Another Forest Felled

Carolina wren fledgling about to be reunited with its family

Each ecosystem has intrinsic value.  Just as a country treasures its finite historical episodes, classic books, works of art, and other measures of national greatness, it should learn to treasure its unique and finite ecosystems, resonant to a sense of time and place. – E.O. Wilson, The Diversity of Life (1992, 1999)

The curse of all persuasive writing is that of self-selection, or “preaching to the choir”:  the majority of those who read your writing already share your views, more or less, which diminishes your impact.  Despite that handicap, I still want to write about a local, man-made disaster that occurred last week.  With all of the significant world news over the past several months, and even over the past few days, what point is there in criticizing a relatively tiny, local disaster?  The point is that I personally witnessed this event–an event that represents a significant and enduring shock to not just the local, but also the global ecosystem.

In the past year and a half since moving to southeast Harris County, where I originally spent much of my youth, I’ve gotten back into hiking/birding and have had the privilege of experiencing firsthand the cycle of ecological rhythms that occur with the change of seasons in one of our last remaining wild spaces.  For example, I know that white-eyed vireos are active in our forests now, irises gleaming in the sunlight when the birds show themselves.  Blue-headed vireos were here a few months ago; red-eyed vireos are just arriving.  The caterpillars are emerging, there are Gulf Coast ribbon snakes everywhere, broad-banded water snakes are active again, roseate spoonbills began arriving in January, and I saw my first brown thrashers of the year yesterday.

Carolina chickadees now forage energetically over tree foliage, plucking small invertebrates for themselves and for cackling, wing-fluttering fledglings that follow them around, begging for food.  Ruby-crowned kinglets are here, too, often foraging in mixed flocks with yellow-rumped warblers and other songbirds.  The thin, wheezy songs of blue-gray gnatcatchers can be heard here and there along trails.  If one stands still, a gnatcatcher often appears and hunts for insects and spiders in nooks and crannies of trees, seemingly oblivious of human presence.  In the past two months, large flocks of cedar waxwings passed through, descending upon fruit-bearing plants to feed, taking off en masse in a whoosh of wingbeats like a sudden breeze through leafy trees.

Carolina wrens from the nearby riparian forest–from which we often hear a barred owl calling at night–recently nested in a small flower pot on a neighbor’s porch.  Their four chicks fledged a few days ago and hopped out, three headed in the direction of food and camouflage while the fourth hopped in the wrong direction and got stuck behind a staircase.  My neighbor and I spent at least thirty minutes getting it out of its predicament; eventually, we got it out of there and reunited it with its parents and siblings.

A local pair of bald eagles overwinters practically in my “backyard.” They will migrate out of the area soon, hopefully to return again this fall as they have done for years now.  I’m told that they first appeared in this area in 2008.  As I traverse the trails, I hear a lot of birdsong I don’t recognize, which means that warblers and other small songbirds headed north have arrived.  I’ve seen gray catbirds hiding in the underbrush and have crossed paths with a three-toed box turtle.  Soon, tanagers and grosbeaks migrating from the neotropics will fly over.  A birder friend has already seen fourteen migrating swallow-tailed kites.

Great biological diversity takes long stretches of geological time and the accumulation of large reservoirs of unique genes. The richest ecosystems build slowly, over millions of years…Such a creation is part of deep history, and the planet does not have the means nor we the time to see it repeated. – E.O. Wilson, The Diversity of Life

Last year, I saw and painted an imperial moth that spent a few days on my doorstep.  This year, I saw a polyphemus moth on my doorstep.  I had never seen either species before; what’s more is that I’ve seen innumerable moth species since moving here and that I continue to see new ones.  I’ve also seen and observed the behavior of belted kingfishers repeatedly for the first time in my life, I’ve spotted and photographed a juvenile peregrine falcon, and the list of such priceless experiences goes on.

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In the past year and a half, I’ve also seen progressive deforestation in multiple areas here, all by developers.

Two nights ago, I went for a twilight run at the University of Houston-Clear Lake (UHCL) and was immediately set upon by the strong smell of wet, overturned soil. Ground was dug up at a previously grassy field next to (irony #1) the Environmental Institute of Houston, where I would often see deer grazing in the late afternoon mist.

The disturbed earth was fenced off.  As I ran further, I saw that the entire edge forest habitat–which comprised several city blocks between two parking lots–had been cleared. In the span of a few days–it was there when I ran last weekend–developers had destroyed the entire forest except for a few large trees (likely left standing for future decorative purposes in a paved, boring environment devoid of plant diversity that could shelter and feed local and migrating birds). There was no warning on-site beforehand for the general public, so I had no idea this was going to happen. The university had two posters attached to the fenced-off destruction, stating that they will build a “Recreation and Wellness Center” and a “STEM and Classroom Building.” A family of at least seven or eight white-tailed deer that lived there and often fed in the adjacent clearing–including a few fawns–appeared ghostly in the deepening dark, some of them lying in the mud, others walking aimlessly.   The stench of wet soil permeated the air over the entire campus.  Ironically (#2), red-shouldered hawks (UHCL’s mascot is the hawk) also lived in–at the very least, hunted in–that forest, too. I saw them all the time there, along with Cooper’s hawks and ospreys flying overhead.

