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Book Review: Junk Raft by Marcus Eriksen

Junk Raft: An Ocean Voyage and a Rising Tide of Activism to Fight Plastic Pollution tells the terrifying and important story of plastics in our oceans, framed by Marcus Eriksen’s journey aboard Junk, the all-plastic raft he and his sailing partner took from California to Hawaii to raise awareness of the plight of our seas.

Eriksen, who would later go on to co-found the organization 5 Gyres Institute with his wife, Anna, writes about the 2,600-mile journey over eighty-eight days and its challenges—among them, structural problems with the raft and bracing storms—interspersing the narrative with facts that all consumers should know about plastic and its effects on the environment, especially the oceans. For example, even if we are among those who recycle, it’s not enough: up to 12 million tons of plastics end up in the ocean.

The statistics are staggering: Plastic production, which was zero during World War II, rose to 40 million tons by 1972, to 311 million tons in 2013, and is projected to reach 1 billion tons by 2050. Yet the recycling rate in the United States is only 9.2 percent (based on the latest study in 2013), and, even more alarming, non-recyclable plastics are exported to countries where environmental standards and workers’ health are unregulated. Of a visit to a processing site in India, Eriksen writes, “After ten minutes, my eyes were tingling and the back of my throat burned. The men [working] in this room absorb the largest dose of volatile plasticizers and pollutants, and according to a local NGO, they give up somewhere around twenty years of their lifespan for two dollars per day sorting our trash.”

India and China are among countries that send the plastic right back to the U.S. via new products created with the plastic sent to them. To tackle the problem at its inception, Eriksen advocates for an end the “throwaway culture” that leads to such waste in the first place. “I’ve witnessed a growing movement to end throwaway living…We need zero-waste and end-of-life design for everything we create; a world in which social and environmental justice becomes part of product and systems design.”

A veteran of the Persian Gulf War, Ericksen has a unique perspective on the politics of plastic: After the war, while rafting on the Mississippi, he “witnessed a never-ending trail of trash, which had its roots in the petroleum I had been sent to defend in Kuwait. Now I watched it drift to the ocean via America’s greatest watershed.” During some of the quieter moments during his journey onboard Junk, he reflects on the sense of betrayal he felt as a veteran: “I had given everything, a willingness to kill and be killed, for the sake of cheap oil and national interests.”

Junk Raft details the history and contemporary problem of plastics, including their production, the powerful lobbying that keeps such items as plastic bags in the marketplace, and the devastating effect plastic has on marine life. Countries like Germany and Chile are on the forefront of recycling that works—from reducing packaging to requiring producers to recover the waste from their own products—and by contrast, Eriksen writes, the U.S. is the only country of the thirty-five members of the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development that does not have extended producer responsibility for packaging. Only ten U.S. states have bottle-recycling programs.

When it comes to plastics, marine animals are the biggest losers of all. Various studies have estimated that between 9 and 35 percent of fish have plastics in their stomachs—and this doesn’t even include sea lions and seabirds, and all those animals caught in discarded fishing gear. If today’s plastic waste goes unabated, up to 99 percent of seabirds will have ingested plastic by 2050. “Even in fish markets,” Eriksen writes, “clams and fish have been found with abundant micro- and nanoplastics in their guts, which we ingest if we eat them whole.” One recent study in the U.S. and Indonesia found that 25 percent of the fish in markets had plastics in their stomachs.

While the statistics are daunting, Eriksen writes with optimism—yet it is only through commitment to change our ways that life will improve for the oceans and its creatures. Eriksen writes, “I have tremendous hope. I am confident that we possess the collective intelligence and will to overcome the course that was set in the last century…Are we capable of replacing the globalization of stuff with the globalization of new ideas to transform our culture of consumption? To rebut Kurt Vonnegut’s epitaph for our species—‘Nice try’—I argue: ‘Not done.’”

 

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Book Review: Wildlife Spectacles by Vladimir Dinets

 

Wildlife Spectacles: Mass Migrations, Mating Rituals, and Other Fascinating Animal Behaviors by Vladimir Dinets is a gorgeous book that takes readers on an unforgettable journey into the lives of some of our planet’s most magnificent creatures, from muskoxen to moths, with spectacular photographs and incredible stories.

Wildlife Spectacles is divided into three major sections: Great Migrations (migrating animals on land and in air and water), Spectacles of Love (breeding habits and mating rituals), and Everyday Spectacles (how animals hunt, play, and otherwise spend their days).

