We Are A Cathedral

If you hit up any social media platform in the aftermath of the Notre Dame fire, you’d have seen that the global outpouring of grief has been accompanied by an outpouring of outrage that this event, this destruction, has garnered so much more attention than (insert pet cause, from apocalyptic climate change to biodiversity loss) . Even as I grieve over the loss of one of humankind’s great constructions, this jealous husbanding of grief baffles me, especially when it comes to environmental issues. 

Because climate fear and eco-grief are the big banana complaints of the moment, people demand to know what makes Notre Dame’s desolation more grief-worthy than, say, the clear-cutting of the Amazon rainforest. Or the imminent extinction of the squishily adorable vaquita porpoise. How can the Notre Dame reconstruction fund have amassed a billion dollars from wealthy and poor alike in under a day, while we allow the natural cathedrals of the world to be felled, while we fail to protect glaciers from melting, or the oceans from filling with plastic? Oh, and by the way, the big bananas we all know and love, Cavendish bananas, are also in danger of extinction due to the rampaging and as yet incurable Panama fungus. As the Extinction Rebellion is demanding to know, where is the financial and political will to rebuild those epochal ruins or halt their destruction?

It’s as if grief is a zero-sum emotion. As if when we are horrified and saddened by the loss of a great historical building, we might not have enough grief left over for a lost rainforest or the decline of the monarch butterfly. There’s resentment that a 20-million-year-old cetacean species is less worthy of attention than a human-built pile of stones erected in the last thousand years.

Well, obviously. Limited focus is in our nature. We aren’t very good at seeing beyond the horizon of our own immediate interests. Committed environmentalists and activists have their areas of expertise and action, be it on specific birds or bananas; it is only from outside those laser-focused studies and undertakings that it looks like everyone is worried about everything all the time. At the same time, from outside those bubbles, there’s no denying that while the fall of one beloved building is a tragedy, the demise of untold glaciers is a statistic.

Allowing yourself to grieve at everything threatens to become overwhelming, a rising tide of despair upon which you either need to learn to body surf, or it will consume you more quickly than Florida’s coastline. How much safer to splash in grief at one particular event, the magnificent fire-gutting of a church, than to take in the systemic collapse of current political and economic systems that might be required for the planet to survive the inferno of humanity’s touch.

The cause of the Notre Dame cathedral fire looks like an electrical short, because of course it would be something simple. Like the carpenter’s faulty spotlight, as was the case with the burning of Windsor Castle. Or the spontaneous combustion of linseed oil rags, the current theory behind what destroyed Glasgow’s iconic School of Art. What each fire had in common was an old building in need of, or undergoing, renovation. And then an avoidable but not unlikely spark. A bit of slow motion entropy that erupted into disaster.

For someone like me who has adapted to expand my grief at environmental destruction so it can also absorb the loss of a human habitat like Notre Dame (not to mention the entire medieval forest that burned within it), the process of watching ecological damage is similar to what happened when these buildings went up in smoke. Small beginnings, unwarranted nonchalance, and calamitous results. 

Fossil fuel use. Resource extraction. Plastic pollution. Overfarming, overfishing, overpopulation. The slow greedy embers that cause climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution have been burning in their hidden pockets for decades, but the conflagration is only getting truly under way now. For anyone waiting for the fire department to arrive, each lost species, each lost forest, each ruined waterway, is like watching the cathedral spire tip to one side and then collapse, over and over again. How much can the environment take before its structural integrity is so compromised that we collapse along with it? 

Oops. There we go again, heads underwater in the grief tsunami. Hope you took a good deep breath beforehand.

Image: MikaZZZ

In any case, the heroic efforts of the Paris fire department saved the main structure of Notre Dame. It will be rebuilt. Considering the level of worldwide passion and financial donations, the reconstruction could even be dazzling in its speed and ability to draw people together. Not to mention the creation of hundreds of jobs. Paris, and France, have reinvented themselves more than once. The country welcomed me as a citizen. I am forever grateful for its ability to absorb ruination and re-emerge anew.

So, up on top and body-surfing the grief wave again, we can look to the rebuilding of an ancient cathedral as an inspiration to what we can do when we decide to rebuild on a vast scale. Picture the passion swirling around Notre Dame, and imagine that applied to reforestation, or ocean clean-up. Imagine the sense of achievement. Imagine the jobs. Most of all, imagine this cathedral of a planet surviving and us along with it. There are thousands of children out on the street every Friday, doing just this. 

