Category Archives: Nature
I’ve been playing some tricks with time by capturing scenes with time-lapse photography. Here are some results to share after a few months of trial and error. Most scenes taken near Camp Widjiwagan outside of Ely, Minnesota.
My first time-lapse ever. Icebergs floating past Big Red Lighthouse, Holland Harbor, Michigan.
Sunrise and moving shadows, Burntside State Forest, Minnesota
Sunrise over Burntside Lake, Minnesota
Sunset and full moon rising over Burntside Lake, Minnesota
Rotating stars with fleeting glimpses of the Northern Lights
Starry and Cloudy Sky at Camp Widjiwagan
Sigurd Olson Center at Camp Widjiwagan
Hanging out around the campfire
There is nothing like stepping away from the road and heading into a new part of the watershed…. “Off the trail” is another name for the Way, and sauntering off the trail is the practice of the wild…. But we need paths and trails and will always be maintaining them. You first must be on the path, before you can turn and walk into the wild.
—Gary Snyder, The Practice of the Wild
The explorer sets foot into deeply drifted snow. His foot sinks in drastically. Step after strenuous step, disappearing into the piled white drift. He has been breaking ground for miles. No human traffic has ever plodded this course before, it appears to him. No tracks lead the way, no trail is to be found. He is a pioneer, a trailblazer. The explorer pauses and glances behind him. A meandering line of post-hole marks reveal the way he has traveled. He has broken new ground, leaving tracks for future others to follow. But at this moment he is profoundly isolated, deeply embossed in the awareness of his lonesome situation. No human has trod here before. It is a spiritually awakening experience.
Except that this is not the real story of our explorer. The deep snow covers over the facts of the situation. Our intrepid voyager is not actually far from civilization, nor is he navigating somewhere no one else has been before. In reality, he is on a well-used path, a popular trail. His feelings of solitude and accomplishment are the result of the recent snowfall across the landscape, which has erased all marks of this path being a well-traveled route. Though he may not be as much of a trailblazer as he imagines himself to be, the sentiment which the situation has produced is what’s truly significant. He mythologizes his status as an explorer in his psyche.
Perceiving oneself as a trailblazer is an elevating experience, giving a sense of one’s own agency and accomplishment in navigating this world. Wilderness travel frequently produces this mentality in individuals. The wilderness, or even merely unmanicured nature, is a setting where the marks of modern civilization are absent, or at the very least harder to notice. To spend time out in the wilds is to put yourself into a situation where you are disjoined from your routine life, a place where the tracks of any forbearer’s presence goes unobserved. You go there to be pushed out of your normal element, to challenge yourself and come back a different person. You go there to break new ground.
The wildlands of America have tracks and trails abounding. Our wilderness is a well-traveled place. Yet millions of users visit these lands every year, and still leave them without revealing a trace as to their passing. Sharing a responsible use ethic of wild lands is what preserves the illusion of isolation and pioneering for future travelers. It is near impossible to say that you have encountered a place where no human has ever stepped foot before, and quite debatable if there remains any place on earth untouched by human presence. But whether you are the first to visit or the millionth, these wild places leave you with the feeling that you are perhaps the first. The wilderness setting invokes a sort of primeval satisfaction deep within you that you alone are independent, that you are indeed a trailblazer.
This is one of the feelings that keeps bringing me back to wild places. I am not the first to pass this way. I know that. But out in the backcountry, out in the forests, out on the rivers, out in the mountains, out in the deep snow it sure seems like I am the first.
“There is no such thing as bad weather…only bad preparation.”
* Outdoors Proverb *
It’s %$@&£! cold up here in northern Minnesota in January.
But really, it’s not that bad.
The secret, of course, is preparation. With a healthy dose of realistic expectations. It’s no beach holiday up here.
Winter is not winter the same everywhere. Even though I grew up in the northern tier of states, west Michigan’s persistent 30*F winter temps and perpetually falling wet humid snow is no analog for the -20*F clear sunny days here in northern Minnesota.
The cold here is unparalleled in most of the lower 48 states. Characteristically clear skies during the day sparkle light and shadow brilliantly across the landscape. The Minnesota sun, however, is an illusion; though shining bright, it provides almost no warmth to the day. Clear skies at night open up a fantastic theater for star viewing, yet with no cloud cover, what little daytime heat accumulated readily escapes into the upper atmosphere. Temperatures plunge easily to 30*F below.
