Editor’s Note: It is not enough to consider short-term productivity when we talk about restoration of the natural world. It is imperative that we talk about how the landscape will be in the future, hundreds, maybe thousands, of years from today. Only then will we be talking about true sustainability, or about true restoration.
By Austin Pearsons
Our actions today determine our options tomorrow. This is as good a time as any to ask ourselves hard questions. To look around, to look inward. How are our choices impacting future generations? What will be our legacy? Will the children of tomorrow benefit from our actions today? Will our grandchildren thank us for our dedication and foresight? Our grandchildren’s grandchildren? Will there be abundance or will there be scarcity? The answer hinges on us in the present.
Many of our cultural predecessors practiced the seven generation principle or something like it. They recognized that the conditions we inherit in this lifetime have been determined by the actions of those who came before us; from seven generations ago until now. They acknowledged that the decisions made today reach far into the future; affecting those yet unborn for seven generations (there are many interpretations). Today we are imperiled by widespread pollution, water contamination, chronic inflammatory diseases, global pandemics, escalating rates of deforestation, extinction and biodiversity loss, ocean acidification and collapsing fish stocks, massive uncontrollable wildfires, insect and diseases outbreaks decimating forests, loss of soil fertility paralyzing our global agricultural systems, food insecurity, sea level rise, climate chaos, flooding, drought, inflation, debt, war, and on and on and on. This is the legacy of our ancestors which we have inherited. I often wonder if we will last seven generations more.
If we are to secure a livable future for the generations to come, we must adjust our way of thinking, acting, and being. The solutions to the crises we face are less complex than we are often led to believe. Let’s break it down. Pollution, biodiversity loss, and climate change are our big problems to solve. In solving them, we can address every related problem of our time (governmental corruption, corporate greed, and media collusion are beyond the scope of this analysis).
I cannot claim to be a global expert so I will stick to what we can do right here in Appalachia which can, in fact, go a long way towards resolving global challenges. It is worth noting that Appalachia is the largest temperate deciduous forest on earth, among the most biodiverse regions on the continent of North America (and the world). A resilient forest that once stretched, nearly unbroken, from the Mississippi River to the Atlantic Ocean, from the Gulf of Mexico to Quebec. The chestnuts, chinquapins, oaks, hickories, walnuts, hazels, maples, countless species of berries and tree fruits, roots, herbs, fish and game provided abundant proteins, carbohydrates, fats, sugars, nutrients, and medicines to the indigenous peoples who were inseparable co-creators of the forests. Some peoples supplemented their diets with diverse varieties of corn, beans and squash (and other cultivated crops) as well. They did this all without factories, steel, internal combustion engines, chemical fertilizers, pesticides, plastics, fossil fuels, electricity, or the internet. The picture I am painting is of a landscape unfragmented by cities, suburbia, fences, and roads, where water was clean enough to drink, where ancient trees freely gave hundreds, often thousands, of pounds of food to any and all year after year for centuries on end with no need to fertilize, till, spray, or tax – all while improving soil fertility, sequestering carbon and protecting water quality. Food was always close at hand: no need to ship it from California, Mexico, Indonesia or Brazil. Medicine was freely available to those who were sick. Clothing, canoes, string, sealant and shoes grew on trees, in wetlands and fields – even walked about on four legs. The forests were chemists and cooks, providers of heat, they built homes, insulated, and illuminated them too. When I consider these things, I question the wisdom of our current paradigm.
The way we practice agriculture today is the leading cause of biodiversity loss, deforestation, topsoil erosion, and the largest emitter of greenhouse gasses globally. The methods are efficient by some standards and the food produced is calorically rich, perhaps, but nutritionally poor and loaded with poison. It causes us innumerable health problems such as food allergies, irritable bowel syndrome, tooth decay, obesity, and diabetes. Agriculture, as practiced today separates us from the land, from our food, and causes hopeless dependence on the very systems that are exploiting and polluting our bodies, watersheds, ecosystems, and the planet. Conventional agriculture decreases the genetic diversity of our crop species and decreases the diversity of food that we have access to. If we wanted to stop eating roundup-ready genetically modified corn, soy, and rice, most of us would starve. We argue incessantly over jobs, and obsess over our fitness regimes, but if we took a shovel and a hoe and planted our lawns with food, we would be healthy, wealthy, and wise in no time. If we planted them with chestnuts and cherries, pecans and persimmons, our grandchildren might not face the problems we do.
Locally we farm hay, grains like corn and wheat, and cows on our most productive lands – lands that once supported thousands of plants and animals per acre. The productivity of our local agriculture declines over time as soil fertility washes downslope. Why not apply the principles of regenerative / restoration agriculture, agroecology, or closely related permaculture? The benefits of replacing conventional agriculture with diverse perennial polycultures have been demonstrated all over the world, often in more challenging conditions than those encountered here in Appalachia? Millions now replicate successful strategies worked out by indigenous peoples everywhere and described by: Yeoman, Fukuoka, Mollison, Holmgren, Shepard, Smith, Holzer, Gotsch, and so many more. There are countless documented approaches to growing food that are vastly more productive and resilient than industrial agriculture. If we applied these principles instead, we could grow more (and more nutritionally dense) food per acre, with less inputs, and labor that decreases over time while yields simultaneously increase. Intact forests would sequester carbon while feeding people, improving soil fertility, cleaning our waters and decreasing the forest fragmentation which endangers the irreplaceable biodiversity that defines Appalachia. Most importantly, by reconciling our relation to the land, we take responsibility for the future that our grandchildren will inherit, giving them a chance to prosper in what seems an uncertain and perilous future.
Our forestry paradigm is an extension of industrial agriculture. While it has (arguably) been changing for the better it still looks at forests in terms of dollars and board-feet. More troublesome yet, the benefits from cutting the trees of Appalachia’s forests don’t remain in the area, but line the pockets of far away lumber barons who ship it to distant markets where they have already exhausted their forests. Each timber harvest releases carbon into the atmosphere and disrupts the complex web of life in the soil, exposing it to erosive forces, reducing forest biodiversity above and below ground, and introducing invasive species. Mature forests are more species rich and resilient than those that grow back after logging. Ancient trees are critical genetic banks who carry the wisdom to survive changing climate, insect and disease pressures and who transfer those abilities to future generations. They also support more species of birds, insects, amphibians, reptiles, mammals, fungi, and other plants, produce more food and sequester more carbon than younger trees. It is now known that old trees nurture the young and the weak through the mycorrhizal network that connects the entire forest. When we harvest the biggest and healthiest trees in the forest, we destroy the communication and support network that is hidden below ground. Should we not revere the old giants of the forest who have been here longer than us? Should we not offer the wonderment and spiritual presence of old-growth forests to future generations? Should we not learn from their teachings of generosity, reciprocity, persistence, intra- and inter-species cooperation for the good of the whole – for intergenerational prosperity? There is great wisdom in the soil, in the forest community, and if we are wise we will pay close attention.
If you believe that there is a better way, I assure you that you’re right. If you feel powerless to do anything about it, you are not alone, but you are incorrect. We can all make small adjustments to our lifestyles, paying attention to the choices we make each day. Collectively, such actions can make a difference, but it will not be enough if we do not affect larger systems change. There is much we can do to protect what little remains and to restore what has been lost, but we must come together. We must take responsibility for the future, we must shift our perspective, we must collaborate. This human-centered, narcissistic, capitalistic, punitive, infinite growth paradigm that we have inherited is unsustainable, unethical, and unintelligent. I believe that we have the capacity to do good work for the benefit of the whole. But first, we need to shift our consciousness to an ecocentric worldview that removes humans from the hierarchy and places us in a circle with the rest of life on earth. If you agree, let’s get to work. Together we can achieve what is impossible alone.
We are a diverse group of people in every season of life with different skills and assets that are significantly greater than the sum of parts. Linked by a common past and future – like an old-growth forest – ancient mother-trees carry wisdom, access deep water and scarce resources that the young, weak, and sick need to survive. They share through an unseen network so that when the storm brings down the tallest tree, others are prepared to take their place. The individual lives on through others so long as the forest remains intact. So it shall be with us, the visionaries and change-makers. We who give freely of ourselves to ensure that tomorrow is more abundant than today.
Editor’s Note: In the Fight for Who We Love series, we introduce you to one species every month. These nonhuman species are what inspires most of us to join the environmental movement and to continue to fight for the natural world. We hope you find this series inspiring, informative, and a break from news on industrial civilization. Let us know what you think in comments! Also, if there is a species that you want us to cover in the upcoming months, please make suggestions in the comments. Today it is Adélie penguins.
Adélie (pronounced uh-DELL-ee) penguins live in the deep south: Antarctica.
You know that movie Happy Feet featuring dancing penguins? Yeah, so those aren’t actually Adélie penguins they’re emperor penguins (the other primary penguin species who exclusively call Antarctica home).
But just because Adélies didn’t star in their own film doesn’t make them any less cute or important. Because they are rather attractive creatures with some extraordinary capabilities.
DID YOU KNOW?
The Adélie penguins live on average from 10 to 20 years in the wild, can grow to about 24in/60cm tall, and spend most of their lives in the water, holding their breath for up to about six minutes and diving over 500ft/150m.
They’re also capable of swimming more than 100mi/160km in search of food. These expeditions are far reaching and can last more than 70 hours. 70 hours! That’s, like, nearly 5 days! I don’t know about you, but I can’t imagine having the endurance for trips like that.
