Hortus Botanicus in Amsterdam. CreditKaren Massier/E+, via Getty Images
Being a daily reader of the NYTimes it’s surprising that I missed the publication of this posthumous essay by neurologist and author Dr. Oliver Sacks, who died in 2015. This is especially notable related to biophilia, a subject that means a great deal to all of us on this site, in fact, as Dr. Sacks states, it is an essential part of the human condition.
Even for people who are deeply disabled neurologically, nature can be more powerful than any medication.
This is an excerpt from “Everything in Its Place,” a posthumous collection of writings by Dr. Sacks.
As a writer, I find gardens essential to the creative process; as a physician, I take my patients to gardens whenever possible. All of us have had the experience of wandering through a lush garden or a timeless desert, walking by a river or an ocean, or climbing a mountain and finding ourselves simultaneously calmed and reinvigorated, engaged in mind, refreshed in body and spirit. The importance of these physiological states on individual and community health is fundamental and wide-ranging. In 40 years of medical practice, I have found only two types of non-pharmaceutical “therapy” to be vitally important for patients with chronic neurological diseases: music and gardens.
The wonder of gardens was introduced to me very early, before the war, when my mother or Auntie Len would take me to the great botanical garden at Kew. We had common ferns in our garden, but not the gold and silver ferns, the water ferns, the filmy ferns, the tree ferns I first saw at Kew. It was at Kew that I saw the gigantic leaf of the great Amazon water lily, Victoria regia, and like many children of my era, I was sat upon one of these giant lily pads as a baby.
As a student at Oxford, I discovered with delight a very different garden — the Oxford Botanic Garden, one of the first walled gardens established in Europe. It pleased me to think that Boyle, Hooke, Willis and other Oxford figures might have walked and meditated there in the 17th century.
I try to visit botanical gardens wherever I travel, seeing them as reflections of their times and cultures, no less than living museums or libraries of plants.
Cherokee Prairie Natural Area near Fort Smith, Arkansas. WILLIAM DARK PHOTOGRAPHY
Janet Marinelli, according to her author’s bio, is an award-winning independent journalist who was director of scientific and popular publications at Brooklyn Botanic Garden for 16 years; according to our read of her work over the last two years she is also a perfect fit with our mission to find at least one story every day that explains the natural world, illuminates the possibilities of entrepreneurial conservation or challenges us to be more careful with natural resources. She brightens our day:
Native prairie and savanna once covered vast areas of the U.S. Southeast from Maryland to Texas, but agriculture and sprawl have left only small patches remaining. Now, a new initiative, driven by scientists and local communities, is pushing to restore these imperiled grassland habitats.
Southeastern grasslands have some of the highest plant richness in the world, home to rare species such as American chaffseed. COURTESY OF TIM MARTIN & USFWS
Dwayne Estes pulls over to the side of a rural road in Franklin County, Tennessee, about 20 miles from the Alabama border. He hops out of his truck and points out a small plant with dainty, trumpet-shaped white flowers with purple-streaked throats. “This is Penstemon kralii,” says Estes, a 40-year-old, 6-foot-3-inch-tall professor sporting a baseball cap and beard, the twin badges of honor for many field botanists. The plant is found almost exclusively at the base of the Cumberland Plateau escarpment, where it survives precariously in narrow, grassy roadside fringes with other rare and threatened species, including a sunflower and a blue-eyed grass yet to be named and described by scientists.
Kral’s penstemon. COURTESY OF TIM MARTIN & USFWS
We continue to the top of the steep, densely forested escarpment. Below, a checkerboard of croplands and pastures stretches as far as the eye can see. “Before 1840, those agricultural fields were prairies covering half a million, maybe 750,000 acres,” Estes says. “They were maintained by frequent fires and bison.” The wildfires probably swept up the base of the adjacent escarpment, he adds, keeping it open and sunny oak savanna where the penstemon and its companions could thrive. Like so many southern grassland denizens, they are vestiges of a lost botanical world that once covered as many as 120 million acres from Maryland to East Texas, caught in a vise between habitat loss to agriculture and urban sprawl on the one hand, and encroaching fire-suppressed forest on the other. Continue reading
Craig K. Lorenz
It’s been a while, Carl Zimmer! Welcome back to our pages and thanks for this new consideration of what is included in the definition of animal migration, a pair of words normally associated with big mammals and birds:
Swarms of insects move across continents each year. Scientists used radar to track one species and discovered a vast ecological force.
