My Number One Planet…How ‘Bout You?

Happy Earth Day! I’m thankful someone about 50 years back had the foresight to begin a special day to think about and pay attention to this wonderful planet we call our own.

In Earth Day news, I was pleased to read that a team of researchers this winter were able to find, and get some photos of Ivory-billed Woodpeckers in Louisiana. I’ve mentioned them before, perhaps the most iconic of American birds, a giant woodpecker of the Southern deep woods and swamps that many are for some reason eager to write off as extinct. So even though their findings made news as far afield as British newspapers, it will likely not change people’s minds if they inexplicably want the bird to be gone. There are a series of odd paradoxes and errors in logic applied to the secretive bird. For instance, people who manage to get a poor quality photo or video of one (the bird was long hunted by both Natives and settlers and is thus remarkably shy around people) get written off because the pictures are deemed “not good enough” or “inconclusive.” Come up with a decent photo of one, as happened one time in the ’70s, and the same experts say the photo is too good and thus must be staged or fake. Anyway, without belaboring the point, let’s say that optimists among us are pleased that there’s still more evidence that the “ghost bird” still flies….adding to the 40+ records, several photographic, detailed by naturalist/author Christopher Haney in the first decade of the 2000s alone in areas as far flung as southernmost Illinois and coastal North Carolina.

Undertaking a serious search for a bird like that takes money, which brings me to my main Earth Day theme. Last night somehow our family got talking about Elon Musk, which generated some strong opinions pro and con. Personally, I admire his curiosity and ambition but question many of his choices. Especially his fixation on Mars. The Space X guy keeps firing rockets up, many just going a few miles then falling back down, and is full-speed ahead on getting to Mars. He even hopes to be able to build a city there by 2050. To which, again, I ask “why?”

A brief science tutorial. The average temperature on the Red Planet is anything but red hot – about -80 F in fact. And while there is an atmosphere, it’s nothing like ours. It contains only 1% oxygen (Earth’s atmosphere is about 21%) . So you’d better take along some woolly socks and maybe a few air tanks if you want to go space truckin’. Obviously, any habitation there would require huge domes with oxygen (presumably rocketed in from here) piped in and some form of climate control… not to mention water tankered in from… well, your kitchen taps. There’s no water there they we know of either.

Musk casually throws around figures into the trillions of dollars required to build a permanent settlement there. But I thought, let’s get back closer to the imaginable and look a the cost of just one manned flight getting there and back home safely. NASA put the cost of that at just under $3 billion. Three billion to fly for months or years, get out , maybe knock a golf ball a few feet, say something like it’s another small step for man… then hightail back to our little blue ball in space.

Now, if it’s NASA that comes from the pockets of you and me. If Elon does it, it comes from his own deep pockets (which of course have been funded by our consumer choices.) Still, whoever funds it, doesn’t it seem just a bit wrong to spend so much for so little?

To put it in context, here are a few things that could be done with $3 b down here. For instance, take the Amazon. Not the warehouse that sends you books on how to straighten your hair and shiny hair curlers, but the big old rainforest in South America. It’s deforestation is having serious effects on the climate of the southern Hemisphere, adding to extinctions of many species of plants and animals and ultimately creates farmland that’s only usable for a couple of years due to overall lack of nutrients in the soil – which quickly bakes anyway. Bloomberg magazine estimates it costs, on average under $1000 to buy an acre of actual rainforest there. Some United Nations agencies suggest it might be up to $2000. If we split the difference and guess $1500, that means you could buy a full square mile of jungle (640 acres) for just shy of a million. For the cost of one Mars flight, you could save about 3000 square miles. For two flights, you could buy an area of forest as big as Connecticut and have money left over to pay for security and game wardens, or maybe pay the Natives who try in vain to have sustainable farms on the land. Brazil might be encouraging its use for lumber right now, but do we think they’d turn down an offer of several hundred billion dollars up front to turn a good chunk of the Amazon into a natural reserve? I don’t.

