Tag Archives: nature

Books are Maps of Nature, Screens are Maps of Nothing

Aníbal Pauchard and I argued in Observation and Ecology that despite the great advances information technology has helped us make in complex fields like ecology, the increasing time both children and adults spend in front of screens instead of out in nature will erode our abilities to deal with complexity. Our argument was experiential—our years of working in the field with many students showed us that those with the best abilities to discern patterns were those who spent abundant time as children just wandering around observing nature—and intuitive—how could a system that is always reducible to binary functions challenge and feed the brain with the cognitive complexity of the continuous functions of nature? Recent studies are backing up these observations with more finely focused data.

In particular, scientists are finding that information physically printed on good old paper and bound in books is better remembered and understood than when shared on an electronic screen.  There is a nicely written review of this work by Ferris Jabr in the November 2013 Scientific American which shows that this relatively simple observation, one that many people I talk with have come to believe (“I still have to print out my PDF reprints to read them,” is a common admission I hear from colleagues), belies many richer phenomena about language processing swirling in our minds and in our society. These phenomena are both deeply evolutionary and contemporary functions of how we deal with complex information.


About Rafe Sagarin

Rafe Sagarin is an assistant research scientist, marine ecologist, and environmental policy analyst, Institute of the Environment, University of Arizona. He is the co-author of Observation and Ecology with Aníbal Pauchard.

Island Press Staff Picks – Epicurean Simplicity

Today’s staff pick, Epicurean Simplicity, comes from our Associate Editor, Courtney Lix.

I discovered Epicurean Simplicity when I first started working for Island Press—five years ago, now—and the book has become an old friend through re-readings.  Stephanie Mills’ beautiful, intimate writing style never fails to remind me of how much fun it is to simply pay attention to life around me, and I find new resonance in her stories as the years pass.

Friendship is a big theme in Epicurean Simplicity, and I first read the book at a time when I was in a new place, realizing that it’s hard not to feel lonely in a time of transition.  Now that I’ve started to put down real roots in the city, re-reading Stephanie’s passages makes me think of all the people I’ve met over the past five years, a few of whom have become my closest friends.  Life is an adventure, and as Stephanie writes about hers, I feel compelled to live mine with greater consciousness and thoughtfulness.

Washington DC was a big change from where I’d been living for the previous two years—a house in the woods, a mile from the border of Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee.  I loved the hustle and bustle—the crowded humanity—of DC, but missed the wilderness.  Stephanie’s stories, from observations of monarch butterflies to the exertion of splitting wood and watching it burn red-hot in her woodstove in winter, were touchstones to what I’d left behind.  The book continues to bring back great memories whenever I read it: a barn owl swooping low across the road in front of my car on a quiet country road; the smell of freshly-split pine logs sticky with sap; the chill air on my cheeks looking at stars on a clear winter night with my father.

It’s a dark, rainy day as I write this, and I’ve been complaining about the weather all week.  But how lovely to be transported by Stephanie’s “Prelude”, as I flip through the book again for this blog post: The air seems to be vital tissue this morning, entirely alive with mayflies and countless other insects darting or arising in the sunlight, with airborne cherry petals marking the direction of the breeze and of gravity… The sky is washed in blue. The breezes are sweet, moist, and cool. What more do I need to know of heaven? Life is absolute. Today the whole of existence feels like a gift.

Many environmental books, by their very nature, address issues that worry me and stress me out—harboring predictions of rampant droughts and floods, acidic oceans devoid of fish, crop failures, and rising seas.  But Epicurean Simplicity makes me remember why I care so much about what happens to our planet, and how amazing life here is, even in the face of uncertainty.  And that is why I love it.

Get Epicurean Simplicity for 50% off at islandpress.org. Offer valid until October 28th!

Island Press Staff Picks

This week’s pick is from Assistant Editor, Erin Johnson.

The book I’d recommend is The Remarkable Life of William Beebe: Explorer and Naturalist, by Carol Grant The Remarkable Life of William BeebeGould, published in 2004. It’s not one of our more recent books, but at the time I read it (actually, I proofread it), I had not heard of Beebe and was astounded by his story. He was one of our great American naturalists of the early twentieth century. From early on, he possessed an intense, curious scientific mind, and over the course of his lifetime advanced knowledge in not just one but numerous fields of sciences: ornithology, marine biology, tropical ecology, entomology, and ichthyology, traveling the world to study organisms and ecosystems directly in their natural settings in a way that no one (or few) had done before.