The Adélies are not only adept swimmers, but very good walkers and can traverse over 30mi/50km at a time. Given their waddle-like tendencies, perhaps that’s not a skill most of us would’ve imagined. I mean, how many of us humans walk that much? Sure, some of us do, but probably not many and not often.
THE BIGGEST THREAT
“…[I]t’s possible that up to 60 percent of current Adélie penguin colonies could experience population declines by the end of this century.” —Megan Cimino, Scripps Institution of Oceanography
Climate Change is not only the biggest threat to Adélies, but to entire species across the globe. Bill Fraser, a biologist who has been visiting the Adélies over the past thirty years, was interviewed in the 2022 documentary series Frozen Planet II by James Reed and talks about one of the reasons why Adélie penguins are dying: the rain.
We humans often grumble a bit if we have to put on our raincoats when the weather is “bad.” But the Adélies can’t so easily deal with such drastic weather changes.
Since they are uniquely adapted to the cold temperatures and dry air in Antarctica, Adélies struggle to survive when the weather is rainy and humid. The penguins build their nests on bare ground using small stones, often returning to the same place to nest. But changes in the climate — for example, too much rain —seriously threatens the Adélies’ ability to nest. The rain soaks and flattens the chicks’ down feathers, which means that they no longer have built-in insulation against the cold.
NOAA’s (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center (CDIAC) could prove in ice core samples that carbon dioxide (CO₂), methane, and nitrous oxides have increased in the last hundred years.
Over the last 800,000 years the levels of CO₂ ranged steadily from 170 to 300 parts per million (PPM), and in 2010 they reached a record high of 386 PPM. “In all ice core samples, there is a shocking increase in air pollutants in the last 100 years that directly correlates to car use and an industrializing global economy,” write scientists of the International Pollution Issues, an electronic research journal.
Pollution in Antarctica is also exacerbated by the “grasshopper effect, which causes persistent organic pollutants (POPs) to move from a warmer to a colder climate where they are consumed by several species. Species higher in the food chain, such as seals, penguins, and whales, are affected the most because they eat organisms that have already stored POPs in their fat and tissue. This is called bioaccumulation.
Native landscapes millions of years old are being bulldozed in the name of technological progress to make room for industrial civilization and human infrastructure — things like second homes, parking lots, and factories. These devastating changes to the earth have extreme effects on the weather patterns, and create conditions that never before existed in a region.
Human-induced changes also affect the ozone layer, a stratospheric layer which shields Earth from damaging ultraviolet radiation. According to the National Science Foundation to the United States, the ozone layer above Antarctica is being depleted during long, icy winters when stratospheric clouds harbor small particulates of chlorofluorocarbons and other aerosols. And this hole that has appeared in the ozone layer above Antarctica was reported by NASA in 2014 to cover an area of roughly 9.2 million mi2/24 million km2.
“Scientists predict that more than half of Adélie colonies will be in decline by the end of the century.”
Why we fight
The Adélie penguins matter to the world and are one of countless reason why we fight.
Editor’s Note: In the following piece, Sue Coulstock invites you in Nuyts Wilderness Walk. Along the journey, she shares her reflections on Australia’s colonial past, and the many nonhumans who call the wilderness their homes.
By Sue Coulstock
Recently we did an impromptu reconnaissance hike in a pocket of remnant old-growth Karri/Tingle forest, in preparation for doing the Nuyts Wilderness Walk for the first time later this Southern autumn. I’ve blogged our hikes for years to share with overseas friends and thought I’d share this one with fellow DGR people from all over the world. Many of you will be consciously limiting overseas travel, so I wanted to give you a vicarious walking experience in Australia with us.
As we were exhausted from working a bit too hard, we set out without a particular walk target, just to enjoy the forest and possibly have our lunch at the Mt Clare hut.
Here’s a context map of this special part of the world. There are no roads south of the Deep River; it’s walk-only. That situation is a little analogous to the amazing South Cape Bay Walk in Tasmania, where the road ends at Cockle Creek and from there you hike to the ocean – in that case, to the southernmost point of Tasmania.
There are sadly so few areas left in the world like this. We are such a terribly destructive culture. 250 years ago Australia was still unmarred by European civilisation and its large-scale annihilation of native ecosystems and cultures. Many people don’t think it’s even a problem. It’s not helped by the fact that Australia, like the US, has a highly urbanised population. Most Westerners essentially grow up in captivity and have little exposure to or understanding of natural ecosystems. I met kids in socially disadvantaged parts of London who had never seen a tree that hadn’t been planted by humans, and who didn’t even have an interest in such things. I went on a bush camp with privileged high schoolers from Sydney’s Northern Beaches who screamed when they saw insects and who immediately got out their pocket wet wipes when they got a bit of mud on their legs when we went hiking. They were ecstatic to get back to the shopping complexes that were their natural habitat. People can live and die entirely swallowed up in dystopia, so far from their roots as biological beings that they may as well live on a space station.
This is at the start of our walk at John Rate Lookout.
And we shall be your Hobbity guides today, so that if you live far across the seas, you can have a vicarious experience of this ancient ecosystem, which I shall do my level best to make vivid for you through photos and prose, so that hopefully you will be able to feel that part of you went walking with us.♥
There’s a boardwalk at the lookout with steps leading to the Bibbulmun track and a sign suggesting people walk into Walpole. We were heading in the other direction.
John Rate, perhaps unwittingly part of the machine that pulled down the Old Growth Forests, got a mention on this sign but I bet his much-feted understanding couldn’t have held a candle to the ecological understanding of the Noongar people who used to live in this forest. He’s celebrated for “discovering” a species of Tingle tree, as Captain Cook was celebrated for “discovering” Australia. It’s an odd way of looking at Australian history, to imagine people could have lived here for 60,000 years ignorant of this tree or of the continent beneath their feet.
You have to read the tourist information signs in the forest areas with a large grain of salt. It’s better to get into the forest and let it inform you.
Brett and I are so aware that urban and agricultural landscapes are terribly scarred and ecologically degraded, even the ones considered picturesque. It’s funny how the Western euphemism for degradation is “development” – I laughed when I heard a story about an Indigenous man from a rainforest saying, “What do you mean you want to develop this forest? It’s already developed – it took millions of years to get to this point!”
We treasure being able to immerse ourselves in relatively unspoilt areas, and to listen, with our bodies, minds and hearts, to what nature is saying to us. This is like coming home, on a fundamental level. It is like visiting a living cathedral, and learning about the respect and kinship you are supposed to have with the web of life. It is learning your place, which is as one species among many, and not as the alleged cream of creation, nor as the self-proclaimed pinnacle of evolution. It is learning about yourself as a biological being, walking for hours as your ancestors did on the African plains, down from the trees with hairless skin to help with evaporative cooling.
I’d not felt that energetic when I woke up that morning, and we had considered shorter walks even than the open-ended “John Rate Lookout to maybe Mt Clare hut if we can make it that far.” Yet we ended up walking for hours without committing to that in the first place, just because it was so magnificent to be in this forest.
Hollow spaces, nooks and crannies everywhere. The whole place teeming with life, despite the fact that we’ve tried to crush life out of these forests, and have significantly succeeded in doing so. I’d love to travel back in time 250 years and stand in this place, before this country took the dubious honour of having the worst rate of mammal extinctions in the world and people bulldozed entire ecosystems off the face of the earth.
One of the things nature teaches is that we’re all both eating, and becoming food for others in turn. The feathers of this Port Lincoln Ringneck Parrot were left behind after it became a meal for another creature. When its body has been through and partly become that creature, the expelled remains become food for decomposers and nutrition for plant roots. We are stardust and we go around and around to make this glorious diversity of life on earth with each other. Or at least we are supposed to.
Civilised humans on the other hand like to be at the end of every food chain, taking and taking, eating everything and never giving back, not even after death, when our bodies are nowadays typically either burnt to a cinder with the help of fossil fuels, or entombed in a box of furniture-grade wood (from the body of a tree) six feet under and far out of the reach of the soil organic layer where decomposition occurs and feeds a plethora of species including, finally, plants – but oh no, why should we give back? Why should we admit we’re part of all of this when we can pretend to be above it – above the web of life which birthed us? When we can make believe we are some superior being only owed and never owing, not a mere part of the biosphere but its appointed master and annihilator?
A song about world views…
It really is insane, all this crazy desperate need
For unknowable magic, strange supernatural power
You’re flying through space at a million miles an hour
For 4 billion years, the sun keeps coming up
It’s all too wonderful for words but for you it’s not enough
You should step out of the shadows yeah and step into the light
All too wonderful for words, but precious few in Western culture who truly see it and who deeply care for it. The astronomical things sketched in the song, or the beauty and intricacy of the biosphere – which for our society is primarily a resource to be exploited, not Life to be honoured. Your life is cheap, if you’re an ordinary citizen, as many have found out and are continuing to find out when push comes to shove; and it’s even cheaper if you’re some other being, especially if you’re not “cute” (i.e. big-eyed and rounded and resembling the human infant), or if you’re as visually and behaviourally different to Homo allegedly sapiens as a tree or a slime mould. To The Economy, you’re just a commodity, valued according to the money you can make someone else. It’s The Economy, stupid. There is no community – not a human community, not a biotic community – these things don’t matter, when push comes to shove; the best they get from the power structures of our society is lip service, pretence and equivocation.
