In the Forest with a Living Ghost

Our headlamps and flashlights cut through the deep midnight blackness and illuminate stretches of woods in front of us. There was no moon that night, and underneath the cathedral-high canopy of loblolly pines the multitude of starry pinpricks offer no background light for us to work by, so our artificial lights were all we had to illuminate our surroundings. Ahead of us stretched a line of ultra-fine nets designed to catch birds—mist-nets, named for the way the thin mesh seems to shimmer and disappear as you walk up to it at an angle. Hanging low in one of the nets ahead of us was an animated bundle of brown and white; the bundle jerked and twisted as our lights approached, and when I reached for the bundle, a pair of wide, breathtakingly yellow eyes turned and fixed me with an unblinking stare.

It was the season for catching Northern Saw-whet Owls (Aegolius acadius), and that’s precisely what hung in the net. At just after midnight, it was bitter cold—the following morning would be the first of the season with frost. I worked fast, finding the loops of netting caught on the owl’s wings and around its head mostly by touch, and working them off with precise tugs. The feet came last, and I was glad that my fingers were going numb from the cold when the bird flexed its feet rapidly, driving two wickedly thin and curved lead-gray talons into the pad on my middle finger. After the owl was free and my finger, now with small beads of blood welling up from the tiny holes in it, had been extricated from the owl’s grip, I quickly grabbed a soft mesh bag, and placed the bird in it—feet last.

A few hundred feet along the net, a second bird was hanging. Using the same movements as before, I extracted this owl as well, and by the time I had finished that Dan Small, my colleague on this cold night, had finished checking the rest of the nets and was holding a mesh bag of his own, complete with a wriggling, bill-snapping owl. We pile into the truck and take the long, bouncy, dirt trail back to the heated shack we use as our base of operations. From this shack Dan’s wife, Maren Gimpel oversees the Chester River Field Research Station’s Saw-whet Owl banding project. Tonight, she’s already headed out to sleep, but Dan and settle down and shed a few of our outermost layers, before quickly placing small metal bands on the legs of our owls. We take measurements, age the birds, determine their sex, and then send them back out into the night. Banding an owl can take as little as thirty or forty seconds, and yields important information about the health of the bird. After a month or so of banding, we may have data from as many as 200 owls, giving as an accurate picture of the demographic of birds involved in the season’s migration. Banding projects like this one have resulted in incredible information on the ecology of these birds, and the unlikely connections they have to other species across their range. Despite this, the banding of birds, particularly of owls, can be a highly controversial subject. The controversy is largely unnecessary and comes from basic misunderstandings about the treatment of the birds while they’re being handled, about the scientific process, and about conservation.

These misunderstandings don’t just apply to bird banding—they inform and explain many of the current ethical and moral trends in relationship with wild animals, and in our relationship with wilderness in general. In particular, there is a tendency to direct compassion and energy towards the protection and wellbeing of individual animals or individual charismatic locations; individuals that can be identified as vulnerable or mistreated, and which we can emotionally connect with due to their charisma or beauty. This identification comes at the expense of a bigger picture, one which is becoming more and more imperative to pay attention to.

The myriad of threats facing the wilderness we have come to revere and respect are probably known to most readers. Climate change is probably the greatest threat facing humanity today. Sea levels will rise, the most conservative estimates today suggest we have already committed to a five inch rise in most places, and some estimates suggest this could be as high as ten inches. The most recent IUCN checklist update suggests that the world’s most popular cage birds, including some that have been considered common up until recently, may be heading for extinction within the next fifty years. Deforestation and exploitation of the land for agriculture, mining, and oil drilling have been threats since the inception of the modern environmental movement, and they remain significant ones today. But while these pressures may be familiar, what may not be is that fact that our world has already started to crumble under them. A third of amphibians may be faced with imminent extinction, along with a fifth of mammals, as many as a third of known invertebrates, nearly three-quarters of studied plants. We are firmly in the grasp of what is being called the sixth mass extinction, or the modern extinction crisis.

