Letter from the Trenches, Passchendaele, 1917

The graveyard of Grace Episcopal Church, Yorktown, Virginia is an apt place to meditate on Veterans Day (Remembrance Day in the UK). 101 veterans from as far back as the 17th century are buried in these grounds. Lord Cornwallis’s troops used the church behind me as a powder magazine and the battleground ending the Revolutionary War is a mile yonder.

One shouldn’t feel ‘sides’ at this distance of time and can’t be blindly patriotic when you have ancestors on both sides of the tragedy and waste of war. Photos too are poignant, like a scene I know at the Third Battle of Ypres in which three wounded soldiers, one Canadian and two German, cling to each other as they wade through mud and destruction, a scene that inspired a famous poem and the tradition of wearing poppies.

.. If ye break faith with us who die

We shall not sleep, tho poppies grow

In Flanders fields

John McCrae

That battle is better known as Passchendaele for the tiny village destroyed at its center. As best I can translate Flemish it means Easter (or Passover) Valley. Winston Churchill called the battle “a forlorn expenditure of valor and life without equal in futility.”

A century later a letter came into our hands about two brothers, Leonard and Conrad, from their C/O. The address ‘From the Front’ implied it was typed in a dugout in the trenches or close to the Frontline. Imagine the scene from Sam Mendes movie, 1917. Dated this day in 1917, the day after the four month battle ended and precisely one year before the Armistice, he wrote to their mother.

My great uncles emigrated to Canada before the war, where Len got married, but they joined the Canadian Pioneers when hostilities broke out. Len was a stretcher-bearer, probably Con too as they served together. A few weeks earlier a Toronto newspaper reported that Len was commended by the C/O for saving lives at Passchendaele. Soon afterwards, a shellburst killed him instantly along with several soldiers. The letter wrote of his ‘glorious sacrifice’ (sic) and how Con was buried under debris with grievous injuries, but had the courage and presence of mind to stay to care for the injured, all the time his dead brother lying close by. Con was awarded a high decoration for valor.

I wonder what they would say if they looked down on us today as wars continue (a new one announced this week) and infighting divides us, even giving a stress test to our democracy.

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Honeybee up the Creek

Paddling the Powhatan Creek on a fall day I floated near the saltmarsh at low tide. The mud heaved with armored creatures that I alarmed, hauling themselves on ten legs to run into the reeds with a giant claw like a fiddle under an arm. The abundance of nature is still gob-smacking. If the scene is magnified in the imagination, Michael Crichton could have written the story Brachurid Park.

Sandy Bay, Powhatan Creek, looking toward Jamestown Island

Close to the bank, dozens of small fishes leapt out of the water for a second, as if checking for the long, pointed beak of a fisherman up to his knees. And then my bow suddenly lifted and slammed down as a huge snapping turtle disturbed on the creek bed made off with as much panic as it left me steadying my kayak.

But none of those sights were as indelible as the tiny spinning whirlpool in a patch of still water. Paddling to see if the insect caught in a meniscus would be gobbled by a fish I found a drowning honeybee.

For nearly a quarter hour I watched and tried to rescue it on the blade of my paddle, but it always slipped off in the wash. Eventually it caught and I knocked it onto my prow to study it. Golden-yellow, the bee wasn’t from my Russian colony four miles away. Over several minutes it scrubbed its head and body and dried in the afternoon sunshine. Then it flew off, with my blessing. The boy scout of years ago rose inside: it was my good deed for the day.

I can’t help reflecting that I am the stranger of the two, and perhaps of all species. Every day I am responsible for the death of living creatures by eating, driving, gardening, etc., and when not in the deed I am complicit through others. And yet, I now take more care of my choices as a consumer and try to avoid harming animals met as individuals, like the mouse in our house and the worm exposed by my garden fork, but if I try to be Franciscan, revering all nature, I soon fail. I am guilty of deliberately stepping on a giant cockroach today.