From the time I was a young child and first disappeared into the wooded foothills of the Italian Alps with only a four-legged canine companion in the late 1970s, I felt embraced by the natural world, safe, welcome; and I felt an ever-increasing awe and love for it as I got to know it better. When I was an adolescent, I began to look through the microscope of biology, ecology, physiology, biochemistry, physics etc at the natural world, like Gulliver’s Travels to Brobdingnag where he was suddenly tiny and could see the world in much more detail than ever before; like a Fantastic Voyage into the bloodstream of the biosphere. My awe and love for the natural world continued to grow.
I still feel this embrace, and my inner response to it, every time I go out to where nature is still writ large and still breathing. From the time I was a child, I’ve touched branches and reeds on the sides of trails with affection, loved the aroma of leaves and flowers and of earth after rain (for which we can thank the actinomycetes), and liked to feel raindrops on my skin. I’ve delighted in the presence of ants, bees, dragonflies, ladybirds, butterflies, scrolly-antennaed moths, chirpy crickets, praying mantises. And that’s just some of the insects…if I were to enumerate other sources of delight in nature, I could fill volumes (and I have).
So let’s turn our attention to some of the special trees on this hike. Close to Walpole there are three species of Eucalyptus referred to as Tingles, which grow into veritable giants, especially in girth. Over the hundreds of years, a lot of them get their bases carved out by fire, which is a normal feature of sclerophyll vegetation such as we steward at Red Moon Sanctuary, and also, at longer intervals, of the eucalyptus forests in the higher-rainfall areas towards Walpole. Indigenous Australians prevented major wildfires with mostly cool-burning cultural burning practices, at the right times to reduce risk and encourage biodiversity, such as the plants and the animals they depended on for food. In a summer-dry ecosystem where microbial decomposition activity is seriously inhibited, the right fire at the right time (generally small-scale, cool, and near the start of reliable rains) can be a helpful tool for turning dry dead plant material into nutrient-rich ash, which gives a boost to soils, promotes new growth in plants and allows for spectacular flowering. It also gives a good start to the seedlings that have the space and light to grow when dry dead material is converted to ash. Good plant growth and flowering in turn benefits grazing and nectar-feeding animals.
Another benefit of fire is that it tends to create shelter and nesting hollows in the older trees and in fallen trunks, which benefit birds, mammals such a possums, insects, etc etc. In the bases of many old Tingle trees, these are more like caves!
The next photo has Brett standing in the base of the tree for scale.
Now I’m zooming in, and you may see him better!
Now we’re looking up at the tree.
There is rather too much of it to get even half of it into frame. Since we actually didn’t know we were going to do a walk we’d not done before when we set out in the morning, we didn’t take the good camera that usually accompanies us for documentation. These snaps were taken on an iPod, which is a bit limited and produces a bit of distortion, most notably in people photos.
Next, Brett spotted a bright orange bracket fungus with an unusual shape.
It’s probably a Curry Punk (Piptoporus australiensis). The guide book says “edibility unknown” and that made me recall an answer I got when I was little and asked which fungi you could eat, and was told, “You can eat all fungi, but some of them only once.”
Since we knew people overseas or in cities would be interested, we took photos of quite a few different hollow Tingle-tree bases. (By the way, not all of them are hollow!)
So here’s another.
I went inside this tree but couldn’t look out of the “window”, it was too far up for me! So Brett photographed through it from the outside. The ground outside the tree is usually significantly higher than inside because the fire carves right down into the buttresses.
This was the view out. You can’t see it properly, but in the first one Brett pretended he’d been speared through the head with his walking stick. So I hereby dub this photograph “The Spearhead From Space“ (after an old Dr Who episode – my husband is a big fan).
This would be quite a nice place to overnight in if you brought a camping mattress and some mosquito veils. The base would easily accommodate a Queen-sized bed, not that you’d bring one of those. It also has great views.
This was the “door”…
This was the roof, considerably above me.
And this is another window.
We continued on our merry way. The temperature in the forest was most pleasant, even though we had been cooking already in the sunlight on the way there. The moment you step into this tall forest, you are mostly walking in shade or dappled sunlight; only occasionally there is a burst of full sun. This is how life makes conditions for nurturing more life; creates a wonderland of species and habitat and microclimates and even influences the weather.
And we Westerners chainsawed, logged and bulldozed most of these forests into oblivion, and much of what is left into a shadow of its former glory. This is one of the little patches in which old-growth trees can still be found. Most of South-Western Australia’s forests and woodlands were converted to farmland, where pastures and monoculture crops swelter under the sun in summer and exposed soils dry out and die. Because we think what we do is so superior to what the Indigenous people who lived here for 60,000 years did. And we won’t last 60,000 years, we’ve already destroyed much of Australia in under 250 – we’re a short-term thrill with chronic delusions, mostly about how clever and superior we are, and how our technology will save us.
This next photo, Brett was very adamant should be called ” The Moss-Tache”…
And then we were crossing Tingledale Drive, and arrived in the Nuyts Wilderness trailhead area, where there were lots of information signs.
We continued up Mt Clare – at this point the Bibbulmun Track and the start of the Nuyts Wilderness Track overlap, as you can see on the context map at the start of this photoessay. The climb up was on a gentle slope.
There were more information signs…
If you look closely behind the third Tingle in the background in the next photo you can just see the roof of the Mt Clare camping hut. You may have to look lower down than you are expecting as these trees are enormous…
Usually we stop and rest at these huts all along the Bibbulmun trail – they appear at approximately day walk intervals. However – and this was a first for us – the Mt Clare hut had been freshly repainted and reeked of industrial solvents, so we tried the open-air outdoors table instead. It too was most malodorous, as perplexing a phenomenon in such a near-pristine ecosystem as when you go mountain climbing with a chain smoker. So we checked our map and decided to have lunch at the gazetted suspension bridge across the Deep River, which sounded very interesting. We haven’t been across a suspension bridge on a hike since our half year in Launceston in 2009, where we were frequent hikers on the Cataract Gorge trails.
On the way there were some major tree hugging opportunities. Here’s a Tingle with a solid base.
An old-growth Tingle is not easy to hug. It’s a bit more like leaning in affectionately, but there’s no way the arms go anywhere near around even a fifth of the 12m circumference. Nevertheless, I think the intention is perceived in some way. These are ancient beings hundreds of years old. No wonder Tolkien wrote about Ents.
I don’t know how anybody can think cutting one of these down is fine and dandy, but in this world, every day, we are losing such trees to insane humans working in an insane economic system. I don’t know how anyone can think they make it right by “replanting” another tree. It would take hundreds of years to get to the same life stage, if it even lived that long – and natural forests plant themselves, thank you very much, and unlike plantations, are a treasure trove of genetic diversity and relationships. Humans only had to start planting trees after their own activities obliterated most of the trees on this Earth. We owe much more than we can ever repay, and it’s farcical to talk about carbon credits and biodiversity offsets. It’s a veneer of greenwash to conceal a core of ongoing and ever accelerating destruction, while people abuse words like “sustainable” and “love” and make “Centres of Excellence” for biological research which is never allowed to say no to profit and “progress”.
Here’s some upwards photos of the same tree! I got much of the trunk in the first one, but needed another to look at its crown in the canopy.
We had a kilometre to go until the Deep River; beautiful forest, and a fairly steep descent. As we approached the river valley, granite started peeping out of the ground.
The photos visually flatten out the actual steepness – in the next photo, we were upslope and across a small tributary valley from the dog who was climbing the slope on the other side!
“C’mon, keep up!” – says the dog, looking back at us. She could smell the water and was keen for the promised swim. When I know we have definite swimming opportunities ahead, I tell her there is a “splish” coming up. Dogs find words easier if you use onomatopoeia. This is also why when we’re talking to her, a car (or car trip) is a “brroom-brroom!” and the mention of this word at home gets excited leaps from her and immediate attempts to herd us out of the front door. I should film it sometime.
Descending towards the Deep River, there were some majestic Karri trees. The binomial name for this one is Eucalyptus diversicolor, and you’ll understand why looking at its bark.
I actually love the fact that on the remote and serious trails, things aren’t constantly manicured and tidied up for the convenience of typical urban walkers. I like having to climb obstacles in places like this and to use my wits and my body to work out puzzles, instead of having a kind of pedestrian freeway presented to me, as is the case for the touristy spots like Bluff Knoll and the Granite Skywalk. I enjoy having to look closely at where I am going, and figuring things out. Not having such opportunities is just another way of dumbing down our world, our inner lives, and our physicality. I come properly alive in wild places. The animal I am recognises what gave birth to me, to us, long ago.
And then we were at the suspension bridge.
We stopped in the middle of this wobbly, free-swinging bridge to drink in the views of the Deep River. I took two photos, to the west and to the east, which you are about to see. But just before I took them, I asked Brett to please stop jumping up and down, because I was taking a picture. And he said, “I’m not jumping up and down!”
“Hahaha…sorry!” Long time no suspension bridge. (But it’s exactly the sort of thing my husband has been known to do…not to deliberately interfere with photography, but just for the joy of it…♥)
And once arrived at the other side, our delighted dog cooled herself down in the Deep River.♥ We’d been giving her intermittent drinks from a bottle we take especially for her – in summer, there’s not much water in this landscape. Jess is nearly 11 now and needs extra TLC, plus a sofa recovery day after a long hike, but so far she is still coping well with extended walking and would be outraged to be left behind when we do something so fun. In her prime she used to run rings around my endurance horse, or our mountain bikes, and cover at least twice the distance we did; plus she swam like a hydrofoil as a young dog. I actually think it’s kinder to an animal to put it down when it gets to the point it can’t do the things it enjoys the most anymore, and not let it linger. We’re not at that point and right now she’s on excellent arthritis treatment that re-lubricates the joints. She also these days really enjoys her sofa recovery days, combined with good grub, which allow her body to rest and repair. In a way, we’re a bit like that ourselves these days.