I’d point to chapter 30, “Half Mile Down” as a riveting description of his first-ever descent in a bathysphere to explore depths of the ocean unknown to humans at the time.

And Winter Broke

In March I participated in a University of Nebraska literary retreat at the Platte River Whooping Crane Maintenance Trust. It was the climax of spring migration on the river, where sandhill cranes pause to feed during their 5,000 mile journey from Mexico to as far as Siberia. I spent my time there ensconced in a primitive blind with several eminent poets, bearing witness to the cranes’ sempiternal return. Fossil evidence suggests that cranes have been stopping at this place on their journey north for the past 10 million years.

Rough windows cut into the blind overlooked the river and vouchsafed us a view of the cranes as they came down to roost on the silvery Platte at dusk and left to forage at dawn. If we spoke at all, we did so in whispers and gestures, overcome by this primal spectacle, this coming together of legions of cranes into a great council of beings.

Cranes need grasslands, wetlands, and open space. They prefer shallow, broad water for roosting; the Platte River, an inch deep and a mile wide, offers ideal habitat. Accordingly, each spring hundreds of thousands of sandhill cranes and a handful of whooping cranes, spend three weeks in a sixty-mile reach of the Platte. Their annual return is one of the most heartening conservation stories.

While I was in Nebraska winter broke, with crusty snow carried downstream by the river and cranes on the wing filling the air with their clarion calls in the gloaming. I watched bright runes of cranes parachute in against the strong prairie wind after a day spent foraging in nearby farm fields. With sun-gilded breasts, cupped wings, humped backs, and dangling legs they streamed earthward to join their roosting comrades. Their bodies darkened the sky as far as I could see as they streamed in endlessly.

In the 1920s, Aldo Leopold found only five breeding pairs of sandhill cranes and five whooping cranes remaining. This inspired him to write “Marshland Elegy,” in A Sand County Almanac at a time when there was little hope for their survival.

Cranes declined due to over-hunting and habitat loss. Today more than 700,000 sandhill and 280 whooping cranes exist. Legislation (the 1900 Lacey and 1918 Migratory Bird Treaty Acts) helped enable their recovery. In the 1920s, the National Refuge System began to conserve migration and nesting habitat. But it would take decades of wetland restoration and outreach to bring cranes back.

Smudgy contours of landforms lay soft against glowing skies as the light gently faded at dusk. Cottonwoods and river and cranes ribboned horizontally. This landscape and these cranes had shaped each other over eons. My senses filled with the sounds of cranes calling, purring, growling, their songs at once strident and gentle. I sat yearning to understand this vast hegira-the same way that humans over the ages must have sat here witnessing the lessons and truths this great migration holds. This time in this place was about trust: that the future will be better than the near past; that we will reweave the web of life by bringing back species from the brink of extinction.

As dawn broke the next day we discerned among the 100,000 dun sandhill bodies pressed together on the riverbank a blaze of white-a lone whooping crane. Head and shoulders above the others, this great white hope of a bird moved regally amid all the flapping, clamoring sandhills. As it fed it periodically flared its enormous black-tipped wings, and gave loud whooping calls that stood out above the sandhill clamor. Long after all the sandhill legions had spiraled skyward, the whooping crane remained.


Cristina Eisenberg is a conservation biologist at Oregon State University, College of Forestry, and Boone and Crockett Fellow who studies how wolves affect forest ecosystems throughout the West.

Cristina Eisenberg

About Cristina Eisenberg

Cristina Eisenberg is a conservation biologist at Oregon State University, College of Forestry, and Boone and Crockett Fellow who studies how wolves affect forest ecosystems throughout the West. She is the author of The Wolf's Tooth and the forthcoming book, The Carnivore Way.

Nature-al Resources

What comes to mind when you hear the words “natural resources?” Oil. Water. Nature.

Nature? In fact, yes, nature is one of the big ones. Ecologists and economists have a name for the natural resources that nature provides: “ecosystem services.” They’ve calculated that globally the dollar-value of those services could be $54 trillion annually in 1997 dollars–for comparison the Gross World Product for 2008 was around $62 trillion.

Most people don’t call nature’s resources “ecosystem services” though. Instead, they use words like ‘”skiing,” “fishing,” “ranching,” or “vacationing.” As it turns out, those are exactly the kinds of things that are going to be impacted by global warming–in ways that make entire state’s economies feel the heat.

Those particular examples came out of a recent Climate Action Team report issued for the state I live in, which pointed out that global warming was likely going to cost California hundreds of millions of dollars annually by impacts on ecosystem services. I wrote about a little more about that on KQED’s Climate Watch blog, if you’re interested.

