Worst Camping Trip Ever?

Endurance. An Epic of Polar Adventure by F.A. Worsley. W.W. Norton and Co. New York. 1931. (With an Introduction by Patrick O’Brien, 1999)

 Worsley was in command of Endurance, the ship that carried Earnest Shackleton’s 1914 expedition to cross Antarctica. Caught in the pack ice in the Weddell Sea, from February to November 1915 the Endurance drifted until she was crushed and sunk. From then until April, the twenty-eight men camped on the ice in thin canvas tents, without floors, on limited rations. They made several attempts to march north, an exhausting job over the rough and broken ice, until they were finally able to launch their three lifeboats to cross to Elephant Island, one of the last bits of land off the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula. Here, most of them camped under the shelter of two overturned boats, while Shackleton, Worsley and four others made a dangerous sixteen-day trip in the third boat to South Georgia. That they arrived there and did not simply sail on into the endless South Atlantic to sink or starve is testimony to the nearly legendary navigational skill of Worsley, who learned the craft traveling to remote islands while working for the British South Pacific Service. To cap this remarkable feat, Shackleton, Worsley and a third man had to cross the island to reach the whaling station on the south shore. This they did during the only window of weather for months when it was possible to struggle over the mountains and glaciers with any chance of surviving.

 Having found help and picked up the other three men, they headed straight for Elephant Island, but the pack ice blocked the way. Only on the fourth try, in their fourth borrowed ship, starting from Punta Arenas, Chile, near Tierra del Fuego, did they reach the stranded crew on August 30, 1916. All twenty-eight of Shackleton’s men had survived. Ironically, several soon perished while serving in the First World War, which had been going on the entire time they were away. Before they returned to England, however, they were honored by the Chileans of Punta Arenas with a banquet. The Chilean guests rose one by one to drink a glass of wine with the Brits, resulting in each hero having to consume multiple glasses while their hosts remained relatively sober. Shackleton, who drank little, was permitted to withdraw, but when the rest tried to follow a bit later, they were sent back at bayonet point by Chilean soldiers, who were under orders to allow no sober English, nor even any not sufficiently drunk, to pass.

Afterwards, Worsley served in the Royal Naval Reserve, commanding an anti-submarine ship. He sank a German U-boat by ramming it. He was also in the British Northern Russia Expedition against the Red army. After the war, he knocked around, leading several difficult trips to the Arctic but usually ending up in financial difficulties. Finally, in 1922, Shackleton took him on again for another Antarctic expedition, but Shackleton died on the trip south. After one more arctic voyage and an unsuccessful treasure hunt on Cocos Island, Costa Rica, Worsley spent the interwar years writing and lecturing. He lied about his age to secure a command in the Merchant Navy in 1941, but he was soon found out and put to work as a training officer on shore. He died in 1943 of lung cancer.

All I can say is that, as far as putting up with cold, hunger and strenuous exercise, even more than the early Mount Everest climbers, those guys were tough. Furthermore, the men in charge of the different parties were good at maintaining discipline and morale, keeping up a routine that included regular musical performances as well as hunting expeditions. In more than two years, there seems to have been only a single hint of mutiny: at one point, the ship’s carpenter, claiming (like Steven Hopkins – see my earlier post on the Sea Venture) that the loss of the Endurance set them free from Shackleton’s command, refused to go on. Shackleton stood firm and convinced him to stick. The other factor in the crew’s favor was that unlike the early English voyages to places like America, there were neither indigenous people to antagonize nor much in the way of infectious diseases to contend with. One man lost a foot to gangrene following frostbite, but there were two doctors in the party and an anesthetic, so it went well. They also got enough fresh meat to keep scurvy at bay. A final minor miracle of the trip was that a large number of their photographic negatives survived, giving us an amazing visual record of what they endured.

 Worsley is a good writer; the book is the sort to read in a few big chunks with much satisfaction and amazement.


Nearctic Travels: Shipwreck and Shakespeare

A Brave Vessel: The True Tale of the Castaways Who Rescued Jamestown and Inspired Shakespeare’s The Tempest by Hobson Woodward. New York. Viking Press. 2009.

[Image from A young people’s history of Virginia and Virginians. 1896 by D.H. Maury]

 Woodward tells the story of the Sea Venture, the flagship of the 1609 supply fleet sent by the Virginia Company to support its colony at Jamestown. Caught in a hurricane and run aground on Bermuda, Sea Venture’s crew and passengers survived and spent nearly a year on the islands, until they could construct two new ships to complete the trip to Virginia. Among the passengers was William Strachey, a down on his luck gentleman, who aspired to literary fame. He was made secretary to successive governors of the Jamestown Colony and sent an official report and a private letter describing the events of the voyage. Woodward believes, largely on the basis of textual similarities, that the private letter was a major source for The Tempest.

