Idle Spots and What Is Missing

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June 25, 2013



I recently read this NYT article on the artist Maya Lin and her current projects one of which is this website: whatismissing.net * not sure why, but site animation seems to be not working today. Keep trying! *   It seems that her work of the last years has taken on a decidedly environmental focus, and within that, the focus on raising awareness for the natural world that is literally under our feet whether it be here in Chicago, New York or the Midwestern farmlands.

Her What is Missing site has tiny wavering dots of light that you can click on to reveal various natural history facts and quotes relevant to a particular geographic area. One of the first dots I clicked on, of course, was for the Chicago area, and it opened to a 1948 quote from naturalist and conservationist Aldo Leopold:

"The shrinkage in the flora is due to a combination clean farming, woodlot grazing and good roads. Each of these necessary changes of course requires a reduction in the acreage available for wild plants, but none of them requires, or benefits by, the erasure by whole farms, townships or counties. There are idle spots on every farm, and every highway is bordered by an idle strip as long as it is; keep cow, plow, and mower out of these idles spots, and the full native flora, plus dozens of interesting  stowaways from foreign parts, could be part of the normal environment of every citizen."

Leopold was ahead of his time in teaching us to value these idle spots, as well as habitats that, at the time, were greatly undervalued: marshes, bogs, prairies. It's no secret that our environment is in big, critical trouble. Yes. There is a crisis. That said, I try not to give in to despair. What I find moving about the quote from Leopold (and Lin's site) is that it points to how even the most banal of spaces are worthy of our care, and can be cultivated for native habitat and allowed the potential to heal. When the big picture is pretty scary and overwhelming, not giving in to despair, at least for me, may mean focusing on how we can heal, value,  and cultivate what is right under our feet.

* Above image is a still courtesy of whatismissing.net.


Bringing Back Extinct Species

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About a month or so ago, it seemed as though I was coming across many articles and talks like THIS about using technology to bring back extinct species, such as the Passenger Pigeon or the Thylacine, or even a Woolly Mammoth.  What an exciting prospect, right?

I for one would be completely enthralled to see a live Passenger Pigeon, Thylacine, or even a Dodo. Creatures that long ago, through humanity's actions, were wiped from the earth and since have gained iconic, and mythical stature. And then there is the comforting thought that extinction no longer has to really be final. Humanity can be forgiven our trespasses with nature and start over again. Right?

That would be nice, but one thing that I don't like, and this is especially the case of the TED talk linked above, is that the various pitfalls "de-extinction" are not being discussed thoroughly; at least not publicly. For example, in the case of the Passenger Pigeon, the habitats in which it flourished no longer exist. The North American landscape is so altered that there is this question: how could a species that used to live in such tremendous numbers that its flocks could blacken the skies for miles, exist in today's fragmented landscapes?

And if we are just going to bring a few back for the sack of novelty? No doubt that the process and technology required to do this, let alone "de-extinct" something is a very expensive endeavor. Wouldn't that money be better spent on flora and fauna currently at risk of extinction and preserving habitats? It might be better to accept that once something is gone...it is gone for good.

That said...I would really like a Woolly Mammoth as a pet.






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