Valerie Harms, extinction events

Author and editor Valerie Harms has allowed me to post here her wonderful introduction to her own book, Dreaming of Animals.

The Unity of Inner and Outer Nature

                       by Valerie Harms

I had a vision of a unified kingdom of animals when I journeyed to the Galapagos Islands, situated 500 miles or so from land in the Pacific Ocean.  The animals did not yet have the fear of humans that has become imprinted on animals in the rest of the world.  I rested next to a sleeping sea lion and stood within hand-shaking distance of penguins and boobies.  I swam amidst clouds of curious fish, who approached me first.

When I lay down next to the sea lion, she looked at me languorously.  Our skins were coated with sand.  We basked under an immense sky, gentle wind, with the persistent sound of frothing waves.  How did she view me?  I did not really know but for awhile at least we shared a moment of the gift of life.  I took in as much as I could the sheen of her coat, the graceful lines of her form, and her peace.

I knew that in the past these once barren volcanic islands, covered with hard lava, had been found by organisms (seeds, spiderlings) from water and the air and which, despite all challenges, over the eons adapted and formed colonies, native to each island.  The endemic cultures were the reason why the islands helped Charles Darwin make his famous observations about the evolution of species approximately 150 years ago.

I was also aware how these island ecosystems were destined for future change as our species plunder the fish and turtles, introduce rats and goats, and batter the coasts with tourist boats.

I had been motivated to write this book by similar threats to animals in the rest of the world.  As part of my research for this book I traveled to Hawaii, Mexico, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Bali, Spain, and Morocco, where I’d seen how the animals are treated now, as well as the stuffed ones only visible in museums.  In rainforests and near seashores I observed some of the wondrous species that inhabit this world.  Everywhere I went, wildlife are threatened, usually by people making insensitive economic decisions.

I hate and fear the threats of extinction to animals, because animals have been vital to us since we existed on this planet.  For no matter where we live – whether near desert, mountain, jungle, grassland, tundra, lake, or ocean, we dwell amidst a number of other species populations with invisible dynamic links that originated way before our ancestral family appeared millions of years ago. Our lives depend on the crucial functions animals fulfill for the Earth.  In breathing, animals produce and maintain oxygen and other gases in the atmosphere.  In eating, some maintain a balance of populations between predators and prey.  In defecating, they recycle nutrients and help produce fertile soil.  Burrowing, they churn and till the soil.  Some help regulate water supplies, some pollinate plants, disperse seeds, and decompose organic wastes.  (A large fraction of the U.S. food supply depends on native pollinators).  In breeding and evolving, animals broaden the gene pool, making possible more medicines, foods, and other resources essential to all living beings.  The larger the genetic diversity, the more possible options we have for the optimum survival on this biosphere.


Aldo Leopold, wolf

Despite protests, the Michigan wolf hunting season began on Friday.  Four wolves have been killed in the first two days.

“We reached the old wolf in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her eyes. I realized then, and have known ever since, that there was something new to me in those eyes—something known only to her and to the mountain. I was young then, and full of trigger-itch; I thought that because fewer wolves meant more deer, that no wolves would mean hunters’ paradise. But after seeing the green fire die, I sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with such a view.”
- Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac, 1949

Marian Wood, raccoons

One more from the incomparable, the impeccable Marian Wood. She writes:

Years ago, a colleague who lived in Westchester and had a lovely soft heart for animals told me she had a terrible problem: Raccoons had entered the crawl space in her home. Now I happen to love raccoons (more below) but the problem was much the same as with the squirrels (note from KJF: see earlier Marian Wood post). So I told her to wait until they left for the day, throw camphor into the crawl space, then cover the chimney entrance they were using. It worked—for a day. Then they were back inside. Turned out, she needed to use a really strong cover for the chimney entrance—as in, a huge boulder. This time it really worked. But as she was in her kitchen at the sink, she looked up to see the entire raccoon family on the roadside, staring at her through the window. Then they turned away and left. She was in tears.

Raccoons: When I was working in a summer camp for underprivileged kids, the local ranger would sometimes stop by. One night, he asked if a few of us wanted to watch the raccoons dance—it was a full moon. We piled into his car after midnight and rode to a hill. Then he cut the engine and coasted silently down. And there they were—dancing (DANCING! I kid you not) in the moonlight.

Me, monarch butterflies

October 31, the orange and black.

One day last week, two monarch butterflies flew through our yard and so we knew the monarchs had arrived.  My friend Joan is visiting us just now, all the way from Cardiff, and we migrated over to Natural Bridges State Park today to stand on the viewing stage, speaking with our quiet, butterfly voices, and watching the air fluttering with wings.  We made two trips, one in the morning when many of the butterflies were still dangling like grapes from the branches of trees and one, on the recommendation of the Natural Bridges docent, in the afternoon when she promised that the temperature would be up and the monarchs aloft.  It was actually colder in the afternoon and no more wing-filled than the morning, but still well worth the trip, to see all the butterflies in the air wherever there was sunshine and clustered in their hanging cities in the shade.

It seemed like a scene of abundance, more than last year or the year before, but still, I’m assured, many less than the old days, back before we broke the climate.  The peak should come around Thanksgiving.

This annual round trip from the Rockies takes four generations, with the lifespan very unevenly distributed throughout.  The butterflies that overwinter in Santa Cruz live for seven to eight months, much of that in a state of developmental dormancy known as diapause.  The next generation, hatched on the way back to the mountains, lasts less than two months, and spends their whole lives journeying to a place they won’t live to see.  Or so I understand from the park docent.  Nature is unkind and unfair.  I love her to pieces, but still it must be said.

The docent showed us a butterfly she’d picked up off the deck.  His head was gone – eaten by a rodent when he was still too cold to fly away, she speculated – but his body was still alive and moving, so that was disturbing.  Who was it who said that no one can think too long about the food chain without going mad?

I thought instead about the survival of the group and about the death of the individual and some of these thoughts were sad, but mostly it was very beautiful to stand on the viewing deck and look up into the trees where, in great and dripping bunches, it looked as if the leaves themselves were breathing.