The first part of the book covers the experiences of the Sea Venture castaways from England to Bermuda and Virginia and back to England, using Strachey and other historical sources. The second part deals more speculatively with how Shakespeare composed The Tempest, drawing out in detail similarities and coincidences between Strachey’s letter and the plot, characters and language of the play. Woodward has little to go on here, but he at least makes a plausible case for Shakespeare having read a copy of Strachey’s account.

 My interest in this very readable book was sparked by its references to another passenger on the Sea Venture, Steven Hopkins. Described as a “shopkeeper from Hampshire” who knew the Scriptures well enough to become clerk to the minister aboard ship, he is notable for having attempted to organize a mutiny on Bermuda. His goal was apparently to remain on the island and not be taken to Virginia, on the grounds that the passengers’ contract with the company was voided by the shipwreck. He was informed on to the military commander of the expedition, Thomas Gates, who put him on trial for his life. According to Strachey, Hopkins was so eloquent in pleading that his wife and children back in Hampshire would be ruined if he were hanged that most of the gentlemen in the group argued for leniency. Gates relented, and Hopkins survived his time in Bermuda and Virginia and returned to England. He later joined the Mayflower, with his second wife and children. Though not a member of the Pilgrims’ sect, he was taken on as someone who knew the land and native people of Virginia, which is where the Mayflower was supposed to be going. Hopkins’s wife gave birth while at sea, and his family was one of only two not to lose anyone on the voyage. In Plymouth, he helped negotiate a treaty with the natives that remained unbroken for the life of the signers and also ran the settlement’s first tavern. His female descendants married into some of the leading families of Massachusetts. I find it amazing that this man was part of three of the most remarkable English ventures in North America, especially since I may be distantly related through a female ancestor from one of those New England families. I’m currently learning more about him, because whether or not we are related, his story deserves to be more widely known.

A Brave Vessel is well worth reading for a sea story, as gripping as Joseph Conrad’s Typhoon, and as a look at the struggles of the English to establish a foothold in America. Woodward describes all the suffering that followed from the conflicts between colonizers and natives as well as within the English society attempting to transplant itself across the ocean. He also touches on the ecological and climatological factors that helped and hindered their efforts. The severe drought that bracketed the early years of the Virginia colony greatly increased the stress on both natives and colonists and led to the “starving time” in the winter of 1609-1610, which the arrival of the ships from Bermuda helped relieve. During those same months on Bermuda, the castaways lived well on fish, nesting seabirds and their eggs, green sea turtles, and the introduced pigs, left by earlier Spanish seafarers. The native plants, including palmetto and Bermuda cedar furnished food and drink as well as timber for building the two ships, Deliverance and Patience. The plenitude and mild climate of the islands undoubtedly were factors in Steven Hopkins near fatal desire to remain there.

 Bermuda became an English colony and suffered great ecological changes, including the near extinction of its endemic cedars and the cahow or Bermuda petrel, whose strange nocturnal calls helped give the islands their early reputation as haunted by devils. Bermuda’s roles in supporting the earliest ventures of England into North America and in inspiring one of the greatest English plays remain points of local pride. I wonder if Steven Hopkins dreamed of Bermuda during the dreary New England winters.

Palearctic travelers

The Horse, the Wheel and Language by David W. Anthony, Princeton University Press, 2007.

 This very rich and fascinating book details the development of our understanding of the history of the Indo European family of languages, from the latest common set of dialects spoken by people living in the steppes north of the Black and Caspian seas in southeastern Europe and southwestern Asia. David Anthony covers the time from the earliest diffusion of agriculture and domesticated animals out of Mesopotamia into southeastern Europe and the subsequent gradual spread out into the steppes. His key thesis is that the domestication of the wild horses of the steppes and their subsequent use as mounts, followed by the introduction of the wagon and the war chariot gave steppe tribes a mobility that enabled them to move long distances, eventually into central Europe and the Indian subcontinent, creating a bridge across cultural regions that by the late bronze age extended as far as China. Thus their language became the dominant family of languages over a vast geographic area.