Or, we could tackle the problem of “greenhouse heating” and our reliance on dirty fossil fuels. Obviously, energy is a big and complex problem lacking easy solutions, but let’s just imagine how much of a difference wider use of solar power could make. In areas well-suited to it – particularly fast-growing Sun Belt locales like Texas and Arizona – a substantial amount of the electricity consumed could come from “Mr. Sol”. Getting definitive stats on the costs of that are tricky, but averages suggest it would take about 24 normal solar panels on the roof of one 1500 sq. foot house in such areas to provide enough electricity to run it completely. Typical prices to have those installed, are about $15 000 per house. A bit expensive, but a long-term investment that eventually pays for itself. Well, that $3 billion could get about 200 000 houses off the conventional grid and self-sustaining. Not an answer to all the problems, but enough to make most of El Paso, or Austin no longer dependent on oil or gas… and create a ton of jobs in the process. Those panels don’t float themselves up to the roofs or get hooked up. Every Mars flight could be Tucson, or part of Phoenix, or San Bernadino going “green” instead.

Or let’s think smaller still, and more hands-on. Trees add oxygen to our atmosphere, prevent erosion and flooding and of course, are home to beneficial birds. Not to mention cute squirrels. How about a giant tree-planting campaign. Reforest some of the abandoned farms in the Midwest and New England, fill in some empty lots in run-down cities, give each school child a tree for wherever they want it. Little oak saplings cost about 89 cents each and are ideal shade trees and food sources for wildlife. Rounding up to a dollar each, that could be about three billion trees for the cost of the rocket flight. Even if we cut that in half, and added in some extra soil and paid some out-of-work people to put them in the ground if volunteers were in short supply, a billion and a half trees would be growing.

Well that’s a lot of acorns and a lot of forest in the making. Assuming we plant them about ten feet apart, you’d need something like 500 per acre. Three billion dollars? That’s about two million acres growing, or about 3000 square miles. An area bigger than Delaware going green for every Mars shot.

That’s just a start. I’m sure many of you could come up with equally inventive and beneficial ways to put that money to use. Personally, I’d admire Mr. Musk a lot more if he used his creative noodle to come up with ways to help our one and only planet rather than think about how we, as a species can move and despoil another one.

2021…Strange Days

Strange days are coming… strange days are here. It might have been the Doors singing that about 50 years back, but it sure does seem like it applies more than ever now, doesn’t it? If you’re not convinced, take a look at a couple of news stories that you might have escaped your attention this week while you were making rather merry.

First, let’s go to Illinois. The heartland. The farm belt. Think Illinois and you might think of the Sears Tower, Wrigley Field and a lot of corn farms. Making it more surprising that a sasquatch was reported there recently. According to the Chicago Tribune, University of Illinois and others, an engineer recently reported one crossing the road not far from Springfield a few nights back. The man said he was driving out of Cass County, near the state capital, around 10:30 PM when “I saw a large animal jump into the road about 40 yards ahead. When it hit the road, I could see the large legs spread wide and …large swinging, hairy arms. The arms swung back and forth, close to the ground as its body was leaning forward. It leaped across the road in two jumps… I said to myself, out loud, ‘F***ing bigfoot!” . It was about two seconds before it disappeared into the darkness. He described it as a tall as his car windshield, even when hunched over and big enough to block out the lights of an oncoming car.

A photo published from Google Earth from the area he said it occurred looked… Midwestern. There is a woodlot, but the scene is dominated by a large farm field. However (there’s always a “however”), as one local radio station posted up there “if you know any engineers, you know it’s highly likely this is a highly educated guy.” And, a look at a satellite map does show an extensive band of forest only a couple of miles away. More surprising yet, a search shows that Illinois has sightings of Sasquatch almost annually, with another “good” visual sighting in a state forest near the Kentucky border this summer. There was even a report near Chicago in 2010, a daytime report which prompted a woman to stop her car on a busy road and follow the creature into the forest, noting its “musky wet dog odor.” Again, a large area of forest lay nearby.