With the proper equipment and preparation, these polar temperatures can become a comfortable winter playground. With clothing, layering is key. Long underwear, pants, snowpants, sweaters, fleeces, jackets, coats, liner gloves, outer gloves, waterproof boots. All layered one on top of another, overlapping, in a style known as “shingling.” Exposed skin is a recipe for heat loss, especially at the juncture of clothing…not to mention the possibility of getting errant snow down your shirt or in your boots. Even with all these layers of clothes on, the frigid cold still seeps in quickly once you step outside. It’s best to keep moving. Stay active and have your body generate its own heat. When I’m dressed up in all these layers and trudging through a foot of powder snow, I feel like a storm-trooper marching to battle. Bracing for winter is preparing for a war with the cold.
But don’t expect everything to be easy in the cold. Low temperatures have their own way of letting you know they’re around. Frost readily forms on your hair and beard. Your eyelashes start to freeze together. An unprotected water bottle freezes shut. Batteries drain. Lighter flames grow weak and disappear. Knowledge of the extreme cold and its effects goes a long way in prolonging your own survival in these circumstances.
So even though it’s cold outside, go out and enjoy the day. A beautiful winter wonderland awaits for those who are prepared.
“Though your mind continually searches for order and pattern in the ocean waves, there is none to be found. The ocean is perfectly chaotic and achieves a deep sense of beauty which our minds recognize but are scant to understand” —Paraphrased from an Alan Watts Lecture
At times you may find yourself unsettled: angsty, pensive, unsure, angry. These emotions welling up inside of you need a reprieve, an outlet; they need an environment conducive to processing those feelings. Someplace gloomy, foreboding, immense; somewhere to connect with your mood. In times like these, you seek out water, wherever it may be—the beach, on the ocean or a pond, a raging river or gentle stream. Whatever it is, there is something special inherent about that landscape. Something in its sublime beauty eases the tension in your mind. In these over-bearing alien landscapes, there is solace, solitude. Sitting, strolling, or wandering aimlessly lost along the water’s edge, you can feel a change in your psyche. Your anxious thoughts lessen, your mind begins to process what conflicts you. There by yourself, you begin to delve into your inner being. The landscape you have sought has become your conduit towards introspection.
I am one who seeks the water when anxious. The primal nature of the powerful waves awes me, and I feel small and insignificant compared to their might. The calm reflection on a still pond reaches me too, and my mind is soothed by the gently undulating ripples on the surface. Alone in these environs I can recollect myself, dive deeper into myself, come away with a deeper understanding of myself. The water, I have found, is a prime landscape for self-reflection.
Yet angst and anger—that troubling slew of emotions—is not the sole reason one visits the water’s edge. At other times, you will be experiencing different emotions: tranquil, curious, joyful. In those moments you may not be alone, or even want to be alone. You may be with other people. Regardless, the sheer beauty of the waves and water still works on you and those around you. This environment is different, you can tell. You feel something tangibly distinct here, though you cannot name it. Somehow you feel more at ease, like the water is a trusted friend there to support you in your relations. You can feel yourself opening up to the souls of those around you. Maybe those you are with had been introspecting the same as you, and have now became ready to share these quiet ruminations outside of themselves. Whatever the cause, you begin to open up. The landscape has fostered a window of special extroversion among those you are with.
I have had many deep and meaningful conversations by the water. So too I have had many deeply difficult conversations in similar places. On these occasions, the bond between the people involved was challenged—twisted, wrenched—and yet ultimately deepened. It’s not that meaningful conversations happen exclusively by the water—it’s just that this particular landscape seems to coax it out of me more easily. It seems to coax it out of those I’m with as well. These landscapes serve as a catalyst for our human connection.
Maybe different landscapes serve this same purpose for other people—deserts, mountains, forests—all have some sort of special power to connect us. For me, it is the water that is most impactful. It is a landscape that lends itself both to a powerful introspection yet also opens me up to meaningful relationships with others.
To an American, the term Acadia (or in French, Acadie) will likely conjure up notions of an extraordinary national park in eastern Maine, but will prompt little more significance otherwise. However, the term Acadia is much greater than that, referring to a vast and rich cultural region beginning in the south with Maine and extending northeast to the Atlantic Provinces of Canada. But Acadia is more than just a region—it is its own strongly identified culture. From the earliest French colonists in Port Royal on Nova Scotia in 1604, a distinct culture began to develop that is undeniable to the modern traveler today. The Acadians are a people hewn from their landscape of gentle agricultural valleys isolated by rough coastal waters. Their way of life is largely pastoral, tied to the land. Their self-reliance has also produced a culture of folk artists and craftspeople who produced goods for their communities. Indeed, Acadia is a region with its own distinct identity, and traveling around the region one will not fail to notice the abundance of Acadian Flags or hear the French language being spoken.
