The Once & Future World

Ischnura positaThis is a Fragile Forktail (Ischnura posits), spotted recently in Prospect Park. But it has been a lousy year for damselflies. I’m seeing neither the species nor the numbers I’ve seen in the past, particularly in Green-Wood. There, the “waters” are a mess: Valley Water has had no lilies all season; the Sylvan Water is so green it hurts the eyes — I suspect it’s saturated with too much nitrogen from fertilizer run-off. As nitrogen-supercharged algae dies, it consumes the water’s oxygen in decomposition, making a hypoxic dead-zone. The cemetery, concerned with maintaining absurd lawns, also still sprays pesticides. This summer’s heat hasn’t helped. In Prospect, fish died like crazy, also probably due to the oxygen-depleted water.

imagesMy comparison of damsel numbers with past seasons is purely anecdotal. I just know what I know. When I post a picture here to celebrate a form of fellow life, do not forget that our normal is not necessarily the normal of the past, nor necessarily the normal of the future.

J.B. MacKinnon discusses the phenomenon of “change blindness” in his book The Once and Future World. Our lives are so short we just know what we know. What we see of the natural world is what we then assume it’s always been like and always will be.

There is, for instance, a now classic study of big-game fishermen posing with their fish. The fish from the 1950s are larger than anything caught in the 2000s (by taking the big fish of a species, we removed the genes for larger fish in the gene pool for that species), but until they see the evidence, modern fishermen didn’t believe this, because they think they’re the one’s who caught the big ones. This goes along with the depletion of species in general: some studies argue that as much as 97% of the fish life off the East Coast is gone. “Shifting baselines” is each generation’s acceptance of what they know, the diminishment remains invisible. An even scarier study was done of (mostly poor, mostly minority) children in one of our most polluted cities; they didn’t think they lived mired in pollution because that was their normal, all they’d ever known. “Memory conspires against nature,” says MacKinnon of “knowledge extinction.”

MacKinnon calls our world the 10% world, one in which 90% of the natural abundance of the earth is gone. When the “once” was is as contested as the percentage point. But the record seems pretty clear: as humans spread around the world, they killed off the large species and began a radical transformation of the planet, diminishing the environment and, he argues, our own imaginations. We now call this the Anthropocene, the geological era where the works of humans are written onto the planet; just when it started (agriculture, industrial revolution?) is a big question.

We’re not the only life-form to have radically changed the planet. A few examples would include the single-cell organisms that began the oxygenation of the atmosphere 800 million years ago; the whales who played an enormous role in fertilizing the oceans; and beavers, both the extinct giant Castoroides and the ones we know, nearly made extinct, that terraformed North American in advance of the human migration via Barring.

Yet what a mess we have made! It’s not accurate so say we’re the only creature that fouls its nest: some will do it for defense! But we are the only creature that kills wantonly, often unknowingly, like a storm, a blind force of nature. Yet we know!

Ischnura posita

3 Responses to “The Once & Future World”


  1. 1 Crystal Rogers September 11, 2016 at 9:31 am

    I feel like there is a poem hidden in this blog. If I uncover one I will send it to you.

  2. 2 SB September 11, 2016 at 9:56 am

    Thanks! I appreciate your thoughtful essays as much as your photography. This blog has caused me to change my thinking and therefore my actions in our home, in our yard, and in our neighborhood.

    • 3 mthew September 12, 2016 at 7:15 am

      Thank you, Sharon. Producing this blog has also made me change the way I think and act, since it has been such an education in the natural world.


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