 To begin with, Anthony, an archaeologist, provides an account of the linguistic evidence for a common ancestral language. The history was derived from careful analysis of phonetic and morphological changes among closely and distantly related languages. This work has been going on since the 18th century, when Europeans first began to suspect that their languages and those of India were akin to one another. This process is very much like reconstructing a biological lineage from genetic and morphological data on living or fossil specimens. It is always only the best hypothesis to explain the data at hand, but lots of work gradually leads to trustworthy results. Interestingly, linguists and evolutionary biologists employ many of the same computer programs. Anthony argues that with the predictive capacity of these explanations and the help of inscriptions dating to some of the earliest writing, we can be reasonably certain that we know some 1500 root words of Proto Indo European as well as many more terms derived from them.

 In a long series of chapters, he goes through the archaeological evidence to reconstruct the culture and characteristics of the speakers of Proto Indo European as well as how they came to be capable of leaving their steppe home and spreading out so far. Technological change is a key factor: the period covered extends from the late Neolithic to the Bronze Age. Tools, weapons, household goods and prestige items were all important. So was the domestication of the horse and the new kinds of both herding and livestock raiding that riding horses made possible. Climate change was another key factor: cold, dry periods favored herding over farming and led to wars that destroyed thriving agricultural settlements on the edges of the steppes. Cultural change was evident all along as settlement patterns, burial styles and material goods changed, indicating, according to Anthony, the rise of more male centered and hierarchical societies on the steppes – in other words the rise of the chieftain and possibly the priest, as had also happened in the city states of Mesopotamia. At some point the wheel spread into the steppe from the south.

 In the steppe, horseback riding and the wagon facilitated an mobile style of herding that also could be accompanied by cattle raiding, looting and trading, which in turn led some to accumulate greater wealth in herds and goods, including copper and bronze weapons and ornaments. Harsher climates also contributed to this increase in social inequality. Anthony argues from linguistic evidence that the speakers of Proto Indo European developed two key social systems that enabled them to dominate the cultures that they encountered in their expansion out of the steppe: patron-client and guest-host. The former stabilized and solidified the pattern of social inequality; the latter made possible firm alliances among groups from both similar and different cultures on the basis of reciprocal obligation (the Indo European root for “guest” and “host” is the same). These, plus the ability of mobile herders to make long distance migrations and easily establish themselves wherever pasture could be found, profoundly shaped the future history of Eurasia. Sometimes raiding and warfare must have been involved in the spread of these peoples, but not the sorts of mobile armies (think of the Mongol hordes) seen in the iron ages and Medieval times; those were a much later development. The primary way the Indo European culture spread, according to Anthony, was incremental. A few powerful chiefs established themselves in new territory, either as patrons or as guest/hosts, and their superior wealth, culture and technology gradually won over the locals. Horseback riding and chariots (possibly invented in the steppe) were rapidly adopted in Europe, the Middle East and China, while the Indo European language evolved into multiple major branches, eventually extending from the British Isles to India.

 Since the publication of this book, genetic studies of ancient Europeans have been published that are consistent with the overall picture given here. About the time suggested by Anthony for the initial spread of Indo European dialects into Eastern Europe, there was an significant spread of DNA, especially that of males, from the steppes north of the Black Sea into Europe. News reports from Science in 2015 and 2017 describes these studies as does a recent news article in Scientific American. The evidence, however, raises many questions. For instance, there are also significant indications that European genes spread into the steppes. This could be explained if long distance trading or raiding, involving wives or children brought back by returning parties were significant, as well as children fathered by the migrants/visitors in Europe. It doesn’t rule out long distance migration and colonization by steppe peoples as well, but it suggests that the picture was complicated. Genes, culture and language spread together, with or without large-scale migration, in Anthony’s scenario.

What makes Anthony’s account particularly cogent, and better than any of the news stories, is his attention to detail, particularly in laying out the linguistic and archeological evidence. It’s a lot to take in, but we can be grateful for his scholarship and willingness to cross disciplinary boundaries.

Global Voyager

Maya Jasanoff. Dawn Watch. Joseph Conrad in a Global World. Penguin Press. 2017.

Jasanoff’s biography is both an appraisal of Conrad’s career as an author and the influences on his life and work of the rapid global expansion of commerce and imperial ambition in the second half of the nineteenth century. She describes his childhood in partitioned and occupied Poland, where his father was a idealistic revolutionary, exiled for much of his life. Conrad was inspired to go to sea at age sixteen after reading, among other works, the seafaring novels of James Fenimore Cooper, which I did not realize the author of Leatherstocking Tales had written. He eventually made his way to England, at that time the country most open to expatriates and the greatest maritime power.