The name ‘Acadia’ derives from the Greek word Arcadia which was applied as a place name to maps of the Atlantic coastline by early European explorers. The early French settlers adopted the name Arcadia for themselves, as in Greek it meant “refuge” or “idyllic place.” As they were far from their native lands and seeking a better life in the New World, these French settlers were able to turn the Atlantic coastline into both their refuge and an idyllic agrarian society for themselves. The letter ‘r’ was gradually lost from the name Arcadia to become what we now refer to as Acadia. The French, relying strongly on the traditional knowledge of the native Mi’kmaq peoples likely adjusted the name of their region to align with the Mi’kmaq suffix -akadie, meaning ‘place of abundance.’ Indeed, the pastoral villages soon became prosperous.
Many of the original settlers to Acadia had been peasants in Europe, seeking a better life in the New World. In the absence of the rigid European social hierarchy, these settlers were able to use to own skills and talents to determine their rank in society. With little material support coming from France, the Acadians had to produce most of their own goods, and the skills and talents of the settlers became the basis of their culture of craftsmanship. Imperial France also showed negligible interest in governing their North American colonies. As a result, Acadian government was a system of village self-rule, where the communities were governed as a society of equals. The isolation of the Acadian villages, along with their essential independence from Imperial France, contributed to an independent spirit and a wariness about outsiders. However, the Acadians relied strongly on the native Mi’kmaq peoples to survive and prosper, using their traditional knowledge, intermarrying, and adopting many of their customs. In time, the population of the Acadians grew rapidly through high fertility rates and agricultural prosperity. Outside travelers to the Acadia region remarked on how tall, strong, and robust the Acadians were, with darker complexions and longer hair symbolizing their biological and cultural inter-connections with the native peoples.
The prosperity and independent spirit of the Acadians, along with their population explosion, soon was viewed as a threat by Imperial Britain. Territorial conflicts marked most of the history of Acadia, and the roots of this conflict stemmed from the long-held rivalry between the French and English, as it was played out in the New World. As early as 1613, a mere nine years after the founding of Acadia’s first permanent settlement, the British sacked and burned Port Royal in a territorial conquest. Decades of conflict would ensue, with the British militarily taking territory and the Acadians attempting to reclaim their lands. The last debate in the matter was the French and Indian war, which ended with the Treaty of Paris in 1763; that resolution ceded the last French strongholds in Acadia and French Canada to British control. As the British gained control of more and more Acadian territory, they began a program of expelling the Acadians to neutralize any military threat. The Acadians knew this era as Le Grand Dérangement, or the great expulsion. Acadians, who had long since been settled and identified with their landscape, were forcibly deported to places like French Louisiana, the 13 colonies, Britain, or France. However, with their knowledge of the land, many Acadians evaded deportation by seeking refuge in the wilderness. When the culture war on the Acadians gradually faded, the Acadians came out from hiding and some eventually returned to Acadia, creating their own small Acadian communities. Their cultural identity and ties to their land could not be abolished.
Today, Acadia is a peaceful land once again, returning more in-line with its idyllic agrarian beginnings. Acadians still live fruitfully and independently off the land, cultivating their crops and producing their crafts. The region is a mix of cultures—Acadian, English, Native, and others. So too is the Acadian landscape one of contrasts. From the rough rugged shores of Nova Scotia where hardy fisherman eke out a living, to the gentle pastoral landscape of Prince Edward Island where the soils are fertile and the climate is mild. I was fortunate enough to be able to spend a few weeks touring around Acadia taking in the sites. Though my focus was on the landscape and not the people, they are a people intricately connected to their land.
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“In such a day, in September or October, Walden is a perfect forest mirror, set round with stones as precious to my eye as if fewer or rarer. Nothing so fair, so pure, and at the same time so large, as a lake, perchance, lies on the surface of the earth.”
On a calm October morning, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” And thus, I went to those particular woods—the ones surrounding Walden Pond—in a sojourn along the path of one of my intellectual forebears, the irascible hermit Henry David Thoreau, to see if I too could eke out the life discoveries which he had made upon the pond’s shores. This unassuming Walden Pond, the site of Thoreau’s most famous personal (and far-reaching) social experiment, lies an hour west of Boston amidst the regional forests and farmland. It is here where the entirety of the dissertation Walden takes place.
