I prevented our dogs from wading at Jamestown Beach today. The rising tide carried a floating mat of yellow scum. I suspected pollution, which made me wonder about the meaning of the word.
Pollution is as hard to define as when Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart was stumped for a precise definition ofpornography. He lamely replied, “I know it when I see it.”
So it’s in the eyes of the beholder. I remember the public outrage when the rock musical Hair came to the English stage from Broadway. The censors allowed it on technical grounds: it wasn’t obscene if the nude male and female actors remained perfectly still. How could they condemn it when Michaelangelo’s sculpture of David stood displaying a full frontal in a museum open to the public?
I asked a park attendant about the yellow scum, not though from idle curiosity. I am a registered River Rat, a volunteer monitoring river health for the James River Association. “You will see bigger slicks of pollen next week,” he said.
Aha! I should have guessed it was from pine and cypress cones shedding gobs of pollen. My weather app reported exceptional levels of pollen. Early next month our cars will have an annual coat of fine yellow dust, but I had never seen so much floating. And only seen in excess did I regard it as pollution, prompting questions.
Is pollution by definition man-made and harmful?
It flashes images of oil pouring from a damaged oil tanker and plastic detritus on the high seas. Only we are to blame! But we aren’t the only species that foul our environment. Gazing at the Bass Rock in the Firth of Forth last week I saw the island whitewashed with uric acid excreted by the gannet and gull colonies. The ammoniacal odor of bat guano has taken my breath away in caves and seals have deposited tons of guano on islands, especially the Lobos. It makes a fine fertilizer after dilution but is toxic in its raw state.
You can think of other examples of natural substances that might be called pollution. Of course, those examples don’t mitigate our guilt. No other species has polluted all seven continents and five oceans with myriads of artificial chemicals, some of which will persist for generations to come.
Guess the replies if you ask if wasps and flies have any virtues. Many people wish them extinct, but they are important pollinators along with wild bees, honeybees, and lepidoptera.
The decline of 1-2% per year in insect populations around the world theoretically reduces agricultural yields. I thought it would be hard to measure the impact, so a paper published this week by the Harvard School of Public Health came as a surprise. The authors estimate pollination failure causes a 3-5% deficit of agricultural productivity in fruit, vegetables, and nuts. The loss of healthy food accounts for 427,000 excess annual deaths.
The data come from experimental farms across four continents monitoring gaps in product yields that depend on pollination. A global disease risk model was applied to estimate the impacts on dietary risks and mortality in different countries.
The economic costs fell mainly on low-income country providers of food. But the health burden fell mainly on middle-income countries, including China and India, because of the relative prevalence of metabolism-related diseases compared to communicable diseases among poor people. The proximate culprits are climate change and loss of biodiversity. We see in our mirrors those ultimately responsible for agricultural shortfalls from disappearing pollinators.
Suddenly Uncle Henry stood up. “There’s a cyclone coming …” he said. Thus, began Dorothy’s voyage over the Kansas prairie with her dog, Toto, carried by a tornado. The first warnings were the wail of the wind and bowing grass.
The blood and sinew memory of panic soon fades after danger passes. After escaping to a safe haven, we tell the story blithely. Hence, I am writing while feelings remain fresh.
I was walking my dog in the afternoon. The air was calm and the clouds creamy-white apart from a sulking grey curtain over the horizon. Ben wanted to go further than planned but we turned back at the first spots of rain. By the time we were 400 yards from home I heard a tremendous roar behind, like a steam engine chasing us. I didn’t look round but pressed forward faster, expecting only to be drenched.
When debris started flying at a rate never seen before, we ran towards the path through our woodlot that takes us home. Later, I regretted we didn’t stop for refuge under a neighbor’s verandah because the violence grew and grew. The path was covered in debris and branches laden with leaves flailed as if animated by pulses of high voltage. We heard loud crashes behind, on each side, and even overhead. To halt under a tree seemed suicidal; to press forward felt perilous.
When we reached home, Lucinda held the door open eyes round as marbles and her quaking voice inaudible from the din outside. The phone I left on the table during our walk showed an emergency announcement to take cover immediately. Later we heard people had seen a funnel cloud. I could tell them where it had touched down.
When the wind abated, I went outside to check the damage. Large trees had fallen in a narrow swath almost surgically. Only a few yards from the giants, delicate plants were unaffected, although the ground was strewn with broken boughs, sticks and leaves. I found a tree lying across the path where it had been felled seconds after we passed.
A tornado transported Dorothy and Toto to the Land of Oz, but Ben and I missed going to another place.