We lunched on the steps of the bridge, in the shade, with a breeze blowing on us and the water flowing by. Brett had made us our favourite hiking salad: Just cut carrots and cheddar cheese into cubes, mix in a roughly 3:1 ratio, dress with lemon juice and cayenne pepper. Even the dog likes it. We also had salt and vinegar peanuts, half a home-grown Cox’s Orange Pippin apple each, and water from the drink bottles, mine with a splash of lemon.
Morning tea en route to Walpole had been ice cream made by the Meadery – double coffee for him; hazelnut on top, chocolate on the bottom for me. Normally we do that after a hike, but today we put it in the tank first. Waiting at home to balance us up in the evening was a big dish of moussaka, with home-grown zucchini, potatoes, tomatoes, herbs; kangaroo mince from Woolies (we’re currently out of home-grown beef mince), cheese sauce on the top potato layer, tons of grated pepper.
Kangaroo is equivalent to venison; the top predators were largely removed on the respective continents and neither the common deer species or the Western Grey Kangaroo are endangered, but the landscape has to be protected from overgrazing (and not just by kangaroos) or we’re going to accelerate bird and small mammal extinctions, not to mention flora, insects etc. We’re happy to co-graze wild kangaroos and emus with the cattle and equines on the pasture/permie previously cleared fraction of our place and don’t deter them; we welcome their presence and, excepting for our vegetable garden, deliberately made the fence passable to them but not to the livestock. (Top and bottom polybraids in the internal fences are hot but the middle is not, so they can slip through without getting zapped. Also, for boundary fences, have you heard of kangaroo gates?)
Occasionally local Noongar people will take a roo for their traditional food from the healthy local populations, including from Red Moon Sanctuary; and we eat the odd one that gets put down due to injuries like broken bones. A local octogenarian bushie friend who died last year brought us the occasional fresh roadkill he found by the highway; Trowunna Wildlife Sanctuary in Tasmania does the same to feed their charges. We don’t have Tasmanian Devils, but we do have a dog and stomachs of our own and these carcasses need taking off the roads. It’s not for everyone, but we’re fine with it if it’s fresh (and Jess prefers it when it’s not, and will track down her own). If you grew up in the city you may be appalled, but we didn’t and we do live close to the cycle of life and its realities. Also I’m a very good cook, and we’re both foodies – so don’t imagine that there are taste or food safety compromises.
Alas, the food that nurtures, repairs and powers us, and the acceptance that we should give ourselves in turn to the nurture, repair and powering of other beings when our lives end, instead of locking ourselves away like misers when we’re dead. Hat firmly off to Indigenous Australian traditional burials, and the sky burials in the Himalayas, and any other culture who recognises that we are part of the circle and need to act and live like it.
And then we were homeward bound again, for variety taking the loop route via Tingledale Drive back to the Bibbulmun (see map at start).
There were more Tingles with hollowed-out bases whose cubbies I tried out.
There was an agricultural clearing in this valley with something that looked like an outdoor education camp.
It was really hot on the road – removing a forest will change the microclimate. Local cattle were looking to rest under shade trees. Many of the big-business paddocks near where we live haven’t got a single tree in them and it should be illegal to keep animals in shadeless pastures – but the big corporations have got into the beef game and are making their own rules, which are all about maximising profit and pushing family farmers out of business. It’s expensive and time-consuming to plant shelter belts as we did, and you won’t break even financially on them through increased livestock productivity – we do it because it’s the right thing for umpteen reasons including livestock welfare, biodiversity conservation, soil conservation, the water cycle, water quality in rivers/estuaries etc, but having worked as an environmental scientist and seen how this goes, I don’t expect environmental and animal welfare issues to be given more than lip service and occasional window dressing projects by our powers that be. Money and greed drive basically everything in our culture, and big business is good at obfuscating and at finding scapegoats for a largely ignorant public to swallow.
Glory be, in this non-corporate little valley someone was deliberately planting Peppermint trees by the roadside for shade. You can see them in this view back towards the south-east. We have planted clumps of them too; a decade later they become enormous and make welcome shelter areas for birds, insects and domestic pasture inhabitants.
Mature shade trees are very popular things…
We rather felt like lying down under one of these trees ourselves, at this point. There is a world of difference between spending a summer midday in a tall forest, or walking on a road through a clearing. And to be honest, our feet were beginning to hurt after several hours of serious hiking that hadn’t strictly been on the agenda when we woke up – and it’s not as much fun to hike on vehicle tracks than twisty-turny walk trails.
Occasionally, remnant roadside trees provided a bit of shade. We were very happy to get to the Bibbulmun track intersection and back into the proper forest, where Brett was keen to pose for a photo.
He is such a drama queen. I’ve got a very similar photo of him at the tail end of our 8-hour loop climbing Cradle Mountain and returning via the Twisted Lakes, from years and years ago…
We were very happy to be out of the sun again.
Fallen forest trees make such great habitat opportunities…and it’s so annoying when ignorant people take their chainsaws and 4WDs into forests to “tidy up” and get a trailer load of firewood, thinking they’ve done some kind of community service when they’ve actually made wildlife homeless. This is where we are at – with a largely ecologically ignorant population of zoo humans thinking like this, about this and hundreds of other situations involving other species. Where do you even begin, and what hope if it conflicts with their existing world views, which are so precious to many and almost written in stone? That’s adult…it was a lot better working with adolescents, who were more open-minded and willing to look critically at the everyday and “normal” than their alleged elders and betters, than it is to try to have discussions like this with adults who have shut shop.
Thankfully I also know adults who haven’t shut shop, and continue to learn and to modify their working hypotheses; and they love the natural world. Those are my tribe, and it’s a small tribe, possibly endangered, but much loved and appreciated!♥
And that’s all the photos! We got back to John Rate Lookout, where we immediately took off our hiking boots to air our hot and tired feet, and drove home barefoot, listening to mostly acoustic music and chatting about this and that while fantasising about large cups of tea and bed rest. What an excellent day – and such an unexpected long adventure on a completely new-to-us trail! I couldn’t sleep for ages that night due to all the metaphorical champagne bubbles fizzing around inside of me. A day like this makes up for so many days of toil and staying home, for living on a smallholding in the middle of nowhere and no longer travelling much in the world. A day of wonder where you see and embrace wild nature, and she sees and embraces you.
♥ ♥ ♥
All the photos in this piece were taken by Sue Coulstock and Brett Coulstock.
Editor’s note: None of the events are being organized by DGR. We stand in solidarity and encourage our readers to get involved in these if possible.
Kangaroo: A love-hate story (Film Screening)
Kangaroo reveals Australia’s relationship with its beloved icon, uncovering disturbing scenes behind the largest mass destruction of wildlife in the world. Using investigative techniques such as interviews, citizen footage, and research, Kangaroo: A Love-Hate Story shows how the kangaroo meat industry and the Australian government put profits ahead of animal welfare, native species protection and the environment. In addition, farmers who are guided by misinformation and profit take whatever steps they deem necessary to eradicate the species.
A free community screening presented by Woolgoolga Regional Community Gardens and Kangaroo Advocate Yurpia McCafferty, at 6pm (AEST) Tuesday 7th March, on 79 Scarborough St, Woolgoolga. You can find out more about the event here.
Violence Against Rural Indigenous Women: Brazil, Guatemala, Peru, and the United States
Throughout the Western Hemisphere, indigenous women and girls suffer extreme and disparate levels of gender-based violence. For those living in rural and remote communities on their own indigenous lands, these problems are even more pronounced. Our event will feature a panel of indigenous women from Brazil, Guatemala, Peru, and the United States, who will discuss how violations of indigenous peoples’ land rights and right to self-government expose their women and girls to racial discrimination, gender-based violence, and other human rights violations and how living in rural communities intensifies these problems.
The webinar will happen on March 8, 2023 at 1:00 p.m. – 3:00 p.m. (EST).
Black Summer Vigil
This online and offline event is being organized in the three-year anniversary memorial for the three billion animals who died in the Australian bush fires. The event will bring together stories from first responders across wildlife rescue, rural fire service, photojournalism, Aboriginal custodianship, veterinary medicine, ecology, and more. Speakers include:
Greg Mullins, Former Commissioner, Fire and Rescue NSW; Climate Councillor and founder, Emergency Leaders for Climate Action. Greg warned Australia’s then–Prime Minister in April 2019 that a bushfire catastrophe was coming. He pleaded for support and was ignored, then risked his life dealing with the ramifications on the ground.
Internationally recognised ecologist and WWF board member, Professor Christopher Dickman oversaw the work calculating the animal deaths from Black Summer. A Fellow of the Australian Academy of Science, Professor Dickman already wore the heavy task of being an ecologist during the sixth mass extinction, in the country that has the worst rate of mammalian extinction in the world. On 8 January 2020 media around the world shared his finding that Black Summer fires had killed one billion animals. Sadly, the fires continued for two more months, and his team’s final count was three billion. This does not include invertebrates: it is estimated 240 trillion beetles, moths, spiders, yabbies and other invertebrates died in the fires.