For the place you live, the examples may be different, but the moral is the same. Nature depends on climate. We depend on nature.

Cristina Eisenberg

About Anthony Barnosky

Since 1990, Anthony Barnosky has been on the faculty at the University of California, Berkeley, where he currently holds the posts of Professor of Integrative Biology, Curator of Fossil Mammals in the Museum of Paleontology, and Research Paleoecologist in the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology.

Anthony D. Barnosky: Hoping for the Best

I admit it. In my heart of hearts, I’m hoping for the best. Those scenarios of climate change we see splashed across the newspapers and magazines include a wide range of possibilities, and I keep my fingers crossed that we’ll end up closer to the best case.

But just three weeks ago the best case got a lot worse. A group of climate scientists meeting in Copenhagen announced that sea level very likely is going to rise almost twice as much as we thought.

The old estimates were not so old—they were issued in 2007, when the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (or IPCC) came out with their latest summary report, which suggested that sea level would likely rise somewhere between seven inches and two feet by the year 2100.

glacierProblem was, in 2007 the IPCC had a limitation they had to work around—basically, the models of the time couldn’t crunch all the numbers necessary to interpret how the ice sheets would react to a warming climate. Ultimately, it’s ice sheets grounded on land that melt and pour new water into the oceans, causing them to rise.

Now the models of how glaciers will melt have gotten better, and we’ve actually watched glaciers melt more than we thought they would in the past two years. That’s what makes the news about sea level worse. The new, better estimates say that the water will rise at least between one-and-a-half and three feet by the year 2100. Some say six feet is not out of the question.

Three feet means around 600 million people concentrated in coastal cities and islands will be affected by flooding, and millions of those will become climate refugees heading for higher ground. This is not in the distant future, by the way—it would happen as children playing on earth today, mine and yours included, grow into middle and old age.

The economic and societal implications are staggering. But there are also some equally staggering ecological costs that the world will suffer if we don’t consciously think about how to head them off.

Sea level rise of three feet would cause the disappearance of entire ecosystems from the face of the earth—many of which we have invested considerable energy and money in trying to keep alive.

An obvious example is Everglades National Park. This is the third largest park in the lower 48 states. It protects the largest biologically intact area east of the Rocky Mountains, the largest freshwater sawgrass prairie in the United States, and the largest protected mangrove ecosystem in the Western Hemisphere.

We as a society and a culture value these things, so much so that Everglades was actually established “not as a scenic showplace but as a biologic marvel,” for the American people, but it didn’t stop there. The place is valued by the whole world: it is a World Heritage Site, an International Biosphere Reserve, and a Wetland of International Importance.

The superintendent of Everglades explained all this to a congressional subcommittee back in 2007, as he was outlining what to expect from the IPCC estimates of sea level rising between seven inches and two feet. The current estimates of one-and-a-half to three feet, of course, would have even greater consequences for the park.

What would a three-foot rise in sea level do to the Everglades?

  • Submerge a large portion of it: 60% of the park is less than 3 feet above mean sea level. In fact, a sea level rise of three feet would lop off the southern fifth of Florida.
  • Lead already endangered species like panthers, manatees, and alligators towards extinction. The park is home to 69 species that have been listed as threatened or endangered.
  • Submerge one of the rarest ecosystems on Earth. The park’s ecosystems are unique in the world, because they contain a mixture of South, Central, and North American species.
  • Destroy ecosystem services that would affect drinking water for up to five million South Florida residents, and cost millions of dollars in lost local revenues. The park now fuels a large part of the South Florida economy, from the money spent by more than one million people who visit the Everglades each year.

Ironically, at just about the same time the scientists in Copenhagen announced that sea level would rise enough to drown much of the Everglades, President Obama authorized an omnibus spending bill that included $183.4 million for Everglades restoration work (which could translate as some 1200 local jobs). That kind of ecological restoration takes on a whole new urgency now, and a whole new importance. All of a sudden, the problem is not only to restore the Everglades ecosystem to what it used to be, but to save it from disappearing altogether.

The problem doesn’t stop at the Everglades boundary. The dramatic impacts of global warming in Florida are in principle the same as what will be affecting all of the ecological reserves that we have spent a long time and a lot of money trying to protect. Each reserve may seem to have its own set of problems—in Everglades, rising tides; for polar bears in the Arctic, melting ice; for Yellowstone in Wyoming, pine beetles killing forests because winters are no longer cold enough to kill the beetles; for Kruger in South Africa, a dry season that gets so dry many big mammals can no longer live there. But each of these specific problems in specific places traces back to the same thing: we’re making the world’s climate too hot, too fast.