Ladybugs briefly took over the news cycle.
Meteorologists at the National Weather Service were looking over radar images in California on the night of June 4 when they spotted what looked like a wide swath of rain. But there were no clouds.
The meteorologists contacted an amateur weather-spotter directly under the mysterious disturbance. He wasn’t getting soaked by rain. Instead, he saw ladybugs. Everywhere.
Radar apparently had picked up a cloud of migrating ladybugs spread across 80 miles, with a dense core ten miles wide floating 5,000 feet to 9,000 feet in the air. As giant as the swarm was, the meteorologists lost track of it. The ladybugs disappeared into the night. Continue reading
Our long history with the Cornell Lab of Ornithology keeps their initiatives on our radar, and their films hold a very special place.
Sales from this award-winning documentary will benefit bird conservation.
World-renowned wildlife cinematographer, Neil Rettig, embarks on the most challenging assignment of his career: to find and film the rarest eagle on the planet. An expertly woven tale with stunning cinematography, Bird of Prey journeys deep into the vanishing world of the Great Philippine Eagle and reveals an inspiring group of people that are determined to save the world’s most critically endangered eagle species from extinction.
Click here for more information on streaming options.
Lionfish, armed with venomous dorsal spines that enable them to deter predators, are more normally associated with warm tropical waters. Photograph: Arno Enzerink /www.stockphotogr/Arno Enzerink
After writing about some of Cyprus’ environmentally destructive actions, it feels good to hear about these positive organized efforts to eradicate this marine threat. Lionfish have long been on our radar, but this is the first we’ve heard of their spread through European waters.
Perhaps a new venue for eradication idea exchange is in order!
Cyprus has held its first organised cull of lionfish after numbers of the invasive species have proliferated in recent years, threatening the Mediterranean ecosystem and posing a venomous danger to humans.
“They’re actually very placid,” said Prof Jason Hall-Spencer, a marine biologist, after spearing 16 of the exotic specimens in the space of 40 minutes in the inaugural “lionfish removal derby” off the island’s southern coast. He added: “The problem is they are not part of the natural ecosystem and we are seeing them in plague proportions.”
Lionfish, armed with venomous dorsal spines that enable them to deter predators, are more normally associated with warm tropical waters of the South Pacific and Indian Ocean. Almost two decades ago the non-native tropical fish began to enter US waters, appearing in the Atlantic after pet owners started releasing outsized lionfish from home aquariums into the sea. Now they have reached Europe. In 2012, after initial sightings off Turkey, Israel and Lebanon, they were spotted off Cyprus. Three years later they had appeared further south in Greece, Italy and Tunisia, testimony, scientists say, to their ability to both enter new territories and spawn at record rates.
As numbers proliferate, so have fears of the flamboyantly coloured fish posing the biggest ecological setback to ecosystems in the Mediterranean – which is already under pressure from pollution, tourism and over-exploitation. In the EU, Cyprus has become “the first line of defence” against the lionfish invasion. Continue reading
Today, just four giant companies control more than 60 percent of all the world’s seed sales.
Thanks to the New York Times for this opinion:
By Dan Barber
Additional reporting and graphics by Ash Ngu. Photographs by Ruth Fremson
Flowering curly kale, a variety called Baltisk Rod Purpurkal, being grown for seed at Fresh Roots Farm in Montana. The farm is collaborating with the Organic Seed Alliance on a toolkit for farmers who want to produce seed.
