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Monday, June 8, 2015

Ask Not What Your Ecosystem can Do For You

It's raining this morning, and it is dark and murky outside. But yesterday was a sunny, warm day, and I went for many walks  on my property.

I was going to invite my readers to go hiking down the trail with me, but then I remembered that I can't seem to upload longer clips any more, so I settled for a full turn that allows a view in every direction. This is the five acre plot of land that could become Bow's island someday. It is full of rich vegetation and is well on its way to becoming wooded, but it is still just a savanna at the moment. Perfect for chimpanzees.

Bow on the blooming dogwood tree in 2005

One of the things I used to ask myself, and still do sometimes, is how would the trees and shrubs and flowers in my pasture survive the onslaught of the destructive forces that Bow would unleash. I used to limit Bow's time in the backyard, because I worried that if I left him to play unchecked, he would destroy the dogwood tree. He used to break off branches as if... well, as if they grew on trees! And I kept thinking: "We only have one dogwood tree. Who knows how long it took to grow to this size! I can't let Bow destroy it. We're not rich."

My Maternal Grandparents, Sarah & Isaac Minkowitz
I had grown up with the idea that trees are rare and expensive and took a very long time to grow and needed massive cultivation. My maternal grandparents were farmers in Israel. They made the desert blossom by the sweat of their brow. With that example in mind, I tended to think of trees as a very expensive commodity. But have you ever asked yourself how that land of milk and honey had come to be a desert in the first place? Could it be because that was the cradle of civilization and the spot where agriculture first flourished in place of the nomadic herding life?

Sword (right) and a friend in walking down the path in the pasture in 2005
 I also believed that European settlers were guilty of cutting down forests in North America, and that what we needed to do was plant more forests. How naive I was! The Europeans prevented forest fires and caused the savanna to be replaced by forest. But the fact is that it was four years into my ape language experiment, and I had been keeping my pasture unmown, and yet no trees were growing in it. See the picture of  Sword and her friend walking down the path? I was still thinking at the time that maybe I needed to plant a few trees in the pasture!

Bow and I 2005
Bow played outdoors every day, but he spent most of the time riding on my back indoors, where he could do the least amount of mischief. In the picture above, you can see that Sword and a friend were playing hopscotch out in the back yard, in the area where the outer pen now stands, while Bow and I are in the sun room, which is now the inner pens. I was protecting the environment from the destructive force that Bow is! I was afraid no tree would remain standing if I let him play out there all day. And trees cost money, right?

Mulberries growing on a tree in our pasture yesterday (June 2015)
Fast forward ten years. Trees planted themselves. Right now in the pasture, there are mulberries ripening on branches of fruiting trees that I never planted and never watered, never sprayed against insects and never shooed the birds away from. And yesterday, in that pasture, I picked a few berries for myself.

 What would happen to all the new trees in the pasture if Bow lived there? Would he denude the land and leave it sandy and bare, the way the fertile Middle East became a desert once agriculture was practiced there for a while? Would he create a new Dust Bowl where he lived, the way the American farmers did in the Great Depression because they were growing too much wheat to sell to Europe? Just maybe, by cutting down some of the trees, Bow would actually be making a valuable contribution to his ecosystem. He would be ensuring that  the savanna would not turn into a forest. Because it's not supposed to be a forest, it turns out. It's supposed to be only moderately wooded. There should be tall grasses growing and waving in the breeze. Who knows, maybe even poison ivy!

Milkweed growing freely in a field of poison ivy
What if everything the conservationists have been telling us is wrong? What if they are actually infected with the protestant work ethic, which suggests that it is by the sweat of our brow that we make a paradise out of a desert, when in fact the sweat of our brow makes deserts out of paradise?

A Great Spangeled Fritillary Butterfly enjoying the milkweed
I have been obsessed with the milkweed flowers and the butterflies lately. What especially confuses me is how people tell me we should plant milkweed to help the Monarch butterfly, because that is all the Monarch caterpillar can eat, and the Monarch butterfly will go extinct if we don't help it. But what exactly is the Monarch butterfly doing to help itself? How come I never see it sitting on the milkweed flowers and pollinating them? How come it leaves all that work to the Great Spangled Fritillary Butterflies, the bumblebees, the honey bees, the beetles and the nameless bugs that I have observed there? Every insect I know enjoys the milkweed bloom. But not once a Monarch!

The Idle Monarch Butterfy never sits on the Milkweed Flower
Source: The Elusive Monarch Butterfly
The one time I spotted a Monarch, it flew in circles, mocking me,  and did nothing to pollinate the milkweed. Freeloader! I wanted to shout at it. After all, if all it does is eat the flesh of the milkweed and expect other people to grow it, what is the Monarch's contribution to the ecosystem? Why is everyone so concerned that it might go extinct? Who cares? It's not like the honey bee (and all the other kinds of bees) that we need to pollinate our fruit.
A honey bee on a milkweed flower

And then it struck me: maybe the Monarch butterfly is just like Bow! Maybe it's supposed to keep the milkweed population in check. Maybe destroying milkweed plants is the Monarch's job. Ask not what your ecosystem can do for you, ask what you can do for your ecosystem! What if we are each designed to do whatever it is we do best? And what if destruction is just as important as creation in the cycle of life?