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Human Population Through the Looking Glass

I can’t avoid this topic forever, not under the headline Peace with Nature. It is the intractable, controversial matter of the teeming numbers of human beings. How many more of us can the Earth sustain in this Anthropocene?

Only the most pig-headed science denier can dismiss environmental challenges that threaten our future, even our survival. Among the obvious are food insecurity and infectious diseases, soil erosion and desertification, air and water pollution, fossil fuels and global warming, animal and plant extinctions. It’s hard to dwell on them for long because our responses at best are puny against the tide. Besides, pessimism is not an attractive outlook.

Much can be blamed on world overpopulation. We are doubling every 49 years and will soon reach 8 billion. That is ratcheting up the impact of our insatiable appetites for consumption, which are reflected in an obsessive drive to constantly expand economies (as if no ceiling exists).

If everyone consumed resources like a medieval peasant, we would be far behind the curve. Billions of us still live that way, though never by choice. Wealth is not distributed in a bell-shaped curve. Raising prosperity for everyone to, say, an American level is unattainable on this finite planet: for some to be rich, many must stay relatively or absolutely poor. If this present state is manifestly unjust (who can deny it?), would a smaller population shrink the gap in wealth?

Population control is the hottest of hot potatoes. The liberty of choosing to have children and how many is a cherished human right. Woe betide the institution that coerces people into contraception or mandates sterilization.

Sanjay Gandhi tried during the 1975 ‘Emergency’ in India. The son of a prime minister led an aggressive program of shoddy vasectomies and tubal surgeries for mostly poor subjects in exchange for trivial incentives or were forced to comply. People pushed the policy back and his family became a tragic story. An authoritarian government succeeded in curbing growth of the Chinese population by limiting families to one child after 1979, but that policy relaxed too.  A distorted age pyramid had huge socio-economic implications and many girl babies were ‘missing’ before birth. Fortunately, family planning methods are freely accessible in many countries, although not enough. Private decisions in bedrooms have a bigger effect on birth rates than any government diktat or contraceptive.

As a young reader of Silent Spring and The Population Bomb, ecology and population created a frothy amalgam in my head. At that more idealistic age, I believed that the pair together with nuclear weapons made a triumvirate that threatened civilization. I then leaned into a career in reproduction research, hoping to help discover new contraceptive targets. To disable the sperm or egg before fertilization seemed (still seems) preferable to hormones for blocking ovulation or the more elusive goal of knocking out spermatogenesis. I became a Population Council (NY) research fellow, but drifted to profertility technologies, like my mentor Robert Edwards who pioneered fertility treatment with  IVF.

This is no small irony since I still fret about the ‘population problem’, although my original fear of human numbers and hopes for a technological fix were naive.  Family sizes in the West started to shrink at the end of the Victorian period when bumper crops of kids were grown. This shift occurred in tandem with declining infant mortality, revealing that people had the know-how to make reproductive choices before highly efficient contraceptives were developed after WWII. Men have traditionally called the shots at home but as women gained more authority and education, they chose smaller families, or started later, or remained childless. A trend that began in the West continues to spread globally.

The population anxiety of fifty years ago when the UN and grant agencies plowed money into research and fertility services has switched from fear of too many babies to too few for replacing people who die. Some countries, notably Japan, will have half the population by the end of the century, with huge social implications. They now try to hoist birth rates above the replacement threshold of 2.1 by offering incentives like free childcare services, and will welcome more immigration to offset population decline.

And yet the world population continues to climb while other countries catch up with the demographic shift. A recent paper in the Lancet offers a more optimistic forecast than the United Nations’ official projection. Instead of peaking at 10.9 billion by 2100, it reckons there will be only 9.7 billion of us in 2064. This small mercy doesn’t quash concerns about overpopulation, and there are no quick remedies, barring a global catastrophe. But sometime next century I believe new institutions will guide us through a painful and dangerous demographic transition to a much smaller population and more stable than ever in history.

That kind of flourishing worldwide requires peace between people and with nature. A more equitable society rolling over the lottery of being born rich or poor can offer a peace dividend and deliver environmental justice. A smaller population should draw from Earth’s limited bounty more sustainably with a lower impact on the environment. It will avoid impoverishing posterity and generational injustice.

