Midnight at the oasis

By Rebecca Lawton ILCW member (USA)

Once oases supported human evolution. Now, our addiction to fountains, pools and palms threatens our survival

Seen from the air, the single verdant parcel of land with its straight borders and sharp edges resembles a green postage stamp pasted on a great expanse of manila envelope. Inside the boundary, a screen of trees hides a palatial estate, acres of emerald turf, a paved circular driveway, and an extensive array of tumbling, marble fountains. Outside the rectangle, a hot, rock-strewn fan of tan alluvium extends unvegetated and unwatered for half a kilometre to another such parcel, then another, then another. Toward the city centre eight kilometres away, residences cluster closer together but emulate the lush feel of the outlying estates with their surfeit of palm trees, water features and improbably green turf.

Downtown, a shimmering strip of casinos, restaurants, luxury shops and lounges lures visitors indoors off the sunburnt street. Fountains and gazing pools convey a sense of plentiful water, as if the strip were supplied by healthy dousings of rainfall. One cannot tell by looking that the city, Las Vegas, normally receives less than 11 centimetres of rainfall a year in a climate where summer temperatures regularly soar above 32 degrees Celsius (90 degrees Fahrenheit). To build an oasis at a desert resort requires more sleight of hand than a card shark playing a casino. Yet Las Vegas, like other arid communities, routinely pumps water for just this purpose from underground or outlying systems – in this case, the Colorado River impounded in Lake Mead, a reservoir 50 kilometres away.

The green succour of true oases has been part of humankind’s experience for millennia, occurring where precious below-ground springs and aquifers nearly reach the surface. For centuries, oases have marked the locations of communities and trade routes. In recent generations we’ve extended the oasis habit into our built environment, pumping water into faux oases – such as Las Vegas – to complement what nature provides. But our human impulse to convert the desert, to build oases wherever our surroundings are arid, has produced an 11th-hour crisis of water mismanagement and shortages worldwide.

A landscape deemed forsaken, ‘desert’ derives from the Latin desertum, ‘something left waste’. In the geographer’s lexicon, a desert is an area receiving less than 25 centimetres of rainfall a year. The world’s largest are the polar deserts, each approximately 14 million square kilometres of ice, snow and tundra in the Arctic or of bedrock in the Antarctic. Next comes the Sahara, 9 million square kilometres of gravel plain, sand and dune spread over 13 countries and covering a quarter of the African continent. After that, the Arabian Desert comprises 2.5 million square kilometres and reaches into six countries. Equal to one-fifth the area of the continents, often inhospitable due to extreme temperatures and lack of water, deserts are also the settings where natural oases, some of the most appealing land- and water-forms on the planet, can be found.

The moist, fertile zone of the oasis consists of a central pool of open water surrounded by a ring of water-dependent shrubs and trees, notably palms, which are in turn encircled by an outlying transition zone to desert plants. In contrast to the vast expanse of the world’s deserts, the oasis ecosystem is relatively minute, rare and precious, the largest measured in dozens and hundreds, rather than millions, of square kilometres.

Oases figure prominently in human survival and evolution. The earliest people lived and hunted around surface water, matching their ranges to the persistent springs and pools that also attracted wildlife and watered vegetative sources of food. Paleontologists studying early evidence of Homo sapiens at Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania found that our forebears probably relied on isolated oases when other potable water became scarce during times of drought.

Oases also formed bridges between larger bodies of water, anthropologists hypothesise, allowing humans to migrate within and ultimately out of Africa. Natural oases determined the trajectory of trade routes and desert settlements. From the sure signs of underground water signalled by a grove of fan palms in the Sahara to the early dwellings along great rivers on the Colorado Plateau in North America, water determined the locations of communities and pathways among them.

The longest known network of trade routes, the 7,400-kilometre Silk Road across Africa, Asia and Europe, traced its course from water hole to water hole, relying on oasis communities such as Turpan in China and Samarkand in Uzbekistan. The Darb el-Arba camel route in middle Egypt and Sudan, the Moroccan caravan route from the Niger to Tangier, and the aboriginal foot trails in the Mojave Desert in the American southwest were all oasis-linked routes that otherwise would have been impassable.

Over time, cultures integrated the oasis experience of rest and recreation into the built world. In ancient Rome, thermae (large-scale imperial baths) and balneae (small-scale public and private baths) were created through elaborate systems of aqueducts leading from rivers and springs to most towns and villages. The public baths were the community centres of their time, where citizens could meet for conversation, soaks, massage and exercise. The Latin adage for the healthful properties of water, ‘In Aqua Sanitas’, conveyed the philosophy that water immersion for recuperation and rejuvenation was central to good health and even good citizenship.

In the tradition of Rome, resort towns elsewhere became popular, their engineered waterworks full of healing waters from naturally occurring mineral springs and shallow stores of groundwater. The community of Spa, Belgium, gave its name to a soaking custom replicated worldwide: toplice in Slovenia, bain in France, Bad in Germany, fürdő in Hungary, città thermale in Italy, hot springs in America – destinations that were and are cultivated to offer respite to those who want to ‘take the waters’.

In arid regions, recreating the experience of healing waters requires some doing. Water must be pumped from a natural source up inclines, over artificial ledges, often into buildings or fenced areas where cement-rimmed swimming pools emulate the grass-sloped natural pool. Resort gardens are made to order, their fully mature trees installed by cranes and work crews, their water needs met through irrigation and timed sprinkler systems. The hot dry desert of the Las Vegas valley, one of the world’s greatest faux oases, serves up a modern-day mirage – the fantasy that we can keep taking large quantities of water from elsewhere to make the desert green, without paying the price.

The oasis has beckoned and tantalised us for millennia, offering the weary desert traveller a dip in an open pool, the green shelter of palm fronds and the relief of shade and refuge. These are not just creature comforts; they also enhance health.

As it happens, water immersion also enhances the function of the brain, by improving the ability of blood to transport oxygen and nutrients to it. In a 2014 study from the University of Western Australia published in the American Journal of Physiology, subjects immersed heart-deep for 10 minutes in a tank of water at 30 degrees Celsius (86 degrees Fahrenheit) experienced greater cerebral blood flow over the duration of immersion.

Similarly, an oasis’ green foliage is likely to promote wellbeing. Testing what nature‑lovers have long intuited to be true, researchers in environmental psychology are measuring the electrical response of the brain to green space. An article on the ‘urban brain’ in the British Journal of Sports Medicine in 2015 reports that subjects exhibited ‘lower frustration’ when moving into natural areas and ‘higher engagement’ when moving out. Compared with brain response to other zones, such as shopping or commercial districts, the improved mental state measured in subjects moving along paths in green zones showed the potential for restoration and recovery from stress.

The oasis also helps us stay focused. The common experience of feeling a kind of brain fog in the hot sun isn’t just imagined; it’s real and measurable. Studies have shown that mammals, including humans, require a two- or three-fold increase in natural evaporation to maintain reasonable body temperature when exposed to desert sun; conversely, slipping into shade increases performance and physiological measures. Getting to an oasis at the end of a day spent in desert heat fulfils the simple and necessary function of preventing overheating. Brain temperature stays about 0.2 degrees Celsius higher than the rest of the body, says a 2011 study from the University of Copenhagen. In hot environments with no relief, we become unable or unwilling to continue walking or performing other forms of exercise. The simple break of an oasis can keep us on track.

