Thoughts on well-being, sustainability and those things that constitute a good life beyond consumption.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

On the fierce green fire - one for Big T

Last night, I came to understand the famous Leopold line “the fierce green fire dying in her eyes...” in a most peculiar way. 

Ten days ago, we were wondering if it was time to put my horse down, and friends who knew more than I said "When it is time, you will know." He responded to our care, and I learned more about the bond of trust between an animal and human than in all of my 50 plus years of pet ownership over those next several days. (I will spare you the details.) By this past weekend, he was back out to pasture and while thin and certainly an old horse, I began to think that he might have another spring season left in him.

In 2009, a paper published in the journal Science reported that new archeological findings provided evidence that the horse (Equus ferus caballus) was likely domesticated about 1,000 years earlier than once thought.  The researchers traced the domestication back to the Botai Culture of Kazakhstan circa 5,500 years ago and their findings strongly suggest that horses were originally domesticated, not just for riding, but also to provide food, including milk.

Then in March, 2010, the Saudi Commission for Tourism & Antiquities began site survey and exploration at a newly discovered archeological site known as Al-Magar.[1] The 9000 year old culture is named al-Maqar after the site’s location.  Amongst the artifacts found were various stone figurines of horses causing some to hypothesize that equine domestication goes back even further in time.

The dog (Canis lupus familiaris) is believed to be first animal to be domesticated with some estimates ranging back as far as 30,000 B.C.  The first domesticated livestock came after the domestication of grains -- with sheep (Ovis orientalis aries) probably being first in the timeframe of 11,000 and 9,000 B.C.   Pigs (Sus scrofa domestica), goats (Capra aegagrus hircus), and cows (Bos primigenius Taurus – don’t you just love Latin names) likely joined the herds of our early ancestors around 8,000 B.C.  I wonder if those early pastoralists and farmers noted any changes in the eyes of the animals that became their possessions.  Did they learn anything new that had previously been known only to the animal and the mountain or the desert or the rainforest?  Or were our ancestors from long ago still wild themselves with fire in their eyes?

As I was taking care of my big ol’ grey gelding Tusker (named after a Kenyan beer with an elephant as the company logo), I thought of domestication and of our responsibility to care for the animals that we have been entrusted with.  Late nights in a cold barn do weird things to you.  Animals have given us food, clothing, protection, modes of travel, and companionship for thousands of years.  We now even share pathogens and new diseases with each other.  For all of this, we have a responsibility to take care of not only our pets and livestock, but to protect the habitat and well-being of all the other animals that we have not managed to tame (thank goodness).  It is the least we can do in return for all that we have been given on this planet.

Last night, when we came home, Tusker was down in his stall and I knew it was time.  I don't know what happened since he was fine in the morning when we left.  We called the vet and I went into the stall to give him some calming head and ear rubs -- something he loved.  He strugged to raise his head to nuzzle me; he did, and then he fell back.  He tried to stand, especially when he heard Corey and my voices, but couldn't.  

Then I saw the flash of light leave his eyes.  There was a strange glaze that I had never seen before and I knew that he was leaving us.  He died before the vet could get there.  I can't explain it, but I swear that he waited on dying until we got home so that we could all say our goodbyes. 

The human-animal bond is strong and basically unexplainable in terms of the science that I am most familiar with.  But it doesn't really matter, does it?  Regardless of whether horses and humans forged that bond 16 or 5000 or 9000 years ago, the union is deep and real and quite a gift.

[1] See .
Tusker - the Big "T"

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Ponderings on Conservation

A series of recent events and two blog posts by my friend Gerry Ellis (see
got me thinking.  So tonight, I put these thoughts in writing.

Gerry, I am so glad that you are calling attention to the importance of habitat as well as the wonderful animals that live there.  Saving habitat does seem like a "no-brainer", but apparently, that is not always the case.  I have met plenty of people who don’t understand the most basic of ecological principles, in part, because they tuned out science at a very young age.  For these people, the charismatic mega-fauna are especially important so as to tug at heart strings and some inner DNA sequence deep within our cells that still connects us to that which is wild.

I am relatively new to the conservation circles, but admit to being most surprised that some who are not new to the field don’t seem to grasp this fundamental principle of habitat either.  I find myself sitting through too many meetings where the focus is on developing conservation models and strategies using fancy software or the time is spent arguing about what should be the best indicator species for forest health, climate change impacts, or a measure of success of the conservation outcomes.  For the work I am involved with, it is often a bird species.  That makes sense; we know about the canary-in-the-coal-mine sensitivity of birds.  But sometimes the mega-fauna icon of interest is a game species (i.e. of economic/recreation importance).  I guess that makes sense.  Unlike many neotropical migrant songbirds, however, I suspect that the wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo) and the omnipresent white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) are quite good at adapting to most anything we humans inflict on them.  (Interestingly though, the microscopic infectious proteins-gone-wild known as prions can bring down herds of deer causing Chronic Wasting Disease otherwise known in the scientific world as transmissible spongiform encephalopathy.)

For the stretch of the Appalachian Mountains where I work, the habitat is forest – the mixed deciduous woodlands that represent the southernmost reach of some northern species and the northward expanding boundary of some southern varieties.  Do these people not see the proverbial forest through the trees?  A satellite image of forest cover does not tell you if the stand is healthy.  It doesn’t tell you if this truly represents a priority parcel to target for a conservation easement.  It tells you if there is tree cover.  A simple walk through the woods tells a very different story -- a tale of the damage caused by decades of acid deposition, gypsy moth (Lymantria dispar) outbreaks (and the rapidly approaching Emerald Ash Borer or Agrilus planipennis ), unsustainable deer populations that have destroyed all the understory, except where invasive Japanese exotic shrubs are rapidly filling in the bare spaces.  And climate change “adaptation” is creating a remix of species – both in terms of habitat and inhabitants.

In many cases, those constructing the models haven’t actually walked the ridge they are trying to protect.  I am reminded of your recent post entitled “Conservation – Eventually It Must All Be Local”.  How true.  Computer models have their role (I have spent many years doing either protein or climate change modeling), but in conservation, it cannot be in isolation from "boots on the ground" assessments.  How else will we truly know the state of the habitat with its ever important soil type and structure, primary producers, and the truly unglamorous decomposers?

I had a series of emails this week from a resident of the mountain and self-taught ecologist expressing concerns about some “restoration” work that is happening on a stretch of the mountain that sadly, is part of a Superfund site.  The “experts” (not local) seem to have forgotten some basic ecological principles but that is another long story for another time.  But to make matters worse, they are disturbing a rather large stretch along the Appalachian Trail to access the site that will undergo restoration.  So to reiterate:  New habitat fragmentation along an important hiking trail that runs through a unique scrub habitat/native savannah to do some reforestation work at a neighboring site where there is no topsoil, vegetation, or decomposers, but a lot of heavy metal contamination.  Right.  No-brainer.  They have now created an ATV trail on the AT.

But here are the words of the resident that provided a spark of hope for the future of the conservation work along the ridge:

 "I am not a butterflier, real birder, or botanist, but I do love this mountain...No matter what the long range plan for the plant community is though certainly I would not like it to be known as "the road most taken" anything other than foot.”

Yes, indeed.  All conservation should really be local.