Author and photographer Vladimir Dinets has focused Wildlife Spectacles on the wild animals of North America, noting: “Some of the most amazing wildlife spectacles in the world, such as mass migrations, mating dances, and predator-prey interactions, occur in North America, but the information on them is often scattered and difficult to find, and many are virtually unknown to nonspecialists.” Dinets not only offers information about and insights into these incredible events—such as the section “How Do Birds Know Where to Fly?”—but he also includes “Viewing Tips” at the end of each section for readers who wish to seek out and witness these spectacles for themselves. The tips include such details as location and the best time of year to visit.

As Dinets notes in his introduction, “North America has seen its share of horrible abuses of the environment, and there are still powerful political forces bent on sacrificing every last living thing to so-called business interests, which is a politically correct euphemism for greed.” In so many ways, this book makes a powerful argument for protecting the wildness we still have left. The desolate beauty of many of Dinets’ photographs make it possible to imagine “a time when the world was free of fences, highways, sprawling cities, pesticide-laden farms, shipping lanes, dams, and miles-long driftnets”—and certainly will inspire readers toward conservation, if they are not conservation-minded already.

In the first section—alongside photographs and maps showing the migrations of animals by land, sea, and air—are fascinating facts and anecdotes about various creatures. Once, Dinets witnessed a pack of orcas attempting to attack a sea lion herd when they were interrupted by humpback whales who surfaced between them, trumpeting and spouting—three different times, the whales interfered as the orcas tried to attach different packs of sea lions. In addition to such stories are the more depressing facts of human impacts on wildlife, beginning with the very first humans and gaining momentum in the eighteenth century, when “modern technologies and market-oriented hunting arrived in North America, and massive slaughters of everything that moved began anew.”

From the oceans (whose animals, even though better protected from overfishing, are still killed by boats, fishing gear, plastic, and climate change) to the plains (where only fifteen thousand years ago roamed such animals as mammoths, mastadons, camels, giant sloths, and wild yaks) are stories of species gone extinct and otherwise suffering at the hands of humans—and perhaps this is what makes those creatures who still exist so important to witness. Dinets photographs and writes about the migrations of animals from bison and elk to the tiny Mormon cricket and the montane vole. His descriptions add so much to the photos, as if to invite readers into the scene; of the sounds of caribou herds, he writes, “They make a lot of noises, but the most unusual and persistent one is the loud clicking of their knee and elbow joints.”

No animal is too small to be included here. Among the more unusual migrations covered are those of butterflies, beetles, dragonflies, and ladybugs. No book on waterway migrations would be complete without mentioning salmon, but also mentioned here are grunion, turtles, frogs, toads, salamanders, eels, and crabs.

Similarly, in the next two sections of the book, Dinets showcases not only the mating and predatory rituals of large animals like seals, sea lions, and elk but also those of termites, ants, and fireflies. The book is peppered with wonderful details about courtship rituals; for example, birds are not the only species to sing while courting: so do insects, whales, alligators, and crocodiles. Among those to use dancing to attract mates are birds, fish, butterflies, spiders, and slugs.

And despite the challenges of living in today’s world—“Diseases, predators, and particularly parasites often make it totally miserable…the amount of innocent suffering in nature is impossible to fathom”—animals do play, and “watching them can be pure joy.” Polar bears, elephant seals, crocodiles, fishes, and even insects are among those who have been observed in play—and species have even been seen mingling in play, such as fox cubs playing with domestic kittens, or an alligator with a river otter. Crows and ravens are “uncommonly playful.”

Wildlife Spectacles opens our eyes to the worlds we don’t see often enough, if ever, in North America, and it’s a book that engages not only visually but emotionally and intellectually. A wonderful gift book for anyone who loves animals and nature, it’s also a book that we should all have on our shelves to remind us how precious—and how vulnerable—our wild places are.

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Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness

Peter Godfrey-Smith has a passion for cephalopods, the class of sea animals that includes the octopus, cuttlefish, and nautilus, among others. Animals that among the oldest creatures on this planet.

Measured in numbers of neurons, the octopus has the largest brain of all invertebrates. Its eyes are remarkably similar to ours. And, like us, the octopus can unscrew jars, recognize faces, plot creative escapes, and generally make plenty of mischief.

Peter notes instances of octopuses, who don’t like bright lights, squirting jets of water at the lights above their tanks in order to short circuit them. In another case, an octopus didn’t like a specific researcher and always sent a dose of water her way when she passed.

Their ability to change colors is hard to fathom. And nobody has fully cracked the code for what all those colors and patterns mean. Darker colors tend to signal aggression; an octopus will turn black when attacking another. But often it seems the light show is occurring completely on its own.