To say that combatting this extinction will be difficult would be an understatement. Many conservation experts think that doing so is all but impossible. It may be that they are right, and that those still fighting do so in vain, without a realistic grasp of the situation. But if that is the case, then I fall among the latter. I think that a not-insignificant source of the problem lies in a very basic misconception about what the point of conservation and preservation is. Most professional conservationists agree that the point of conservation is to protect life on the species level. This may seem intuitive, but log on to the Facebook pages or websites of most zoos or bird banding station or news agencies reporting on stories about zoos and animal research and you are likely to see evidence to the contrary. A zoo will post a photo of their new, critically endangered, Spanish Lynx (Lynx pardinus) kittens and someone in the comments will sound off that it’s no big deal—it’s a tragedy in fact, for the babies have been born in captivity.

To borrow a phrase, today’s zoos are arks. They exist to weather the great flood of our time, which is the extinction crisis. It is true that this was not always the case. The first zoos were built purely for entertainment—usually the entertainment of the rich and powerful. But that hasn’t been true for much of the last half century, at least. Now, what species can be exhibited and bred is dictated by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), and the decisions are not made on a whim. Captivity is taken seriously, for obvious reasons. If the animals aren’t being cared for properly they won’t breed. If they’re not being cared for properly, patrons won’t visit the zoos. It’s in the best interest of zoos and aquariums to be the model of proper treatment for the animals they exhibit, and they are. But there are factors of this treatment that can confound those and give the perception of mistreatment. The fact that Polar Bears (Ursus maritimus) must be denned for the winter—effectively sealing them in a small, warm, dark room for three or four months straight—is easily taken for mistreatment. In reality though, this is necessary for breeding. A bear won’t allow its body to develop a pregnancy if it is not denned in such a way. What’s lost in translation is that the action, while it may confine the bear for a time, leading to mild discomfort (the bear will eventually simply hibernate), polar bears may not exist as a species without such measures. Threatened with climate change, their habitat in the wild will wholly cease to exist. Their only hope as a species is by the drastic measures being taken by zoos.

Perhaps zoos are an all-around dramatic example. I will say that I really do understand a lot of the concern they generate from animal-lovers, even if I do not agree with it. Let’s revisit our owls, for a moment. Northern Saw-whet Owls are poorly understood birds. Most expert suggest that they are relatively common, but admit that very little is known about their specific breeding requirements, particularly along the fragmented southern edge of their range. One of the things that we do know, is that in the heart of their breeding range in eastern and central Canada, they are closely tied to the population cycle of the Southern Red-backed Vole (Myodes gapperi). This vole has a population cycle believed to be tied to cone crops in conifer species—when the cone crops drop a bumper crop, the vole population soars, offering the owls an astounding amount of food. They take advantage of this overabundance by having as many as three times as many chicks as during other years. In the winter all of these young, inexperienced owls migrate south en masse, as they are unable to compete with more experienced adults on the breeding range.

It is suspected that these cycles are about to experience a major disruption though, potentially creating a cataclysmic situation for owls and voles alike. Currently this cycle runs very predictably. Every four years there is a vole boom and the owls boom the following year. This is followed by a slow decrease in the vole numbers, again accompanied by a slow decrease in owl breeding success. All of this is related to the cone crops, which are likely triggered by formerly regular fluctuations in moisture levels. All of that, however will be thrown to hell with climate change. The disruption of the cone cycles will disrupt the vole cycle, which will disrupt the owls. In order to monitor and look for the first signs of this cataclysm, owl banding is crucial. It’s incredibly easy to see breaks in the trends through such a direct monitoring strategy, as it’s easy to see sudden changes in the weights and overall fitness displayed by birds within a sampling population.

All this being said, there is a very vocal opposition to banding birds in general, and owls specifically. Owls are shy creatures and their disposition towards solitude and reclusivity leads them to be vulnerable to stress during the banding process. Furthermore, it is true that on very rare occasions, birds are eaten out of the nets by larger species of owls and that during the banding process they become slightly disoriented by the lights, sometimes becoming slightly dazed and requiring a short recuperation time prior to releasing them. Despite this, the rate of owls dying while in captivity or in a net is very low at any given banding station. And when these owls are passed on to rehabbers for examination, it is often found that these birds have underlying injuries.

