest so thick that travelers could pass through the region only by river. Even in the fifteenth century roads and bridges were rare in the ancient woodlands of eastern Poland and the human population remained sparse to non-existent.  Because the lands were so empty of people but full of animals, the kings of Poland adopted Białowieża forest as a royal game preserve.  The Polish monarchy also used the forest as a wilderness retreat: it was in the dark fastness of his forest hunting lodge that King Władysław holed up to escape the Black Death.

Hunters returing to Białowieża Hill (1820, print)

The region remained a pristine royal forest until the partition of Poland delivered the forest to Russian hands.  Even the Russian tsars were beguiled by Białowieża forest, for it was one of the last wild preserves for the largest land animal in Europe, the mighty wisent.  In 1801 Tsar Alexander I was moved by the plight of wisent herds (which had swiftly dwindled due to poaching). The tsar reintroduced a hunting ban and hired a small number of peasants as game rangers.  Alexander II reinstated the ban in 1860 and in 1888 the tsars assumed direct ownership of the entire forest.

Great Gray Owl

During World War I the forest fell under German control and, from 1915 to 1918, the occupying army rushed to cut down Białowieża’s timber and hunt down all remaining wildlife. But even the Germans had their hands full during those tumultuous years and they lost World War I before they could despoil the entire forest.  Białowieża came under Soviet control and during Stalin’s era, all Polish inhabitants were “deported to remote parts of the Soviet Union” and replaced by Soviet forest workers.  When German troops again retook Białowieża in World War II, the Soviet forest workers in turn disappeared. Hermann Göring harbored ambitious plans to create the world’s biggest hunting reserve at Białowieża, but, in the end, the Nazis predictably used the remote location as a grave for resistance fighters.  When the Germans retreated they destroyed the ancient hunting lodges of the Polish throne, but they did not destroy the forest itself. After the war the forest was divided between Poland and the Belarusian State of the Soviet Union. Both regions became protected wilderness areas.

The brickwork Orthodox Church of St. Nicholas on the outskirts of Białowieża

Because of this history, Białowieża Primeval Forest is now the last remaining primary deciduous and mixed forest of the European lowlands.  The land is a refuge for pine, beech, alder, spruce, and towering oaks which have never known the axe. Just as the forest lies in the place where two watersheds meet, it also straddles the boreal and temperate zone: plants and animals from south and north live wild in the park.

The World Heritage Convention website enumerates the many wildlife species which currently live in the forest writing, “these wilderness areas are inhabited by European bison, a species reintroduced into the park in 1929, elk, stag, roe deer, wild boar, lynx, wolf, fox, marten, badger, otter, ermine, beaver and numerous bats. It is also a showplace reserve for tarpan (Polish wild forest horse). The avifauna includes corncrake, white-tailed eagle, white stork, peregrine falcon and eagle owl.”

A Wisent Flees into Bialowieza Forest

Coppicing

Yesterday I wrote about beheading as a theme in gothic art.  It’s a chilling subject because if a person (or other vertebrate) is so fundamentally cut apart…well that’s pretty much it for him or her except for obsequies and obituaries. However this weakness is not universal among organisms.  Many invertebrates like worms, jellyfish, and sponges can be cut apart and continue to thrive. The animal world is not really the direct subject of today’s post though. Certain plants are particularly good at regenerating despite trauma.  A large number of common forest trees can be entirely cut down and still regrow from the stump. This fact formed the basis for coppicing, a practice of woodland management which involved harvesting certain trees by cutting them down for firewood or timber and then waiting for the living stump (which foresters call a stool) to regrow.

This method of forest harvesting/maintenance was most effective when different parts of a wooded land were kept at varying stages of regrowth.  Certain areas of trees would be cut back to ground level.  Other trees would be back to full mature size.  Most trees were somewhere in between.  The cycle depended on the location and the sort of trees being harvested but it was apparently a favorite way for communities to have their woods and burn them too.   Chestnut, hazel, hornbeam, beech, ash and oak were all frequently coppiced.  The process was extremely common during medieval times but seems to have fallen away as mercantilism (with its emphasis on shipbuilding) and industrialization took hold.