The global problem that emerges is that these last vestiges of so-called “natural” ecosystems are the last refuges of a large portion of the world’s biodiversity. As we change the climate within the boundaries of those protected areas, the protected species in them have no place to run to.

As I said, I’m still hoping for the best, but I’m also a realist. Now the best hope seems to lie not in hoping global warming won’t be as dramatic as all the signs say it will, but in realizing that because we’re changing earth’s climate so fast, the fate of nature is in our hands.

Since 1990, Anthony D. Barnosky has been on the faculty at the University of California–Berkeley, where he currently holds the posts of professor of Integrative Biology, curator of Fossil Mammals in the Museum of Paleontology, and research paleoecologist in the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology. Dr. Barnosky is author of the book Heatstroke: Nature in an Age of Global Warming. Click here to visit his website.

Cristina Eisenberg

About Anthony Barnosky

Since 1990, Anthony Barnosky has been on the faculty at the University of California, Berkeley, where he currently holds the posts of Professor of Integrative Biology, Curator of Fossil Mammals in the Museum of Paleontology, and Research Paleoecologist in the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology.

Anthony D. Barnosky: After the Storm

When you’re in the middle of a forest fire, trees exploding all around you, smoke burning your lungs, and fireballs dropping from the sky, it’s hard to think about much except getting out of there alive.  That’s kind of where we are with thinking about global warming nowadays—the direct impacts on people.  How many lose their homes when sea level rises?  What new diseases are going to make their way out of the tropics?  How many dollars will it take to cut carbon emissions?

But really, those flames and fireballs are just the beginning of the problem, if you survive them. It’s the aftermath you have to live with—a burnt out shell of a forest.  Not much fun to live there, if you even can.

That’s why it’s important to think about how global warming is changing not only what people can do, but is actually changing the Earth we depend on. It’s changing nature itself. 

By “nature” I mean those things you need that you may not even know you need. 

Things like ocean fisheries that you think of as tuna in your sandwich, or compounds in tropical plants and snakes that you think of as little pills to keep your blood pressure from rising to dangerously high levels.

Another name for those kinds of nature is “ecosystem services.”  Ecosystem services are the ways we benefit from the non-human species that we’re riding the planet with. 

Of course, species aren’t much good if they’re extinct, which is why people worry about another face of nature, called “biodiversity”.  The more species on Earth, the higher the biodiversity, and that’s a good thing for ecosystem services.  The problem is, biodiversity is dwindling—best estimate is that in the past four centuries, species have gone extinct somewhere between 17 and 377% faster than they ought to, as judged from extinction rates over the long course of geological time.  (And that’s without global warming, by the way). 

Loss of biodiversity means more than loss of ecosystem services—there is the intrinsic loss of the species themselves.  We’ve already got a world that lacks half of the big animals that should be there (things like mammoths, giant elk, giant beavers, and wombats the size of a small car), and many of the small ones as well.  And of what’s left, many are teetering on the brink. For instance, by last count, around one quarter—more than 1300 species—of the 5487 known species of mammals are on the road to extinction. You have to ask yourself—would the world really be as good a place without chimpanzees, gorillas, elephants, pandas, and tigers, to name just a few?

There’s a third face of nature too: wild places, no matter what species are found there, places bigger than ourselves that feed the human spirit.  These are places where people don’t control—or at least only influence minimally—which species live there, and how those species interact.

The problem is that global warming all of a sudden puts all three faces of nature—ecosystem services, species (ultimately biodiversity itself), and the feeling of wilderness—under siege as never before. 

Which means that as far as nature and global warming are concerned, there are three rules to live by:

1. Be afraid (but don’t panic)
2. It’s not too late (but it will be soon)
3. We can fix it (to some extent)

Stay tuned. I’ll touch on each of these in later blogs.


Since 1990, Anthony D. Barnosky has been on the faculty at the University of California–Berkeley, where he currently holds the posts of professor of Integrative Biology, curator of Fossil Mammals in the Museum of Paleontology, and research paleoecologist in the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology. Dr. Barnosky is author of the book Heatstroke: Nature in an Age of Global Warming. Click here to visit his website.

Cristina Eisenberg

About Anthony Barnosky

Since 1990, Anthony Barnosky has been on the faculty at the University of California, Berkeley, where he currently holds the posts of Professor of Integrative Biology, Curator of Fossil Mammals in the Museum of Paleontology, and Research Paleoecologist in the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology.