Given all this, it makes sense that the resort or spa, the modern emulation of the ancient oasis, adds therapeutic treatment to the natural benefits of water, plants and refuge. Some benefit comes through stimulation of endorphins, morphine-like molecules associated with the experience of deep pleasure. Candace Pert, the late American neuroscientist and pharmacologist, discovered that endorphins attached to opiate receptors not just in the body, but also the brain. Ultimately, an entire system of hormones and receptors was discovered in neuroscience labs, powering the nascent field of psychoneuroimmunology – the study of an interconnected brain-body loop driving mood, health and disease. The ‘way in which [chemicals] circulate through the body, finding their target receptors in regions far more distant [from the brain] than had ever been thought possible,’ Pert wrote in her book, The Molecules of Emotion (1997), ‘made the brain communication system resemble the endocrine system, whose hormones can travel the length and breadth of our bodies.’

Poised to deliver that sense of wellbeing to the length and breadth of our bodies and brains are faux oases, today represented by the $40 billion resort and spa industry, one of the fastest-growing sectors of leisure travel worldwide. Wherever there are spas, travellers can find water, in whirlpools, steam rooms, fountains, mud baths and other assorted features, all in the service of relaxation, rejuvenation and health.

In arid regions, the bulk of water is, of course, already directed to agriculture and urban use. Yet desert biomes also host tourists, who come for built oases, above all else. In 2007, the architect Aziza Chaouni at the University of Toronto conducted an investigation in the Sahara Desert, where a resurgence of tourism in the 1980s ‘induced both the extension of existing colonial accommodations and the creation of new large hotels, a phenomenon which not only drained the scarce water resources but also shifted local economies from agricultural to service‑based’.

Installing greenery and engineered water features to create resort complexes stretches already-exhausted water budgets in Dubai, where 2.4 million residential users consuming 492 litres per capita daily long ago outgrew freshwater supply. A destination for foreign tourists and workers, Dubai has the advantage of being a wealthy seaside resort that can meet its water needs through desalination plants. Though roughly twice as expensive as water from recycling or impounding, desalination is still an option in oceanfront locales.

Land-locked Las Vegas, on the other hand, is restricted to freshwater supplies. With 603,000 residents inside the city limits, more than 2 million in the greater metropolitan area, and a tourism-based economy, the area’s once-adequate surface and groundwater no longer meets its needs.

The Colorado River fulfils 86 per cent of the Las Vegas valley water portfolio, apportioned and piped annually to the state in the amount of 500,000 acre-feet (617 billion litres). The river allotment is supplemented by groundwater, which contributes another 10 per cent to metropolitan and urban use; recycled water makes up the last 4 per cent. The Southern Nevada Water Authority, which controls supply, estimates that casinos and resorts use 32,000 acre-feet of Colorado River water (7 per cent of the apportionment) and 4,000 acre-feet of groundwater from private wells, or 36,000 acre-feet in all.

A large quantity of this water – some 60 per cent of all water delivered to homes and businesses in Las Vegas – goes to irrigate landscaping and create water features, according to the Water Authority. An estimated 70 per cent of residential use and 20 per cent of casino and spa use is applied outdoors on turf, landscaping and swimming pools.

In fact, in Nevada, most outdoor use is consumptive – that is, fully used and lost to the system. As a result, groundwater has declined more than 100 metres and associated land has sunk several metres. Resulting earthquakes, irreversible ground collapse and property settling have caused billions of dollars’ worth of damage in the Las Vegas valley alone.

Similarly extensive pumping of groundwater from the San Joaquin Valley aquifer system in California for agricultural and urban use has ‘caused groundwater levels to decline’, according to the United States Geological Survey, ‘resulting in as much as 28 feet [8.5 metres] of land subsidence’. Once an aquifer is drawn down, the underground space for it closes up, and the land’s ability to hold water in its best, natural location – the cool underground – is eliminated as an option.

Pulling surface water from rivers also puts civilisation at risk. When flow is reduced too much, the water remaining in streams can no longer sustain native aquatic life or even the habitat critical to climate resilience for a range of species, including humans.

Taken to an extreme, mismanaging water supply destabilises cultures. The Syrian refugee crisis can be understood as a direct result of water instability driven by a changing climate. According to a 2014 United Nations report on drought in the Middle East, an estimated 800,000 people have lost their livelihoods due to water mismanagement in the region. ‘Water scarcity is forcing people off the land,’ said Hussein Amery, a Middle Eastern water management expert at the Colorado School of Mines, in an interview with National Public Radio in 2015. ‘These refugees are very much water refugees, a product of water scarcity in the region.’

In the American West, much of the water mismanagement that has drawn down stores stems from the creation of the faux oasis, what the late water resources consultant Marc Reisner called the ‘Cadillac desert’. ‘In the West, it is said, water flows uphill toward money,’ he wrote in Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water (1986). ‘And it literally does, as it leaps 3,000 feet across the Tehachapi Mountains in gigantic siphons to slake the thirst of Los Angeles, as it is shoved 1,000 feet out of Colorado River canyons to water Phoenix and Palm Springs and the irrigated lands around them.’

It is the 11th hour at the oasis – 11:59 pm, in truth – past time to act. With the faux oasis a fact of life, and water a dwindling key resource increasingly at risk, our best next step is to cut consumptive use.

The Pacific Institute, a research and outreach organisation in Oakland, California that ‘creates and advances solutions to the world’s most pressing water challenges’, evaluates water use for improved conservation and sustainability. The institute’s analysis of resort consumption concluded that increasing water needs can be met with no change in guests’ water use habits (and presumably no decline in their quality of experience) if hotels and spas install technologies such as water-saving showerheads, low water-use toilets, and upgraded appliances in laundries.

Even more can be done. The Green Spa Network of Sebastopol, California, a leader in the effort to reduce the water footprint, recommends that spas use native plants – trees, shrubs and herbs naturally found in the arid and semi‑arid environment being landscaped. A founding member of that network, the Osmosis Day Spa Sanctuary in Freestone, California, has not only changed landscaping but also installed a greywater system on site. The system, which processes and recycles wash water from laundry right at the spa, has cut water use at Osmosis by 3,800 litres per day. In a state where severe drought is in its fourth year, wildfires are burning in increasing size and number, and reservoirs are depleted, all water savings count.

In California in general, simply re-landscaping residential, commercial and institutional gardens with native plants and other drought-tolerant species could reduce water use by 1.3 million acre-feet annually. This reduction, according to the Pacific Institute and National Resource Defense Council, would be ‘equivalent to a statewide per capita use of 30 gallons per day [114 litres]’ when the current use is 140 gallons per day [530 litres].

‘At home, widespread adoption of water-saving appliances and fixtures, along with replacement of lawns with water-efficient landscapes,’ says the Pacific Institute, ‘could reduce total residential water use by 40 to 60 per cent, saving 2.2 million to 3.6 million acre-feet per year,’ for savings of up to 5.2 million acre-feet per year overall.

Our emotional desire for oasis might never leave us, but if the natural oasis is to endure, the faux oasis might have to hold sway only in our minds. Water in the natural world – in wild rivers rather than engineered canals, natural lakes rather than reservoirs, true falls rather than recirculating fountains – is the fix. Draining our actual water supply to create the faux oasis endangers the true refuge and puts us all at risk.

Rebecca Lawton is a fluvial geologist and former river guide who writes about water in the West. Her latest book is Steelies and Other Endangered Species: Stories on Water (2014). She lives in the San Francisco Bay area.

Advertisements

The Queen of the Amazonian Rivers

By Donna Mulvenna ILCW member (French Guiana)

It is a calm sunny day when I set off to paddle on the watery expanse of my world. As I lower the canoe into the river, I can’t help but marvel at the reflection of the mangrove trees reaching out across the surface of the water. The sky is a glorious periwinkle blue, the clouds high and fluffy and the cooling breeze creates a pleasant tailwind.

