The Return of the Native

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A large black-and-white bird flying above our yard towards the James River caught my eye last week. It was no “buzzard.” A bald eagle is still uncommon enough to be arresting, and perhaps there is even a patriotic American somewhere who stands to attention when he sees his national emblem soaring past, like Air Force One. But there is a grander reason for saluting the bird—it is a native that has returned home.

Eagles were a common sight in the Chesapeake Bay watershed until catastrophes in the 1950s and ‘60s. In those decades, an industrial plant was disgorging poisons into the James River. The chemical waste was Kepone, an insecticide related to DDT, which so polluted the river that a Virginia Governor prohibited consumption of fish for a 100 mile stretch. But no respecters of law, eagles kept fishing. Not only did they accumulate poison from eating fish but also lead from the scattered gunshot of duck hunters. Hardly a single chick could be brooded in those days. Those woes were aggravated by the loss of nest sites to waterfront developments, and the failure of naïve birds to navigate around traffic and power lines. It seemed as if the 1940 Act of Congress intended to protect the species had been written on disappearing ink.

Photo: Don Snyder

Forty years ago you would have been lucky to have seen a single eagle along the James; fewer than thirty pairs nested across the entire state. But after the poisons were banned by the EPA in 1972 river health slowly improved, which encouraged the US Fish and Wildlife Service to launch a program for reintroducing eagles. It is perhaps the greatest American conservation story for a single species. Nest sites are monitored annually by fly-overs in light aircraft, and at the last count there were over 700 breeding pairs in the state, allowing the species to be delisted from the Endangered Species Act. So the bird depicted on the escutcheon of the Great Seal of the United States can now be seen even within Washington DC itself, and that is something that even congressmen who put business before conservation should be proud of! 

On that eagle day, my mind was pulled away from its absorbing interest to thoughts that had no obvious connection.  I found myself thinking about Clym Yeobright in Thomas Hardy’s The Return of the Native. When an image comes out of the blue like that I often strain to find a meaning for the unexpected distraction. I suppose there was something inside me trying to fathom a metaphor for what I had just seen.

Clym Yeobright and his wife Eustacia in The Return of the Native

In the novel, Clym returned to his birthplace on Egdon Heath after making his fortune in Paris. It had been hard growing up on the Heath, but he believed it would be easier now to flourish in the bosom of land that had nurtured his ancestors, where old neighbors would celebrate his return and he could settle down to productive work with a wife and family.

Perhaps the novel came to mind because I was uneasy remembering how things turned out for the returning native and deep down was wondering about the fortunes of eagles back in their homeland. But unlike Clym, who needed no help moving to the Heath, bringing species back often needs our helping hands, the very hands that originally extirpated them. The job of preserving species seems unfathomably difficult to me, and is yet so immensely important for preserving the web of life and a healthy planet, which some call Gaia. But since human populations are continuing to migrate from rural origins to urban communities it is easy to forget our dependence on biodiversity. Connections between sources of our food, clothing, medicines, and raw materials for manufacturing and building on the one hand and living things “out there” on the other are under-rated or taken for granted. Without beloved companion animals inner city dwellers might even forget that we share the planet with other creatures. And when we do think of human ecology we find it overwhelming and hope that someone else is working on it.

The United Nations has designated our times as a Decade of Biodiversity. It is an admirable attempt to draw global attention to environmental sickness, even if the politicians themselves are soon distracted by the latest humanitarian disaster (caring for the one species instead of for all). Unfortunately, no one I asked had ever heard about this splendid declaration—nor had I before preparing this post—but the responsibility for preserving biodiversity really should fall on our shoulders, and the efforts of government, NGOs, researchers, and citizen scientists need our support.

Since zoos, wildlife parks, and technology can only go so far towards preserving species, rare animals and plants must eventually be reintroduced to their old habitats. The international organization that reports population status and coordinates reintroduction programs is the IUCN. It publishes the famous Red List of species that are threatened or endangered, including those that are extinct. A Threatened species is one that is vulnerable to stepping down the list to Endangered, the dire category which used to include bald eagles. Searching the List for threatened species is quite sobering because it includes 41% of all amphibians, 34% of conifers, 33% of corals, 31% of sharks and rays, 25% of mammals, and 13% of birds around the world. Diners are relieved that most types of lobster are safe, at least for now (1%).