Not long ago I was sitting in a combine tractor on a 24,000-acre farm in Dazey, N.D. The expanse of the landscape — endless rows of corn and soybeans as precise as a Soviet military parade — was difficult to ignore. So were the skyscraper-tall storage silos and the phalanx of 18-wheeled trucks ready to transport the grain. And yet what held my attention were the couple of dozen seeds in my palm — the same seeds cultivated all around me.
We are told that everything begins with seed. Everything ends with it, too. As a chef I can tell you that your meal will be incalculably more delicious if I’m cooking with good ingredients. But until that afternoon I’d rarely considered how seed influences — determines, really — not only the beginning and the end of the food chain, but also every link in between.
The tens of thousands of rows surrounding me owed their brigade-like uniformity to the operating instructions embedded in the seed. That uniformity allows for large-scale monoculture, which in turn determines the size and model of the combine tractor needed to efficiently harvest such a load. (“Six hundred horsepower — needs a half-mile just to turn her around,” joked the farmer sitting next to me.) Satellite information, beamed into the tractor’s computer, makes it possible to farm such an expanse with scientific precision.
The type of seed also dictates the fertilizer, pesticide and fungicide regimen, sold by the same company as part of the package, requiring a particular planter and sprayer (40 feet and 140 feet wide, respectively) and producing a per-acre yield that is startling, and startlingly easy to predict.
It is as if the seed is a toy that comes with a mile-long list of component parts you’re required to purchase to make it function properly. Continue reading
A recent message from Rwanda, in spite of what I said about Seth being plenty verbal, was as quiet as what you see above. Amie, whose eye inclines this way and makes sure our platform shares stories like this, thought it was the fruit we were supposed to guess the identity of. Because of my coffee focus of the last year, and Seth’s experience planting coffee, I immediately thought it was about whatever pest might be ravaging the leaves. Neither. Continue reading
A team of specially-trained hunting dogs has been helping conservationists and researchers find rare turtles in Iowa. KATE PAYNE/IPR
Thanks to Iowa Public Radio for some good conservation news from the Heart Land.
An eastern Iowa conservation group is taking an unconventional approach to tracking rare turtles on its land. Iowa Public Radio tagged along with a man who’s trained his hunting dogs to find the reptiles for researchers. Counting the creatures will help conservationists manage the land better.
It’s a cool morning on a nature preserve owned by Bur Oak Land Trust in Johnson County. I’m scouring a shady hillside with John Rucker and his four Boykin spaniels, looking for turtles.
“Find turtle, find turtle,” Rucker calls to his dogs. He turns to me and says, “did I tell you I’m the only person in the world that does this?”
When he’s not living off the grid in rural Montana, Rucker travels the country with his specially-trained hunting dogs, helping scientists and conservationists find turtles.
“This is Rooster,” John says, introducing the dogs. “This is Jenny Wren. She’s the one that gives me my litters. And that’s Mink. No, that’s Jaybird, and that’s Mink.”
We make our way through the undergrowth, checking in brush piles and under old logs. When the dogs find a turtle, they’ll pick it up and bring it back to be counted.
“You will notice that as soon as they strike a scent trail their tails will start wagging furiously, and then their whole demeanor becomes extremely excitable,” Rucker explains.
Citizen conservationist Judy Felder is one of the volunteers out hunting today.
“It’s sort of like a religion for me,” Felder says. “Nature is important and somebody has to defend it, protect it, preserve it.” Continue reading
Elk are the most common mammals at the reserve. Photograph: Valery Yurko
Most examples of rewilding are defined as human intervention to return wildlife back into habitats where they’ve long disappeared. Thanks to the Guardian for this highly unusual one where the human population are the ones who have left – due to bizarre circumstances, to be sure – and the wildlife have slowly returned to reclaim the habitats left behind.
It’s heartening to believe that the animals may illustrate Nature’s power to heal where human’s have so severely faltered.