 Rising through the ranks of the merchant navy to become a licensed master, he voyaged across the globe, but mostly to Australia and Southeast Asia, mostly on sailing ships or the lesser steamers, rarely having the opportunity to serve on the better classes of fast passenger ships. When he began to write and publish his own stories, they were set in the locales familiar to him, aboard ships at sea or in the ports and backwater towns and villages of the great Asian archipelago. He focused on sailors and on the various exiles, dreamers of wealth or those escaping the past, who found their way into the remote places where they encountered indigenous rulers and other adventurers in constant conflict, much of it driven by the outside forces of expanding trade and European imperialism. His one trip on the Congo provided the framework for his most famous and controversial work, The Heart of Darkness. There he saw firsthand how the unbridled force of European greed brought out the savage potential of nearly everyone who became involved in the enterprise.

 Conrad did not like to be thought of as a writer of sea stories, although he certainly wrote vivid and hair raising tales of the struggles of ships and crews, Typhoon being one of my personal favorites. He thought of himself as writing about the struggles of human beings, mostly, but not exclusively, men, caught up in the web of impersonal forces, both natural and societal that he saw driving the history of his times: oppression and the revolutionary impulse, personal ambition and political intrigue and the “material interests,” which he associated most powerfully with the United States.

 Jasanoff does an excellent job of drawing out the threads that connect Conrad to our own day, arguing that more than any other author of his time, he saw and made his readers see the historical forces at work that we would now call “globalization.” Much has changed, as she is careful to describe from personal experience, both in material circumstances and our perspectives, but the seeds were present and can be perceived clearly in Conrad’s work. She herself, to gain first hand experience, made a river journey down the Congo, following the route of Conrad and his fictional Captain Marlowe, but she saw none of the darkness that they did, only poor but very enterprising people, making their way in a complex world, where bushmeat sellers from villages of bamboo houses buy toothpaste and batteries and watch satellite television showing European football matches. Some things she says, do not change much: the camaraderie of a long sea voyage (for her, on a giant container ship, following the long established route from Hong Kong to England) and the ravishing beauty of the dawn over a smooth sea.

 Jasanoff sees Conrad as deeply pessimistic about human beings, carried along by winds and currents of history. Although we can master the literal forces of nature by our machines, we unleash consequences we cannot control, and the forces within ourselves are even less manageable. But, she says, Conrad does show us those times when however precariously, we can make choices that alter the course of ours and others’ lives. I find Conrad himself a clear case in point: in choosing to go to sea, the Polish boy, Konrad Korzeniowski became Joseph Conrad, master mariner and one of the greatest English novelists.

When Worlds Collide


The Conquest of Tenochtitlan  And when we saw all those cities and villages built in the water, and other great towns on dry land, and that straight and level causeway leading to Mexico [i.e. Tenochtitlán], we were astounded. These great towns and cues [i.e., temples] and buildings rising from the water, all made of stone, seemed like an enchanted vision from the tale of Amadis. Indeed, some of our soldiers asked whether it was not all a dream. It is not surprising therefore that I should write in this vein. It was all so wonderful that I do not know how to describe this first glimpse of things never heard of, seen or dreamed of before. . . .I say again that I stood looking at it, and thought that no land like it would ever be discovered in the whole world…. But today all that I then saw is overthrown and destroyed; nothing is left standing. True History of the Conquest of New Spain by Bernal Díaz del Castillo (1492-1580)

1491 (Second Edition): New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus. Audible recorded edition, original publication 2006 by Charles C. Mann

1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created. Audible recorded edition, original publication 2011 by Charles C. Mann

These two books form a pair of inquiries, first into what the New World, comprising the nearctic and neotropical biogeographic realms, were like prior to the coming of Europeans (and Africans) after 1492 and second into what the resulting “Columbian exchange,” wrought in biological and cultural terms across the world.