Image: RacoonArt

Inclusive grief, active grief, all-embracing grief is the first step towards not waiting for someone else to do the work. When it comes to the cathedral of the world in which flames bursting forth and fire is visible through the windows, we are the people raising the alarm. Grieve, and then be the heroic fire fighters. Grieve, and then be the intrepid investigators, the innovative architects. Grieve, and then take action as the determined carpenters and workers.

Let us be all that, instead of being helpless mourners, choking on grief and angry that others aren’t grieving enough.

Image credit: Notre Dame/Roger Hall

Heedless Ways

Chimpanzees in Uganda’s Kigali National Park have been getting up to some unusual business at night. These daytime foragers with poor night vision have been leaving the safety of the forest, crossing a bridge over a large ditch meant to keep elephants out of neighboring crop areas, and raiding corn fields.

And they aren’t the only ones. Chimps in other areas are raiding farmers’ fields, as well.

Why is this noteworthy?

Chimpanzee hand Artist: Lisa Roet

Chimpanzee hand
Artist: Lisa Roet

Well, according to a study out in PLOS ONE, this is the first recorded evidence that day-dwelling chimpanzees have significantly altered their behavior to include night-time feeding parties. Unlike some forest animals, chimpanzees’ eyes are not particularly suited for low-light vision, yet they are entering fields after sunset, and often during the darkness of a new moon.

Another development is that the raiders carry their food away with them, rather than eating it on the spot as usual. In doing so, they’ve overcome their own evolutionary wiring to eat during the day and avoid traditional nocturnal predators, like the jaguar, which has all but died out in these regions.

With habitat loss turning once-dense forests into mosaics of cultivated acreage and trees, and a reduction in the fruits usually eaten by the endangered chimps, the maize growing in nearby fields must seem like a decent alternative, if snares and farmer’s weapons can be avoided.

Primate finger Artist: Lisa Roet

Primate finger
Artist: Lisa Roet

One can’t help but admire the chimpanzees’ audacity and creativity in the face of necessity, and their unwillingness to simply starve.

It put me in mind of one the best-known poems of Dylan Thomas, who would have celebrated his 100th birthday today:

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Now the question is, how well will government, conservation groups and farmers adapt to innovative chimpanzee behavior?

A few other examples of new adaptations, some less successful than others:

North American populations of the monarch butterfly, decimated over the years mainly due to deforestation in the wintering habitats of Central Mexico and the loss of milkweed plants, the monarch’s main choice of food, to industrial farming and pesticides. In an encouraging and unexpected turn of events, deforestation activity seems to have slowed, allowing the monarch to recover, at least for the time being. Deforestation, and milkweed prevalence, are two factors well within human control, so the monarch is adapting to our habits–and once in a while, we adapt to the monarch’s.

Walrus tusks, fossilized Source: Alaska Fur Exchange

Walrus tusks, fossilized
Source: Alaska Fur Exchange

A very large cluster of walruses was in the news for a few days in early October. As in previous years, tens of thousands of the sea mammals gathered on dry land when the sea ice that usually forms the platform from whence walruses hunt melted early in the feeding season. A gathering of walruses is known as an ‘ugly’, not a very kind term for such an interesting creature, but perhaps descriptive of what happens when too many of them all find themselves on the same beach, commiserating over meagre ice and elusive food. The 2014 ugly has since broken up and moved on to further shores, but given the current negative trends in Arctic sea ice, whether the walrus succeeds in surviving remains to be seen.

Arctic Dreams Artist: David Dancy-Wood via Wildlife Sketches

Arctic Dreams
Artist: David Dancy-Wood via Wildlife Sketches

The disappearance of ice platforms in the Arctic region has a number of species scrambling to maintain a foothold, among them the polar bear, whose populations have been in drastic decline as their hunting habitat melts beneath them. Stuck on land (well, the ones who make it to land), they have replaced their diet of seal and fish with Arctic birds and human garbage (and even, occasionally, other polar bears).

And again, what of our abilities to adapt our own behaviors, not just to make adjustments for the protection of these various iconic creatures, but when it comes to making the changes that won’t put us in situations similarly dire?

In the sun born over and over,
I ran my heedless ways,
My wishes raced through the house high hay
And nothing I cared, at my sky blue trades, that time allows
In all his tuneful turning so few and such morning songs
Before the children green and golden
Follow him out of grace.