This is a shame because coppicing was not as environmentally devastating as clear cutting. To quote an online article at The Great Escape Treehouse Company:

Coppice management favours a wide range of wildlife, often of species adapted to open woodland. After cutting, the increased light allows existing woodland-floor vegetation such as bluebell, anemone and primrose to grow vigorously. Often brambles also grow around the stools. Woodpiles (if left in the coppice) encourage insects, such as beetles to come into an area. The open area is then colonised by many different animals such as nightingale, nightjar and fritillary butterflies. As the coup grows up, the canopy closes and it becomes unsuitable for these animals again but, in an actively managed coppice, there is always another recently cut coup nearby, and the populations therefore move around, following the coppice management.

Forests that can survive and thrive despite coppicing probably evolved to do so in conjunction with animals.  Beaver are infamous for cutting down forests both as food and as building materials.  Deer and related artiodactyls are also hard on forests (though not like elephants—African and Indian trees must be hardy indeed).

Woods which never had to deal with any of these animals are susceptible to vanishing when tree-cutting invaders appear.  When beavers were introduced to Patagonia they caused an ecological crisis, both from flooding caused by their dams and from cutting down trees with their teeth.   The local trees could not survive coppicing and quickly vanished before the onslaught of the industrious rodents.

A satellite above Lake Baikal (image courtesy of Earth Sciences and Image Analysis Laboratory, NASA)

Lake Baikal in Siberia has a surface area of 12,248 sq miles (approximately equal to Belgium).  For a better comparison, Lake Superior has a surface area of 31,700 square miles. However that comparison is in no way apt.  Lake Baikal is prodigiously deep.  It lies on one of the world’s great rift valleys. To its west lies the Eurasian plate and to its east is the Amur plate.  The two plates are springing away from each other at 4 millimeters per year.  In the void between lies Lake Baikal, which is an astonishing 5,380 feet deep.  The 5,700 cubic miles of water contained by the lake compromises twenty percent of the world’s fresh water (not counting ice or water vapor).  It could easily hold all of the water from all of the Great Lakes.  Not only is the lake deep, it is ancient.  Lake Baikal is more than twenty-five million years old, and may be one of the world’s oldest lakes.

Lake Baikal

Lake Baikal contains thousands of species of plants and animals, most of which live no where else on earth.  There is a freshwater seal, the nerpa, which lives on golomyanka, a translucent abyssal fish famous for decomposing almost instantly to fat and bones when exposed to the sun.  There are omuls, lovely small salmonids, caught and smoked by humans around the lake, and there are huge Baikal sturgeons.  The lake is ringed by forested mountains which host brown bear, lynx, wolves, foxes, and wolverines (and maybe the occasional Siberian tiger). These predators live on mountain goats, reindeer, white tailed deer, elk, moose, musk deer, Siberian roe, and wild boar.  The small mammals and birds are too numerous to name.

Golomyanka--An abyssal fresh water fish

The lake’s true oddities are invertebrates which live in the depths. Far beneath the surface, forests of Lubomirskia sponges attain towering heights as they branch into strange shapes.  Benthic and pelagic infusoria are endemic, as are huge predatory swimming flatworms which are covered with suckers.  Shrimp and crustaceans abound.  It has been estimated that the biomass of crustaceans in the lake exceeds 1,800,000 tons. Turbellarian worms, snails and amphipods are also diverse.

An amphipod regards a diver from a sponge forest in Lake Baikal

The Lake is the alleged site of one of the world’s greatest haunted treasures.  Admiral Aleksandr Kolchak, was a tsarist hero who won the golden saber for valor at the battle of Port Arthur.  After the Tsar and his family were executed by Bolsheviks, Kolchak assumed command of the imperial armies during the disastrous civil war.  A substantial detachment of his troops rescued the Empire’s gold reserves (an estimated 1600 tons of gold) and were carrying them across Siberia during the brutal winter of 1919/1920 when temperatures dropped below -60 °F.  Legend has it that both the gold and the troops found their way into Lake Baikal and have never emerged.

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