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by Jim Long | 2009

By Jim Long—I was recently asked to explain the importance of protecting the potato dandelion, a diminutive plant endangered in Maryland. Its moniker is unfortunate, for it conjures that bane of lawns, the common dandelion, a Eurasion invader that, like so many non-native species, has become a widespread weed. Our Krigia dandelion, on the other hand, is a native wildflower of open woods, prairie, or intermittently wet land. It tends to the uncommon on the coastal plain, where it lies in the path of the Cross County Connector extension, the controversial highway proposal that would traverse the watershed of Mattawoman Creek, one the healthiest tributaries to the Chesapeake Bay.

 

Loss  

 

By Jim Long—I was recently asked to explain the importance of protecting the potato dandelion, a diminutive plant endangered in Maryland. Its moniker is unfortunate, for it conjures that bane of lawns, the common dandelion, a Eurasion invader that, like so many non-native species, has become a widespread weed. Our Krigia dandelion, on the other hand, is a native wildflower of open woods, prairie, or intermittently wet land. It tends to the uncommon on the coastal plain, where it lies in the path of the Cross County Connector extension, the controversial highway proposal that would traverse the watershed of Mattawoman Creek, one the healthiest tributaries to the Chesapeake Bay.

 

We can quickly dispense with guilt by association by asking, “What’s in a name?” The potato in potato dandelion refers to fat tubers that sustain this state-rare perennial and uniquely bolster its propagation. Dandelion merely connects the aster-like bloom to the similar flower of the weedy lawn resident, so named for its toothy-edged leaf. Our native’s leaves are less toothy and devour no lawns. The genus Krigia should resonate with Marylanders, named as it is after David Krieg, one of the first collectors to specifically scour the state for plants in the late 17th century.

 

Hearing skepticism about the dandelion’s virtue recalled my own awakening to the losses we clumsy humans are inflicting on our world by elevating the extinction rate of plants and animals 100- to 1000-fold. As a scientist familiar with rate equations, I was stunned when I first learned of this estimate in E.O. Wilson’s seminal book The Diversity of Life.

 

The question touched personally when I assisted malacologists, zoologists who study mollusks, in a vain search of Mattawoman Creek for the federally endangered dwarf wedgemussel, a rare animal that lives in next-door Nanjemoy Creek. Freshwater mussels, inescapably confined to the narrow strings of water that thread our watersheds, epitomize the plight of the aquatic tribe. A deep and troubled seed is planted when one seeks what should be there but which is not.

What are the reasons to be concerned about species extinction?


The history of Krigia dandelion proves instructive. Its namesake, the man who collected it three centuries ago, was a physician at a time when “physician” and “botanist” were synonymous as doctors filled the apothecary with medicinal plants—just as pharmaceutical companies do today!

Screening molds, fungi, and plants remains important in the fight against disease. With our keen interest in our own health, self-interest alone should give pause when confronting the loss of species worldwide. Consider the cancer-fighting drug Taxol, originally isolated from the Pacific yew, native to the Pacific Northwest. Never an especially common tree, the yew had been dismissed with chainsaws for years as an impediment to logging when Taxol was derived from its bark. Had not old-growth specimens survived—it takes a century before the compound infuses bark in quantity—perhaps we would have deprived ourselves of the yew’s gift.

Recent research finds that teaming Taxol with another compound derived from marine sponges more than doubles effectiveness while reducing side effects. Reflect on this the next time you hear of the bleached bones of coral reefs and the myriad species they hosted.

 

The global-warming culprit carbon dioxide acidifies the sea just as it does a soft drink (a reason carbonated beverages are excised from the diet of ulcer patients). So reefs and their denizens are lost to a climate-change double whammy: bathed in ocean waters too warm and too acidified.

 

An annoying conifer and an obscure sponge? Who knew? Therein lies an incisive lesson, aptly underlined by the eloquent logger-turned-preservationist, Aldo Leopold:

 

To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering.

 

 

Only a willful ignorance would argue. Take away the wolf, and the rainbow trout leaves. Eradicate sea otters for lunching on abalone, and the abalone decline. Crush wildflowers while logging, and the honey creeper flies no more forever. Agrarian ancients who did not forage in supermarkets understood this lesson intuitively when recording the story of Noah who, after husbanding creation against great threat, returned all to the wild.

 “All the animals and all the creatures that move along the ground and all the birds - everything that moves on the earth - came out of the ark, one kind after another” (Genesis 8:19).

The complex themes in Noah’s story are celebrated in the stained glass of the medieval cathedral at Chartres, France, which takes pains to show the animals both entering and leaving the ark’s protection. Like a cathedral, but vastly more complex, is the edifice of life. Darwin gives a hint of the structure long before ecology was invented.

 It is interesting to contemplate an entangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent on each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us.