When I think of “bigfoot”, I usually think the dense, huge rainforests of the Pacific northwest … Oregon, Washington, British Columbia. Not the land of wheat and Cubs hats. But, I know from personal contacts that stories of them abound from the southern Appalachians, with many locals claiming to have seen and heard them. As I’ve said before, it’s frustrating there isn’t any concrete evidence of the species…but where there’s smoke there’s usually fire. And there seems to be some smoke over Illinois even. Let’s hope some people got dash cams for Christmas there! Strange days…

Critters which we think probably exist but have no proof of. Which leads us to the second item. NASA, that great scientific division of the U.S. Government that explores space and puts men on the moon (“if you believe…”) has recently hired 24 noted theologians, including a British bishop, to “assess how the world’s major religions would react to the existence of life beyond earth,” or as other reports put it, “to prepare humanity for alien contact.” The team includes a noted rabbi and Islamic imam as well, and initial reports are “”Christian, Jewish and Islamic teaching would not be affected by the discovery of alien life.” NASA spokesman Carl Pilken went as far as to suggest the idea we were alone in the universe is “just inconceivable. When there are 100 billion stars in this galaxy, and over 100 billion galaxies…”. Quite a long way removed from the famous military Project Blue Book, which basically declared all UFOs were either swamp gas or hippies on acid trips seeing things and aliens only exist in bad Hollywood films, isn’t it? By the way, the Vatican has studied the topic itself and in 2008 declared “no conflict between believing in God and the possibility of extraterrestrial brothers” exists.

Strange days… Those two stories of hypothetical species makes the third one more of a head-scratcher. And actually sparks some conspiracy theories in the ornithology world. The US Fish & Wildlife Service recently declared over 20 species extinct, with little notice. Those included two American birds, the Bachman’s Warbler and the Ivory-billed Woodpecker.

Both species were known to inhabit the dense, flooded swamplands of the southeast. The warbler, a little yellow bird with an inconspicuous song, was last recorded in the 1960s. The woodpecker however, is a different story.

The Ivory-billed Woodpecker is perhaps the most fabled of all American birds. The largest woodpecker on the continent, bigger than a crow, and very showy. The cartoon Woody Woodpecker was apparently based on its look. But unlike Woody, the Ivory-billeds are also very shy, by all accounts. It eats beetles in dead trees, and occasionally wild fruit, and was hunted by the natives. It was hunted more by settlers. By the 1910s, it was declared extinct. Then in 1939, a respected scientist and his team found a family in Louisiana and studied them around a nest, taking the only good photos and movie footage existing of them. Unfortunately, Singer sewing machines owned the land, and when they found that rare birds lived on it, they doubled down on cutting down the forest in case the government tried to turn it into a wildlife preserve. It wasn’t long before they were declared extinct yet again.

But, that notwithstanding, almost annually, reports came in of them, from the dense swamps of the Florida panhandle, and southern Louisiana. Occasionally elsewhere from the South. Good photos were taken of one in 1971; scientists scoffed and suggested it might have been an antique specimen nailed to trees high up. Later computer study showed the bird was actually in different positions in the two photos, making that all the more unlikely, but illustrating the Catch 22 with the bird. Get a good photo of one, and people say it’s staged and fake, get a bad photo or video clip of one, as has happened recently, and people say “inconclusive.”

The bird lives in dense woods, where some say you can’t see more than 75 feet in any direction due to the vegetation. Poisonous Cottonmouth snakes abound, as do alligators frequently, and more bugs than you can shake a stick at. And the birds are notoriously shy after centuries of being hunted by humans. Not many people, even serious birders, go looking for them where they are likely to occur. Yet a few do, and from time to time, they find Ivory-billeds. A group found at least one in Arkansas in 2004; they got decent enough video to be accepted by the scientific community. The Ivory-billed lives!

Since then, there’ve been a number of other good sightings, in Louisiana, Florida and Mississippi, with a few photos to show for it. Rather pixelated ones, alas, distant shots from a trail cam in woods; video of one flying through a swamp in Florida taken from a kayak. I recently read the book Taunting Extinction, the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, in which the author goes to great lengths to analyze and prove a photo taken in 2009 was in fact one of the rare birds. It’s convincing, but not helped by things like his use of beer cans to visually demonstrate comparative neck lengths of different birds. It makes the point, but loses points among the professor crowd when you’re evidence is that the bird in the photo has a neck like a full tallboy beer can and the closest type of bird has a neck less than half a beer can long! (I do note, he offers more scientific data than just that and was a professional scientist himself).