From a certain perspective, the backlash towards banders working with owls is understandable. But the fact remains that banding is the only effective way to study owl populations. Traditional breeding bird surveys and vocal-based point counts simply don’t work—the birds are too unpredictable and patchily distributed. In order to understand, and thus save the species, birds have to be caught, banded, examined, and then released. There is simply no other way around it. The protection of the species has to take precedence over the concern for the discomfort of the individual bird.

I want to acknowledge that I am fully aware of how unpalatable this is. I want to acknowledge that those who work in the professions I have mentioned are fully aware of the risks involved. I have watched seasoned bird banders stand for hours, refusing to make their catch of shorebirds because they’re worried about rising tides. And I’ve watched the same bander, steaming in the heat, take water from her workers and distribute it in spray bottles to mist the birds still waiting to be banded. I’ve seen zoo vets agonize over decisions about the care of their animals. Whether to delivery lion (Panthera leo) cubs in an emergency procedure and risk the mother’s life, or wait and risk the cubs to save the beloved mother. None of these people go into their jobs expecting it to be easy, and all know their work will be scrutinized. But there is nothing else that can be done.

There is one major complication that deserves attention. It is this: de-extinction. De-extinction is all the rage in some circles. Many researchers think that the act of bringing a species back from extinction has great symbolic, as well as literal, power. We can return a species from the brink, as we have on occasion shown. To be able to bring them back from beyond the brink… Is the stuff of science fiction. Arguably, doing so would be the ultimate in mastering the mantra of doing everything for the species. There is no individual currently left, so the act of bringing back even one individual would be giving a species that had lost its chance a new one. However, this is arguable. The one and only time this has been successfully done, the species winked out of existence again mere minutes later. From the species perspective—and that of the individual animal—bringing about an event with such a likelihood is crueler than it is hopeful. Furthermore, introducing species to an environment from which they have been gone, potentially for thousands of years, could be more disruptive than it is helpful. The habitats have evolved in the absence of these species, and returning them could throw this new balance entirely out of proportion.

It would be nice to think that we could save all the species in the world without keeping a one in captivity. It would be nice to think that every species in the world could be saved. We are coming to the realization that this is not the case. Species cannot exist in the wild in perpetuity any more. Many of them may have no longer than a few decades left in their natural environs. By and large, this is the fault of humans. Our actions have pushed species to extinction already and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. By our actions alone can this mass extinction be mitigated. Among the measures that need to be taken, the moderation of climate change, protection of habitat, and yes, captive breeding and invasive research of imperiled species are all critical.

But just as critical is a reevaluation of our moral feelings towards wild animals. The prospects of their existence are rapidly changing. To ignore that and continue to tout our own equality with them is dangerous. We are not the same as animals. We should empathize with them and understand that they feel pain, but we should also acknowledge that we know things they never will. They don’t know they are not-so-slowly fading from existence, and we do. We need to trust that we are, in fact doing the right thing. That we are doing what’s best–what’s best for the species. For without the species, there will soon be no individuals for us to agonize over.







Ethics is, by necessity a complex topic. To discuss ethics requires the juggling of perspectives, emotions, facts, actions, intentions—almost every facet of everyday and extraordinary life. Additionally, under changing circumstances and evidence, they must be able to bend and rearrange, or risk shattering, I imagine, that some, including Peter Singer, would argue with me on that last point, but I don’t intend to spend much time directly contesting that point. Instead, I intend to make a case for my own ethics; at least, my ethics as they pertain to what I eat and—for I believe the two are essentially linked, at least in my case—my ethical views towards human’s relationship with animals, both wild and domestic.

I first want to admit to having spent most of my life willfully ignoring any thoughts on where my food came from. It wasn’t that I didn’t know about the controversy surrounding the modern food supply system—I read Michael Pollan’s “Omnivore’s Dilemma” and watched the documentary “Supersize Me” at a relatively young age. I had vegetarians as friends and family. I knew more than the average person probably did and it wasn’t that I didn’t care. It was that I didn’t really that I mattered what I thought or did, and to be entirely honest, part of me still believes it doesn’t much matter.

