Running the River: Art & Literature in the Delta

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This photo from 1900 shows European-Americans boarding rowboats on the banks of the San Joaquin River in California. Using archives records like maps and photographs, scientists are trying to revive the delta. Photo courtesy Bank of Stockton

Given its isolation from major Northern California urban centers, the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta has resisted development and remains suspended in time, but not for much longer. It’s a place of wonder—1.1 million square-miles of rivers, creeks, marshes, sloughs, levees, 500,000 acres of farmland, and it is the font of about 7.5 million acre-feet of water that’s distributed to cities and farms throughout California—it’s a playground for recreation, an agricultural hub and there are those who say, without blushing, it’s a paradise fraught with political maneuvering and environmental threats.

Few will say, however, that the largest river delta on the Pacific Ocean side of the Americas is a hotbed of literature and art. But those working to protect and restore the delta say that is wrong. Various groups, including writers, poets, artists, academics and community advocates are busy collecting the cultural artifacts that help mark the delta as a unique place in the world, one with a rich and diverse creative history.

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Because I’m currently working on a novel set in the delta, I attended a discussion this week sponsored by the grassroots organization Restore the Delta about the past, present, and future of Delta Literature. Although literary luminaries from Jack London to Joan Didion have written about life in the delta, and their stories speak to significant topics in American history, scholars say the full range of narratives about this vital region awaits systematic collection, presentation and interpretation. There’s a lot of work to do.

During his overview of Delta Literature, Robert Benedetti, University of the Pacific professor emeritus of political science, commented that the “subtle beauty of the delta and a quiet appreciation by poets is needed,” if the delta’s rich cultural history and natural resources are to be saved from further neglect and degradation.

He also pointed to research into the literature of the delta by Gregg Camfield, professor of literature at the University of California, Merced. Canfield noted in his research that narratives shape human action and “we try to make sense of the past by telling its story; in the process, we shape our present and our future.” His survey of delta literature is online at: http://delta.blogs.ca.gov/files/2016/10/Full_Paper_Camfield.pdf

Paula Sheil, founder and executive director of Tuleburg Press & THE WRITE PLACE in Stockton, as well as a poet and accomplished sailor, read “Out the Gate,” her poem captures the delta breeze blowing gently past farms and levees, picking up speed and spilling out to the bay, meeting the gush of ocean “like big dreams in a torrent.” She refers to the delta as the “anti-San Francisco,” suggesting the delta is the flip side of hip, slick and cool, a counter weight or cultural anchor to the excesses of its famous neighbor.

The Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta is a land of stunning open spaces fed by five major rivers. A maze of creeks and sloughs spreading finger-like through some of California’s most important habitat, especially for Chinook salmon and Greater Sandhill Cranes. It’s a bird watcher’s feast for the eyes and a fisherman’s delight. It’s also home to immigrants and dreamers who prefer the delta’s cloistered backwaters to brash and garish city life.

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Photo Courtesy: Friends of the River

In reality, Sheil said, “It’s the people who make the delta.” Adding that she tells her students that through the delta they’re connected to world, meaning by following the waterway to the ocean they have access to every distant land. But, she said, “Stockton youth don’t have access to the water. Some children who live in Stockton have never seen the delta.”

The City of Stockton is located on the San Joaquin River on the eastern edge of the delta, but freeways, development, train tracks, barriers of all types prevent exploration. “We live on the San Joaquin River and there isn’t even a place to put a kayak in the water.” Sheil said.

Tama Brisbane, Stockton poet laureate and executive director of Stockton’s “With Our Words,” a national movement to combat illiteracy, isolation, alienation, and silence by bringing new voices from the margins to the core of society through literary and performing arts. She noted that young Stockton poets who’ve traveled to poetry and performance art festivals around the country often have trouble explaining where they come from, have a gap in their understanding of place, of the delta that makes the territory from which they come unique.

“Stockton is a city that doesn’t own itself,” Brisbane said. “Stockton needs to hustle to get its identity back.”

Stories matter. They make us who we are. Camfield said in his survey of delta literature that “human beings selectively interpret their lives by way of narrative arcs, by how these narratives shape human action. We try to make sense of the past by telling its story; in the process, we shape our present and our future.”