Mann collected the latest scientific and historical evidence from a wide range of first hand sources, mostly working archaeologists, anthropologists, demographers, historians and others. He traveled through North, Central and South America to see the discoveries that are changing our notions about the human population of the Americas from the end of the ice ages to the present. He revisited the first hand accounts of the earliest European explorers, who often reported densities of human settlements that were disbelieved by those who followed just a couple of generations later, after European diseases had depopulated vast regions. He recounts the epic battles of the scientific past: how new discoveries were often flatly denied by the powerful authorities of the time, even in the face of hard evidence. Some academic scientists took all the credit for discoveries which were originally made by amateurs and lay people. The history of Native Americans has been contested ground for centuries, and now the Native Americans themselves are becoming more deeply involved, not always, as far as I can see, on the side of the best science. This may partly be blamed on postmodern and post colonialist concepts of truth, but a lot is simply the difficulty of making sense of the evidence. Betty Meggars, author of Amazonia: Nature and Culture in a Counterfeit Paradise, which I greatly admired as a young ecologist, is an example of someone who, at the time 1491 was published, opposed the idea that humans could have lived in the Amazon Basin in large settlements with permanent, as opposed to shifting agriculture. I think her basic ideas about ecological limitations are sound, but it seems as if she was refusing to see that the ecology of the Amazon forest was more complex than was understood in the 1970s. Since those early days of the save the rainforest movement, we have learned a lot about the Amazon and other forests that contradicts ideas about primeval forests, undisturbed for centuries, being what Europeans encountered as they ventured to Africa, Asia and the Americas. Many environmentalists are reluctant to accept these findings, because they rightly fear that they could be used to justify unregulated exploitation by destructive modern methods. Still, I see no use in denying hard won understanding. I, for one, accept the idea that across the earth, humans have played a much greater role in  shaping the landscape and for a longer time than we previously believed. Mann’s detailed accounts of the latest understanding of life of Native Americans prior to 1492 point to just how much was lost in the collision between the peoples, plants, animals and diseases of two formerly isolated realms.

Mann’s second book, 1493, takes up the story to try to see how this fatal, but pregnant, collision transformed the rest of the planet. Central to this was trade: the rapid exchange of all sorts of goods, including new crops, new livestock and unfortunately, new pests and diseases across the globe. The trade was facilitated by the new sea routes opened up, especially the Spanish route from Mexico to Manila, made possible by the vast deposits of silver and gold in the new Spanish colonies. Chinese silks and porcelin flowed east to New Spain and then Europe, while silver, especially, flowed to China. Along with the coin went crops like maize, chili pepper and sweet potato, whose conquest of Asian diets Mann details. Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, sugar, tobacco and later, cotton began to flow to Europe, made possible by the labor of enslaved Africans. Transplanted Europeans, their crops and their livestock began to replace the native populations from Argentina to Quebec, remaking the landscape in a melded version of the old and new. Escaped slaves formed a crucial part of the ecological and cultural heritage of areas like Brazil and the southeastern US (see my post on Exiles of Florida).

All this history and ecology, so different from what I learned in school, and even as a graduate student forty years ago, is a reminder that very little of our understanding of ourselves and the world we inhabit can be taken as fixed and certain. Perhaps my favorite bit of revisionist history in either book is the notion that the famous passenger pigeon did not darken the skies in vast flocks containing billions of birds back before Columbus. Instead, it rocketed to huge numbers when the demographic collapse of Native Americans led to a regrowth of deciduous forest across formerly densely inhabited landscapes in eastern North America. How do we know they were not so abundant back in the day? Because passenger pigeon bones are scarce in archeological sites from pre-Columbian times, despite the historical fact that the birds were good to eat and easy to obtain in the early 19th century.

There were surely be further developments in this fascinating field of inquiry, but for now, these two books are not a bad place to begin.

Forgotten but not gone

Forgotten Grasslands of the South. Natural History and Conservation by Reed F. Noss. Island Press 2013

Walden Warming by Richard Primack. University of Chicago Press 2014

Reading Noss’s work, I recall Faulkner’s words, “The past isn’t gone. It isn’t even past.” Forgotten, neglected, tragically diminished, but not gone. Noss describes his travels to visit what was once a vast archipelago of grass-dominated ecological communities, ranging from endless longleaf pine savannas (see my post on Looking for Longleaf) to tiny rock outcrop barrens. This island landscape stretched across the southeastern United States from Texas to Virginia. In fact, though Noss does not discuss them, these communities are found up into the mid-Atlantic and New England. Today, the remaining islands, in a sea of agriculture, industrial forestry and urbanization  only hint at what has vanished beneath the waves of “progress.” But remarkably, there is enough to form the core of a restored landscape, something that will be a major challenge for 21st century ecologists.

Many types of habitats fit under the term “grassland.” Woodlands have trees, but their crowns cover less than three-fourths of the ground, allowing herbaceous plants, especially grasses, to thrive. Savannas have scattered trees, with less than about fifty percent cover. Meadows, glades, barrens and balds have only isolated patches of trees. Noss also describes plant and animal species endemic to the southeastern grasslands. An endemic is a kind of organism found in a particular type of community or a local area, and nowhere else. Many of these are critically imperiled, occurring today at only one or two places. The book is illustrated with his photos of the communities and the rare plants.

