Fewer Footprints

When we were out on the Pacific Coast in California a couple of weeks ago, two things in particular caught my attention:

One was the lack of shorebirds, the skittering types that chase waves and scurry in tight huddles. Maybe it was just the wrong season. There were signs posted indicating that snowy plovers were nesting in the dunes, although we didn’t see any from the waterline where we walked. The estuary between Limantour Beach and Drakes Beach holds a diverse population of wild birds, so maybe we were just unlucky or unobservant.

Photo: PKR

Photo: PKR

While there were seagulls, great egrets and turkey vultures–we even saw a red-tailed hawk diving for fish and carrying off a squirming catch–we saw a sum total of five sandpipers.

Researchers only really started noticing a general decline in shorebirds around twenty years ago, when counting got underway in earnest. It’s hard to know just how much the populations have declined – but I can say that compared to when I visited my favorite beaches thirty years ago, the number of birds has dropped dramatically. There were far fewer footprints in the sand from birds than I remember from my youth.

Photo: PKR

Photo: PKR

There are a number of reasons for the decline in shorebird and migratory bird populations. Loss of migratory habitat has to be the most relevant. There’s just so much more land development and reclamation along coastlines and wetland areas, the very places the great internationalist shorebirds stop to rest, to eat, to breed.

Another aspect, though, is the amount of plastic in our seas.

Birds eat plastic, presumably because it looks like food, and can end up starving to death with a belly full of plastic. Between 60-90% of birds in shoreline regions have been found to have plastic in their bellies. At this point, it’s probably more surprising to find a bird without plastic in its stomach.

Which brings me to the other thing that caught our attention on our numerous beach walks:

An estuary tree blooms with great herons. Photo: PKR

An estuary tree blooms with great herons.
Photo: PKR

Back in the 1980s, when there were more birds, I also used to notice large pieces of junk on the beach. Wrecked picnic coolers, plastic containers, styrofoam appliance packing, plastic bottles galore. This time, there were very few pieces of large plastic. This might be a positive side of the recycling movement.

Microplastics. Photo: Puget Sound We Love You

Photo: Puget Sound We Love You

What I did notice, however, were countless pieces of plastic flakes that looked almost like shell flotsam, the kind that’s always there in a receding tide. Except the flakes were all the wrong colors. Blue, bright green, pink. And such an edible size for smaller animals.

Today is World Oceans Day. The focus of this year’s awareness is plastic in oceans.

The next time you take another plastic bag for produce, or buy a plastic box of cut vegetables instead of cutting them yourself, or throw away plastic in general, think of where it might end up. Even if you live far from the sea, chances are, at least some of that plastic will end up in a waterway, and at some point, in an ocean.



Cherry Diversion

The view from beneath a cherry tree.

The view from beneath a cherry tree.

It’s been a hectic few days and I’ve gotten behind on my posts and other writing, but sometimes life requires a different kind of presence besides work.

I was already at my desk this morning, ready to write a post, when my neighbor called. There were three key points she wanted to make: First, the cherry trees in the orchard between our two houses were heavy with ripe black cherries, and the farm owner had kindly placed a large ladder against one of the trees should we want to help ourselves. Second, she could see a major storm cloud approaching over the Jura range behind us, a black wall of rain. And third, the farm owner, who usually picks the cherries, is out of town for a week and the incoming rain will probably ruin all the ripened cherries.

The sheep follow us when we pick, hoping for scraps and offering the occasional leg lick in return.

The sheep follow us when we pick, hoping for scraps and offering the occasional leg lick in return.

It goes without saying that I dropped everything, picked up a bag and a camera, and marched next door with the sole mission of saving several pounds of cherries from impending rain damage.

The cherry orchard has been sold to developers. By this time next year, the old trees will be gone and this orchard will have nine double townhouse constructions, several driveways, and if the other suburban projects are any indication, no trees (or sheep) at all.

Lamb diversity.

Lamb diversity.

The owner’s sister came by to water the farm’s kitchen garden, and told us that these early ripening black cherries – planted by her father back in the 1950s, were a naturally resistant variety. The black cherries planted much more recently by her own neighbor down in the next village – a more fragile variety – are susceptible to worms and mold.

These old farm cherries have just kept putting out hundreds of kilos of magnificent cherries over the decades, fertilized mainly by successive generations of grazing sheep herds, and with no pesticides.

One of the cherry trees, and my intrepid neighbor at work.

One of the cherry trees, and my intrepid neighbor at work.


And so my neighbor and I picked cherries among the sheep, achieving a ratio of perhaps 70 – 30 when it came to cherries that landed in the basket versus cherries that landed in our mouths. Now, obviously, I am back at my desk.

Today’s other unplanned task will be making a batch of cherry jam, as well as a batch of drunken cherries bottled in (what else?) whisky.DSC02249

Come winter, we’ll have cherry jam on toast and marinated cherries in champagne.

We’ll drink to the orchards of spring and summer, and to seizing the day.DSC02265

Island of Memory

Interactive map of global languages at EndangeredLanguages.com

Interactive map of global languages at EndangeredLanguages.com

When I was a teenager, I had the privilege of tagging along on an archeological dig on the California coast. The goal of the dig was to salvage parts of a coastal Miwok village in danger of disappearance due to cliff erosion. The village had been inhabited until the early years of the 20th century, but was completely abandoned. All manner of interesting objects turned up, including a few that were difficult to identify.

An elderly woman who had been born in the village was asked to stop by, and one evening we all sat around a large campfire with her while she helpfully explained what the inscrutable finds were. Simple things, once you knew their use. A smoothly notched pebble was a fishnet sinker, and so on.

She had words for each item that were carefully transcribed and recorded by the researchers – the number of people who spoke this woman’s language was diminishingly small, even 30 years ago. In any case, she no longer knew any living speakers since her brother had died many years earlier.

I don’t remember the woman’s name, but I do remember thinking how sad and strange it must be to have your language and the world it describes shrink until you yourself are a small island of memory that no one else can share.

Credit: The Tower of Babel by Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1563)

Credit: The Tower of Babel by Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1563)

A language goes silent every two weeks, along with the culture that created it and which it sustained. With patterns similar to the loss of biodiversity, many languages are dwindling into extinction.

Of the approximately 7000 languages on the planet today, it is estimated that at least half will have disappeared by the end of this century. There are organizations and projects trying to record these languages for posterity.

When we lose a language, we lose a unique worldview.


National Geographic article – Vanishing Languages by Russ Rymer

National Geographic article – Save a Language, Save a Culture by Tim Brookes

Endangered Languages, a project by the Alliance for Linguistic Diversity