When humans become urbanized the disconnection with nature makes it harder to notice or even care about year-on-year changes in the natural environment or that a formerly abundant species has now grown scarce. Like the drip-drip of a retreating glacier, it is only by observing over a period of time that you notice how far it has retreated up the mountain. At least that is how I rationalize the gap between my impression that songbirds are as common as ever in my backyard and the fact that national bird counts reveal alarming trends over my lifetime.

It is a sad reflection on the character of Homo economus that both the UN and conservationists feel it is necessary to appeal to our self-interest to encourage conservation-mindedness. One of their favorite examples is the Amazon jungle, for which preservation is sought for the cornucopia of potentially valuable products and medical remedies for ourselves. Perhaps we would feel more concerned if we lived five times longer than our four score years, since we would then have to face a more impoverished landscape in our own lifetime. But for me the moral argument is so much more powerful: that if we live more gently with nature we can avoid the curse of posterity for grandstanding and being grand executioners during the sixth great extinction on earth. This is the only extinction we cannot blame on geology or asteroids.

If the resources available for research and conservation were stretched thinly enough to cover most threatened species nothing could be achieved, so hard choices have been made. Those getting most attention are well-loved or iconic species, and many of them sit at the top of the food chain, like eagles. Golden lion tamarins (Brazil), Siberian tigers (Asia), black-footed ferrets (Great Plains), and gray wolves (Yellowstone National Park) have been successfully reintroduced, and the publicity helps to prime the pump for funding other projects. But what about more lowly species that are nevertheless important for supporting those above them in the chain? Who is going to help half-a-million species of beetles?  The physiologist J.B.S. Haldane pointed out that God must have had “an inordinate fondness” for them, so surely they deserve some attention?

I have a particular fondness for the red kite story because forty years ago I drove with student friends to Tregaron Bog in mid-Wales to see the last survivors in Britain. Before persecution they thrived throughout the country where they provided equivalent services to vultures in other countries. We only had a fleeting glimpse of two rusty-colored raptors with forked tails as they flew over the wetland, but this was enough to tick them on our checklists, as crazy birders do, before turning for the long journey home. We anticipated their imminent extinction, but some years later healthy birds were brought over from Europe to found a thriving population now numbering about 2,000 pairs. The bird has been seen again in London and hunts the countryside of Hardy’s Wessex novels.

Yet behind these sweet stories eternal vigilance is needed as the price of biodiversity, to twist an expression often attributed to Thomas Jefferson. Habitats are not static, human pressures come and go and come again, and the globe continues to warm, encouraging competitive alien species, melting ice shelves under polar bears, et cetera. Besides, not everyone welcomes the natives home. Developers grumble that people should have a greater call on waterfront properties than eagles, ranchers in Wyoming and Idaho keep their guns handy watching for wolves, and an English student even complained that a red kite had swooped down for his sandwich! Restoring species to their habitats is patient work, and never ending.

That brings me back to Thomas Hardy who, as a Victorian, was lucky not to live in such anxious times. Life didn’t turn out well for Clym, the returning native. He never settled down happily and found himself at odds with residents and married a belle who became dissatisfied after he fell into poverty, working as a laborer cutting furze on the cruel Heath.

I always hope that after suffering trials sympathetic characters in the novels I read will be rewarded with a contented and harmonious life, but that never happens in the Hardy world where fate trumps hope. The author may have called himself a realist, but pessimism is an unattractive demeanor that curbs endeavor and can be a self-fulfilling prophecy. I wish it had been Jane Austen who had come to mind on my eagle day because Jane-AustenDarcy returned to Longbourne to marry Elizabeth Bennet and they lived happily ever after, and that is the metaphor I wish for all returning natives.

