Michael Riordon

the view from where I live


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Not in my backyard

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Marla, in our extended backyard.

On a cool, bright autumn walk with Marla the dog, I got to thinking about NIMBY.  Not In My Backyard.  It implies a perceived threat to a space that represents ‘my backyard.’  But what defines a backyard? Fences? Where I live we have none.

We range freely through miles of forest, open meadow and wetland, far beyond the extent of the title deed that defines the 60 rural acres my partner and I own. This other land is semi-wild, with no roads, no power lines, the occasional ATV track, and an abundance of animal tracks. I assume that someone owns this other land; that’s how things have gone since the Europeans invaded. But for now, this is our extended backyard.

So then, what constitutes a backyard? If you’re an imperial power it means anything you want, up to and including the whole earth and as far out into space as you can grab. But what does it mean for the rest of us?

On my travels for the book I visited with conservation biologist Curt Meine in the midwestern state of Wisconsin. Near Madison, the capital, we explored a devastated landscape, the former site of a vast military munitions complex, which citizens are working hard to restore to a healthy Sauk Prairie landscape. They hope to take care of it, as part of their extended backyard. But where are the boundaries?

As Curt sees it, “In nature the boundaries of larger reality are never set. In my little local place I can walk around, grow a garden, watch the birds, keep an eye on the sand cranes and the wild turkeys. I can only see about a mile, but I know the river out there is connected all the way to the Mississippi River, 80 miles that way (he points southwest, more or less), that feeds eventually into the Atlantic Ocean, which is part of the global ocean system. It’s the same with landscapes, they can be as small as a few square feet where you’re standing, and as large as the planet. Among all the levels are feedback loops, so they all affect each other.

“This means you can’t have a healthy farm or forest, park or city, in a landscape that’s unsustainable, or on a planet where the climate is going haywire, temperatures are rising, oceans are acidifying, and the poles are melting, largely due to our actions. So there’s always this tension between wanting to save the world at large and wanting to focus all your energies close to home. At least if you can work well on your part, and others are working well on their part, eventually you can build a community of engaged people to collaborate on the larger pieces of the whole.”

Imagine if in our backyard, our extended backyard, there were no tar sands. No oil and gas pipelines. No nuclear plants. No tops blown off mountains for coal. No fracking.  But we need energy, we need gas, we need…. Yes, yes, but just for a moment, imagine.

Meantime, join biologist Curt Meine in the long community struggle to restore one small sliver of this precious earth, the only backyard we’ve got.  In Bold Scientists.

 

 

 


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Monarch butterfly in ‘grave danger’

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In late summer 2013, we saw only three or four of these beautiful butterflies in our eastern Ontario garden, a stunning loss that many other people have confirmed.  Here’s why.  It’s a sad, infuriating story of nature, science and power abused.  Deeply entwined with our own, the story of the Monarchs is bleak, but not finished.

From Andrea Germanos at the independent news site Common Dreams, on January 29, 2014:

A new report from the World Wildlife Fund and Mexico’s National Commission for Protected Areas found that the number of monarch butterflies hibernating in Mexico dropped to its lowest level since records began in 1993.

The insects make an epic journey of thousands of miles each year from Canada and the U.S. to spend November through March hibernating in Mexico’s temperate forests.

Clues that this year’s numbers would be the continuation of a troubling trend have been in for months, with the new study bringing more grim proof that the monarch is in trouble.

Using satellite and aerial photographs, the new study documented that 1.65 acres of forest were inhabited by monarchs during December of 2013, marking a 44% drop from the same time in 2012.

“Twenty years after the signing of NAFTA, the monarch butterfly migration – a symbol of cooperation between our three countries – is in grave danger,” stated Omar Vidal, WWF-Mexico Director General.

While the study focused on deforestation and forest degradation in monarch reserves that serve as their winter habitat, it points to a trio of perils contributing to declining numbers of monarchs.

There are 3 primary threats to the monarch butterfly in its range in North America: deforestation and degradation of forest by illegal logging of overwintering sites in Mexico; widespread reduction of breeding habitat in the United States due to land-use changes and the decrease of this butterfly’s main larval food plant (common milkweed [Asclepias syriaca]) associated with the use of glyphosate herbicide to kill weeds growing in genetically engineered, herbicide-resistant crops; and periodic extreme weather conditions throughout its range during the year, such as severe cold or cold summer or winter temperatures.

Other butterfly experts have pointed to these three factors as well, though Lincoln Brower, a professor of biology at Sweet Briar College who has studied the monarch migrations for decades, told the Washington Post‘s Brad Plumer that “The most catastrophic thing from the point of view of the monarch butterfly has been the expansion of crops that are planted on an unbelievably wide scale throughout the Midwest and have been genetically manipulated to be resistant to the powerful herbicide Roundup.”

Another leading scientist who has spent three decades studying the monarch, Karen Oberhauser, professor at the University of Minnesota, added to this point, saying “Numerous lines of evidence demonstrate that the Corn Belt in the U.S. Midwest is the primary source for monarchs hibernating in Mexico,” and the region has been hit by the explosive use of Roundup-resistant crops.

This has meant that milkweed, the host plant for the monarch caterpillar, is being wiped out from fields, something that Chip Ward, Director of Monarch Watch, has been documenting.

“These genetically modified crops have resulted in the extermination of milkweed from many agricultural habitats,” added Oberhauser.

Dr. Phil Schappert, a Canadian butterfly conservationist, added in a statement that “‘the economy first’ practices, instead of sustainable land use practices, threaten monarch habitat” in Canada, and urges his country and the United States to “implement measures that protect the reproductive habitat and feeding grounds of this butterfly.  Otherwise, this spiral of population decline will continue,” Schappert added.

Monarch Watch’s Ward adds, “Let’s plant milkweed – lots and lots of it.”

More on GMOs vs conservation biology in Pesky Facts: unspun science for dangerous times, from Between the Lines, autumn 2014.

(Monarch photo: Michael Riordon)