Godfrey-Smith devotes about half of the book exploring the evolution of sentience, which I found the least interesting aspect of the book. Then again, it’s hard to compete with an octopus. What I most enjoyed about the book were his experiences with them in their environment. Peter spent a great amount of time off the coast of Australia at a place known as Octopolis because it was home to so many of these creatures. Witnessing their interactions, their soap opera lives, and the tragic briefness of it all — they only live a few years — is by itself good enough reason to read this book.

What’s sobering about this book is learning about the many scientific tests conducted on these creatures, some using electric shocks. Fortunately, these animals now receive a degree of protection as “honorary vertebrates,” but that doesn’t save them from the prison of tanks.

What’s nice about this book is how it places the reader underwater with these amazing creatures, hopefully, encouraging readers to consider what they can do to protect them. Giving up on calamari (and all seafood) would be a good start.

Peter Godfrey-Smith has a passion for cephalopods, And by the end of this book I suspect most readers will as well.

Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness

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Book Review: What a Fish Knows by Jonathan Balcombe

It’s difficult to think of another title that is more important to the oceans—and therefore to the earth’s entire ecosystem—than What a Fish Knows: The Inner Lives of Our Underwater Cousins by Jonathan Balcombe. Not only does Balcombe introduce us to the fascinating, complex lives of these sentient creatures, he shows us how devastatingly we are treating them, to the point of endangerment and extinction.

While fishes aren’t usually at the top of the list of animals that elicit human sympathy (“We hear no screams and see no tears when their mouths are impaled and their bodies pulled from the water”), Balcombe writes that it is only because of their differences that we do not see their suffering: “Crying out in pain is as ineffective for a fish in air as crying out in pain is for us when we are submerged.” Fishes do feel pain, of course; they just express it in very different ways, and we must adjust our way of thinking in order to see it and acknowledge it.

And of course, fishes feel so much more than pain; What a Fish Knows is divided into sections about what a fish perceives, feels, thinks, and knows as well as how it breeds and how it suffers. (Balcombe chooses to use the word fishes rather than fish to acknowledge that they are individuals with personalities and relationships.)

Each section in this book is more interesting and engaging than the last, with information on the habits, abilities, and perceptions of many of the 30,000 species of fishes in our waters. The facts about fishes’ uniqueness and diversity are fascinating in themselves—for example, that ocean sunfishes carry 300 million eggs while sharks reproduce via one live birth at a time—but what’s most interesting are the scientific and anecdotal stories of how alike fishes are to other animals, shattering any misconceptions readers may have about fishes being dull or unperceiving. In fact, Balcombe writes, “A small squid can learn mazes faster than dogs do, and a small goby fish can memorize in one trial the topography of a tide pool by swimming over it at high tide—a feat few if any humans could achieve.”

Fishes not only have excellent hearing (which makes them sensitive to human-generated underwater noise), they can tell the difference between classical music and the blues. Their keen sense of smell allows them recognize one another and warn other fishes of danger. They have more taste buds than any other animal, and they enjoy the touch of one another and of humans, as Balcombe shows in several anecdotes, including one about a fish who “even rolls side to side to be petted properly, as a dog or pig will do.”

In addition, What a Fish Knows portrays the ways in which fishes form close bonds (goldfishes, for example, should never live alone in a bowl or tank), as well as how they learn, play, parent, form relationships, and problem solve. They have good memories and express flexibility, curiosity, determination. They cooperate and they deceive.

Of note in this book is something that is all too frequently missing from other books about animals’ sentience: the irony of the impact of the scientific experiments that prove to us that these animals experience the range of emotions that they do. As Balcombe writes, “Fishes show the hallmarks of pain both physiologically and behaviorally,” and he acknowledges the cruelty of the experiments fishes endure for us to gain this knowledge. He writes of the “pain, distress, and ensuing disorientation caused by blinding salmon” and assures us, after one experiment, that “the surgeonfishes were returned to their homes on the reef.”

Perhaps the most important part of this book, especially after reading everything up to this point, is the section on humans’ exploitation of fishes—not just because it is shocking but because we have the power to change it. The number of fishes killed by humans each year is between 1 and 2.7 trillion (which does not include the great numbers of fishes caught illegally, recreationally, as bycatch, in “ghost nets,” or as feed for fish farms). After learning so much about the individual personalities of fishes, this number is especially staggering.

And, Balcombe points out, the fishes “do not die nicely.” They are crushed to death in nets; they are suffocated; they suffer decompression, in which the esophagus turns inside out, the eyes bulge from their orbits, organs are displaced, and hemorrhaging occurs, among other horrors. Fishes raised in captivity fare no better—they are electrocuted or decapitated and left to bleed out. Even if the amount of toxins in fishes (“Fish flesh is the most contaminated of all foods”) isn’t enough to prevent one from eating fishes after learning about their emotional, intellectual, and social lives, the brutal practices of an industry that subjects them to such torture should offer more than enough incentive.

