By Fred First
First is a lifelong biology-watcher, naturalist, essayist and speaker. He lives in Floyd County.
When we first walked our pasture loop in northeastern Floyd County in 1999, we often saw flying squirrels. They drove the dog-of-the-day crazy. Not any more. It’s been years since we scared up the last one.
And ruffed grouse: We’d feel the visceral resonance of their low-frequency drumming in the woods almost every walk down the valley, in their mating time of the year.
And red squirrels: Mountain Boomers, they’re called. I’d watch them from the back porch, three or four at a time, chasing each other in spirals, round and round a big white pine, hear them loudly scolding the gray squirrels for whom they seem to have a natural loathing.
Whippoorwills: we heard them in the half-dark of spring mornings for a week without fail every spring, the first ten years we lived here. Nope. None for the past decade.
Fortunately, these species are not gone completely and forever from Southwest Virginia’s woods and fields. They are only missing from my local landscape and only as far as my observations extend. Maybe all these kinds of macro-vertebrate animal have come to live now where you live, and you see them regularly. I do hope so.
It is difficult to tease out exactly why the ranges of some animals shrink from year to year. But looking at global numbers of plant and animals species and populations worldwide, the news is not good. And it is not just local range retractions but large-scale ecosystem declines of entire webs of inter-related plants, animals, fungi and microbes that are failing to thrive with increasing frequency and extent across all biomes.
Two hundred species go extinct every day, the latest studies project. It is mostly the nearly-invisible unsexy species that are leaving us without so much as a goodbye. And we think because they don’t have names and places in our own myopic lives, they are not important. Good riddance to the insects, we might think. This is so wrong.
But imagine losing the last chipmunk or robin, raven or red-spotted newt, Monarch butterfly, song sparrow or sugar maple.
These are conspicuous, named and familiar creatures that most of us might miss if they weren’t here. We’d be alarmed if we could actually see extinction of these species, like so many lights across the globe that wink out suddenly and constantly every day for decades. What if we knew it when the last song sparrow sang its last note?
Two hundred lights blinked out today. The very last one of each kind died to rise no more. We witness the final moments of a genetic line that started tens of thousands of years ago, and ended as we watched.
Of course, we can’t actually see those lights going out except in our mind’s eye, but it is a real and current event. And this Sixth Great Extinction is not newly upon us and it is not something we can blame on natural cycles.
The increasing number of humans on the Earth; the voracious appetites we have for stuff and the enormous footprint we leave in our wake of resource consumption; and now--a final felling blow--we inflict the extra heat our carbon era has added to the atmosphere. All of this geologically-sudden and global-scale disruption of natural checks and balances is rapidly leading to a planet more hostile to life than any experienced by living things, maybe not over all time, but certainly over the two hundred thousand years of hominid presence, or the recent ten thousand years of quasi-civilization.
The continued existence of every living organism on every continent and in every biome is being threatened by the changes Homo sapiens have created by our presence and by our appetites. And our hubris has us thinking we will just be about our business of doing what is best for our own kin and kind, corporation or country — as if we can choose to no longer be obligate commensals on a living planet’s rich diversity of creaturely roles and services. And in the end, it will be self-absorbed indifference and arrogant ignorance that will do us in.
As species disappear, we are knowingly and willingly burning the precious books — the last and only existing copies — from the Library of Life. Few seem bothered by this emergency. And so it pains me to think that humankind may yet be the first self-terminating species, and it will not be because we did not see it coming.