New Post: Bugs need not Apologize

A Tree for Hugging

If the Ancient Greeks ever had a deity for protecting the environment it was Artemis. She was a goddess of the forests and wilderness, a defender of the vulnerable who once hid in a chestnut tree from Zeus when he was in one of his violent fits of temper.Artemis

Divine knowledge did not save the iconic American chestnut tree, which provided a glorious quarter of the eastern forest canopy. A blight carried by timber imported from Asia was first noticed on trees at the Bronx Zoo in 1904, and quickly spread across their entire range from Maine to Georgia along and on both sides of the Appalachian chain. Within a few decades they were extinct except for sprouts from old stumps and roots, which became infected long before they became trees. The chestnut provided some of the most beautiful and useful wood in the country, as well as heavy annual harvests of delicious nuts.  I never knew this history, and none of the older people I met after arriving in the USA in the 1970s ever told me what I had missed. How quickly memories of the lately-departed can fade.

But I knew plenty about chestnuts in Britain, which are schoolboy favorites. On chilly winter evenings we warmed ourselves beside glowing braziers in London streets where we bought bags of roasted sweet chestnuts. Earlier in the fall, our school yards were battlegrounds for playing with chestnuts of another kind, the horse chestnut or conker tree. This tree sheds large numbers of nuts inside spiny burrs, burnished like the top of a prized wooden dresser with a round, pasty-white patch of skin, looking like a larger version of its American cousin. Too bitter to eat, conkers served us well in schoolboy wars. We could hardly wait for them to fall, and would throw sticks into trees to bring on the harvest.

In those days, wearing short pants and with pockets bulging with booty we trekked home to plan a campaign. We spread the nuts across a table to select the best for battle and reserve one for our pockets because grandma told us it was a sure cure for piles. The largest nuts were not the best for fighting, and we remembered that Goliath had cracked under David’s little “conker.” I preferred my chestnuts to be “cheesers”, whose flat sides could break my opponent’s nut after arcing through the air like a mortar bomb. We used a kitchen skewer to bore a hole through our conkers before threading a string or bootlace which was tied at one end with a knot. Then we were ready.

Conkers was first played on the Isle of Wight in early Victorian times, and because that is my birth-place and my cousin John McConkey is from there I feel I am a special authority on the subject! The game is played in pairs starting with the winner of a coin toss. With the string wound tightly around his forefinger and the other holding the conker he tries to strike the other nut which is held limply by his opponent. He aims to break it, preferably with a single beautiful, explosive “Crack.”

Smash the conker!
Smash the conker!

Starting as a none-er, the winning conker is promoted to a one-er, and the victorious boy looks around the yard for the next contestant. According to some rules, the score can be additive, so if he defeats a six-er his conker becomes a seven-er, whereas his opponent’s would be an eight-er if he wins a round with a one-er. Some pretty high scores can be run up, and a lot of shells and kernels cast across the yard. If he missed in a tangle of strings, the contestants call, “Strings!” and the first boy to shriek is rewarded with another shot. If a conker is dropped, it is fair game to crush it underfoot with a triumphant whoop, “Stamps!” After releasing so much youthful aggression, the boys troop back to their classroom where stories about the Trojan Wars seem placid compared with what happened outside.

Even schoolboys have codes of decency, if not many, and none when it comes to conkers. In the good old days, we had secret formulas for hardening our nuts. Mine was to bake them in vinegar when Mum wasn’t looking. Opponents always sniffed conkers before the game started to check for cheating, but the smell of vinegar was dissipated if they were aired for a while. I heard that the hardest nuts have been passed undigested through a pig for collecting at the other end, and I suppose the conker owner hopes the other boy has a really stuffy head cold. I swear the story is not a “porker” (slang for a big fib).

There is a part of boyhood that never grows up, and the chestnut is one of its totems. The great ornamental tree evokes memories of gazing into the fall canopy feeling the anticipation with hands deep in empty pockets. But the joy of conkering doesn’t have to stop after graduating to long pants; it continues in some shires and counties into manhood, where grown men stand in opposing pairs, often outside pubs and well-fortified. These are sturdy individuals who are fortunate to live in a country that tolerates (nay, celebrates) eccentricity, and doubly lucky if they don’t have to creep out the backdoor while their wives aren’t looking. It is no wonder that Britain and Ireland have produced far more champions than any other country—if only in this sport. Good luck to them in the next World Conker Championship, which will be held in the English Midlands next weekend (October 13) (I kid you not).