With a delta novel in progress, the discussion about the literary past and future of the region was creatively stimulating and encouraging. But, a newcomer to Stockton, I also saw how quickly the city is transforming, wiping out the connection to the past.

In downtown Stockton old buildings with ornate architectural details are rotting, while next door new structures of steel and glass are under construction. Preserving what’s beautiful and meaningful from the past, while nurturing a proud new generation, is a task delta artists, poets and writers are embracing. It’s an exciting time in the delta and I look forward to contributing to the effort with a few good words of my own.

About these photos – Before the panel discussion, I had time to wander in downtown Stockton for a few photo grabs. I’m planning some mosaic projects and was delighted to stumble on some interesting examples in the lobby of Stockton’s old Elk’s Lodge on Sutter Street.

10 Steps for Stripping Down in the Garden

14577804547_17d042b819_bThis is the briefest guide to simple living, but it’s a place to start if clearing the clutter, reducing the load and building community are what you’re after. Perhaps the most personal way to make it simple is join the fun on World Naked Gardening Day – yes it’s a real thing. (Maybe it’s just me, but barefoot spade work doesn’t sound too appealing, likewise running a rototiller or trimming the blackberry canes, but hey, whatever puts zip in your skip.)

Here’s the truth: For more than a decade, people around the world have been dropping their socks and everything else on the first Saturday in May – in 2017 it’s May 6 – and heading to the garden in their birthday suits to plant, weed, prune and frolic in the buff.

WNGD observers say there’s plenty of friction, dissatisfaction and fear to go around these days. Resisting these forces takes courage and tenacity, the naked gardeners say. And, they claim one way to find strength for the long haul is to strip away the things that weigh us down and live lighter and brighter – unclothed – as nature intended.

SEASONAL INTERCHANGE

by Michael Aitken

In Winter, when the trees are bare,
We mortals don our winter wear.
In Spring, when trees begin to dress,
We mortals then start wearing less,
Until, for some, with Summer’s heat
The role reversal is complete.

Whether or not naked bathing is appealing, here are 10 simple steps you, your family, friends and neighbors can take to use less energy, become more mindful about choices, and build stronger bonds within your family and your community, while sprucing up the garden.

  1. Build community. Relationships are the foundation of resilient communities. Get to know your neighbors by organizing a potluck, sharing something, or simply stopping by to say hello.
  1. Grow some of your own food. You can start simple by growing in containers on a patio or windowsill or renting a plot in a community garden. Or, if you have access to land, start a garden or go all out with a permablitz, a way of bringing the community together and turning a suburban house into an urban homestead… in a single day.
  1. Share and repair. Two simple and rewarding ways to reduce consumption and save money are by sharing things you don’t use all the time (vacuum, car, tools, etc.) with friends and neighbors, and by repairing items when they break instead of buying new ones. The New Dream Community Action Kit is all about sharing: everything from starting a tool library to organizing a solar cooperative, from holding a clothing swap to launching a time bank.
  1. Minimize waste by buying fresh and bulk foods to avoid extra packaging, and start composting organic waste.
  1. Help keep wealth in your community. Buy local when possible, and consider switching to a local bank or credit union.
  1. Reduce home energy use and save money by hanging a clothesline or conducting a home energy efficiency audit.
  1. Conserve water. Fix the leaks, take shorter showers, sheet mulch your lawn, and install a greywater or rainwater harvesting system.
  1. Green your ride. Walk or get a bicycle, learn how to use public transport, or redesign your routine to minimize your drive.
  1. Build inner resilience. Cultivate meaningful relationships, practice mindfulness or spend time in nature. The Japanese call it “forest bathing,” a cornerstone of preventive health care and healing in Japanese medicine. http://www.shinrin-yoku.org/shinrin-yoku.html
  1. Join a Transition town or community resilience initiative near you, and start transforming your community!

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Here is the “Simple Living Manifesto” http://zenhabits.net/simple-living-manifesto-72-ideas-to-simplify-your-life/

Information about World Naked Gardening Day is online at: http://www.wngd.org/

 

Zen of Barometric Pressure

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Imperial Tea Court garden in Berkeley C

Just lost power for an hour in Sacramento/Natomas and spent time on my cell checking the weather. Got curious about what barometric pressure actually means. Barometers were used in the old days to forecast weather, long before there were satellites and computers and all kinds of sensors.