Coming up from the South Coast, owner of Wild2Free Kangaroo Sanctuary Rae Harvey, as seen in The Bond and The Fire. She is in the sad position of having personally known and cared for a number of Black Summer’s victims: many of the orphaned joeys she cared for were killed in the fires. (She nearly died herself too.) For three years, she has been unable to even speak their names. Now, for the first time, she will tell the story of the joeys she lost.
Cultural burning practitioner and Southern NSW Regional Coordinator with Firesticks Alliance, Djiringanj-Yuin Custodian Dan Morgan. Dan practises using Aboriginal knowledge to heal Country. He has worked for 18 years with the NSW National Parks & Wildlife Service and is on the board of management for the Biamanga National Park, a sacred area home to the last surviving koalas on the NSW south coast – which was partly destroyed by the fires of Black Summer.
Head of Programs & Disaster Response at Humane Society International (HSI) Evan Quartermain, who was one of the first responders on Kangaroo Island where nearly 40% of the island burnt at high severity.
The physical event will happen in Camperdown Memorial Rest Park (Sydney) at 2pm Sunday 2 April 2023 (AEST). You can also attend it online. You can find more information here.
Editor’s note: Borders are created by nation-states. If the relationship between the surrounding countries are amiable, borders serve the purpose to stop individuals from crossing over to the other side without authority. Conversely, if the relationship is hostile, borders either are an active warzone (eg. Gaza strip between Israel and Palestine), or are at the risk of becoming one (eg. Kashmir between India and Pakistan). Either of these pose a threat to the wild nature. Many species rely on periodic migration through a specific route that goes beyond the boundaries of nation-states. At its best, borders serve to stop that migration, risking the survival of the species. At its worst, borders turned into active warzones and the militarized activities are constantly destroying an entire landscape. Civilisation inherently infringes on the freedom of all living beings through these borders.
This article provides useful information from across the globe on how warzones are impacting wildlife. It also shows the threats of new projects such as the Belt and Road Initiative, purported to be based on “win-win cooperation” between countries, is still a warzone of competition with biodiversity. The peace parks proposed in this article can be used not only to rewild nature but also to deescalate conflict between neighboring nation states DGR supports and engages in rewilding the Earth. Meanwhile peace parks also pose some new questions: What happens if one, or both, states begin extracting resources beyond the regenerative capacity of the area? If one infringes the territory of the peace park, risking another conflict? What mechanisms can be put in place to deter such actions?
Conflicts over disputed borders, increasingly exacerbated by climate change, are putting some of the world’s key biodiversity hotspots at risk.
Even in countries that have avoided border wars, a global campaign of fence building — aimed at keeping out human migrants whose numbers are rising in an era of climate change and sociopolitical unrest — is causing widespread damage to vulnerable natural landscapes and migratory animal species.
In potential conflict zones like the Himalayas, Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, and the South China Sea, this surging human march across national frontiers has already led to violence, and in some cases to open warfare.
Border-straddling conservation zones known as peace parks offer a more sustainable way of managing border disputes than militarization and fence building. Peace parks on the U.S.-Canada border and in the Himalayas offer successful examples.
The Himalayan high peaks serve as a jagged wall dividing nuclear-armed neighbors — a physical barrier rising in places to more than 8,800 meters (29,000 feet) separating apocalyptically equipped nations divided by religion, politics, and many decades of bad blood.
But in ecological terms, the Himalayan plateau, the “rooftop of the world,” is a place of connection, especially for the wayward snow leopard (Panthera uncia), the alpine region’s apex predator and “tiger of the high mountains,” so dubbed by Aishwarya Maheshwari, an Indian wildlife biologist who has studied the elusive species for decades.
To Maheshwari, remote Himalayan ridges and culls don’t define a political divide, but serve as a thruway linking vast, unbroken habitat. Here, threatened wildlife — including the red panda (Ailurus fulgens), golden langur (Trachypithecus geei) and Himalayan brown bear (Ursus arctos isabellinus) — roam free, crisscrossing national frontiers. That’s an example, Maheshwari believes, that ought to be emulated by the peoples claiming the Himalayas.
In 2020, Maheshwari floated an outlandish but seductive proposition in the journal Science: Declare the snow leopard’s home territory a “peace park” — a gigantic, shared administrative border zone governed by the nations whose boundaries traverse the Himalayas, including India, China, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Bhutan and Nepal.
An all-inclusive transboundary approach to conservation
For many aspects of wildlife protection, particularly tackling the trafficking of species, a transboundary approach proves highly practical. “Any kind of poaching that happens around the border areas can easily be escaped by border jumping,” explains Elaine Hsiao, who studies peace parks in Southern Africa and teaches at Ohio’s Kent State University in the U.S.
A transboundary approach, by contrast, allows for intergovernmental cooperation and the nabbing of transgressors on either side of national borders, denying criminals sanctuary.
To many experts, the peace park concept also offers an alternative to rising tensions — a shared, conflict-free administrative zone where states voluntarily surrender claims to contested territory to create an area of shared jurisdictional and ecological management.
“If peace parks were established [by following] the way of the snow leopard, we [could] achieve that peace we always talk about,” Maheshwari told Mongabay.
Several peace parks within the snow leopard’s range are already in place, including Khunjerab National Park in the Karakoram range (India and Pakistan), and the transboundary Sacred Himalayan Landscape (with multiple interconnected parks established by Nepal, India, Bhutan and China in cooperation with WWF).
Distribution of the snow leopard as of 2017. Could this vast territory — or at least significant parts of it — become the world’s highest-altitude peace park? Image by McCarthy et al. (2017) (CC BY-SA 4.0).
Peace parks have also been proposed in disputed and transborder Himalayan areas including the Everest region (known as Qomolangma in China and Sagarmatha in Nepal); Pamir Wakhan (between Afghanistan, Pakistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan), and the Altai Mountains (between Russia, China, Mongolia and Kazakhstan).
Another example, far less peaceable in intent, is the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea. While still deadly to intruding troops, the nearly 70-year-old no-man’s land “has created a de facto 4-km-wide nature reserve spanning the Korean peninsula,” according to Maheshwari’s Science paper. It’s a safe haven for the endangered black-faced spoonbill (Platalea minor), Asia’s beloved wading bird.
A transnational jurisdictional agreement encompassing snow leopard habitat could serve as a means for “harmony between and amongst the countries in Central and South Asia,” guaranteeing both an ecological and economic bounty, Maheshwari told Mongabay. “We have not [fully] enjoyed being Asian — not like the neighboring continents of Europe or [North] America,” which possess a stronger sense of unity. The snow leopard offers that opportunity, he says.
But today, a snow leopard transnational park remains mostly a utopian goal. And the chances of achieving that vision seem to be diminishing, not growing.
Maheshwari laid out his plan in 2019 (it was published in 2020) against an increasingly turbulent geopolitical backdrop, as border tensions soared between nations rushing to exploit Earth’s last ungoverned border wildlands in search of scarce natural resources — in locales where wildlife unique to the world’s rooftop hold on in alpine refugia protected only by isolation and vertical terrain.
Easy to overlook amid the present fighting is the ecological damage of an earlier Ukraine-Russia border conflict: In 2014, artillery duels and brutal trench warfare exploded in the Ukrainian region of Donbas, as Russian-backed separatists and the Kyiv government fought each other. This steppe-and-forest border region, with its high plant diversity, was pushed to the brink of ecological collapse by the war, according to the U.N. Environment Programme.
Part of the U.S border wall that bisects the Sonoran and Chihuahuan deserts along the boundary with Mexico. The barrier is part of a global push by wealthy Northern countries to assert control over sparsely populated borderlands and prevent a rush of sociopolitical and climate change refugees. Image by Steve Hillebrand/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service via Wikimedia Commons (Public domain).
Today’s fighting in Donbas is “not only creating new [ecological] problems, but also digging up old problems and making them more and more serious,” explains Olya Melen-Zabramna of Environment, People and Law, a Ukrainian NGO.
As today’s battlefront shifts across the Donetsk and Luhansk border regions — the latter of which is now fully under Moscow’s control — both sides of the firing line are pockmarked by cratered conservation areas. The war is undoing a decade of effort by the Kyiv government to remediate landscapes contaminated by the toxic residues of unregulated Soviet-era coal and iron ore mines.
“The shelling causes accidental fires in the forest, and those fires are usually uncontrolled because our rescue agencies are not able to stop them because of the risk to their life,” Melen-Zabramna said. Forests are also now being contaminated with explosive anti-personnel mines, one of which blew up a forestry crew in April. Russian forces have also blown up air and water monitoring stations, she said.
Melen-Zabramna’s organization hopes Ukraine can find its way to environmental remediation after the war, following a path blazed by the nations of the former Yugoslavia on their battlefields. But with shells still falling, the prospect of an internationally negotiated Ukraine-Russia peace park seems far-fetched, though it would certainly help heal hearts and landscapes.
Russian missile, air, and artillery strikes targeted by high-tech drones have disproportionately wrecked Ukraine’s heavy industry, causing unbridled pollution, while ongoing hostilities have allowed for little assessment of harm to wild creatures. Image by Yevhen Timofeev via Pexels.
Border fences do not make good neighbors
The 21st-century firestorm now raging in Ukraine marks a grim continuation of the conflagrations dotting the 20th — which, like all wars, were ecologically destructive, but allowed a previously unseen level of devastation to be unleashed across entire landscapes.