The game is hardly known in North America, except perhaps in New York where a winning conker is naturally called a “Killer.” It is mild compared to the national sport of head-bashing in football, which could have originated with conker players frustrated in a country where horse chestnut trees are rare (Ahem). The native American buckeye, sometimes called a horse chestnut here, is no more than a close relative, but its nuts are too small for respectable play, as are those of American chestnuts if you can find any.

The story of the native American chestnut is like a tragedy that preceded it by only a few decades—the annihilation of the native American Indian culture. These ghosts of the forests were formerly vibrant here in Virginia, but while one was felled by axes and fungal blight, the other disappeared in a hail of bullets and foreign viruses.

American chestnuts were not on my mind until recently when I was shown a typescript browning with age, titled Chestnut Notes. Pam Walker, granddaughter of the renowned New York surgeon Robert Morris (1857-1945), had found it in a bundle of papers from the time when he was preparing a book that become a standard work in arboriculture and horticulture (Nut Growing, Macmillan & Co., 1931). The script, dated October 1929, begins, “Something over twenty years ago when the chestnut blight became a serious matter in Connecticut I looked for resistant species and varieties for the purpose of making hybrids.”

Chestnut hybrid on former Morris estate
Chestnut hybrid on former Morris estate

I was curious whether this great amateur and forgotten pioneer was first to tackle the disastrous die-off of chestnut trees. He began experimenting very soon after the fungal epidemic was recognized, and could not have known in 1909 that it would spread across the nation. Accompanied by Pam last weekend, I visited the Morris estate in Connecticut which, before it passed through other owners to become a public park today, was 440 acres of forest between Stamford and Greenwich where he conserved trees and wildlife. I knew he had used American chestnut pollen to create hybrids with blight-resistant species of chestnut (Chinese chestnut and chinkapin or chinquapin) followed by backcrossing and testing every few years with the aim of producing almost pure American varieties that had inherited genes for resistance. It was a goal that could never be achieved in his lifetime. We found only a few specimen trees that may be derived from his work. Today, research continues under state management in Connecticut and Virginia where enormous progress has been made, giving prospects for people who are alive today to see American chestnuts flourish again.

Before all leaves have fallen, I will travel half-way across the state with a Virginia forester to see how far this work has progressed. And perhaps I will see a rare original specimen, not just a hybrid, that I am told stands a record 20 feet tall without blight. I will then feel well-prepared for an article I have been invited to write for a journal. To some this sudden absorption will probably sound nuts, but people who love our native trees will understand this beautiful obsession. As John Muir said, “Going to the woods is going home.”

These thoughts were running through my head one bright morning last month while I was walking in our yard. We have two or three acres of woodland, mainly loblolly pines, tulip poplars, hickories, and various oak species. They are old friends that stand like guardians around the home, and I pay them particular attention during the hurricane season. I know them all, or I thought I did.

No more than thirty paces from our house my attention was drawn to something I had never noticed before in the ten years we have lived here. Scattered on the ground there were 50 to 100 apple-green burrs. I stooped to pick one, but dropped it immediately because it felt as sharp as a sea-urchin and more spiny than any burr I had ever held. Chestnut plate#2Some had been split by squirrels to remove their fruit. When I prized others open with a pocket knife I found three beautiful nuts inside that looked as bright as if they had been French-polished. There is only one tree that could have produced them in the small grove of pines: it has a bole a foot wide and reaches seventy feet to catch sunlight, where there were more prickly fruit among the long leaves waiting to fall.

I couldn’t tell if it was American or Chinese, nor did it matter. It was like a gift, and I ran inside shouting, “Come look! You’ll never believe it!” Afterwards I searched the neighborhood and even further afield for others, but this is the only chestnut tree.  Thank you, Artemis.Chestnut treehugger#2

Next Post: Return of the Native

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