Balcombe also addresses the fact that recreational fishing and farmed fishing are not better alternatives to the commercial fishing industry, as well as the problems of “ghost nets” (the up to 640,000 tons of netting and other equipment lost by fishing boats) and “bycatch” (those fishes and other animals caught unintentionally by the fishing industry). The main victims of ghost nets are dolphins, seals, turtles, and seabirds, and bycatch (whose victims include seabirds, whales, seals, and penguins) is responsible for 40 percent of the global fish catch. All of these animals are, because they are unwanted, thrown away. Because we have reduced predatory fishes (the ones humans like to eat) by more than two-thirds, Balcombe likens eating fishes to eating wildlife, and he quotes Sylvia Earle: “Think of everything in the fish market as bush meat. These are the eagles, the owls, the lions, the tigers, the snow leopards, the rhinoceroses of the ocean.”

This powerful, accessible book will ensure that we never look at a fish the same way again, whether it’s a pet or one in the sea—and it will certainly inspire us to keep them off our plates.

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Holy Mōlī: Albatross and Other Ancestors

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The Laysan albatross is known as Mōlī in Hawaiian. It is difficult not to speak in superlatives when describing the albatross. The bird has a wingspan longer than most humans are tall. Albatross far outlive most other birds — with one active albatross now 64 years old. They spend most of their lives  at sea, gliding just a few inches above the waves. Only 5% of their lives are spent on land — and this is where they are particularly vulnerable, when they are breeding and caring for their chicks.

Author Hob Osterlund is founder of the Kaua’i Albatross Network an organization that works to protect these birds. And through her writing you experience firsthand the challenges she and the birds face in establishing their relatively new colony. Generation by generation, Osterlund shares a wealth of stories, some happy and some not so.

Like the story of twin chicks, born to a couple that cannot possibly provide for both. Osterlund writes:

If you are like a lot of people, you might interrupt me now. You might ask if there wasn’t a way to hand-feed the chicks. I would have to refer you to Aaron; feeding a seabird is more complex than feeding a songbird. You have to be trained and officially authorized to slurry a squid and force-feed a ‘tross.

You might also ask whether The Twins should be euthanized to prevent their inevitable suffering. You might blame our species, and your own good self, for the many ways we’ve harmed the birds and their oceans. You might search for data to diminish your sorrow, to find a precedent. Alas, you will find little consolation in facts. None, actually. An albatross pair simply cannot catch and carry enough food to sustain two offspring.

We must try to be as brave as the babes, you and I.

But this is much more than a book about the albatross.

Interspersed are personal stories of a woman who lost her mother way too early. A woman who migrated to Hawaii after having been summoned in a dream by her ancestor.

Osterlund is a wonderful writer, deftly documenting a painful childhood while retaining her sense of humor throughout. She believes strongly in the power of humor, and this attitude carries through her writing.

As a bird lover, I appreciate how birds and humans are treated equally in this book. The birds have names, strong personalities, complex lives. They are, in other words, a lot like us. And, in other ways, they are our betters. Their navigational skills put most GPS devices to shame. And their willingness to raise chicks not of their own making is inspiring.

This is a lovely book about devoting your life to another species and coming to terms with your own.

Holy Moli: Albatross and Other Ancestors

Oregon State University Press

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Film Review: Cowspiracy: The Sustainability Secret

Okay, so this isn’t a book review — but it’s such an important documentary that I wanted to review it here on EcoLit Books. (The book connection: As you watch the film, you’ll learn about a few books to add to your reading list, including Comfortably Unaware and The World Peace Diet.)

Cowspiracy (which is currently still available for its special Earth Day price of $1) covers the impact of animal agriculture on the planet — it’s the number-one contributor to human-induced climate change and affects everything from the rainforests to the oceans — and why some of the biggest environmental organizations never talk about it.

cowspiracy

Filmmaker Kip Andersen interviews representatives of governmental and “environmental” organizations, including the Sierra Club, Oceana, Surfrider (he tried to talk to Greenpeace, which wouldn’t agree to speak with him), and it’s fascinating to watch them stumble over their words when asked about animal agriculture’s impact on the planet.

And yet the facts speak for themselves. To produce just one quarter-pound burger takes 660 gallons of water (in other words, two months’ worth of showers). One gallon of dairy milk uses 1,000 gallons of water to produce, and for every one pound of fish caught, there are five pounds of bycatch (including dolphins, sharks, turtles, and penguins). To protect cattle-grazing lands in the United States West, ranchers kill coyotes, wolves, mountain lions, cougars — and wild horses and burrows are being rounded up and held so that cattle ranchers can use public lands for grazing.