U.S. Weather Service says barometric pressure in my area is currently at 29.22 and falling. Lowest pressure ever recorded in Sacramento was 28.95 on Jan. 27, 1916. So, things are getting pretty funky low down around here.

Science.com says barometric pressure rarely increases or decreases more than 1 inch of mercury above or below the 30-inch mark unless weather conditions are extreme — or will be in a couple of days.

Weather experts say pressure readings are most useful for forecasting weather during the next 12 to 24 hours — as in telling us what’s about to happen. In general, a falling barometer indicates the approach of a storm. Forecasts for Northern California call for a big storm Sunday night into Monday, which barometers seem to confirm. Just hope it’s not too big.

If the mercury continues to fall, atmospheric scientists say the weather will worsen. When the mercury level is between 30.20 and 29.80 inches and dropping rapidly, (like it is now) expect precipitation. If the reading is less than 29.80 inches and still shooting down, expect, my words, to get walloped.

But not to worry, as of 2010, the lowest air pressure ever recorded for a hurricane was Gilbert in 1988. Its air pressure was just above 26 inches. Hurricane Sandy in 2012 hit a barometric pressure low of 27.92 over Atlantic City, New Jersey. Things could be worse and California water experts say we’ll likely be able to ride out the next series of storms without further damage to Oroville Dam

“Just as a solid rock is not shaken by the storm, even so the wise are not affected by praise or blame.” —-The Buddha.

 

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Good Country Music

Cooler loaded, picnic supplies and scruffy comforter in the back, we lock the front door and check the oil in the Mountaineer—a quart low and too early to do anything about it. The sun has barely roused its sleepy head.

We’re off to Three-Mile Slough in the south delta, fishing poles clickety-clacking all the way from Sacramento, roads mysteriously empty two days before the 4th of July, two days before the sparklers and bottle rockets and Roman candles explode, two days before children break their arms or cut their toes, burn themselves on the barbecue. Two days before life changes fully into summer and the new order of things begins.

Today, one of two free fishing days in California, we cross Three-Mile Bridge to Brannen Island, going after striped bass in the delta’s mixing zone of fresh and saltwater. We go without a license, without a clue, but there’s hope as we settle into canvas camp chairs just after sunrise and study the water. A fish jumps, another and eventually another. We’re in no rush. We have all day, a lifetime to burn daylight.

Wind from the Pacific Ocean pushes through the Golden Gate, flies past Antioch and Oakley, barrels around the tip of Brannen Island where we sit. It rattles tulles, rustles wildflowers, and sends white egrets and blue herons soaring. Ducks paddle through riffles looking for shelter. Stretching away to the west, farmhands tend fields of corn and alfalfa, their tractors’ soft humming carries on the wind.

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A jingle bell fixed near the pole’s tip will signal if a fish comes to nibble at the bait—sardine and anchovy. My son, hurtling toward thirty and rushing to get his line in the water, barely cuts the bait, fixes chunks too large for slough fish on his hook, too big for small stripers, the wrong bait for catfish that suck sustenance from the decaying bottom muck. I hold my tongue, keep faith in my son’s hard-headed ability to keep trying and learning, to keep fishing. The sun turns up its heat and butterflies and dragonflies flit around us.

The island’s named for early California business rascal Samuel Brannen, who bought up land in the delta and throughout the state with funds skimmed from the tithes of his faithful Mormon brethren, eventually losing his empire when he was found out.

Families begin to join us on the island, picking shady sites nearby to picnic. Children, hauling colorful float rings and mats, throw themselves into the warming waters of the slough. My son moves on to deeper water.

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I spread the comforter in thick shade, loll in the relaxed, melodic sounds of Spanish, Tagalog, Korean, Hindi, Vietnamese as women give directions for preparing lunches, laying nap pads under trees for the little ones, and arranging fishing poles for the hours before sunset when the fierce mixing of air and water comes again and the men go fishing.

They come now single–file, like squaws along a trail, coming from the overnight camps at the park’s south end. In ancient times they’d be gathering tulles for baskets, roots for medicine or acorns for mush, gossiping as they went about their tasks.