My trip was a pilgrimage to visit the namesake pond to visualize the setting of the lengthy tome I had just finished. “The scenery of Walden,” as Thoreau describes it, “is on a humble scale, and, though very beautiful, does not approach the grandeur, nor can it much concern one who has not long frequented it or lived by its shore.” Walden is a simple pond indeed. A mere half mile long and only half as wide. Its perimeter is smooth and predictable; few coves or inlets add dimension to its waters. The landscape surrounding the pond, though hilly and thickly forested, does not strike an air of distinction. But as Thoreau championed in his many intellectual ramblings, “Our life is frittered away by detail…simplify, simplify!” I could picture Thoreau finding no more an ordinary pond home than this.
Yet at the same time Walden Pond is entirely magnificent. In his personal rhetoric, Thoreau was a fiery exceptionalist, never shy of embellishment or hyperbole. The waters of Walden Pond, he described, were the purist and coldest waters around. He writes about how the quality of Walden’s waters rival the purist known springs. But for his continual exaggerations, he was correct about one superlative; at 102 feet deep, Walden Pond is the deepest inland body of water in the state of Massachusetts. The banks of Walden Pond drop abruptly off into azure oblivion; the water, in this deep watery well, stays cool and refreshing year round.Thoreau knew these depths well, for among his many intermittent occupations, he was a trained land surveyor.
I came to Walden Pond to pay homage to a man who has influenced my own thoughts on life and meaning, if not in words exactly, then by sentiment alone. Intellectually, we share many similar ideas concerning social progress and the higher humanistic yearnings for the species. Thoreau is loud and brash with a pen and passionately rants against the things he disagrees with. His words echo a fiery passion burning deep in his soul. He loathes the nearby railroad and laments material progress for the sake of a dollar. But he also advocates for his better society, seeking to improve the man in the culture; Thoreau preaches continually on freeing mankind from slavery to self and to society. The reclusive Thoreau rants against the ills of contemporary civilization in the mid-18th century and seeks his moral salvation in the woods. Though little appreciated during his own time, and living unwed, unknown, and with his parents until his young demise, Thoreau has become a prophet of the modern day.
Although I feel a tie of kinship to Thoreau, he comes off as a man one would not have wanted to spend time with, myself included. To his village contemporaries, his nature wanderings and isolated hermitage made him appear aloof, yet he was a keen observationist and a scientist at heart, daily making acute observations of the environment and human kind. Though he exquisitely bemoaned the lives of others with his words while simultaneously boosterizing his own noble endeavors—ones that he alone perceived he was discovering in an insipid sea of ignorance—he was quite sociable and gregarious with the right type of company. He lived alone, yet kept three chairs in his house: “one for solitude, two for friendship, three for society.” Though Thoreau the man may have been petulant, his ideas are familiar to anyone seeking self-improvement. His writing is at times very off-putting, egotistical, self-righteous, and even shaming and chastising (with way too many verbose phrases strung together with endless commas), yet his heart and ideals were with the people. His goal: to achieve in humankind a fierce independence and self-reliance to live genuinely and whole-heartedly as one’s best self in society.
I can see a bit of myself in Thoreau. I see a bit of myself in his perpetual longings and desires for something greater and nobler in life, Thoreau’s self-described ‘higher laws’. I see myself wanting to live deliberately and intentionally to the fullest extent, where I can ‘suck out all the marrow of life’.
I can also see myself venturing down the path of Thoreau, whether intentionally or by unplanned drift. Simplify, simplify! A one-room shanty seems plenty accommodating to me. Living independently off the land with little money but lots of means—that too I can see. Work, for Thoreau, was never a major priority either. He spent his days in idle employment ranging the forests, the self-appointed ‘inspector of snowstorms’. At its roots, Thoreau’s Walden experiment cuts to the heart of a desire to break away from society and to live a true and unconstrained life, unhindered by the bonds of artificial society. Like Thoreau, the unpretentiousness of nature provides the means of escape to a better existence.
The Walden Pond of today looks different than in Thoreau’s time. Shortly after moving out of the woods, Thoreau’s shanty was relocated to the village of Concord. The forest lands around the shack as well, harvested many times previous to Thoreau’s day, grew thick and dense, obscuring the very foundations of Thoreau’s presence. Thoreau’s expansive bean field, too, has reverted back to forest. The Fitchburg Railway, the rail-line skirting the pond that Thoreau so loudly laments, has been upgraded to a busy commuter line to Boston. The lands surrounding Walden Pond have become protected as a state reserve. No longer the spot of solitude and isolation, Walden Pond has become a popular destination for recreation in Massachusetts, for both its natural beauty and the outdoor recreation aspects.
Do the many visitors to Walden Pond on a sunny day think about the ideas that were developed here? As they sun-bathe on the beach or swim across the cool waters, do they ponder the intellectual history of this place? Do they know the historical significance of this parcel of land where they are picnicking? Is it perhaps that the modern-day visitor to Walden subconsciously accepts Thoreau’s importance of nature without even realizing it? Surely they must have internalized some of Thoreau’s ideas, given the crowds of people who come to spend time finding themselves in nature.