Why won’t so many environmental groups talk about this? It’s not an easy topic, with agribusiness being so powerful. In Brazil, 1,100 activists have been killed for speaking out against animal agriculture. And of course, as Michael Pollan says in the film, asking people not to eat meat and dairy is a “political loser” for member-based organizations.

Yet there are both individuals and organizations who will speak the truth, and this is where the heart of the film is. A spokesperson for the Sea Shepherd Conservation society says there is “no such thing as sustainable fishing,” and quotes what founder Paul Watson often says: If the oceans die, we die. “That’s not a tagline,” she adds. “That’s the truth.”

Cowspiracy contains some difficult truths for omnivores, but it’s important viewing for anyone who’s concerned about the environment — and the last half hour is truly inspiring for those who are open to making a difference. (And in the last twenty minutes is one of the sweetest moments I’ve seen in a film…don’t miss it.)

“You can’t be an environmentalist and eat animal products. Period,” says Howard Lyman, former cattle rancher and author of Mad Cowboy. “Kid yourself if you want…but don’t call yourself an environmentalist.”

Visit Cowspiracy to learn more. And even if you don’t watch the entire film, do check out the film trailer, read some of the facts, and find out how to take action.

 

“In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” 

— Martin Luther King, Jr.

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Book Review: Comfortably Unaware: What We Choose to Eat Is Killing Us and Our Planet by Richard Oppenlander

Richard Oppenlander’s Comfortably Unaware is a book everyone on the planet should read. Unfortunately, the book’s biggest drawback is that it may not feel accessible to those who need to read it most.

In Comfortably Unaware, Oppenlander makes the case for why the planet needs us humans to adopt a plant-based diet in order to preserve the earth’s rapidly dwindling resources. His sources and statistics are compelling and spot-on—and yet they’re not nearly as well known among environmentalists as they should be. Without question, to be an environmentalist is to be a vegan; as Oppenlander highlights throughout this slender book, animal agriculture is the single biggest cause of our worst environmental problems. From the oceans (raising animals for food pollutes our waterways more than all other industries combined) to the rainforests (70 percent of the world’s rainforests have been destroyed to raise livestock) to the air (the farming of animals is responsible for 20 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions), Oppenlander offers staggering statistics that should make all of us think about our diets.

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And for those who feel they are not yet willing to give up meat, Oppenlander points out that the depletion caused by animal agriculture may leave us with nothing at all. Already, 55 percent of the world’s fresh water is being used to raise animals for food. In the U.S. alone, 70 percent of all grain feeds livestock instead of humans, while worldwide more than a billion people suffer from hunger and malnutrition. He notes that “80 percent of the world’s starving children live in countries where food surpluses are fed to animals that are then killed and eaten by more well-off individuals in developed countries.”

In addition to environmental concerns, the book highlights other reasons for adopting a plant-based diet and tackles some of the more popular myths about animal protein and osteoporosis (as one example: countries with the highest diary consumption have the highest incidences of osteoporosis). Oppenlander also notes the horrific conditions under which farmed animals suffer and writes of the sensitivity of pigs, the inquisitive intelligence of chickens, the personalities and emotions of turkeys. While the depletion of the earth’s resources is his main focus here, he paints a full picture of why the diet of the future needs to be plant-based. He is also ready with answers to the anticipated questions of how the loss of animal agriculture would affect the economy.

Despite the fact that, for most omnivores, becoming vegan is a change that usually happens gradually, Oppenlander doesn’t go easy on those who may want or need to move slowly toward a plant-based diet. Of the increasingly popular “Meatless Monday” campaign, he writes, “Good; that’s terrific. Now you will be contributing to global warming, pollution, and global depletion of our planet’s resources six days of the week instead of seven.” This isn’t likely to endear omnivores to the cause or inspire change; much more compelling are other statistics Oppenlander offers, such as the true cost of having a quarter-pound hamburger for lunch: It takes fifty-five square feet of rainforest to produce a quarter-pounder, which also requires 1,200 gallons of water.

Comfortably Unaware doesn’t tell stories—the book is more a collection of statistics and pleas to change our ways—but these facts do add up to a story, and it’s a tragic one: We are devastating the planet in ways that may soon be irreversible, and yet our culture, traditions, and habits have so far prevented us from making the necessary changes that could save the environment from the point of no return. Though the book may be difficult for some omnivores to digest, its message is important enough and urgent enough that I hope all will read it.

