Brain Pickings

Wild Ones: What an Obscure Endangered Butterfly Teaches Us About Parenthood & Being Human

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“Maybe you have to believe in the value of everything to believe in the value of anything.”

Wild Ones: A Sometimes Dismaying, Weirdly Reassuring Story About Looking at People Looking at Animals in America (public library) by journalist Jon Mooallem isn’t the typical story designed to make us better by making us feel bad, to scare us into behaving, into environmental empathy; Mooallem’s is not the self-righteous tone of capital-K knowing typical of many environmental activists but the scientist’s disposition of not-knowing, the poet’s penchant for “negative capability.” Rather than ready-bake answers, he offers instead directions of thought and signposts for curiosity and, in the process, somehow gently moves us a little bit closer to our better selves, to a deep sense of, as poet Diane Ackerman beautifully put it in 1974, “the plain everythingness of everything, in cahoots with the everythingness of everything else.”

In the introduction, Mooallem recalls looking at his four-year-old daughter Isla’s menagerie of stuffed animals and the odd cultural disconnect they mime:

[T]hey were foraging on the pages of every bedtime story, and my daughter was sleeping in polar bear pajamas under a butterfly mobile with a downy snow owl clutched to her chin. Her comb handle was a fish. Her toothbrush handle was a whale. She cut her first tooth on a rubber giraffe.

Our world is different, zoologically speaking — less straightforward and more grisly. We are living in the eye of a great storm of extinction, on a planet hemorrhaging living things so fast that half of its nine million species could be gone by the end of the century. At my place, the teddy bears and giggling penguins kept coming. But I didn’t realize the lengths to which humankind now has to go to keep some semblance of actual wildlife in the world. As our own species has taken over, we’ve tried to retain space for at least some of the others being pushed aside, shoring up their chances of survival. But the threats against them keep multiplying and escalating. Gradually, America’s management of its wild animals has evolved, or maybe devolved, into a surreal kind of performance art.

Yet even conservationists’ small successes — crocodile species bouncing back from the brink of extinction, peregrine falcons filling the skies once again — even these pride points demonstrate the degree to which we’ve assumed — usurped, even — a puppeteer role in the theater of organic life. Citing a scientist who lamented that “right now, nature is unable to stand on its own,” Mooallem writes:

We’ve entered what some scientists are calling the Anthropocene — a new geologic epoch in which human activity, more than any other force, steers change on the planet. Just as we’re now causing the vast majority of extinctions, the vast majority of endangered species will only survive if we keep actively rigging the world around them in their favor. … We are gardening the wilderness. The line between conservation and domestication has blurred.

He finds himself uncomfortably straddling these two animal worlds — the idyllic little-kid’s dreamland and the messy, fragile ecosystem of the real world:

Once I started looking around, I noticed the same kind of secondhand fauna that surrounds my daughter embellishing the grown-up world, too — not just the conspicuous bald eagle on flagpoles and currency, or the big-cat and raptor names we give sports teams and computer operating systems, but the whale inexplicably breaching in the life-insurance commercial, the glass dolphin dangling from a rearview mirror, the owl sitting on the rump of a wild boar silk-screened on a hipster’s tote bag. I spotted wolf after wolf airbrushed on the sides of old vans, and another wolf, painted against a full moon on purple velvet, greeting me over the toilet in a Mexican restaurant bathroom. … [But] maybe we never outgrow the imaginary animal kingdom of childhood. Maybe it’s the one we are trying to save.

[…]

From the very beginning, America’s wild animals have inhabited the terrain of our imagination just as much as they‘ve inhabited the actual land. They are free-roaming Rorschachs, and we are free to spin whatever stories we want about them. The wild animals always have no comment.

So he sets out to better understand the dynamics of the cultural forces that pull these worlds together with shared abstractions and rip them apart with the brutal realities of environmental collapse. His quest, in which little Isla is a frequent companion, sends him on the trails of three endangered species — a bear, a butterfly, and a bird — which fall on three different points on the spectrum of conservation reliance, relying to various degrees on the mercy of the very humans who first disrupted “the machinery of their wildness.” On the way, he encounters a remarkably vibrant cast of characters — countless passionate citizen scientists, a professional theater actor who, after an HIV diagnosis, became a professional butterfly enthusiast, and even Martha Stewart — and finds in their relationship with the environment “the same creeping disquiet about the future” that Mooallem himself came to know when he became a father. In fact, the entire project was inextricably linked to his sense of fatherly responsibility:

I’m part of a generation that seems especially resigned to watching things we encountered in childhood disappear: landline telephones, newspapers, fossil fuels. But leaving your kids a world without wild animals feels like a special tragedy, even if it’s hard to rationalize why it should.

The truth is that most of us will never experience the Earth’s endangered animals as anything more than beautiful ideas. They are figments of our shared imagination, recognizable from TV, but stalking places — places out there — to which we have no intention of going. I wondered how that imaginative connection to wildlife might fray or recalibrate as we’re forced to take more responsibility for its wildness.

It also occurred to me early on that all three endangered species I was getting to know could be gone by the time Isla is my age. It’s possible that, thirty years from now, they’ll have receded into the realm of dinosaurs, or the realm of Pokémon, for that matter — fantastical creatures whose names and diets little kids memorize from books. And it’s possible, too, I realized, that it might not even make a difference, that there would still be polar bears on footsy pajamas and sea turtle-shaped gummy vitamins — that there could be so much actual destruction without ever meaningfully upsetting the ecosystems in our minds.