Alas, after paying my pilgrims’ visit to this important site, the time to leave had come. After all, “I had several more lives to live, and could not spare any more time for that one.”
Through the din and the energy and the chaos and the pure exhaustion that exemplifies summer camp, it is incredibly easy to forget about the place where you chose to live and work. The long involved days with an endless to-do list of activities keeps one distracted from the distinctiveness of your location. You grow immune to the landscape of the place you work, gradually forgetting the immense beauty of the natural surroundings that drew you to camp in the first place. With so much to do outside everyday, it is easy to take this close access to nature for granted. The subtle beauty of nature often slips the mind…
As the last summer campers file out the gates, the camp staff can pause and breathe deeply, reflecting on the summer past. Then there’s this sudden realization. It is quiet once again. But not a silent quiet—a quiet absorbed with sounds. All around are the songs of the earth. The chirping of the insects, the shrill call of the birds, the gentle breeze rustling the tree-tops. Breathe deeply and listen closer to these sounds. They have been calling forth all summer long, but not until now have they received an attentive listener. It is the contrast from the clamor of summer camp that reawakens the ears to nature’s melodies.
The quiet moment encourages you to explore deeper. No commitments now. Please linger and understand what’s here. The forest paths that you walked hurriedly past all summer are now empty. Slow your pace. Look up and gaze amidst the trees. See the dappled light filtering through their leafs perched an immense height above the ground. Then look down, closely, all the way to the ground. Amid the brush lie flowers, the embodiment of the fecundity of nature. Stoop down close and admire their elaborate forms. They sprinkle the ground in all their intricate glory, yet are often overlooked by man; their complex beauty is but for their own sake. Through the air wafts the fragrance of the bushes. Breathe deeply, and take it all in. How many times have you been here before and not noticed this?
It is moments like these when it gets quiet, when life takes a momentary pause, that I begin to reflect on what brought me to this place to begin with. This is where I live. This is where I have chosen to stay. For me, an enticing draw of the camp life is to live and work in these beautiful places, daily immersed in the wonders of the natural world. In the busyness that life often rings upon us, it becomes difficult to take the necessary moment to realize the beauty that surrounds you. It is here all along waiting for your attention. The question is: will you stop and notice it?
A photograph is a modicum of truth as it captures an instant in time, a scene reflective of precisely how everything appeared the moment the shutter was released. True? Not exactly. The realm of photography is filled with all sorts of trickery and inexactness. In fact, as early as there has been photography, there have been those using the medium to alter the way reality is captured and presented. Images on film do not appear precisely how even our own eyes view them. This is because of the effect of optics—cameras, as well as our own eyes, are merely just optical sensors. Both take in light photons and use them to gather information about the world. For our eyes, photons fall upon our retinas and are manifested by our brains into our vision. For a camera, the photons fall upon the film (or in digital photography are recorded on a computer) and render what we call a photograph. Under most circumstances, the images generated by a camera are similar to what we’d view in real life. But when the level of light gets low, a whole new world of photography opens up, one where the varying levels of light can create interesting scenes through different levels of exposure.
The following photographs I took at night as a few experiments in capturing the scenes of light and darkness around Camp Burgess.
The night sky is full of the light of stars. It’s beauty causes us to gaze heavenwards with wonder. Though our brain can process the combination of light and darkness just fine to render a starry image, a camera cannot simply point and shoot a scene from the night sky. The level of light is just too low to record anything but blackness. In order to photograph the night sky, the shutter of the camera must remain open longer than an instant. For as long as the camera’s shutter remains open, light falls on the sensors and the image being rendered is evolving. For this photo of the Big Dipper through the trees, I left my camera’s shutter open for 30 seconds. In the dimness of night, leaving the shutter open for that long enabled the stars, as well as the trees in the foreground, to appear in the scene. (If you’re having trouble seeing the images, then turn up your computer’s brightness)
The following four photographs all were shot from the same location.
Here is the night sky again, with the forest in the foreground. The exposure time was set for 30 seconds, which allowed the stars time to emit enough light to be captured in the image. The outline of the Milky Way can be scene across the sky. This is pretty standard night sky photography.
But I decided to use the optical sensing of the camera to my advantage to create some digital trickery. The night sky is great, but I wanted to see how some artificial light would look in the exposure. This is the same image as before, except that I shone my green star laser in front of the camera while it was recording the image. The streaks of green that were only temporary flashes in the sky look as if they were shining beacons from within the cosmos.