I did always have strong ethical feelings towards the treatment of animals (in a broad sense) and the way we share the world with them. And eventually, my feelings around these areas began to bleed over into my ethical considerations around eating. These feelings were strongly influenced by working at the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore for four years as an educator and assistant zookeeper and by starting to work as a bird bander with the New Jersey Shorebird Project. I take a big picture view that the species is the most important thing to conserve and protect. It is important to note that I do not believe that this means captivity is wrong or harmful. It isn’t and, if I’m being entirely honest, I have relatively little patience who contend that captivity is an inherently immoral thing. I think that this view is naive and requires intentional omission of important facts about the world we live in today. However, in order for captivity to be successful, the care of the animals must be humane, safe, and decent. This would, of course, disqualify me from supporting the food industry, who’s animal care is generally appalling.

In practice, this looks something like this: I eat a lot of salads, pastas, and seafood. Working in my favor is that I don’t particularly care about most GMOs. I’m not going to spend a great deal of time discussing that here, but briefly—they have no demonstrated side-effects to human health and basically every food we consume except wildlife is a GMO or derived from a GMO. I avoid the vast majority of red meats and poultry. And when I do eat them I do try to find food that was raised at free-range farms that are somewhat local.

I feel like this is relatively uncontroversial, except for maybe the fact that I do still eat seafood. I eat mostly wild caught seafood from fisheries that are sustainable, and so hope to avoid driving species to extinction with my actions, and hope to avoid environmental degradation due to fish farming. I use the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s “Seafood Watch” to help me make my decisions—it is a highly respected and professionally compiled source of information of ethical and environmentally friendly seafood consumption, and so I generally trust the information it provides about all species.

In conclusion, I want to go back, for a moment and address my earlier thoughts on animal captivity. I think that it is important to explain this a little more thoroughly since it was my starting point for this discussion and for the development of my opinions, in general. A sixth mass extinction is currently underway. The world has already been irrevocably altered by human activity—current scientific evidence suggests that we have already passed a point of no-return in the progression of global warming, the old growth rainforests cleared for agriculture would take centuries to fully reforest, even if we would let them, the rate of coral bleaching may now be exceeding the ability of new polyps to form, dooming some reefs to permanent extinction, to name just a few examples. I bring this up to offer as proof of this—there is not enough room in the wild anymore for many species to exist at healthy self-sustainable levels, and the situation will only worsen from here on out. Panama Golden Frogs’ habitat may be permanently uninhabitable due to human-introduced pathologies. In all but the most heavily guarded reserves (yes, by concrete, barbed wire, and armed military guards) African Elephants are poached at rates approaching 99 individuals per day. The size of permafrost is shrinking so rapidly in the arctic, that polar bears may literally run out of dry land in the next fifty years.

These species will cease to exist without captivity. And I feel like I cannot accept and praise captivity in wild animals without also praising and accepting it when it is executed humanely in domestic food-producing species.

The (Almost) Cod War

I want to start by pointing out something that is a personal struggle of mine—I have issues with the kind of philosophy that is presented by Peter Singer in the book. His ethical proposals, in terms of his view of how animals should be treated are, to say the least, problematic for me. Even before I begin to recap sections of this book, I feel the need to put that out there in the world, to acknowledge the difficulty I have in coming to terms with the logic used in some of these passages.

In any case, the second section of this book, The Ethics of What We Eat, by Peter Singer and Jim Mason, investigates a household comprised of people who are labelled as “conscientious omnivores”. This family is characterized as being more aware, perhaps, than the average family, and more willing to take the time spend the money to make morally conscious choices. This part of the book also looks at some topics that are characteristically involved in the decisions to eat in a morally conscious, and still omnivorous, way. The difficulties involved in sustainable seafood are tackled, along with fair trade and the ties ins with human rights, for example.