A short while later I watch as a dark shadow stretches ahead enveloping the canoe and the first of the raindrops bounce off the deck. I know from experience I have only seconds to take cover as this is the Amazon rainforest where rain is more than a shower or sprinkle-type affair. The deluge hits me as suddenly and as ferociously as a freight train. Within seconds I look like I have just stepped out of a swimming pool. The force of it is quite remarkable and it is an absolute delight even when I am trying to make some headway in it.

I watch the water pooling in the bottom of the canoe and wonder which one of us will triumph. Will the rain stop as suddenly as it started or will I be forced to stop and empty the canoe? I tuck my chin in close to my chest, a flow of water streaming from the peak of my cap and bouncing off my nose. There isn’t another soul on the river, not of the human species anyway, which is not unusual on these heavily jungle-fringed rivers where a lack of places to rest make them unattractive to weekend mavericks on jet skis.

Occasionally, I startle a lone fisherman in a weathered wooden fishing canoe and I wonder what he must think of my bright fluorescent green and gold carbon sprint canoe on steroids. Sometimes I invite fishermen to try it out or to race me a short distance, a suggestion that is met with great hilarity and vigorous shaking of their head.

One species I rarely sneak up on is the Red Howler monkeys. My appearance sets in motion a series of deafening roars that reverberate across the jungle letting every living creature within a three-mile radius know of my approach. However, there are times when I drift along the river undetected and enjoy the most spectacular displays of wildlife in action.

There is something quite remarkable about coming face to face with wildlife. It is that moment when you and the animal stop, look at each other and share some sort of connection. This is when time slows down, you become oblivious to the outside world, and you are lost in nature.

Most animals flee in surprise when they see me, but sometimes, certain animals, especially those with the bravado of a fox, come closer. The human brain is an amazing entity that works on a database of pre-existing information. So, when the first thing I registered were black stripes and a round face my brain said, “Mmm. Interesting! An extinct Tasmanian Tiger, crossed with a raccoon with the demeanor of a fox living in French Guiana?”

The novelty of seeing a human paddling down the river on a brightly coloured log was enough to tempt the curious crab dog (Cerdocyon thous) from its den. It was as inquisitive about me, as I was about it. It looked at the canoe and tilted its head thoughtfully as if to say, “I haven’t seen one quite like that before.” Then it took a good look at me, made that magic moment of eye contact, and after ten seconds or so, trotted its stout little legs off into the undergrowth.

As its name suggests, the crab dog eats crabs, especially during the wet season. Other times it eats rodents, birds, turtle eggs, fruit, eggs, crustaceans, insects, and lizards. About the only thing it doesn’t eat is livestock, but mind-bogglingly, farmers shoot them anyway. They have a fluffy tale that stands erect when they are excited, but fortunately for them, their pelt isn’t as stimulating, so they have been largely spared from hunters’ sights, unlike others in their genus who were made into some type of garment and are now extinct.

Wild rivers are where fantasy meets reality and miracles absolutely do happen. I almost leaped from my canoe with fright when a Giant otter materialized like the periscope of a surfacing submarine only meters from my boat to give me an angry warning snort. I stopped dead. The otter dived and resurfaced twenty meters away. When he had calculated I was at a safe distance he turned and hot tailed it after his family.

Family life is important to Giant otters which explains why they have few predators. An anaconda, caiman or jaguar is less likely to attack a young otter if there is a chance it will be confronted by an entire family.

Male otters swim like torpedoes, are strong, curious and brave. But it is the alpha female otter who is the undisputable Queen of the river regulating the hunt, resting and sleeping periods. To the outsider, it might look as if Giant otters in French Guiana lead a charmed life, and it is true that they spend much of their day playing, kicking back and fishing.

The Guiana Shield region offers an ideal habitat as it accounts for as much as 10-15% of the world’s freshwater, has the largest number of pristine or near pristine river basins on Earth, enforces a strict protection policy, and is largely uninhabited by man.

However, Giant otters remain in the “endangered” category of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List, meaning that their numbers are expected to halve by 2030. No longer hunted for their chocolate coloured, velvet-like fur as they were from the ‘50’s to ‘70’s, they now face a new threat of habitat destruction and pollution mostly due to the gold rush that has swept across most regions of South America.

It isn’t just seeing wildlife from the water that is exciting. Stumbling upon the tell-tale signs of how wildlife goes about its daily business is exciting too, especially seeing the footprints of ocelots, and the trails of capybara and agouti, respectively the largest and cutest rodents of the rainforest.

The more time I spend exploring the rivers, the more I feel connected to them and the life they sustain. Yet, despite my best efforts to drift along the rivers unnoticed, I am yet to spot the formidable Ninja cat of the Amazon.

But I know, without any doubt, a jaguar would have spotted me.

Consistently Lovely: the Exceptional Field Notes of Martin H. Moynihan

From gulls to squids to monkeys, a Panama-based biologist melds art and science in his highly detailed field books.
By Rebecca Lawton, ILCW member (USA)
Previously published by Hakai magazine
Everything about them is beautiful. Martin Humphrey Moynihan’s field notes, illuminated with marvelous drawings and inventive symbols, leap off the page. Moynihan (1928-1996), an expert on animal behavior and founding director of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI) in Panama, was known for his distinctive, original pencil sketches, and pen-and-ink renderings of birds, primates, and cephalopods. Portraying three disparate groups all known for their complex social interactions, showing behaviors ranging from squids somersaulting to monkeys arch-posturing, Moynihan managed to produce field notes with superb composition, engaging sketches, and splendid handwriting.

Moynihan grew up in Chicago and traveled extensively in Europe as a youth, becoming fluent in French. His secondary education at Horace Mann School in New York City, along with visits to the American Museum of Natural History, led to his interest in birds. After graduating from Princeton University in 1950 (having interrupted his schooling for army service in Korea), and earning a PhD from Oxford in 1953, Moynihan studied gulls from Canada to Ecuador. In 1957, he became resident naturalist on Barro Colorado Island in the Panama Canal’s Gatun Lake, transitioning to director in 1966 when the island’s facilities were consolidated as the STRI. He played a critical role over the next 17 years, developing it into a world-renowned research center.

In 1973, Moynihan retired to Albi, France. His Panama notebooks, however, stayed behind at STRI, until shipped to the Smithsonian Institution Archives a few years ago. To date, two volumes of Moynihan’s extensive records have been made accessible online by the Field Book Project, a joint undertaking of the Archives and Smithsonian Libraries. Moynihan’s field notes stand out. “To find such consistently lovely field notes is unusual,” says Lesley Parilla, database manager and principal cataloger for the Field Book Project. “His hatch marks noting vocalization patterns remind me of Persian rug fringe. His handwriting is superb. He has a very strong sense of the visual.” Using ovals at various tilts to represent the angles of animal posture, and creative abbreviations for behaviors ranging from mutual chattering to head bobbing to fish carrying, Moynihan offers layer on layer of pictorial feast and observation.

Avian ecologist Dr. David Whitacre, former senior research scientist for The Peregrine Fund with ongoing studies in tropical birds, finds Moynihan’s field notes exemplary both technically and aesthetically. “The detailed sketches of postures and behaviors are an indispensable part of his field notes,” says Whitacre. Moynihan’s many abbreviations and symbols allowed him to work quickly to record dozens of behaviors and vocalizations that often occurred in rapid, meaningful sequence. “The notes serve as an exquisite example of the power of meticulous observation and description of the nuances of animal behavior,” says Whitacre. Early field ecologists like Moynihan achieved great things armed only with binoculars, a spotting scope, notebook, and pencil.