In fact, this “generational amnesia” is what Mooallem was hoping to prevent by showing Isla endangered animals in the wild, helping her learn about a baseline that preceded her and, in the process, learning about a baseline that preceded him — an antidote to “shifting baseline syndrome,” the concept coined in 1995 by fisheries scientist Daniel Pauly, positing that each subsequent generation of scientists uses wildlife populations at the time they entered the field as the baseline, leveling the awareness of how much these populations may have plummeted between that point and the “baseline” of the generation before. In humans, psychologist Peter H. Kahn, Jr. has termed this phenomenon “environmental generational amnesia” — our tendency to adopt the natural world we come to know in childhood as our psychological baseline against which we measure all change and which defines our expectation of how the world should be.

One of Mooallem’s missions takes him to Antioch Dunes, one of America’s tiniest but most rigorously studied wildlife reserves, home to the little-known and gravely endangered Lange’s metalmark butterfly, which inhabits no other locale on Earth. In an effort to establish a baseline for the butterfly’s conservation, the government seeks to record the species “peak count” — the highest number of butterflies spotted on a single afternoon. But with plummeting environmental subsidies and national park budgets, much of the responsibility falls on volunteer citizen scientists. So, one afternoon in August, Mooallem heads to Antioch Dunes as one of sixteen volunteers — or, more precisely, fifteen enthusiasts there voluntarily, ranging from elderly couples to a college student with a Day-Glo tiger tattoo to a spiritually reborn former Chevron executive, and one man doing mandatory community service.

Once the leader gives the signal, the frantic counting unfolds amidst excited shouting and counter-clicking. Mooallem recalls the exhilaration and glory of citizen science:

It was a monstrously eventful and confusing ten seconds. And in that pandemonium, it was immediately clear just how unscientific this process was going to be. The very baseline understanding of the species’ health was being provided by us, a bunch of civilians, who had only just been shown a photo of the bug a moment ago. And yet this is a common situation. As the budget for protecting endangered species and managing wildlife has stayed relatively stagnant, but the workload has exploded, more of that work has fallen to a standing army of curious and often retired volunteers—citizen scientists whom Princeton ecologist David Wilcove has compared to volunteer firefighters. In Maine, they count moose and frogs. In Ohio, they snatch Lake Erie water snakes out of the water and measure them.

But most powerful of all was that moment of transmutation when the butterfly metamorphosed from an abstraction to a living thing:

I squatted and looked at the butterfly for a long time. It was the size of a quarter. The wings were rimmed in black with white speckles, then gave way to sunbursts of deep orange. I’d seen lots of photos of the species before that afternoon, but the butterfly was always blown up and perfectly centered in the shot. Looking at it now for the first time in the wild—seeing it as a tiny blotch on a big leaf, with so much air and space and civilization around it—brought a deflating new sense of scale. The bug seemed vulnerable to the point of helplessness. You wanted somehow to zoom in, to make it feel important and central again — a worthy protagonist of the bizarre, generations-long saga that’s played out at Antioch Dunes on its behalf.

You wanted to make the butterfly look big again.

Much of what’s driving our perception of animals as abstracts rather than real beings, Mooallem argues, is rooted in the symbolic narratives of our cultural mythology — the plethora of anthropomorphic animals in children’s books to the propaganda of the anti-suffragist movement. He writes:

There was no shortage of butterflies in Isla’s life. They spread their sequined wings on her favorite hoodie and flitted out of sticker books, winding up on the walls. By now, the wild animals were everywhere in our house—the geese on her quilt, the fawn on her wall. They seemed to be spontaneously generating, like a cuddly infestation, spreading through every storybook on her shelf. I read that one researcher, pulling a random sample of a hundred recent children’s books, found only eleven that did not have animals in them. And what really struck me as strange was how often those critters have almost nothing to do with nature at all, but are only arbitrary stand-ins for people: the ungainly pig that yearns to be a figure skater; the squirrels that look disapprovingly at the bear who cannot stop biting her nails; a family of raccoons that bakes hamentashen for the family of beavers at Purim. It had all started to feel slightly insane, and I was hungry for an explanation. As Kierán Suckling, the executive director of the Center for Biological Diversity, had pointed out to me, “Right when someone is learning to be human, we surround them with animals.”

What makes Mooallem’s narrative particularly compelling is that he approaches the subject not with the familiar agenda of a conservationist — though he is deeply concerned with conservation — but with the mindset of a philosopher, a student of the relationship between self and universe, sharing in the same awe that drove Henry Miller to ponder the meaning of life and urge us to “leave this dear fucked-up planet a little healthier than when we were born.” Mooallem reflects:

For me, wildlife has always been a reminder of all the mystery that exists outside my own experience — out there, beyond the suburban rec room I felt trapped in as a kid, watching Wild America on PBS. There’s a special amazement that comes from watching a grizzly smack a salmon out of a river, or even from seeing just how hideous certain bottom-dwelling fish look. It enlarges your sense of the world, the way looking out from the top of a tall hill does. It’s the perspective that William Temple Hornaday feared American kids would lose if they only stared into microscopes instead of strolling through the woods with a field notebook.

In the end, rather than telling us what to think and how to feel, Mooallem invites us simply to think and to feel something:

In Antioch … people were clinging to the last Lange’s metalmarks — believing in the butterfly, and clapping as hard as they could, so that, like Tinker Bell, the species wouldn’t disappear from the stage. But what if the greater, more progressive challenge was to work through the guilt and knowingly let the butterfly go?

In the end, part of me wants to argue for that. But, then again, maybe letting go once only leads to more letting go. Maybe you have to believe in the value of everything to believe in the value of anything. Maybe giving in a little only hastens the terminal disenchantment. . .

At times poignant, at times playful, at times provocative, Wild Ones is altogether fantastic.

Public domain images via Flickr Commons

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