Keeping the Parts
My sister, Lora, was absolutely right. When her mother-in-law, Oma, died this past July, she said, “It was like losing a library…” That’s a perfect way to put it. Having lived through almost all of the twentieth century, Oma had seen more change than most of us can even imagine. She was a source of information, inspiration, and advice.
Oma was a connection to the recent past, what some people call “living history.” She had experienced the horror of the Second World War in Germany. Her husband, Gus, was drafted into the German Army so she was left to take care of their farm and three young boys by herself. Fortunately she had a wide range of practical skills, from farming to home repair, which served her well. As the war was winding down, she made a decision that would change their lives. She hitched the horse to a wagon, loaded it with as many possessions as she could, and with those three boys, managed to stay ahead of the advancing Russian Army. She made the arduous, thousand mile, month-long trek to Western Germany where the Americans were. Unknown to Oma, Gus had been a prisoner of war in America. When the war had finally ended, he managed to find Oma and the boys, thanks to the Red Cross. They were reunited and eventually they relocated to Wisconsin. Many years later, my sister ended up marrying one of those boys.
Oma’s and Opa’s (Gus’s) unique story and set of skills certainly represents the surprisingly wide diversity within the Wisconsin community. When someone passes away, it is definitely a loss; particularly considering you can no longer visit that “library” of knowledge and memory. But the loss can also be an opportunity to reflect on the person’s life and contributions.
In a similar way, each species, whether plant or animal, represents a unique chapter in the vast library of life that we sometimes call genetics. When an entire species dies (becomes extinct) it’s a different sort of loss. A species, after all, is not an individual, but an entire kind of animal or plant. For example, red fox or white oak each is a species. A species extinction is a permanent loss of an integral part in a natural community. Those specific genes are lost. Like the passenger pigeon, it slips out of existence into the mists of time, never to be seen again.
While all species share some genes in common, each is unique. Each species contributes to the resilience of the ecosystem in which it lives. Each ecosystem in turn contributes to the overall stability of the entire biotic community, what Aldo Leopold called the “land organism.” The risk is that the living landscape could gradually lose its ability to adapt to changes such as the current trend of global warming.
Over a century ago a botanist, out collecting specimens of plants, referred to a specific plant community as a “fortuitous juxtaposition of species.” In other words he believed the presence of special or rare plants in close association with one another was merely a lucky coincidence. That was before the pioneering work of ecologists such as Aldo Leopold. Leopold saw organic connections and relationships between plants and animals. Members of an ecosystem, like organs in a body, were interdependent parts of a larger functioning whole. A good word to describe this association is synergy. The whole is greater than the sum of the parts…
In the words of Leopold: “The outstanding scientific discovery of the twentieth century is not television, or radio, but rather the complexity of the land organism. Only those who know the most about it can appreciate how little we know about it. The last word in ignorance is the man who says of an animal or plant: “What good is it?” If the land mechanism as a whole is good, then every part is good, whether we understand it or not. If the biota, in the course of aeons, has built something we like but do not understand, then who but a fool would discard seemingly useless parts? To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering.”
Unfortunately by causing accelerating rates of extinction, we’re doing unintelligent tinkering. We’re not keeping those cogs and wheels. A normal rate of extinction has been estimated from the fossil record at about 1 species per million species per year. That translates roughly to a loss of between 10 and 100 species per year. This includes bacteria, fungi, insects, etc. Today the rate of extinction has skyrocketed. Just in the tropics losses are estimated to be in the area of 27,000 species per year, and it’s increasing. The tapestry of life is starting to unravel as a direct result of ever increasing human demands for food, fuel, living space, water, and other “natural resources,” plus the problem of global warming.
Each species lost is like the loss of a living library of genetic information. Like Oma, the golden plover has an amazing story that tells of survival, perseverance, and tenacity. It migrates from its wintering grounds in Hawaii 3,000 miles across the open Pacific Ocean to its familiar nesting sites in Alaska. The adults return to Hawaii at the end of summer before the young make the long trek. How those three-month old birds can fly unerringly to a tiny speck called, “Hawaii,” in the midst of that vast Pacific Ocean is a mystery. Somehow that knowledge, which we tend to call instinct, is carried in DNA.
Harvard Biologist, E.O. Wilson said: “It’s obvious that the key problem facing humanity in the coming century is how to bring a better quality of life – for 8 billion or more people – without wrecking the environment entirely in the attempt.” … “We should preserve every scrap of biodiversity as priceless while we learn to use it and come to understand what it means to humanity.”
We need to appreciate our libraries…