Smithsonian archive photo
Time is a funny thing. It flies, it stands still, it runs out, it marches on. We often ask ourselves, especially as we grow older, “How have I spent my time on Earth and what impact did it have?”
John James Audubon’s greatest gift to science beyond his beautiful bird illustrations was the concept of and the power of observation. In the relatively brief time that he was active, Audubon observed many changes in nature, mainly due to humankind. In 1803 Audubon came to the United States and soon thereafter began his study of American birds. Over the years in his ornithological pursuits, he made many journeys across the young country and back to Europe, where he settled in England to begin producing his famous folios. Audubon eventually returned to the U.S. for good, and by the 1840’s he was already noticing the effects of burgeoning industrialization on the environment and in particular on the habitat of the birds to which he devoted his life. One of the examples that always comes up in the world of ornithology when birders wax nostalgically about how many birds used to exist, is Audubon’s description of observing the feeding habits of the passenger pigeon, in which he recorded watching the skies blacken with flocks of them flying by literally for days, breaking the branches of trees with the sheer weight of their numbers. Audubon passed away in 1851. By the 1890’s only scattered individual pigeons were observed in the wild. On September 1st, 1914 at 1:00 PM, a 29-year old captive carrier pigeon named Martha, died at what was then called the Cincinnati Zoological Gardens. The carrier pigeon is probably the only species for which we know the exact minute of its extinction.
In a recent New York Times article, The Planet Can't Stand this Presidency, Bill McKibben describes how Planet Earth is now at a crucial point in time in the fight against global warming given the policies of the new administration. “What Mr. Trump is trying to do to the planet’s climate will play out over geologic time as well. In fact, it’s time itself that he’s stealing from us. What I mean is, we have only a short window to deal with the climate crisis or else we forever lose the chance to thwart truly catastrophic heating.”
The above quote is McKibben’s introduction to a series of vignettes written by experts in the field on exactly what we have to lose if we don’t start enacting the recommendations of the 2015 Paris Agreement to curb the rise of global temperatures-starting yesterday! The series includes: Hawaiian Honeycreepers by Richard Conniff, Cloud Forests by Caitlin Looby, The Clarreo Mission by Adam Frank, Joshua Trees by Ferris Jabr, Horseshoe Crabs by Sylvia Earle, The Thwaites Glacier by Richard Alley, and Water Under the Mojave Desert by Emma Maris.
Each of these essays reminds one of what Audubon once observed, "The nature of the place—whether high or low, moist or dry, whether sloping north or south, or bearing tall trees or low shrubs—generally gives hint as to its inhabitants."
In a hundred years, what will the “nature of the place” say about us, Earth’s inhabitants?
Click here to read Bill McKibben’s complete article including the series listed above.
posted by Amy Levengood