Instead of adding artificial light to the sky, for this image, I added extra light to the trees in the foreground. This is a photographic technique known as light painting. The additional light shone on a nearby object is captured during the long camera exposure, causing a highlighting effect on that object. With this, the details of the trees in the foreground can pop out.
For my final photograph of the series, I increased the exposure time from 30 seconds to a few minutes. The increased length that the shutter is open permits an accumulation of light to enter the camera sensor and be recorded in the image. The wonderful thing about exposures at night longer than a few minutes is the ability to capture star trails. Since the Earth is continually rotating, the placement of the stars changes in the course of the night. This change is below our threshold of perception, but not the camera’s. In a star trail photograph, the stars themselves appear to move across the sky, leaving a curved bright streak showcasing where they have been. I absolutely love star trails. Unfortunately, from my location in Sandwich, Massachusetts, the light pollution was too much to capture star trails. After just a few minutes, the light from the nearby city dominated the image. The resulting photograph looks like a foggy forest captured during daytime. But remember—this photograph was taken in the dark!
Some more fun with artificial lights here, and some more light painting. Here, I used my high-powered green star laser to write some words on the trees in the foreground. The light emitted from the laser is strong and concentrated enough to appear like a neon tube-light in the trees. “Base Glamp” is the nickname of where I’m working this summer.
More fun with lights in the dark. Similar to star trails, any moving artificial light that falls upon the camera’s sensor gets recorded as a streak in the image. Here I had a few friends walk through a field in the darkness as they shined a few flashlights and headlamps around while the exposure time was set for 30 seconds. The resulting light streaks and spotlighting effects always cause an unexpected result. Though the scene itself is nothing much, the very process of recording the image provides a good artistic flair.
Low levels of ambient lighting at night provides an opportunity to capture scenes highlighted by a single light source. Here, the scene in the composition is dim and the only light source is from a single headlamp. Hence, the hands are illuminated while everything surrounding them fade into darkness of the nighttime.
Fire can also provide a source of light at night. The beauty of flames and glowing embers is pleasing to look at as well as to photograph. Compared to the stars, the light emitted by a fire is bright. It takes an exposure of only a few seconds to capture an image like this.
Finally, using my zoom lens, I can safely get close to the fire to photograph a macro of the glowing coals. Just a few seconds exposure captures the soft, glowing light of the embers but blurs the flames crawling from under the log on in the middle.
I’ve been on a killing spree lately. No rampant caterpillar can escape from my smash…or at least my smashing ire. I’m conducting this purge because I’m an environmentalist. Ecology has turned me into a cold-blooded killer.
The standard picture of an environmentalist is often the gentle, peaceful hippie type, someone who expresses tender loving care for all plants and animals on the planet. They are caricatured as supporting all life and opposing all death and violence. As such, killing is not even remotely imagined as a tool that is in the environmentalist’s repertoire; in fact, it may be thought of as the antithesis. But the ecological household of nature operates differently from idealized notions of harmonious environmentalism. As the poet Tennyson would say, nature is ‘red in tooth and claw’; death, as well as life, are integral parts of nature. It is an eat or be eaten type of world, and death is as necessary to nature as every organism’s metabolism. Nature continues on unceasingly because it rests in an appropriate balance between the processes of life and death, fecundity and consumption. But unfortunately, the balance of nature can readily be tipped to a point of drastic change; there exist certain species that can escape their native habitats and alter the balance of the ecosystems in which they land. These species are known as non-native invasive species. Environmentalists and ecologists alike are thus faced with the quandary of whether it is right—and to what extent it is—to kill in order to restore the balance to native ecosystems.
One of the cast of characters that appears on the most harmful invasive species list is the gypsy moth (Lymantria dispar dispar). This innocuous little caterpillar—and its flightless adult moth—seem relatively benign singularly, yet the monstrosity of their sheer numbers has been an extreme detriment to the northeastern United States. Native to Europe, the gypsy moth was intentionally brought to America less than 150 years ago in 1869. A man by the name of Étienne Léopold Trouvelot imported the non-native moths with the intent of interbreeding them with silk worms to develop a more resilient silkworm industry. Trouvelot’s experiment inevitably failed, and whether intentional or not, the moths were released from his residence just outside of Boston. Lacking any of their natural predators to keep their population in check, just twenty years later the first major outbreak of gypsy moths occurred in Massachusetts. Trees were defoliated, caterpillars covered everything, and frass (i.e. insect excrement) rained down on the town. Since then, the gypsy moths have started on their relentless march across the northeastern United States. Each year, the gypsy moths stake claim to new habitat, and with it they bring their trail of destruction. Entire sections of forest can be defoliated in an outbreak scenario, and the creatures can easily defoliate more than a million acres of hardwood forest in a given summer.