Rare and endangered animals have thrived in the Chernobyl disaster zone since it was evacuated in 1986, as a new wildlife tour in southern Belarus shows
It is 5.30am in southern Belarus. A pink moon hangs over flat fields tinged with frost, and as we arrive at the checkpoint on the edge of the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, five hours’ drive south of the capital, Minsk, a dawn chorus of cranes and hoopoes is in full swing.
This may seem an unlikely place to come wildlife watching, but I’m here with the first eco-tour of the Palieski state radioecological reserve (as the Belarusian section of the zone is called).
It was in April 1986 that probably the world’s worst nuclear accident happened, just over the border in northern Ukraine – a dramatisation of the disaster is currently showing on Sky Atlantic. Chernobyl town was evacuated and the exclusion zone today covers 2,600 sq km in Ukraine and 2,100 sq km in Belarus.
Ukraine turned its part of the zone into a tourist attraction several years ago – 50,000 people visited the nuclear reactor and ghost town of Pripyat last year, and it has even hosted a rave. But Belarus didn’t open its Palieski reserve to visitors until last December.
The Ukrainian site is now popular for its eerie ghost town and reactor ruins, but on this side of the border it’s all about the wilderness, and our tour will be a nature-watching trip like no other. The reserve claims to be Europe’s largest experiment in rewilding, and the unlikely beneficiaries of nuclear disaster have been the wolves, bison and bears that now roam the depopulated landscape, and the 231 (of the country’s 334) bird species that can also be found here. Continue reading
The image above was taken after the last giraffe photo, but I do not know where. Today Seth sent more photos after he and his colleagues hiked up, through a national park, to the upper reaches of a volcano.
Hiked to the summit of Visoke volcano in the national park, the toughest hike I’ve done just for elevation (got up to 3711 meters asl) through the wettest slush mud
Seth is plenty verbal. But under these circumstance I appreciated the parsimony of words in his message accompanying the photos. I have been at that altitude and it does not encourage chit chat.
We have lived and worked in beautiful places; again, all I can say is I look forward to Ghana.
And again, my favorite image is not the one I would have expected.
In the well-kept hives tended by beekeeper Fred Merriam in Georgia, every bee has a job to do. Credit Stephen B. Morton for The New York Times
Kim Severson last caught my attention about a year ago. She covers food culture for the New York Times, and this is the fifth time we have found a story of hers a perfect fit for our platform’s themes. Food intersecting with conservation is always welcome, and honey specifically is on my mind these days. Honey bees? Always of interest. During our transition from India back to Costa Rica over the last two years we spent much of our time in Atlanta. The honey in this story was available in the farmer’s market we shopped at, and we occasionally indulged. I am gratified to learn more about it here:
Hurricanes, blights and encroaching development have cut into the harvest in Florida and Georgia, but a small cadre of beekeepers still fiercely pursues this lucrative prize.
Tupelo trees, which produce small, nectar-filled light green and white flowers for two weeks each spring, rise out of swamps in the Altamaha River Basin in southeastern Georgia. Credit Stephen B. Morton for The New York Times
ODUM, Ga. — The most expensive honey in America starts in these mucky Southern swamps, where white Ogeechee tupelo trees twist up out of water so dark you can’t tell if that was an alligator or a snake that just broke the surface.
Tupelo honey fresh from the comb has a distinctive light green tint. Credit Stephen B. Morton for The New York Times
For two precious weeks each spring in this slice of southeastern Georgia and in the Florida Panhandle, tupelo trees bloom with pale, fragile flowers that look like pompoms for tiny cheerleaders. Beekeepers tuck their hives along the banks, or occasionally float them out into the water on rafts. Then the bees get to work, making honey that looks and tastes like no other.
Good tupelo will glow with a light green tint, especially when it’s fresh from the comb and bathed in sunlight. The first taste is of cinnamon with a tingle of anise. That gives way to a whisper of jasmine and something citrusy — tangerine rind, maybe? The honey is so soft, light and buttery that the only logical move is to chase it with another spoonful. Continue reading
Seth sent a few more messages, in the form of images, from Rwanda. One day soon I will describe what he is doing there, but for now the images say more than enough.