Noss has really interesting things to say about the factors that have maintained open, grass-dominated habitats over ecological and evolutionary time. The main ecological question is: what is preventing tall woody plants from taking over? The climate is warm enough, and rainfall is adequate for trees. It could be lack of a deep, firm soil that roots can penetrate to support tall stems. It could be that the soil stays wet or dry too much of the year. It could be constant disturbance by flood, wind, fire or herbivores. It could be lack of sufficient nutrients to support trees and shrubs. At any particular site, it’s most likely a combination of two or more of these factors.

The evolutionary question is: how have the species that comprise these ecological communities arisen and survived in a dynamic landscape? The answers are tentative and complicated, especially those related to changing climate. The distinctiveness and diversity of the endemic species, especially their adaptations to fire, imply a long evolutionary history. Some of the endemic plant species, such as those in certain rock outcrop barrens, may have evolved recently, while others, like the ones in the longleaf pine savannas, have been around for a very long time. This field of research is called phylogeography because it looks both at phylogenetic (evolutionary) relations among different populations and species and at the geographic patterns of climate (and so, the species’ habitats) now and in the past.

Many authors have stated the grasslands originated only as a result of disturbance by humans, who do not seem to have reached America before 30,000 years ago at the very earliest. If the grasslands originated before the Pleistocene ice ages, how did they survive the periods of peak glaciation and cold? Noss cites pollen data to show that most of the southeast had a cool temperate climate during the ice ages, but evidence from geomorphology suggests that there were periods of boreal conditions with deep seasonal frost or even permafrost. Aeolian landforms, created by strong winds coming off the glaciers, include dune fields, sand sheets and the famous Carolina bays. These indicate that there were periods where there was little vegetation to stabilize the surface. One possibility is that the pollen record is incomplete, because the intervals without vegetation produce essentially no pollen. Another is that, if the Gulf Stream stopped during the coldest intervals, the Gulf of Mexico would have been a tremendous heat reservoir, keeping the coastal areas warm, while inland sites were cold. On maps of the ice age drop in sea level, the additional dry land, just on the west side of peninsular Florida, looks nearly as large as North Carolina. Thus, a lot of grassland species might have retreated there.

Noss’s book and a recent article (Noss, R. F., Platt, W. J., Sorrie, B. A., Weakley, A. S., Means, D. B., Costanza, J. and Peet, R. K. 2015. How global biodiversity hotspots may go unrecognized: lessons from the North American Coastal Plain. Diversity and Distributions 21: 236–244), which includes the coastal plain up to Cape Cod, call the region a biodiversity hotspot. This is based on the great numbers of plant, vertebrate and insect species in the region and the number of those species that are endemic to it.

The article calls for the North American Coastal Plain to be listed as a global biodiversity hotspot. A colleague who studies southern grasshoppers told me that the group behind the effort to achieve listing had several more papers in the pipeline that they expected would be needed to convince the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund to add the NACP as hotspot number 36 They succeeded on the first try, just after the article was published (http://www.cepf.net/news/top_stories/Pages/Announcing-the-Worlds-36th-Biodiversity-Hotspot.aspx) Hooray!

Now the hard work begins: convincing people, especially government officials and private conservation groups, to take action. Here in New Jersey, most conservationists still see the coastal plain as a forest region. Natural enough, since fire suppression for the last eighty years has effectively converted what were once woodlands and savannas into dense forests of pine and oak trees and huckleberry shrubs. “Forest,” has such cultural significance in American environmentalism that it is very difficult to convince anyone that this is not what Nature intends. Add modifiers like “old growth,” “pristine,” “climax,” and you have idols that it is very hard to get environmentalists to stop worshipping.

Most people I know in the Mid-Atlantic region tend to blame “development” for loss of natural habitats. To an extent, this is true for the grasslands of the South, especially the loss in recent times of the smaller glades and barrens, but other factors are historically more important. Noss mentioned drainage and conversion to farmland, but this applies mainly to the wetter, richer grasslands. Dense tree plantations have replaced pine savannas. Another factor is loss of large herbivores, beginning with the extinction of much of North America’s megafauna – mammoths, ground sloths, etc. – around 15,000 years ago. To some degree, cattle, hogs and sheep may have supplied their place in the early post-1492 times of open ranges and even today, but livestock can do more harm than good to natural habitats, and they will never be allowed to recreate the vast network of “buffalo traces,” leading to salt licks and waterholes. These trails provided habitat and dispersal routes for grassland plants, as roadsides do today, if we don’t mow them in the growing season or allow exotic invasives to take over.

