The invention of plastic certainly revolutionized the world. And slowly but surely people have found more uses for it. It’s crept into just about every aspect of life. Look around you. You’d be hard pressed to NOT find something made, either wholly or partially, from plastic within arms’ reach. Yet much of the plastic made is single-use. Much of is not properly disposed of. And 8 MILLION METRIC TONS of it ends up in the ocean every year. The thing about plastic is that it NEVER biodegrades. It simply breaks down into smaller and smaller bits. What that means is that EVERY bit of plastic ever made on the planet is still around in some form or another.
Enough is enough.
There are efforts taking place to stop plastic use. Many places are banning plastic bags. Some cities and countries are banning plastic straws. Individuals and groups are on the beaches doing clean-ups. One young Dutchman is exploring technology to actually clean up the masses of ocean debris swirling in the water. Others are developing biodegradable plastic. And I am writing.
The problem seems overwhelming, to say the least. But I think slowly, slowly we can change the way people think. I am starting with kids. I want to make kids aware of what is going on and start the hard discussions. Right now I’m fiddling with a story about too many hats – hats being the metaphor for plastic. The goal is to make it funny and a bit ridiculous. Because, well, isn’t the real mess we’ve created a bit ridiculous?
So here’s something to blow your mind – sand is a microbiome. Billions of organisms live in the sand. In fact, a 2017 study revealed that on one grain of sand there may be between 10,000 and 100,000 microorganisms!!! The organisms you find (if you have a very good microscope, of course) varies depending on the beach. Not only that, but the organisms in one part of the beach will be different from organisms from another part of the beach.
Who lives here?
The sand is very much an extreme environment. To start, there’s not much space. But these organisms are small enough to move around between the grains of sand! They are also hardy enough to withstand the constant pounding of waves. And, sometimes there’s water in the tiny ecosystem, and other ties the tide goes out and there’s none. So now, every time you go to the beach, consider the universe underfoot!
I was lucky enough to visit the Florida coast last week. We were in a place known for its shells. I love just walking along the beach not only looking at the variety of shells, but also at the number of people who stopped to LOOK. I think so often in our life we don’t slow down enough to see or appreciate the small and amazing things all around us.
When I stopped to look, I found a tiny crab the size of my thumbnail skittering along the sand. I saw a small jellyfish the width of ping-pong ball. I saw unidentifiable semi-squishy things. And millions, if not billions, of shells. And what struck me the most about those shells was that each one was amazing and beautiful in its own right. Each one had been the home of a critter. What was their story? There’s a whole universe in ocean – I am grateful for my glimpse into it.
In the middle of this government shutdown over a border wall, little attention has been given to the environmental impact of said wall. Wait, I take that back. Thousands of scientists have warned our illustrious leaders about the severe impacts of a wall, yet they are not listening. But the impacts are real and the consequences are severe.
To start, several endangered species of plants and animals live along the border between the United States and Mexico; wall construction, monitoring, and maintenance will further threaten their survival. A wall would also fragment habitats, isolating plant and animal species and limiting their range and breeding. In addition, migration routes will be cut off. Walls worsen flooding. And more natural places, including many ecologically sensitive areas, will be degraded to suit human needs. Finally, dozens of the country’s environmental laws must be stomped on, shredded, or shoved aside in order to build a wall.
Among the species affected, the Mexican gray wolf. It is listed federally as endangered. They have been at risk for extinction for decades – their numbers dropped to only 5 in the late 1970s. The survivors were captured and scientists began to breed them in captivity. The offspring were reintroduced to their native ecosystem in 1998. However, as of 2018, there were only 114 known Mexican gray wolves in the wild.
“The more clearly we can focus our attention on the wonders and realities of the universe about us, the less taste we shall have for destruction.”
I recently came across this quote by Rachel Carson and was struck by its truth. For me, it’s a manifesto of sorts: open people’s eyes to the wonders of nature. There are wonders at every turn. All we have to do is slow down. Stop. Look. And listen.
This picture was taken over the summer in the Colorado mountains. It is the trunk of a fallen tree and the squiggles were made by insects burrowing just under the bark. But what insect? How many? Where did they go when the tree fell? As I stared at the patterns left behind by the unknown insects, question after question filled my head. There was a whole universe in that tree.