Running farther, it was surreal to see lush remaining forest with Spanish moss hanging from trees adjacent to the bulldozed mess.  Two streets connecting two of three entrances are now visible from each other where thick forest previously prevented each being seen from the other. The now-felled forest with its edge habitat was there for as long as I can remember, at least since my childhood.  It was probably quite old by local standards. Irony #3 is that Earth Day is in two weeks.  Irony #4 is that spring migration is already underway and that migrating songbirds desperately need forest habitat for cover as they fly north.

The final irony is that I saw the screening of The Messenger, a documentary about the plight of migrating songbirds, at UHCL last year.

Large numbers of new species continue to turn up every year…we don’t have time to describe more than a small fraction of [them]…how little we know of the living world, even that part necessary for our own existence. We dwell on a largely unexplored planet…killer caterpillars and entrepreneurial crickets [of Hawaii] have all been discovered within the past twenty years. Hawaii, familiar as it may seem to the casual visitor, is still a paradise full of surprises for the explorer naturalist. – E.O. Wilson, The Diversity of Life

The demolition of this lovely, rich forest habitat was clearly a greed-driven project greenlighted by single-minded administrators.  The following day, while birding, I met a nearly 80-year-old birder, long-since retired from NASA, who has lived in this area since the mid-1960s.  He had seen what UHCL had done.  He said, “it makes me sick” and that this must be part of UHCL’s “four-year plan“–they plan to become a four-year university.  An avid birder here, he said that chipping sparrows seen on the local Christmas Bird Count may no longer be seen, since they were always seen along the edge forest habitat that was torn down. For some reason, the sparrows preferred that area.  He had also seen “a ton of [other] good stuff” while birding there over many years.

The mature forest, razed, cannot be resurrected within a reasonable (human) timespan.

Human demographic success has brought the world to this crisis of biodiversity. Human beings–mammals of the 50-kilogram weight class and members of a group, the primates, otherwise noted for scarcity–have become a hundred times more numerous than any other land animal of comparable size in the history of life. By every conceivable measure, humanity is ecologically abnormal. – E.O. Wilson, The Diversity of Life


My Digital Divide

Every so often, I remember that I’m no longer creative in computer science or even in programming.  I’m now far from the source of creativity in computer science, by which I mean that I’m no longer at the cutting edge.  Lack of creativity in that domain makes good sense for me at this point in time.  But I could still be a programmer; one doesn’t even need a formal computer science education for that. (This is not to downplay the difficulty of programming.  It’s just not necessary to major in computer science to be a programmer, just as you don’t need an art degree to be an artist.)

After I left graduate school, I didn’t program for years.  This was primarily because I was very busy with other stuff (medical school, residency, and everything associated with and that followed those years).  When I wasn’t busy, I was distracted.  I did have spurts of interest in web programming (Rails, HTML/CSS, etc.) and “fun” languages (Haskell, Ruby, Python, etc.), but nothing really stuck with me.  I became dismayed by the fact that so much is incompatible with so much else, and that pretty much everything becomes obsolete after a few years.

Good algorithms/ideas are forever.  Unfortunately, software itself is ephemeral; hardware is also ephemeral, and vulnerable while it exists.  The open-source movement hasn’t been as prominent as for-profit companies have been, with their proprietary software and hardware that often disable customers from taking their data elsewhere. I do invest casually in my blog, but that’s mostly writing and pictures that can be stored as hardcopy.

Much of the programming code I wrote in college, for a large variety of interesting and often fun projects, is probably no longer accessible because it was backed up to CD-Rs that are almost certainly corrupted. (I’ve confirmed that some of my old CD-Rs from my college days are corrupt now.)  When they first came out, CD-Rs were touted as a storage technology that would last at least a century.  That turned out not to be the case.

A simple, inexpensive pen or pencil can be used to write or draw on paper produced by other manufacturers, or to write on many other materials. Paint produced by one manufacturer can be blended with paint made by others, and the range of colors produced by mixing paint at home is infinite. You can even create your own pigments (some artists do this). If you learn to play guitar on one brand of guitar, you can play on any brand.

Today’s digital creator, on the other hand, is at the mercy of manufacturers, programmers, and hackers.*  The relevance of any computer-based product is short-lived. Tech culture, as it is in 2016 (it doesn’t have to be this way), is largely different from the culture of, say, art or music or literature, in which there are pieces extant from thousands of years ago that are still relevant.**

*Imagine if Apple and Google sold paint, you bought a tube of it from each company, and they blended incorrectly because of proprietary formulations requiring you to stick with one company or the other.  This rarely happens with actual paint.

**For example, there are paintings (such as the “remarkably evocative renderings of animals and some humans that employ a complex mix of naturalism and abstraction” on cave walls at Lascaux, Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc, and elsewhere from tens of thousands of years ago that we can still appreciate), pieces of music (such as “White Snow in Early Spring” from ~552 BC, attributed to Shi Kuang, that is still played live), and well-known poetry and literature from ancient cultures that people still read and admire.