By far the clearest factor reducing grasslands is fire suppression. Since the advent of motorized firefighting in the mid-twentieth century, the number of fires has changed little, but the area burned annually has greatly decreased (https://www.jstor.org/stable/2484334?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents). This means that fire return intervals have generally become too long to prevent establishment of closed forest canopies. This is fine if you want to grow trees for wood or fiber but terrible for the plants and animals of woodlands, savannas and grasslands.

I have tried for years to convince my friends in the New Jersey Pine Barrens that the greatly increased plant canopy cover since fire suppression began to be effective has caused much of the reported drying out of the landscape. They prefer to blame the loss of wetlands and headwater streams on wells drilled by farmers, developers and casinos sucking water out of the ground. Trees and shrubs are taking just as much water through their roots and evaporating it through leaves, 300-500 pounds of water for every pound of sugar they make in photosynthesis. Some of my conservationist friends and colleagues oppose even moderate thinning of trees in the Pine Barrens. They talk about endangered species’ need for undisturbed habitat, not recognizing that on the coastal plain, far more species are threatened by the loss of open land with herbaceous vegetation – grasslands, woodlands, savannas and meadows. A very experienced botanist I know, however, has become convinced, after seeing species like pine barrens gentian and turkey beard springing up in the wake of forest thinning and reintroduction of fire on managed lands. Too bad the New Jersey Forest Service officials still thinks Smoky the Bear has the last word. They are courting disaster as fuel loads continue to build up in the pines, but they won’t believe that a fire could occur that they could not control. This is incredibly short sighted.

I also wish our environmental community would back off its opposition to natural gas pipelines, which actually create open habitats, and devote more of their resources to stopping the motorized mayhem that’s destroying the last of our native savannas and sand ridge communities all across southern New Jersey. In the Pinelands National Reserve, motorized recreation is not a permitted land use, but pressure from the motorheads has prevented meaningful regulation or enforcement.

Besides these immediate threats, I wonder whether the coastal plain biodiversity hotspot can survive climate change. As shown by Richard Primack in his excellent book, Walden Warming (Chicago 2014) there are already substantial changes in the flora and fauna of New England since Thoreau kept a naturalist’s journal in the 1850’s. Surely, though we lack clear evidence, such changes are occurring in the North American Coastal Plain. For plant populations to persist, they must either acclimate (adjust their flowering and fruiting physiology) adapt locally (through natural selection of individuals that best match the warmer climate) or disperse their seeds northwards. Primack points out that the barriers created by towns, farms and highways make it difficult for native plants to disperse to suitable new habitat.

A look at the map of the coastal plain shows another problem: the northward narrowing of the geologic region, until it peters out at Cape Cod and in the sandy outwash plans of southern New England. Even if species can shift northwards, they will find themselves funneled into increasingly tight confines, reduced even more by sea level rise. Europe’s flora is impoverished compared to its temperate counterparts in North America and Asia, because southward dispersal during the height of the last ice ages ran into the barrier of the Alps. The coastal plain’s denizens may be similarly crushed against the rock ribs of New England.

Noss’s points out that many people feel that preserving nature for its own sake is as important as preserving it for its benefits to us. He recasts Jack Kennedy’s famous dictum as, “ask not just what nature can do for us, but also what we can do for nature.” He estimates that temperate grasslands have the lowest ratio of lands preserved to lands destroyed of any major ecological system on earth. In the North American Coastal Plain this ratio may be even lower, although perhaps with more prospect for restoration than in some areas, because so much has been lost to fire suppression, which is fixable.

Noss is a strong proponent of saving all that we can in whatever ways are effective. He is against any form of ” triage,” writing off of species and communities that we decide in advance can’t be saved. He also criticizes the Nature Conservancy for overemphasizing what they call “working landscapes,” and neglecting the smaller, uneconomical bits, those tiny glades, barrens and rock outcrops that house such amazing numbers of endemic taxa. Noss argues we need to practice preservation on many scales, beginning with a ban on development of any new natural lands. We should be redeveloping abandoned or underutilized sites, close to existing development. I agree, but we need to find some way to effectively transfer development rights, or landowners will block any such policy. He also argues that we need to change the policies and practices of our state and federal agencies and private conservation groups to better manage lands already protected. Too many of the best areas are either over-utilized or neglected.