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Book Review: Stung! by Lisa-ann Gershwin

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Stung! On Jellyfish Blooms and the Future of the Ocean, by Lisa-an Gershwin (The University of Chicago Press, 2013)

 

They’re here, and we’ve not just cleared out the guest room for them, we’re opened up the front parlor, the master bedroom, rumpus room, and kitchen. Soon we’ll be barricaded in the basement with a stinging, gelatinous substance dripping on us through the cracks in the ceiling. I’m talking about jellyfish. Our relationship with them has changed for the worse. As they fill our fishing nets and clog our nuclear plant intake valves around the world, they reflect our relationship with the entire eco-system. And now it’s time to say goodnight. DNA research has recently stripped the title of First Multi-Cellular Animal from the sponge and handed it to the jellyfish, and they might very well turn out to be the Last.

When I wrote jellyfish into the plot of Float, which was released in early 2013, I could not have imagined how dire the situation would get in such a short period of time. I was still thinking that if we could find a use for them — like turning them into a true bio-plastic — there might be hope. After reading Stung! by Lisa-ann Gershwin, I am not so sure about that anymore. No matter how many we harvest, more jellyfish will just bloom in their place, because the problem isn’t just that there are too many of them, it’s that they are the bellwether for a very sick ocean. As oceanographer Sylvia Earle writes in the intro, As seas become stressed, the jellyfish are there, like an eagle to an injured lamb or golden staph to a postoperative patient – more than just a symptom of weakness, more like the angel of death.

Gershwin puts jellies in the greater perspective of the general ocean health, discussing at length how jellyfish blooms (population explosions) are the result of degraded ecosystems as well as the driver of further decline. So a large part of the book is spent explaining, in layperson’s language but with the fastidiousness of a researcher, how, exactly, jellies are able to take advantage of even the smallest anthropogenic perturbation, the fancy word for manmade disturbances. These include the usual culprits of ocean acidification and warming climates from our carbon waste, pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, oil spills, leaching plastics, and radioactive material.

One of the worst perturbations is over-fishing, which creates imbalance, music to jellyfish ears if they had them. When a fisheries collapse, it’s not just the target species that disappears, every plant or animal that was dependent on it goes as well. Then its prey goes postal, causing a cascade of problems up and down the food chain. When the Bering Sea was fished out of Pollock by humans, the seals and sea lions disappeared, and the killer whales had nothing to eat but sea otters. When the otters disappeared, their favorite food, the sea urchin, ate up all the kelp forests, destroying the nursery for any remaining species, taking the seabirds with it. Enter the jellyfish to feast on the single-celled muck. An entire area of the Bering Sea is now called the slime bank. When the kilka, the main food fish of the beluga sturgeon, of beluga caviar fame, was fished to extinction, the sturgeon followed. Then who steps in? The mnemiopsis jellyfish, making any sort of re-stocking impossible, since they devour the eggs of both the kilka and sturgeon. They might not have caused the problem, but they prevent any cure.

Farmed salmon, already so bad for the ocean environment, was made for jellyfish, who bloom luxuriously by feeding on all the nutritious salmon poo. The situation is made worse when the swimming vortex of the caged fish sucks the jellies against the mesh and the fish are suffocated. No so the jellyfish, who can survive in very low levels of oxygen.  It was the environment they grew up in, hundreds of millions of years ago. The same goes for warmer water. It is their natal soup. Jellies have withstood the ‘big five’ mass  extinctions because they didn’t need to change as the environment warmed, and they will survive the next.

Jellies come in all sizes and colors and shapes, able to fill any ecological niche. Fifteen hundred species have been named and classified, with more being discovered on a regular basis. They have self-descriptive names: moon jellies, comb jellies, rainbow jellies, box jellies, fire jellies, sea wasps, sea nettles, sea tomatoes, sea walnuts, and on and on, including “the long stingy stringy thingy,” which is a wake-up call for budding scientists to take more creative writing classes. Some of them area as small as 1/5th of a grain of rice, others as large as a refrigerator. They are found in all latitudes and depths, all seasons of the year, with a few freshwater jellies thrown in the mix. Even Antarctica is changing to a jellyfish-dominated ecosystem. The demand for krill to feed fish farms has denuded the waters of the main food for penguins, seals, and whales. The jellies have taken their place, because they are able to eat the tiny phytoplankton known as copepods that have replaced the krill, but the others can’t. They are too small to see, but since the jellyfish don’t have eyes, and hunt by touch, they can. The same goes for the silt storms created by trawlers scraping the bottom of the sea beds for fish. Only jellies can navigate in the dark waters. The rest of the fish, meaning those not caught up in the trawl nets, starve because they can’t see their prey.