So with apparent evidence of the bird still existing only 10 years or so back, and with a confirmed history of “coming back from extinction “ – an impossibility if one thinks about it – why is the government so quick to declare the bird gone? All the more odd – a species which is similarly rare, the Eskimo Curlew, has not been labeled extinct, despite not being seen since 1963, and not in the U.S. since one landed in Galveston in 1962. This was a bird which migrated right over the Great Plains from its arctic home and liked to spend time standing in grassy fields. How hard would it be to see one of them, a bird standing over a foot-tall with a long bill, if they landed…especially near a large city like Houston or Omaha which used to have them? But the government has yet to consider it extinct. It makes you wonder. But as Fox Mulder used to say, “the truth is out there.”

So to summarize, a big species we think exists keeps showing up and reports are being taken seriously; species from outer-space that until recently authorities refused to acknowledge as even being possible are being looked at by focus groups sponsored by the government, but a well-loved bird which is highly elusive but keeps showing up is suddenly declared officially gone. Strange days indeed!

May your 2022 be full of wonder and mystery and times as happy as a mosquito-bit kayaker taping an “extinct” bird!

Thankful Thursday XXXIX – Sasquatch, And Other Things We Don’t Know

This Thankful Thursday (or Saturday) I’m thankful to not be a Know-it-all…although some who’ve known me might dispute that assertion! I’m actually glad no one’s a “know-it-all”. I’m glad there are still things we, as a species, haven’t figured out yet. thankful for mystery. After all, who doesn’t love a good Agatha Christie story? I’m glad there are things that are like that for all of us, and that unlike her books, haven’t yet been wrapped up neatly with a “that solves that” answer.

I thought of that this week while reading a book about American parks. The author categorized a couple of national parks – Congaree and Crater Lake as “mystery.” Fair enough. Neither gets a lot of traffic and both have an air of mystery around them. Crater Lake is said to be the deepest lake in the U.S., but sits hidden in the mountains. It took decades to be found, even after the Oregon Territory had been settled and rumors of its existence abounded. Furthermore, there’s a huge log that floats around it sticking upright for totally unexplained reasons. Congaree is a deep, floodplain swamp, ancient cypress trees growing out of the murky water. Bugs, Water Moccasins and alligators abound, and trails are few so not surprisingly, so too are casual day-tripping sightseers. Adding to the mystery of the place are occasional reports suggesting that maybe, just maybe, two of the rarest types of birds in the Americas still live there – the fabled Ivory-billed Woodpecker and the diminutive Bachman’s Warbler. Both have always been, by most accounts rare and hard to find, preferring just the inhospitable flooded forests that Congaree offers. The tiny warbler, a bright yellow little songbird that eats bugs, hasn’t been seen for decades. The woodpecker, on the other hand, is large, showy…but wary of humans at best. It was last heard from in 2005 when some blurry video in an Arkansas swamp seemed to show one fly by, backed up by disputed eye-witness sightings there. If either still exists is debatable, but nature-lovers like myself live in hope that they are…perhaps in Congaree’s dark recesses.

They’re mysteries not too unlike the “great” American one – Sasquatch. The famed Bigfoot has been reported since Europeans began to settle the Pacific coast forests…and long before by the local Natives who had various names for it including “Sasquatch”. For over a hundred years people have wondered if they exist, and gone out searching for them, with little to show so far. A few videos which might have been faked, suggestively huge footprints in mud, weird unearthly screaming sounds in the forest. One wonders why, with the settlers love of guns, someone along the way hasn’t shot one, inethical as that might be, or hit one with a car. Likewise though, one wonders how there could be so many similar stories through the pre-internet decades of big, unknown ape-like creatures from Montana to B.C. if something we don’t yet know is out there. It’s a mystery.

UFOs, the Loch Ness Monster, what’s out on the outer limits of the universe… no one really knows yet. That’s exciting to the scientific part of me…and comforting to the spiritual part that likes to think that no matter how smart people are, we’re still dwarfed by something bigger than all of us…something that has the answers but will only share them when we’re ready. Til then, if we want to know, all we can do is load up on bugspray and head out into the forest primeval.

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