But, these country matrons chatter in English, dress in low-cut tank tops and tight shorts, wear sequins on their flip-flops and ball caps.  They sip from tall tumblers and play country songs from a hidden music box. Near my table, the last picnic spot cooks in the sun. They sit at the table for a while in the glare, smooth on suntan lotion, edge closer to my shady site. Stretched out beneath a thick cottonwood tree, I secretly watch them from under the brim of my sunhat.

“He said we had to be outta here by noon, then he got in the boat with his fishing poles,” one woman said. They laugh, all agree they were told the same thing. “We’ll be lucky to be home by midnight.” Then they fall to talking about the advent of their first menstrual cycle, compare how they felt, how prepared they were for the event, the response of straight-laced grandmothers, absent mothers, step-fathers, their own daughters now edging toward the day.

Alan Jackson sings from the music player buried inside the beach bag, resting now on my paper sack filled with cups and plates, a few plastic forks: “It’s alright to be little bitty, a little hometown or a little big old city. Might as well share, might as well smile. Life only goes on for a little bitty while.”

I relax, keep spying on these squatters pushing into my picnic space, blithely nudging aside my bag of pita chips. My son returns to the congress of matrons, glances at me playing possum under the tree. Before they can move, a crowd arrives, perhaps from the parking lot or from some celestial hiding spot, a few are dressed in white choir robes, others in patent leather shoes, sun hats and dress slacks. They skirt my picnic table and make their way down the slope to where the dozens of children play in the water.

The man in a flowing white robe wades into Three Mile Slough as his followers form a tight knot on the shore and to the astonished crowd declares in Spanish a “baptismo.” One after another, three teenagers enter the water and wade to the minister.

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He murmurs to them in Spanish: “Three things will last forever—faith, hope, and love—and the greatest of these is love.” He calls down Espirito Sancto, tells the drenched teens to continue “glorificando a Deus,” tells them to become “fishers of men.” Then the congregation disappears.

The children return to their water play, the matrons return to lunch preparations and finding their fisherman husbands. My son and I eat salami and cheese sandwiches, chew on brownies, pack the Mountaineer, which is still a quart low. My son did not catch a striped bass, although he said others fishing around him did. But, in the spirit of hope, he says we have enough bait left for tomorrow. I love him too much to remind him free fishing is only for today. We don’t have fishing licenses.

Cover Photo: Three-Mile Bridge by Sacramento photographer Joe Chan. Joe’s images are currently on exhibit and for sale at Locke Food and Wine, the Moon Café and River Road Gallery. Down in Walnut Grove, he is exhibiting at the Seeker and at Husicks Taphouse in Clarksberg. Joe has an online portfolio at: www.flickr.com/photos/joechanphotos

 

Blitzing California’s Coastal Forests: And How You Can Help

BERKELEY—With California’s 2016 rain totals higher than they’ve been in more than four years, forestry experts say our coastal forests are at extreme risk of disease. They warn sudden oak death moves silently through forest and gardens, killing tree after tree where it stands—and death will be on the rise this year.

It is the primary cause of tree mortality in coastal California, researchers say, with more than 3 million trees having died already in 15 counties since its discovery in the mid-1990s. Dead trees mean loss of habitat and increased wildfire danger. There is no cure for the disease.

The killer pathogen, Phytophthora ramorum, a fungus, is spread by water and air, with rainwater being a major route for disease spread. No one is sure how the pathogen got into California’s coastal forests or how to stop its spread. It is killing trees from Big Sur to Humboldt County, with Santa Cruz, Marin and Sonoma counties being particularly hard hit.

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Infected tree. Photo courtesy U.S. Forest Service

The pathogen will take advantage of bark wounding, but it’s not necessary for infection to occur. California bay laurel seems to be the main source of inoculum in forests. Green waste, such as leaf litter and tree stumps, are also capable of supporting P. ramorum and acting as a disease reservoir. Because P. ramorum can infect many ornamental plants, such as rhododendron, and can be spread by moving them, experts are calling for the public’s help in locating infected trees and tracking disease spread.

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Wild Rhododendron, among species susceptible to SOD infection, photo taken while camping at Big Basin Redwoods State Park, Santa Cruz County

Researchers have found infections concentrated around illegal marijuana grows and suspect movement of supplies and soil amendments in Northern California watersheds result in forests with high levels of disease. Hikers, mountain bikers and horseback riders may also help move the pathogen to uninfected areas through contamination of boots, clothes, animals and equipment.