In early May, the next generation of gypsy moth caterpillars hatch from their over-wintering egg cases and commence their feast. They emerge by the millions and coat everything en masse. The tiny black-haired little crawlers make their visual appearance when they are about an eighth of an inch long, appearing on every natural or human-made object outdoors. The tiny caterpillars spin an elongated strand of silk and their long spikey hairs allow them to get carried by the wind to new places. To the casual observer, it seems like the tiny creatures are flying around. A young gypsy moth hopes to land on a palatable tree so it can begin its banquet and increase in size; barring an ideal landing zone, the caterpillars have a relentless drive to crawl over any obstacle to find a food source. In late spring, the observer can tell once again when the caterpillars have returned and can thus take action before much damage is done to the ecosystem. When the caterpillars are small, they are easy to destroy. Squashing the pests seems inconsequential. Pressing down upon them with a thumb produces nothing but a small black smear. Each caterpillar dispatched is gone forever and its life and memory are no more.
But as the creatures grow, they become harder and harder to kill both physically and psychologically. They have been feeding for weeks, turning native plant leaves into more gypsy moth biomass. The caterpillars have become larger, less fragile creatures. When they reach half an inch long, they are sizeable enough to squirt out a blob of dark-green or bright-yellow juice whenever they are squashed. At an inch long, they begin to display an adverse reaction to being squeezed; it takes increasing pressure before the caterpillar is popped and its life juices run down the leaves. As the caterpillars keep growing larger, their features become more distinguishable; they have become stronger and actively resist death now with all their might. Killing the destructive organisms is now more of a struggle, particularly a psychological battle for the executioner. The juice that gets on one’s hands sometimes runs a deep red, reminding the slayer that it once belonged to the realm of the living. The breached corpses of the caterpillars clench indefinitely to their leaves even in death, a chilling reminder of the life that once was. These things remind the exterminator that the organism dispatched just moments ago was a living, moving creature.
What right do I have in taking a fellow creature’s life? Especially if they cause little direct harm to me? Is the fate of the ecosystem dependent upon my action as a concerned ecologist? Or should the gypsy moths be left alone and nature allowed to run her course? As the gypsy moth caterpillars grow, they continue to become more and more of a nuisance, even reaching plague proportions. They feverishly eat leaves, turning the native oak trees into Swiss cheese. Infestations can defoliate entire trees and can even lead to tree death; entire sections of native hardwood forest can be denuded by these insects. In a quiet moment in the forests of New England, the very sound of destruction can be heard from the tree-tops. Close your eyes and listen—it is not a sprinkle of rain you are hearing, but the falling frass of the swarm. The oak trees, and other hardwoods, suffer at the mouths of these non-native herbivores. The other native creatures that depend on the forests for food and habitat are adversely affected too. The greed of the gypsy moth’s appetite knows no bounds. Is it thus justified to kill the caterpillars for the sake of the trees and the forest in general?
Should we as humans intervene in the situation of invasive species, even if it means the prescribed death of millions of organisms? It is a struggle that we as environmentalists and modern humans must face. Our civilized world has created a narrative that removes us from the brutal truth of ecological relationships and our impact on the natural world. The metabolism of life is neatly tucked away into the folds of textbooks or of the grocery store. We do not see where our food comes from, and we avert our eyes to predation in nature. We do not fully respect the fact that in order for the balance of nature to remain intact, life indeed must be taken. Death has become so unpalatable to our modern culture. It is thus exceedingly difficult to compromise a human distaste for killing with a commitment to the facts of ecology. I am both an environmentalist and an ecologist, yet I too struggle with the necessity of death. Humans are compassionate and sympathetic beings. It is hard to watch a young or injured animal die. We like to root for the underdog to survive. But not every organism in an ecosystem ever survives; it is not even physically possible for every organism in an ecosystem to survive. The balance of nature rests on the facts of metabolism—of life and death. When humans are responsible for bringing the balance of nature to a tipping-point, shouldn’t we also be responsible for correcting our wrongs? Isn’t killing another organism justified in the name of the ecological integrity of the whole system?
