Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Save The Mosquito

Monrovia, California

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Those who haven’t spent much time out here might be under the impression that the appearance of things doesn’t change much from one season to the next. I know I was. But as I experience my first fall in southern California I can tell you that there are a number of deciduous trees whose leaves turn bright orange and red and yellow and fall off, just as they do in the north. To be sure this happens much later than it does in, say, Michigan. In fact, it’s happening right now. The trees that change colors most vividly are the ones, like maples, which contain the most sugar. Here there are few maples as we know them in the north or the northeast, as those trees need a decent period of hibernation in order to thrive. But sweetgums, which are similar, do well in warmer weather and appear practically the same, except for the shape of their leaves, which are five-pointed, resembling a hand with its fingers splayed. Although not members of the maple family, they seem to behave pretty much the same. The sweetgum, also know by the delectable name of liquid amber, is not native to southern California, but to the southeast; nevertheless it has been successfully introduced into the towns and cities hereabouts. Other trees that turn colors include many ornamental fruit trees planted along streets and in parking lots, and aspens and cottonwoods, which are native to the southwest and turn bright yellow. And there are many sycamores, with their familiar brown fall leaves.

Like much else here, many species of plants have been introduced by humans, and the flora of a typical LA county town is a mixture of all kinds of non-native growth, most of which, having been around for a hundred years or more, is taken for granted. Among these are the sweetgums, gingkos from Asia, eucalyptuses from Australia, ficus and citrus trees from the Old World, and a variety of palms from all over the world but none originally from right around here. It turns out that when you take away all “non-native” species what you have left is mostly western oaks, scrub brush, and evergreens, with some cactuses thrown in, and also I'm sure a bunch of plants I don’t know. So you can drive down the street enjoying the changing fall foliage just like you can in Grand Rapids or East Longmeadow, but when you look up into the hills above the cities, all is pretty much green or brown, as it was before lots of people came here.

I’ve heard people talk earnestly about returning areas to their native flora. To be concerned, much less obsessed, by what, in the plant or animal worlds, is and isn’t “native” to California (or anywhere else, for that matter) is an exercise not only in futility, but in misplaced ecological zeal, of which there appears to be no shortage anywhere. Clean the chemicals out of the rivers? Fine, I say, go for it. Reduce the smoke in the air? By all means. But to get back to some primeval state of things, Mr. Peabody would have to have his boy Sherman set the Wayback Machine first to some time before the Europeans came, bringing with them horses and sheep and fruit trees and such (not to mention disease and pestilence), then to before the so-called “native” Americans came, carrying with them whatever plants and animals they had, and then to the time when most of the world was covered with ice, then to when it was all tropical and filled with dinosaurs, and finally to when all the continents of the world were together in the time of Pangea—or multiple Pangeas, as they’re now speculating. So you see it never ends.

By way of example and not limitation, as they say in the law, how would the Europeans like it if someone decided to eliminate non-native plants from their habitat, to return it to, say, the days before Columbus set sail? Gone would be the potato, the tomato, peppers of all kinds, corn, chocolate, tobacco, and God knows what else. Conversely, if on this side of the ocean we eliminated things brought from the so-called Old World, we’d lose citrus fruits, coffee, bananas, apples, onions, rice, and a whole lot more.

The truth is that most people’s idea of when things were ecologically pristine and more or less as they should be goes back an absurdly short time—perhaps a generation or two or at most a century or two. More often than not it goes back to when the person speaking was about ten years old. It’s more a symptom of our inability to accept change than it is a recognition of reality, even historically speaking. It’s nostalgia, that hallmark of Republicanism, writ large on an apparently more liberal canvas. “We’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden.” Bullshit, there are seven billion of us and counting, operating the thin surface of the planet far more successfully for our own benefit than most people care to admit, and better than most other mammals for certain.

Our concern for other animal species, in particular, is remarkably selective. The animals we want to save are usually the ones that are closest to us, in some way. Animals with the characteristics we innately or unconsciously admire—the ability to use tools, to reason more or less as we do, to hunt and kill prey. Cute animals, sleek animals, cunning animals. Primates, large or carnivorous mammals, predatory birds. Animals, in short, at or near the top of their respective food chains, like we are. Save the eagle, save the polar bear, save the wolf, save the chimp. Hell yes. But species we find repulsive, or dangerous—rats, termites, naked mole rats, microorganisms—well, we prefer to exterminate them.

For as thoroughly self-serving as we are, why do we seem to hate ourselves so much as a species, I wonder? Why do we seek to forsake our carnivorous, or at least omnivorous, heritage? Our ability to prey on the weak and helpless, our ability to kill with precision and skill? Why do we see our explosive multiplication as a curse rather than an obvious sign of our success? And if perchance these things aren’t good, what the hell can we really do about them?

I marvel at our ability to worry about our future. Do other animals do that too, only we just don’t notice? Do bears, for instance, gather together and debate their fate? Do mosquitoes worry that their numbers might be getting out of hand? Does the Ebola virus regret having to go into comparative remission because it has a habit of burning through its hosts too fast?

Concern for what is often absurdly referred to as “the future of the planet” (as if anything we comparative specks of dust on the outer surface of Earth could do would have the ability to affect the planet as a whole) is a luxury undertaken only by those of us with enough wealth and power to imagine that we can bring about change—that we can steer or perhaps slow down the juggernaut of human progress. Make a car that runs on electricity rather than gasoline. Use makeup that hasn’t been tested on animals. Drink water from a biodegradable bottle. It is a game played by those at the very top of the human race, and we play it, I submit, not because we are concerned about anyone or anything at the bottom, but because we wish above all to preserve the high quality of our own way of life. Everywhere else, beneath us, the essentials are what they always have been and what they really are for us as well—get up, eat, reproduce, die. Where do we get the hubris to think there’s something more to it than that? And yet we do. Maybe it’s just a phase we’re going through in our social evolution, but it’s such a sad, patronizing, futile phase, and we’d all be so much happier and more relaxed if we could just let it go.

The preoccupation with saving the planet, and especially species other than our own, plant or animal, is often the province of the misanthrope. People who hate other people or themselves can, unless they’re truly psychopathic, find little problem relating to cute or sleek or cuddly animals. Folks who wouldn’t drop a dollar in someone’s tin cup will spend hundreds to keep a cancerous cat alive. People weep when they see mistreated pets on television, but wouldn’t give a dime to a wetback. More often than not ecological concerns are a more comfortable alternative to a commitment to, say, social justice and equality.

For some truly compassionate persons the desire to help people is as strong as the desire to help other species. But such compassion invariably stops when either the people or the animals or plants are seen as dangerous or irrelevant to, well, those very people. An interesting phenomenon, and one whose main lesson is often lost on everyone: we are, first and always, looking out for ourselves as humans, even when we think we aren’t.

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