My Curious Reading: Planet Earth and the Ivory-billed Woodpecker


Dr. Underhill said, if we would destroy insects, we must preserve birds. Birds which run up the trunks of trees, like the Woodpeckers, are of especial benefit. They dig out the larvae of insects from the bark and devour it. A Cat-bird would destroy a hundred caterpillars in a day. Where birds, even Crows, are destroyed, it is through lack of knowledge of their usefulness.  Account of a Farmer’s Club meeting, “City Items”, NY Tribune, 1846.


His ardent desire was to kill an Ivory-billed woodpecker. “I have never seen but one,” he said, “and that was in the Smithsonian Institute.” Correspondent Amos J. Cummings on General Francis E. Spinner, onetime U.S. Treasurer, Helena Daily Independent, 1891.


You’ve probably seen a photo of the ferris wheel at Pripyat, Ukraine, abandoned after the Chernobyl accident. You understand that, like pictures of shuttered shopping malls, the image takes its piquancy from contrast, wasteland and wasted human endeavor…our busy, self-absorbed making of things, of nakedly gaudy yellows and reds, plastic and chrome.

This year, in my corner of Ohio, the dandelions lifted their yellow heads—dozens, hundreds—as in springs past, where each bloom would have had its bee. The white clover has come out, and come up empty; the Allium drew a single wasp. The woolly bear caterpillar is not, to read about it, considered endangered—but I haven’t seen one in years, while once in early fall they invariably crossed the road, and were the subject of those “Can Woolly Bears Predict the Winter?” articles.

I took up Noah’s Garden, by Sara Stein (Houghton Mifflin Co., 1993), to read again, after more than a decade. What I remembered of the book was Stein’s logical unfolding argument, for how we go about, not just making a natural garden, but taking what land we possess, and allowing at least part of it to be a piece of planet earth.

Consider thrips. For about three years running, my azalea bush was thoroughly silvered (thrips are tiny insects that rasp as they feed). One of Stein’s points is that any member of the plant kingdom has an arsenal of chemicals at its disposal, and subjected to stress, will adjust the composition of its vascular parts to fight back, to poison its attacker. Our absurdity is that we want to fix nature at once. (When I was ignorant, I had sprayed down a Weigela covered with white caterpillars, without even knowing what moth or butterfly they might become.)

My approach today is leave it alone, trust in the plant’s mechanisms for self-repair. Last year the azalea was fine. The marigolds got thrips. The thrips, in other words, didn’t leave the yard, they left the azalea. But it took that span of time for the change to take place.

Stein makes a point well worth returning to, that we have to look at the symbiosis of nature as so many services provided—not so much a question of having (at cost, if it matters) to do these things ourselves, but that we won’t do it right, and we won’t do it well. She lists: “…waste disposal, water purification, pest suppression…plant pollination…atmospheric regulation, nutrient recycling, flood and drought control, soil manufacture.” (Page 43.)

What impetus, as Stein asks in her opening chapter, other than a sense of being robbed of what’s ours, will make us fight, if within a lifespan we can lose what was a commonplace of our common experience, if few by the year 2030 will have seen a meadowlark, or a monarch butterfly…perhaps no one a tiger or a humpback whale? Are we stirred enough today by the imminent demise of the black rhinoceros and the vaquita?

Whose job is it to inventory insect populations—those not pest species, or endangered? Not really anyone’s, although a number of universities and volunteer groups do some of the work. But unlike other types of wildlife, insects, with their seasonal life span, are not necessarily safe because their populations had not declined five years ago—if a survey of their numbers had even been taken.

Mosquito spraying, and the use of genetically altered crops—corn, cotton—containing Bt (bacillus thuringiensis), are programs meant to eradicate disease and predation; Bt itself meant, for being natural, to be safe. But the generations challenged to adapt to what, from the mosquito’s or moth’s perspective, are new environmental stresses, are many more than those of the bat or bird that feeds on these insects. Given more opportunities to overcome Bt . . .


More on Curious Reading page:

Character Logic


2017, Stephanie Foster


1 Comment

    1. […] Planet Earth and the Ivory-billed Woodpecker […]

    %d bloggers like this: