Bogs and Bison

The good news is that bison are back in Banff, and Britain’s bogs may bounce back, too. Keeping wetlands wet isn’t what many folks had in mind, back in my youth.

But as I keep saying, we’ve learned quite a bit since then.

  1. Saving Britain’s Bogs?
  2. Banff Bison Rebound

This post’s afterword is a quick look at how folks have perceived natural resources, plus a bit about pessimism and being human:

Stewardship and Learning Wisdom

I agree with God’s assessment: this world is “very good.” Basically. So are we: basically. The first of us made an appalling decision that broke our original harmony. (Genesis 1:31; Catechism of the Catholic Church, 355, 364, 374379, 396401)

That makes it hard to do what is right, and that’s another topic. (November 6, 2016)

Humanity is created in the image of God, rational creatures whose nature includes curiosity. We’re supposed to notice beauty and order in the universe, learn its natural laws, and use that knowledge: wisely. (Genesis 1:2627, 2:7; Catechism, 16, 341, 373, 1704, 17301731, 2293)

Part of our job is managing this world and its resources: for our reasoned use, and for future generations. (Catechism, 24152418, 2456)

Our “dominion” is not ownership. God owns this place. We’re stewards, a position that comes with authority and responsibilities. (Genesis 1:29, 2:15; Catechism, 306308, 2293)

We’ve got free will; so acting responsibly is an option, not a requirement. (Catechism, 311, 396, 1704, 1730)

Increasingly-effective tools we’ve developed over the last few centuries made the Green Revolution possible. Also killer fog and the Boston Molasses Disaster.

Fearing science and technology isn’t reasonable. Learning wisdom is. (January 20, 2017; July 22, 2016)

Don’t Blame the Tools

I said earlier that I think this world is basically good. That doesn’t mean I think it is “safe.” There are hazards here.

St. Thomas Aquinas had a few words to say about living in a world where we can get hurt. Quite a few, actually:

“In the words of Augustine (Super. Gen. contr. Manich. i): ‘If an unskilled person enters the workshop of an artificer he sees in it many appliances of which he does not understand the use, and which, if he is a foolish fellow, he considers unnecessary. Moreover, should he carelessly fall into the fire, or wound himself with a sharp-edged tool, he is under the impression that many of the things there are hurtful; whereas the craftsman, knowing their use, laughs at his folly. And thus some people presume to find fault with many things in this world, through not seeing the reasons for their existence. For though not required for the furnishing of our house, these things are necessary for the perfection of the universe.’ And, since man before he sinned would have used the things of this world conformably to the order designed, poisonous animals would not have injured him.”
(“The Summa Theologica,” First Part, Question 72; St. Thomas Aquinas [emphasis mine])

“…Now action is properly ascribed, not to the instrument, but to the principal agent, as building is ascribed to the builder, not to his tools. Hence it is evident that use is, properly speaking, an act of the will….”
(“The Summa Theologica,” First Part of the Second Part, Question 16, Article 1; St. Thomas Aquinas)
(translated by Fathers of the English Dominican Province (Benziger Bros. edition, 1947))

St. Thomas Aquinas was quoting St. Augustine of Hippo. Falling into a fire or getting cut isn’t a good idea. But if a dummkopf wanders into a workshop and gets hurt — it isn’t the fire’s fault, or the sharp-edged tool’s.

I think the principle can be extended to all tech. When using our tools leads to unintended and unpleasant results, blaming the tools doesn’t make sense. Re-evaluating how we’re using them, and what we’re trying to do, does.

1. Saving Britain’s Bogs?

(From BBC News, used w/o permission.)
(“The team carried out the laboratory experiments using lowland peatland agricultural soil and crops of radishes”
(BBC News))

Boosting water table can curb climate risks, says study
Mark Kinver, BBC News (February 6, 2017)

Increasing the water table under the UK’s arable peatland can help boost yields and the amount of carbon stored in the soil, a study has suggested.

“University of Sheffield researchers are encouraging farmers to increase the water table to 30cm under the surface, rather than the recommended 50cm.

“Under current practices, the nation’s farmed peatlands could be lost by the end of the century, they add.

“The findings appear in the Science of the Total Environment journal….”

I suppose peatland or sounds better than mire, bog, or fen, but all mean land that’s saturated with water and doesn’t have trees growing on it. Add trees, and we call it a swamp. In my ‘good old days,’ swamps and mires were mostly places to ignore or drain.

We’ve learned a lot since then, and I’m sure there is a great deal left to learn.

The old ‘ignore it or drain it’ attitude made some sense, before we learned what they do.

Bogs and fens are great places to live for critters like frogs and herons. Humans, not so much. Folks who wander into wetlands don’t always come out, particularly if they follow a will-o’-the-wisp, and that’s yet another topic.

For botanists and ecologists “peatland” is any terrain that’s mostly peat, down to a depth of at least 30 centimeters, 12 inches: even if it’s been drained.

Peat is what we get when organic stuff doesn’t quite decay. Given time, it would become coal. Folks have used it as a fuel, and still do.

I’ve read that burning peat caused the 1997 Southeast Asian haze, and that fires from slash-and-burn agriculture were to blame. I couldn’t find much data about the mess, but the 1997 Indonesian forest fires were spectacular.

Peatlands are found around the world, covering about 3% of Earth’s land: something like 4,000,000 square kilometers, 1,500,000 square miles. That’s a lot of swamp and mire.

It looks like peatlands hold and process something like a third of the carbon in Earth’s soil, and around 10% of the world’s fresh water.

That makes them an important part of life on Earth. We’ve learned that much since my youth. Ecology and environmental science emerged as distinct disciplines in the last century. So like I said, there is a great deal left to learn.1

Raising the Water Table: Possible?

(© Copyright Barbara Cook)
(“Greylake sluice on King’s Sedgemoor Drain”

“…Peatlands are widely recognised as important habitats in need of preserving because they are a carbon-rich landscape, estimated to hold half of England’s soil carbon.

“However, they also are an important component of the UK farming landscape.

“Mr Musarika observed: ‘We want to maintain food production because we know the population is growing.

“‘We are realising that it is important to keep not just food but it is also important to maintain the peatlands because if we lose them then we will lose more carbon storage capabilities.’

“Co-author Prof Walter Oechel from the University of Exeter said the findings were important because climate change mitigation was a dominant fixture on the global policy table….”
(Mark Kinver, BBC News)

Hats off to Mark Kinver and BBC News, for not presenting this as a choice between either feeding folks or protecting a presumably-delicate Mother Nature. I’ve talked about Earth’s ecosystem, the last few billion years, and Captain Planet, before. (August 12, 2016)

Assuming that raising the water table by 20 centimeters under farmed peatland is a good idea, is it possible?

I think the answer is “yes.” Folks have been managing water levels in farmland for a long time. Probably not as long as we’ve been planting crops, though.

We don’t know exactly how and why folks near the Mediterranean’s east end started planting crops, roughly 11 millennia back.

The Holocene climatic optimum started about the same time, flooding Doggerland and — probably — making the Neolithic Revolution possible and/or necessary.2

Scientists sometimes call the Holocene climatic optimum the Atlantic period. It’s the moistest Blytt-Sernander period, pollen zone and chronozone during the Holocene in northern Europe.

Don’t bother trying to remember all those names, unless you’re a science geek, maybe.

The point is that Earth had been a lot colder, then it got a bit warmer, than it is today, and that’s when we developed agriculture. (January 20, 2017)

Oddly enough, I haven’t seen anyone blame neolithic farmers for ending the last glacial maximum and creating the Sahara Desert.

Irrigation: Still Learning

Someone developed the first irrigation system, almost certainly within a few hours flight time from Lachish.

Not that airlines existed back then. Nobody’s lived in Lachish since Alexander the Great’s time and that’s yet again another topic.

Where was I? Beauty, order, radishes, neolithic farmers. Right.

Irrigation goes back a long time. Sunshu Ao designed dams and reservoirs during the Zhou’s Spring and Autumn period, Ximen Bao did the same in the Warring States period. And yes, things can be worse than the recent American election.

Amenemhat III, he and Erra-imitti were roughly contemporary, probably used the Faiyum Oasis as a reservoir. Nubians had been using sakia, a sort of waterwheel, before that; someone in ancient Persia may have done the first irrigating.

Or maybe it was someone else, somewhere else.

Bottom line, folks have been managing water resources for a long time. We’re getting pretty good at it. We’re also learning to avoid irrigation’s technical, legal, and environmental problems.

That doesn’t make irrigation bad, or good. It’s just another tool we’ve developed. Learning to use it wisely and well is up to us.

2. Banff Bison Rebound

(From Parks Canada; via Reuters, BBC News, used w/o permission.)
(“Bison returned to Banff last week after an absence of more than 100 years”
(BBC News))

Bison return to Banff national park in Canada
BBC News (February 6, 2017)

A herd of plains bison have been successfully reintroduced to Canada’s oldest national park, more than 100 years after they were nearly hunted out of existence.

“The 16 bison were moved to the Banff National Park in Alberta last week.

“On Monday officials said the transfer had gone smoothly and the animals were adapting well to their new home.

“The move will restore their role in the park’s ecosystem, officials say, and has been welcomed by indigenous groups.

“The bison will be kept under observation in an enclosed pasture of the park in the foothills of the Rockies until the summer of 2018, Parks Canada officials say….”

Hunting the American bison to near-extinction was among my civilization’s more egregious lapses in judgement of the late 19th century. By 1900, an estimated bison population of about 60,000,000 was down to a few hundred.

That was then, this is now, and we’ve learned that natural resources aren’t infinite. I’ll get back to that. The American bison population is up to about 360,000 now: although some of the critters aren’t, or aren’t quite, purebred bison.

Critters with three-eighths bison DNA are beefalo, and generally look more like the Bos Taurus cattle we’re used to. First-generation B. Taurus-bison hybrids generally look like buffalo.3

Folks who say that American bison with a bit of Bos taurus DNA aren’t “real” bison have a point. On the other hand, maybe it’s a good thing that many of today’s critters are a trifle more genetically diverse than survivors of that population bottleneck.

I’ve opined on bulldogs, racial purity, and the Habsburgs, before. (January 13, 2017; August 5, 2016)

The American bison won’t be galloping across North America’s windswept prairies again. Not any time soon, apart from some areas we’ve set aside for colorful critters. Vast herds of bison and cropland wouldn’t get along.

That said, I’m glad that we gained a measure of wisdom in time to save the bison. The dodo and passenger pigeon were another story: so far.

Getting a Grip About the Walghvogel

My guess is that you read about the dodo in high school, or ran into the story in a discussion of endangered species. It’s a classic tale of man’s inhumanity to bird.

Heedless of their peril, the story goes, innocent dodos of Mauritius fell before the relentless onslaught of vicious club-wielding sailors.

The tale has an element of truth. Humans have eaten dodos, which most likely explains a Dutch name for them: walghvogel — “tasteless/insipid/sickly-bird.” Humans are omnivores, so we can eat just about anything.

But we do have our preferences, and dodo apparently wasn’t one of them.

Writhing in agony over the evils of man is still an option, though, since humans introduced egg-eating critters to Mauritius. Scientists have suggested that the dodo declined because dogs, pigs, cats, rats, and crab-eating macaques, ate their eggs.

I think the passenger pigeon’s demise makes a more convincing narrative.

Remembering the Passenger Pigeon

(From Smith Bennett, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)
(A passenger pigeon hunt, from The Illustrated Shooting and Dramatic News (July 3, 1875))

When the 19th century began, the passenger pigeon was the most common bird in North America: maybe in the world.