Driving tigers to the brink

By Sanjay Gubbi, ILCW Member (India)

Previously published by the IUCN Newsletter

The survival of tigers in the wild depends lagely upon the willingness of the tiger range countries to ensure adequate protection of sufficiently large areas from inappropriate development and activities such as roads and poaching.

Roads and traffic threaten tigers across their range in many ways. Research on Amur tigers in Russia suggests that direct mortality due to vehicle collisions can reduce survivorship and reproductive success of the species. The death of individual tigers also results in social instability. The death of a territorial male can lead to infighting of transient males trying to establish territories, infanticide by the new territorial male, and it also affects tigresses due to unstable male ranges possibly leading to depressed birth-rates. Chital and sambar, principal prey species for tigers in the tropical forests of south Asia are one of the commonly killed species in vehicular collisions, resulting in reduced food source for tigers.

Furthermore, roads are used for illegal activities including hunting of tiger and their prey. In the Russian Far East, six Amur tigers were poached over a 10-year period along one road. In 2010, poachers apprehended in southern India confessed to be illegally hunting chital and other deer species in Bandipur, Bhadra, and Biligirirangaswamy Tiger Reserves by driving on roads at night time.

Highways and vehicular traffic act as barriers for movement of tigers affecting their dispersal, movement patterns thereby splitting populations into sub-populations that cause several direct and indirect effects.

Tigers have been affected by new roads in many parts of their range. In western Malaysia construction of the North-South highway, and another highway that bisected a bottleneck area in Taman Negara National Park has caused fragmentation of tiger habitats. The wildlife corridors between Nepal and India are threatened by upgradation of a highway. The effects of roads are serious in India, a stronghold of the global tiger population.

The spike in India’s growth over the last decade has involved a considerable expansion of infrastructural development projects. However, the welcome benefits of economic development have gone hand-in-hand with serious costs both to people and wildlife, especially those that are wide-ranging such as the tigers. Among these, road and highway projects, which provide the vital foundation on which other sectors of the economy can be built, have received a huge boost. This, in turn, has triggered a rapid growth of motor vehicles in India at 10 – 12% per year, and further intensified the demand for better roads. Often, road improvement and highway development projects are proposed within India’s protected area (PA) network, which forms a mere 5% of the country’s landscape. Roads passing through several key tiger habitats, including Corbett, Kanha, Bandipur, BRT, Anshi-Dandeli, Kudremukh, are listed for resurfacing or conversion to highways.

Unlike many forested tracts of Africa, South America or in South East Asia, where road projects open up frontier areas to markets, in India road and highway projects have primarily involved an enhancement in the quality of existing roads, setting off proximate increases in vehicular activity, rather than fundamentally altering connectivity patterns, although important exceptions exist.

Although these roads enhance connectivity between key economic centres, the upgrading of minor roads to high-speed highways also poses a serious threat to tigers and other wildlife. The current rate of mortality of tigers due to wildlife-vehicle collision in India appears to be relatively low, with approximately 20 documented tiger deaths in various reserves over the past 15 years; although this number is likely an underestimate due to non-detection in some instances. Furthermore, as the population size declines and the road network expands, the direct and indirect effects of mortality due to collision with vehicles and fragmentation of tiger habitats will become a greater concern.

In the past the Nature Conservation Foundation has worked with the government in southern India that has resulted in closure of highways for vehicular traffic at night (when the negative effect of traffic is the highest) through two key tiger reserves, development of alternate roads for highways that are closed to vehicular traffic at night, and realignment of a stretch of a highway to outside a tiger reserve. Such moves by the government is extremely helpful in reducing impacts on tigers and their prey.

Given the strong likelihood of changes to vehicular density in India and other tiger range countries, wherever possible, alternative road alignments need to be developed so that high-speed traffic can be permanently kept out of key tiger habitats. Similarly, the closure of vehicular traffic at night, when wildlife, especially young ones, are most susceptible to road-kills, may also be an advisable option inside PAs.

One of a tiger range country’s biggest challenges today is how they could reconcile the pursuit of economic growth with the protection of integrity of tiger habitats. To make economic growth and human development sustainable requires the identification, understanding, and alleviation of the ecological costs of growth and development without forsaking their benefits.

Although roads and other infrastructure are important for economic development, poor planning, disregard of ecological aspects and excessive road expansion into tiger habitats will further fragment and destroy populations and their habitats in the long-term.

For tiger conservation, there is no escape but to invest in a more holistic process of development planning that includes—rather than ignores—the conservation of our priceless natural heritage.

Our experiences in India offer key lessons on managing the impact of roads in the tiger’s range:

  • The most effective mitigation strategy is to decommission existing roads from tiger landscapes, particularly from source populations, and re-route them outside important habitats and prevent construction of new roads;
  • Effective mitigation of road impacts requires engagement of all levels of government and the community;
  • Dedicated wildlife crossing structures will likely be required in tiger landscapes because standard drainage structures alone are ineffective at mitigating the negative effects of roads and traffic.
  • International funding agencies are financing the rapid rate of construction of roads in many tiger-range countries and they must become involved in measures to ensure these developments do not further endanger the persistence of tigers.
  • Rigorous and peer-scrutinised Environment Impact Assessments (EIA) by trained wildlife biologists should assess the broader impacts of roads rather than focussing on the physical aspects of their construction. Second, it is essential that the EIA process be changed such that development projects that are already approved in PAs be assessed on a continuing basis for unforeseen impacts, and post-hoc mitigation measures are legally mandated where necessary to reduce such impacts on tiger habitats.

Sanjay Gubbi is a Scientist at the Nature Conservation Foundation (NCF)

Dawn Song

 

(5 am, enroute to the spring board meeting of the Wild Foundation)

By Michael McBride, ILCW Member (USA)

The moon’s smile flickers in sparkling waters,

A sliver arc curls into downstream willows.

This is it, I thought, this is all there is, all there needs to be,

Amused, the Pleiades watches for what would unfold.

Alone with my thoughts, a dark highway, a distant city ahead,

A stream running down valley sending up the sun.

Great Spirit, may this building moon guide my thoughts,

Inspire my words, make bold my actions and lead me to a place

Of joy, peace and renewal among my cherished friends

A Sensory Experience

By Bhavna Menon (ILCW Member, India)

Previously published by Nature in Focus

Birdsong, alarm calls and a life-altering experience with 23 visually-impaired children in the forests of Kanha National Park

It is exhilarating to be able to connect children to a forestscape, to watch them form a purely appreciative, non-transactional bond with nature. I have been blessed to be part of an initiative that gives me an opportunity to do just that.

Last Wilderness Foundation (LWF) has been involved in the Village Kids’ Awareness Programme since the summer of 2012. The programme involves working with students living in the buffer zones of tiger reserves like Bandhavgarh, Kanha and Panna to help them understand the correlation between denizens of the forest and the need to protect them. It helps also, to understand the behaviour of a tiger as that of a wild animal rather than only a source of economic loss for the villagers in form of livestock lifting (which happens more often than not).

However, despite working in this landscape for the past five years, our most surreal experience came this year, in the form of 23 visually-impaired students from the Ananya Manav Sai Samiti, Jabalpur. The enthusiasm shown by these students — complemented by the initiative taken by the Kanha Forest Department and LWF — made it possible for us to take them on a forest safari through Kanha National Park in January for the very first time.

Over the next day and a half, the children drank it all in: the early morning air heavy with birdsong, the calls and grunts of the grazing herbivores and the touch of an ageing sal tree.