Eighty percent of conflicts between 1950 and 2000 took place in biodiversity hotspots, Mongabay previously reported. The reason is simple: Biodiversity hotspots tend to be where humans have limited presence — often inhospitable places that mark geographically challenging boundaries between nation-states.
With tensions rising along national borders, the U.N. has repeatedly warned there is little reason to assume that this century will experience less war — particularly if social unrest, exacerbated by climate chaos, drives an estimated 1.2 billion people from their homes by 2050.
Along rich-country perimeters, including the southern deserts of the U.S. or in the conifer forests of the eastern EU, the perceived threat of waves of human migrants has already led to new attempts to fence (and assert control over) wild areas once left in benign neglect.
From right: President Xi Jinping of China, President Vladimir Putin of Russia, and President Joko Widodo of Indonesia at the May 2017 Belt and Road International Forum. Image by the Russian Presidential Press and Information Office via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 4.0).
New border fences in the U.S. Rio Grande Valley and Sonoran Desert pose physical boundaries — blockages that mammal species will need to cross as global warming renders old habitats uninhabitable, according to a 2021 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (PNAS). That research found that increases in border fencing extent already correlate with decreasing numbers of pumas (Puma concolor) and coatis (Nasua narica) — and bisect the ranges of 180 more mammals.
In Europe, too, razor-wire fences closing the border between Croatia and Slovenia are killing herons and red deer, according to a 2017 study in the European Journal of Wildlife Research.
These barriers are just part of a rising tide of fences and border controls raised across Europe to keep out war, economic and climate change refugees fleeing Afghanistan, Syria and the African Sahel, according to a 2016 study in the journal PLOS Biology.
This increase in border fences has coincided with growing scientific recognition of the crucial role transboundary conservation plays in species migration. So even as nations aggressively try to block the flow of people over their borders, researchers are pleading the case for unobstructed wildland corridors allowing species movement to new, safer climes, according to the 2021 PNAS study.
The trillion-dollar Belt and Road Initiative promises to put China at the heart of a globally unprecedented transportation network and energy grid. Roads and railways, while promoting commerce, have also long provided the quickest routes by which troops move during national invasions. Image by PughPugh via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 2.0).
Trouble brewing in the South China Sea
Harmful as migrant-blocking border security measures can be environmentally, they pale in comparison to the risks posed by borders that are being disputed in the name of national defense — or nationalist expansion.
In the South China Sea, for example, China has dredged up more than 100 square miles of healthy coral reef to create artificial islands, constructing airstrips and defense positions on what it considers its rightful maritime border. China is using these new artificial island outposts to assert sovereignty and flex its muscles toward its regional neighbors like the Philippines, while also helping lock down the Western Pacific for its long-distance fishing fleets that need to feed the nation’s 1.4 billion people.
As dangerous as this situation currently is, the cold war there regularly threatens to turn hot, with the U.S. and its ally the Philippines, along with Taiwan and Vietnam, unwilling to concede to Chinese claims of exclusive control over much of this part of the Pacific.
Such a conflict would raise the prospect of modern naval warfare and bombardment in a region that accounts for one-seventh of the global fish catch. A transnational marine peace park could provide an answer: a co-administered zone protecting commerce and nature.
A CIA map showing vast contested Asian areas. China and India claim patches of each other’s territory on opposite sides of the highest border in the world, in the Himalayas, raising the constant threat of a cold war turned hot. Image by CIA via Wikimedia Commons (Public domain).
China’s Belt and Road: The biggest infrastructure project ever
China’s land-based interests hold equal perils. In the Himalayas, it is engaged with India and Pakistan in a complex high-elevation land rush — complete with political maneuvering, a massive road-building effort and occasional open violence — amid a labyrinth of disputed alpine borders.
This infrastructure explosion will be extremely damaging to the alpine environment, Indian ecologist Maharaj Pandit wrote in Science in 2020. In the high Himalayas, road workers are already burning scarce, extremely slow-growing native plants, to melt the asphalt needed for highway surfacing — burning that is also clearing the way for invasive shrubs.
But road building is just the beginning. The broader danger is that whenever people come into closer contact on a tense border, there is, as the Congressional Research Service warns, ever more risk that something will go wrong.
Conflict already flares there: In 2020, Chinese and Indian road-building crews got into a deadly brawl along an unmarked section of the border, combating each other with fists, stones and “nail-studded clubs,” leaving 24 dead, according to the BBC. The region, along with biodiversity and the cause of world peace, could clearly benefit from cooperative rather than competing infrastructure projects and transnational conservation projects in the Himalayas.
China’s Belt and Road Initiative showing China in Red, the members of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank in orange, and the six proposed corridors of the Silk Road Economic Belt, a land transportation route running from China to Southern Europe via Central Asia and the Middle East, and the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road, a sea route connecting the port of Shanghai to Venice, Italy, via India and Africa. Image by Lommes via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0).
The 21st-century battlefield comes to the world’s wilds
A saving grace of past border wars was the remoteness of their battlefields: Intense conflict there required more troops, military hardware and transport than it was sometimes worth providing. This often bought time for cooler heads to prevail, as happened when leaders in New Delhi and Beijing agreed to pull back their forces from the Himalayan border in 2021.
But the range and availability of new weapons, like Turkey’s Bayraktar TB2 drone, make such destructive escalation more likely. This was demonstrated in 2020, when the small Eastern European countries of Armenia and Azerbaijan went to war over the disputed mountain valleys between them.
For almost a generation, the nations’ contested border, a Soviet-era provincial boundary, had been a largely quiet point of contact along an old cease-fire line from a previous war. But in September 2020, a skirmish broke out, and Azerbaijan, newly armed with flotillas of Turkish Bayraktar and Israeli kamikaze drones, launched a full-scale invasion into the disputed lands of Nagorno-Karabakh.Azerbaijani drones broke the Armenian army apart from the air, and burned hundreds of square kilometers of the high forests with white phosphorous bombs as they hunted disintegrating army units among the trees.
Both sides decried the resulting ecological damage. And in a bit of dark irony, the mascot trotted out in this propaganda battle was a boundary-crossing cousin of the charismatic snow leopard that biologist Maheshwari proposed as a symbol of a peaceful Himalaya.
Armenian war propaganda images featured the Caucasian leopard (Panthera pardus tulliana), Europe’s last big cat and a reclusive resident of the borderlands between the two countries that it shares with Eurasian lynxes (Lynx lynx), Caspian Sea wolves (Canis lupus campestris) and Eurasian brown bears (Ursus arctos arctos).
One of the most hotly disputed aspects of the Armenian-Azerbaijani PR war was the question of who gets custody over the highland lake of Sarsang, currently split between the two countries.
In the case of this Armenia-Azerbaijan water conflict, “the candid goal of both authorities is not to reach a resolution to address some urgent problems of the local communities, but rather use this issue as a means to win on political terms by labeling the other as an aggressor or as non-cooperative,” according to a study published in the Journal of Conflict Transformation.
The lake in question, a shared border resource demanding co-jurisdiction management, would make an ideal candidate for a transnational peace park, experts say. But bilateral bad blood and bad faith also suggest the extent to which peace, or shared administration, requires far more than the absence of conflict.
Cheap but deadly armed drones like the Turkish-made Bayraktar TB2 have helped bring newly destructive air warfare to disputed alpine and remote regions where it would have once been costly and nearly impossible. Image by Bayhaluk via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0).
Peace must be the point
In truth, proposed peace parks often fail as ecological solutions when the peace aspect is treated as an afterthought, Hsiao of Kent State told Mongabay. “You end up with these places that are kind of compromised on all the objectives.”
In Southern Africa, for example, or across South America, many countries have far better relationships with their neighbors than with many of their own citizens.
“You have high level [nation-state] buy-in and then it’s just got so many issues because things at the local level are not resolved,” Hsiao said. The result can be “paper parks,” which are colored solid green on maps but are divided by acrimony on the ground.
What works better than a top-down approach, she wrote in 2019, is a bottom-up approach: one that begins with getting local communities to agree on cross-border conservation goals. “Transboundary conservation cannot be imposed from above in violent landscapes, or it may not survive tensions,” Hsiao wrote.
Local communities also have far more skin in the game than saber-rattling national administrations: For example, tens of thousands of ethnic Armenians fled the Nagorno-Karabakh region as the 2020 war spread devastation among their homes.
The Artsakh Mountains: This disputed, forested range lies between Armenia and Azerbaijan; it is controlled by the former but claimed by the latter. It was the setting for a destructive 2020 war that foreshadowed the current war in Ukraine. Image by sedrakGr via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 3.0).
In Latin America’s Andes Mountains, another possible model of accord can be found in another high-altitude, hydrologically significant park, in a once-violent border region: the Cordilleras del Condor located between Ecuador and Peru.
Leaning on close cross-border relationships between the Indigenous Shuar, Awajun and Wampis peoples, a benefit of the region’s arbitrary boundaries, the NGO Conservation International brokered a lasting border peace that has grown over the subsequent two decades into a healthy framework of shared regional management between the two countries.
Borders can offer fertile ground for the seeds of conflict. But handled diplomatically, they can also seed peace in its most constructive, proactive form — through an ethic of cooperation between local communities and national capitals alike, say peace park advocates. Moreover, peace parks could provide a hedge against the catastrophic conflicts that may loom with destabilizing climate change.
“We as humans identify and recognize borders, but obviously wildlife don’t,” Indian ecologist Maheshwari concluded, making his case yet again for a Himalayan reserve.