While elephants are a childhood favorite animal for Seth, he had seen Asian elephants in the wild, so that probably made seeing giraffe the charismatic topper so far.
Once zebra is added to the list of species seen, it might start feeling like all is well in the wild (even if we know it is not).
Waterbuck with African Fish-Eagle
One of the few photos that had any words to explain was this one, which is to be expected of a birder in the realm of charismatic megafauna.
But of all the photos, the one that caught my eye was the one above, which I do not yet have an explanation for but it is in surrounded by the following photos which put it in some context.
That gives a hint.
This answers the question.
And this makes it crystal clear. Seth had already sent an image from an earlier field visit that he knew would catch my attention.
The origins of Organikos can be traced to a project I led in 2005 in Paraguay, where I had the idea that wild-hunted honey from the Pantanal region could share the taste of place with the world while at the same time providing much-needed cash infusion to the honey hunters and the protection of their wilderness areas. Seth knows that story and knows to send me photos of honey from wild places as a polite indication that the idea was a good one, if not original.
Wood Storks nesting in the Everglades. Photo: Mac Stone
Thanks to By Andy McGlashen, the Associate Editor of Audubon Magazine, for this bright spot on the horizon, a signal that long shot comebacks are possible:
An official report says that South Florida’s wading birds had an even better 2018 than we thought.
A year ago, Everglades scientists and environmentalists were ecstatic about what looked like a blockbuster breeding season for South Florida’s wading birds. Turns out, it was far better than those early estimates indicated. New data show that the region hosted its biggest colonies of waders in more than 80 years, offering a flashback to the historical Everglades and a glimpse of how the ecosystem again could look once restored.
All told, wading birds built 138,834 nests throughout South Florida, with 122,571 of them in the Everglades, according to an annual report released last week by the South Florida Water Management District. That’s about three and a half times the average for the past 10 years, making it the strongest nesting season since before the region’s hydrology was transformed with engineering projects that made development possible but also contributed to steep declines in wading bird numbers. Continue reading
Seth is in Rwanda, and until now only one of his photos was posted here. His last written post on this platform was about a year ago, when he was preparing for graduate school, but since then dozens of his photographs have been shared here as bird of the day. I do not expect him to have time to share written description here of his work in Rwanda, so I will share some of the photos he is sending us.
I do not know where these places are, yet. But I hope to hear soon.
La Paz Group was part of a consortium a decade ago competing for a project, funded by USAID, to assist Rwanda’s government with planning for the future of nature-based tourism. Our proposal was not the winning proposal, so I did not have the chance to see the country in person. Yet. But based on these photos, I will.
My last long term assignment in Africa was in Ghana. My last prospecting for a long term assignment was in Ethiopia. Both of those countries are worthy of revisiting, and I intend to do so. But Rwanda has jumped to the top of the must visit list in Africa.
What is not visible in any of these photos is Seth’s encounters with wildlife. I have heard about gorillas, chimpanzees, colobus monkeys and plenty of bird species. He has sent pictures of wildflowers, mushrooms, ants. Not just any ants. Driver Ants! But for now, the bucolic natural and manicured landscapes are enough to convince me.
In my daily scan for information related to the environment, I invariably learn something that surprises me. Like the fact that the earthworm, which provide valuable ecosystem services, can also represent danger on a global scale:
Worms are wriggling into Earth’s northernmost forests, creating major unknowns for climate-change models.
Earthworms recently have spread to Alaska’s boreal forest. In some areas, the biomass of earthworms is 500 times greater than that of moose, a keystone species. Lance King/Getty Images
Cindy Shaw, a carbon-research scientist with the Canadian Forest Service, studies the boreal forest — the world’s most northerly forest, which circles the top of the globe like a ring of hair around a balding head.
A few years ago, while conducting a study in northern Alberta to see how the forest floor was recovering after oil and gas activity, she saw something she had never seen there before: earthworms.