From the Rocky Mountains to the east coast, from the Gulf Coast to Lake Winnipeg and Lake Nipigon, they filled the sky:

“…The air was literally filled with Pigeons; the light of noon-day was obscured as by an eclipse….”
(“Ornithological biography…,” pp. 319–327John James Audubon, via Wikipedia)

That was in 1813.

Unlike the dodo, humans think passenger pigeons taste good. More accurately, we did. That may help explain a pre-16th-century close call they had with extinction: and conservation procedures developed by folks who were here before Columbus.

America’s Gilded Age was a good time for at least some northern factory owners and workers. We’ve learned quite a bit since then, but not in time for passenger pigeons.

Cutting down a great deal of this continent’s forests, and industrial-level hunting, made the passenger pigeon what we now call an endangered species by the 1880s.

Some laws intended to protect the birds resulted in the arrest of a few non-wealthy trappers, and that was about it. I give them and “E” for effort.

Audubon said that he’d sent 350 passenger pigeons to assorted English nobles. The London Zoo had a few on display at one point. At the start of the 20th century, there were three known flocks of captive passenger pigeons: in Milwaukee, Chicago, and Cincinnati.

Then, on September 1, 1914, the last known passenger pigeon, named Martha, died in the Cincinnati Zoo.

The good news is that we’ve still got a bit of passenger pigeon DNA. No one sample is complete, but piecing then together should be possible. Reviving the species may be a bit beyond what we can do today: but not by much.4

The real challenge may be in raising enough passenger pigeons at one time to re-start the species. Passenger pigeons were very social birds.

Some of 19th century in America was bad news, like pre-lawsuit hydraulic mining, extinction of the passenger pigeon, and near-extinction of the American bison. But it wasn’t all bad.

A remarkable number of folks in America finally decided that slavery was a bad idea. New technologies like antiseptics and the McCormick reaper helped reduce the number of folks killed by epidemics, famines, and doctors. (October 30, 2016)

On the other hand, some folks got the notion that science and technology will solve all our problems, which I think is as daft as assuming the opposite.5

Perceptions and Resources

(From NASA, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)
(NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center’s map of Earth, from satellite images.)

Back in my ‘good old days,’ which I don’t miss, I’d occasionally read about Earth’s “infinite” resources.

That’s daft. Earth is a pretty big place, about 8,000 miles across, but infinite it’s not. The universe we live in, maybe, cosmologists aren’t sure about that.

If the mean spatial curvature of spacetime is zero or negative, the universe has infinite volume. Maybe. That’s one of the many questions we didn’t know existed a few centuries back, and we’re still working on the answer(s). (January 29, 2017; September 30, 2016)

Getting back to resources and perceptions, folks like John Filson were probably trying to encourage others to settle in places like Kentucky:

“…Many mills are already built on this stream, some of which are represented in the map, and will have a plentiful supply of water in the dryest seasons. … Here is great plenty of fine cane, on which the cattle feed, and grow fat….”
(“The Discovery, Settlement and Present State of Kentucke,” John Filson (1784) via Libraries at University of Nebraska-Lincoln)

Real estate marketing isn’t quite so lyrical these days, but I think it’s just as optimistic.

Anything involving people is seldom, if ever, simple; but I’ll try to avoid leaving out major points of the last few centuries.

Folks started coming to North America in wholesale lots somewhere around the 1830s. Immigration has had ups and downs since then. It still gives some folks conniptions, but not me. (February 1, 2017; January 22, 2017; November 29, 2016)

Folks like George Perkins Marsh and John Muir realized that cutting down trees without planting new ones is a bad idea.6

Folks started paying attention a bit before last passenger pigeon died, but I think it wasn’t until the 1960s that many got the message. Stewart Udall arguably gets some credit for the turnaround.