I encountered a similar moral dilemma surrounding the eradication of an invasive species when I was in Australia—only this example was more extreme. Instead of simply squashing caterpillars, the most-wanted organism was the cane toad. These creatures were much more relatable than a small caterpillar, and the moral qualms surrounding their eradication were much harder for me personally. The cane toad, a vertebrate, is much more closely related to human kind. Its blood and organs are similar to mine, and I felt as if I had some kind of evolutionary connection to the toad that I didn’t share with a caterpillar. Cane toads are also much larger—reaching up to the size of a dinner plate, and their deaths would prove all the more gruesome because of it. Though I knew intellectually how disruptive the cane toads were to the ecology of Australia, I individually had quite a few reservations about personally killing a cane toad.
Cane toads (Rhinella marina) were introduced to Australia from the tropical Americas in 1935 as a biological control method to combat the cane beetle, which was threatening Australia’s sugar cane crop. In 1935, 102 toads were released in agricultural areas in Queensland. From then to now, cane toad numbers have increased to more than 200 million in Australia today. Adding insult to injury, the introduced cane toads did not even control the cane beetles they were intended to ingest. Instead, cane toads wreak havoc by gorging themselves on native Australian fauna, eating native creatures directly and leaving less food for other native species. Additionally, the cane toads are highly poisonous and use their poison glands as their primary defense mechanism. Native Australian fauna, unfamiliar with the toads, see the meaty morsels as an easy meal. The cane toads do little to resist being bitten, and instead wait for the poison excreted from their skin to kill the pursuing predator. Instead of an easy meal, the Australian wildlife is poisoned to death. As the cane toads continued to hop into uncharted territory in the Australian bush, more and more native wildlife became diminished because of it.
Cane toads have become a much bemoaned villain in Australia, and the culture Down Under is unsympathetic to the toads. Aussies will use whatever means possible to exterminate a toad. Drivers use them as target practice in the road. Kids use them as cricket balls for sporting events. Humane ethicists advise either freezing or drowning the toads as the most humane method of dispatching the pests. I too, was taught by the Australians to combat the spread of the toads by any means possible. As a backpacker lacking any real resources for the job, I was told to use my most powerful weapon—namely, my boots. I was taught to bluntly kick around the cane toads until they stopped dead.
As an ecologist, I felt that I had to fulfill my duty to an already ravaged ecosystem. And the cane toads were not hard to find. I stayed in many places in Queensland and northern New South Wales where cane toads covered the ground like a plague. Knowing about their negative ecological impact, I was ready to do something about it. At one roadside campsite near a creek and some slickrock, I encountered an abundance of the bedeviled toads. I singled one out. I picked it up by its warty back. Having no predators and no defenses other than their poison, the cane toad made no effort to resist. It didn’t even seem perturbed by being picked up. Holding the toad in my hand, I prepared for what was about to come. I let go of the toad and drop kicked it. The toad went flying onto the slickrock. I made my way to the toad. Dazed, but alive, I found it again. I had already committed to the extermination of this particular toad; it would be cowardly to back out now. Thinking thusly, I repeated the entire process a few more times. With each drop kick I imparted, I knew I was doing damage to the toad. Yet after every kick the toad still groggily got itself back up. I could still tell that the toad was every bit as alive as I was. My efforts at eradicating it simply weren’t enough. The toad wouldn’t be dispatched easily. From the outside, my toad looked every bit a toad as it did before my encounter. But on the inside, I knew, I must have done some damage. I knew I needed to end the suffering promptly and just kill the toad quickly. But I just couldn’t bring myself to the point of squashing down on the toad with my boot against the rock. I was appalled at the thought of the blood and the gore of it all. So instead I did the cowardly thing. I left the toad where I found it, hoping that it would soon die of its injuries. It seemed probable that the toad would have died soon after, but I’ll never know for certain. At any rate, my actions would not have produced anything akin to a quick, painless death. And now, I had to live with being the cause of that death. Though my hatred of cane toads caused me to maim one of their own, it could not overcome my desire to not take a life; all my beliefs about ecological integrity could not manage to win over my sentiments and cause me to end the toad’s life once and for all.
It is still possible that the cane toad I kicked around lived on. If so, the toad lived but it was the ecosystem that suffered because of it. Each cane toad, each gypsy moth that continues to live on in a place outside its native ecosystem continues to tip the balance of ecological resiliency. One does not see the consequences of continued ignorance towards invasive species individually. But collectively, the oak trees will suffer because of it. The native Australian fauna will suffer because of it too. The ecosystem as a whole suffers because of it. And thus, when an organism is causing undue harm as an invasive species, is it right to let it continue on and undermine the integrity of the ecosystem? I think not.
Though killing is psychologically painful, it is often necessary and justified for the sake of ecology.
For More Information:
- Cane Toads: An Unnatural History
- And the best scene from the film…
- And the sequel…Cane Toads: The Conquest