(Dylan Thomas, Fern Hill)

Milkweed Moment


Antelope Horns Milkweed (Asclepias asperula), Texas Hill Country roadside. Photo: Monika Maeckle/Texas Butterfly Ranch

Anyone who has driven the long roads of the United States highway system has seen the variation possible along the roadside – trees, flowers, invasive plants. Everything from managed forests to clipped lawns line the massive acreage of the transportation system that is lost to farming or other development.

With the expansion of land that is intensively farmed rather than set aside for conservation, and the triumphal march of broad-spectrum herbicides, the room for native plants such as milkweed has dramatically decreased. With that shrinking, the insects which rely on those plants and flowers are suffering as well.

Case in point: the monarch butterfly. Even without the loss of its main source of nutrition during annual migration, the monarch population is in steep decline. Logging in Mexico has cut into the monarch’s breeding grounds, temperature fluctuation has affected its migration. Populations are down by 59% this year compared to the previous winter.

Trees with monarchs Photo by Jim Lovett/Monarch Watch

Trees with monarchs in Mexico
Photo by Jim Lovett/Monarch Watch

Monarch Watch, a non-profit organization that works to protect the monarch butterfly in North America, has a suggestion: Use roadside acreage along the migratory path of the butterfly to plant native plants and milkweed. Rather than plant or maintain large strips of grass, common in many states, highway roadsides and median strips could be used to conserve the plants that have disappeared due to agriculture and residential development.

This would also go some way toward protecting some of the creatures that rely on these plants. Monarch Watch also suggests planting milkweed plugs, i.e. plants that will blossom this 2013 season for the current migration, in any available patch or acreage that lies along the migratory path. According to the group, one major event or disaster – a bad season of temperature change, a particularly bad storm – could send the monarch population into a death spiral.

Roadside vegetation management has been under discussion for quite some time as a potential for conservation efforts.

Even in a time fiscal belt-tightening, the milkweed proposal seems like a good investment in highway beautification and wildlife conservation, even if there is a certain irony in creating a haven against habitat diminishment and climate change on the very byways of one of the main culprits, the road of the fossil-fuel based culture, by planting what are generally considered to be native weeds wiped out by another major culprit, successful and efficient agriculture.

Monarch and milkweed
Image: The Barnegat Bay Partnership


TakePart article One Beautiful Thing You Can Do to Help Monarch Butterflies

Monarch Watch website, which also supplies milkweed seed and plugs, and a list of other suppliers.

Moment of Monarchs

Photo: Discovery Channel

Photo: Discovery Channel

When I was a child, we lived for a time in the U.S. Midwest. One autumn, I had the great good fortune of experiencing the migration of the monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus). I didn’t even have to go on a field trip – the migrating flock flew right through our schoolyard in suburban Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The red brick school building, the featureless green lawns and black asphalt were, for a short time, obscured and transformed into a bright fluttering cloud of orange and black. We were led outside, class by class, to bathe in the butterflies. Of course, our science teacher couldn’t let a chance like that go unwasted, so we were also provided with capturing jars and small amounts of chloroform. Thus we became one more migratory hazard on the monarch’s annual 2000 mile (3200 km) trip from Canada to Mexico.

The monarch’s winter breeding ground in Mexico was discovered in 1976, allowing for better assessments of the overall population. Regular monitoring only began twenty years ago. And the overall trend for the past decade has been downwards.

According to this National Geographic article, the main causes are temperature extremes due to climate change, and the loss of the monarch’s main source of food as well as host plants for monarch eggs, the milkweed (Asclepias genus). The milkweed, a flowering plant with milky sap that is toxic to most animals, imbues the monarch with a natural defense – the butterflies themselves become toxic to predators. The once common milkweed has been eradicated over large stretches of the Midwest, partially due to herbicides and partially due to land conversion to farming. Monarchs are often seen around corn and soy fields where milkweed no longer exists.

What caught my eye was a comment on the National Geographic article: “Monarch butterflies and other pollinators (are) actually abundant and doing well in the herbicide tolerant GMO corn and soybean belt of the upper Midwest USA.” The commenter provides as proof a video he shot last year of hundreds of monarchs in a field. It’s hard to argue individual experience of abundance, even against evidence-based measurements taken over the course of years from various locations along the migratory route and the mothership grounds in Mexico.

When I was a kid and standing in that multitude of butterflies, it would have been virtually impossible to persuade me that the overall butterfly population might be in decline, or ever be in decline. Objectively, it felt like I lived in a bountiful universe of soft wings and color, but as it turned out, it was just a moment.

Annual migratory cycle over four generations Source: Journey North


National Geographic article – Monarch butterflies hit new low