They listened to the descriptions of the golden grasslands and the narrated ‘sight’ of a camp elephant throwing mud playfully on its back as it examined the meadows. The highlight for them, however, came in the form of a noisy Gaur as they heard it breaking off branches and chewing the leaves of a bamboo bush.

What was remarkable was the heightening of our own senses. We stopped at every rustle, at the energetic crashing of langurs through the canopies and waited to examine the strong ‘mahul’ creeper, tracing the patterns on the leaves with our fingers, its softness delighting the students, making them shudder with excitement.

Driving in the forest, the students noticed how some parts were relatively cooler. On being told that it was a mix of meadows and dense forest, the students put out their hands to examine the drop in the temperature and exclaimed excitedly that they could hear the streams in the parts of the forest that were coolest.

“Does Kanha have a lot of hills? Has the vegetation changed? Do tigers live in such hilly regions?” asked the students as we drove on an incline. We struggled to keep pace with their intelligence and superior vision.

At the Kanha Interpretation Centre, everyone’s excitement was almost palpable as we introduced them to the different skeleton structures of animals. They carefully examined the diverse shapes with their hands, Blackbuck antlers emerging as the clear favourite. “Kitna sundar hai! (It’s so beautiful!)” they exclaimed; gingerly wrapping their fingers around the ridges in the antlers. Loud gasps of admiration echoed through the museum as they came in contact with the teeth of the wild boar. “Baap re! bahut pene hain! (How sharp these are!)” As they tried to squeeze their hands into the embossed structure of a tiger’s pugmark, to understand the difference between male and female, all they could murmur in excitement was how beautiful the animal must be.

The students’ happiness knew no bounds when they had an opportunity to meet the camp elephant, thanks to the Forest Department. They enjoyed the slight breeze caused by the flapping of its large ears and clung to us, shivering every time it moved. They touched the pachyderm’s wrinkled skin reverently, saying it was the best thing they had ever encountered.

The equaliser came, in my opinion, when we took the children to the dark room at the museum, for the sound and light show. This exhibits the nightlife of a forest with a recreation of a dimly-lit landscape inside a glass case with the sounds of different animals, climaxing with a tiger hunting a spotted deer.

As I struggled to adjust to the pitch dark, the students spoke admiringly of the atmosphere of the room, the number of steps they had climbed to get here and patiently waited for the show to begin. As the night life of the forest came to life with different calls, no one spoke, they were breathing it all in, shuffling slightly to the sound of rustling depicting animal movement and when it ended, they stood listing down all the things they had heard, clutching my hand in a fever of excitement, their reactions uncomplicated. I thought of the majority of tourists who visit the reserve every day, expecting the forest to deliver their money’s worth and yet are never truly satisfied with the experience. These students took the experience holistically, step-by-step, marvelling with equal enthusiasm whether it was the call of a Golden Oriole or to the rough touch of a sal tree. I was overwhelmed in that room — albeit with my limited understanding of the lives of the children — and realised that sometimes happiness can be sought from the most uncomplicated of things, only if we allow it to be.

Watch the children enjoy their day out in the jungle here.

Saving the Shenandoah Salamander

by Mark Hendricks (ILCW member) USA
Previously published by Earth Island Journal

Government agencies are coming together to protect the small amphibian, which is only found in Shenandoah National Park
Deep within the ancient Appalachian mountains of Shenandoah National Park lies a creature that can only be found on three of its highest peaks, the fittingly named Shenandoah salamander (Plethodon shenandoah). This rare black and orange salamander, which is a remnant of the Pleistocene, has managed to survive in a unique ecological niche even as amphibians across globe are in decline. But with new threats emerging, scientists are coming together to help save this remarkable creature.

 

“It is a really old species,” says Dr. Evan Grant, principal investigator of the Unites States Geological Survey’s (USGS) Amphibian Research and Monitoring Initiative. So old that in fact its divergence from a common ancestor with its closest relative, the eastern red backed salamander, is thought to have occurred over five million years ago. “It’s amazing that it has persisted for so long,” adds Grant.

The Shenandoah salamander is a member of the family Plethodontidae, colloquially known as the lungless salamanders, which breathe entirely through their skin and typically require damp environments to facilitate respiration. However, the high elevation talus habitat where the Shenandoah salamander lives is dry. So how did it end up there? It is believed that the Shenandoah salamander is a relict adapted to the cooler climate afforded by the highest elevations in the park. This need for a cool climate — combined with competition from the eastern red-backed salamander, a much more common, closely related species that has expanded its’ range into higher elevation habitats since the end of the Pleistocene — has restricted the Shenandoah salamander to only a handful of the highest elevation parts in the park. As a result, the salamander has one of the smallest ranges of any tetrapod, perhaps the smallest.

Because of its limited habitat, presumed competition with eastern red-backed salamanders, and concerns about habitat loss, the Shenandoah salamander was listed as endangered in 1987 by the Commonwealth of Virginia and was federally listed in 1989. In 1994 the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) published the recovery plan for the species. At that time, competition with the eastern red-backed salamander was believed to be the most plausible threat of extinction, though later research reported conflicting outcomes in relation to this hypothesis. Today, it is climate change that poses the biggest threat to the salamander, an extinction threat not included in the original recovery plan.

“Obviously, this old [1994 Recovery Plan] has not included the wealth of scientific information developed since then,” says Jim Schaberl, chief of the natural and cultural resources division for Shenandoah National Park. But, he adds, “There are components that remain that are probably still valid,”

It’s true, much more is now known about the salamander than in the 90s. It wasn’t until 2008 and again in 2010 , for example, that USGS Amphibian Research and Monitoring Initiative (ARMI) researchers discovered the first nests made by the salamanders. Since then, the park and ARMI continue to learn more about the species’ population dynamics and behavior.

And scientists continue to learn more. A recent study published by Dallalio, Brand, and Grant this year in the Journal of Herpetology examined the influence of temperature and humidity on competition between the Shenandoah and eastern red backed salamanders. Salamanders were housed in mesocosms designed to replicate the current cool and dry high elevation habitat of the Shenandoah salamander, as well as future climate scenarios, using temperature (cool and warm) and relative humidity (dry and wet) as variables. The salamanders were paired either with a member of the same species or with the other. The team discovered that under future, warmer climate scenarios, competition between the two species might not be exaggerated at all; in fact, climate change may alleviate some competitive pressure.

One of the most interesting findings was that Shenandoah salamanders fared worse under simulated future climate conditions when housed with other Shenandoah salamanders, while performance by eastern red back pairs housed together was similar in both present and future simulated climate conditions. Why this occurred, whether due to behavioral or physiological differences, is still unknown. The scientists hypothesized, however, that the eastern red back, with its large range, may be more adaptable to a wider range of climates while the Shenandoah is adapted to a narrow range of conditions where it occurs.

These types of insights are invaluable as amphibians experience dramatic declines worldwide. Recent research indicates that in the US, amphibians are on average experiencing a 3 to 4 percent population decline per year, which over the years quickly adds up. The causes of the decline vary by region. Currently, in some areas of the western United States, chytrid fungus (Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis) may be a major contributor; worldwide it has been linked to the decline of almost 300 amphibian species. In the Northeast and Midwest, habitat destruction appears to be a major contributor, while in the South, climate change appears to be most strongly related to declines. In other areas, environmental factors such as pesticides may be a major culprit.