With so much at stake, researchers need help with the 10th annual spring SOD Blitzes (citizen scientist surveys for SOD). They hope this year’s citizen surveys will generate record participation. If you live, hike, bike or ride the trails in coastal forests, your help is essential to tracking the disease.

“This year is going to be one of the most critical yet for monitoring the more than 500 miles of susceptible and impacted coastal landscapes for SOD,” said Matteo Garbelotto, UC Berkeley faculty member who runs the Blitzes.

“We’re calling for as many seasoned and novice SOD Blitzers as we can possibly get to join the cause,” he said last week. “Their help is critical to informing communities about disease encroachment, while also helping to determine how effective current treatment and management efforts have been at reducing infection rates and protecting at-risk trees.”

 How to Help: If you live or will spend time in coastal forests, parks or communities this spring, you’re encouraged to participate in the disease-spotting effort.

 When:  Spring 2016, Weekends, April 9 – June 4, 2016.

 Training: 1-hour training sessions – Required.

Where: For locations and local details, go to https://nature.berkeley.edu/garbelottowp/?page_id=816

Cost: FREE — Attendees should bring mobile devices or GPS units if they have them.

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Symptomatic California bay laurel leaves generally precede oak and tanoak infections, and are often the first sign that P. ramorum is in a location. Participants will be trained to identify and collect symptomatic bay leaves and record sample locations.

Volunteers are encouraged to bring their smartphone to the training with the free “SODmap mobile” app already installed (SOD distribution map of laboratory-confirmed positive and negative samples in California, not including nurseries) as it can help in identifying potential collection locations.

Blitz samples will be taken to the UC Berkeley Garbelotto lab to determine the presence or absence of the pathogen. Results will be posted online in the fall to SODmap (www.SODmap.org) and to the SODmap mobile app (www.sodmapmobile.org). When used as instructed, these two tools will help inform thousands of people as to the presence and risk of SOD at a given location.

SOD Blitzes are made possible by the work of local volunteers, along with funding from the PG&E Foundation and the USDA Forest Service, State and Private Forestry organizations.

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SOD Blitz volunteers gathering suspect leaf material for lab analysis. Photo courtesy California Oak Mortality Task Force.

“Not only do these volunteers provide invaluable data for the fight against SOD, they also help lead the charge in proactive SOD management on private property, with Blitzers 10 times more likely to actively manage their properties, collectively helping to slow disease spread,” Garbelotto said.

For more information on SOD Blitzes, go to www.sodblitz.org.

For more information on Sudden Oak Death and P. ramorum, go to the California Oak Mortality Task Force website at www.suddenoakdeath.org  or contact Katie Harrell at (510) 847-5482 or kpalmieri@berkeley.edu.

Planting Palms and Poetry – W.S. Merwin Forest Honors

Merwin and Palms PBS

In reverence, poet W.S. Merwin began planting trees nearly 40 years ago on land surrounding his home in Maui. He created and cultivated an 18-acre palm tree botanical garden, that has become one of the largest and most important collections of palms in the world.

The collection includes more than 2,740 individual palm trees, representing more than 480 taxonomic species and more than 125 unique genera, and featuring nearly 900 different horticultural varieties, the Merwin Palms and the land on which they live have been called Hawaii’s Walden Pond.

The plantation has become The Merwin Conservancy, which preserves the palm collection and the land from future development. The conservancy allows for scientific and botanical study of the palm species.

Merwin’s home on the property has been preserved as a place where art and nature intersect.  Many of the most famous poems and literary works authored by Merwin were written there. The Poet’s Home is now offered to poets, artists and authors as a retreat center.

Appointed United States Poet Laureate by the Library of Congress in 2010, William Stanley Merwin has a career that has spanned six decades. A poet, translator, gardener and environmental activist, he is one of the most widely read and honored poets in America.

Awards include the Pulitzer Prize (twice), the Bollingen Prize, the Tanning Prize, the Lilly Prize and the Lannan Lifetime Achievement Award. His Migration: New and Selected Poems won the 2005 National Book Award for Poetry and Present Company, which closely followed it, earned him the Bobbitt Prize from the Library of Congress.