“I was amazed,” she said. “At the very first plot, there was a lot of evidence of earthworm activity.”
Native earthworms disappeared from most of northern North America 10,000 years ago, during the ice age. Now invasive earthworm species from southern Europe — survivors of that frozen epoch, and introduced to this continent by European settlers centuries ago — are making their way through northern forests, their spread hastened by roads, timber and petroleum activity, tire treads, boats, anglers and even gardeners. Continue reading
Organikos has been described in these pages in relation to its commitment to treat nature respectfully and its aspiration to inspire. Above is land that will be restored to its previous condition as an arabica coffee plantation. It looks green enough, to be sure. And the trees are poro (Erythrina Poeppigiana), planted sometime in the previous century when the last coffee trees were planted. So that is encouraging. The agapanthas and lilies and the bushes and the bamboo are all lovely, but not as lovely as coffee. Coffee inspires.
Another type of inspiration altogether is the tree fern, a primordial plant. The one to the right was photographed a few days ago about 250 miles south of the photo above. It is in the restoration section of a large land holding belonging to Osa Conservation. Its location is important to me because it is where our company developed its first understood the deeper implications of our work.
This abundant stand of tree ferns with new shoots inspires because Osa Conservation has succeeded where others have not succeeded in getting these ancient plants to propogate. It inspires more broadly due to the success of the organization to protect the land in the region.
Our team was in the Osa with some friends from Colombia who are in the process of planning the next stage of a large scale conservation initiative. They came to Costa Rica for inspiration on new methodologies for conservation, and they found what they were looking for in the Osa, most impactfully during their visit at Osa Conservation. That impact was on display at a book fair in the form of this gem of a book. You can be sure it will be on the shelf at Authentica, along with that coffee we keep mentioning.
Keeping watch over a New Jersey lake. Photograph: Victoria Bekiempis
Thanks to Victoria Bekiempis for this inside look at the other North American world series:
Illustration by Golden Cosmos
Like you, or anyone, I need my refreshers on the wonders of nature after days on end of contemplating loss:
The Florida writer finds a new sense of enchantment in her new home, on the Oregon coast, where the big trees are like characters out of Jim Henson.
A palm oil plantation in Riau province, Sumatra, Indonesia. Ulet Ifansasti/Getty Images
One more on the same topic of recent days, last for a while I promise:
The authors of a sweeping United Nations report on species in danger of extinction faced the same question I often do in reporting: Why should anyone care about the loss of nature?
On Monday, I wrote about a sweeping new United Nations report warning that humans were destroying Earth’s natural ecosystems at an “unprecedented” pace.
The findings were sobering: Millions of acres of wetlands and rain forests are being cleared away. As many as one million plant and animal species are now threatened with extinction because of farming, poaching, pollution, the transport of invasive species and, increasingly, global warming. Almost everywhere you look, nature is vanishing before our eyes.
But the report, which was written for world leaders and policymakers, also wrestled with some big questions: Why should anyone care about the loss of nature? Why should countries take drastic steps, as the report urges, to halt the decline in biodiversity? Continue reading
Illustration by João Fazenda
I really meant it, I do not tire of the constant bracing reminders:
People easily forget “last of” stories about individual species, but the loss of nature also threatens our existence.
The first documented extinction of 2019 occurred on New Year’s Day, with the death of a Hawaiian tree snail named George. George, who was about an inch long, had a grayish body, grayish tentacles, and a conical shell striped in beige and brown. He was born in captivity, in Honolulu, and had spent his unassuming life oozing around his terrarium, consuming fungi. Researchers with Hawaii’s forestry department had tried to find a partner for him—George was a hermaphrodite, but he needed a mate in order to reproduce—and when they couldn’t they concluded that he was the last of his kind, Achatinella apexfulva. A few days after he went, presumably gently, into that good night, the department posted a eulogy under the heading “farewell to a beloved snail . . . and a species.” “Unfortunately, he is survived by none,” it observed. Continue reading