Given the Shenandoah salamander’s small range and heightened threats, government actors are coming together to help protect the species. Currently, the National Park Service is in discussion with the US Fish and Wildlife Service about updating the recovery plan for the amphibian. However, the USFWS, which leads all efforts to update endangered species recovery plans, is slated for budget cuts, which may or may not hinder recovery plan efforts.

In addition to the recovery plan update, Shenandoah National Park and the US Geological Survey are creating a long-term management plan for the species. And the National Park Service recently awarded Shenandoah National Park additional natural resources funding to compile data and create an adaptive management plan for the salamander beginning in fiscal year 2019. (Again, cuts proposed in the federal budget for fiscal year 2018 make uncertain what will happen by then.)
“The recent work on the Shenandoah salamander is a good example of how multiple government agencies can collaborate to solve challenges facing species on our public lands,” says Grant.

“National parks have a positive obligation to support biodiversity and endangered species protection,” Schaberl adds. “This is even more critical for the Shenandoah salamander which is wholly contained in one park.”

The Shenandoah salamander is only found within the highest elevation parts of Shenandoah National Park.

Shenandoah salamanders live in dry talus slopes in three high-elevation parts of Shenandoah National Park. The habitat is primarily characterized by rocks and moist soil pockets.

Drought and the Ostrich Syndrome

By Rebecca Lawton, ILCW member (USA)

“The Ostrich Syndrome is a very human tendency,” said environmentalist, author, and philosopher Edward Goldsmith in 1970. Although ostriches are misunderstood—they’ll fight or flee as well as hide—Goldsmith implied that their cartoon personae resembled societal response to deep environmental crises. We lean toward wishful thinking. Or we apply superficial remedies. Ignore it, or slap on a band-aid, and we’re good to go.

Last fall, as a visitor at the University of Alberta, I shared what I knew about the extended drought in California. My colleagues had heard of our lack of rainfall but not how dire the situation had become. They weren’t strangers to dry spells themselves. They, too, have suffered devastating dustbowls. Today their prairies share the severe drought covering much of western North America. Glacier-fed water sources are dwindling as climate patterns change. Canadians know they have thirsty neighbors to the south, too, never an enviable position.

Imagine my surprise to return home after many months away to find water use unchanged and California still stymied: calling advisory group meetings, debating where cuts should be made, discussing who should be metered. Governor Jerry Brown hadn’t yet imposed mandatory restrictions, and now that he has, they don’t touch the biggest users.

Why the delay? Why the inadequacy? California’s response to crisis reeks of Ostrich Syndrome—a long time spent with heads in the sand followed by superficial remedies and, perhaps, wishful thinking. According to one of my neighbors, “We’ve been hoping for a lot of rain and snow to come along and end it.” Others claim political complexity and expediency: if you’re a government official who waits to address a natural disaster like multiyear drought, you might garner more support for grand-scale water-diversion projects you’ve wanted to complete for years. Never mind that there isn’t the water to put into them once they’re built.

It’s not accurate to say no one saw California’s dilemma coming. The current drought began in 2012. The year 2013 was the driest on record since at least 1894, according to Western Regional Climate Center. Since the 1930s, we’ve put in waterworks to rival any built any time or anywhere, using several tiers of public funding—Central Valley Project, State Water Project, Colorado River Aqueduct. We’ve been Herculean in our success moving the 75 percent of our water supply in the north to the 80 percent of our population in the south.
We’ve had no shortage of science. We’ve known California’s fresh water supply varies from 60 to 100 million acre-feet in any given year, posing unique challenges for storage. We’ve studied tree-ring data and understand that shortages can last for decades. We’ve grown accustomed to a status quo in which people use half the available water—20 to 40 percent for agriculture, 10 percent for cities and towns—leaving just half to an environment that once had it all. We’ve seen California’s cities become comfortable using twice the per-capita water that Australian cities use in comparable climates.

We’ve understood that our breadbasket Central Valley farmers, among others, have pumped groundwater to replace the rainfall we’re not getting. We’ve seen agriculture become more efficient with its water use, although we also recognize our convoluted rules force desperate and self-sabotaging behaviors: some users who must exercise or lose their rights sell water south to make up the difference. Net effect: depletion of groundwater under their feet.

In short, we’ve known we have work to do.

Drought is just one of many natural crises of which we aren’t ignorant but that we fail to face with sufficiency. I live on an active fault, part of the San Andreas system, which any day could deliver the next Katrina-sized disaster to my hometown. Citizens of Pompeii before Vesuvius knew their city was prone to devastating seismic shaking likely due to fire in the volcano. But life goes on—for some. Whether we live with drought, earthquakes, tornadoes, unlivable atmospheric CO2, or flooding, we tend to get together our emergency kits (or not) and hope for the best.

The root of the word crisis holds the key to understanding how to react. Often it’s used to mean a difficult or dangerous time, but it comes from the Greek krisis, which means decision. That sense of the word dates from the 17th century: a time at which a difficult or important decision must be made.

When we reach crisis points, when important decisions must be made, barriers block us from moving from talk to action. There are jobs at stake, homes to lose, communities at risk, ways of life to upend. There are privacy issues, property rights to observe, tradition to respect, history to study.

Meeting and conversing take patience and perseverance. There are models through history of how to do it best. In the Quaker tradition, one remains in meeting until consensus, not compromise, is reached. In the Greek tradition of dialogos, discussion is aimed at the issue at hand rather at each other in a debate to win. Facilitated meetings, committee and subcommittees, rules of order, memoranda of understanding—all are part of the fabric of civilized decision making. Without them, we unravel.

Yet meetings must lead to action. Protecting the commons. Saving resources for a (non) rainy day. Monitoring seismicity and translating data to action. Allocating the resources for suitable public works. Acting as if we had a future, for our children and the many generations ahead.

When ostriches hide, they do it in plain sight. They don’t really bury their heads in the sand, although they do collect crop stones in that familiar and much-mocked head-down posture. They lay low when sitting their eggs, flattening their whole bodies to escape notice. They hide when they have to, but as I’ve said, they’re just as prone to take critical action in their best interest.

They’re just as likely to model excellent behavior we’ve not yet grasped.

Protecting the Forest By Burning it Down

By Kaelyn Lynch, ILCW Member, (USA)
Previously published by Verge Magazine

In rural Burma, traditional agriculture practices have maintained the forest for decades, but can they endure in the face of modernization?

“Can you see the difference?” asks Mu Ohn, jolting the motorbike to a stop in the middle of the dirt path. I follow his outstretched arms to the steep banks on either side of the road, which serves as a boundary between two villages.

“This village,” he says, motioning to the lush, seemingly impenetrable forest on his right, “still burns their forest. But this one,” pointing to the ragged collection of feeble-looking trees on his left, “does not.”

“Don’t you mean…” I begin, but Mu Ohn cuts me off with a shake of his head, turning so I can see his broad smile: “You’ll see.”

In rural Burma, some farmers like Mu Ohn practice the same agriculture methods as their ancestors. Perfected over generations, their technique of shifting cultivation has allowed them to live sustainably off the land while preserving the surrounding forest in an unexpected way—by burning the trees down.

Worldwide, traditional land management is cited as a way to conserve forests and mitigate the effects of climate change in developing nations. A 2014 report by the World Resources Institute examined hundreds of previous studies and satellite images to determine that increasing indigenous peoples’ land rights helped prevent deforestation and cut carbon emissions by billions of tons.

Losing 1.3 million acres of forest each year, Burma’s deforestation rate ranks only behind that of Brazil and Indonesia. While Burma’s former military junta heavily exploited the country’s natural resources, this trend has worsened even with the charge toward democracy over the past five years, as the nation opens to outside investment.