 Habitat serves as cathedral foundation and flying buttress. The cogs and wheels that built and maintain the cathedral are the boggling interactions of birds, bushes, bugs, and worms that at any time serve as bricks, columns, and mortar. The grotesque gargoyle, by serving as rainspout, keeps the place free of dampness, as the seemingly grotesque carrion beetle keeps the forest floor free of carcasses. The keystones that cap the arches keeping much of the soaring cathedral aloft are the wolves and otters. A wolf worries the elk, which no longer can loaf at the streamside browsing every cottonwood seedling in sight, which can now grow to shade the water, which, cooled, now invites the cold-water trout back to reside. The sea otter eats the sea urchin, checking a rampant population from grazing the kelp, which can now grow into a forest supporting hundreds more species, including the abalone.

 By protecting an endangered species, we also protect habitat, a cornerstone in the cathedral that supports many more of the planet’s inhabitants. Save the state-imperiled glade fern in Chapman Forest, and at once you have saved a rare habitat on the Potomac River’s shore: a forest distinguished by soils rich with the calcium of ancient marine clays, a neutral refuge in the otherwise acidic coastal plain, harboring dozens more rare plants, snails, and we know not what.

 Like a cathedral, the edifice of life inspires awe, rewarding with deep and mystic dimensions those who make the pilgrimage. Surely the authors of Genesis felt this when recording creation and Noah’s salvation of it. It was Brahms who advised a fellow musician: “To improve…you must walk constantly in the forest.” Our Hudson River School painters were seared by the loss of nature in the east, as the Bierstadts, Catlins, and Ansel Adams were inspired by the wildness of the west.

 Today, artists increasingly find the path walked by artisans who fashioned animals in stained glass at Chartres. They report their findings to us along with the scholarly investigations that inform on the global loss of that which made us. The elegiac sculptures of the Lost Bird Project by Todd McGrain can haunt a species that vibrates at once with the instincts of hunter and cathedral builder.

 Isabella Kirkland’s painting Gone, a bouquet of extinct species elaborately composed after nature’s elaborately composed web of life, tells more. Take the curvebill honey creeper perched among the bouquet’s ghosts. Gone. Forever. It relied on lobelia wildflowers, cousins to the cardinal flowers that grace Mattawoman’s banks. Honey creeper’s curved beak was perfectly matched to draw nectar only from lobelia’s arcing tubular bloom. The demise of the wildflowers in Hawaiian lowland forests, crushed before the axe, plow, and introduced competitors, spelled catastrophe for honey creeper. No lobelia, no honey creeper. A memory, for a time, but a loss eternal.

 Aldo Leopold tried to convey this sense of loss when describing the passenger pigeon, hunted to extinction in the 18th century:

 

They cannot drive out of a cloud, nor clap their wings in thunderous applause. They know no urge of seasons; they feel no kiss of sun, no lash of wind and weather, they live forever by not living at all.

 

Can a moral animal, possessed of the empathy that served our ancestors so well in tempering our more destructive impulses, hear these words and still condone such loss?

 The fossil record tells that the average life span of a species is several million years. Our kind has pushed the extinction rate into overdrive and is responsible for the greatest mass extinction in hundreds of millions of years. The passenger pigeon lasted until the first World War. The Carolina parakeet, until the year of my father’s birth. The honey creeper, until I was fifteen. Presently, a species blinks into the void every twenty minutes, and the rate is accelerating. Extrapolate to future generations, and the implications are staggering.

 The cogs and wheels of the planet’s habitats and inhabitants perform a complex interactive calculus that we have little more hope of solving than did Noah. He wisely kept the pieces intact. More often than not, we do not know what will happen when we sentence a plant or animal to eternal extinction. If we take seriously our own self-laudatory Latin moniker, sapiens, meaning wise, perhaps we too should keep all the pieces intact.

 The potato dandelion is in no danger of extinction. But is has been extirpated from Washington, D.C., and is believed to have met a similar fate in New Jersey. It is critically imperiled in Maryland. We don’t know the ramifications of its loss. Some pollinating insect, relished by some warbler, relished by some raptor, may depend on it. Its plump roots might succor a soil organism of importance. But ignorance is no excuse in the eyes of the law, nor should it be before the laws of nature. We do know that Maryland harbors the wildflower’s northernmost coastal-plain vanguard. Something in the genes of these particular plants enables survival at the edge. It is precisely this sort of variation that provides nature’s insurance policy against environmental alteration. And with climate change, we are on the brink of an upheaval unprecedented in recorded history. If we savor a green planet for our grandchildren, best to cherish, protect, and preserve what we ourselves have been bequeathed. We know that the continued winking out of our fellow inhabitants, even if unnoticed at first, will eventually leave an impoverished, inhospitable place for us to live.

 

 

To see a complete picture of the 13th century Noah window at Chartres Cathedral, go to www.sacred-destinations.com/france/chartres-cathedral-64-noah-window.htm.

 To see a color representation of Isabella Kirkland’s beautiful Gone, and others in her Taxa series, go to her website at www.isabellakirkland.com/paintings/taxa.html.

 To see a color photo of Todd McGrain’s passenger pigeons, go to www.toddmcgrain.com and click on “outdoor installations.”

 

 

 

 

 

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