Speaking of prey, the omnivorous jellyfish can eat both high and low on the food chain. First by eating the eggs and larvae of big species, but also by eating the food that the larvae of that species would eat. This hat trick makes them both predator and competitor of species bigger, faster, and smarter than themselves. They can also survive long stretches of famine, shrinking in size until food is available again. When they are not eating, they are reproducing, often simultaneously. They can create more of themselves by hermaphroditism, self-fertilization, external fertilization, courtship and copulation, fusion and fission. This last is why cleaning the farmed salmon cages is futile, because it just stimulates more growth. They are not just prolific, they are practically immortal. Even putting aside the fact that cloning is a form of immortality, the cells of one species, Turritopsis dohrnii, reorganizes itself after death to form new colonies of polyps, the equivalent of a dead butterfly’s cells reforming into a caterpillar.

Jellyfish, what are they good for? Aside from a few good Asian dishes, which we might be well advised to develop a taste for, jellies have some medical uses. The discovery of a jellyfish protein that glows green won the Nobel prize in chemistry in 2008, and is used to track the growth of cells, mapping the neural circuits of the human brain. We’ll come up with more uses as time goes by, because one day, they’ll be all we’ll have to work with.

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Remember the 1958 sci-fi movie The Blob, with Steve McQueen? Where an alien glob of goo takes over a town, and no one is listening to the teenagers until it’s too late? Think of jellyfish as the aliens. The teenager is played by Lisa-ann Gershwin, except that she’s stopped trying to get the adults to take her seriously and do something. Now she is calmly cataloging the cause and effect of the invasion for posterity. She believes that we have pushed the ocean too far, beyond a tipping point we never saw coming. The New York Times reported recently that the change won’t be gradual. Several human and natural systems are in danger of rapid and catastrophic collapse, meaning mass extinctions. Due to rising heat and lowered oxygen, the ocean is on its way to developing vast dead zones. No fish, no coral, no whales, no penguins, just algae and jellyfish. Lots of jellyfish. Radical simplification is what this is called, as the seas revert back to where they began. Gershwin has no suggestion beyond the single word: Adapt.

 

 

 

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Book Review: The Botanical Garden by Ellen Welcker

The Botanical Garden by Ellen Welcker

The Botanical Garden by Ellen Welcker
You could read Melville’s Moby Dick. You could travel the world. You could read about the plight of immigrants and refugees in The New York Times and discuss them over dinner. You could visit the border. You could ship out on a whaler or ship out with Greenpeace. You could give birth, remain childless or try intro-fertilization.

Or, you could read Ellen Welcker’s The Botanical Garden. (Astrophil Press 2010). The poem makes a great thematic companion to any of the above activities.

At the crossroads of Welcker’s poem, fetuses, whales, refugees, immigrants, and aliens intersect. The poem travels by invoking the names of exotic locales around the world — countries of islands and enclaves — and explores rites of birthing, passage, and injustice.

Why read poetry? Non-fiction typically fulfills our dogged pursuit of knowledge. These days, we want fast facts, conclusions. We want to be told. We want to be smarter.

But The Botanical Garden grows facts. Did you know? “The heart of a whale may weigh 1,500 pounds.” You can learn a lot about whales, refugees, detainees immigrants and aliens here. You can learn the definition of an asylum seeker and the differences between a refugee and an undocumented immigrant. You can hear what’s polluting the ocean: plastic nurdles and chemical weapons dumps.

However, in The Botanical Garden facts run wild but are not abandoned. They are interspersed with fictions, “A subtropical whale; the color of papaya.” Words are transposed to give facts new meaning, “while migrating the refugee surfaces.” Rather than expounding or straining to provide an objective report, the author goes exploring and the reader, setting sail within words, must also enter a mode of exploration.

In The Botanical Garden, you will encounter new ideas and unfamiliar arrangements that challenge preconceived notions. The contextualization of words, the unexpected nearness for example of “echolocation” and “ultrasound,” floats the reader into new territory. Listen: “The cries of whales sound eerily like the cries of displaced peoples.”

You will begin thinking about the problems of polluted oceans, drought, and displaced peoples, while a few seeded facts blossom into Welcker’s ponderables:

  • The heart of an immigrant may weigh as much as a nation-state.
  • Counting is a system that does not involve seeing.
  • Truth is a manipulation of language. Sometimes. Not always. Don’t be sorry.
  • How we move away from drought and how we move toward it.

With globalization, the distance between people has cinched. The world’s problems are not problems of one place. Our borders are shifting and ill-defined. Countries struggle to maintain them. We can leap from location to location. There’s magic in this movement. Welcker’s poem captures this experience and recreates it. The world — the work reminds us — is a complex, multi-faceted place.