Deforestation is known to exacerbate the effects of extreme weather caused by climate change, leading to more severe flooding, drought, disease, and soil erosion. With around 70 per cent of its population still living off the land, Burma tops the UN Risk Model as the country most vulnerable to these effects; yet, only 6 per cent of Burma’s remaining forest is officially protected.

Tucked between the folds of a mountainous part of Shan State, Konwha village owns the dense forest we saw along the road. Here, they practice a method of rotational agriculture, in which a different tract of forest is cleared and burned each year for farming. After the harvest, the area is left alone for 18 years—the time, according to village law, it takes for the forest to regrow. This way, Konhwa manages to feed its 600-person population (with some left over for sale and trade), while ensuring the forest stays intact.

The image of a recently cleared field—blackened earth dotted with stumps—is hardly a poster for conservation. In a 1957 report, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) declared this form of farming as “backwards” and credited it with causing widespread deforestation. More recently, it has been scrutinized for contributing to climate change; the burning of forests on carbon-rich peat lands in Indonesia released more greenhouse gases than the entire U.K. last year. This criticism, however, typically refers to instances where forests are permanently converted to land for farms, ranches, or industry.

On the contrary, the rotational system practiced in Konhwa can actually save more carbon than it produces. A study in nearby Thailand of a village using similar methods puts the difference at 60,000 tonnes absorbed versus 2,000 tonnes released.

According to Dr. Jurgen Blaser, a forestry expert cited in the study, “During restoration, forests require huge amounts of carbon to reproduce. . .it is for this reason that rehabilitating forests have a high capacity to sequester carbon dioxide.”

For traditional farmers this method offers direct benefits. Burning felled trees provides the otherwise poor soil with nutrients while clearing weeds, eliminating the need for chemical fertilizers and herbicides. Keeping the forest around the village intact offers protection against natural disasters and additional food sources.

“We protect the forest for many reasons,” a local farmer tells me, “The trees give us fertile soil, plants and animals to eat, and keeps the temperature cool. It also stops flooding during the rainy season and gives us clean water and air.”

Htun Lwin, a community organizer and educator with the Burmese NGO Kalyana Mitta Foundation, emphasizes these benefits during workshops on eco-farming, climate change and disaster risk reduction throughout rural Shan State. “Farmers know about climate change, they see the effects every year,” he says. “Their cultural traditions are already good for the environment. We want to help maintain them and restore them in places they’ve been lost.” He says this outreach is especially important now, with traditional rural life coming increasingly under threat from modernization and industry. Poachers from other villages hack trees in search of roots for the lucrative medicine trade. Population increases and a shift towards a more cash-based economy also leads villagers to question how much longer their current practices can sustain them.

Their biggest concern, however, lies with land rights. According to the 2008 constitution, the state, “is the ultimate owner of all lands and natural resources,” while citizens are essentially renters that can be removed when the government sees fit. This enabled the government, military, and state-approved corporations to “grab” vast tracts of land from private owners for their own projects, often with little to no compensation. Since 2012, over 30,000 cases of unjust confiscation have been brought before the Farmland Investigation Committee, while many more go unreported by rural farmers without the means to travel or pay legal fees. Of these, only 4 per cent have resulted in remuneration for lost property.

While the newly-elected government has vowed to resolve all outstanding claims, it is unclear how much of a change in policy will occur as the nation prioritizes economic development. Today, only about 30 to 50 per cent of the rural population have formal land rights, meaning many remote places like Konhwa have no legitimate claim over the land they have occupied for decades.

This was the case in the nearby lowland village of Kon Sone, where elders recall a place once surrounded by “forest so thick, you could not see through it”—until the military confiscated the land and sold the trees as timber to China. Since then, the small farming community has suffered from mudslides, water contamination, and an ever-increasing reliance on chemical fertilizers.

Now the expansion of industry is beginning to reach further into previously untouched areas. Recognizing this, Htun Lwin is attempting to strengthen traditional methods in the face of the coming storm. He brings farmers from other regions to places like Konhwa to be trained in shifting cultivation, hoping to revive these practices elsewhere and garner them support throughout the country. He has also started to weave discussions on land rights into his trainings, encouraging farmers to petition the new government for better policies.

With support from Kalyana Mitta, Mu Ohn was able to obtain a GPS to mark the boundaries of his village’s forest, which he sees as the first step to legitimizing his community’s claim. As we scramble along steep, muddy slopes, he points out where places where boundaries were once marked simply by rocks wedged between tree branches. By officially mapping the land, he hopes to create a protected area based on the village’s customary law that will keep it from the groping arms of industry.

His work has a sense of urgency. At a peak overlooking the territory, Mu Ohn points to a nearby area recently cleared for a government-run mining operation. “If they’ve found coal, they’ll come for us next,” he says.

Admiring my dirt-stained clothes, he jokes, “You look like a farmer.” Then, more seriously, “Now that you’ve felt the land like us, it is in your heart. You can understand now why we have to protect it. If we lose it, we lose everything.”

Giving In

By Rebecca Lawton (USA)
Previously published by Hunger Mountain, the VCFA Journal for the Arts

American Robin
When someone raps at my kitchen window, I jump out of my chair. It’s before dawn, in the hour when the horizon emerges as a gray line on the ephemeral lake before me. I’m staying in the Oregon Outback, at a retreat center as remote as Neverland, where the prospect of a face at the glass spooks me. I peek around. It’s a robin tapping, pausing, and tapping again. My pulse settles. I can consult avian specialist Noah, also a writer in residence at Playa Fellowship Program, about whether the robin is mentally ill.

When I ask Noah, he tells me that the robin’s failing the “mirror test” – he doesn’t recognize the face in the glass. Instead, he sees a possible mate or a territorial rival. His disregard for data is normal, Noah says, and won’t stop until I close my curtains.

I loathe shutting out some of the most dazzling light on the planet, though, on the parched edge of the Great Basin. During my first stay at Playa, I labored as an ant does from sunrise to sundown despite the light. This second residency, however, comes when the batteries in my brain are flatter than those in a mislaid flashlight. The idea of working would amuse me if I had the energy to laugh.

Somehow, I’ll rally. I’ll strive again through the hours. I’ll barely leave the cabin for breaks. I’ll do as Jack London said he would do (and did): “I shall use my time.”

But now, there’s this robin. Out beyond his little head, fields flash with the scarlet and yellow of finches and goldfinches attacking dandelions for their seeds. An oriole hops branch to branch in a pine, his orange and black matching the sunrise. People and birds come here for pretty much the same reason: to stop over for long or short stays in a basin with a wide, blue sky and sweet, seasonal water. Some migrators pass through in minutes. Some linger for days or a season. A lucky few stay for years or a lifetime.

I draw the curtains. An inner voice warns that I need rest, but I push it aside. When else will I have such an opportunity to work? The planet needs every voice it can get now that climate deniers have been voted into major public offices.

The robin moves to a bedroom window. I put on a pair of noise-cancelling headphones that I thought I’d never need out here. The tap-tapping continues, but farther away. Something could be learned from the robin, I’m certain, but lessons be damned. I labor on. Thirteen more days to go.

Common Poorwill
The next days of my residency mimic the first. Rise, go to the desk, and put new words on paper. When I stop, it’s not for long. At night I seldom sleep, tired but wired. I persevere, despite knowing that the Latin roots are per, meaning thoroughly, and severus, meaning severe. Thoroughly severe, implying, to continue with little prospect of success.