“…The modern land raiders, like the public-land raiders of another era, are ready to justify short-term gains by seeking to minimize the long-term losses. ‘Present the repair bill to the next generation’ has always been their unspoken slogan….”
(“The Quiet Crisis,” Stewart L. Udall (1963) via the Intenet Archive)

By then the notion that science and technology will solve all our problems had worn thin.7

Today’s Needs: and Tomorrow’s

From the International Space Station program and the JSC Earth Science & Remote Sensing Unit, ARES Division, Exploration Integration Science Directorate. ISS007-E-10807 (21 July 2003) - This view of Earth's horizon as the sunsets over the Pacific Ocean was taken by an Expedition 7 crewmember onboard the International Space Station (ISS).Thinking only of myself, or today’s desires, isn’t an option. Private ownership is a good idea, and so is using natural resources: within reason. But when I use today’s resources, I must remember the needs of future generations. (Catechism, 2401, 2415, 2456)

I’ve talked about the universal destination of goods before. (September 25, 2016)

Assuming that irresponsibility is okay because someone will invent a gadget tomorrow that will solve today’s problems doesn’t, I think, make sense.

That’s particularly true if we can at least start learning how to solve the problems now.

I also think that taking time to think through solutions makes sense.

Until the mid-20th century, for example, forest managers assumed that wildfires were always a bad thing.

That started changing in the 1960s, when folks noticed that no new giant sequoia were growing. It took time, but now fire is recognized as an important part of a forest’s life cycle.

My guess is that we still don’t know everything there is to know about life on Earth. But we’re learning.

Pessimism’s Persistent Popularity

I’m not sure why pessimism has such durable popularity.

Maybe it goes back to the days when Greco-Roman doctors figured there were four personalty types: sanguine, choleric, melancholic, and phlegmatic. Folks who were “melancholic” were analytical, wise and quiet.

That’s not a bad set of qualities.

Something like two dozen centuries later, we’ve learned a bit, and words have changed. In my language, melancholy means a persistently gloomy state of mind, or depression.

Along the way, melancholia has been seen as a disease, demonic possession, and an art movement. That last could explain some angsty artist wannabes. Having lived with it for decades, I see nothing ‘artistic’ or attractive about depression, and that’s still another topic. (October 5, 2016; September 4, 2016)

I’m pretty sure that gloominess is not next to Godliness. We’re supposed to desire happiness, and hope is a virtue. (Catechism, 33, 1718, 1817)

Still Learning

(From WiNG, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)

Over the last million years, we’ve learned to use fire without killing ourselves. But it’s still not a “safe” technology.

Cities don’t burn as regularly as they once did, but urban fires happen: like the Edinburgh Cowgate fire and Lac-Mégantic derailment. We’re fine-tuning building codes, and learning that following pesky rules about storing flammable material is a good idea.

The trick is using humanity’s accumulated wisdom, and applying it to everyday life. Most of the time, we do a pretty good job: my opinion.

Sometimes mistakes are made. Then, most of the time, we clean up the mess and move on.

The problem isn’t the tech: it’s us.

“For mischief comes not out of the earth, nor does trouble spring out of the ground;
2 But man himself begets mischief, as sparks fly upward.”
(Job 5:67)

The good news is that we are still learning, getting smarter: and perhaps a little wiser.

Somewhat-related posts:

1 Bogs, fens, swamps, and all that:

2 Climate and agriculture background, the most recent 10 millennia:

3 The fall and rise of American bison:

4 Extinct birds:

5 More of my take on science, technology, and being human:

6 Wood actually does grow on trees. Tree farms are part of Minnesota’s economy, and we’re not alone. A very partial list:

7 Resources and perceptions:

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About Brian H. Gill

I was born in 1951. I'm a husband, father and grandfather. One of the kids graduated from college in December, 2008, and is helping her husband run businesses and raise my granddaughter; another is a cartoonist and artist; #3 daughter is a writer; my son is developing a digital game with #3 and #1 daughters. I'm also a writer and artist.
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