The Narrowest Edge

“We so easily settle for the diminished world around us, a world that, in terms of the richness and abundance of plant and animal life, may be a mere 10 percent of what once was. Unaware of what we have lost, we can’t imagine what we might restore, and instead, we argue over how many of the scraps we might still take.”TheNarrowEdge

When M and I were walking along the Northumberland coast last June, we came across a flimsy barrier cutting across the beach at Long Nanny. It was the beginning of nesting season and the beach was closed. We were wondering how to get around to the other side when a ranger emerged from the dunes. She told us we could actually pass right along the water’s edge. She also offered us a scope view of the Little Tern (Sternula albifrons) and Ringed Plover (Charadrius hiaticula) nesting there. The Little Tern in particular is now rare, and needs to be protected from blundering beach-goers, unleashed dogs, ATVs and other vehicles, as well as egg stealers (a rather British pathology).

Fencing and explanatory signs in New Jersey, Deborah Cramer tells us, are fairly effective, but those who heed the barriers the least are joggers and dog walkers. (I’m not surprised: narcissism seems to run high in these cohorts: their “rights,” as they will argue, trump all others.) On our coast, both the beach-nesting Piping Plover and long-distance Red Knot feeding on beaches are in dire straits. Their remarkable evolutionary adoptions aren’t much of a match for the rapid disruptions we cause.

Cramer, quoted at the head, is author of The Narrow Edge: A Tiny Bird, An Ancient Crab & An Epic Journey. The bird is the Red Knot, Calidris canutus, specifically the rufa lineage which migrates along the Eastern shore of the U.S., one of six lineages for the species. The “ancient crab” is the Horseshoe, which actually isn’t a crab at all, but rather akin to spiders and mites. Its ancestors go back nearly half a billion years, marking it one of the great survivors in a world in which 99.9% of all life forms no longer exist anymore. Species come and species go, nothing new there, but what is new is the human cause of all these extinctions and the radical simplification of the world. We’re supposed to be the moral animals, after all.

This is a wide-ranging book, like C. canutus rufa itself, from Tierra del Fuego to Arctic Canada, with stops along the way. Yes, it concentrates on one bird doing badly in the Antropocene, but there are so many ramifications here. Horseshoe Crabs were once turned into fertilizer by the millions, now they’re chopped up for bait and bled for medicine (few people realize that drugs and vaccines, IVs, pacemakers, stents, catheters, etc. are tested for bacteria with an extract made from the blue blood of Horseshoe Crabs: if you’ve been in a hospital since 1985, you can thank the Horseshoes for making sure you left alive.)

The radical transformation of the Arctic is another theme here. Red Knots and many other birds nest in the far north, where the radical heating is creating havoc in all sorts of ways: less nutritious food for seabirds, far too many mosquitos for nestlings, Polar Bears ravaging nesting areas because they can’t find enough ice and hence seals to eat. These are only some of the factors; the complicated intersections of all these things, the wonder of the world, are fraying and shredding in endless ways now. We’re simplifying these webs and cascades of life to an alarming degree. Nothing good is going to come of it, and horrors like species-jumping viruses are already roaring out of the rents and tears.

Cramer tries to be optimistic, but the weight of it all is too much for that. Still, we live, we read: this is very much worth reading if you, like me, think knowledge is important, however impotent.

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