Poet Ellen Welcker
Ellen Welcker, author of The Botanical Garden, paddleboarding a salt marsh on the North Carolina coast.

The author describes how the work came about:

The Botanical Garden is essentially one long poem that travels through—and names—every country in the world. (And as I knew would happen, it is already out of date, thanks to the 2011 addition of the country of South Sudan). I was living first in Reno and then on Vashon Island, outside of Seattle, while I wrote this poem. I was thinking about these human-imposed state and nation lines, and how futile they are in the face of ecological concerns. Climate change has amped up natural disasters both in size and frequency, nuclear crises like Fukushima, oil wars, and habitat depletion are scratches in the surface. But the ocean – no one even pretends to lay claim, or responsibility, rather – to the ocean. It is truly a no-man’s land when it comes to protection and rehabilitation. So these were the kinds of thoughts I was exploring while writing my narrator through these countries, encountering walls, borders, and boundaries of all sorts, some solid, some invisible, and as she navigates them, finding her own physical and psychological borders shifting and mutating as well.

There are many worthy ways to read The Botanical Garden. You can read it line by line in order or at random. You can flip through it reading page by page in lapping, little waves or you can read it full on, in order, all at once entering the tides and watching them crescendo. The poem is like an ocean in this sense.

Welcker uses the poet’s bag of tricks: tantalizing metaphors, restless ambiguity, repetition, rhyme, alliteration, assonance, and general keenness for sound. She co-opts bureaucratic jargon, “Oceans are largely considered a waste management option.” to rebirth it in a new world. Sentences are repeated and strategically placed. The poet’s words plash together.

Surprising for a work that channels whales and oceans and transports the reader to big thoughts and far away places the actual book, The Botanical Garden, is a small square, the width of a hand. It contains two poems: the title work and “a map, my loves, I am drawing it by heart.” By contrast, the second poem with similar themes — love without boundaries — comes in a more familiar aural rush.

The Botanical Garden received the 2009 Astrophil Press Poetry Prize, recognizing innovative new voices in American poetry. It reminds us to dive into the teeming ocean of poetry, as well, when we seek to grow.

What to read next?
Plume (2012) by Kathleen Flenniken, was inspired by reports of environmental contamination at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Richland, Washington, and is the 2013 Washington State Book Award Winner for Poetry.

Find more reviews and reading suggestions for contemporary poetry at Gently Read Literature.

Inspired?
The author recommends checking out these “two groups doing interesting and important border-obliterating work” — Inuit Circumpolar Council and Navdanya.

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Book Review: Penguins: Natural History and Conservation

penguins book cover

Let me preface this review by saying that I am a longtime fan of co-author Dee Boersma’s work.

Years ago, I was part of a volunteer project at Punta Tombo, assisting Dee and her team with a penguin census. It was a week that changed the direction of my life in ways I couldn’t possibly imagine at the time. Dee has spent more than 20 years at Punta Tumbo researching Magellanic penguins — and helped to found the Penguin Sentinels organization.

So now that you know of my affinity for penguins and those who work to protect them, on with the review.

This is a reference book at its core.

It provides an in-depth description (and plenty of photos) of each of the 17 penguin species — from Gentoos to Rockhoppers to the Emperor penguins that were made famous in March of the Penguins. You’ll learn how to identify each, as well as its breeding habits, range, prey, and predators. (Did you know the Emperor penguin can dive up to 500 meters and hold its breath for 23 minutes?)

Yet even though this book is chock full of penguin details, such as counts and feeding habits and population trends, there is plenty drama between the lines.

For example, in the African Penguin section there are two photos of the Halifax Island colony in Namibia. In the photo taken in the 1930s, the colony is filled with penguins. In the 2004 photo, only a handful of penguins can be seen. The African Penguins are in big trouble, due to oil spills and overfishing.

I didn’t realize until reading this book the extent to which penguin eggs were once collected by locals. And penguin guano was also a target (which some species very much need for their nests).

Not all penguin species are declining. The Gentoos appear to be growing in number (though it appears that most species are indeed in various stages of decline).

Ultimately, this book is a call to action. For example, if the human demand for seafood ended tomorrow, the fishing trawlers would have a reason to be out in the oceans, scooping up the penguins’ food supply (as well as the penguins themselves).

Climate change is a more insidious challenge simply because it’s not so easily combatted or its impact fully understood. All we do know is that the waters are warming and food sources are moving or declining. And penguins must adapt to these changes or fade away.

Some species, sadly, are fading away.

If you’re passionate about penguins and the oceans, this is a must-have book. You’ll find yourself referring to it again and again, as I have.

Penguins: Natural History and Conservation

Pablo Garcia Borboroglu (Editor), P. Dee Boersma (Editor)