Technology has been called a bane for conservation, but it also helps to live more gently with nature. But it can’t do the heavy lifting of giving 8-10 billion people a fairer share of prosperity. With a smaller population there is more to go round, but how much smaller for everyone to have a generous slice of pie that doesn’t cost the earth?

Ballpark averages of rich versus poor populations (or nominal GDPs per capita) show a 5-to 10-fold difference in wealth. Hence, for sustainability the world population should be no greater than a tenth of the present, about one billion or close to the number alive in the year 1800.

Maybe this speculation is pie in the sky. Optimism is in short supply and we are blind sighted by the narrow window of our own experience. But each successive generation experiences the world differently and sometime in the future people may look back aghast, wondering how their ancestors living in our time managed to muddle through. I think we will, just as people did in pandemics and wars of the past, because humans are experts at surviving and Earth is our only home. Gaia will be relieved when a post-Anthropocene era emerges with human numbers and appetites she can comfortably support.

Next Post: About Nostalgia

 

 

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Don’t Write Off the Bat

It was a perfect evening for a spin in the Batmobile with a team of three amateur chiroptologists. The air was warm and still when the sun went down.

After leaving the carpark, we were overtaken by every vehicle along the Colonial Parkway as we crawled at 15 mph, hugging the kerb. Fortunately, the traffic was light. It was too dark to see if the faces passing us were puzzled by the tall aerial sticking out of our sunroof or if they guessed what we were up to from the sticker on our trunk illuminated in their headlights: Bat Monitoring – Pass Safely.

Although I rarely hear bats nowadays, I love to watch their silhouettes against the last glow of a darkening sky. Their acrobatic flights look sheer joy, although I know they are to satisfy voracious appetites, twisting and turning to skim the air of mosquitoes, moths and lumbering beetles.  After years of wondering what species lived here, I now had an opportunity to find out.

The passenger sitting beside the driver held the aerial with one hand and used the other to control the tracker pad of a laptop perched in front. I watched over her shoulder as she loaded the SonoBat software.

SonoBat

All set in the Batmobile

We hadn’t gone far along the tree-lined parkway when the computer chirped. It was our first hit. A chirogram on the screen (like a sonogram) showed regular pulses as a bat called for echolocation to detect prey and avoid obstacles. A machine-learning algorithm identified the species, saved data to a spreadsheet and could mark ambiguous results, if necessary. The passenger in the seat beside me backed up results by writing on a notepad. We had detected a Red bat, named for its red fur. It was impossible to see it or any others through impenetrable night.

This was my first time for a bat positively identified while flying free in the wild. Soon, there was another chirping, then another, often in a different tone and frequency. After two hours on the road we gathered 125 recordings, mostly ascertained. The total number of individuals was, however, unknown, and we probably had duplicates because bats of a given species have the same voice. But we were more confident that seven species flew close enough to detect that night, including the Big-eared, Big brown, and Silver bat. I never knew we had so many.

chirogram fromSonoBat

Chirogram of Red bat

The software program identified calls by referencing a library of thousands of recordings of species from across the continent.  We mostly detected Red bats, a common and widespread species. The Seminole bat has a similar chirogram, but being near the northern limit of its range it was unlikely to be mistaken for the closely related species.

When I joined the survey one night last year, bats were getting more attention from conservationists and there was growing public interest in their dwindling populations from loss of habitat to human development, Insectageddon threatening their food supply, and the toll from white-nose syndrome.  They haven’t lost friends who always cared about them. But people who were indifferent before or harbored superstitions can find a better excuse for fearing them than the old myth that bats get caught in young girls’ hair.

Evidence is growing that the COVID-19 virus originated in bats before it infected humans, perhaps via an intermediate host. The species and country of origin are still unclear. Bats harbor coronaviruses to which they evolved enviable tolerance from long association and robust immunity. They have orthologs of our ACE-2 protein, a molecule with a physiologic role and widely distributed on our cells that offers the virus a gateway for infecting us by binding its spike protein.