The sections from this book that resonated the most deeply with me was the chapter on seafood. When I have the chance, I prefer seafood to chicken, turkey, and certainly to red meat, so this chapter touched me more directly than some others thus far. Further, I try to only buy seafood that is environmentally non-harmful, and sustainable to the species in question’s population. I use the Monterey Aquarium pocket guide and app that are mentioned in the chapter to decide which kinds of fish I should buy and in what parts of the world I should try and buy them from. Aside from the direct connection to my own habits, this chapter also displayed some of the more dramatic storytelling, thus far. The authors recount how Britain and Iceland were brought close to war when Iceland attempted to shut down cod fishing by claiming some of the bets fishing grounds as its own international waters they write how “Icelandic gunboats threatened British trawlers” (pg 113) and how the country’s came surprisingly close to war over control of the fishery.

The story of fishery collapses all over the world is a familiar one—growing up among recreational and professional watermen, I was raised on stories of oyster beds so thick they could rip open the hull of a schooner if you weren’t careful, and schools of menhaden, gizzard shad, and rockfish that could fill the nets of a small trawler in minutes. The familiar tenor of the subject is given heightened drama and a bigger emotional punch by setting it against the international intrigue on the one hand, and everyday families that could be just like yours on the other. I think this is one reason why this chapter is so effective; the connections from local to regional to global are very tangible and increase the sense of scale and drama with each step back.

The Cruelty of Nature

For a genre as broadly stereotyped in the public view as environmental writing is, there is great diversity in the subject’s leading voices. Some writers’ scientific backgrounds are highly apparent. Some writers work reads less like “nature writing” and more like the work of a social critic. Some are poetic while others read like an entry in a technical journal. Still, there are some threads that can be tracked across multiple—perhaps most—writers. One of these unifying themes is that nature does not plan “creation of all for the happiness of one” (Muir, pg  87); in particular, not for the happiness of humans.

This assertion seems to form a central argument for Annie Dillard. Her book Pilgrim at Tinker Creek poses the question of nature’s “purpose” and then largely fails to resolve it—at least in human terms. The essayist and conservation pioneer John Muir, in “Thousand Mile Walk to the Gulf” relays this same sentiment, though he grapples with the topic less as a question, and seems far more ready to accept the irresolvable nature of it. These approaches demonstrate a fundamental difference between the two authors. One is still contending with the fact that nature does not exist for the benefit of all in it, while the other seems ready, not only to accept this, but almost seems to revel in it.

This difference is very apparent right from the outset of the two works. In the very first chapter of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Dillard relays an encounter she had with a giant water bug, a large aquatic insect that predates many small vertebrates, by liquefying their innards and sucking them out. She describes being “bewildered and appalled” (pg 8) by what she witnesses, and uses her tumultuous emotions so pose the very question of the purpose of nature’s very cruelties. Quoting from the Quran, she asks “The heaven and the earth and all in between, thinkest thou I made them in jest” (pg 9). The way she sets up the passage, it might be easy for the reader to assume that this question relates solely to the giant water bug incident, but in reality, this passage, not even ten pages into the book, reveals her mission and her purpose, and the horror that prompts her to state this as her mission sets the tone for the rest of book.

Muir, too sets his take on this question to paper early in his writing. He writes that “the world, we are told, was made especially for man—a presumption not supported by all the facts” (pg 86). He states this following a tale as violent, or more so, than the one Dillard relayed—a story of an alligator grabbing and devouring a man’s dog after the man tried to kill the creature by wrestling it down with a knife. He then relates how alligators are frequently viewed as the works of the devil, along with all manner of other creatures and plants and elements that are harmful to humans. This prompts his observation that nature cannot truly be for the benefit of humans—a comment which he then broadens by suggesting that nature is not really for any one aspect of nature. “The venomous beasts, thorny plants, and deadly diseases” exist for their own sake, and nature does not care if they harm the rest of the world in their existence, because nature does not care about the rest of the world.

In Dillard’s writing this grappling with the purpose of nature becomes the focal point of her book in the chapter “Fecundity”, in which she openly declares “that nature is as careless as it is bountiful” (pg 162). Dillard runs parallel to Muir in some ways here, in that she starts out by describing those living things which she does not find harmful—the plants. Whether for their frequent use by humans as crops, and therefore the familiarity of a field full of them or because “primitive trees can fight city hall and win” (167), as she says when relaying how they strangle water pipes, plants do not bother her in their abundance. Animals, is where she begins to truly launch her attack against nature.