“Nowhere in the conservation book does it advocate that species should be confined to one area,” he said. “Otherwise, there’s no meaning or sense to the word wildlife — animals are not wild if they’re confined to one piece of land.”
Perhaps, he argues, the time has finally arrived for the world to embrace peace parks.
Editor’s note: Writing from the mountains of Kerala, rewilder and restorationist Suprabha Seshan explores the pandemic and the war of patriarchy vs. the planet. “It is my sworn mission to salvage the ones burned, maimed, poisoned or reconstituted from the living earth by the fires of industrial civilisation,” she writes. This essay was first published in Turkish in Jineoloji magazine, a publication of the women’s movement of Kurdistan.
by Suprabha Seshan
The Covid-19 pandemic, lethal as it is, is instrumental to capital’s assault on the living world. Looming through the terrors unleashed by free-flying strands of DNA are gargantuan infrastructural projects, including medical, green and digital. These are intent on destroying the web of life. Out of this extermination project, will spew more illnesses, disorders, infections, infestations, and devastations.
I urge us to address the relation between the militarised-capitalist-supremacist mindset and the living body of the earth. The latter includes you and me, our beloved human families, friends, communities and peoples, and also our non-human kith and kin. In this essay, I refer to the former as The Patriarch.
An active extermination event is at large, distinct from previous mass deaths of species through passive geologic processes. The current event involves slavery, ecocide and genocide. To understand Covid-19 while this is going on, would be like trying to understand a friend or family member’s 0.05% chance of dying from a natural ailment, when there is a psychopath with a shotgun in the room.
Domination, disorder, disease, debilitation, torture, slavery, unhappiness, fear, addictions, death and decay are essential for The Patriarch. Assembled from the reconstituted bodies of the living world, with extermination intrinsic to his existence, he will not stop until he consumes all. Ecocide and genocide are his mission.
The fundamental driving force of capital, I believe, is the imperative to conquer all life (including human bodies, hearts and minds). Unless this is negated, we cannot nurture the more subtle aspects of the enduring relationships between humankind and other-than-humankind.
While The Patriarch reduces many persons to touchscreen modalities, he confines and debilitates others. He even suffocates entire populations in the gas chambers of modern civilisation – the polluted cities – and burns others in wastelands resulting from the furnaces of his industries.
This kind of extermination has been going on for a while, perhaps since about 1492 when Europeans gifted smallpox wrapped in blankets to native Americans. Some people think it began way before, during the birth of civilisations – of militarised-hierarchical-extractive entities distinct from the myriad small cultures growing slowly over millennia in sustaining land bases. I find the nature of capital, particularly technocratic-militarised capital, egregious to a new extreme. The Patriarch is insatiable. I also believe he is insane. He has begun to devour his own body.
I am a conservationist living in a community in the rainforests of the Western Ghat mountains in southern India. I protect endangered species, restore rainforest habitat, and educate youth. We are many women in this place. Together with the men who also live and work here, we have an intimate knowledge of the plants and animals who create this biome, who are all sovereign beings in their own right.
These non-humans – or other-than-humans – also give us our foods and medicines, our ecologies and cultures, our material and immaterial bases. In return we try to protect them, nurture them, and see them through these terrible apocalyptic times. Together we work on a collective ecology, acknowledging our inseparableness from each other in the web of life. We are deeply intertwined through our physical beings: our cells, juices and tissues, our senses, limbs and nerves, and every organ and follicle. Through our bodies we create cultures, biomes and ecospheres. All these are being exterminated by the toxic forces of technologised-capitalistic patriarchy.
It is indeed my deep and fervent wish to examine the work of an unsee-able, unknow-able micro-being on humans. But I believe this will never be wholly known, and certainly not in a reductive way. Reciprocal mutualistic relationships rooted in interbeing grow in intimacy while remaining free and wild. They are like a dance between creatures – between men, women and others; adults and children; humans and nonhumans; between plants, animals, fungi, clouds, winds, rain, rocks, mountains, algae, forests, grasslands and oceans. This mutualism includes viruses, and the SARS-CoV-2 virus, too.
However, I believe the pandemic needs to be examined in the infernal light of omnicide (planetary to cellular). We cannot afford to ignore the background to the viral outbreak. We cannot forget the various “cides” that are going on – ecocide, gynocide, bactericide, fungicide, vermicide, infanticide, weedicide, genocide, climate-cide – and even cosmocide, the destruction of a cosmic body, the planet.
We are not at the beginning of a catastrophe, as the climate-mongers will have us believe. Rather, we are already towards the end of an altogether incomprehensible horror. The orchestration of capital through this pandemic threatens further the direct perception of The Patriarch’s endgame. He wreaks further havoc on his hapless slaves through various fear tactics. He exerts his enormous machines on all his subjugates such as indigenous peoples, marginalised classes, races and castes, women and children. He deploys them on the last forests, waters, winds and habitats. All the above, human and non-human, are swept under the rubric of “resources to be managed”. He also invents new enemies from the very body of the earth which sustains him, like the SARS Corona Virus.
As an ecologist serving the rainforests of the Western Ghats, it has been my lifelong enquiry to look at how a biome can recover from assault – from colonial-neocolonial-capitalistic-civilisational assault. I know, and the biome knows, that it can heal from most travesties and injuries, and that it will do its utmost to replenish itself and the planet. But the opposing faction, which for the moment we are calling The Patriarch, is gathering momentum. For the arsenal he has accrued – an arsenal built and assembled from the living body of the planet – is in fact, simultaneously disassembling, as he is now also turning on himself. He is running out of other resources.
In this utter disconnect, a monstrous creature devouring himself, he further debilitates humans and non-humans and the living community of earthly existence. He is not open to reason, though he sounds like he is. Nor is he open to life, though he needs it and appropriates it, particularly its very metabolic and life-engendering powers. Saying he is allied to the natural world, he severs himself from it in manifold ways. It doesn’t take much to see that The Patriarch’s language alienates him from his own body, and the body of the earth and the people. His actions separate him more and more from humans and non-humans, without whom he would perish in an instant.
There is no doubt, for me, that The Patriarch’s machinery must stop. My sincere observation is that only non-humans will stop him. Humans are at a gun point more insidious than what non-humans face. Non-humans are not hooked as humans are to The Patriarch. None of the other species – the ones within us and the ones without, those who inhabit our human bodies (the micro-biomes and macro-biomes without whom we could not even have a so-called human existence), and those whose bodies within which we dwell – none are dependent on him. They don’t need him for anything.
As of this writing, 0.05% of the human population has died from Covid, according to the WHO. The BBC news earlier this week said another half-million people in Europe will die by next year, unless vaccinated. If the data are to be believed, and if the projections are to be trusted, perhaps 5 million people will die altogether from Covid-19. We must do everything to prevent such a terrible thing. Of course. But, critical to recovery of humankind from its various acute and chronic ailments is a return of habitat, of clean air, and clean water, and nature-based relationships for humans to dwell amongst. The cleansing of lungs and livers and other organs, the opening of the senses, and the revival of rivers and wetlands, oceans and aquifers, and the vast ancient forests and human-non-human relations requires The Patriarch to be stopped. Humans are more dependent on all these than we are on The Patriarch. Whom to choose? The Patriarch, or life?
I’ve heard it said that the virus has no moral brief, but the starker reality is that it carries with it a potent ecological brief, a message saying that unless the world is fecund again, pandemics will speed up the obliteration of the human species, itself a marvelous creation of nature, already weakened by war, by generations of slavery to capital, by poison and dead-numbing effects of digital weaponry, radiation, forced migration, wage slavery, mental anguish and terrible violence on women, children, people of colour and indigenous peoples – all required by The Patriarch as cogs in his capitalist-industrial-technocratic machine.
The virus, invented in a laboratory or not, is a biological entity that enters human bodies, causes symptoms as it goes about its own mission, propagating itself, tangling with host genomes, creating new conditions, challenging us in its own way, and like any infection, or deemed infection, it pushes our immune systems. Other viruses create other conditions, many of which are beneficial. Overall, the benefits outweigh the diseases.
The virome consists of vast assemblages of viruses in each and every body, habitat and biome. It surrounds us, fills and subsumes our every thought, breath and action. Viruses are the most abundant biological entities on earth. They make us who we are. Like with every aspect of the living cosmos, much of what happens is beneficial, and viral life seems to beget more life, creating our genetic identities. Evolutionary studies show that all life begets more life, despite the occasional disruption or cataclysmic event.
If invented, then the virus is not different from other invented beings, like dog breeds, plant breeds and even the eugenist caste creations, where, through exercise of a supremacist caste or class’s control, another caste or class or creature’s love, life and passions are harnessed, culled, consumed, engineered, enslaved, extorted, and artifacted to serve the supremacist project (factory farms, factory labour, pet industry, plant industry, monoculture agriculture, industrial fishery, dams-on-rivers, humans-in-slums, human trafficking, domestic labour, untouchable peoples and many more forms of subjugation).
Domesticated dogs go feral sometimes. They attack people sometimes. The dogs get impounded, spayed or killed, and there is a furor for a while. Domesticated plants go feral sometimes, usually after generations of breeding and enslavement, or after a natural disaster, like a volcanic explosion, or the desertification caused by modern civilisation. They, too, seem to invade territories controlled by humans for other purposes, including other plants deemed more useful. The new problem plants get weedicided, eradicated, and turned into biomass for some other project. This phenomenon gets new names, such as “the science and practice of invasion biology.”
Humans too, go feral, sometimes. They try to take back the control and agency they were systematically denied. They become targets of world leaders and other supremacists.