Both these books are excellent reads, especially the authors’ descriptions of work in the field with their colleagues and collaborators. One gets a sense that there are a lot of very dedicated ecologists working to preserve biodiversity in our changing landscape and changing climate. One of the encouraging developments I have noticed is the great increase in contributions from what are now called, “citizen scientists.” People, who might once have pursued their love of plants, birds or butterflies in isolation, now contribute to both current data collection and preservation of valuable old data (Thoreau’s Journals are a prime example) through projects like iDigBio. More could be done, especially if there were a way to report and then evaluate outliers: unusual sightings, anomalous individuals and things in the wrong place at the wrong time. Where economic interests are involved, we do usually follow up, as with introduced pests, but otherwise many valuable observations in our rapidly changing environment may be written off as misidentifications or just lost. I would like to see more naturalist’s, especially our large crop of butterfly watchers learn when and how to collect proper specimens to verify their unexpected sightings. Scientific collecting is almost never a threat to populations of insects, and a specimen allows positive identification and preservation of a record in a way photographs can’t.

I would strongly recommend these two books to anyone concerned about the future of biodiversity along our Atlantic coast.

The search for Cíbola

Castañeda, Pedro de. The Journey of Coronado, with other accounts of the journey, including Jaramillo, Hernando de Alvarado and Coronado himself, translated from the Spanish by George Parker Winship. Librivox.

This was the famous expedition in search of Cíbola, the “seven cities of gold.” The search was prompted by reports from Cabeza de Vaca and his companions, when they returned to Mexico in 1535, after their eight-year odyssey from the Gulf Coast (Cabeza’s account is also available on Librivox – I may write about it later). One of his companions, the African Estevan, made it to Zuni pueblo in 1539, as part of a scouting party led by Friar Marcos de Niza. There he was killed or perhaps simply dropped out of sight. The reports of de Niza convinced Coronado and Viceroy Antonio de Mendoza to mount an expedition. In three years of exploring the southwest of what is now the United States, various parties of the expedition reached as far as the southern end of the Grand Canyon of the Colorado and its South Rim, Zuni Pueblo, the pueblos of the Rio Grande valley, Blanco Canyon in the Texas Panhandle and the Arkansas River, east of present day Dodge City, Kansas. None of these places yielded any gold or other valuables. Either de Niza had a bad case of giving the answer wanted rather than the truth, or his zeal to spread the gospel made him try to see how far he could convince the army go among these unconverted peoples. The native communities could not even feed the expedition without being reduced to near starvation themselves. Some of the Rio Grande pueblos resisted and were overcome by force in bloody assaults. The difficulties of maintaining an army in the field in that country, with only horses and humans for transport, are hard to imagine (they did have a supply flotilla sail up the Gulf of California into the Colorado, but it could not enter the Grand Canyon, and at any rate, was much too far west to help). Once they were out on the plains, east of the Rio Grande and the mountains, they found it impossible even to keep track of where they were. Hunting parties wandered lost for days in the featureless landscape of grass and shrubs, with only the occasional river canyon as a landmark.

Castañeda gives dramatic accounts of the buffalo (which the translation renders as “cows,” presumably for the Spanish, “vacas”) and the natives who hunted them, living in tents on the open plains. His other botanical and ethnographic accounts are interesting but colored by his outlook as a Spaniard: The natives in the pueblos, camps and villages are described as to dress and customs, with frequent specifics on sexual matters, as “they do not practice sodomy,” in one place or “they are very great sodomites,” in another. One peculiar topic was the deadly poisoned arrows made by some of the natives the expedition fought with, which apparently included poison from the same plant that yields Mexican jumping-beans (Sebastiania bilocularis S. Watson, arrow poision plant, according to the USDA plants database). Even more interesting was the antidote: quinces, which Castañeda notes growing in many places the expedition passed through. The quince (genus Cydonia) is native to Asia, but could have been introduced to Mexico early in the 16th century. Northern Mexico is a minor quince producing region today, according to the Wikipedia article. Perhaps it was spread by the natives ahead of the Spanish themselves, or possibly Castañeda was just confused about the identity of a native fruit, as he seems to have been about the “cows.”

Overall, this is more of a reading for the historian or ethnographer than the naturalist. To give account of the landscape you are passing through, so that it can be recognized later, you have to be interested in more than gold.

The Librivox readers were outstanding as usual.