Back from the Brink

Matt Sewell’s, book, Forgotten Beasts: Amazing creatures that once roamed the Earth is a highly captivating book of animals that once roamed the Earth. Beautifully illustrated, this book is a marvel. Every time, I marvel at how life managed to thrive, sustain, and regenerate in all its fantastic forms. As I thumbed through the pages, admiring the defense mechanisms of each animal, the unique ways in which they thrived and survived, an obvious question flickered through the brain : how many of our current organisms are having the same sort of trouble?

Starting with prehistoric animals, the book slowly walks through the animals through the ages, and finally arrives at the timeline in which human-beings appeared. 

The next book was the obvious pair to Matt Sewell’s book of extinct animals. It is: 100 animals to see before they die – By Nick Garbutt & Mike Unwin. 

Reading these two, along with Birds, Beasts & Relatives by Gerald Durrell, made for an interesting time in the old head. Gerald Durrell is a naturalist and his obvious enchantment with the fauna he finds around him, led to create the Durrell Foundation for Conservation of Animals.

Birds, Beasts and Relatives (The Corfu Trilogy Book 2) by [Gerald Durrell]

 

So, it was a surprise indeed to be able to watch the excellent documentary, Back to the Brink at the Boston Science Museum. 

We charged and weaved through traffic to make it to Back from the Brink. The documentary was playing in the Boston Science Museum for which the son & I were going. This was going to be our special afternoon, and we had made any number of snafus with the tickets, the cab to get there etc. But we were there at the right time, and the pair of us took a few deep breaths. 

How often we find ourselves mired myopically into our own lives? It is at moments like these, that books, museums, and documentaries do their bit I suppose. We sat there, as the camera zoomed and picked us along for the ride. We were there to watch the exhilarating recovery of 3 animals who had made it off the endangered list. 

As I sat there watching nature’s survival unfold before us on the high ceilinged dome, I remember thinking of Gerald Durrell’s book, Mockery Bird, and the sense of awe when I learned that Charles Darwin predicted a particular kind of species- a long proboscis, he said, should be there, given that there were flowers with a long tubular structure. A decade later, they did find the hawkmoth capable of pollinating the star orchids. How thrilling is must be, to be able to figure out things like that?

In Back from the Brink, the documentary walks us through 3 different scenarios in which man-made decisions led to the near extinction of certain species, and how man-made efforts also brought them back from the brink of extinction. 

  • The first one was about the foxes in Catalina Island, off the coast of California
  • The second one was on golden monkeys in China
  • The third were the red crabs in an island near Australia 

Each species has a different story arc – the foxes in Catalina Island were the result of DDT spray affecting the eggs laid by the bald eagles near the island. This led to a mass dying / migration of bald eagles. Once the bald eagles were no longer there, the golden eagles swooped in, and for them, these tiny foxes were prey. How the team of naturalists figured this piece out, and how they went about trapping foxes, bald eagles, and golden eagles, and then nurtured and relocated them till they could thrive again, is a marvelous journey.

The golden monkeys were a simple case of stopping poaching, but a hard fight indeed to get the poachers to act as guardians in these snowy terrains. 

The red crabs had an army to fight and thrive against. The yellow crazy ants who accidentally came off the ships years ago, had ran amuck, and the crabs were being inched out of their own homes. This one, had a unique solution too. The naturalists introduced another species(knowing fully well out how much havoc such an act could cause). After much deliberation, they did so. The yellow ant population came down, and the crabs could thrive again. 

The Boston Science Museum is a marvelous place for the curious and the uninterested alike. 

Fiction Inspire Non-Fiction?

While reading a good piece of fiction, I often wonder about the inspiration behind the writing.  Dune, for example, is a book that immediately lets you know the author must be a personality of prodigious learning. The ecological angle, I was delighted to read in the note by his son, had its origins in Frank Herbert’s work for an an Op-Ed on the Shifting Sands in Oregon. The government was toying with the idea of planting grasses that could help with stopping the sands from shifting and collapsing onto roads and rivers. 

Dune-Frank_Herbert_(1965)_First_edition

Quote: 

In 1957, Dad flew to the Oregon coast to write a magazine article about a US department and Agriculture project there, in which the government had successfully planted poverty grasses on the crests of sand dunes, to keep them from inundating highways. He intended to call the article “They stopped the Moving Sands” but soon realized that he had much bigger story on his hands

Dune is a modern-day conglomeration of familiar myths, a tale in which great sandworts guard a precious treasure of melange, the geriatric spice that represent, among other things, the finite resource of oil. The planet Arrakis features immense, ferocious worms that are like dragons of lore, with “great teeth” and a “bellows breath of cinnamon”.

Planetology is a marvelous word for taking in the intricacies of a life sustaining planet (Dune makes reference to planetologists for figuring out survival strategies),  and the effects of our consumption of finite resources. 

I would love to study Planetology.We know that we are stretching the Earth’s resources – National Geographic came up with a simple number: we are currently using 1.71 times Earth’s resources every year and it is increasing. The effects are everywhere.

A friend and I were discussing the lack of tree cover in a country like Iceland for instance. Blessed with enormous natural beauty, the lack of tree cover is quite unnerving. Everywhere you turn is green because it rains a lot, but there are no trees. Apparently, excessive logging first got rid of them, and replanting did not take root as intended for sheep grazing ate away the saplings and the seedlings before they had a chance to sprout. 

horse

This too is not a new phenomenon. World over there are examples of over-grazing that edged out forest cover( Ireland, England, Mauritius are all examples of how our lifestyles has altered the ecosystem drastically). In the book Golden Bats & Pink Pigeons by Gerald Durrell, the author is on a mission to collect endangered species from Mauritius so he can bring them back to the Conservation Center for breeding and releasing into the wild. He writes about Round Island and how the simple act of introducing goats, sheep and rabbits into the ecosystem by humans has eroded the tree cover irreparably. 

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From Golden Bats & Pink Pigeons by Gerald Durrell – Round Island

While reading this book, I realized the inspiration behind his fiction book, Mockery Bird. This hilarious fiction book, Mockery Bird – was based on a story doing the rounds in Mauritius surrounding the Dodo bird and the loss of certain trees. The knowledge gave me immense pleasure. How lovely to see the inspirations behind good fiction.

 

Just as fiction draws its inspiration from reality, reality too can draw its inspiration from fiction.

In the Dune universe, the planetologist, Kynes, shares the visionary dreams for the planet Arrakis – a vision outlining a glorious self sustaining future for the planet that will take three or maybe four generations to come to fruition. We can derive our inspiration from fiction and set ourselves on a similar path working towards setting aside half the planet for forest cover to reverse global warming, sustenance etc. (News item : here)

 

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