Apparently I’ve always been a conservationist. As I helped clean out some boxes at my parents’ house, I came across one that had YEARS worth of my old school assignments. I think my mom saved everything. There were reports and worksheets and essays. Most papers I just glanced at and recycled. Yet one caught my eye: “Conservation Report.” The report was written in my fat, loopy, cursive handwriting in April 1980. I was 11. Even more interesting was the comment by the teacher: “I hope you stay concerned…”
My report had news articles taped in it. Below each article was more cursive; the assignment must have been for me to read and comment on the articles. One was about old sequoia trees, another about the loss of habitat for pandas, and another about solar power. But the one that really caught my eye was titled, “Scientists warn Senate panel of ecology disaster.” The article reported how scientists warned Congress about the amount of carbon dioxide pumped into the atmosphere. THIS WAS IN 1980!!! It goes on to say that “within 40 to 50 years…the accumulation of carbon dioxide in the earth’s atmosphere may cause the so-called greenhouse effect to begin.” Were these people prophetic? No, they were scientists.
Even at 11 years old, I understood the enormity of the problem. I wrote, “There are many more problems than stated in the article that we have to solve, but how do you get over four billion people to realize the danger of how we’re living?”
Almost 40 years later, scientists are still sounding the warning alarms and I’m still wondering how we get people (now almost eight billion) to realize the danger of how we’re living.
I am a nature documentary geek and I’ve subjected my family to my geekdom for years. Other families watch movies together, we watch documentaries. It all started with the release of the Planet Earth DVD set by the BBC in 2009. Then it was The Human Planet, also by the BBC, in 2011. We’d watch whatever we could get our hands on. Now there’s Netflix. Again, some people watch it for the movies or series, we watch it for the nature shows. Last night we were watching Life Story (yet another BBC production) and saw a segment on the veined octopus. Whoa.
I knew that octopuses were intelligent. But this segment took my admiration to a whole new level. These cephalopods use discarded shells and even coconut shells as protection! They even carry them around with them as they walk along the ocean floor. Scientists debate whether or not the octopuses are using the shells as tools, which requires brain power. Some think it’s just pure survival instinct in action. Perhaps. No matter, it’s still pretty stinkin’ cool. It gets even better…they use the coconut shells as transportation. They pull the two halves of a coconut shell around them and roll along the ocean floor!
As I walked home from work the other day, I heard a flock of geese honking. When they appeared overhead, I stopped. When they flew by, they were low enough that I heard their wings flapping. Have you ever heard the collective flap of a gaggle of geese? It’s pretty cool.
I think geese sometimes get a bad rap because they are loud and leave a lot of evidence behind when they’ve been somewhere. Yet they are really actually quite remarkable. For starters, they mate for life. They also migrate, a feat that is so often unappreciated. They are social creatures. But what I find truly incredible about these birds is their teamwork. They fly in a V for a reason – to help each other fly. The lead bird makes flying just a bit easier for the birds behind them. But most amazing of all is that the more experienced, older birds TAKE TURNS being the leader. I think most people could learn a thing or two by watching geese. And appreciating them.
Recently I’ve been trying to select education market projects that have something to do with nature, the environment, and environmental issues. One of the best of these was a project on biodiversity (Nomad Press, March 2019). I wasn’t even going to take on a project last spring, then that one landed in my inbox. I couldn’t say no. At every turn I was AMAZED by what my research uncovered. A lot of the cool things I found are in the book. But since the book needed to be less than a zillion pages, so many amazing organisms are not. One of those is the hermit crab. Not the ones that are in cages on the boardwalk at the beach. No, the ones living in the wild. They actually line up, BY SIZE, to trade shells. You can see this phenomenon in action on the BBC website – http://www.bbc.com/earth/story/20141103-hermit-crab
“Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better.” – Einstein
I think that, like so many quotes, this one can be interpreted in many different ways. For me, it’s about slowing down to really see the natural world. It’s about looking closely. And it’s about coming to understand the vast complexities of our world. With that understanding we can appreciate nature much, much better. And going back to what I said last week, if we appreciate something, we care and will take care of it.