Now, in recognition of his botanical accomplishments, Merwin will be among 13 distinguished honorees at the 2015 Arbor Day Award ceremony on April 25 in Lincoln Nebraska.

Arbor Day is an annual observance that celebrates the role of trees in our lives and promotes tree planting and care. As a formal holiday, it was first observed in 1872, but tree planting festivals are as old as civilization.

Merwin will receive the Good Steward Award recognizing the value of the botanical garden he created. The Arbor Day Foundation said the impact of Merwin’s work reflects the values of wilderness, the stillness of nature, and our personal connection to the natural world.

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 From: “THE RAIN IN THE TREES”

W.S. Merwin, 1993

PLACE

On the last day of the world

I would want to plant a tree

what for

not for the fruit

the tree that bears the fruit

is not the one that was planted

I want the tree that stands

in the earth for the first time

with the sun already

going down

and the water

touching its roots

in the earth full of the dead

and the clouds passing

one by one

over its leaves

Merwin Conservancy

Text © 1988 by W.S. Merwin. Reproduced by permission of Georges Borchardt Inc. for the author. All rights reserved.

Information on the Arbor Day awards are online at https://www.arborday.org/celebrate/.

The work of the Merwin Conservancy is online at www.merwinconservancy.org.

Saving the World — One Rose Bush at a Time

IMG_7596Stuff happens – and stuff happens in the garden. But, these things can’t be talked about with neighbors who notice my mail box tilts drunkenly or who remark that the new people across the street should mow their lawn more frequently, especially now that it’s getting warmer. Walking alone in my garden with coffee cup in hand, the night dew still slickening the leaves, I pause at a new plant at another struggling to survive. I notice fungus on my rose bushes and fret about the future of mankind.

It’s the weekend. I can think about whatever I want. Right?

OK. So I’m told that, not tomorrow or the next day, but in the future, say 65 million years from now, we may not be here. I peer at the roses, the fungus exhaling millions of spores as I stand mute in my ignorance and bathrobe, and wonder if this is the beginning of the end, wonder if this is proof that we’re all doomed. The world is ending, not in a cataclysm, but in the stealthy creep of must and mildew, pathogens will rule the world.

Silly? I’m not alone in this concern, as dramatic as it sounds. Writer Elizabeth Kolbert has written The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, an epic, riveting story of our species that reads like a scientific thriller–only scarier because it talks about now and and what may happen in the future.

What I got from the article she published in The New Yorker is that pathogens, specifically, fungi are attacking various life forms and killing them – frogs, bats and California oak trees.

Of the numerous species that have ever existed on earth, scientists say more than 99 percent have disappeared. But, extinction, which is seen as bad and preventable, causes a lot of argument and finger pointing, not to mention investment of tax dollars to prevent it.

I worry these attempts are futile, even silly. Are we homo sapiens merely putting our fingers in the evolutionary dike and pretending we can make a difference in the history of the universe? Is global warming the single cause of our demise? Are we all doomed? I study my roses for the answer.

Throughout the 18th century, the prevailing view was that species were fixed they exist and always will if human will just stop annihilating them. Charles Darwin believed extinction happened slowly, but he was wrong. In Kolbert’s article, she noted that researchers have found that during the past half billion years, there have been at least 20 mass extinctions. Five of these—the so-called Big Five—were so devastating that they’re usually put in their own category. Keep in mind, I’m talking Earth time, which spans about 4.5 billion years.

Kilbert notes the fifth extinction, the end-Cretaceous event, occurred a mere 65 million years ago. The event exterminated not just the dinosaurs, but 75 percent of all species on earth. Once a mass extinction occurs, it takes millions of years for life to recover, and when it does it’s generally with a new cast of characters.

In this way, mass extinctions have played a big role in evolution’s course. It’s hard to say when the current extinction event—sometimes called the sixth extinction— began, but we’re in it. Scientists speculate that its opening phase started about fifty thousand years ago, when the first humans migrated across Australia and America.

If current trends continue, by the end of this century as many as half of earth’s species will be gone. For example, researchers first noticed something odd was happening to amphibians. The main culprit in the wavelike series of amphibian population crashes it turns out is a chytrid fungus, known as Bd. At this point, Bd appears to be unstoppable and its killing effect is spreading.