To persecute bats as suspects of this or other zoonoses (certainly they can carry the rabies virus, like any other mammal) is no more justified than putting people in jail for spreading disease before they understood the menace or knew they were infected. Solutions to our problem lie not with the animal but in our connected world and with global travel.

Bats flying at night

Thanks to Ruth Rios on Unsplash

Bats are fascinating creatures in the web of life. They cling to familiar habitats and if left alone they help us as insect-eaters and providers of pollination services.

When contact distancing is revoked after the pandemic, I hope to board the Batmobile again to watch pulses on the glowing screen that spark imagination about the peregrinations of bats outside in the night.

Next Post: On Human Population

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Virginia is for Oyster Lovers

“Why then the world’s mine oyster, which I with sword will open.” Thus, Shakespeare gave us a new idiom in the Merry Wives of Windsor repeated ever since, and Oscar Wilde wielded it with customary wit: “The world was my oyster, but I took the wrong fork.”

It means a person expects to avoid adversity and find opportunity, like the discovery of a precious pearl. But if you asked an oyster it wouldn’t sound optimistic. Our excessive love kills them, and few cared about the relentless harvest until recently. In the poem recited by Tweedledee and Tweedledum, Alice felt sorry for oysters as the Walrus and Carpenter gobbled them on the beach.

Had we been aboard the shallop steered by the first English explorers of the Chesapeake Bay in Shakespeare’s day we would have been gobsmacked by an abundance of oysters, some as large as dinner plates and forming reefs grown close to the surface.  In 1701, a foreign visitor wrote in astonishment: “whole banks … ships must avoid them … four times as large (as English oysters) … I often cut them in two to put them in my mouth.”

The Bay was drastically impoverished by dredging its bed barren in the 19th century Oyster Rush.  The local economy collapsed and watermen switched to crabbing to make a living. The crash drastically impacted other fauna and flora since the remaining 2% of original numbers now took a year to filter the entire Bay which used to be achieved in a week. It is a classic example of the folly of free-for-all harvesting of a seemingly inexhaustible natural resource. Oyster beds are now making a slow recovery against a tide of agricultural effluent and disease, but helped by volunteers for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and less harvesting pressure as oysters are cultured commercially.

If they are on your menu today, imagine the same shells on your plate again. The suggestion is ridiculous, but the point is that some restaurants in our region recycle shells for building wild oyster beds and embedding in artificial reefs. At one time, they were used as lime for mortar and roads, but when that became redundant they were dumped in landfills, so the recycling program is positive in every way.

oysters in Chesapeake Bay

Oysters shells curing in the sun

Shells are trucked to a depot in Maryland or the Virginia Institute of Marine Science beside the York River. A volunteer tips them on a hopper for conveyance through a tumble washer and bagging to cure in the sun for a year, eliminating the last traces of condiments from your meal. The happy, hot and sweaty team beside the river is, alas, not reassembling this year because of the coronavirus contagion.

oysters in Chesapeake Bay

Oyster gardening

Cured shells are loaded in tanks of brackish water to which larvae (‘spat’) are introduced from external suppliers. The spat can attach to hard surfaces like stone or concrete, but they prefer old shells, like the reefs of old. Young oysters are then dropped in sanctuary areas of the Bay or its creeks and rivers or oyster gardeners raise them for a year in cages where they grow faster and are protected before reaching their final destination. The goal is to deposit 10 billion oysters by 2025, an effort requiring over 21,000 hours of volunteer time.

oysters in Chesapeake Bay

Oyster lovers beside the York River

Not only will future diners and watermen benefit but the whole ecosystem. It is a story of a keystone species. In purifying 50 gallons of water a day, each oyster reduces dissolved nitrogen and phosphorus and, hence, the risk of dead zones from algal blooms. Their colonies provide important habitat for fish and crabs too. The early explorers adopted the Algonquin name for Chesapeake, meaning great shellfish bay,  and perhaps one day it will be apt again.

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