She begins by stating how “acres and acres of rats” (pg 167) is far less fear-inducing than describing as many tulips. She builds on this, by first describing the abundance of many species and their essential identicalness, as a way to showing how grossly unnecessary nature’s efforts at reproductive success are. She then moves on to focus on species that eat their own eggs and young—“anything can happen, and anything does” (pg 170), she says.

While this is, fundamentally true it is also important to bear in mind that Dillard is picking and choosing her examples carefully. She never discusses the abundance of such creatures as domestic cats, or eagles, or other species that humans have a tendency to be highly attached to. She chooses rats and insects and fish and beef steers. And she contrasts them, not with weeds or thorny or poisonous plants, but with tulips and sycamores and fields of wheat. Dillard purposefully overdramatizes to make her point, and she purposefully fails to address species in which this super-abundance does not happen. I say this not to take away from the argument she is trying to make, which is at least partly valid, but to ensure that it is clear that this is not the whole story, and that it is easy to take this section too seriously.

While Muir also makes allusion to species of help and harm to human, he does not pass such a clear judgement on the good or bad of them, as Dillard does. Nor does he make the division at plant or animal, but rather at those capable of harming humans or not. He refuses to pass judgement on them, and instead passes judgement on humans—he relays a parable of sorts, saying that “When an animal from a tropical clime is taken to high latitudes, it may perish of cold, and we say that such an animal was never intended for so severe a climate. But when man betakes himself to sickly parts of the tropics and perishes, he cannot see that he was never intended for such deadly climates.” (pg 88) This short tale comes at the end of his piece, and sums up his entire argument quite nicely. He makes the argument that humans are essentially unfit to judge what is good or bad or right in nature, and that nature alone knows it’s purpose.

It might be easy to think that I myself am passing judgement—that I feel as though Muir’s view is more correct than Dillard’s. That is not necessarily what I mean. I think that Dillard’s take is just as valid as Muir’s, and which author I more agree with is not the point here. The point is that both of these writer’s address a question which I feel is classic of environmental authors—the reason for the cruelty of nature. And while neither of these authors come up with a real answer, they both address the question in their own ways. Dillard presents a compelling case for why we should be bothered by the apparent disinterest in nature’s apparent cruelty, while Muir presents an equally compelling argument that nature is neither cruel nor good as a whole, and has a unique mission in relation to every species and every organism.



Place and Space and the Environment

There is both a fantastic contrast, and close similarities  between the sense of non-space painted by Purpura, in her article “There Are Things Awry Here”, and Dillard. It would seem that Purpura is pacing a strip shopping center, and visiting the physical location, and its temporal history. The highly altered non-space creating the contrast, and the project and stream-of-consciousness of the visitation providing the similarities.

I want to start by saying how interesting it is, that we noted in class how Purpura does not necessarily consider herself an environmental writer. To be fair, this piece is full of history and starts out sounding so critical, that I suppose it could be taken as a social or political commentary. But, I still think that, the first impression from the first read is that this a text with a strong environmental tenor. Even during her discussion of the people and the air force school they lived at, repeated references to the land it happened on, draw us back to a physical and spatial context–an environmental context.

I think that maybe it is this fact that provides the greatest similarity to Dillard. In Dillard’s writing, everything always comes back to the land. Roanoke is set against a backdrop of mountains and creeks and pastureland, and all discussions, even those beginning in the human world or at the atomic level, come back to the physical environment.

To bring this out to my prior entry, on the writings of Dillard when compared to those of Elizabeth Kolbert, I think this provides a second tenant, or at the least, characteristic , of nature and science writing for the masses. If you’ll recall, the first characteristic I mentioned was a tendency to pan in and out from a broad, universal “zoomed out” view, to a very detailed detailed view, in order to show the interconnectedness of the natural world. I would propose that in this comparison on Dillard and Purpura, we see that this second characteristic is a tendency to be rooted in a sense of space or, more ironically, a discussion of how a place becomes a non-place (as in Pupura).