In 2007, biologist Al Hicks, of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, and the National Wildlife Health Center, started looking at mysterious bat deaths in the U.S. Many of the dead bats were discovered with a white substance on their nose, which was cultured and found to be an unidentified fungus. In California, millions of native oak trees have died from the fungus-like Phytophthora ramorum, a photo of how destructive it can be is show here.

 

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Sonoma County California tree deaths from P. ramorum infection. Photo courtesy: http://www.suddenoakdeath.org/

 

Just in the last century, carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere have changed by as much as they normally do in a hundred-thousand-year glacial cycle. In the end, the most deadly aspect of human activity may simply be the pace of change itself, moving too fast for life as we know it to catch up.

One of the maddening puzzles of mass extinction is why, at certain junctures, the resourcefulness of life seems to falter. If we’re getting ahead of ourselves, pathogens jump into the breach. Today Fungi account for about 30 percent of emerging plant diseases. These microscopic maladies are the bane of gardeners and farmers who watch in dismay as plants wilt and succumb to these microscopic killers. Fungal diseases radically alter natural ecosystems, as well as food and our environment.

A recent report in Science Daily noted that fungus, including chestnut blight fungus, which eliminated nearly 100 percent of native chestnut trees throughout eastern American forests during the last century, and at the same time Phytophthora cinnamomi fungus is threatening native forests throughout Australia.

And, in human time, fungal pathogens have been around for a long time, sometimes changing the course of history. For example, potato blight was responsible for the epidemic leading to the Irish potato famine in the 1840s and the largest immigration event in U.S. history. More recently, stem rust disease of wheat, first identified in Uganda in 1998, is threatening crops in North Africa, the Middle East and Asia.

If more fungus is creeping across our landscapes, if it is occurring more frequently, what’s going on? Is it climate change or sun spots? Is it signs the Sixth Extinction is accelerating and the end of life as we know it is near? What’s going on? Should we worry?

“It’s the next annihilation of vast numbers of species and it is happening now, and we, the human race, are its cause,” explains Dr. Richard Leakey, the world’s most famous paleoanthropologist and co-author of the 1995 book The Sixth Extinction: Patterns of Life and the Future of Humankind. He says every year between 17,000 and 100,000 species vanish from our planet.

“For the sake of argument, let’s assume the number is 50,000 a year,” Leakey says. “Whatever way you look at it, we’re destroying the Earth at a rate comparable with the impact of a giant asteroid slamming into the planet, or even a shower of vast heavenly bodies.”

The statistics he has assembled are staggering. Fifty per cent of the Earth’s species will have vanished inside the next 100 years; mankind is using almost half the energy available to sustain life on the planet, and this figure will only grow as our population leaps from 5.7 billion to 10 billion inside the next half-century.

A dramatic and overwhelming mass extinction threatens the entire complex fabric of life on Earth, Leakey said, including the species responsible for it: Homo sapiens, that all life as we know it is destined to vanish.

Oh, boy. That’s a lot to worry about as I contemplate my garden. Do you think my neighbors want to hear one peep about the end of the world out of me? Like I said, I worry and wonder, study the underside of leaves in my garden and don’t care one way or another about how often my neighbors mow their lawns.

But, all this talk about the nature of pathogens is raising startling new questions in my peanut brain. I wonder about the role of fundamental scientific research and how the study of evolution plays into our understanding of emerging disease. I get another cup of coffee.

Then there’s this: Associated Press reported last year that coffee farmers and harvesters in Central and South America have been hit by Roya, or “coffee rust,” a fast-spreading fungus that infects the leaves of coffee plants. Roya has caused an estimated $1 billion in damage, and threatened the livelihoods of more than half a million farm families from Mexico to Peru.

This is a bad situation and an example of what worries me. In particular, I’m concerned about how specific new species occur when a subset of a fungal population shifts to a new host. Another example? Fungus is now attacking frogs and bats. All of this is just too much to contemplate. When a neighbor passing by my garden asks how I’m doing, I say “fine” and hope they don’t notice the mildew on my roses.

ST LYNN'S Coffee for Roses Cover

Great website for gardeners: http://coffeeforroses.com/