Bow lounging around this morning while it rains outside

When Bow was little, I used to have these arguments with my interns about whether Bow was creative or destructive. We would give him a toy, and he would tear it apart, and the interns, always politically correct, would say: "Maybe he's not destroying. Maybe he's creating something new." But he didn't build something new out of the ashes of the old thing. He pounded it till it was pulverized! He smashed it to smithereens!
A Painting I created to Taunt Vegetarians

And maybe that's not always such a bad thing. Maybe we are not all supposed to be creative. Maybe we are not all supposed to conserve every little thing in our environment,  like packrats. Maybe forest fires and locusts and plagues and chimpanzees serve a purpose, too! Maybe if we just let things sort themselves out, it will all work out for the best.

We are surrounded by conservationists who are vegetarian. But if they really want to conserve nature, why don't they acknowledge the part that one creature preying on another plays in the natural cycle of life? Why do they sound like farmers when they tell us we should plant trees to save the animals and milkweed to conserve butterflies -- and why won't they ever just leave well enough alone? They make taking care of trees and butterflies and wildlife sound like welfare work. Like we are supposed to feel sorry for the wildlife and plant trees to assuage our guilt. But in paradise there is no guilt. There is only pleasure and internal compulsion to make everything work. And with no central planner.

Late yesterday afternoon, I came across an odd looking turtle. At first I thought it must be very young, because it seemed somehow unformed.

I could not understand what was so odd about it. It seemed as if someone had forgotten to fashion part of its face. All I could think of was some lines of Omar Khayyam as translated by Fitzgerald:

And strange to tell, among that Earthen Lot
 Some could articulate, while others not
And suddenly one more impatient cried:
"Who is the Potter, pray, and who the Pot?"

On one side of its face it seemed perfectly normal.

But if you looked at the other side closely, you could see there was nothing where the eye should be.

How did this happen? How could the turtle survive when it could not see anything from one side?

My friend Pam says this is a male who is about thirty years old. From the domed, pyramid-like rear  of the shell, she deduced the turtle may have been kept in an aquarium as a pet for some portion of its life. I felt a little sorry for it, so I went to get it some food, but by the time I returned it was gone. Even with its disability, the turtle was not looking for a handout.

Creatures in nature are as tenacious and stubborn as a Great Spangled Fritillary butterfly clinging to a milkweed flower in the wind. They know what they are supposed to do, even though they never consider how it fits into the great scheme of things. I was told as a child that I should not pick the flowers, because what if everybody did that? But maybe we're not supposed to consider what would happen if everybody did what we do -- because not everybody does! Not everybody is a turtle. Not everybody is a flower. Some creatures are born to build, and others are made to destroy. And it all comes out all right in the end, if you let it.

Conservationists are so busy worrying about species losing their habitats, that they sometimes forget to ask what the species contribute to the ecosystem they depend on. If we really believed in natural balance,  though, we would not be too quick to intervene.

I had been so preoccupied with the milkweed plants in the field all day yesterday, that I almost forgot to check whether the  yucca had bloomed. So it was past sundown when I finally went to see. Sure, enough, it had, and already there were bugs crawling all over the flower. Should I do something about that? No, I don't think so. I think I will let it sort itself out.


  1. A lot of hardcore conservationists I know are not vegetarian. Most of the ones I have talked to are into the free range animal raising and such.

    1. That's good to know, Julia, It's just that among chimpanzee people, I have encountered a lot of vegetarians. And it's not only a personal choice for them about their own diet. They proselytize. One volunteer tried to get my daughter to go vegetarian , when my daughter was not yet a teen. Another person said that people who like chimpanzees should not eat meat. It made no sense, since chimpanzees themselves eat meat.

    2. People do the same with politics and religion. There is a lot of preaching going on. The funny thing is someone being so preachy never gets that the majority are not going to go a long with what they are saying. I remember being eight and how this Jehovah's Witness lady was trying to get my mom to come back to the meetings. She started in with some weird comment about how satan in in the flickering of the candles on the birthday cake, and I spoke up and said "kids just want to have a fun party". She did not know what to say to that, and said "oh but I can have fun just having coco with my son. My mom was not happy I spoke to an adult like that, but I just could help but feel how preachy she was being. My mom is always nice and never really comments on people who can be a bit over the top, and I guess as a kid I would speak up too much. I actually just talk more than they do. But some guy thinks I actually talk a lot because I am a vegan. The funny thing is I actually am a bit quiet in public these days because it is not like anyone is clamoring to hear my opinion, and even when I try to share something balanced. I am the one who gets poked out in threads for not having a sense of humor.

    3. Julia, I can't imagine anyone accusing you of talking too much. I appreciate the fact that you can be a vegan and I can be an omnivore, and we can still be friends, and neither of us is trying to change the other.

      I went through a period, when I was younger, when I voiced my opinion a lot, and then when that backfired, I went through another phase when I would not share any part of myself.

      Now I feel free to say what I want on my own turf, to listen to others as they take their turn, and to try to lead by example, but not by direct preaching, except of course in my books and blogs. And even there, I try to give the reader a chance to come at the material from more than one point of view.

    4. Yes, you should say what you want. There is a difference between blogs like yours, and Jehovah's Witness and chimpanzee specialists who go around telling people how to do everything. I have never seen you do that.

    5. Thanks, Julia. It is good to be able to express ourselves freely without having to worry about offending people who might disagree.