Now the virus is going feral. Viral. The solutions to this are confinements, containments, fear-mongering and authoritarian technics such as lockdowns and mandates regarding vaccines.
In all these instances, the aggressors, the hosts, the pathogens and the victims are actually contingent to the projects of The Patriarch. Besides, we all know that this virus and its quick evolving progeny can beat any vaccine. We all know The Patriarch needs the virus, the vaccines and human beings.
The Patriarch needs life for all his projects. It is his own dependency on human and non-human others, that he hates more than anything else. Would that we were all machines! He would not be so burdened, guilty, tormented. Machines can be turned on and off, in an instant.
During the lockdowns, the stopping of vehicles affected every human and non-human. A great number of humans were corralled in. There was no traffic. Other humans and non-humans surged onto streets. The exuberance of the latter offset the tragedy of the former (people desperate to get home). Many studies show that when air, water and land traffic stopped, biodiversity increased in most areas. This was true in our home in the Western Ghats too. Freshwater life had a reprieve from the pesticides washing into the streams and rivers. Insects bred unhindered by insecticides (momentarily unavailable because of the collapse of supply chains). Everywhere, people started gardening in balconies and yards, while others returned to hunting and foraging. Although this hurt some non-humans, overall, it was a return to another kind of life, and a far more direct existence. In the forest, friends reported seeing animals come closer, and they also reported some increase in illegal hunting. Men forced to take to the gun instead of the shopping bag. Men have always hunted for food. Now this ancient way of living is illegal only because The Patriarch legitimises another kind of degradation; the devouring of the land by his forces to feed his industrial systems and machines, including the slaves that work them and now wholly depend on them.
Actual human impact on this forest, man to tree, man to river, women to plants, people to the commons, is minimal compared to the post-Hiroshima assault on the whole biome. We cannot equate hand to hand combat to the unleashing of a nuclear or chemical arsenal, like Round up or Endosulfan or Agent Orange. Or the arsenal of earth-moving machinery.
I’ve heard that whales could once again hear each other sing underwater during the lockdowns, because of the reduction in ocean traffic. Friends say Olive Ridley turtles increased in certain coastal areas for a brief period, because of a near complete halt in trawling and netting. Air pollution dropped because of the grounding of aircraft, and great murmurations of birds could fly freely without hindrance from war planes and cargo planes and passenger planes. I know from my personal experience that I could walk through the streets of Bangalore without my eyes smarting from pollution, and I saw more birds and butterflies in the city than ever before. The resilience of life is obvious. It’s possible to see what it is capable of all the time.
I know the resilience of my own body, of human beings, non-human beings and of the great earth herself.
The increase in human numbers by over 4% in this same period overshadows the effect of one life form on another, but is not mentioned. However, human will is even more broken and hijacked by the Patriarch’s projects, by capitalism. Furthermore, the increase in other kinds of machines, industrial infrastructure and invasive medicine (all wreaking ecocide or genocide somewhere in the world) pales, in turn, the effect of the increase in human numbers, and even more the effect of one little, invisible life form on some of humankind.
I also heard that young people turned suicidal, and that mental illness rose during this great human confinement, another term for the lockdowns. Already estranged from the rest of the cosmos, modern humans are even more lonely. Indigenous people know the antidotes to loneliness and breakdown are communities of humans and non-humans. The Patriarch and his henchmen divide millions more from their loved ones while they live and also while they die. I cannot think of anything more terrifying than this.
As a rainforest activist, it is my daily work to find alliance amongst humans and non-humans to stop further assault. This is no simple task, as most humans see the so-called benefits of capitalism as great, and that life has never been so good. The assault on their bodies through the toxification of the environment, which has led to severely compromised immune systems – a necessary precondition for new diseases to run rife – is unperceivable, because of clever filters in place, addictions, and the numbing effects of petroleum-based lifestyles. Most people are hooked to modern capitalistic systems as providers of life, healers of disease and rescuers from death. A capitalist technocrat is like God. He is a life-giver and a death-controller. He can also assuage, deprive, save, confine and kill in the name of God, or science, for whatever he considers to be the greater common good. To which we are all subject. To which we cannot say no. This great hijacking of the human will is the horrific achievement of the pandemic.
So I seek alliance amongst those not yet wholly hijacked.
As a rewilder and restorationist, it is my sworn mission to salvage the ones burned, maimed, poisoned or reconstituted from the living earth by the fires of industrial civilisation. My friends, comrades and I run refuges for non-humans, and also humans. We see the need for safe houses, halfway homes, and intensive care units for our plant and animal kith and kin, and also for women, children, marginalised and indigenous peoples, and anyone wishing to break free from The Patriarch’s projects. We need every possibility to regroup and re-enter relationships where humans and non-humans can support each other, so that we may resist the last onslaughts. I find rewilding to be a worthy vocation.
As a member of the web of life, of the still substantial community of life, I try to unravel the effects of one member of this community, the virus, on another member of this same community, the human being. Unfortunately, without addressing the mission of The Patriarch, of omnicidal capital, we cannot examine our true relations with our non-human kith and kin.
Humans are slaves to The Patriarch. So is the great planet with its winds and lands and waters with trees and elephants and butterflies. So are the forests of my region. The Patriarch needs us alive and needs us dead for his project. It’s a real question how liberation will come. With a domination imperative unique in the entire life of the cosmos, he needs dead wood and living wood and feral wood (ecosystem services of forests). He needs dead water and living water and feral water (for irrigation, tidal and hydropower). He needs dead wind and living wind and feral wind (for air-conditioning, ventilators and turbines). He needs dead plants and animals and living plants and animals and feral plants and animals (for food and medicines and now for climate-saving biodiversity). Now he even needs dead fungi and living fungi and feral fungi (for more biodiversity). He needs dead viruses and living viruses and feral viruses (for evolution and now for vaccines and the great global reset). He needs dead humans, and living humans and feral humans (for research, trade, war and terrorism and slavery).
I see Covid-19 as a project of The Patriarch, of supremacist powers in the ruling class destroying people and saving people. Our lives are clenched in their hands. They have become the arbiters of human-non-human community, of the very web of existence. They give life, and they take away the foundation of life, through creating new hooks and needs. At the same time they destroy genuine relationships and our capacity to remember what the land was once like. However, because life is as powerful as it is, and because the forests are as resilient and fecund as they are, the world leaders and technocrats aim to harness life’s myriad powers for their projects. Where before they sought land, spices, plants, animals and slaves from the global South, and wood, water and minerals, now they hunt ecosystems and planetary forces (tides, sunshine, clouds, biomes (evolution itself) and slaves everywhere. It is the exuberance and wholeness of life that they seek to devour to fuel their existence.
I am witness to the land coming alive every moment of every day, so I know the full powers of life are still working. Life’s fecundity is unstoppable, it surges under every type of condition. Like the pigs in factory farms who have babies under impossible conditions, or men and women growing families during war, or forests having baby forests even when the whole climate is shifting, life creates life all the time and everywhere. The ever-entwining forests and winds and waters, with their immense creative forces, both tantalise and threaten The Patriarch, because life achieves with joy and felicity what he cannot ever do. He cannot create life yet, he can only try to force it to create itself. Whether under gun point or nuclear blasts, or dioxins in the cell of every creature, life is the regenerative force he wishes to tap into. Genetic and geologic engineering are only steps along the way.
I, too, am a creature of nature. Endowed with a particular passion, a wonderment of what this alive, half-alive, wild, half-wild, feral, domesticated, enslaved, tortured way of existence is. Aware that I am a part of all this through my body, my mind, my senses and other faculties, I experience inter-being in everything I do, everything I am, in every aspect of my body-being. I cannot even call it mine, as I feel the work of the forest through the lungs, and the skin and the gut and the mind of this body, itself a biome of sorts. This is the awakening from the nightmare that happened after some years of living here. I came alive to the undeniable truth that we are all inextricably intertwined. That ecology is the non-negotiable, ever-vital matrix in which I am completely held. That I also take part in it, through every action, and non-action, even in my sleep and dreams. As I awoke to The Patriarch’s shadow project, I awoke to the natural world’s life engendering service. Ecology makes more of itself and lives and thrives upon itself. Capitalism, the latest and most devastating avatar of patriarchy, and of ego, makes more of itself and lives and feeds upon its now disassembling self.
The Patriarch forms himself not in the image of some god; he tries to gain advantage to himself through the exuberance of life. His ego needs our eco.
However, he is a toxic mimic, imitating the form of creation but not its content. He is bent on destruction; total annihilation.
Unlike life. She lives and thrives through community and love and joy and play and inter-being and fecundity and beauty.
In solidarity with Kurdish women in their extraordinary mission, and through these thoughts, joining the clarion call for Life to overrun the patriarch wholly: to dismantle every cog and wheel of his stupendous machine. Let’s unhinge him. Let’s ally with eco, not his insufferable ego!
Suprabha Seshan is a rainforest conservationist. She lives and works at the Gurukula Botanical Sanctuary, a forest garden and community-based conservation centre in the Western Ghat mountains of Kerala. Her essays can be found in The Indian Quarterly, The Indian Express, Scroll.in, Hard News, and Economic and Political Weekly. She is currently working on her book, Rainforest Etiquette in a World Gone Mad, forthcoming from Context, Westland Publishers. She is an environmental educator and restoration ecologist, an Ashoka Fellow, and winner of the 2006 Whitley Fund for Nature award.