On the fourth morning, when I review what I’ve written, my heart falls. The sentences lack life. There are no original ideas. It’s dull and overblown. In short, it’s utter crap. Discouraged, I step out to my deck as a flock of white-faced ibises, long necks outstretched, pass over the lake’s shimmering surface. Noisy pairs of Canada geese bark like small dogs in tall grasses. Each day more migratory birds arrive in hordes.

Returning inside I look in the bathroom mirror. Fatigued eyes in a drooping face stare back. That can’t be me.

I almost never drink, and never alone. After all, didn’t Rhett Butler say, “Never drink alone, Scarlett?” Nonetheless, I open a bottle of Grenache I’ve brought from home and down a glass before taking the rest to dinner in the Commons. Conversation is the last thing I want, but around the big communal table, I find instant rapport with the other residents. The residency has opened up their creativity in unforeseen ways. Noah and another passionate birder, the poet Farnaz, are planning to drive up Highway 31 after dark to look for common poorwills. My curiosity stirs, but I push it down, knowing I plan to rise at dawn to write.

Across the table a printmaker, Barbara, describes the arc of her nearly completed six-week residency. Her work shifted partway through her stay, after a visit to the archeological caves south of Summer Lake. In those ragged holes in an ochre cliff, some of America’s oldest fossil human feces have been found alongside the bones of waterfowl, fish, and extinct camels and horses. Once Barbara’s curiosity was ignited about the ancient landscape, she developed a process of collecting images directly from the ground. She strapped wooden blocks to her feet before hiking nearby trails and Forest Service roads. After the treks, she removed the worn and roughened blocks and inked them for printing. The results are both coarse and fluid depictions of geologic textures.

 

“I gave in,” Barbara says. “When I opened to this place and the people, and let the surroundings transform my work, it made all the difference.”

 

Immediately, I decide to go into the night with Noah and Farnaz. We drive to Picture Rock Pass, our windows open to the scent of new things growing. Parking by the side of the road on a pullout covered with volcanic cinders, we tread with care to lessen crunching noisy rock. At the end of the pullout, overlooking the stunted piñon-juniper forest, Noah pulls up a sound recording on his phone – the call of a common poorwill. The bird is known to answer to a whistled poor-will.

Poor-will, poor-will, goes Noah’s phone. Silence, silence, goes the night. In a minute we hear the steady advertising call of a northern saw-whet owl. A few ring-billed gulls above us mew like loud kittens. Miles away in the valley, cattle moan, their ghost voices carrying above farm and forest.

The nagging advice I’d disregarded sinks in – this is what I need. This valley, this night, this basin, these people. Otherwise, my well is too dry to sustain writing about water or climate or anything else. I could no more write a new book than walk five miles into this night on printmaker’s blocks.

The poorwills remain silent, not hearing or believing the silicon voice of Noah’s phone. On the drive back to Playa, he and Farnaz tell me about the Punchbowl. It’s an open dish of land set among ridges above Summer Lake. One resident saw five black bears, all at once, on a hike there last week. I vow to go, too, alone. It will be just one day off from the ten more days of residency, in this dry valley where robins attack windows and sleep stays a stranger.

Mountain Bluebird
At dawn, after four hours of actual slumber, I set out with my writing notebook, binoculars, bird book, and a canister of bear spray. I’ll return to Playa by late afternoon, before large carnivores start their dusk feeding. Following the Forest Service trail, I find early wildflowers bursting forth in crimson, gold, and lilac every few feet. Meadowlarks burble and flee as I approach. A thin cloud cover rests on a jagged row of ridges in the distance. The only large trees still standing are white skeletal snags, stripped of their foliage and bark by a past forest fire.

Soon I come to a broad basin that must be the Punchbowl. The trail continues, though, and so do I, despite new growth crowding the trail and fallen trees blocking the road like log gates guarding Oz. Climbing up and over them, I’m careful not to twist an ankle or blow out a knee with each landing. Somehow, I manage to scrape both shins through my hiking pants, drawing blood.

After hours of thrashing, I reach a patch of live woods. The air is chilly and full of mosquitoes. Busy swatting insects, I nearly miss a bird perched just yards away. It’s the bluest bird in the history of the world, a mountain bluebird, poised to fly. It’s many shades deeper than the sky. Remembering that a story’s told in the details, I catch some in my notebook, quick, like floating dandelion seeds.

On my way down the trail, the pull of gravity makes the return trip easier. Midway back, I flush a poorwill from a clump of manzanita in the overgrown trail. The bird escapes on a rush of wings. If only Noah and Farnaz were here. Back in the cabin, after eight hours away, I barely have energy to clean up and eat while standing in my kitchen. I fall on the bed and sleep until morning.

Nine days of residency to go. It may not be enough.

Franklin’s Gul l
At dawn, I drive ten miles to the Summer Lake Wildlife Refuge. An introductory kiosk notes that hundreds of species of mammals and birds live on nineteen thousand acres watered by an elaborate system of pipes and canals. I enter on a dirt road at the breakneck speed of ten miles an hour, seeing only a few ducks and geese. I hit the brakes at the eastern edge of the property. Thousands of ducks, geese, terns, gulls, sandpipers, phalaropes, and other shorebirds browse a shining pond. Some are in flight. Some stroll beaches. Some dive and dabble. Some face beaks-first into the wind. A small gull wings past, a species with a black head and thick white crescents above and below its eyes. A newbie for me, it’s a Franklin’s gull, which breeds and summers farther north.

I gaze until I’m satiated, then find another kiosk sign that tells me aridity is increasing, as are nearby human populations. I pull out my notebook and write.

Water in refuge = life. Climate change = drier refuge. Alfalfa shipped elsewhere = broken local water cycle.

When I leave the refuge hours later and return to my cabin, I type up notes on wildlife and its dependence on the same water depleted by growing irrigation demands. I work without effort until dark. I don’t count the days left in residency.

I’ve started writing about things that I came here to write about.

Calliope Hummingbird
On my last full day, I take a Forest Service road to Winter Ridge. The well-groomed gravel surface would allow me to drive fast if I felt like it. Instead, I go as slowly as the (nonexistent) traffic will allow, about eight miles an hour. Maybe I’ll see a Williamson’s sapsucker, a life bird for me, up in the high forests. Reaching a wet meadow with a small stream, I hear wood-pecking all around. None resembles the start-and-stop, Morse-code tapping of sapsuckers, so I continue on.

I drive with my windows open, pulling over often, stopping near patches of old-growth forest among the new growth recovering from logging. The woods are full of life. A red-tail hawk masquerades as a broken pine branch until he lifts wings and flies. A golden eagle dwarfs the telephone cross-pole she’s hunkered on. A brilliantly colored lazuli bunting, more turquoise than lapis blue, hangs out on a log.

The last bird of the day is a stunner, a calliope hummingbird feeding in a burned-over patch of woods. The smallest bird in North America, dragonfly-sized, arrives with a flash of violet throat and soft buzz of wings. The bird hovers only a moment before zooming off.

So it goes with writing and birding.
You try to find a sapsucker, but stumble up on a tiny jewel of a hummingbird. You persist and strive despite a robin showing you the insanity of ignoring results. You go out calling for a poorwill, only to flush one out the next day after discovering another bird more blue than the sky. Or you think you’ll uncover a labyrinthine waterworks, but spend hours immersed in sanctuary and the surprise of a new species. Near the roof of a basin that holds light and sky in the same grip as alfalfa and cattle, you open to it.

Somehow, you do not fail the mirror test. You find a way, as Barbara did with her printer’s blocks, as Noah and Farnaz do with their birding, as the birds do with their migrations. You crunch the data, no matter how it comes to you.

You return to the world again and again and pour it out in your own voice.