Tim Beatley: How Do We Instill a Reverence For Place?

Perhaps because we are such Olympians at moving, at shifting and transitioning to new lives, new jobs and new houses, Americans know relatively little about the places in which they live. Much of my own work has been about the creative ideas for educating about place and region, and for deepening connections to nature and landscape. There are many possibilities, some tried, others only pondered.

Part of the task I think is to make learning about community and place fun; something that you would want to do, and that would compete well with the many other life diversions available. We review a number of innovative strategies in out book Green Urbanism Down Under. These include, for instance, efforts in the Perth region to educate and stimulate interest in fungi—turns out there are 250,000 species (potentially) of fungi in Australia, and they are absolutely essential to the ecology there. Beyond a handful of mycologists, however, there is little popular knowledge of fungi, specific fungi, or broader patterns of diversity and value. A program in Perth aimed to change this through public workshops and publications, but also by organizing “fungi forays”—walks in the urban bush to discover, identify and collect mushrooms.

There will also be especially opportune times to educate about native flora and fauna. One especially promising time is when residents are moving into the neighborhood, when they’ve bought a new home or rented a new flat. They may be especially open to learning about the larger “home” that they’ve just joined. In the Sydney, Australia, metro region there is an interesting community environmental center called The Watershed that runs a promising initiative called “Welcome to the Neighborhood.” Working with local real estate agents, the idea is to convey informational material and tips about living more sustainably to new residents as they’re moving in. While the information conveyed is definitely tilted towards sustainable living (e.g. where can I recycle?) the basic concept of trying to reach people about nature and place at the time they move in makes much sense.

For a number of years I have advocated the idea of an “ecological owners manual” that every new homeowner or renter would receive as they move in. Mostly what new residents receive are things related (narrowly) to the equipment and running of the house. And these are not unimportant—that manual for the dishwasher may come in handy! But it is the larger manual for responsibly living in the watershed, in the bioregion, that is needed even more. Such an ecological owners manual might include basic information about the ecosystems and plant and animal communities in which the home or apartment is located, ways in which a homeowner or renter can help in small ways to restore or repair these.

An even more strident approach would be to impose some form of (dare I say) mandatory short course about the nature, natural history, ecology of the community and region. We don’t think it’s unreasonable to require all those wishing to drive an automobile to obtain a license (and to pass a test demonstrating minimum levels of knowledge and competency). Similar testing and licensing is needed to fly an airplane, or operate heavy equipment, or even to engage in fishing and hunting. As one model, several years ago I had the chance to visit a beautiful marine park north of Honolulu, Hawaii, called Hanauma Bay. Before you are permitted to descent into this pristine beach and coral reef you are required to watch a 9 minute film about the park, its biodiversity, its fragility, and the standards of care expected of visitors. The film was quite good and effectively conveyed not only helpful information, but more importantly a sense of the sacred and unique nature of what was beyond the gate of the visitors. I don’t know if there is any evidence that this short film has changed the behavior or attitude of visitors, but my hunch is that the mere step of requiring visitors to watch it infuses a heightened reverence about the park they are about to explore.

I’m not sure how we might devise an analogous tool for imparting a similar kind of reverence to new residents of a community or region (would it be a film, as well?) but I think it not an unreasonable request.

What do you think? Leave us a comment.


Timothy Beatley is the Teresa Heinz Professor of Sustainable Communities at the University of Virginia. He co-authored Resilient Cities and Green Urbanism Down Under and is the author of the upcoming Planning for Coastal Resilience.

Cristina Eisenberg

About Timothy Beatley

Timothy Beatley is Teresa Heinz Professor of Sustainable Communities, in the Department of Urban and Environmental Planning, School of Architecture at the University of Virginia, where he has taught for the last eighteen years.His primary teaching and research interests are in environmental planning and policy, with special emphasis on coastal and natural hazards planning, environmental values and ethics, and biodiversity conservation. He has published extensively in these areas, including the following recent books: Ethical Land Use; Habitat Conservation Planning: Endangered Species and Urban Growth; Natural Hazard Mitigation; and An Introduction to Coastal Zone Management.In recent years much of his research and writing has been focused on the subject of sustainable communities, and creative strategies by which cities and towns can fundamentally reduce their ecological footprints, while at the same time becoming more livable and equitable places. He is the author of many books, including Biophilic Cities, Resilient Cities, and Green Urbanism.